Beginning, Muddle, End

The 'Anonymous' statue in City Park, Budapest. Commemorating the unknown scribe who recorded the story of the Magyars. Rubbing his pen brings inspiration.

The ‘Anonymous’ statue in City Park, Budapest. Commemorating the unknown scribe who recorded the story of the Magyars. Rubbing his pen brings inspiration.

A good exercise in plotting is to take a book, a play or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.To have a story, you have to have some sort of muddle or conflict, which fall into one or more of the following categories:

man vs. nature

man vs. man

man vs. the environment

man vs. machines/technology

man vs. the supernatural

man vs. self

man vs. god/religion

Steps to structure your story could follow the classic Hollywood example below:

Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.

Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.

The main character is affected by the disturbance.

The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.

Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.

Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.

These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.

The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.

Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.

The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.

So, a ‘Beginning, a Muddle and an End’.


Podcast of my Play

Strongbow’s Clock podcast on WLRfm (broadcast Oct. 27th).

Set in Brennan’s Bar, a peculiar pub on Waterford’s O’Connell street, Strongbow’s Clock is a comic ghost story concerning a pair of barflies, an immigrant Hungarian barman and the events that ensue when the pub’s clock stops working and a mysterious young woman is swept in the pub door.

Nick and Angela have met at the same time in Brennan’s Bar every evening, for years. They are served by Gabor, a Hungarian who has become ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, and who is a keen, if confused orator of Irish history. On this particular evening however, the antics of a Hallowe’en circus in town delays both Nick and Angela’s arrival and interrupts Gabor’s daily ceremony of winding the grandfather clock. The regular flow of events is thus unsettled, jovial banter turns nasty and the exposure of a dark secret looms. Then, the evening takes a further surreal turn with the arrival of a dazed young woman from Ferrybank…

Strongbow’s Clock is a comic ghost story. It is also a study of the consequences when unrequited love is toyed with carelessly, and the violence such passions can stir.

Strongbow’s Clock is directed by acclaimed playwright Jim Nolan and stars leading Irish talent Michael Power, Jenni Ledwell, Ema Lemon and Nick Kavanagh. This will be my fourth radio drama, following Cow, The Daffodil and Cake, also directed by Jim Nolan.

Strongbow’s Clock was made with the support of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with the television license fee.


A Matter of Size

An English elephant in Norwich, at the Norwich Body Art Festival

One of the questions most frequently asked in creative writing classes is “how long is a novel/play/short story/screenplay?” And, as is often the case in creative writing, the answer is that there are no rules but… there kind of are.

There is not an official cut off word count for any of the above literary forms but the publishing industry has generally accepted average lengths. Be alive to the fact that just because your word count has hit the “magic number”, it does not follow that you are finished. Apart from the fact you’ll be lobbing off at least a third in edits, you also need be sure that you have brought all the strands of your story to satisfactory conclusion, have made your point and your character has undergone some sort of change / journey / learning arc in the process. Otherwise, to paraphrase Truman Capote, your’re just typing.

What follows is a rough guide/ballpark figure for each literary form:

 Novel

The average commercial novel is 78,000 words in length; this roughly amounts to 300 A4 pages in double spaced twelve-point font. However, a novel can be anything from 45,000 words onwards. A book between 20,000 – 45,000 is usually marketed as a “novella”.

 Short Story

Traditionally, a short story is meant to be read in one sitting. Normally, this narrative form is quite pointed in its message, involves a single setting and few characters. A short story can be anything from 1,000-20,000 words.Writing short stories is a good way of building up your story telling skills, honing your craft as a writer and amassing a writing portfolio. Also, the short story is the literary form favoured by writing competitions. Such competitions usually look for stories in the 2,000-5,000 word bracket.

Flash Fiction

This is the short story’s kid brother. Somewhat akin to the Haiku, a flash fiction story often aims to capture a fleeting moment. It can be any thing between 100-1,000 words. Flash fiction is becoming very popular in competitions these days. Personally, I think this may be to save reading time for judges.

Screenplay

The standard “Hollywood” screenplay is 90 minutes long. Given the rule of thumb that one page equals one minute of movie, you should be aiming for a90-page long screen play. Obviously, this is an approximation.

