A Ramble About My Writing Classes

A few weeks ago, I started attending an evening writing class. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time now but I’ve always lived too far out to go to any. Luckily and seemingly completely by chance, the tiny little town I live in now has one set right in the community centre! Never having any formal lessons on the craft is always something I’ve been self-conscious about, even though at this point I think I’m self-taught enough to have a fair idea of what I’m doing. Really I’m here for the reassurance and quite simply the fun of it, with the hope to learn some great stuff along the way.

Writing is one of those vast, nebulous things that has no definitive answer. There’s always ideas or theories or tricks that you don’t know, that you won’t have thought of or stumbled across on your way through the journey of discovering your voice. For instance, I had never heard of the “save the cat” method even though it’s actually found its way into the latest draft of Through the Black (scary, subterranean bat people count as cute little kitties, right?).

It’s also a really good feeling to meet with people face-to-face who are interested in writing. I’ve talked before in my posts about the workshops in the past about how lonely writing can feel. Even with the hugely supportive online community, you can feel very disconnected from the world around you. There’s something homely and reassuring about meeting with like minded people every once in a while – especially after so long flying solo. This class, unlike the one off workshops I’ve been to before, means actually getting to know people a little too, which is great.

The class I’m in is very small—there’s five of us on a good day—so there’s lots of room for discussions and input and no one gets left on the edges, which is both nice and terrifying for an introvert like me who normally hides on the edges intentionally. To add to the scary factor, and something I’ve never done before, it’s a common exercise to do a short period of “free writing” and then to read it aloud. Let me tell you, that is not easy. That said, it’s probably a good thing to get experience and practice of for later down the line.

So to sum up, there’s lots of new things to learn, new experiences to be had and new friends to be made! All in all, a success if you ask me (even if the reading out loud drives me to chocolate). If you’ve ever been thinking about trying out a writing class, even if you think you don’t “need” it, I’d definitely recommend trying it out. I’m having a great time with mine!

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Snowflake and Characters

As you know, I’ve been working on a side project partially for fun but mainly to see if using the Snowflake Method of plotting would be beneficial for me in the future for serious projects. Work has been continuing slowly on that but it hasn’t been prioritised over other work – though it seems to want to get itself promoted to a serious project. My plate feels rather full at the minute but we’ll maybe see in the future.

Capture

I was making fairly quick progress through all the steps – until I got to stage seven. This part involves very in-depth character profiles, going into every little detail about the characters, and I am finally making some good progress on it. Before I was getting really distracted and skipping ahead to the next phase (I know I shouldn’t but I just love planning scenes) and just generally struggling to get in the rhythm of filling in the incredibly detailed sheets the template came with.

It’s very strange for me to go into so much detail with characters before I start writing. Normally I have to get started and let the characters grow from the page, emerging with the story and influenced by the situations they get put in. I’ll have a rough idea but I won’t really start to know them until I write. I won’t know how they speak or interact or even what they’ll do until I actually get them doing things. It means that in the early chapters of a rough draft they can come off as very dry – because they are. By the middle they’ll have some personality and background and I go back and fix the start during edits.

Using the Snowflake Method means I’m going to know my characters really well before I even think about the first scene. By the time I’m finished stage 7, for each of them I’ll know their histories, their speech patterns, influences and ideals. There’s sheets that probe into areas I wouldn’t have thought of looking at ever and even my ‘main’ minor characters will have comprehensive histories. It really gives the feel that my first draft will have far more robust and interesting characters and that this would lead to far more character driven stories. Now that they already have personalities and histories, they can’t be moulded to the story – it must be moulded to them.

I’m really excited to see how this effects the end result – the way the characters appear on the page. Will they be more rounded, relatable and all around enjoyable as a result? Or will they lose that natural and organic feeling? Honestly, I don’t know yet but there’s only one way to find out!

Snowflake So Far

You may remember me mentioning that I was going to try out the Snowflake method to see if it’s something I want to use in the future when plotting stories. So far, I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful tool. Already I’ve identified several major problem areas and managed to change them quickly, all before I’ve actually gotten to the point where I need to go back and alter other things. Let’s look at the list.

First, I found the character arcs really helpful. This is where a one paragraph synopsis is rewritten for each of the MCs. For one thing, I noticed that one of the MCs had basically no arc whatsoever. She was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl without being manic, pixish or a love interest, which was kinda impressive when you think about it. Noticing this now allowed me to really look at her and her story and make sure that she had goals and pursuits and a purpose other than holding up the other characters. I rewrote her paragraph and turned her into a fully-fledged story all herself. And I didn’t have to alter 70k words of prose to do it – a nice change from my usual method.

Next in Stage 4, the plot expansion step, I was able to combat another old nemesis of mine – the “things are too easy” problem. I make a bad habit of this one and it’s led to me having to insert entire arcs into already fully written manuscripts, and of course alter all the rest of the novel appropriately. Here I could tweak just a few sentences to make things more interesting and less predictable and it only took me an hour or so as opposed to a couple of months.

