29 Jan 2013

The creativity thieves

There are several bad habits or factors we can develop in life that can block one's creativity. Apparently there are eight, but many of them are so similar and can be dealt with in the same way that I feel the authors of those lists were just looking to make them more easily digestible. Thankfully when you are part of a group like Storyslingers where you are surrounded by informed, understanding and supportive people you don’t have to concern yourself with outside discouragement (ignore everyone else) and you can gain a deal of confidence in yourself and what you are capable of.  So that’s two factors down, but there are a few things left however that we can all struggle with.

One of the first things I have always seen when looking up advice for breaking out of the creative rut is to separate the creating from the editing, or the evaluating, and to not fall into the trap of starting to edit yourself while you are still nourishing and nurturing your ideas. Doing this too soon and too often may stop you discovering a really good concept before it’s developed fully.
Which leads nicely to fear, I think. Having a fear of making mistakes, of failure, could stop you before you’ve even begun. Having a fear of needing to make sense of those ideas, having everything squared away and all the loose ends tied up, can be harmful to. Life doesn’t make sense, it’s uncomfortable and untidy at times so don’t dismiss an idea if it works but you don’t know why. Chaos can be your friend!
Analysis paralysis is another term I often come across when searching for guidance. While researching is important and necessary you can become stuck over-thinking facts and situations that, like gorging on a vast meal, you become stuffed and are unable to act on anything.
For me personally writing has always been my creative outlet, with no real ambition to take it further than to please myself, but I did go through an extended period of time when I just didn’t feel creative at all. What we are today is a result of everything that has come before and everything we have experienced in our lives good or bad has informed us as writers, as creators, and as human beings. I found myself in a place where I just couldn’t do it anymore because of very negative experiences, and sometimes the only thing you need to get yourself out of that rut is time.
Finally, following anyone’s (including “expert’s”) advice blindly is unwise. Listen to your intuition – everyone’s journey is different, which includes your own.

22 Jan 2013

(Other People's) Thoughts on Story Structure

This is something I came across when reading about story structure a while back, that I thought I'd share. I think story structure is one of the harder things to talk about because it diminishes the role of the writer a little bit. It's the man behind the curtain, it's admitting the presence of a method, it contradicts the lovely myth that stories gush out in a moment of pure creative genius.

So when I read articles about 'what makes a great story' my default position is skeptical at best and more likely I’ll react with a sense of revulsion. Surely a story-writing formula is just a recipe for formulaic stories?

That said, I want to introduce you to a concept explained by one of my favourite writers, a guy called Dan Harmon. I'm a little bit embarrassed to bring him up because Dan Harmon is not a novel writer. He is an American sitcom writer. He writes sitcoms that are not popular enough to make it to UK television. Please bear with me.

I don't hold up Harmon as an undiscovered literary diamond, I introduce him as someone who has apparently spent more time than me thinking about what makes a story. Not what makes a good story, more what our brains recognise as being a story on a very basic psychological level. That strikes me as a very good thing to have some idea about if, like me, you want to be able to tell stories.

What Dan Harmon did was attempt to come up with a simple model that could describe the mechanics of every story that had ever been told*. Whether he succeeded in that or not is a matter for you to decide, but here’s the result:

This circle is, in Harmon’s world, the secret to telling a story that another human being will recognise as a story. You’ll notice there are 8 points on the circle that correspond to the following parts of a story:
  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.
Super simplistic and not terribly instructive in its own right. However if you doubt the universality of this structure it’s worth spending some time trying to overlay it onto stories you know and see if you can spot the eight points at work. It’s quite upsetting how often it can be applied with very little stretching.

Where I think this model gets really interesting is when you consider this next aspect:

So, points 1 and 2 fall in the Life/Conscious/Order half of the circle. Things are pretty much under control here, the character is probably driving the narrative with his/her wants/needs. But when you get to point 3, things start getting weird. The darkness takes over and control is lost. Taking back control is essential to getting to point 7 so you can end the story.

Furthermore the symmetry of the circle appears to exist between points. For example, points  1 and 5 are static points in terms of the story arc (although they may include action sequences) - the narrative has not got going yet (Point 1) or reached a turning point (5). Points 2 and 6 are emotional, points 3 and 7 are transitions (your Act 2 and Act 3 respectively).

And the story circle isn’t just for the main narrative arc, it can be found in character arcs, chapter arcs, scenes, conversations. At its core it’s just a pattern that pleases the brain.

I’m not going to go any further into the nuances of Harmon’s model any more than this because I suspect anyone reading will already have made up their mind whether this way of thinking is useful to them or not. You can get the full explanation first hand here: if you’re so inclined:

Harmon discusses this more in terms of Movies and TV than books, by the way, but I think the medium is irrelevant here, it’s all stories.

My point isn’t that I think anyone should set out to write a story with this sort of model in mind – in fact I tried it and it didn’t go particularly well, I ended up with something that felt forced and…yes, formulaic.

Where I’ve found it to be very useful is when I get to the point in a story (as I almost always do) where I feel like it’s getting out of hand, like I’ve lost what it was I was trying to do and I don’t know how to fix it.