 TV/Play

Likewise, the page per minute rule applies here too. Bear in mind the slot your are aiming for. commercial TV and radio stations will include advert breaks in their schedule – so a half hour comedy show might in fact be only 22 minutes long etc… If you have a slot in mind, time the duration of the actual show (excluding theme music and commercial breaks.)

 Stageplay

The page per minute rule can roughly be applied to stage plays too. If a stage play were to last an hour and a half, it should be 20,000 words long and span 90 pages.

 Poem

A poem can be as short or as long as you like. A  haiku is traditionally 17 syllables over three line. The Iliad is 25,000 lines long. For the try outs, however, you might aim for two or three verses.


Let Them Eat…

cake-poster-web-version

Poster out, time/date confirmed: ‘CAKE’ will broadcast on KCLR 96fm, Oct. 12th at 6pm (GMT).

A 45-minute play, set in Waterford, Ireland in 1915-1920, CAKE is a period drama focusing on a local family challenged by opposing allegiances: Lance Corporal Joseph Bohan-O’Shea is fighting at the Somme whilst his Northern Protestant wife May raises their four children down south in Waterford City. However, Joseph’s staunchly Nationalist mother is angry with her son for taking the ‘Saxon shilling’ and betraying the family by joining the British Army. Her gender barring her from taking up arms herself, Mother persuades Joseph’s poet twin, Michael, to fight for Irish freedom, but Michael’s true passion is his unrequited love for his sister-in-law, May….

CAKE is directed by Jim Nolan, and stars Michael Power (winner of the Portsmouth International Film Festival’s 2014 Best Actor Award), Madeleine Brolly and Jenni Ledwell. CAKE also features a special recording of Waterford anthem In Happy Moments by William Vincent Wallace, performed here by Matthew Sprange, fresh from his Olivier Award winning performance in English Touring Opera’s Paul Bunyon.

‘Cake’ can be streamed live as broadcast via the radio station’s website – unfortunately, there are no plans for a podcast as yet.

Hope you can tune in!


Kind mention from Dea Brovig in IRISH TIMES interview

Dea Brovig: ‘Books bridge gaps; they allow readers to cross borders’.

Dea


New Chapter

London calling

Sorry for my poor blogging this summer – I’ve been traveling. In July, I left behind my life in Norwich, England. I’ve enjoyed living in Norwich, a quiet, unassuming yet seductive city in Eastern England. I came to the ‘Fine City’ to take an MA at UEA and was then offered a job teaching creative writing at the local prison whilst I built up writing career – and somehow that slipped into six years. I met a lot of great people who’ve helped and influenced my writing during that period and have benefited enormously from the support of the Writers’ Centre Norwich. The time has now come to take that experience and move my writing on to the next level. I’m off to London to start a PhD.

My time in Norwich has seen me win a number of prestigious writing awards and bursaries. Also, I’ve found an agent, have a novel on submission, had four radio plays produced and broadcast (and a couple more in the works). More recently, I’ve been awarded a Doctoral scholarship with Lincoln University (LSPA) for a performing arts PhD on New Playwriting at the Royal Court Theatre in London. So, following a summer of traveling and writing and catching up with friends in Holland, Belgium, Croatia, Hungary, Scotland, England and Ireland – I’m moving to Central London in September and starting a new chapter in my life. I look forward to sharing my new adventures with you all, I appreciate your interest in my blog and hope you’ll all continue to support my plays, shorts stories and novels.


Knowing When to Stop

 

I’m coming to the end of quite a few significant chapters in my life this month and this fact has me thinking of endings in general. Whatever you are writing, it is important to know when you are done.

The following check list might help you decide if your cake is baked:

1) Have you read through your piece a number of times, each revision focusing on different aspects (character, theme, structure, tone, language, punctuation, grammar etc…)?

2) Have you shown your piece to at least one person and received informed and HONEST feedback, and have you then addressed any issues that have been highlighted?

3) Are you now re-reading your work, doing nothing but shifting around commas (and back again)?

