Category Archives: Flashback

Self Editing: Eveything you need to know

I had planned a post at some point similar to this, but when I read the talented Sharon Zink’s page I decided to share it.

Sharon is an amazing writer and I have had her on my blog. She also does the same job as me in that she offers manuscript appraisals; the same level of detail.

So I decided to share this link because it really is a masterclass in writing and everything on here is exactly the kind of thing I say to clients all the time when I assess their manuscripts…

Take heed fellow scribes!

I am now about to write the homecoming chapter on Pelicans… this is exciting, it’s the final chapter when we reveal the last of the missing pieces… and it’s raining so I am loving the sounds of rain on the roof as I write! The morning goes pitter patter… ❤

Have a wonderful day everyone!

http://sharonzink.com/writing-tips/all-first-drafts-are-sht-so-heres-a-masterclass-on-self-editing/

 

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Further thoughts on back story

What is the function of back story?

Were you paying attention last time?

Many might say that it explains the character, that it’s essential to enable the reader to understand why a character is behaving as he is (motivation). Yes absolutely true. But don’t forget, and this is the crucial bit, it  has to be woven seamlessly into the plot in a way that feels as if it’s almost invisible. The reader imbibes back story as they discover character, notice how they react, behave and through the carefully placed memories that motivate or foreshadow key moments.

And here’s my further thought — could it be said that back story isn’t to provide answers — but to provide questions?

There lies the essence of the good hook — right?

Have a great day.

 

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‘Trying to write a story without structure is like trying to invent an airplane without wings’

Yeah it’s a long title and one I plucked out of a book on writing, to be precise Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brookes. *recommended*

He says that no matter how you get there — be it with lot of plotting or through what arises organically through drafting, and whether you know it and think about it as you write or have  natural instinct for what works, structure is essential. Without it the house falls down or the plane doesn’t fly. And even if the architecture is lavish, akin to great writing, beautiful narrative, without structure you have no story. Right? I’ve said that before.

Like a natural law of the universe.

So let’s see writers if he has something new to say …

If the structure isn’t right, he claims, then you fill find it impossible to sell your work — yeah that’s what he says. He says that while experimental structures are interesting, keep the for the lit class not the novel or screenplay you’re trying to sell!

What he talks about is the adaptation of the three-act structure we see in plays — but it’s what we call the 4-part model, and for those who have worked with me professionally you’re recognise this more like the story arc I provide for those struggling with the plot.

Brookes talks about how every story in the world needs to adhere to this structure or it is doomed to fail and this is what I say about the story arc. It’s the same thing essentially but he visualises it as four boxes — these contain the scenes and what happens  to the hero in each box is the result of evolution in a sense, growing — anticipation — foreplay — sex — climax :to use his more crude analogy.

But what he says that I think is important is that what happens in box 1 in the set-up when we meet the character is developed in box 2 and box 2 needs box 1 and box 3 needs box 2 etc. So it is like a child growing. But what does this mean in real terms?

Box 1: Set-up — establishes everything that will follow. It introduces the protagonist and its single mission is to lay the premise, to foreground the key conflict of the story. And only hint at the antagonism in the plot (what do I keep saying? Don’t burden the set-up with too much back story! Lay the foundations!)

The function of Box 1 is: to set-up the plot by creating stakes, back-story and character empathy, while foreshadowing the oncoming conflict.

While you will most likely have the first inciting incident, this is what will foreground the big major plot point. Brookes warns that establishing the conflict too early does not allow time to establish the back-story. I see this when I critique and while I love it when we start right in the action and this is a device that’s fine, you still need to back-track in places as you will see to explain it and sometimes this device, unless handled with skill does not work as well as it should.

The more we understand and empathise with the hero the more we root and invest our time wanting to go with them on the journey, so you need to set-up, but you also don’t need to overdo the back-story so it’s a balance.

Box 1 ends with the reader now engaged and understanding the hero and takes us to the edge of the threshold, the stakes are now raised to the point of no return. So now we have the first major plot point (not to be confused with the first inciting incident which may coincide or may be part of the set-up) — now the story truly begins.

Got all this?

Have I hooked you? This is what Box 1 does (akin to the first 25% of the story) — have a look at how this can be applied to your own writing or the books you’re reading.

And I will resume with the next part tomorrow!

I will get it next week! Second edition!

I will get it next week! Second edition!

 

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Glowing in the Limelight

A little later than usual this morning as got up and got on — lots done early, mainly house cleaning!

But here I am. I’ve had a crazy few busy days since I came back but three big crits successfully delivered and can now just write today and look forward to my visit from Lee’s parents and my trip back to Essex tomorrow. I have other work lined up too so will get to that before Christmas but nice to relax a little and do what I love the most — WRITE!

I will keep this post short and sweet and leave you with the link from my interview in Glow Magazine!

GLOW

Enjoy!

Keep on LIVING THE DREAM GUYS!

Keep on LIVING THE DREAM GUYS!

 

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Style versus Voice in Writing

Today when I looked at the flashing cursor I reached for one of my many writing books for inspiration and flicked the pages imagining some invisible person said: STOP.

The book I picked up was: Larry Brooks  Story Engineering Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. I STOPPED on page 221.

