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I must tell you about the time when... - Helen's journal and online home
In which an old dog attempts to learn new tricks.
I must tell you about the time when...
A friend's recent posts about the writing process have got me thinking about how people tell stories. To most people, telling stories is second nature -- and I do specifically mean telling not writing.

People tell stories to one another all the time: what they did at the weekend; the time they had to get somewhere urgently and they broke down in the middle of nowhere and it started to snow; what happened at their brother's wedding when Uncle Bill got plastered and tried to get off with the chief bridesmaid.

So when you ask them to write fiction, they already have the pattern of stories and anecdotes deeply embedded in their subconscious. Even though they've previously been telling stories about what "really happened", people shape the events to make the story flow better or to reach a kind of punchline, even if it's only, "And I was so glad that I always keep a spare mobile phone in the glove compartment," or "And that's why no one ever asks Uncle Bill to weddings any more!"

It starts when kids are very young. My granddaughter is 4½ and at Easter I joined daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter on a visit to Chester Zoo. The next day they went to see my dad. I wasn't actually there, but having taken part in many similar conversations over the years, I can imagine that it went something like this...

Imagine my elderly dad sitting and listening with an interested expression on his face.

Daughter: Where did we go yesterday, Erin?

Erin: We went to the zoo!

Daughter: And what did we do there?

Erin: We saw the animals!

Daughter: Did you like the animals?

Erin: Yes. I liked the rhinoceros.

Daughter: And what was the rhinoceros doing?

Erin: He was lying down.

Daughter: Who else went to the zoo?

Erin: Uncle Mike and Auntie Shelle and Baby Will!

etc. etc.

When you look at those conversations adults have with small children, they're not only encouraging a child to communicate with another adult, perhaps one they don't know so well, they instilling the basics of story. Who was involved? Where did they go? What did they do? What did they see?

Gradually, as kids get older they start to tell more of the story on their own initiative without prompting. They're starting to learn how stories should go. They learn other forms of story telling such as retelling the story of the TV programme they saw last night. They start to tell stories to other kids. If they're the imaginative type, the kind that love stories, they start to make up their own stories by incorporating characters from books and TV and totally made up characters into a plot of their own devising.

So if anyone wants to know how I learned to write fiction, I must have started at the age of about 3 with my parents coaxing me to tell Granny what we did in the park yesterday. As I got older, I continued making up stories via playing cowboys and Indians with friends, playing with the Britains plastic farm and zoo animals with my brother, pretending my scooter was a horse and pretending that the nail hammered into the tree near the newsagents where we bought sweets was a fairy's doorbell. I acted out stories with the hand-puppets I was given and made stages out of cardboard boxes for them. Older still, I taught myself to daydream through boring sermons, train and bus journeys and while walking to and from school. Eventually, I started to write these stories down.[*]

Everyone who writes will probably have done something similar and all the time you were learning how to tell stories, you had feedback, first from parents prompting you to include the things that you hadn't mentioned about the trip to the zoo and later you were prompted by the friend who wanted more detail about how many horns the ferocious monster that lived in the tangled trees in the park looked like and how big its teeth were. If you didn't create a coherent story, the bemused looks meant that you tried to tell it again in a different way until you found what worked.

Some people take the telling of anecdotes to a high level and actually get paid as TV and radio panellists or after dinner speakers. Others never do, but most people feel that they can tell a story and when they sign up for a writing course, they just want to know how to make the story on the page better. They want more feedback. The underlying skill of story telling is just taken for granted.

And to tell a good story, that foundation needs to be solid. If the basic logical flow of the story just isn't there, then no amount of fancy writing will help.

[*] The reason I tend not to tell people to use this method for story creation is that 1) vivid visualisation only works for visual and kinaesthetic thinkers, 2) If it's a method that will work for you, you have probably already discovered it yourself because that will be how you read fiction and you will most likely have worked out how to reverse engineer the process to use it for writing, 3) If you can't already do it, it takes a long time to get good at it and there are quicker ways to achieve the same result, 4) It can lead to frustration because if you over-polish the mental movie, the words on the page are unsatisfying because they can't match the full senssuround experience in your head. I therefore don't use the method half so much these days, though it certainly has its uses.

Current Mood: thoughtful thoughtful

18 comments or Leave a comment
green_knight From: green_knight Date: June 17th, 2011 11:19 am (UTC) (Link)
In regard to 3): would you say that you using outlines to replace the mental movie, or are you doing something else?
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: June 17th, 2011 12:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Mostly it would be the scene planning sheets that have replaced the mental movie.

I will still use the mental movie to get a rough idea of the scene flow -- like those sketched animations that haven't been fully coloured. I will also use it to get a detail of the scene. How exactly did the character look, how did he move etc? But a lot of the work I used to do in my head I have now transferred to paper (or the screen).