If the answer to the above is ‘Yes’, then you’re done and the only reason you’re hesitating sending it off to the agent/publisher/magazine/competition, is that you’re scared of rejection.

Get over that. If you’re going to be a published writer, you’re going to have to suck up a lot of rejection. Be brave. Take the leap. And good luck!


That’s Pathetic!

Image

What’s happening here? Storm over a street fete in Monte Carlo.

It was a dark and stormy night…

“Pathetic fallacy” is an academic term that refers to the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects, usually to reflect a character’s mood. For example, say your protagonist falls in love: you might describe flowers laughing and trees waving their branches gleefully. Or perhaps there’s been a death, so the landscape looks bleak and with clouds brewing rain.

“Pathetic fallacy” was very popular with the Victorian novelists – I always think of Thomas Hardy when asked to give an example. Therein, however, lies the problem – “pathetic fallacy” is a little out of fashion nowadays. This demise of its popularity is partly due to the modern attention span. If you’ve ever read novels by the Brontes, Dickens, Elliot or Hardy – you’ll know all about lengthy landscape description and frankly, how dull it can be for modern readers. If you absolutely need to say how each field in the valley looked, then spread your descriptions out over the course of your work. Above all, as Elmore Leonard wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Another reason “pathetic fallacy” is no longer de rigueur in the literary world, is that it can seem cliché. For example, if your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and then they fight… your foreshadowing’s is derivative, predictable and boring.

Still, “pathetic fallacy” has its place in the literary toolbox. It can provide emphasis for mood. I suggest using it sparingly, with caution and avoid storm/argument, rain/depression, sunny days/falling-in-love clichés.

Personally, I like to turn PF on its head; let the trouble come in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. If you use PF, surprise your reader with it.

Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a “pathetic fallacy” weather report. That’s the biggest cliché in the cliché box. I mean, it’s just pathetic : )


Your Lasagne

Image

An established poet once told me that art was his way of getting even with the world. A woman who’d dumped him was immortalized by a verse of his that ended with the line: ” I never liked you lasagne, it was always too dry.” The poem is interestingly layered as on one hand it criticizes his ex, on the other, it sends up his own love sickness.

Using art to score a personal goal is a negative approach, nonetheless, it does make me think about why I write. There is something godlike about creating a world where you decide the destinies of each character within. A lot of writers admit to liking this level of control, however imaginary. Bad writers are notorious for having a ‘Mary Sue protagonist’ (an idealized version of themselves) who is set upon by nasty characters who bear resemblance to real people whom the writer dislikes. However, such writing is usually very bad – and more often than not, immature.

It is better, and more interesting (and perhaps more therapeutic) to conjure more rounded characters. You may choose to write about something that happened to you, but try to do so from the point of view (and a sympathetic one) of your nemesis in the situation. You’ll be surprised at what comes up and how your world view may even change as a result. Or, as in the the case of my poet friend’s lasagne poem, turn your story so your art is also gently chiding yourself for your own love-sickness, anger, jealousy, disappointment, greed etc…I feel that art used as a weapon in a personal vendetta will only ever be cheese. Cheesey lasgane, in fact.


Word up! Rulz No.1

More by using Less: Dump your Darlings

There aren’t any rules in creative writing but…. there kind of are.

At least, if you’re a newbie, unpublished, unpractised writer, then you ought to learn the ‘unwritten’ laws of the craft. Once you are up and running, then respected and published and lauded, you can break every rule in the book (so long as you are doing so for a reason). For now, learn your craft.

Lets look first at the “rookie mistakes” – probably the most common is to cram sentences with adjectives and adverbs. A new writer will often fall in love with words and phrases and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing deadens the impact of the sentence – which defeats its purpose. By all means, use adjectives but go easy and be clear. An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:

A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’

There is too much going on in this sentence. Each individual image is in competition for the readers’ attention. The result is a boring blur. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly, so do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume. I would pare the sentence to the following:

‘A cloud slugged over the hills.’

I hope you can see how ‘less is more’ here. The image is much stronger without shoehorning in all those adjectives/adverbs.

A note on adverbs:

Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”).

Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. So, don’t use them.

Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.


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