Two expressions  that jumped out at me were writing style and writing voice — both of these often get confused and I do discuss them separately when I critique work professionally. Even when I Googled it the two words are used interchangeably. I guess it’s down to pedantics.

I  see the Writing Style  as separate from Voice. 

Writing style, Brooks claims, in akin to the literary uniform that you — the writer– dons. It’s how you compose your narratives: long or short sentences. laden with similes and metaphors or simple sentences, poetic or more direct, descriptive or not — and so on.

I would also suggest that you could extend this to encompass how you build those sentences into creating your structures, hence how you move your plots: i.e. use  of flashbacks, exposition, where you switch narrators as you follow your story arc to its resolution and denouement.  So in other words what devices you use in your story telling to tell your story effectively. For the purposes of critique, I tend to talk about use of phrasing, clunky words, overuse of adverbs, dialogue, description, even formatting (if they do it wrong for dialogue for example) here, as well as how they use flashback, back story — all of these general overall points under the heading style, looking for the things they commonly get wrong or don’t do as well. 

I tend to look at structure more in my discussion of plot but in reality it’s all part of  overall style.

Voice on the other hand is how  the story is told and you might think that also includes the things talked about above. And again it’s down to pedantics, labels. But I prefer to discuss voice with viewpoint. It’s WHO YOU HEAR. In the modern age where we shift away from the more old-fashioned, more prone to ‘telling’  voice of the omniscient narrator, the focus is a lot more on character viewpoint narrators. While it is your voice strictly speaking talking for your characters — it’s their voice we  hear.  So again, voice is who  the reader hears. So it could be you as the omniscient all-seeing narrator but more than likely it’s a character or in multiple viewpoint novels a succession of characters (but no head-hopping mid scene — new character narrators for chapter or  if needed scene but clearly formatted!). And as I have said before, even in a third person where we imagine it’s let’s say the author telling the reader Flo’s story — she thought —  the closer you get to her, the more intimate the connection and in essence it’s not really the author we hear — it’s Flo. We hear her dialect, her way of rambling in her own head i.e.  it’s her jumbled thoughts we’re privy to, no one else’s!  People struggle with that claiming the third person who’s narrating is you the author watching her and listening to her thoughts and therefore you organising those thoughts and translating them for the reader.  So your voice not theirs? Again partly true but have a look at how closely a Stephen King third person character is to first person? How invisible is the third person so all we really hear is the character? So you wouldn’t have the character even in third person say how they’ve gone pale or look tired unless they’re seeing themselves.  That’s what I’m talking about!

So for the purposes of a critique I would look at how the character narrates, quirks, odd phrases, first or third person, tense, their body language even — and this is why I tend to discuss with viewpoint.

So in a nutshell I would say Voice is how the character speaks (through you) and style is the technical stuff in terms of what words you choose and how you structure that.

It might be a game of labels, but so long as the author takes on board what works in their own writing and is receptive to improving weaknesses and working on both their style and their voice then that’s what matters.

I’ve found the more I read and the more I experiment with voice and technique my own distinctive signature style of writing and the voices I use, develop. After all, we are all unique — aren’t we?

Or are we?

More musings on all things writerly tomorrow. Got any nagging questions? Anything you want me to discuss — just ask away! I like a challenge — to stretch my writing muscle!

Writing 1

Happy Thursday!

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Writing a Psychological Thriller …

I have been asked to run a workshop in Bath in November with this title so I thought I would talk a little about it here. But first, and it is related, this week I’ve been looking at various potential covers for my novel and been in discussion about how covers sell books, and what they say. I have talked about this before and I was also interested in the following link about covers. http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/19-book-cover-cliches

I have been looking at lurking silhouetted figures but the one I want isn’t that!

The cover I really hope they go with is very bold and that’s what I think you want to grab your buyer’s attention but I hope it also says classy mystery/American/thriller and not just  commercial cop/crime thriller — which it’s not. We can fall into genre traps and while my novel is about a crime,  none other than the very public assassination of John F Kennedy, it’s not a conspiracy thriller per se. The main focus is really the missing child — so is that the real crime? Is the book just about solving that? Well, yes and no. It’s about a family; broken families, about love, loss, keeping your children safe and it’s set now but the key players are brought together by the events on the grassy knoll in 1963. So what I don’t want the cover to scream is gritty cop crime thriller when it’s not. Not do I want it to say literary mystery with an arty ambiguous cover. Because it’s not that either.

I’d call it a psychological thriller or mystery  but it’s more than that. I guess you could also say it has historical elements but more recent history but then 50 years is history although it’s set now but uses the past. In fact I use flashback as well as insights by the psychic to go back to 1960s Texas.

And I am thrilled to be asked to run a workshop because I feel I have learned from the greats in terms of the kind of books I read as a teenager. I loved Stephen King,  Dean Koontz and even the medical horror writers Robin Cook who wrote Coma. One of my favourites though was Mindbend where drug reps were taking doctors on cruises and implanting microchips into their brains. Says something about me perhaps! I have not revisited Robin Cook as a writer to look at his style, I’m sure there are things about it I won’t like now — but at the time I was addicted to these kinds of mind-bending thrillers. More recently I have enjoyed Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, S J Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep  to name a couple. I have read Sophie Hannah but not that excited about her. There are many many others.

So what exactly is a psychological thriller? 