Stage 5 is very good for weaving all the characters’ stories together and finding ways to add depth and intrigue to use characters to their full potential. It made it easier to keep track of subplots as well, as it allows for slight tangents away from the overarching stories to look closely at each character. Doing half pages for minor characters is something I’ve never done before – I’ve never put much thought into them before the actual writing and always let them develop with the story. It feels very different and I’m interested in seeing how this effects the story and how my secondary characters feel.

I’m currently on Stage 8 – the outline stage. This feels like more familiar ground as it’s extremely rare for me to write without at least a rough scene-by-scene. Naturally, I like the idea of this stage but I found working in a spreadsheet pretty clunky. I’ve modified it a little and instead jumped into Scrivener, using the corkboard feature. This allows me to very easily move scenes around and also put notes and ideas into each document as I go. I’m just too addicted to being able to put extra info absolutely everywhere, and being able to rearrange with just a drag and drop is so convenient.

cofNeedless to say, this new project has become way more of a thing than I ever intended so whoops on that one. What can I say, I need something to distract me while TE1 is with the betas! That said, playing with this story is going to slow down considerably as TE2 has sat long enough. It’s time to work out those huge structural changes that I’m trying to prevent in future projects.

Wish me luck.

Comedy and the Happy Ending

An incredibly late post about the comedy writing workshop I went to for the Aye Write festival about a month and a half ago. Overall it was great fun, though there was this one point that I disagreed with. During the workshop endings were discussed and the author running the workshop said that comedies can only have happy endings, and almost everyone in the workshop agreed with her. For her specific genre, which was romantic comedies, what I’ve seen from publishers and readers shows this to be true but there’s a lot of scope for an “unhappy” ending in a comic story. Within context, the correct unhappy ending can either be a.) very fitting to a story or b.) hilarious in its own right.

The next contains spoilers for an old TV series and an old film so, uh, the 1980’s called and spoiler alert?

For my first point, perhaps the most memorable and most powerful example I can think of is the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Set in the WW1 trenches, you can imagine the scope for happy endings. The series comes to a close with the main characters going “over the top” in a suicidal charge infamous for devastating loss of troops. While the episode makes liberal use of extremely dark humour (for example, as the troops wait to go over and Darling exclaims “Oh , we’ve survived it, the Great War, from 1914 to 1917!”), it ends an on especially bleak note. The entire atmosphere of the program seems to flip with three simple words from the overly optimistic, nothing-can-bring-me-down George. “I’m scared, sir.” That’s when it hits. All the characters are going to die. The jokes keep coming but they are the characters’ last words. It’s over. And finally, it ends with Blackadder’s famous “good luck everyone” and they go over the top. The series ends.

It is dark, and unfunny, and brings people to tears. It is also perfect.

The second point, where the unhappy end can actually be a joke by itself, has a few good examples – in fact my favourite film is one of them. Evil Dead II is a comedy horror film, your classic “terrible things happen to young adults in a cabin in the woods” story. Everyone’s favourite one-handed, chainsaw wielding, shotgun-toting white trash asshole Ash Williams spends the film freaking out and killing demons. Just as he finally succeeds, as he triumphs over the horrors and is given perhaps a chance to return to his normal and safe life, he is transported back to 13th century England (it makes a little more sense in the film, though admittedly not much) where there’s an army waiting, expecting him to lead them in a great war against the demons. The film ends with this army chanting that he’s their deliverer, and with Ash stood on a plinth screaming in despair.

Trust me, it’s much funnier than it sounds.  Ash doesn’t get what he wants, in the most ridiculous way possible, and fits with the “what other terrible things can we do to this guy” humour that the film employs liberally.

So while the advice that certain genres of comedy require a certain type of ending, I definitely don’t believe it’s true for all. Yeah, you probably don’t want your rom-com to end with a tragic double murder, but a war setting has much more flexibility. Blackadder nailed it. Irvine Welsh’s Filth could never be disregarded as a comedy but at the same time really couldn’t have ended well. Wars? Corrupt police? End of the world? A family reunion? All these things have the potential for both comedy or tragedy but the two aren’t mutually exclusive, if you ask me. Over running the world with nightmare horrors can actually be pretty funny, but isn’t necessarily going to end breezy. The possibilities for dark endings in funny stories are limitless, within reason.

Remember the magic words: Context and audience.

Anything can be funny if you’re smart about it. Then again, maybe I’m a little twisted.

Testing the Snowflake Method

While actually writing is vital to becoming an author, so is identifying one’s weak areas and working to improve them. I certainly know I’ve got a few but I think at present my biggest issue is with story. Not so much the larger, overarching story but all the little bits in-between that get us from A to B.

A while ago while I was procrastinating work things by looking up other work things, I stumbled across a few templates for writing using the Snowflake Method. This involves plotting your entire story starting from a single sentence and then slowly building up and up, expanding into increasingly longer synopses until you’ve got a story. It’s a technique I’ve wanted to try for a while because my own method of planning generally ends up a bit chaotic and my stories often feel very linear. I think this is because in general my mind works on a small scale when planning, moving from scene to scene and ending up with something that’s a bit too straight forward.

