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Story structure

I’ve been thinking a lot about story construction for months and months. I’ve tried various structures – 3-Act; 8-Part; 12 pillars; multi-layer 10 key scene; snowflake. All of them sort of work, in that they help me keep focussed on the story, what the key, underlying theme is, and help me keep an even pace throughout the story. But is this good for my writing? Is it taking the creativity out of it?

I’m an engineer. I was born into an engineering family, my father was an engineer, both of my older brothers were engineers. We rode cycles we built from parts that we rescued from a tip; we all worked on our own cars, fixing them when they went wrong; we all went into engineering as soon as we left school at sixteen. And, although I moved from mechanical engineering into electronics and industrial computer control, engineering has stayed with me all of my life.

And it influences me, even now, at just over 60 years old. I prefer function to form: that’s not to say that I don’t appreciate form. I love art, I love photography, and, of course, I love writing. But when you have a ‘thing’, an item, that needs to perform a function, it’s that which takes priority with me, and form comes second.

So let’s look at writing. A piece of writing, especially a novel, has both function and form. It needs to function for the reader, give them entertainment or enlightenment. It needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It needs to have proper characters, a plot that makes sense and draws the reader in. Also it needs to have sentences, have proper grammatical construction, and needs words to be spelled (spelt?) properly.

However, a novel isn’t a paint-by-numbers kit. It needs to have form, and art, it needs to communicate ideas, through the authors use of words. It should convey feelings, it should paint a picture for the reader, just by using words. If you can weave theme into it and voice and style, so much the better. Above all, it should be a compelling story, taking the reader on a journey.

I love C.S. Lakin’s book, The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction because it likens the novel structure to that of a house – having four main corner pillars, with another eight pillars to keep up the roof. There are lots more building / writing analogies, but the whole idea is one I can get behind.

So, for me, there needs to be a strong, logical structure (the FUNCTION) underpinning the complete story, onto which your artistic creative techniques can weave the FORM, the characters, the plot, and the themes.

Happy New Year!

As you may or may not know, I don’t do New Year Resolutions. I don’t like the binary, succeed / fail result that they cause. Most of life isn’t digital – it’s analog, so in that way, my 2017 targets will be just that – targets. Things to aim for, ideals.

First of all, let’s look back at last years’s targets, and see which have been smart targets and have been achieved, and which were ludicrous (in hindsight).

2016 TARGETS

1) Write one short story a week for the Bradbury Challenge – SUCCESS!

2) Complete the 100kwords100days challenge – FAIL! Err … not quite a success. 64,000 words is pretty good, though. I failed the second one, too – massively.

3) Complete edits on previously-written novels – FAIL! Hahaha – obviously a stupid thing to attempt. Who would edit some old stuff when you can write a whole load of new rubbish? My pile of pre-written ‘stuff’ approaches a million and a half words.

4) Self-publish two collections of shorts – for halloween and Christmas – FAIL! I didn’t get enough content written for that.

5) Write one blog post a week – FAIL! I’m just useless, aren’t I?

6) Write book and story reviews on the blog – FAIL! I wrote some reviews, but didn’t bother to post them. Even more useless.

7) Be more active on Goodreads – FAIL! I didn’t quite get into the habit of checking in there.

So, one success and 6 failures. Not bad, for me. But in the summary of last year’s targets, I said I wanted it to be the most productive year yet, and I think I achieved that.

2017 TARGETS

1) Write one short story a week for the Bradbury Challenge 2017. I can definitely do this. I have far too many ideas for me to stop writing them now.

2) Complete the 100kwords100days challenge. I can do this, too. I’ve already started in practice mode, and I’m currently at 1,044 words a day for the past 12 days. I want to use the challenge to finish off book one of the cozy series, complete book 2, and write book 3. And then to move onto the bigger novel ideas I have.

3) Novels. Yes, well, I don’t have a good record of success completing and editing novels. I’ve written about five or six, but not been satisfied by them, and have moved onto other stories I want to tell. I need to look at this habit, and decide if it’s something I want to continue, or do something about. I have a high-concept political conspiracy idea. I’m at the early stages of planning, but it’s something I really want to do – using fiction to help encourage social change. High-minded? Maybe.

Apart from that, and keeping up to date with the podcasts, the writing groups and the book clubs, I want 2017 to be a year of PUBLISHING! Yes, I’m driven to actually get stuff out there this year. I know I’ve said this before, but this time, I mean it. Probably. And Maya Goode (from the podcasts) is determined to get me to submit a short story to a literary publication. I’m fighting shy, because that would mean someone judging my work, which as we all know, is not a good thing. But I don’t think I’m going to get away without doing this. Maya can be very persuasive.