Well any thriller needs a compelling mystery to solve so crime novels  are of course thrillers — but I like to think of psychological thrillers as tapping more into the thoughts of the characters and more importantly unnerving the reader’s own sense of immortality and vulnerability. It’s not just about finding a killer. Personally I like to put  what seem like ordinary people into situations that test them to the limit, and this can be more what’s going on in their own head than just external — psychological manipulation of the main characters by an impact character or in this case event. Like any thriller the main character is put into a situation that threatens ‘normality’ so  they can be  trapped in their own head , haunted by memories, have a ‘different’ way of seeing the world or thinking about the world or are driven by an uncontrollable compulsion or need. So it can be more internal than the classic crime thriller.

 There are cross overs and genre is just a way of saying what type of book this is and what to expect so gritty murder mystery crime thrillers need to use psychology and many of King’s novels are classified as horror but still use psychological manipulation, my favourite is the Dead Zone (if pushed to name one although I LOVE his Kennedy/time travel novel 11/22/63) and these are both more psychological than horror. But then what often scares us most, as humans is our own thoughts! Those that do really well are those that manage to tap into a universal sense of the human fear — what makes us uneasy? What scares us? What would happen if something about the world  we know changed? And that can be waking up and having to remember who we are every day to being trapped on an island where you go insane — or more frighteningly none of it’s real and you were insane the whole time.

I like to think While No One Was Watching is a psychological thriller but it’s not just that, it’s a mystery, it’s historical and it has a touch of the supernatural — in a loose sense. I use the devices of thrillers to hopefully (fingers crossed)  give it page turnability with twists and turns the reader doesn’t expect, so action is essential but there’s a great deal of the psychology of loss, do you know what your child is doing? Now that’s universal as a fear, right? And Kennedy and what happened to him, that also has universal appeal too, right? So by definition it’s commercial because it’s the kind of story that needs to be plot or action-driven, but at the same time it still taps into characters and, for me is very much about voice and the psyche. What happened to Eleanor Boone? Can finding the answer to that unearth some important questions about Kennedy? And my narrators have very distinct voices and ways of thinking as I hope you’ll see!

So I will have great fun exploring what it is about these kinds of books that hook a reader — what gives some more universal appeal than others and how can you keep your reader second guessing, surprised even …? What techniques are used? I might also draw some of this from films in the genre. Recently I saw  Premonition with Sandra Bullock and this had that quality I love — of having to really work and think about what really happened. It’s an oldish film now but I found it on late one night and got hooked.

But even if you don’t write, read, watch psychological thrillers, in essence what makes a good story, an unnerving conflict, a question you MUST know the answer to and so the techniques and structures writers use to achieve that — can be applied to any genre. And that’s what I also hope to look at in my workshop.

And it might also be interesting to look at how we can use fact and fiction side by side in our writing for authenticity.

Anyone want to recommend any great psychological thrillers — books and/or films?

If you live near Bath and want to come to the workshop it’s taking place on November 19th in the evening and I will send more details of how to book it etc soon. This is the website: http://www.writingeventsbath.co.uk/2/Writing-Events-Bath.html

Right — still need to hone that short story of mine.

Also unusually I have a little lull while I wait for work to pop in my inbox so now is a good time if anyone wants to hire me for critiquing. Just saying! In three and a half years I have had three only occasions when my whiteboard was clear temporarily– although work is expected soon!  http://www.debzhobbs-wyatt.co.uk/Pages/default.aspx

Have a good half-way through the week day! So much to look forward to!

Novel

 

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To flash or not to flash … ?

I will keep the post short this morning as I have to get a copy-edit in the post which means forfeiting some of my own writing (but it’s the way it has to be some days) — but that said I plan to devote all of Friday to writing 🙂

I picked a topic by randomly flicking through one of my many writing books this morning to see where it landed. In fact I did it twice. The first talked about using action and reaction in dialogue so you don’t end up with ‘talking heads.’ I say this to my lovely clients a lot — build a scene with forward movement so the actions and body language as characters interact, provides subtext, develops character and moves story.

But then I landed on flashback — something I have talked about before but relevant because of a recent conversation in Novel Group that meet today again as it happens. Our crime writer immediately condemns all flashback — outright. The rest of us disagree. Many teachers of writing condemn the use of flashback echoing the words of Sinclair Lewis the American novelist who when asked about flashback simply said, “Don’t.”

But a great many successful writers do use flashback effectively and I have to confess that I enjoy using the device. But it has to be handled with care.

Ask yourself first and foremost is it absolutely needed? Could the information be imparted in another way because what you really don’t want is to pause the action and leave the reader wondering what happened to the story. And try not to jump into flashback as soon as you start. So if you have a scene in the present and then the rest of the novel is the flashback then consider making that opening scene a prologue instead and setting the rest of the book  in the past.

You might choose an opening chapter set now and then a flashback chapter (I have seen this done very well) but make sure this is executed with care the use of past and present if used in this alternating way carry equal weight and don’t move the reader through too many heads.

I always suggest you try not to linger too long in a flashback, although I have read and written longer ones but so long as they are absolutely needed for story and really take the reader back there without stunting the flow of the story then it’s okay — but it is a skill that needs developing.