I prefer now to get down a rough version of a scene, even if the words aren't right because I know I can make the words better in the revision.
green_knight From: green_knight Date: June 17th, 2011 08:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
if the words aren't right because I know I can make the words better in the revision

I can polish in the revision. My problem is that if the scene is unsound at a higher level - the council scene problem where people are in a room and talking and nothing happens - then this gets in the way of getting it right, because now I've got important dialog and emotional arcs and characters developing and exposing secrets and making decisions. Cutting out those scenes becomes a lot harder than getting the skeleton of the scene right while it's still being forged so I keep circling around it - in my mind and on paper - until I'm happy with it in principle.

*Then* I 'can fix it in revision' later.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: June 18th, 2011 08:50 am (UTC) (Link)
When I used to use the mental movie method a lot, I didn't put any words on paper until I had the scene. With luck, this is a link to a post I wrote on rasfc attempting to explain how I would run and re-run a mental movie until I got the scene right. Then, and only then, would I sit down and try to capture that mental senssurround movie on the page. This is a another link to a much longer post from a little further along the thread.

I also mention in that second post that first readers of the fantasy murder mystery didn't believe Huw would react as strongly as he did in one particular scene, so I added a flashback earlier in the story to show what he'd been through during the war. After that, everyone was happy with his behaviour. Even then I could change things around to make stuff work.

That applies even more now. Everything remains flexible throughout all the stages of the writing process. For me "revision" isn't just polishing, as I posted about here.
green_knight From: green_knight Date: June 18th, 2011 10:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't recall that particular rasfc thread, but I am now overwhelmed with envy for our younger selves. It seems that my memories of what rasfc used to be like - how we used to discuss writing - are perfectly accurate: *This is exactly the level of discussion I have been looking for*, one person saying 'this is what I'm doing, this is how it does and doesn't work for me' and another person replying 'interesting. I do [completely different thing, or thing that goes off at right angles, or...].

I would love to discuss this in more detail with you, because my sense of story is different, but this - what the story _is_ in my head - is something I'm still working on; seeing both your and Pat's model side by side has brought me a great deal closer to understanding to where mine is.

The last article you linked appeals to my logical, rather than my writer brain; and I can gain no insights about what you actually _do_ it's all talking about hypothetical stories. Some of the things you list are things I wouldn't/can't do because of the way I write, the rest is stuff I do anyway; but there's nothing in there for me to engage with.

I learnt about revision from one of the first serious messages I ever read in rasfc, where you talked about the whodunnit. You posted a scene, and then its revision - and the revision had very little to do with the original. As I recall, the POV, order of events, and most of the details had been changed - but when you summed it up, it was 'this is what happens in the narrative' (the scene where x happens') - and my understanding of what revision means, to not just polish the words but to re-envision events in the greater context - made a quantum leap forward.

And this sense - that a scene is part of the story structure and that I can write another 'good guy realises who the murderer is' or 'protagonist quarrels with best friend' scene to replace the one I have, even if completely different things happen in a different location - not only was one of the most valuable things I learnt about writing from rasfc, it is something I simply could never draw from your list of revision levels. Without the practical example of 'this is the problem I had' (IIRC, the scene was a bit one-dimensional and did not fit very well into its surroundings), 'this is how I solved it' it would have taken me a lot longer to break through the beginner habit of polishing.

And you (and the rest of the writing world) could have said 'you need to remain flexible' until the cows came home; without an example of what it means to be flexible and just *how* flexible one can be (it's all about fixing some points and changing others), I wouldn't have developed my own understanding of flexibility in revision.

I think for me that's the main difference between the two types of articles. The logical ones I understand in the light of things I already know, and most of the time they bring very little new information compared to things I've read or worked out before; whereas the personal experiences are things that widen my understanding of what is possible, and how it relates to *my* writing.

heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: June 19th, 2011 09:29 am (UTC) (Link)
There was a lot of good discussion on rasfc and that's why I do suggest going back over it. I'm not sure when you actually found the group, but it seems like there were some useful threads that you missed. I have a file a couple of inches thick of printouts that I made at the time and that I still occasionally refer to. But rasfc is all archived and accesible and I know it's now frozen and isn't interactive, but it gives you a wider range of views that reading a How To Book.

As to finding that sort of discussion going on now, I don't actually know of anywhere, though the Critters forums, OWW forums etc might provide it. Blogs don't work so well because they're more a platform than a conversation and Twitter and Facebook are too fast moving and don't allow for long posts.

I personally feel that I've been there, done that and don't need that sort of discussion any more. As you can see, I discussed all those issues more than 10 years ago. Those are not the things I'm pondering now and the things I am pondering now are of a much more subtle nature and it's stuff I need to just work out for myself. Posting about it isn't going to help.

