I have always been curious about Shakespeare's inspiration. Much of his work was inspired by other writers. For instance, King Lear, Macbeth, and Richard III were stories told in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland.
I'm sure the choose of play was a collaborative process discussed amongst Shakespeare's friends and actors. Maybe one of the reasons the plays have stood the test of time is that these were collaborations, in which the words and actions were shaped and honed on stage during rehearsals and performances.
I imagine Shakespeare keeping a wad of paper in a flap-top pocket inside his leather jerkin along with one of those new-fangled 'pensils' of Cumberland graphite wrapped in paper and string to make notes of a good line of dialogue or an interesting idea.
I imagine the arguments and shouting and laughter as slowly the right words appeared and the plays developed - not with some 20th-century desire to be creative and original - but with a desire to entertain an audience and turn a profit.
So, what if my point? Maybe that the best work is collaborative.
How does this fit with our lifestyles in which writing for most of us is an intensely personal occupation? Maybe it is that collaboration has to come from within.
Imagine if your characters were played by actors? Imagine if you had built our 'acting companies of the mind'? What if Al Pacino or Mark Rylance or Whoopi Goldberg were in that acting company? Maybe a little like 'fantasy football'.
I wouldn't necessarily go with big names - I use them just to illustrate the idea. Instead of that, I prefer to go with faces seen in the crowd, with unknown actors filled with passion and ambition.
And then to work with them, letting them inhabit the roles, allowing them to develop the characters into something more interesting, something larger than life, and then letting these characters tell us the story, while we just sit back, taking notes.
So, imagine your story told by actors on a stage. Sit in the audience and note when they laugh, hiss, boo, cheer and clap. How does this change the way you tell your stories?
I found this anecdote among my old notes. It says something quite elegant about the struggle we all face as writers to continue our work, day after day. The thing is - I don't know who wrote this. Do you? Let me know if you can identify the writer.
The Tight Rope Walker
As a boy, I loved the circus - it was colourful, noisy, extravagant and exciting. I imagined I was out there in the ring under the lights, acknowledging the roar of the crowd. It felt marvellous. One of my heroes was a tight-rope walker in a famous travelling circus company; he had extraordinary balance and grace on the high wire. I made friends with him one summer, I was fascinated by his skill and aura of danger about him, he rarely used a safety net. One afternoon in late summer, I was sad, for the circus was going to leave our town the next day. I sought out my friend and we talked into the dusk. At that time, all I wanted was to be like him; I wanted to join a circus. I asked him what was the secret of his skill.
"First," he said, "I see each walk as the most important one of my life, the last one I will do, I want it to be the best. I plan each walk very carefully. Many things in my life I do from habit, but this is not one of them. I am careful what I wear, what I eat, how I look. I mentally rehearse each walk as a success before I do it, what I will see, what I will hear, how I will feel. This way I will get no unpleasant surprises. I also put myself in place of the audience, and imagine what they will see, hear and feel. I do all my thinking beforehand, down on the ground. When I am up on the wire I clear my mind and put all my attention out."
This was not exactly what I wanted to hear at the time, although strangely enough, I always remember what he said.
“You think I don’t lose my balance?” he asked me.
“I’ve never seen you lose your balance,’ I replied.
“You’re wrong,” he said. “I am always losing my balance. I simply control it within the bounds I set myself. I couldn’t walk the rope unless I lose my balance all the time, first to one side and then to the other. Balance is not something you have like the clowns have a false nose, it is the state of controlled movement to and fro. When I have finished my walk, I review it to see if there is anything I can learn from it. Then I forget it completely.”
I am always curious how writers use their notes of impressions and experiences in their writing. So imagine my delight to read how Ernest Hemingway used notes in his writing. His papers are held at the JFK Presidential Library and in an article on the website written by Megan F. Desnoyers there is a brief glimpse into his process of turning notes into story:
While reporting on the war between Greece and Turkey in Constantinople and witnessing the evacuation of the Greeks from eastern Thrace ("A Silent, Ghastly Procession Wends Way from Thrace"), he wrote in his pocket account book his impressions and what he paid for wine, meals, taxis, and cabling stories. "Thrace a barren difficult plateau--scrub oak--Greek soldiers 'sheik' hats, weather beaten faces but looking like Austrians. 12 camels led by one man or a donkey long necks but lurching and rolling along" became raw material for the dramatic scene in one of his innovative mini chapters between the stories in In Our Time (1925): "Minarets stuck up in the rain across the mud flats. The carts were jammed for thirty miles. Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud. There was no end and no beginning. Just carts loaded with everything they owned. The old men and women, soaked through . . . . Carts were jammed solid on the bridge with camels bobbing along through them. Greek cavalry herded along the procession . . . . There was a woman having a baby with a young girl holding a blanket over her and crying. Scared sick looking at it. It rained all through the evacuation."
Who is your favourite director? Don't know? Then ask 'Who directed your favourite film?' How would your story be told by Ava Duverney, David O Russell, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky or Sofia Coppola or Spike Jonze?
