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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!

Valerie
on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook
Valerie’s latest book, Outback Code, is out now
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When should you reboot your writing life? First Monday Mentoring February 2016

We hear a lot lately about reboots. The powerhouse Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is considered a reboot because it takes the franchise in new directions with new characters. The recent Star Trek movies are most certainly reboots with much of the story canon amassed over fifty years being replaced with unrelated material credited to an “alternate timeline.” Yes, well…

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The term, reboot comes from computer usage. When a device refuses to perform, the first defense is invariably to turn everything off, wait a short time, then turn things on again. Often, that’s enough to get the device working properly.

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People can reboot themselves, too. I know of several who are in that process now.
One of the most prominent is actor Wil Wheaton (Star Trek the Next Generation, Big Bang Theory, Neverland, Stand by Me, and many others)
Late last year, he announced in his blog that he was rebooting his life. Unhappy with himself, he made a public commitment to change, doing less of habits that harmed him, and more of those that helped, such as reading more, writing more and exercising more.

In an update this week, he graded himself on progress, giving himself an A on some items and an F on only one – writing more, which had been pushed aside by acting commitments. You can read his story on his blog http://wilwheaton.net/2015/10/seven-things-i-did-to-reboot-my-life/

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A writer friend I greatly admire, Diane Curran, announced yesterday on Facebook that she’s rebooting her life starting Monday, including returning to her beloved belly dancing classes.
“I’ve been a bit slack over the last couple of months. While I never returned to the Caramello and Iced Tea, I did take up Lindt extra dark chocolate and I still can’t moderate [my intake]. Adding back in dairy, grains and potato and reducing exercise and I’m feeling the difference in body and attitude.”
Throughout 2015, Diane transformed herself through diet and dance, until we barely recognized her, except for the sparkle that’s there through thick and thin (sorry, Diane, really bad pun). Starting today, she says it’s “back to Paleo, back to physical activity, back to writing a minimum of 500 words a day.”
https://www.facebook.com/chickollage?fref=ts

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Reboots don’t need to be drastic. In the last month, I decided that my writing office wasn’t serving me. I was doing nearly all my writing at the dining table, the room more and more resembling the office I wasn’t using.
It wasn’t rocket science to work out that clutter deterred me from using my “real” office. The big desk I’d had for years was a clutter magnet, unlike the dining table which I had to clear regularly because, well, it beat eating off the floor.
I bought a new, smaller, table in gloss white with chrome legs – the nearest desk I could find to a dining table. Added a gorgeous white file unit with red drawers that could serve as a return as needed, and went to work. With less surface area, paper can’t pile up. I love my new desk and spend almost all my working time there.
Like Diane, I’m also tackling a body reboot, having lost mumble-something kilos in twelve months. While not exactly gym-ready, I move much more, and no longer cringe at photos of myself in the media.
Writing more isn’t an issue since this year I’ll have published 90 books. But I have changed direction. I’m now writing science fiction, a genre I’ve always loved. Naturally, there is romance in there – albeit with a light touch. But the rebooted me is boldly going where I haven’t gone until now, and having a ball.

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Is there an area of your writing life you’d like to reboot?

Here are four ways you can tackle the job.
1. Start from your strengths
Rebooting yourself is a choice. It doesn’t mean everything you’ve written is wrong. Every word is part of your learning curve and will feed into the writing you do next. If exercise is needed, simply move more. Watch TV or make calls standing up. Weed the garden. Every little bit counts. Do workshops online or off. Find a critique partner in your new genre, and encourage each other.
2. See yourself succeeding
Spend a few minutes each day relaxing and picturing yourself succeeding. Visualise your book cover, or yourself in the spotlight, whatever fills you with energy and determination. Then look to your reboot list and start to make it happen one step at a time.
3. Be gentle with yourself
Wil Wheaton called his a “soft reboot”, focusing on the items he felt would make his life better. He didn’t throw out all his previous achievements, or come down on himself for the one area he felt needed more work. Like Diane, you may have Lindt extra dark chocolate moments. Recognise them and gently put them aside in favour of new behaviours that support your goals.
4. Feel the fear and do it anyway
This is a brilliant self-help book I suggest you read, although the title says it all. New always feels scary. If it doesn’t you’re not doing it right. Your reboot should take you out of your comfort zone into uncharted space. This week I’ve taken the biggest leap of my life into that space and you know what? It felt terrifying but exhilarating in equal measures. There are no guarantees of success, but if you don’t take the leap, you’re guaranteed to fail.

Minions take over world
Begin your reboot today. As a writer, choose a new direction or genre you’d love to try, and read in that field. Study the available markets. Then plan how you’ll write in it. 500 words a day is good, but 100 will do if it’s all you can fit in. Even at 100 words a day, you’ll have a novella or half a novel done by the end of this year, and that’s with most weekends off.
Let’s compare notes back on this blog in six months time. Not to beat ourselves up over what we haven’t achieved, but to look honestly at where we are and what still needs work.
Do you plan a reboot in your life? Share your thoughts in the comment box below. It’s moderated to avoid spam, but you can skip this step by clicking on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone.
Happy writing and rebooting,
Valerie
http://www.valerieparv.com
on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook
Check out Valerie’s online course, Free the Writer In You
At http://www.valerieparv.com/course.html
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