I’ve been tempted to try the Snowflake method as I think it might help me see the big events earlier and more easily see things that are too simple or boring. It’s a problem I’ve got in many of my manuscripts and leads to a LOT of work later when editing. While I’m still on schedule with The Fairy Godfather, I’ve made a lot of extra work for myself by having to entirely re-work huge sections of the novel. Plotting is clearly something that I need to work on.

I’ve decided that as a side project I’m going to try it out on a fun personal story I’ve had bouncing around in my head for a while. Not one that’s meant as a serious piece, more as just a workout to see if this method a) works for me and b) helps me with some of the issues that I know I have with plotting.

Also, as I have a love of templates and filling out boxes, I’m going to be using Caroline Norrington’s Scrivener Template. It’s got documents for all the steps of the snowflake method, scene planners, huge character templates – all the good stuff. As this is a basically a side side project, I most likely won’t be sticking to the schedule listed in the template even a little. It’ll be a while before I’m doing a first draft of a proper project as opposed to something just for fun for myself, so I won’t need results any time soon.

Hopefully by the end of it I’ll end up with another daft story for myself to enjoy and a bit more skill when it comes to creating compelling stories.

The Difference of Four Years

One of the problems with letting a draft sit on the shelf for four years is that a lot can change in that time. If you’re writing a novel set even partially in the real world, this can be an issue. A completely surreal twist of fate can mean that suddenly your fiction is a whole lot more relevant. Also a whole lot harder to write.

Work has started on the editing of The Fairy Godfather, the original draft of which I started working on in 2012 and the political climate has changed quite a bit since then. It’s changed so much in fact that there are huge parts of The Fairy Godfather that are exceptionally difficult right now.

This novel has a lot of neo-Nazis in it.

That isn’t to say that neo-Nazis are ever fun or easy to write about. It’s just that in 2012 they weren’t undergoing their renaissance. They’ve stopped being a quiet undercurrent of western society that likes to keep swept under the carpet and are instead holding office. It’s pretty awkward considering that 2012 me thought “hey, imagine if all these people who are different appeared and the Nazis made a resurgence!” and 2016 just came and fly-kicked me in the gut.

Especially hard is reading many people’s real life accounts of how they are going about interacting with friends and family who either hold such views or have voted in favour of people who do. As you can imagine, many of these accounts are harrowing and upsetting and the worst part of it all is that they are real. In one scene of The Fairy Godfather a character actually has to explain to another, an elf who prides himself on helping bring an end to the Second World War, that certain elven ideals are scarily close to those of Nazi Germany. It was a very difficult scene to write four years ago. Re-reading it today is painful.

This was certainly an unexpected danger of writing and editing this novel is probably going to be a lot more emotionally exhausting than I had originally planned for. I won’t let it hold me back though. All I can do now is keep going, take extra care dealing with difficult issues and do my best not to harm those being hurt by the current climate.

That, and try to enjoy the little things. Like writing about lots of Nazis getting beat by a gang of fairies.

NaNo Reflections

winner

Another NaNo down! And I won (just) for my fifth consecutive year. This was the closest I’ve cut it that I recall but I made it in the end. And, as I was doing a rewrite of the very project that got me into writing again after my long, university induced hiatus, there was a lot of cringing along the way. Really.

On the positive side, it let me see that I’ve improved a huge amount at writing over the past five years. I already mentioned just how many words I was cutting in my progress post and that trend continued. At least six full scenes got completely binned, as well as others getting merged and whole paragraphs of absolutely nothing being skipped as well. There was so much superfluous, unnecessary and boring guff in there. There’s also the prose itself which is, in my opinion, miles better than the original even in its NaNo-form. If I ever get to the stage where I can edit this it might even become readable!

Practice really is the key to anything. I’m so much happier with my writing now than I ever have been – and I know there’s still massive space for improvement. I still don’t consider myself “good” (but will I ever?) but I’ve come leaps and bounds. It makes me so glad that I’ve stuck with it, even through the low moments. It’s like with art – I would love to improve at it but I always get disheartened when I try. Things never work out the way I’d like. I stumble and struggle and eventually end up taking long, substantial breaks from it and every time I do I end up back at square one. It needs a lot of time and a lot of practice. Unfortunately time isn’t something I have in abundance.

The only difference with writing is that I’ve stuck with it even through the hard times. From scenes I just couldn’t write, things that sounded awful, bad plots all the way to crushing beta feedback and rejections. Time and practice has brought me to where I am today. And I’m happy with where that is, even though I hope to keep improving as I go. If you love something and want to get good at it, stick with it. No matter the setbacks. Keep at it. Some people say you need to write every day but I don’t think that’s true. Just keep it regular and don’t let your skills slide.

Now if only I had more time for art too!