2016 in Retrospect

This is going to be the last post before the new year so rather than do the standard fare I’m going to do a little retrospective type thing. This is especially appropriate since it is in fact nearing the blog’s first anniversary, which falls on the 11th January. I’m quite impressed that I have lasted a whole year on this and it almost feels like yesterday that I was starting this blog for the first time. It’s a strange thing to think about and I’ll admit I haven’t given the anniversary a whole lot of thought. To me this has been a hobby project of sorts. With over 100 posts since then I feel like I’ve made some good progress with this blog.

That aside I feel like I’ve done a lot of other things in 2016 as well. For the first time in over a year I went about writing prose, producing a story which I am still proud of to this day. I also wrote two film scripts, one of which got me a first degree in the BA Professional Writing. In terms of writing I feel like I’ve done a fair amount.

Of course I also got my degree in BA Professional Writing. I got a first class degree overall, something which I did not see coming in the slightest. I can say I’m quite proud of that. The degree as a whole was quite the experience and I’m glad that I did the three years. This final year was one of the best. With regards to my master’s degree, the MA Creative Writing which I am doing at another university I can see it hasn’t been quite as impressive so far but even so it is pushing me to new depths.

With these new depths I will of course be reading through a tonne of novels and books as per usual and so long as I am doing that I am optimistic that this blog still has a lot of life left in it. I tend to refrain from making resolutions for the new year since I find that can jinx things, but I would like to be able to complete my first professional novel by end of this year if possible and start submitting my work to agents and publishers. Overall this year has been one of the best, the host of celebrity death and Trump not withstanding. I’m hoping that next year will be even better.

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(Personal Post) On Graduation From a Writing Course.

It’s not something I usually mention on this blog, but up until June 2016 I was enrolled on a writing course. Having attended the graduation ceremony last week, it gave me a lot to think about, specifically on how it has affected my writing. My writing is another thing which I’ve chosen not too talk too much about on this blog, though I have talked about it a few times in relation to my Camp Nanowrimo entry back in July (still editing it so no chance of doing the one for this month).  As a result I think it might be worth mentioning about my writing and how this course has changed it.

I know that there is a lot of stigma attached to writing courses and speaking from experience it can be hard to find one which works for you. When searching for my BA I went through the universities within travelling distance, starting with the ones with a reputation but ultimately found them lacking. In the end I found the one I was looking for in a rather humble University block attached to a college campus (for you Americans, college in the UK typically refers to somewhere  which gears towards practical courses aimed at training for 16-18 year old who have just left Secondary School). This BA course offered what I was looking for, namely variety.

You see, as a writer my interests have always varied beyond prose fiction and have extended to things such as film and comics and have had as much experience writing comics as a kid as a did prose, if not more so. This course offered everything, scriptwriting, prose and comic writing, in addition to a non fiction module which I didn’t have too much interest in but nonetheless suited the interests of some of the people attending the course. As a whole it offered everything I could want as a writer and played a key role on how my writing developed an introduced me (or reintroduced me in the case of comics) to subjects which I would otherwise not have considered viable writing paths.

There was also a bit of crossover between the various modules as well. For example, learning how to write film scripts improved my prose fiction since the simple, concise style bled over to my prose as I spent more time writing in the script format. Prose was not my strongest subject in terms of assessment results and realising I could take what I’ve learned from the other subjects helped me get back on my feet with it when I decided to get write short stories in my spare time. Yet the best part of it all was the feedback and the opportunity for a tutor who knows what they’re talking about to to pick apart my work and in the process point out flaws within my creative process that needed to address. The feedback from peers and tutors alike gave me confidence in my writing and showed me ways of looking at my work that had never occurred to me before. It wasn’t all smooth sailing but I think it changed my writing for the better.

I wouldn’t say it’s turned me into some perfect professional who can instantly write perfect pieces of fiction and I still suffer from a lot of the same problems I did when I started, but what it has taught me is how to deal with them and to recognise them whenever they pop up. The one notable change in my approach is that I now spend longer editing longer pieces, which is in part why my current novel is taking so long to write in addition to the fact that I am still trying to find my voice within the prose format. If anything I would like to say this. Writing courses aren’t all bad, there are good ones out there and if you are looking don’t hesitate to take the plunge. At the end of the day you don’t truly know if it will work out for you until you try.

