The Turn of the Scene

Last time I spoke about one of the most essential elements of writing in terms of character – agency. This time I’m going to talk a little about one of the most essential aspects in scene construction – the turn.

When we look at a scene, there are many aspects we can examine to make sure it’s doing a dramatic job. Drama – that’s what this is all about. It turns a story into an engaging experience. Drama is what brings us right into a story. It’s what makes us want to keep turning the pages. If there’s no drama in your story people are just going to put it down.

The one with the biggest impact on your story is what’s called: the turn of the scene.

While I was doing my MA, I was lucky enough to have Fay Weldon as my manuscript supervisor who introduced me to this concept. She did a lot of television writing while she was starting out. When the producers looked at her work they would sometimes tear out complete scenes from the teleplay because there was no turn.

So what is the turn?

The turn of the scene is a palpable reversal in emotion and/or events (read as internal and external arc) which takes place between the start and the end of the scene.

So if Fred found the magic coin at the end of the last scene, in this scene he must suffer some kind of setback.

Likewise, if he lost his gun over the edge of a cliff last scene, then in the next something positive must occur.

Those are the external arc factors we’re all aware of – but what about the internal ones?

It can be as simple as a transition from happy to sad, uncertain to confident and visa versa, but also shifts involving the psychological state of the character with where they are in their internal arc.

So if in the first scene, Fred, who’s a solitary animal with trust issues, refuses to accept help with his entry into the cake competition and loses, in the next scene he’s going to have to face up to it and reprocess (usually at the hands of an ally who is there to challenge him on his flaws).

Likewise, if he makes some progress and does go out to the pub with his mates, in the next scene one of them will have to do something to make him question it again.

So back to Fay Weldon, why did the producer rip out those scenes? Because scenes without a turn are flat. They do nothing to move the story forward. The producer felt they weren’t worth spending the money on filming.

Well, that’s a little primer on the turn. It has to happen in every scene or expect some serious rippage from your editor.

For now, go write!

Damian

Enough Agency for the Agency?

Today’s tip is just a short rundown to help you understand the concept of character agency a little more.

It’s one of those essential things to be aware of in writing that is often confused and misrepresented. This should set the record straight.

The problem comes because agency happens in at least two distinct and important levels.

The first one is within the plot arc. To make your plot work and fulfill the story contract (the promise of a satisfying story that you make to the reader), the protagonist (the central hero of your story) must be the one whose actions bring the story to its resolution: Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort; Andy Dufresne must be the one to bring down the corrupt Warden Norton; Ripley must be the one to blow the alien out of the airlock and into space.

And this is where the confusion comes in because the other distinct level at which agency has to happen is in every scene of the novel. Well, it doesn’t have to, but without it, your readers will soon lose interest in your character and their story.

But here’s the thing: at the scene level, agency is not about the actions of the hero, it’s about their decisions.

Let me give you a scenario.

Our hero has been trapped in a room with his wife and eight-year-old son. Water is flooding in, and the only way he’s able to save them is by closing a rusty valve. He struggles and heaves and just before the water reaches his son’s face he manages to turn it off.

Okay, that’s not a terrible scene, in its form, it’s one that we’ve probably seen in books and films before quite a lot. But it’s not great, it’s not really that dramatic – why?

What about this scene?

Our hero is in a hallway next to two rooms filling with water. In one of them is his son and in the other is his wife. He only has time to turn off one of the valves.

See, much more dramatic, The reason for this is it forces the hero to make a decision. And that’s what agency at the scene level means. It’s not the actions which count at all – it’s the choices the character makes.

Let’s put it to the test: can a scene be dramatic where the hero makes a choice but actually does nothing? Let’s see…

It’s the dead of night. Our hero is a thirteen year old boy. At his dad’s command he’s hiding in the backseat of a car, while his father is outside arguing with an armed gangster, who’s waving a gun at his dad.

The gangster steadies the gun. He’s going to fire. The boy sees his father’s pistol on the seat next to him. He could pick it up and save his father, but fear takes hold of him and he chooses to do nothing. He hears the gunshot from outside the car.

And this shows us the most essential point: even if a character has the choice to act but actually ends up doing nothing, they still have agency. With the rarest of exceptions, a character always has agency. You just need to make sure that their reasons are clear to the reader and that the choices they make have emotional integrity.