At that point, I find it really useful to apply this model to my story so far. It helps me work out what point in the story I’ve got to and where I should be headed next. It helps me decide whether it should be lead character decisions or plot machinations that should be driving events. I use it as a map for when I’m most lost and just want to throw it away. If I don’t need it then great, but it’s always nice to have a torch when the lights go out.

Thankyou for reading - I’d be really interested to hear how other writers approach story structure, whether you have any tools you use for helping build your narratives or is it pure intuition? Is it even useful to try and define a story in this way or does it just limit your options? I’d love to know your thoughts.

*I'm aware that everything Harmon is doing here is a further simplification of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth, again it's worth googling if you want to read more.

16 Jan 2013

The 2012 Story Slam Video (belated!)

I don't think we've posted the short teaser video of our 2012 summer Story Slam, helpfully put together by Robbie Cumming. It features our readers, our fabulous judges, and The Wrongo Bongo Band. Check it out below, or follow this link to the YouTube page if the video doesn't show up.

Thank you to Robbie for compiling this, to SAC for hosting us, and to Richard Thomas for filming the slam all evening. And a special thank you to everyone who came and supported us.

Article: Andrew Garve and Soviet Russia

Storyslinger John Higgins wrote the following article. Many thanks to John for sharing and letting us post it here!

The journalist Paul Winterton (1908-2001) became much better known after 1950 when, using the pen name Andrew Garve, he published a number of successful thrillers and detective stories. Many of these books had nothing to do with his earlier career as a newspaper correspondent in Moscow and elsewhere, but the ones that do cast an interesting light on his politics and our general view of the communist experiment.

He was the son of a left-wing journalist, Ernest Winterton, who was the Labour Member of Parliament for Loughborough from 1929 to 1931, but who also stood unsuccessfully for the same constituency in the elections of 1923, 1924, 1931 and 1935. There was a family link to Philip Spratt, a left-wing intellectual who was a founding member of the Communist Party of India in 1927, but who subsequently became an anti-communist activist. I imagine the table talk in the family would have had a strong socialist flavour.

Paul Winterton gained a B.Sc. degree from the London School of Economics in 1928, and spent the next winter travelling to Russia, where he spent some months living with a farming family in the Ukraine and learning Russian. On his return in 1929 he stood for Parliament himself, fighting Canterbury for Labour, rather a lost cause as Canterbury has hardly ever returned a non-Conservative. He joined the staff of The Economist, and three years later was taken on by the News Chronicle. He had several overseas assignments, including two more visits to Russia, as well as a spell in Palestine which gave him the background to his first novel, Death Beneath Jerusalem, published in 1938 by Nelson under the pen name Roger Bax.  This was the first of several books featuring what must have been one of his hobbies, pot-holing or cave exploration. It is also a book with a good deal of political comment on the rise of Arab nationalism and the accompanying terrorist activities.

Staggering irresolutely into another year

I have made two resolutions for the new year. The first is to stop drinking and the second is to take up running again. Both are going well so far, though I have to admit that I fully intend breaking the first one on my birthday at the end of the month, or possible on Burns Night (well he was a writer and all).

However, I didn't resolve to do more writing, even though I've done hardly any over the past couple of months. Perhaps that's because it's something too important to be treated in such a crass fashion. Or perhaps because it would be a resolution it would really pain me to break.

In any event, the arrival of 2013 has still forced me to think hard about my writing and why I'm doing so little of it. That's largely because this time last year I was getting well stuck into writing what would eventually be the first novel I have ever completed. And having completed it, writing had become such an important part of my daily routine that I felt bereft when I no longer needed to do it. As a consequence I found myself writing a flurry of flash fiction and short story pieces for competitions to fill the void, all of which culminated in me attending Dorset's first Storyslam, then joining Storyslingers.

Unfortunately, the failure to make any headway in competitions or to get my stories (including my novel) published eventually took away much of my early gusto (as a former journalist and business writer I was used to having my words immediately put in print, with no need to seek an outlet for them). This meant I was finding it difficult to generate both the motivation to write and also things to write about.

Then three things happened. Firstly, I received some strong interest in publishing one of my flash fiction stories from a website that appears to take its writing very seriously - a definite moral booster. Secondly, I remembered the many ideas for stories I'd noted while at Storyslingers meetings, which immediately removed the excuse of having nothing to write about. And lastly, after a gap of several weeks, we finally had the first Slingers  of the new year. It was a very positive meeting that gave me the final kick I needed to get into a real writing frame of mind. 

So here I am, all ready to write again. In fact I'm almost tempted to make another resolution..

2 Jan 2013

Kicking off a new year

Another short message to wish everyone a very (belated) Happy New Year! Let's make 2013 a year packed with creativity, energy and fun.

As always, if you have any writing-related news or announcements, feel free to email them to us at any point (our email addresses are on the 'About' page) or drop a comment on one of our posts here on the blog. Any new people who've been considering coming along to our group, now is a good time! New year: fresh start. :)

The next Storyslingers meeting will be Tuesday 15th January, 6:30pm - 8:30pm, Proctor Room, Shaftesbury Arts Centre. It will be a regular meeting, with the usual combination of readings, discussions and exercises. And tea & coffee, of course! Hope to see some of you there.