Update on Novel

I should update you on the novel I started writing at the beginning of July. My goal of creating a first draft as an unofficial Camp Nanowrimo) (or National Novel Writing Month) challenge was a success, much to my surprise. Though I would hesitate to call the novel finished, I have completed the first draft and have met my 50,000 word target. Since it is still  far from being a finished product I will not post too many details yet but rest assured I will be editing it very thoroughly over the coming months. I also have a few ideas for projects relating to the current one which I may also pursue depending on how things proceed.

I prefer to keep things quiet, particularly at this early stage of development, so I haven’t posted the novel on the official Nanowrimo site nor have I posted it anywhere else. It is likely to remain that way until the novel gets a publisher or when I begin to approach a final draft so please respect what will likely be months of silence on the project. For now I will continue updating the blog on a weekly basis since I want to give myself time to pursue these new creative avenues.

4 Tips for Writing Antagonists

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As a reader we’ve all encountered an opposing force or an antagonist in our works, something physical which stands in the way of the heroes. Why is it then that it is so hard to get them right? What is it that separates a good antagonist from a bad one? This is something I’ve thought about a lot since I’ve started writing and so here we go. These are bits of advice for writing antagonists.

1) They do not have to be a villain.

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It is common for the antagonist of the story to be the villain and to many the two words mean the same thing, but there is a reason why I am using the term antagonist as opposed to villain. In truth stories are complex and many times we can find ourselves following a protagonist who goes well and beyond anti-hero territory, actually becoming the main threat of the story. Contrasting them are antagonists who are actually quite heroic. These can crop up in any work but are especially common in works where the protagonist is either a villain or anti-hero.

Basically these antagonists are only an antagonist because they are forced to pursue the protagonist, usually if said protagonist is not on the side of the law, and are generally nice people despite this. These types of antagonists are usually quite well written and can serve to enhance a story. Not every antagonist needs to be a villain and if your protagonist is an anti-hero, villain or just on the wrong side of the law then this type of villain can add an extra dimension to the conflict which a typical cackling villain wouldn’t.

2) They must be a challenge to the protagonist.darth-vader-10-most-dangerous-star-wars-villains.jpeg

A good antagonist should provide some kind of challenge to the protagonist, whether it be a physical challenge or a psychological one. The antagonist may be able to kill the protagonist, or otherwise be able to capture them. Or alternatively they could pose as a psychological barrier, which creates the threat. For example, Batman could take out a lot of his rogues gallery swiftly if he fought to kill but since he does not, he has an added challenge of having to talk them down or having to take them in alive. Likewise in Return of the Jedi, is unwilling to kill Darth Vader since Vader is his father. A good antagonist makes the reader wonder if the protagonist will be able to overcome them. Doesn’t matter if it’s a small time crook or an evil king with a powerful magical sword, they must make the reader ask the question: will the protagonist win?

3) A good motive is essential. Why do they do what they do?

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A good villain also needs a good motive, whether they’re the vilest thing on the planet or someone with a bit more sympathy behind them. We’ve all seen the cackling villain who is evil for evil sake and to be honest they’re somewhat boring. Even the most vile villain should have a reason for doing what they do, and more importantly their behaviour, personality and flaws should reflect this motive. The question you need to ask yourself is why are they doing what they’re doing? Does their motive alone explain their actions, or is there something else explaining their more antagonist actions, for example anger issues or a complex of some sort? Simply put, your villain needs to make sense more than anything and be more than just an archetype with no sense of purpose beyond being villainous.

4) They can sometimes be a personification of the real threat.

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Sometimes there is no real antagonist driving the conflict the story, but rather circumstances, and the antagonists are merely something the protagonist encounters during the course of a larger adventure. Stories such as Finding Nemo, feature the vast ocean environment as the main driving force of the conflict, and the individual antagonists are animal personifications of the dangers posed by said environment. The real antagonist isn’t always something you can see, and as a result it may be better to have a series of smaller antagonists which represent dangerous circumstances or a dangerous environment. The antagonists of the story are instead tests for the protagonist, whose overall conflict is with something much larger. One does not necessarily have to write the antagonist in this way, but it is a reminder that sometimes the antagonist doesn’t have to drive the story but rather be a part of it, an obstacle to overcome.