Edited at 2011-06-19 09:30 am (UTC)
green_knight From: green_knight Date: June 19th, 2011 12:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
I started reading in 1998 (?), but on university computers, and may have missed threads or skipped them because they didn't seem relevant at the time, or I may have taken one particular thing from them and not aother, so I discover new facets of them.

I lost a lot of my archive in a crash - I do have some printouts, but not enough. I didn't know it would prove to be a limited resource :-(

Blogs don't work so well because they're more a platform than a conversation

I think a lot of that depends on how the blogger approaches it. People who blog by the New Rules (present yourself as an expert, share useful content, consume other people's wisdom) aren't _inviting_ conversation; but you're right, of course: to a degree the platform *does* shape the discussion.

As you can see, I discussed all those issues more than 10 years ago.

I don't think I will ever tire of personal and interactive discussions, though I have a limited interest in how-to - I still engage with it based purely on intellectual curiosity, but I'm not getting anything out of it.

But topics I discussed ten years ago are now topics I can revisit with increased understanding; I can question things I took for granted and wonder more about how other people approach the same thing. What am I _really_ doing? What else might I try? What assumptions might the people have that I'm talking to that might mean we're talking past each other? Do I need to, for instance, state that I have *no idea* what will happen in a scene that I write, and might _that_ be part of the reason I'm finding it so difficult to come up with the details/actions, because the people who can find details easily *do* know more about their scenes than I do?

the things I am pondering now are of a much more subtle nature and it's stuff I need to just work out for myself. Posting about it isn't going to help.

Have you put that to the test? And may I ask *why* do you think that posting won't help - do you think people would not be interested, or is the problem too hazy and you're having trouble translating it for a wider readership, do you just not feel ready to talk about it yet, or... And under which circumstances (including a different medium or a small target group of people you feel *will* understand the problem etc) *would* you be willing to talk about what's on your writing mind?

heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: June 19th, 2011 01:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I got a lot out of rasfc at that time because I was learning a tremendous amount in those years. Then it got to the point where I was not really learning much new stuff; instead I was refining what I could already do.

With the benefit of hindsight, that might have contributed to the demise of rasfc because the old guard had pretty much said all they wanted to say on a subject like POV or scenes or how they thought up story details, and there wasn't enough new blood coming in to keep that type of discussion going strongly. If there had been, it might have been able to swamp the political threads, but as it was... :(

Anyway, as I said, I'd stopped learning so much and moved on to refining my process. The last couple of years, whilst doing the creative writing diploma, I've been making conscious and controllable a lot of things that tended to be a bit accidental in the past. In other words, sometimes the voice was there, sometimes it wasn't. Talking about what I'm doing isn't going to help because I know what I need to do and pretty much how to do it. What I need now is more practice and experimentation.

I think the same is going to apply to most of those of us who were around on rasfc in its heyday and who have gone on to make the odd sale. We all have the basics pretty solid and we're just refining our processes in our own way.
green_knight From: green_knight Date: June 19th, 2011 02:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the lack of new blood - of new problems to discuss, new challenges, new ideas - did greatly contribute to the problem - given that it's natural for people to wander off, you *do* need fresh influx. Again, I think that the individual threads - people posting their specific challenges - were what created new discussion.

The last couple of years, whilst doing the creative writing diploma, I've been making conscious and controllable a lot of things that tended to be a bit accidental in the past.

Which is what I'm trying to do right now - it's not that I can't do description or action scenes, it's that I don't have the fine control I would like - I operate too much on instinct and feel I'm not enough aware of the huge range of options writing offers.

Talking about what I'm doing isn't going to help because I know what I need to do and pretty much how to do it. What I need now is more practice and experimentation.

That's fair enough.

We all have the basics pretty solid and we're just refining our processes in our own way

Maybe I'll reach that stage - you've been at this considerably longer than I - but I hope I will always remain open to refining my process in exchange with others, not just sitting in a garret. I've gone through phases like that - where I just needed to withdraw and write and work things out myself - but I'm trying to keep questioning and testing and being open, and for me, right now, the Internet seems to be the best place to do that.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: June 19th, 2011 03:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I hope I will always remain open to refining my process in exchange with others, not just sitting in a garret

That, of course, is your choice, but most writers want to write. If talking with other writers about their process is part of their learning process, they'll do it willingly, otherwise they'll only do it if they're paid as teachers.

All that matters is the finished story, the words on the page, and I have learned more by critiquing stories and having my work critiqued than I do by talking about the process.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: June 19th, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
the people who can find details easily

Can anyone find details easily? All the writers I know have to work at it. I spent a whole afternoon the other year exploring a castle to use as a setting for a short story and it also required other research for the plot. I wouldn't say that was "easy".