Think of their films: Selma, Middle of Nowhere, Lost in Translation, Somewhere, The Virgin Suicides, Her, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, The Fighter, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will be Blood, Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Birdman, Amores Perros, 21 Grams. The list is endless.
What ideas does this give you for your writing?
Yesterday (Wednesday 8th February 2017) I did a search on Amazon for free Kindle books on writing. About fifty titles came up which I downloaded and quickly shortlisted thirty four books as being the most interesting books to read.
Please note that the free option is not guaranteed and is subject to change. I removed one free book from this list after it was repriced today at £2.00. So please check the price before you buy.
Classic Books on Writing
Poetics by Aristotle
Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing by Lewis Carroll
Character Writings of the Seventeenth Century by Henry Morley
Essays in the Art of Writing by Robert Louis Stevenson
Open University Course Books
Writing what you know
What is good writing?
Essay and report writing skills
Start writing fiction
General Books on Writing
How To Write A Novel The Easy Way Using The Pulp Fiction Method To Write Better Novels: Writing Skills by Jim Driver
Pimp My Fiction: Write A Bestselling Novel By Learning Powerful Writing Techniques by Paula Wynne, Rayne Hall
Slow Your Prose: 25 Tips on How New Authors Can Improve Their Craft by James W. Lewis
How Not To Write A BestSeller by Zak Khan
5 Secrets of Story Structure: How to Write a Novel That Stands Out (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 6) by K.M. Weiland
SIX NON-FICTION BLUEPRINTS (bundle 2017): 6 Non-Fiction Blueprints to Use as Your Guide in Writing Your First Book by Elis M. Norton
Turning Your Blog into a Book: Getting Started by Beth Brombosz
Nail Your Novel Instant Fix: 100 tips for fascinating characters by Roz Morris
Emotion Amplifiers by Angela Ackerman, Becca Puglisi
Four Seasons of Creative Writing: 1,000 Prompts to Stop Writer's Block (Story Prompts for Journaling, Blogging and Beating Writer's Block) by Bryan Cohen
Thriller Writing: A creative writing and self-publishing guide for aspiring thriller novelists by Ash Greenslade
Marketing Your Work
Make Your Book Work Harder: How To Use Multiple Platforms To Make More Money (Writing Skills 3) by Nancy Hendrickson, Michelle Campbell-Scott
Writing Skills: From Dream to Done: How to Plan, Write & Publish Your First Book (Ebook & Print Book Outlining, Planning, Editing & Publishing) For New Authors by Barbara Dey
5-Minute Marketing for Authors: Get More Sales for Your Books in Just 5 Minutes a Day by Barb Asselin
The Self-Publishing Tools of Trade Every Author Must Know by Lama Jabr
THE BRIGHT BOOK IDEA: The string of book ideas that sell better than anything else (How to Write a Book and Sell It Series 1) by Ian Stables
Warm Email Prospecting: How to Use Short and Simple Emails to Land Better Freelance Writing Clients by Ed Gandia
KINDLE PUBLISHING FOR NON-WRITERS: How to Make Your First $1 Online and Start a Booming Internet Marketing Career by Eddie Ashton
Journaling Basics - Journal Writing for Beginners (Journaling with Lisa Shea Book 1) by Lisa Shea
333 Keywords to Change Your Life by David Lawrence Brown
Secrets of Successful Writers by Darrell Pitt
Write Good or Die by Scott Nicholson, Gayle Lynds, Kevin J. Anderson, M.J. Rose, Heather Graham, Douglas Clegg, Alexandra Sokoloff, J.A. Konrath, Harley Jane Kozak, Jonathan Maberry
Writers On Writing Vol.1: An Author's Guide (Writers On Writing: An Author's Guide) by Jack Ketchum, Brian Hodge, Mercedes M. Yardley, Kevin Lucia, Jasper Bark, Tim Waggoner, Todd Keisling, Monique Snyman, Dave-Brendon de Burgh, Joe Mynhardt
Book Idea Generator: How to Find a Profitable Niche & Generate Non-Fiction Book Ideas by James Green
Quick Cheats for Writing with Dragon: Hidden Tricks to Help You Dictate Your Book, Work Anywhere and Set Your Words Free with Speech Recognition (Dictation Mastery for PC and Mac) by Scott Baker
How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent by Noah Lukeman
How long does it take your characters to make a decision on what to do?
It must depend on the crisis. If the crisis is a weak, then the characters can quite easily ignore the problem. What you are looking for is a moment that forces them to act and pushes them to extremes. So look at it that before them is a mountain and behind them is a pack of angry hungry wolves and maybe one of the party has a broken leg. What to do? Fight off the wolves or climb the mountain?
That's the dilemma. And once the decision has been made, then let's watch the characters in action.
So here are the questions:
Does the crisis force your protagonists to make a critical decision?
Does he or she take significant action as a result?
Can you distinguish between the decision and the action?
Remember, a decision alone is not enough. We need to see the character do the work.
Have you heard the story about how one day in the 1970s the advertising guru David Ogilvy walked out of his office on Madison Avenue and passed a blind homeless beggar? The man's sign read 'I am blind. Please help', and his donation tin was empty.
