Literary agnosia and the short story

The DrawerWriters of every genre will recognise the scourge of familiarity; the sense of intimacy with your own work which is so great that it renders your powers of objectivity impotent. Does this story work? Have I chosen the right phrasing? What should I cut? The questions keep coming but no one answers.

When I’m working on a piece, particularly a short story in which every paragraph must count for something, I often lose all perspective. And returning to the page every day only seems to make the condition more acute; proximity threatens to destroy creativity, like a magnifying glass burning ants as it concentrates the sun’s rays. The pressure to produce and finish stories leads to unsatisfactory conclusions or improbable characters, and I think that sometimes I’m writing simply because I feel I have to and not because I want to… or can, for that matter.

So what do we do? Continue reading Literary agnosia and the short story

Writer’s block… Oh, it’s real

Writer’s block, A.K.A the bogey man

He lurks behind a milk curtain, morse-coding reprimands and insults with my own cursor. Six dots and a jarring ‘Oh!’ (The exclamation mark is implied).

“It’s you again,” he says. “Did you know that your last idea for a plot was terrible? It was worse than terrible. It gave me migraines in my stapes, and I don’t even have stapes. Where are you taking that wretched creature? That ‘character’, as you name him? Preferably somewhere to die. Because that’s where he’s headed if you start typing – right into the grave. He’ll be pushing up digital daisies before bedtime and you’ll be ten thousand words in the red. Just like I told you.” Continue reading Writer’s block… Oh, it’s real

Why rejection letters are the new Xanax

14-rules-of-storytellingI was hay making through the chaff in my inbox recently when I stumbled across a curt email from [enter not-so-prominent journal name here] informing me that my piece entitled [enter short story title] had unfortunately been rejected.

I can’t remember my precise reaction – it may have involved scratching my behind, or sucking out the remaining juice from the Tetley bag stranded at the bottom of the teapot – but it went along the lines of, ‘whatever’. Continue reading Why rejection letters are the new Xanax

Pixar’s 22 tips for telling a ripping story

There’s a cart-load of advice out there for would-be storysmiths; everything from websites explaining how to go about self-publishing, right down to books that cover the finer points of stringing together an intelligible sentence.

But the most important and fundamental skill of fiction writing, the marrow if you will, is effective story writing. IT’S THE STORY STOOPID! And, at least in my case, it’s the most challenging.

Fortunately, once in a while you come across advice that is so so incisive that you feel inspired (and somewhat relieved) just reading through them.  You think, “Hey, you’ve just summed up in one paragraph what that other book couldn’t do in twelve chapters.” Although they’ve now been out there a good while, the collected tweets of Emma Coats, former storyboard artist at Pixar, is such advice. It’s all the wisdom she has accumulated working on major animated films and it’s essential reading for fiction writers of all persuasions… yes, even short story writers. Continue reading Pixar’s 22 tips for telling a ripping story

Short stories, not attention spans

When fans queue to see the movie Ender’s Game later this year, many of them will know that the movie is based on Orson Scott’s card 1985 novel of the same name.

It’s safe to assume that a great deal of them will have also read the book and the subsequent titles in the series too. But I would bet that only a handful would know (mostly the hardcore fans) that the idea and many of the characters in Ender’s Game had humble beginnings in a short story, published in Analog magazine in 1977.

Whenever I hear about short stories that have triggered the creation of a larger work, or when I read the works of Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, or the dozens of other short story writers whose ideas ‘made it’, not only am I comforted by the thought that I’m not wasting my time learning the craft, but also by the promise that a short story can lead to bigger things. In my case, I hope my journey into short fiction will lead to a novel.

Continue reading Short stories, not attention spans

Online surveys in the time of decreasing attention spans

What happened to the good ol’ days? The time when you could approach people in the street with a few polite questions without fear of being given the heave-ho; when customers would be only too happy to donate two minutes of their day to offer constructive words of advice to an enthusiastic entrepreneur who just wanted to do a bit of old fashion world-changing. Continue reading Online surveys in the time of decreasing attention spans

Is fiction writing tasteless?

Tonguing for a meat pie
Tonguing for a meat pie

Taste is an elusive sense. Have you ever tried to describe what bitterness is? What about the enigmatic meatiness of umami? It’s not an easy task. But should I change the question and ask what you feel when you eat something of a particular taste – not just whether it is hot, chewy or smooth, but what you think or how other parts of your body react besides those in your mouth – then we stumble upon a banquet of ideas.

I for one swoon at the pleasure of devouring a savoury stew of thick beef chunks, red wine, sea salt, carrot and sweet onion, but the taste of tripe makes me want to call a priest.

Food is emotional

The sense of taste triggers intense reactions in us, both physically and emotionally. Therefore, when writing fiction, we don’t need to rely on words such as bitterness, sweetness or sourness – readers know these gustatory concepts already. Our goal is to connect notions such as texture, smell, temperature, memories and expectations so that we can communicate the experience of taste.