Till next time, go write!

Damian

February 1st – Article Four: Section One

“I’ll be alright.” My dad stood up straight. “I have a warm coat.”

My tears fell on his shoulder as he tried to console me.

There were three loud knocks on the door. “Open up now!”

I tried to hold onto him as they dragged him away. “Goodbye. Goodbye, Pop.”

Opportunities

Picking fruit was a terrible holiday job.

The elegant lady in the white dress had passed by before. Today, Sanchez saw her cry.

He filled his mug from the cold stream, cut a lemon quarter and dropped it in.

She took it and drank, then offered him a better position.

 

Photo by Oladimeji Odunsi on Unsplash

 

Time Apart

I’ll apologise here right at the outset: this is going to sound like the most braggy writing tips post there will ever be, but that’s really not my intention. I have a very important point to make.

On Wednesday the 18th of July, I began a new draft of the novel I started for NaNoWriMo last year. It’s a high-concept, LGBT-themed novel for the New Adult market, with, I believe, huge potential for crossover into the adult market proper.

I made a mistake with the first draft – I did the one thing that, as it turned out, doesn’t work for me – I planned it out.

You may have read my post from a few weeks back when I spoke a little about being a pantser. I’d never planned a novel before. I wanted to try it to see how I got on, but it failed at about the 5th chapter.

The way the plot turned out just didn’t work and I couldn’t find a way forward. So instead of struggling to try and finish it, where I surely would have spent months looking at a blank page, I moved on to writing something else.

So what happened exactly?

Well, obviously I can’t say for sure. But it felt like, with my first draft, I’d set out on an expedition and, at some point, I’d become lost and couldn’t find my way forward. Stopping work and shelving the novel was a bit like pushing a reset button to take me back to the start again.

In his book, Creating Short Fiction, Damon Knight writes about solving problems in your writing by leaving them overnight and allowing your subconscious to work them out for you. He thinks that more often than not, you’ll wake up with the answer.

The seven months the novel spent on the shelf gave my subconscious the time it needed to work on the novel for me. In essence, it felt like I was stocking up and resupplying for the next trek into the unknown.

And the first draft, even though it had failed, was useful. It had given me a partial map of the landscape into which I was returning. But because I was setting out from the beginning again, after such a long time, I didn’t feel compelled to go in the same direction.

The seven months I’d given it to gestate in my mind had done wonders, and I wrote the entire second draft – 60,000 words – in 11 days.

So this is today’s writing tip: if a project you’re on isn’t working, even though you’ve made some solid attempts to push forward, shelve it!

Don’t spend months looking at a blank page/screen. Move onto something else which excites and inspires you.

I think this is also generally good advice, even when a draft has been successful. Go work on something else for a while before you return to do the edits. The time apart will give you some essential distance and enable you to see your project more clearly with fresher eyes. Resting is part of the work you have to do to bring your writing to completion

Now, go write!

Damian

Don’t Forget the Coffee

I’ve been working on some short stories this week: one for big and the other for little people.

I’m planning on getting them ready for submission to some magazines this weekend, so I’m powering on through the editing, and there’s an aspect of that I’m going to talk about today.

There’s one thing that I look to achieve in editing work for all ages and that’s providing the reader with sensory detail – recounting to the reader the experiential details through the minds of the point-of-view character.

This does several things all at once:

  • It brings the reader closer to the character in question.
  • It causes on-the-body sensation, which furthers suspension of disbelief.
  • It makes your landscape more real.
  • It makes your entire piece experiential, as though you’ve dragged your reader into a holosuite.

The more senses you can evoke, the better:

She put the coffee cup on the desk – white, with a brown lid. Must have been from somewhere new as there was no branding on it.

He took it in his hand. The warm, soft styrofoam squeaked as he picked it up. Steam drifted up through the mouthpiece and hit his nose with the distant tones of Columbian earth.

He tested a sip against his lips – hot but bearable – the reassuring bitterness overrun with a shot of caramel that tasted ambiguously alcoholic.

It was just as he liked it.