So Ogilvy bent down and as well as donating some small change, he picked up the sign and added a few words.
Later that week he passed the man again, and this time the donation tin was stacked with coins and notes.
What had Ogilvy added to the sign? Just four words. It now read: 'It is spring, and I am blind. Please help.'
This story is not original. It originates in Paris, with the French poet Jacques Prévert. The American poet David Kirby writes about this in his poem 'On My Mother's Blindness'. Here is an extract:
My mother is the best storyteller I know
and I thought of her in Paris when I read
that the great French poet Jacques Prévert
saw this beggar who had a sign that said,
“Blind Man Without a Pension.”
and when he asked the beggar how he was doing,
The beggar said, "Oh, very badly. People just
pass by and drop nothing in my hat, the swine,”
so Prévert said, "Here, give me the placard,"
and, passing a few days later, asked again
how things were going and the beggar said,
“Fantastic! My hat fills up
three times a day," and that was because,
on the back of his placard, Prévert had written,
“Spring is coming, but I won’t see it.”
Had David Ogilvy heard of Jacques Prévert? Had he read David Kirby's poem? Does it matter? I don't think so. Both men saw that what was missing was the 'so what!' This is the phrase Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures would ask his writers after they had pitched a story. 'So what!' Or rather, 'Why should we care?' and that's where we have to add value to our writing. In this case both Ogilvy and Prévert saw that what was missing was a negative consequence. They picked the idea that he could not see the beginning of Spring, and that works because the beggars are sitting in the street. Clearly it worked in their favour that it was springtime - maybe the message would have been different if it was wintertime. Maybe the message would be about the cold and being homeless. It is clear that the message works best when it changes.
What other negatives? Maybe that both men will never see the look of love and joy in their children's faces?
So this is not just about the power of words. It is the power of the rewrite. Maybe we should look at our writing and answer that question 'So what?
Last week I saw the film 'Paterson'.
I've read a lot of reviews and found that the film seems to polarise opinion. Some say it is five stars and some say it is three. Some people write 'What crap poems.' Yes, I can see why they'd say that but maybe these 'crap poems' are what I love about the film.
We watch Paterson over seven days. Not much happens - he gets up, has breakfast, goes to work, clocks off, has a beer, goes to bed. And as he walks to work and drives his bus, he plays with words which he then writes in a notebook he keeps on his lunch box (along with a cupcake baked by his partner).
Driving the roads in Paterson he passes time making up poems. And as he says the words in his head, the words appear on the screen. Both hearing and seeing the words is a powerful experience. The spoken word would not be enough, likewise the written word might just look like a subtitle.
Reticent to an extreme, poetry seems to be the best way he communicates with the world. Strange as it may seem, I left the cinema reminded what a pleasure it is to play with words and ideas.
There are not many films that change the way I see the world. This film has done just that.
When I worked in advertising back in the '80s, we often researched ideas in focus groups and to stimulate discussion, we covered large pieces of card with photographs cut out of magazines.
This is one habit I still use to generate story ideas. But there is no need for the scissors and glue.
Most times I assemble ‘imaginary’ mood-boards in my mind and fill these with photos, sounds, smells, textures and tastes.
Other times, I use a Google picture search to build a collection of images (such as the example below). So, if the story was set in the Antarctic, the mood-boards help me imagine the cold, the snow, the textures, the smells, the sounds that these pictures inspire.
What would you put on a mood-board for a country house scene? Maybe a scene out of an Agatha Christie novel? Or some photographs of little old ladies drinking tea. The smell of early-morning fireplaces. The sound of the ticking grandfather clock.
These mood-boards help me develop a 'feel' and ‘dress the set’ where the action takes place.
I believe the greatest challenge all writers have is working out what they want to write. To find their greatest passion.
With this in mind and watching the Rio Olympics, I got to thinking about the qualities that make a great athlete, asking the question 'What makes these men and women the best in the world?'
The first answer is 'Well, they practice a lot. Every day they get up at four in the morning and run or swim or jump.' But the real answer, the one that matters, is that they love what they do. You just can't be great and hate your job. The best swimmers love the feel of the water. The best runners love the way their legs carry them faster and faster. The best jumpers love the feeling of travelling higher and higher, skimming over the bar. All these athletes have found their passions.
A few weeks ago I watched Ray Bradbury's presentation at The Sixth Annual Writer's Symposium by the Sea. The first thing he said was "The best 'hygiene' for writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week, then it doesn't matter what the quality is to start, but at least you are practising. At the end of the year, you have fifty-two short stories, and I defy you to write fifty-two bad ones. It can't be done."
I have been thinking about this. In fact, you could say that I have been ruminating on this idea for three weeks. What a challenge! One short story a week for a year. This idea intrigued me. So much so that this week I decided to take up the challenge.
Over the next year, I will be writing one short story a week. I will start on a Monday and finish on a Sunday. I will not look back at what I have written. I will move forward relentlessly - a short story beaver. And I will post about this challenge here on The Writing Habit.