The Seven Basic Plots – A Summary

Basic Plots.jpgThis is a summary of the narrative theory shown by Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots. This theory lists the seven types of plots commonly found in fiction. It is useful for figuring out what kind of story it is you are writing, and the best part is that the theory transcends genre and to be honest every single plot on this list can by applied to any genre with enough creativity. So without further ado let’s begin:

1) Overcoming the Monster

The name explains it all. In short the learns of an evil, a “monster” if you will and seeks out to destroy it. This evil may be either a literal monster, like a dragon or other kind of beast, or a more humanoid evil such as a hitman in a thriller. In my interpretation this evil may also take the form of an organisation as well i.e. an army or an evil corporation. T

There are typically three types of monsters. There is the Predator, who goes around looking for victims, the Holdfast, whom guards a treasure or a person and the Avenger, whom is similar to the Holdfast except that when its treasure is stolen it leaps into action and seeks to eliminate those responsible.

These stories have their own structure. First is the call and anticipation stage where the hero becomes aware of the threat and seeks to confront it. Next is the dream stage, is the build up to the confrontation with the monster, which can take the form of the journey to the monster or preparation for the monster’s arrival. The frustration stage is a confrontation against the monster, where we finally see the monster in all its power, with things starting to turn against the hero as the monster seems to large to defeat. This is followed by the nightmare stage, a battle against the monster in which the odds are stacked against the hero. Ultimately the hero comes out on top, and gains a reward in the death of the monster stage, which is usually a treasure of some kind, whether it be literal or metaphorical.

2) Rags to Riches

The Rags to Riches plot is your Cinderella type plot. The protagonist starts off in poor, not too well off state before eventually gaining things such as wealth, power  and often love. After a few bumps along the road the protagonist usually gains a happily ever after involving some of these things, if not all of them.

Like with Overcoming the Monster there is a call where the protagonist is pulled out of their miserable life into the world. There they have an initial success, where they overcome a series of ordeals and gain a few rewards for their trouble though they do not gain the emotional wisdom that comes with them. Then there is the central crisis, where things start to go wrong and the protagonist is driven to despair, usually due to the work of a villain or rival. Once again there is a final ordeal, this time the protagonist shows their growth and overcomes one last ordeal which overcomes their growth, possibly via a confrontation with the villain. Then the protagonist receives their rewards in a fultilment stage, where they get both their rewards and the emotional wisdom to use them wisely.

3) The Quest

This is probably a type of plot associate a lot of people with the fantasy and science fiction genres and shown best in works such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Basically involves a journey, which is usually motivated by a search for a location, an object or piece of information which the protagonist or their group need.

Like most plots on this list the plot is kicked off by a call to adventure, where the protagonist leaves their home. They then begin a journey, which may involves ordeal such as monsters, temptations and a “journey to the underworld” where the protagonist must venture to a dark and dangerous place before they reach their destination. This is followed by an arrival and frustration stage, where they arrive at their destination but find more obstacles in their way. Then a final ordeal occurs where the protagonist must face one last test, which may be a literal test or a confrontation with an antagonist. Finally they reach the goal, where they win a treasure similar to Overcoming the Monster.

4) Voyage and Return

This plot revolves around the protagonist being forced into an unfamiliar environment, another world if you will. This is usually against their will or by accident. This may be either a real world location or literally another world, but basically this other world is usually alien the protagonist and they must adjust to their new surroundings. Usually the protagonist learns and grows as a result of this journey before returning home.

It begins when the protagonist is transported into the other world in a “fall into the other world” stage. This is followed by an initial wonder stage where the protagonist gradually gets used the the new world and usually becomes entranced by it, though not enough for them to feel at home. Then comes a frustration stage where the darker aspects of this world make themselves known and begins to cause problems for the protagonist. Then there is a nightmare stage where these forces becomes a dire threat and the protagonist’s survival is at stake. Then just as these things become too much the protagonist overcomes the obstacles before leaving back home, having learned valuable lessons from their experience.

5) Comedy

Comedy is a tricky plot to define as the word holds so many different meanings amongst the various literary circles. By Booker’s terms, his definition of a comedy plot is a plot revolving around a large cast, a series of miscommunications and a large mesh of relationships. Basically Jane Austen’s books, a lot of romantic comedies and Shakespeare’s comedies fit into this definition. The plot usually starts with the characters gradually becoming broiled in misunderstanding. Gradually this gets worse, possibly being stirred up by an antagonist. Eventually everyone is caught up in a dark tangled mess. Gradually these shadows are dispelled and the villain may either get what’s coming to them or may be redeemed. A rather tricky one to define and probably rather strict in its definition of “comedy” and what constitutes such.