And also look carefully at how you flash in and out of the scene using carefully crafted triggers that are very immediate  Someone calls a name and next thing he’s back in the past only now it’s his dad calling him. And avoid too many past perfect tenses — like he had … I would say you might use one in the transition like ‘he’d been playing with matches that day, he must’ve only been seven years old’ … and now go into the past or present tense. So you might continue … ‘so there he was, standing outside his mom’s house, the match book pressed between his fingers and in his head he could hear that little voice saying, “Go on Tommy. Do it Boy.” And next thing he was striking that match the way he’d seen his mom do a hundred times. And it burned his fingers too. But that’s not all burned now, is it? He didn’t mean to drop the match.’

And then something from the present will pull him out, maybe someone talking and calling his name and first of all perhaps the memory continues for a while …

“Tommy — did you hear me?”

And all he kept thinking was what had he done and where was baby Frank, where was his mom, where was the dog? Still in the house as those big old flames started licking up the sides …’

“Tommy — you okay?”

And then he’d seen someone at the window, might’ve been his mom and …

“Tommy, I’ve been calling you.”

He looked at Clara. “You okay? You look like you just seen a ghost.”

“Maybe I did Clara. Maybe I did.”

 

Now this was written totally off the cuff but see what I mean. What I hope is the flashback becomes part of the present scene and shows just enough and has written all over it ‘to be continued.’ That way you drip feed the memory in as needed.

Have you considered using the back flash? Instead of lifting the reader out of the story and putting them in a flashback you use dialogue to show the same thing in short bursts — these act as narrative hooks. So something like —

“You remember the day of the fire?” Clara said looking over at where his mom’s house once stood.

“Sure.”

“You remember how it started?”

“Nope.”

“Must’ve been terrible what happened to your mom, and baby Frank.”

But he couldn’t look at her. No he could not. Of course he remembered but no way he was going to tell her how at just seven years old he learned how to play with matches.

See how this imparts the same information. In fact I tend to use a combination of techniques. And like I always say — there are many ways to tell the same story.

So when we talked at Novel Group about flashbacks I think the advice given to and now vehemently followed by our crime writer was wrong. Maybe it doesn’t always work in his style of police procedural writing, but even then I think flashback has its place. But what I will agree with, and maybe what Sinclair Lewis should’ve been saying is not just ‘don’t’ but –– if you don’t know how to do it — don’t.

But I think as one of the many devices that make our writing sharper — yes of course, but learn how to use it.

So to finish with the question I posed ‘to flash or not to flash?’  I think a little flashing once in a while is a good thing.

But be careful where you do it. He he … (snigger into hand).

Have a great day.

Should I flash at this point?..

Should I flash at this point?

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Style, the rhythm of language and handling dialect …

The more we write the more we develop our own style and our own way of doing it. But it stands to reason we are influenced by genre, target audience, writers we admire and so on and it isn’t always easy to sound distinct and individual. I guess  we tend to aim for a style close to writers we greatly admire. But at the same time we want it to be us and maybe even one day someone will be wanting to write like us — imagine that?

But I tend to think a lot of our style comes without paying too much attention to what influences it. I never set out to write like, let’s say Stephen King, only to invade a character’s head  (which he does well) and create a great story that resonates long after your finish reading it. But we are all the result of experience — so I wonder what influences you? And how much of good and bad habits we pick up form what we read.

I remember when my close friend and business partner talked about this once and she said how reading something bad made her worry it would seep into what she was working on so made sure to read something good too. I do know when I have been reading very literary novels I see some of that voice creeping into my work although I know to curb it if it isn’t right for the book.

It’s impossible I guess not to sound like other writers since there are only so many ways to write but it should never be a goal. Write well is what I say and learn all the time to write better. That way you will find your own style and perhaps it is a composite of lots you’ve encountered but then how can it not be?

I used to read a lot of magaziney stories that all seemed to be very samey — perhaps because they were written for the same audience and they always seemed to have the clichéd twist in the tale at the end. While the stories themselves were okay, I knew personally I needed more out of a story and had to write something that was more than this as well. I have encountered many such pieces in my work as an editor but what I always try to show the writer is that just because these stories can have a predictable ending — doesn’t mean they always have to. And just because some of these stories are ridden with clichés and adverbs (pet peeves) doesn’t mean they always have to.  And I know that while I help the writer stay true to their style — I am sure the story is better and more likely to be accepted. Well strike that I know of at least two instances when it was accepted after we worked on it.

Let me tell you an amusing story. A short story of mine was highly commended in  the Frome Writing Competition a couple of years ago. It was a more literary story and certainly not a women’s magazine genre. It had a very distinct first person narrative. But part of the prize is they will send the story to Woman’s Weekly for you. I did suggest to the judge that it wasn’t really suitable for that I was sure. But she sent it anyhow and of course I am not for one second dissing that magazine — no way. I would be thrilled if one of my stories was published to such a wide audience. But what I meant was you have to write to genre and study the market you write for if you want to break into magazines and what I knew was this story just wasn’t right for that.

And a few months later along comes a rejection from Woman’s Weekly saying how much they loved the story but ‘hey presto’ it wasn’t right. But what made me smile was the suggestion I really should keep writing though as I had talent and should study the market and read lots of their stories so I could write something that fits.

I never have. It isn’t really me. Nothing wrong with the market and I am friends with a number of writers that write for this market and write well I might add. It just isn’t me.

