Tuesday, 20 January 2015

All good stories start with an idea; however not all ideas start good stories.
Phil Quayle

I suppose we need to start by defining what the term, ‘good stories’ means. The word ‘good’ is a subjective appreciation of some manifestation: something physical or spiritual, or perhaps a simple sight, a sound, a smell, or a taste. “I think this tastes good!” is a subjective statement by me, you may think it tastes horrible, so how can we define the term ‘good stories’? There are some generally accepted properties contained within all stories that are deemed by a statistically significant number of people, in this case millions, if not billions, to be ‘good’. If these properties are all present within a story it might be considered ‘good’. It might also be considered awful, but for the sake of this argument I am positing that the writer of said ‘good story’ knows what they are doing. I am also discounting genre specifics in the example.

  • All ‘good stories’ have a beginning, middle, and an end.
  • All ‘good stories’ deal with some aspect(s) of the human condition.
  • All ‘good stories’ have unity of action.
  • All ‘good stories’ have characters the reader can identify with.
  • All ‘good stories’ have characters that are ‘larger-than-life’.
  • All good stories have conflict--the bigger the better.
  • All ‘good stories’ transport the reader to some other place, time, or reality.

I could go on, but then I’d be starting to get into truly subjective detail. And yes, I know I haven’t mentioned plot--it's irrelevant in this case; I’m assuming a basic, linear plot written by someone who knows what that is.

“Alright,” you say. “But what’s all that stuff got to do with getting ideas and then writing good stories?”

“Everything,” I answer.

With the advent of the Internet, indie-publishing, print-on-demand, and not to mention vanity publishing, any idiot can publish a book. And they do. The amount of trash you can get for you kindle, e-reader, etc. could probably bury the planet twice over if it were all published. And, again, you’re probably wondering what this little tirade has to do with what I’m trying to say. Not a lot, I was just venting.

Anywho, from time to time I’ve read comments on various forums I participate in along the vein of, “I loved (whatever), and it helped me get lots of ideas for stories.” Really? Are any of them any good, or will you just sit down, start typing, and see where you end up? I’m not saying they’re not good and won’t be good, I’m just asking if they are. And wondering how long it will take you to find out if these myriad ideas are any good or not. Just how much valuable writing time and skull-sweat do you waste on a nothing story that will go nowhere? And, once you’ve realised you’re not satisfied with your effort, will you keep trying because to give up would mean all that effort really was wasted, or will you simply move on to the next ‘inspirational’ idea you get and waste more time and skull-sweat?

Hmm, a conundrum--and I’ve no doubt offended soooooo many people by now, too.

For me, my ideas come by way of overheard snippets of conversation, press stories, talk-back radio, fast-food ads, and downright daydreaming what-ifs. On a good day I can have one or two genuine ideas for a story and I do scribble them down; but I do more than that. I--Yikes! I nearly started writing a list!

Once I get the idea for a story it usually evolves/dissolves into a type of visual scene fragment, I jot this down and then develop it as far as I can in the notepad I carry around with me. I then evaluate it against the qualities that I think define the basis of a ‘good story’. Where will this story begin and end? What’s the middle bit? Can I develop some riveting characters that can explore some facet of the human condition and transport the readers to another world? What are the stakes and what's at stake? Can I make people cry? If I think I can then I’m on my way. Time to then start developing, premise and plot and see if I can still keep the fundamentals of a ‘good story’ going. Once I have a ‘treatment’ of sorts for the story I then put it aside for a month or two and come back to it to re-evaluate it dispassionately later. Sometimes the answer is, “Yes, start detailing character, milieu, and plot.” However, most times it is, “Nope, not enough there to make the effort worth while.”

I don’t have the time to wander down dead-ends and dry gulches in the hope of finding a good story, so I have developed a method of evaluating my ideas to see if it’s worth going further with them. In point of fact, there is an addition to my quote above: . . .and some stories are conceived before their time is ready.


Sunday, 13 July 2014

The (very) Frustrated Writer

You can call this my Book Report for the 13th of July if you like, because I haven’t done anything much since last week. At one point not so long ago, and yet it feels as if aeons have passed, I could sit down at my keyboard, or my writing pad with pencil in hand, and just write. Then I lost that ability. It took almost a year, maybe a little more, before I recovered my ‘gift’ and I could write again. A gift from the cosmos of greater value than any other I’ve ever lucked into. However, this time is not like the last time; there have been changes.

I am less driven and more considered.

The thing that frustrated me in the past was that I would get two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through a story and then all that story’s internal inconsistencies and plot/structure problems would overwhelm me. Then I would be left with the tedious task of trying to right a myriad of different wrongs. Invariably, I would fail. In coming back to writing, I vowed to change my method, eschewing the seat of the pants approach and setting myself the goal of sticking to the seven P’s:

Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

You know what, it works for me.

But, and it’s a pretty big but, there is an unforseen downside to being ‘in control’ of my story telling—I want to write; I need to write, damn it! But I find I don’t have the time.

Right at this instant I have six novels I’m trying to re-envision, research, deepen, restructure and rebuild the characters of in the light of my new ‘understandings’ of their motivations and goals that I’ve developed during this whole process. And that’s before I even start the actual essential re-plotting of the stories, let alone writing them. On top of all that, work is killing me. I took my current job because it gave me the time to write. It didn’t pay much but at least I could come home of an afternoon, sit down and start writing. Not any more, well, not at the moment. I’ve gone from an average 5 hours a day to 8 – 9, and it’s both physically and mentally demanding. Yes, it’s more money, but I don’t want money, I want to write! So, why don’t I? Because I’ll just end up back where I was, creating plot, character and motivation on the fly with no real map of the route I need to follow in order to get to my destination. That sort of frustration is something I can do something about. But, right at the moment I guess I’ll just have to keep on plugging away at my tasks every chance I get until I can finally sit down and just write.

I’m a frustrated writer looking for an outlet.