End of year 2016

It’s strange, looking back. 2016 was an interesting year, away from writing – we had the EU referendum, and the USA elections, both of which returned surprising, not to say, unexpected, results. Both results could see huge changes in what happens in both the UK and the USA in the coming months and years The binary voting system (voting for just one option or another) had created a huge fallout, with a lot of animosity on both sides toward the other. Strange times.

2016 also saw the passing of a number of heroes, including David Bowie, Prince, Mohamed Ali, Robert Vaughn and Alan Rickman. Just before the end of the year, Carrie Fisher died after a heart attack, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died a day later. Very sad.  2016 was a year of change.

Looking back on last New Year, it’s interesting to read my review of 2015 and my look ahead to 2016.

http://gerald-hornsby.com/blog/2015/12/29/2015-what-was-that-all-about-then/

http://gerald-hornsby.com/blog/2015/12/31/welcome-2016/

1) NaNoWriMo

Yes, I ‘won’ it again, my 12th win in 13 attempts. For this year, I wrote one-and-a-bit short novels in the Cozy Mystery genre. I fancied trying something different for a change. I was pleased with how it came out, writing without much of a plan but trying to keep to my “Eight Part Novel Structure” (stolen from various other sources). After NaNo, I continued with book 2 and want to get book 3 well underway, if not drafted, before I go back and edit the others.

2) Literary Roadhouse  http://www.literaryroadhouse.com/

I continued my podcasting with the LRH gang. That’s the weekly literary short story podcast, the monthly book club, and new for 2016, the weekly Bradbury Challenge, where we committed to write at least one short story a week. Some of us (ahem) managed to do it, while others didn’t, but it was, nonetheless, a good challenge with plenty of accountability on a week-by-week basis. I’m not sure if we’ll repeat it for 2017, but I’d like to, maybe with a monthly podcast.

3) Word count

Over 200,000 words on novels, short stories, blog posts and writing-related non-fiction. Pretty good for one year. There were over 50,000 words in the rewrite (still, as yet, incomplete) of Death In Print. There were over 50,000 words in the Coffee Shop Mystery series. Nearly 50,000 words on short stories of one form or another. 15,000 on a collection of short stories called Archetypes. Over 6,000 on something called Dark Money, which I can’t remember now 😉

4) Writing groups

In supporting a local writer, I unwittingly joined another local writing group. So that’s one in St. Osyth, one in Harwich and one in Frinton. I like writing groups, me. They are each very unique, and I get something different from each of them.

5) Reading groups

Apart from the Literary Roadhouse monthly book club and the Pub Book Club, there were no additions to my reading accountability anxiety. Thank goodness. Too much pressure.

SUMMARY

It’s been a good year. I’ve read a lot of books, most of them pretty good, a couple that were brilliant – the Man Booker prize-winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty and the surprisingly no-prize-winning-yet White Light by Vanessa Garcia. Both stunning books in their own way. I’ve written a lot of short fiction (over 60 pieces). I’ve rewritten a previous novel and written getting on for two small novels. That’s a pretty good year.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

No, I don’t know what it means, either. And I don’t like the term “winning” when it relates to NaNoWriMo. It’s very binary, and I think we’ve had enough binary decisions this year. If there is a winner, then there must be a loser, and losing has such bad connotations for those who can’t deal with it.

But, the bottom line is, I completed the NaNoWriMo, 50,000 words in a month challenge. What did I write?

Well, one of the things I advocate about NaNoWriMo is to use it to experiment with your writing. At the end of November, even if you write 50,000 words, it’s unlikely that the so-called ‘novel’ will be in any fit state to progress. More than likely, it will be a very rough draft, a collection of half-finished ideas, loosely held together by crossed fingers and prayers. This year, I decided to try and write a cozy mystery. In my ‘day writing’, I write crime fiction, and cozies are hot, apparently, so I thought I’d give it a go.

In short, I failed to finish one story. I knew who the culprit was, and how they exposed him, but my story had veered off the (very rough) plan I had produced, and as I approached the end of the book, I could see where I was, and where I wanted to be (the proposed ending) were miles apart. Should I rewrite the ending, or bludgeon through, fighting my way back from where I was, to where I wanted to be?

