It’s our summer holiday season. I’m in my writing cave at home and can smell the mouth-watering aroma of a banana loaf baking in the oven. The delicious smell of the fat and sugar alchemy wafts down the hallway and serves as a distraction to the rain falling steadily as it did for most of the night. It’s falling over the whole of New Zealand. To be fair, we’ve had lots of warm, even hot weather, and this water is needed. The green leaves are relaxing again, grateful for my wife’s work in quenching their thirst every day but appreciative of the long New Year drink, much like I do!
I’m in a reflective mood. It’s coming up to seven years since I started writing fiction. That’s barely a blip compared to some. It may not even register on the Richter scale we’ve all become so familiar with in what’s known as the Shaky Isles. In that time I’ve published three books and a short story, have another (Presumed Guilty) that I’m shopping around literary agents in New York and London and I’m about a third of the way through a new project that both excites and frustrates me. But my best writing seems to do that these days.
Time wise, if I round the numbers up, seven years is close to twelve percent of my life. Again, not much compared to some. But it’s a lot in this household. I think I’m falling back on the, “for better or for worse” part of our vows. As anyone who puts time into a genuine writing pursuit knows, it is an insular process. I think, from my wife’s point of view, she sees I have this invisible mistress floating around the house like a ghost, a mistress that’s not always benign, either. After she read my first book (Best Served Cold) she famously said to others, ‘I didn’t know I’d married a sick fuck.’ One scene! It was only one short torture scene!! Still, in sickness and in health.
So why do I do it? The challenge is enormous but the simplest explanation is that I do it to entertain. I want to share the escapism I claim for myself. I know I can tell a yarn and thanks to so many people, over those seven years, I know I’ve got better at that.
Part of today’s post is acknowledging, not just my wife, to whom I could dedicate every book, but the help I’ve had along the way. At the top of that list is my editor, Anna Rogers. I’ve previously written about Anna here. http://www.mcginncrime.com/about-writing/partner-crime/
Then there’s this guy – Shawn Coyne. He hasn’t replaced the work Anna does for me but he helps me make her job easier (if that’s possible). The Story Grid is essentially a compliation of his free blogs at www.storygrid.com Over a twenty-five year career as an editor, publisher, agent, manager and writer, Shawn has been part of more than 350 books, 97 of which have become national best sellers and books that he has edited or published, have sold over fifteen million copies. This guy knows something about writing! He can tell you not only what needs fixing, but how to fix it. No one teaches editing at the global story level or the microscopic level – not Harvard, not Random House.
Shawn’s taught me that editing and story analysis are not goodies attached to the end of artful story telling, they are at the heart and soul of story telling. While his techniques and tools are fascinating, (the foolscap method – getting the story on one page and the story grid spreadheet – tracking every scene) I’ve had huge help from his forensic analysis of the “story form” and the five commandments of every scene.
Another great craft book I read in 2015 was this one, actually written for screenplay writers but it’s equally applicable to novel writers.
Dara Marks’s book is a great companion to The Story Grid, in that it reinforces so much of what Shawn Coyne refers to as the “internal content genre”, essentially how the main character changes over the life of the external plot. Marks lays a great foundation for the transformational arc of the main character and then shows us how to construct it. She demonstrates how plot, character, and theme need to move in unity throughout a storyline. In essence, Marks provides clear information about what is required at every stage in a story in order to complete the arc and fulfill a natural dramatic structure.
In his foreward to Story Trumps Structure written by Steven James, (quite a different take on the two books above) Donald Maas says, “Master the ceiling fan principle and you will have a foundation for novel writing that will save you years of trial and error.” With regard to creating tension in a story, Maas says, “ Steven smashes through the fog and reduces all disagreements to rubble. What for many novelists is intuitive, he makes concrete.”
James says that if we are courageous enough to ditch formulas and templates and instead, step into the heart of the narrrative, we can become better storytellers. He has a great line that explains the ceiling fan principle where a boy tried to jump off a bed further than his cousin and got caught in the fan and thrown against the wall. It was an entertaining account from which the principle articulated is, “you do not have a story until something goes wrong”. So to uncover the plot of your story, don’t ask what should happen, but what should go wrong. To uncover the meaning of your story, don’t ask what the theme is, but rather, what is discovered. Characters making choices to resolve tension – that’s your plot.
I have a bunch of other writing craft references as this photo shows.
And I’m still managing to read other crime and thriller stories some of which I’ve reviewed. Somehow, I still find time to earn an income but just now, I am submitting to temptation. My wife has beaten my mistress. Banana loaf calls.
Happy reading in 2016.