6) Tragedy

Tragedy, by contrast, is a bit easier to define. It revolves around a protagonist who is usually more morally ambiguous than most. They gradually do more and more morally ambiguous things, or simply pursue a tragic dream that is never meant to be. The story usually ends with the protagonist’s tragic demise. Usually the protagonist’s of tragedies have a mean streak about them, but they may just be flawed good guys in bad situations.

The stages mirror those of Overcoming the Monster. It begins with an anticipation stage where protagonist, who is in some way incomplete, begins pursuing some kind of object of desire whether it be love, money or something else. Following this is the dream stage, where the protagonist becomes committed to the goal, usually via some kind of “deal with the devil”or rather do something which they shouldn’t. Things seem to right for them until the frustration stage, where things start to wrong and the repercussions of the protagonist’s actions start to come back to bite them. This cumulates in a nightmare stage, where things start to to go horribly wrong and the various opposing forces begin to close in on the protagonist. Finally is the destruction stage, where the protagonist is in some way destroyed, either left broken or dead in some way. This is usually as a result of some final act, which causes them to finally reach rock bottom and possibly commit suicide or be killed by their enemies.

7) Rebirth

Finally is Rebirth. This is essentially a more positive version of the tragedy, where the protagonist is ultimately redeemed and achieves something resembling a happy ending. The protagonists of this plot usually have redeeming qualities to show that they deserve their happy ending. Like the tragedy the protagonist usually gets caught up in darkness and deal with the threat growing in similar stages to the tragedy, seeming almost non-existent at first before becoming so prominent it can no longer be ignored. However rather than let the darkness triumph the protagonist eventually redeems themselves, negating what would otherwise be a tragic ending.

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As a whole some of these stages may prove more useful than others. In particular I feel Comedy is lacking somewhat, referring to older definitions of the word rather than it’s modern uses. However it is hard to definite what it means to be a comedy, and some confusion was inevitable regardless of how Booker chose to define it. Regardless I hope that this list was useful, and that you will use this when planning your stories. With a bit of thinking any story can fit into these plots so it is definitely worth using them if you can.

 

Five Things I Learned While Writing My First Full Length Screenplay

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I recently finished writing my first full length screenplay, a ninety page monstrosity which I wrote for my Final Major Project/Dissertation for university. It took me most of the academic year to plan and write and it was quite the learning process to say the least. I picked up a few things during my time in writing which may come in useful, so without further ado let’s begin. These are five things I’ve learned over the course of writing my first screenplay:

1) Give yourself plenty of time to plan

This is a bit of a no brainer but it is very tempting to write by the seat of your pants. It is essential to give your idea a lot of thought before you begin, else you may come to the awkward realisation halfway through that your idea isn’t working, or that it doesn’t have a strong market as you first thought. Needless to say this is not a good thing.

I fell behind schedule at one point during the production in order to rewrite my idea completely, keeping only a few core concepts such as its genre and the premise in its simplest form.  This caused problems for my schedule since I had to rewrite most of the script from scratch. Always plan ahead so you have an idea of where you want to go before you start.

2) Write a step outline if possible

This relates to my previous point of planning. A step outline is like a synopsis but more detailed, breaking the film down scene by scene. The purpose is to get a rough idea of how the film will work out on a scene by scene basis. It will also help you recognise any flaws at an early stage. I failed to maintain my step outline once production finished and that created a lot of the problems I had in the middle of production since I failed to give the story more thought as smaller changes made me diverge from the step outline.

3) Watch films similar to the one you are writing. Read works in other mediums if possible.

Basically you should be watching films similar to the one you want to write. It is good to know if your film is original compared to those with similar themes and content. This may also give you ideas if you struggle during the planning or production stages. Reading works from other mediums is also a good idea. Film is a limited genre and thus one may be more likely to encounter an original idea after reading a book, graphic novel etc. Market research is essential to any work, and I found myself watching and reading works similar to my script long into the production stage.

4) Get the first draft out the way

I found it was beneficial to try and write the first draft as quickly as possible. The purpose of writing the first draft is to get the idea on the page. The first draft wasn’t going be a masterpiece. Thus I wrote my first draft at a reasonably swift pace so I could redraft as soon as possible, allowing me to devote my time to the tedious editing process. As a writer the editing stage is far more important to the overall work, therefore one should get the first draft out the way so that one can begin editing the script into something worthy of studio submission.

