Tag Archives: Dan Brown

Damien Walter’s 4 step crash course in learning to write good

I am a vocal advocate of the ONE TRUTH when it comes to writing and publishing – that the only thing which comes close to a guarantee of success in this field is to Get Good At Writing. At which point someone inevitably shouts DAN BROWN at me and I say, yesbut even Dan Brown is actually pretty good at writing techno-thrillers. The one thing successful writers really do have in common is the ability to write, and pretty damn well in most cases.

I think anyone with the desire can learn to write fiction in 3 to 5 years from a standing start. (That learning process never ends but it can plateau sufficiently to start publishing). But like those podgy celebrities who disappear for six months and then come back as muscular love gods, it’s also possible to do things MUCH more quickly IF you have the motivation. If someone were to turn up on my doorstep with a Significant Sum of Money and demand to learn the secrets of fiction writing in 6 months, I would take the cash and set them the following curriculum.

Imagination

You already have an imagination, right? Maybe. But if you’re a typical citizen of the 21st century it’s well hidden underneath your target acquisition system attenuated for urban and media rich environments. Wu-huh what Damo?

cropped-1672846-poster-1280-hipster-1024x576-02.jpeg

Let me simplify what is a rather more complex issue. Say that your mind has two different ways of thinking. Let’s call the first way your Small Mind. Your Small Mind does most of the stuff you generally think of when you think about your mind at all. It’s your Small Mind that navigates its way around a supermarket looking for beef steaks and peanut butter. If you get paid for a job of work, it’s likely a Small Mind activity that you’re being paid for. Manipulating spreadsheets is a proto-typical Small Mind job. As is most of the mundane stuff we do day to day.

When Big Mind speaks, learn to shut up and listen.

Some things your Small Mind has little to do with – breathing, regulating your body’s intricate nervous system, and writing. Imagine trying to *consciously* manage the bazillion different things your body is doing at even given moment, from digesting food to manufacturing blood cells. Your brain is doing all this stuff, but the last thing it needs is your Small Mind asking silly questions and worrying about stuff. So it does all the essential work in the background and then alerts your Small Mind on the rare occasions it’s presence is required. This total capacity of your brain to do all the important shit without telling you is your Big Mind.

Have you ever wondered why ideas for stories seem to come out of nowhere? That’s Big Mind doing all the really hard work in the background – weaving the threads of plot, character and theme to make a cool story – then tapping you on the shoulder and saying “here ya go…all done!” And what do we do? Mostly we ignore Big Mind and because Small Mind thinks it knows how to do it all. And so  the great stories of your imagination die, and instead you fight to consciously construct something that should properly be born in dreams. When Big Mind speaks, learn to shut up and listen.

Words, Sentences, Paragraphs

Buy a good book on English language grammar and usage and read it cover to cover.  Twice. List your twelve all time favourite novels and re-read them with a stack of coloured highlighters to hand. Study how the writers you love use language. Because it’s right down in the words, sentences and paragraphs that writing happens. Bad writing is like a Hollywood movie made with ugly actors on drab locations using Hi8 camcorders. Prose fiction only exists as words, sentences and pragraphs on a page, if they suck, so does the fiction. Our educational system leaves many people intimidated by the English language. Don’t be. This is the easiest of problems to solve. But it has to *be* solved before you can do most anything else. Think of it as your basic fitness. You can’t build rippling pectorals until you can run a few kilometres without wheezing, and you won’t write a magnificent story until you can fluently lay down language on the page.

Commercial Prose Style

This is where shit gets controversial. Being creative means being original, right? Well, Yes&No. Even the most original art is only about 3% original (I have literally plucked that figure from THIN AIR but will now fight to defend it) while the other 97% is re-combinatorial, IE parts stolen from other things then stitched together in to a Frankenstein’s Monster of a creation (there, you now also know what Frankenstein is really about). This, incidentally, is why knowing the history of your creative form is useful / essential, because that history shows you how all the different parts were reinvented and recycled by each new generation.