But it did make me think about what we write and why we write and this idea that I often to say to writers I work with, about slipping outside of your comfort zone once in a while. I didn’t and don’t write the kind of stories for these magazines and so won’t really be doing so, but I do advocate experimenting.

By this I mean trying different genres, different voices, perhaps writing a pacey first person monologue with dialect. Now dialect is another one we often get wrong. Ever read a story where the dialect makes it hard to work out what the person is saying? And then left out of character thoughts like it’s only their voice when they speak and not when they think? Me too. Voice for a character narrator is there the whole time for one thing. But more than that — it’s not so much about the dialect but the rhythm of language.

I have a number of stories that use a northern accent, and one in particular that uses a scouse accent because I lived in Liverpool for ten years and  Lee was from Liverpool — so I would say I know it well. But when it  comes to giving readings what I needed to do was not try to put on a scouse accent and fail but capture (I hope!) the rhythm, the feel of it, the way the accent works but without overdoing dialect that makes it hard to read. And my Rats in the Attic story that won Sunpenny Press had a Manchester accent. I think there is art to getting this right and I urge you all to play with the rhythm of language and listen to the way people say things.

I will return to this subject again no doubt, because I thought it might be interesting to discuss the idea of me, a while Essex girl (hell did I admit that!) writing in the head and thoughts of an African American from Dallas. This is exactly what I had to do in While No One Was Watching. I did a lot of research into the African American Vernacular (AAV) and one of the things I have asked my editor is if it’s now overdone. That said I worked closely with an editor at one of the big agents who ‘almost’ signed me who looked closely at this — and she was American but not African American or from Texas. Perhaps this was writing outside of my comfort zone but oddly it didn’t feel that way. Lydia Collins my larger than life psychic just seemed to talk to me … want to hear her … let me see …

Oh maybe at the end to finish the week — tease ain’t I (see she’s invading my thoughts already!).

But given I will be doing readings and my characters are American and she is very distinct — more so than the other narrator, I got to worrying about how to read it without trying to fake an American accent. And since I plan to also have a book signing in LA in March this British girl could make a mess of it in front of my American friends. But perhaps I realised it’s not about trying to be American but in trying to capture the essence of the lingo, the rhythm, much the same way I have with the scouse accent. It’s in what words are used and how questions are asked and in the AAV double negatives etc. But I think this is interesting to talk about.

In this month’s Mslexia,  I read with interest an article about white writers writing black characters. This was more about was it really the white writer’s story to tell. Here they refer to books like  The Help. On an aside this was recommended by the agent mentioned above when I looked at the AAV in my novel — and I loved the book. The only thing about that dialect was it was a generation back from my character so the “I gone get you a fork Missy,” is a little stronger than my character who might say “I gonna get you a fork, Missy.” And in fact  I did use the former when my character quoted her parents. See how much hard work I had to make for myself! LOVE it though. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes — The Help.  I think so long as you do your research and you’re true to the real characters why shouldn’t a white girl write in the head of and tell the story of a black girl or man for that matter. Same way why shouldn’t a black girl write a white man. Is it that different to playing with writing children’s voices, old people’s voices, animal’s voices, changing gender for a voice. I think it’s about good research and good writing. But what do you think?

And part of that is getting the voice right. For me voice is everything and above all it’s what connects you to your reader and makes them become that person.

So I will leave you with Lydia — the first sneak inside one of my characters in While No One Was Watching.

 

This comes when the psychic first meets our reluctant doubting reporter … and previously Lydia talks about knowing something would happen before Kennedy was shot …

 

The reporter, he’s half way towards the door when he stops and turns back. I see the waiter behind the bar look over, like he suddenly thinks the skinny white guy is gonna have a show-down with the big black woman. And he don’t know if he wants to stop it or watch it.

         “I’m right ain’t I? She disappeared and no one saw,” I say.

          “Excuse me?”

          “But I see it now.”

            He wants to walk towards me but he don’t, he stands there next to his son who can’t take his eyes off me. “No one saw because they all lookin’ at something else, right?”

          For a second I see Momma. I was standin’ the kitchen when the cup fell clean out of my hands and smashed into a million pieces on the kitchen tiles. That’s when I knew. My scream woke baby Jimmy. “I told you somethin’ was gonna happen Momma,” I told her. She never said nothin’. Never shouted, never scolded, she just got that brush and cleaned it up while Jimmy cried in the bedroom and I just stood there and watched.

         “It’s happened Momma,” I said.

          She might have said nothin’ but I know she knew it too.

         It was later we heard it official. Henry was the one who told us. Henry who was a whole month older than me and a whole year dumber. Sweet sixteen but nothin’ sweet about him. He came knockin’ on that front door so hard I thought he was gonna knock it right off its hinges. Henry’s momma was workin’ up at the Stamford’s house when she saw it. They were folks that had a TV.

       “The President’s been shot!” Henry said. “Lydia! Kennedy’s been shot.”

          I told them somethin’ bad was gonna happen.

         

“The day the President was shot,” I say and I pick out a couple of quarters and root for more, feeling the stare of that reporter and his son burnin’. But when I look up all I see is the door swingin’ closed. But as it does, I see the boy, he standin’ there with his mouth wide open.

