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First Monday Mentoring for July – why do we tell stories? Why do they work?

Welcome to First Monday Mentoring when this blog looks at the realities of the writing craft – the fear of the blank screen that never goes away, the sensation of being an observer in life and wondering if you’re missing the sensitivity gene. Truth is, you’re not insensitive – you’re a writer. Observing life at its most extreme: births, weddings, funerals, is what writers do. Then we translate the experience onto the screen or page and make sense of it for the non writers.

Into the Woods
Recently I read a fascinating book called Into the Woods: how stories work and why we tell them. The author, John Yorke, created the BBC Writers’ Academy and brought a vast array of dramas to British screens.
His book explores the unifying shape of narrative forms, from the archetypal fairy tale journeys “into the woods” to today’s blockbuster movies. Yorke says that stories are all rooted in the same ancient structures.
While he explores these structures in detail and shows them at work in everything from Star Wars to “kitchen sink” dramas, he doesn’t recommend that writers follow structure as a blueprint, but rather as a template to check your writing against after your first drafts are done.

Stories are not paint-by-numbers exercises.

You can follow every writing guru slavishly step by step and still not make a story that speaks to your readers. Writing is similar to baking a cake. We all use the same mix of flour, eggs, butter and flavouring – in our case, plot, characters and setting – but the results depend on how well you do the baking.
Yorke references a lot of writers I’m fond of, from Dr. Who’s Russell T Davies to William Goldman’s iconic Adventures in the Screen Trade, books I have on my shelves and refer to often. I’ve lost count of the number of copies of the Goldman book I’ve given away.
Interestingly, many of these books were written for screenwriters, before novelists discovered them. Many, like Linda Seger have adapted their books for narrative writers, but the originals – for me anyway – are hard to beat.
As Yorke contends, it’s all about structure and in this, readers raised on YouTube and Netflix increasingly expect novels to echo screenwriting principles. Get into a scene as late as possible, and out as early as possible. Keep the story moving regardless of genre. Let the readers do a lot of the work, don’t force feed them. Let them reach their own conclusions. Let them think.

If, like me, you enjoy revisiting classic TV from the 1960s to the 80s, you’ll notice marked differences between then and now. Today there’s far more showing than telling with fewer round-up scenes at the end where characters tell each other what happened and why, as if the reader hasn’t worked it out long before. Like dialogue, character actions are more natural, instead of moving around the page/set like chess pieces.

In the romance genre at least, storytelling was more fun before you could track people by their phones, or build suspense with a “secret baby” – a child the hero didn’t know he’d fathered. These days DNA testing leaves little doubt. Although a full test takes a bit longer than most TV shows and some books would have us believe.
But while limiting some story options, technology can open up new possibilities. In my Beacons sci-fi series, I used modern technology to hijack the space shuttle, and a private jet to launch it, supported by input from the jet’s brilliant designers. Google “Mandelbugs” for another topic I play with in the series.

Recently on ABC Statewide I had a fun discussion about the role of technology in modern relationships – using emojis in place of body language, for example.

Curiously, however far writers go out into space or how deeply into human psychology, as John Yorke points out, the basic story structure remains largely unchanged. The why of storytelling also remains fixed – to explain the world to us, and us to ourselves.

Why do you enjoy telling stories? Have you ever considered structure as a factor and how do you use it? Please share your experiences here. The blog is moderated to avoid spam but your comments can appear right away if you click “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone. Happy writing!

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My 7 favourite writing books for 2011

It may seem surprising that I still read how-to books despite selling over 70 romance novels and nonfiction titles. Yet the joy of the writing craft is never knowing it all.  These days I aim to discover one new nugget of information from a book. If I get that I consider the investment of time and money well spent. So here are the gems I’ve read this year, not all newly minted, but all with something valuable to say.

1. Doctor Who The Writer’s Tale

Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook (BBC Books 2008)

A 500-page monster I devoured with great glee. The writer of some of Doctor Who’s most memorable episodes, and creator of Torchwood openly shares his doubts, fears, writing methods and “how it really is” to be a writer. Love love love this.

2. Story

Robert McKee (HarperCollins 1997)

McKee’s beautiful prose turns me green with envy. This is not only a breathtaking look at the art of story from an acknowledged master, but pure reading pleasure. My copy is littered with post-it notes and I’ve tweeted more from this book on #quotes4writers than any other book I own.

3. Emotional Structure

Creating the story beneath the plot, a guide for screenwriters

Peter Dunne (Quill Driver Books 2007)

As valuable for novelists as screenwriters,  this books fills the gap between plot and story and makes their differences clear. Shows how to create scenes with heart and soul, so your viewers (or readers) will feel the passion. A very different approach.

4. Writing Screenplays That Sell

New 20th Anniversary Edition

Michael Hauge (Collins Reference 2011)

Any book that gets to a 20th edition is doing something right. Again the content speaks as much to novelists as screenwriters, covering everything from goal setting to brainstorming, editing and writer’s block all the way to the dreaded pitch, though Hauge addresses pitching more fully in Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds.