I think one of your problems at the moment may be that you find the writing process hard, look around and see people apparently doing it more easily and you therefore think they have a better method.

But the key word is apparently. There are lots of ways of finding details and I'm pretty sure that you already know all of them. No one can tell you which will work best for you; you can only try them and see.

However, I have thought of one possibility where you might get the help you need. Pat Wrede posted a lot about how to find story details, including her world building questions. She is repeating much of her rasfc advice on her blog, so if you have any specific questions, you could always ask her. She might be glad of a question to prompt a blog post.
green_knight From: green_knight Date: June 19th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Can anyone find details easily?

From where I was standing, most people seemed to find it much easier to do an initial word-sketch of a location than I did. Once I'd figured out what I needed to now, the process became *much* faster, to a degree that I was skeptical it *could* be that easy, and where was the catch?

That doesn't mean that I won't (or assume that other people don't) put time and effort into getting things exactly right; and fine-tuning, and tweaking, and taking it further, but I've seen Nicky dash off descriptions that at the time would have taken me weeks to produce.

There are lots of ways of finding details and I'm pretty sure that you already know all of them.

The method that finally worked for me was not one I've ever seen described, because the problem wasn't with the words, it lay in the way I was watching the world. Once I understood that, it just clicked in my brain, and then I had all the pieces *I* needed, and suddenly description was an order of magnitude easier. And I am fairly confident that the things I am struggling with right now - things I don't want to gloss over and write around because I feel those skills are important - are the same, and can be resolved by the same path that I used to tackle description: examining my method, questioning my process, testing the results and refining the process until I'm happy that getting it right isn't just coincidence.

Finding out what I want to write was part of it; finding out how to write it is still in progress, and in that process I've uncovered a couple of other areas where I'm sloppy and gravitating to the same narrow band of solutions as always.

It makes sense to work on these while I'm not under contract.
carl_allery From: carl_allery Date: June 17th, 2011 06:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hmmm, at three, I was insisting on being the one playing Captain Scarlet in the playground and my best friend had to be Captain Blue. After that I acquired a couple of action men and 'borrowed' my brother's (he was getting lonely because my brother was getting more into his Lego) and constructed elaborate plots of capture and rescue and derring do! And then I got into Star Trek ... ;)

I did go through a period of intense visualisation when I created my first original fantasy character at around 15/16 and I remember visualising him sitting on the wall outside the science labs waiting for me during lectures, or walking beside me as I was moving between classes. I kept this kind of daydream going most of the time, unless I was in an intense one-on-one conversation. During class was no effort at all. Now I usually reserve daydreaming for when I'm going to sleep, once I'm tired enough not to be reading any more. But yes, movie-quality sound and pictures that frequently gets re-run or paused or run in slo-mo. ;)
rymrytr From: rymrytr Date: June 17th, 2011 11:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

vivid visualization

This is exactly how I write! I put fingers to keyboard with the seed of an idea and the movie is on, in my head. I don't have a plan or direction, I just read, on the screen, what my brain is transmitting to my fingers.

That's why my stories are so filled with description and such; I want the reader to "see" what I do.

Someone told me a while back, that I should stop trying to write stories because they were too much like screen scripts...

I've been trying to pare-down my verbiage now. I still can't eliminate enough words for Flash Fiction, but Short Stores may be my forte'. The shortest work I have, that I'm ok with, is just over 3000 words. :o)

khiemtran From: khiemtran Date: June 18th, 2011 01:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Yep, I started out daydreaming too. I also had this things where I couldn't do it if I wasn't moving (or maybe I couldn't do it without moving), so I use to like walking or even running while doing. Staring out a car window also worked although not as well.
khiemtran From: khiemtran Date: June 18th, 2011 01:21 am (UTC) (Link)
"this thing", obviously. Sorry, a bit tired this morning.
endlessrarities From: endlessrarities Date: June 18th, 2011 01:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
You've just about encapsulated my life story, right down to the Britains animals and pretending my bicycle (not scooter) was a horse.

I think I wrote my first story when I was seven. It recounted the adventures of my plasticine animals...
birdsedge From: birdsedge Date: June 19th, 2011 04:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes to the daydreaming stories, yes to playing make-up games with a bag full of little plastic horses and their riders, yes to the visualising things happening around me (I had a black stallion that galloped alongside my school bus each morning, taking hedges and ditches in his stride), yes to writing my first stories at an early age - sixish, I think - and my first (unfinished) novel at age 15.

And then in my first job as a children's librarian having to tell stories to kids - interpreting and reading stories from books. You very quickly come to realise that some books tell themselves right off the page and others, though they read well-enough if you are curled up in a corner with them, don't flow when read out loud. Hence I always test a story by reading it out loud, telling it to an invisible audience.
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