          They gonna call. They gonna call ‘cause they got the cur-i-o-sity, see. We all got it now.

©Debz Hobbs-Wyatt Parthian Books 2013

Have you?

Happy Weekend! 🙂

 

 

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Constructing the fictional reality …

How do you see yourself? Someone who creates other worlds or who reveals things about the one you’re in?

What is the job of the writer … probably both? Right?

 

I asked myself this question when I was writing the first short story for my MA. I had written a short story called Living By Numbers that later went on to be published in a collection in the US as it happens. The premise of the story was very simple. A girl is sat next to her mother, trapped in a car she has driven into a barrier. Her mother might be dead. But the girl has a serious aversion to odd numbers and especially odd multiples of odd numbers. What does this mean in real terms? She can’t press 999 or I guess 911 is equally applicable. Why? Because she thinks then the world will end … but maybe it already has?

It’s one of those stories where everything happens inside the mind of the narrator over a short space of time. Where we see how her illness progressed, how her father leaving that she blames herself on being because of her messy bedroom, develops this psychosis almost that keeping everything in order, and clean and numbered keeps her safe. She creates rules to live by. But to save her mother she now has to break those down.

This story was a challenge to my thinking about what makes a fictional reality or ‘unreality’ and most rules and ideas about creating the fictional universe come from the depths of Sci Fi which is apt after the interview with Daniel yesterday. If you didn’t real it — I urge you to.

The most misinterpreted idea that we write what we know comes to mind as well — where would we be if that was ‘literally’ the case? It’s fun creating these alternative worlds and what we really mean by the expression is — draw upon what we know of our own world and our own lives as human beings, and use those elements to create a believable fictional reality. Or that’s how I see it. We might not know what it feels like to be a green alien with two heads (well most of us anyway! He he …) but  if our alien is lost and missing home (think ET) we will empathise because as humans we can only express ourselves using human emotion. And why wouldn’t aliens, or animals, even not go through the same emotions?

The thing about the girl in the Living By Numbers story is she isn’t the alien with two heads — or is she? Maybe that is exactly who she is initially to the reader.

At first the reader will be annoyed at her — it’s simple — just press 999. Right? And I wanted the reader to think that. But pretty soon the intention is for the reader to see how hard an act that is. In the same way the alien with the evil stares (on both faces!) and the laser gun is really only missing home.

So while in this case I was taking ‘reality’ rather than basing the story in a fictional world light years from our own, I was still using the same ideas as that — i.e. creating an alternative universe where odd numbers mean danger.

What I learned in my research for the piece was that what’s fundamental to creating fictional worlds in Sci Fi is in establishing the rules. In fact there are very distinct rules for example about using time travel (a subject that fascinates me endlessly I have to say!) — and these rules need to be followed for credibility. Really. There are books on the subject like this one — Time Travel: A Writer’s Guide to the Real Science of  Plausible Time Travel. LINK  Not sure which book it was but I know Audrey Niffenegger used something like this when she wrote Time Traveler’s Wife (love that book!)

And there are certainly rules for Sci Fi worlds — you need only Google that as I just did and you’ll see these. Take this first Blog I came across for example about ‘word building’  BLOG

Now you might think my story or some of your stories are not Sci Fi and therefore this isn’t applicable? Well maybe not the specifics but world building — yes. Of course it is. And what is fundamental to all of these is ‘establishing the rules’ and I scrolled down as saw the same thing in this Blog and interestingly a comparison with many genres of writing as well so it fits with what I’m talking about.

Take our OCD character whose life is governed by numbers. How she sees the world may be very different from how we do. But this is the same world so what’s changed?

The girl’s perception of it — right? It’s the rules she lives by. So the real purpose of the story and why I wrote it, was to give insight. To show that what seems ridiculous in the cold light of day, making a call that could save her mother’s life, is the most difficult thing in the world for Anna. But once I allowed the reader to invade her back story and see why this happened and how she created the rules to keep safe, my hope is an increasing sympathy and understanding of what in essence is another world.

So the rules are key to creating any fictional reality — regardless of genre. And these rules are anything from the rain falling upwards on the planet Zog to a girl who ‘doesn’t do odd numbers or multiples of odd numbers and certainly not odd multiples of odd numbers’ as I say in the story.

Create the rules and the world and the readers are with you — but be consistent, don’t confuse them. As readers we can be made to believe anything so long as it’s well written, well constructed and created in a way that has credibility.

So how does my story end? Well it can only end one way. The climax has to be the decision to call or not to call. And for the sake of being satisfactory there has to be a moment when she conquers her fears for the sake of the story. It has to feel like the insights we, as readers, gain from the story about the narrator, put us right with her in the end, rooting for her and knowing, really knowing what this means to press these numbers. We will have changed our thinking about her by understanding her world. The question that remains however, is is she too late?

I will (unusually for me!) leave you with the opening of that story and a link to the book but it is only available in the US.

Have a great writing day everyone as you build those worlds and then the fun part of the writer’s job is …

What?

Creating chaos and conflict within them … right. And there, no matter what the genre, lays the real essence of story.

 

Living By Numbers

I don’t do odd numbers, numbers in multiples of odd numbers and definitely not odd numbers in multiples of odd numbers.

All I have to do is press three numbers. But I can’t.  

Mum is dying.