5. We Are Not Alone

The Writer’s Guide to Social Media

Kristen Lamb ( 2010)

A groundbreaking book on using social media to build a solid platform that connects you with readers. And you don’t have to know about computers or sales to benefit. Without Kristen, I might still be thinking about blogging.

6. Beyond Heaving Bosoms

The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels

Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan (Fireside, 2009)

The creators of the legendary blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, spotlight the good, the bad and the ugly in romance novels. Jennifer Crusie’s cover quote says “I love the Smart Bitches. They look at romance with clear but loving eyes, and they do it with wit, style, intelligence and snark.” As much a guide to what not to do, as a how-to.

And because I can…Heart and Craft

Best-selling romance writers share their secrets with you

Valerie Parv Editor (Allen & Unwin, 2009)

Indulge me for a moment. Imagine how many billions of books (not a misprint) a team including Helen Bianchin, Robyn Donald, Elizabeth Rolls, Meredith Webber, Jennie Adams, Daphne Clair, Kelly Ethan and Alexis Fleming have sold around the world. This book explains how we got there, with insider advice on everything from craft to editing and marketing. This was a “book of the heart” for me to edit and why it’s on this list – so you don’t miss the gems these much-loved authors share so generously.

There it is. Are there books I’ve missed that spoke to you? Share your comments here.


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When did you first realise you were a writer?

Last time I blogged about Russell T Davies and his wonderful insight into the writing life in Dr Who The Writer’s Tale. This massive book contains so many great quotes about writing that I’ve been tweeting them for the past couple of weeks.

Then I came to this quote: “In my head, I was writing all the time, in the sense of making up stories, but I thought that was just thinking. I thought everyone did it.” p321


Immediately I remembered being about eight years old, walking to school with my younger sister, spinning stories to her to pass the time. Like Russell T. Davies, I thought everybody made up stories. It never occurred to me that normal kids didn’t make their pocket money by entering stories and poems in competitions run by the Sunday papers.

My latest novel, aptly named "With a Little Help"

At 12, I wrote the story for a ballet with no idea how it should be done, and no Google to research such things. I won the prize,  tickets to see the Netherlands Dance Theatre in Sydney, and went with my mother. What no one told us, and presumably the paper, was that this company danced in the nude. I’m not sure who learned the most from the experience, me or my conservative Scottish mother, but it was certainly unforgettable.

I was about 16 when my father showed some of my writing to a friend in advertising, and I discovered I could earn a living as a copywriter, beginning a career in retail advertising where I met the love of my life. Publicity writing and journalism followed, then nonfiction books and the joy of writing something I loved – romance novels, which I’m still doing. All because I made up stories long before I knew what a writer was.

As a child, did you make things up in your head? When did you realise this was a special gift? Were you able to turn your gift into a career, or did that have to wait until you could afford the time to turn your ideas into books? Many women are too busy raising a family to write until later in life. Perhaps that’s you. I’d love to hear some of your experiences.



Why do writers love quotations so much?

Is it because

  1.  We admire others who have a way  with words
  2.  Quoting another writer is easier than writing our own words
  3.  “Impudent criticism. No answer.” ~ Evelyn Waugh.

Reading Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale, “the untold story of the BBC series” by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook made me think about how often we writers quote other people, simply because I found it so irresistibly quotable. This 512 page behemoth of a book came out in 2008 – how did I miss it for so long? The format of  a year’s worth of actual emails from  RTD, head writer and executive producer of Dr Who and creator of Torchwood keeps the content very much “in the moment” showing how a writer actually works. I loved RTD’s description of the head-desk times when ideas don’t come and deadlines loom.  I‘ll start writing at 10am. Nothing. Okay, noon then. Still nothing. 4pm. Nada. I’ll start  right after dinner and work till late. Every writer knows these times but rarely speaks their name. Discovering that such a brilliant writer experiences  the same torments as the rest of us made me feel infinitely better. What’s that about a trouble shared is a trouble halved? Another quotation, although not always true in times when troubles shared can end up viral on YouTube.

My only problem with The Writer’s Tale is that it’s printed in mice-sized font. I had to keep resting my eyes by looking at the many pictures of David Tennant as Dr. Who. My story and I’m sticking to it.  Despite the tiny type and sheer weight of the volume, I perseverted for the delicious glimpses inside a writer’s head, my most and least-favorite place to be. There are so many great quotes that I started tweeting them and I’m only halfway through the book. Examples:

“No one [character] is fixed. They are all capable of change – not just once in some plot-reveal, but all the time.” p.201

“Dialogue is just two monologues clashing.” p.207

“If a fault is fundamental, if it’s in the concept, you can never fix it up.” p211

“I’ll have to panic tomorrow.” p197

Follow me on Twitter @valerieparv to read more.

Gratuitous picture of David Tennant

Last time, I posted about how much I enjoy how-to books on writing for the sheer joy of discovering some new glimmer of wisdom to add to my store. This books adds a whole galaxy of insights, not only into the writing process but how it is to be a working writer.  To end on a RTD quote, “All the joy and fear and fun and despair is in the writing, not in the flow charts.”








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