Consider this sentence:

Joanne held the spoon of honey at arm’s length and let the syrup topple into her mouth. At first she felt a tingling, then a slight whisper of wattle and citrus before the sweetness started to crawl across the surface of her tongue like viscous wave of sugar ants, up the insides of her cheeks and across her palate. She closed her mouth and eyes and thought of her mother’s farm, the smell of warm September mornings and of her childhood pet, the one-eyed cat, Salamander, who would lay all day purring on her bare feet.

Here we reveal not just the physical properties of the food, but also the relationship between Joanne and the taste of honey, in both the present and the past. We animate the texture, throw in a few taste references that would make a thesaurus-hugging wine connoisseur proud; we depict even the way she eats the food.

Most people are familiar with the taste of honey, but by adding these emotional and sensory ingredients we are attempting to present honey in novel way.

Of course it doesn’t have to be as floury as my example, but I think depictions of food are only tasteless when they don’t venture beyond the ‘bland’, ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’. By using all the senses at our disposal, it is possible to transform the description of taste into a very delectable morsel for readers to digest.

Robbin’ da Hood: steal, borrow but never beg

Creative writing ideas can come to you at the most irregular moments: in the shower, at 3 o’clock in the morning, or in those moments before you’re about to run a red light and hit an elderly pedestrian. Does this sound familiar?

Perhaps you keep a notepad in your top pocket and diligently scribble down musings and interesting observations before they can tumble back into your subconscious. Or, if you’re like me, you let the idea roll around the human fairy floss machine (brain) and wait to see something sticks.

But waiting for creative moments to happen themselves is frightfully inconvenient, particularly when you have a deadline.  In these situations, the only inspiration that is likely to descend from above is the one attached to your boss’s arm – and it won’t be inspiring at all really.

Inspired Googling

Picasso once said inspiration “must find you working”. I agree with this statement but would extend it somewhat by saying that inspiration, particularly for copywriting, can also be googled.

Jay Abraham, who makes his bread coming up with ways to make more bread, suggests a method which I believe many people use already (I know I do): simply head to the places where they’ve already done the hard work – Amazon for example – and study the headlines of the top 100 best-selling items for your particular keyword or topic. Look at the cross-promotions, summaries and subheadings and write them down. Find out what you can use and how you can apply it to your work. Then ask yourself: How are people motivated by this copy? What is it they want from this product? Don’t worry, you don’t need to answer these questions yourself, just bear them in mind when you read the user reviews. Because user reviews, and arguably much user-generated content around the web, are veritable gold mines for writers because they often tell very plainly and honestly what people find good and bad about an item.

You can hear him speak about this method: Jay Abraham on Copywriting

Take a book. Oh, I don’t know, something like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ by E.L. James. The product description opens as follows:

Romantic, liberating and totally addictive, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a novel that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.

Okay, that sounds like an inviting deal, although I am wary of anything that claims to have powers of ‘possession’. Let’s take a look at some of the 10,500 reviews that have been published. Five star and one star ratings were at the time of writing roughly even. I picked three random reviews from each group. The fivers said:

These books rock!!! Yeah yeah yeah there’s a soft porn theme here, but the bulk of this series is about a love story!! Period.

Jaw dropping, “holy cow!!!”. Intriguing book, couldn’t stop reading.

This book was great and kept the reader interested right from the beginning.

And now, just because we can, the oners:

I started this book only to see what the hype was all about and I still can’t figure it out.

The only thing this book has going for it is remarkable marketing. Seems unfair so much money can be made from such talentless writing.

Sorry, but this book was one of the most boring books that I have ever read.

What are these reviews telling us about a product we have probably never used or seen ourselves? That there is definitely a theme of fascination and dramatic tension, a.k.a ‘a pager turner’, which is captivating fans. We’ve got love – something soft and tender –  and sex, which we all know is guaranteed to arouse some sort of interest.

What to do with the copy-booty

So taking sentences from just six reviews we could come up with a twitteresque strapline of:

A romance that shudders with sexual potency, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a novel that will haunt you at every turn of the page.

It might not be fabulous copy nor will it make you want to buy the book (I certainly hope not), but the exercise is to describe something by exploiting elements (in our case love, sex and captivation) that represent emotions of real people. By using characteristics and actions related to these emotions such as “shudder” to suggest sexual ecstasy, we can animate our ideas even more.

How may we then use the bad reviews to effect? Obviously we’re not going to write that the book is a complete waste of time and implore the reader not to purchase it. However scathing reviews also provide insight into the product and sometimes hint at areas we have to avoid. Stating for instance that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ is the most important literary work of the decade might go down well with the fivers, but given that 50 percent of readers hated it, we would be going a little too far. Sometimes even copywriters need a dose of reality.

So whenever you have a case of writer’s block or just need to tease out more information on what your audience actually needs, get your arse to Mars! No, wait, I mean learn from those who have more money than you. They can afford it.