 

This is what happens when The System breaks down. Everything  needs order otherwise we plummet into a state called chaos (the second law of thermodynamics.) Chaos is what happens if you step on the cracks in the pavement; if you turn around in a clockwise direction without spinning back the other way. And it’s what happens if you press three odd numbers on a push button phone.

“Damn it!” I rattle the door, sleeve pulled over fingers. STUCK. I press my shoulder against it. PUSH. PUSH HARDER. No budge. I sit back, look down at my hands, scrutinise the skin; no mark, no blemish. YET TAINTED. The belt still pins me against the seat, straps me to the moment while the word still falls into chaos. HURTS. It presses against my shoulder. I want to reach down and unbuckle it I can’t touch. DIRTY.

Beside me Mum is slumped forwards. Her hair falls across her cheek. Red, matted. The window is broken, the rain seeps in, COLD, RELENTLESS. There’s a TV advert playing in my head, the one where the driver is pushed right through the windscreen. Splashes of red, windscreen pizza. She should have been wearing a seat belt. She should have moved by now. SHOULD HAVE.

I look down at my lap where the phone sits like a silent reminder.   

 “It’s about choices, Anna” Dad’s voice in my head like a conscience “Choose,” he says, “Do it Anna, make the call. BUT – what about the odd numbers?

Dad is right, it is about choice. Mum chose Dad. Dad chose to leave. I choose to follow The System.

“Do the right thing, Anna,” Dad says. I close my eyes. I want him to understand that some things stop being a choice. That I am doing the right thing.

 

I press my fingers to the window and at first I not seeing the blood splattered there. Now it coats my fingertips. DIRTY. I rub them frantically across my jeans leaving a trail. Fingertips burn. NO USE.  CONTAMINATED.

I placate myself by counting the dots on the window. It’s like a flick painting; the kind of thing I used to do with Mum. I was just a kid. Of course, Mum still thinks I am a kid. But at seventeen, there are many things I can do that prove I’m not.  If I want to.

I control my own life. I control it better than Mum does.

 “Damn it Mum, move will you.”

 

I close my eyes and count the things that float in the blackness. Globular masses that live behind closed eyes. I count to keep order. I count to restore the equilibrium. I count because it is the second part of The System. The part that says the world is protected by perfect numbers, straight lines and symmetry. Even my name has symmetry.

“It’s just bad luck,” I hear Dad say in my head. I tell him I don’t believe in luck. Luck means something that happens beyond our control. Makes us all victims of random circumstance, like it raining today, like driving too fast, like skidding off the road.

There is a reason for everything.  

I look for a reason why it’s Mum’s blood sprayed across the glass and not mine.  Why she wasn’t wearing her seat belt when she usually does. And  why we were fighting.

“Wake up, Mum.”

She always knows best. Or she thinks she does. It’s not the same thing. When I was seven she tried to tell me it wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t the reason Dad left. She sends me to a psychologist. He also pretends to know best.

“Tell me how you felt when your Dad left, Anna?” They’ve been asking me that for years. How do they think I bloody felt?

“I didn’t feel anything,” I said.

I look at the phone, now it’s a silent intruder. The word still spins into chaos. Press three numbers. JUST DO IT.

“Don’t worry Mum,” I say. “Someone will come.”

 

I rattle the door. I do it eight times. It’s raining harder now and where it hits the glass its forms pink smears on the windscreen. I want to wipe it clean. I look out at the road it will be dark soon. It was dark at 4.08 yesterday. There no lights on this section of road. DARK. My eyes wander to the line of conifers leading into the forest. I concentrate on one of them, I see it bend over in the wind. I wait for it to do it again. I count. One, two, three…SAFE. Order keeps you safe.

“Make it even,” I whisper. I hear my pulse in my head like the march of hollow footsteps. I stare at the trees and ask for a sign. I want to look away.

 I stop watching when the tree has bent over eight times like a humble servant bending for me. I nod, give gratitude when it complies. Then I press my eyes shut and seal the deal. Eight is safe. SAFE.

The world stopped being safe on a Wednesday.  The day Dad left. He left because I forgot to tidy my bedroom. When I think about it he was angry about everything. When he left it was the first time I realised a person could disappear gradually, the way ink fades on the page…

© Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, published in Rattlesnake Valley Sampler; An Anthology of Regional Writing 

You might ask why I am in a collection by regional writers from Wisconsin — in fact I have a 911 story in there too called Stepping Into Silence.  I once had this mad idea to twin with a writing group from another Bangor. Bangor in Maine didn’t have one (odd I know, home of Stephen King!) so we found La Crosse in Wisconsin close to another Bangor. The collection welcomed subs from their writers but by association Bangor Writing Group Wales were also invited and the rest as they say is history. I am still in touch with the group as it happens and some have made it into Bridge House books. In fact it was when they critted While No One Was Watching the short story, they said they thought it should be a novel. So I have to thank them for planting that seed!

Anyway … really going now. Honest.

 

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Humans behave unpredictably … or do they? Motivation for action in fiction

To continue my discussion of story I was looking back at a book I really like called Story Engineering Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks where he talks about the role of back story. I have talked about this before, how and when to use it, but it doesn’t hurt to take a new angle,  to look at its function in the psychology of action. As the reason for doing.