Okay, so this is entirely overblown for taking a sip of coffee. Nevertheless, I wanted to show you that you can bring the senses to bear in pretty much anything your character is doing. We tend to go for sight and sound first, but don’t forget touch, taste and smell – they’ll pull your reader further in.

Damn, now I need a coffee.

Go write!

Damian

Cat’s Eye View of Night (prose poem)

Cat’s Eye View of Night

Low down, up from the ground – faster faster. Tooth and claw, pissing hissing screaming; the city lies dreaming. Night-sight like green daylight, fight or flight; this is what freedom feels like. The four-footed assassin, staking and playing with prey. Stealthy acrobat, sure-footed. No nine lives but the skills to survive. Black coat predator – killing, playing, fucking – fucking any bitch who stands still long enough. Moth-flicker. Hammer-paw. A thousand luminescent eyes in the urban tunnels; friend and foe. A mob war for the streets. No crack or smack but piss, pissing everywhere. Blood on claw. Blood on paw.

Cat Capone – Cat the Ripper – the foxes flee.

 

Poetry Editing 101: Session Eight – Onwards

Sadly, we’ve come to the end of this little course. I hope you’ve found it useful.

There is still a very long way to go and much to learn on the path to poetry perfection, but if you follow the advice I’ve set out over these sessions, you’ll be heading out in the right direction and bringing your poetry to the point where it’s publishable.

Rather than cover a new topic, I wanted to end things with some final advice and tips for your continued poetry practice.

Right at the start, I outlined a process for writing and editing poems using multiple drafts formed out of your initial idea. I’d like to return to that for a moment and talk about its importance.

The goal of a good poem is to encapsulate a single theme/idea in a way in which the reader can unpack it in their minds and turn it from words on a page to actual experience. Does this sound like something that’s hard to do? It should – poets spend a long time in practice getting these things right, and you’ll never get to your best stuff on a single draft poem.

So here’s the first piece of advice I want to leave you with – stop writing one draft poems. They’ll never be good enough. They might pass muster in a workshop group but they’ll never be the best you can do and that shouldn’t be good enough for you.

The other important thing is reading. Many novelists will tell you, the only way to get good at writing fiction is to read loads and write loads. In the very first book I read about the art of fiction, Stephen King’s, On Writing, that advice was given multiple times like a mantra. It’s true of writing fiction and it’s true of writing poetry. If you want to write great poetry you need to read great poetry – and there’s so much of it out there.

Make your reading as wide and deep as possible. Read from all the schools and eras but, most importantly, read modern poetry – read what’s being written now.

Tim Liardet, one of my poetry tutors, used to say, “The more poetry collections you read, the more you start to sound like yourself.” This is true because, as you start your journey into poetry, I’ll guarantee you, you’re going to find that you’ll read poets entirely new to you and you’ll spend weeks writing poems afflicted by their style.

It’s impossible to avoid this when we’re in the formative stages of developing our craft because we get blown away by the work of a writer and we start to incorporate their phrasing, tricks, and tics in our own work.

There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s how we develop our toolbox and technical vocabulary. It fades as we read and write more and more and allow our own style and voice to emerge.

On the subject of voice, I want to say a little more on conservation of language. One thing I’m noticing is that many developing writers think it’s a good thing to edit out articles, conjunctions and prepositions from their work. This doesn’t add to conservation of language. It only makes your work sound weird and truncated.

Read the work of some great modern poets and you’ll see it’s not something that’s needed. Making your poetry sound as naturalistic as possible makes it better to read, easier to understand and much more accessible.

So there we have it. If you’re still with me, well done for getting this far. I wish you all the best with your journey onwards – read loads and write loads – let poetry be part of your life.

Now, go write!

Damian

200/300/400/500

 

I was going to do a post about taking a break when you’re a writer and how hard that seems to be. I will get to that, maybe later this week or early next, but today, I want to provide you all with a swift kick up the arse and, hopefully, some motivation.

I know what it’s like when things pile up and the last thing you can think about is writing. At that stage, anything seems like a better option.

It can be the same feeling you get when you’re at your wit’s end about something, staring into the abyss. Such situations are not much different from staring into a blank page and feeling like you’d just rather go play Freecell. If you don’t break the cycle you can spend weeks in exactly the same mental position.