5) Be prepared to do a lot of editing

Editing is what makes an okay script into something more worthy of someone’s time. I spent a large chunk of the overall production process redrafting my idea until I was finally satisfied. A poorly edited work will be full of plot holes, spelling and grammar errors, as well as inconsistencies within the script format. Therefore it is important that you spend a lot of time editing. If you struggle, it is always beneficial to have a friend or two to look at it and point out problems, but you should be prepared to do a lot of the legwork yourself.

I hope this list has been of use to you all. These are things which I just picked up during the production process, rather than from any particular writing books. They may come in useful, or they may not. Writing is a difficult art, more so when you are writing something full length and hopefully my experiences have been of some use to you all.

Books on Writing: The Emotion Thesaurus (Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi 2012)

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The Emotion Thesaurus is one of the more interesting books on writing which I’ve picked up recently. Having had the time to read the book thoroughly and take in its contents, I figured it is time to write a review on it. As the name suggests, The Emotion Thesaurus is a list of emotions and the various ways a writer may show them when writing their work. These can include visual cues, internal cues and the ways the emotions manifest when suppressed or over the long term. This is a neat little book covering a rather niche topic but it has come in useful on many an occasion. It is part of a series and is intended to used along other books from the authors, who run the Writers Helping Writers website. These are The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus, and they are probably just as good.

As for The Emotion Thesaurus itself, it is a rather good book. Each emotion within the book gets two pages devoted to it. The page lists a quick definition of the emotion then it lists the ways it can be used, providing suggestions with the way the writer can describe it within their text. The first of these categories is the physical signals, the ways the writer can describe the most common ways in which the writer can show the emotion visually. The second is the internal sensations, which describe how a character would feel internally when feeling the emotion and generally refer to aspects the emotion which can’t be shown visually. The page then lists mental responses, ways in which the character may respond to the emotion. Then it lists ways the emotion can be shown in an acute manner or over the long term, under which are the various feelings the emotion may escalate to over time, listing the relevant emotions and where they can be found in the book. Finally it shows the cues for the emotion when it is suppressed, which show how a character might react when they are trying to hide or not feel the emotion in question.

The thesaurus is very useful and covers pretty much every context in which you might conceivably use a particular emotion. It is also very versatile since it covers enough ground that it doesn’t matter if you are writing prose, or writing for a more visual medium such as films in comics. The more visual categories such as physical signals lend themselves well to all the mediums, and I found myself referring to them a lot when I started to use the book when writing film scripts. However some, like internal sensations and mental responses, lend themselves better to prose like mediums since they are more easily shown internally in the narrative of the point of view character rather than a visual medium.

Of course how useful this book is may vary in the eyes of the reader, as some people may disagree as to whether or not the various ways of describing the emotions are effective or not. I personally felt that some of the cues for certain emotions were lacking and seemed rather bland, especially when writing in a visual medium. I also felt some crucial emotions were missing from the book, and on occasion I found myself scouring through the book for a particular emotion without success. Some of these, were in my opinion rather common emotions as well, which made me slightly annoyed. I am aware however that it would be impossible to include every emotion that ever existed, and that it is unreasonable to expect to find everything in this book. It is certainly a very functional book, despite my misgivings.

Overall I liked reading it a lot. It was very bare bones, containing nothing but the emotions and their uses. In that respect it is a very single purpose book, but this worked to its advantage. It isn’t a full blown guide on how to write a book, it’s a resource with a specific use in mind and it does its job well. There is no ideological baggage associate with this book, and it doesn’t ram its advice down your throat, and is a breath of fresh air compared to other writing books on this list. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, script or something else, this is a book worth reading. If you’re the kind of person who struggles to write, then this the book for you. It doesn’t go too much into detail and does exactly what it says on the tin, and for that it is probably one of the best writing books I’ve read for a while.

EDIT: It has come to my attention that there is a companion to this book known as Emotion Amplifiers. It covers a number of emotions which were missing in the Emotion Thesaurus and is available for free so it is certainly worth a look.  It is available as an ebook and can be found on the Writers Helping Writers website at http://writershelpingwriters.net/bookstore/ as a free download.

SCORE: 4.5/5

IN A WORD: BRILLIANT