Larry Brooks says, ‘The actions of your characters need to have psychological validity.’  This is an important point that I often discuss in my critique work. While humans often appear to do crazy random things, are they really?

So, for example, a guy walks into a McDonalds  orders a Big Mac, complains there’s no pickles, gets out a water pistol, shoots the vendor (see the water drip along her face and the customers run for cover) and then proceeds to remove all his clothes, dances naked and rushes out saying he is Dr  Zumba and needs his pickles … it sounds insane right? It might raise a laugh, it might be a moment happening in the real story which is about a girl’s first day at McDonalds, Lauren let’s say. But if you put it there, you need to ask yourself why? First of all does it move story, reveal something about character , in this case whose character? The protagonist who is serving her first customer at McDonalds or Dr Zumba himself?  Anyway who is Dr Zumba and what role does he play? Why is he there?

If this was a local news story you can bet that while to bystanders who will now laugh about it at dinner parties for years to come and may never know what made him do that, the proverbial News Hounds will seek the reason behind it and look for the back story that explains it. Right? In life we hear of and even see what appear to be random acts and might come to the conclusion, in isolation without context, that humans do random things, often without logic. But is that really true? Can all action be traced back to something?

When the story gets reported in the news it might be as a prank. What if you also know its Fresher’s Week at the local uni? What if it’s part of a dare? Or does Dr Zumba have real issues and this guy might actually, at some later point in time in the story, be a danger. Is he in fact a ticking clock … it was water pistol this time, but …  or are you thinking am I giving too much to this one incident? And you might indeed use random acts of apparent comedy in your own writing. But the difference between seeing something and never knowing why and using it as part of fiction writing, is everything is there for a reason. So this act, needs to have some value. It needs to say something.

Now if this act is simply to reveal something about Lauren, who is having a bad first day and this is all she needs; the job she took to get out of her bipolar mother’s way only to find Dr Zumba, who like her mother often comes off his meds is going to be a regular visitor he assumes more importance and now his back story is significant to Lauren’s journey. Or maybe it’s there to show her bad day and how she handles it well which bodes well for her career. Or maybe she wrote in her journal that morning that she thinks in life people are unpredictable and this serves to emphasise a point, a leitmotif that now runs and ties into the theme of the story. See how what we write has meaning, even if we don’t think it does!

What I’m saying is not only do things need to happen for a reason in what we write, but if the character is important to the story, if he is someone she knows, then at some point the reader needs to know why.  There needs to be as Larry Brooks put it, before I found the most random example to use (how does my mind work?) psychological validity to action.

Now in this case it might just be to show there are crazy people in the world, beware, or it might go deeper than that and explore gun culture and what this might lead to might have credence. Or imagine Dr Zumba is important to the story in which case his back story is also important.

Larry Brooks goes onto say, ‘At the very least there needs to be a visible connection to some behavioural explanation  with roots in the past.’

So now take your stories and look at the main actions and then the lesser actions of your characters. Do you know the motivators for that action? Is it credible? I ask this a lot when I critique. And when I ask it, it means I am not buying into it completely. The answer that the writer knows someone who has done that, and humans do odd things, is not enough for fiction unless the theme is people do unpredictable things… but in that case I might not have had to ask the question in the first place, right?

But how to handle this? Don’t give the reader full explanations for actions with blocks of back story. First make them ask the questions and speculate and then drip feed on a need to know basis. If you draw the character well enough, and we know enough about him, then even the apparently illogical actions, will seem logical. Get it? Is it too early on a Monday morning? Oh is that why I’m waffling? Don’t answer that!

So back story should be used to explain and rationalise actions, affectations of character and by doing so give credence to choices and behaviours. Right?

Now what I see, and looking at this practically, is how a great many writers give us far too much back story.

Devices for back story? Well there are a few, but again need to know and in little drips so back story seems almost invisible to the reader. Flashback is hated by some but I think if used well it can be a good way to reveal key aspects of back story so they feel like ‘the’ story. But you do need to make sure you’re not using huge blocks that lift the reader out of the story for too long, these take the form of a by the way before you see this, you need to know…  again make them work so well the reader sees what they need to see but all as part of story and not like an aside. So I do like flashbacks, but only if done well with good triggers in and out and not for too long. As Larry Brooks says, if the reason for the flashback is only to explain back story it might not be the best idea. If it moves plot, reveals  character (motivator for action) and/or builds into theme, then it will be stronger. Some novels use a lot more flashback but the way to do it is to weave it into the narrative so it never acts as a stop to the action itself but is integral to it. This is down to developing our skills in story telling.

 But how much back story do you need?

Larry Brooks calls this the ‘Iceberg Principle’.  He says you should aim to show about 10% of a main character’s backs story. He calls it a ‘glimpse leading to an ongoing text.’ Too much and you crash.

And I will end with another quote to bear in mind (he says a lot more than this so it is a book worth reading if you haven’t yet) ‘Show enough to allow the reader to glean and make assumptions about what remains behind the curtain of time, yet continues to influence the character’s world view, attitudes, decisions and actions.’

Hope this was helpful as we all begin another great week … and don’t forget closing date of Paws Competition is rapidly approaching!

And don't forget we want those stories by children for the Paws Competition ... LINK

And don’t forget we want those stories by children for the Paws Competition … LINK

 

 

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