All of this is especially true if you’re writing a novel. What you need to do is use the energy of a good writing session to fuel the next one. But getting that particular ball rolling can be a real Catch 22.

So here’s a little trick I’ve found that I hope might help you out. On those days, instead of looking at that page and expecting yourself to fill it, just push through it with a small word count. Give yourself a minimum.

200/300/400/500 words per day – these are achievable goals for you to meet. One or two 15 minute sprints with Sprinto would get you right there. Let me break down what these minimums mean.

200 WPD

A little over 200 WPD will see you writing in one year a novel the length of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling

300 WPD

That’s the first draft of a 110k novel over a year. The same kind of length as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

400 WPD

146k words a year. That’s two drafts of a shorter novel around the length of The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.

500 WPD

182k words a year would net you a first draft around the length of a huge novel like The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkien.

And all of these are assuming you stick at this word count, which you won’t, you’ll have those days when you fly right past it. And for those of my friends on Discord, go and work out how much you wrote today just chatting to people.

So that’s my advice: set yourself a daily minimum, even if it’s only 300 words. It will seem much less daunting when you’re looking at that blank page.

Now, go write.

Damian

First Serial Rights, Steem and You

This might be a bit of a strange writing tip today, as it’s not so much about writing as it is about approaching the various markets for publication of your work. In this case, especially after you’ve already posted it to your blog.

I’m covering this today because I’ve heard a remarkable amount of misinformation about it around the platform. I believe this is causing many bloggers to miss out on further opportunities to distribute and earn money from their work.

What are First Serial Rights (FSR)?

When you allow a newspaper, magazine, journal or website to run your story/poem/article for the first time, you’re not handing over the copyright, what you’re doing is giving them the right to publish your work first so they can offer it to readers before anyone else does (essentially, this is a license).

This is why you’ll make your biggest chunk of change from the FSR.

But once the work has been published and those rights have been exploited you are free to seek publication elsewhere (though do check, sometimes there will be a clause not to publish elsewhere for a set period of time ie. the license you granted to the publisher should have an expiration date).

So the question we need to ask as bloggers is: does the posting of my work count as FSR?

The prevailing opinion of many of the members of the Steem community to whom I’ve spoken about this seems to be yes. In actual fact, it’s partly yes and partly no.

We need to think markets over minutia.

In realistic terms, the reason a publication wants FSR is so they can bring your work to their audience first. So my short story appearing in Granta gets to their readers before it gets to those of, say, The New Yorker.

Here you can clearly see the issue. With those two publications there’s a big chance of crossover and a huge readership for both. If you’d given FSR to one, it would be a big deal for the other in ever considering your work.

As for blogging, let’s use me as an example. How many people actually read one of my poems or short stories? I’d like to think it’s a ton, but if I were to suppress my ego for a moment I’d be able to admit that, if I said twenty, I’d probably be pushing the number up slightly.

So, if I were to say 50 max, I’d be 99.999% certain about it.

And this really gives us our answer. None of the audience for either Granta or The New Yorker has ever read the work on my blog. In realistic terms, FSR has not been given up.

So what does that mean for me?

When you’re looking for a place to send your work, consider places that say they won’t publish work that’s been published elsewhere (unless they specifically say that includes blogs).

Don’t lie about it. Just say something like this:

This story has been posted to my blog, and read by less than fifty people.

If the editor looking at your work is rational, that isn’t going to make a difference to them.

I will point out that a fellow member of The Writers’ Block had a piece rejected from a journal that did accept reprints, because it was on Steem and couldn’t be deleted, so that does remain a possibility.

Just don’t rule out FSR on your own work because you’ve published to the blockchain. The worst an editor can do is say no.

And, in fact, one of my friends who’s been hunting around for places to pitch our work found a place today that specifically said that they don’t publish work that’s been published elsewhere, but that blogs don’t count in this (other markets specifically mention blogs as counting, so it can go both ways).

And you know, one day, I might even tell you what that publication is, once I’ve had a chance to send my stuff there first, of course.

Now, go write!

Damian

PS: While we’re briefly on the subject of copyright, legitimate publications will never ask you to give it up. If anyone ever asks you to give up your copyright – run – run like the wind.

PPS: A huge thank you to @thinknzombie for casting his legal eye over this piece and making some very relevant additions.