Style is the most obviously unoriginal part of most fiction. There are hundreds of ways to tell a story. But in practice the vast majority of stories are written in four styles, that constitute the four key styles of commercial fiction. If you want to shortcut a vast amount of hard work, then learn parrot fashion how to write one or two of these styles. You will be limited as a writer, but you won’t be alone. Must first time published authors can only write one style effective, usually but not always the one their published book is written in. Some, for reasons I do not fully comprehend, some can’t even write one style effectively, instead veering from style to style sometimes within a single paragraph. Sigh.

crash

Dramatic Structure

This is where you take all ideas of originality and toss them away. If you play music you’ll know that all popular songs have a verse, chorus and bridge, in various combination. Similarly, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, commonly rephrased as Act Onem Act Two and Act Three. Three act structure ladies and gentlemen, love it or hate it, you will never escape it. (There are alternatives but not on our 6 month body beautiful crash course) You can reshape it to 5 acts if you wish, it remains fundamentally the same thing. In there somewhere you’ll need an Inciting Incident, some Rising Action, a Mid-Point Twist, coherent Beats, Scenes and Sequences, and a well fashioned Crisis, Climax, Resolution to end things. BUT YOU’RE MAKING US WRITE A FORMULA. No, I’m making you write a structure. Like the verse, chorus, bridge of a pop song you can turn that structure in to the Rolling Stones or Eminem, but you can’t escape the structure itself. Three act structure is the structure of pretty much every story you have ever encountered in any medium. That’s how important it is.

These are of course basics. But they are probably enough to get you over the line and writing something, if not perfect, then at least interesting. And as any artist knows, interesting is ten times better than perfect, by any measure.

Advertisements

Why a book is not a film

The Lumiere brothers
Image via Wikipedia

There’s a nice idea in the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying, where in a world without lies, films are now factual scripts read by their authors directly to a camera. Without lies you can’t have fiction. Or actors. In fact you can’t have films as we know them. Films are treated like books. And of course, that does not work.

There is a grammar to film. The intercutting of shots and scenes, the abbreviated narratives imposed by the act structure. These things are transparent to us because we grow up with them. But you can see their evolution in the history of film. From the Lumiere Brothers Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, through Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps scene and Orson Welles’ Citizen Cane, to the shaky cam of Saving Private Ryan. Film seems to most of us almost as natural as reality. But it is pure constructed artifice, projected at 24 frames a second.

Far fewer people learn the grammar of novels. More than ever before, but still a minority. There was never a golden age of fictional literacy in the world. Even Dickens, one of the first true literary superstars, only sold to a small number of well educated people, although he was read to a few more. We might be on the brink of such a golden age, but we aren’t there yet.

Literacy, in the West at least, is near universal. We can read cereal packets and glossy magazines no problem. But constructing a narrative out of words, sentences, paragraphs and pages can be more problematic. The Novel is a powerful narrative form, but like any form it relies on the readers familiarity with the rules of its grammar in order to work. Readers who are blind to qualities of voice and rhythm for instance often struggle with literary writing that relies on those tools.

So the popular novel performs a remarkable chameleon act, and adopts the grammar of film as its own. Scenes and settings are laid out like the opening shots taken through a camera. Most of the page is filled with dialogue, with instructions like stage prompts to inform the reader what the absent actors would be doing if they were there. Visual detail dominates description. And there is little indication of what is going on inside any characters head unless it’s revealed by an external gesture. ‘Bob nodded his head sideways with a wink of the eye.’ Do you know why Bob did that? Neither do I. The writer knows, but he’s not letting on.

Novels that only ape the grammar of film fail in more ways than one. It’s a common technique in franchise novels, where the reader can imagine all the details of the scenes and characters of their favourite TV show as they read. But they aren’t really satisfying. They are just filler between seasons of the TV show. They’re quick to write because, like FanFic, if you just sit on the surface of the narrative with characters and situations that have already been defined, there isn’t that much to think about.

And they absolutely don’t satisfy people who love reading for its own sake. Remember those prose films from The Invention of Lying? Remember how ridiculous and boring those films were? Well that’s how ridiculous and boring a book that limits itself to the grammar of film seems to me. And a LOT of other people. It’s why readers scream ‘MY EYES! MY EYES!’ when forced to read a page of Dan Brown style prose. It’s why SF, Fantasy and Horror that is written for readers trained to the grammar of film and TV, however well done, will always fail as literature. Trying to make a book work like a film is a nice shortcut, but in the end it doesn’t lead anywhere worthwhile.