In the end, I did neither. In the interests of writing lots of words, I paused the first book, and started the second, where the words flew from my fingers, with over 4,000 words on the last day, finishing on a total of 51,204 words. Some might say that starting a second novel was cheating, or that it would make me a NaNo Rebel. IHowever,  would have had to write those words on Book 2 sometime anyway. Why not write them in November and get them counted into the NaNoWriMo total? Which is what I did.

So, now we’re already at the 12th of December, what is my roundup on my NaNoWriMo writing?

I love my stories, and I love my characters. They’re not deep enough yet, but on the surface, they’re interesting enough. Things have moved on since the days of Miss Marple, and these days, us writers are expected to write fully rounded characters.

In the short term, I have podcasts to record, books to read for book clubs, a minor health issue to sort, and Christmas meals and parties to attend. But I shall be returning to my cozies, and I shall finish Draft Zero of Book 2, before returning to Draft Zero of Book 1, with updated character information, smoother plot, and a general redrafting of the story. These will be published during 2017. I’m making that commitment.

Comment spam

The good thing about not visiting your blog for a while is all the comment spam that suddenly appears, usually within half an hour of each other.

And so it happened today. All have been marked as spam, of course, but some of them are too hilarious to not share:

Thank you so much for this artecli, it saved me time!

That’s a subtle way of thnnkiig about it.

You write so holsteny about this. Thanks for sharing!

That’s a clever answer to a tricky quteoisn

You get a lot of respect from me for writing these helpful arteslic.

The voice of ratltnaiioy! Good to hear from you.

I’m shoekcd that I found this info so easily.

Knocked my socks off with knlweodge!

A wonderful job. Super helpful innaomotirf.

Well done to think of somiehtng like that

I bow down humbly in the presence of such grnsteeas.

That’s really thniking at a high level

That’s not even 10 mitenus well spent!

Now, I must admit to not really understanding all this. What do they get out of it? Are they hoping I’ll reply to their email address 2765a6ht@mail.com, or click on their website nsh846hsh.com? Silly people.

Small Stone – 6th Dec 2014

Cars file in. Seagulls swirl and swoop overhead, as people divest themselves of their unwanted stuff. I have some ‘difficult’ items, but find places for them to go. I listen for the shout of protest as the wrong sack gets emptied into the right bin, or vice versa. It’s anarchy on a very, very small scale. But there are no shouts of protest – the Guardians of the Recycling are inside their lair, refusing to come out into the cold. 

I went to the tip.

#SampleSunday – 16th Jan 2011

Prologue to DEATH IN PRINT

The dark green jacket kept most of the rain off his body, but his hair was plastered, dark and slick, to the top of his head. To one side, a cracked downpipe allowed rainwater to drip, drip, drip onto the shiny pavements. It was late, and there were few cars, and even fewer pedestrians.

The gloomy interior of the bookshop showed little detail, save for those few items at the front illuminated by the streetlights. The interior was not his point of interest. A letter-sized promotional flyer was crudely stuck to the inside of the main window. It was not quite straight, and it amused him to tilt his head slightly, so the sign was orientated correctly in his eyes. An ungloved hand lifted, and an extended index finger first traced around the outline of the flyer, and then the outline of the photograph which held pride of place in the centre. Delicately, the finger traced hair, ear, cheek, and mouth. Oh, the sensual, full mouth. The beautifully-curved, Bactrian double hump of the top lip, the slight parting to show bright-white teeth beyond. The finger traced their outline, following the curves, around and around. Then the anger came, and the same careful finger jabbed into one eye of the man featured on the flyer, hard. The pain was good, satisfying, fulfilling. Jab. Jab. JAB.

The anger subsided, and he breathed more easily. He stared at the face looking out at him from the cold and quiet bookshop window. Stared for many seconds, remembering the face well. All the memories returned, fresh and brightly-polished for a new time, and the man knew what he must do, why he was here in this strange town.

He looked around, and then wiped the glass with the sleeve of his coat. Thrusting hands deep into trouser pockets, and with shoulders hunched against the seeping coldness of the rain, he strode off towards town.

Gathering together

I’ve nearly finished the sort-through of all my short works, going back over several years. Following some great online advice, I’m almost certainly going to collect the shorts into ‘collections’, and give these away free. I’m also going to be giving away samples of my writing here, and various other online locations. Finally, I’m going to be writing some new short stories, featuring the characters in my serial novels, which (hopefully) will introduce them to a new audience.

We shall see!