Posts Tagged actors

How to develop a writer’s instinct

7225227442_7d643b97ea_zHow do we develop a writer’s instinct? How do we get the confidence to strike out creatively? How might we become more original in our writing?

I’m thinking about this because the other day I heard an interview with the British actor Peter Bowles. He explained that much of the time in acting life, he’d try to second-guess the director. When his character seized a sword or opened a letter, he’d be trying to figure out how the director wanted him to do it. Partly this was survival – after all, he wanted to be hired again. And he had a team player’s instinct to collaborate and please. However, he was aware that he was missing a fundamental connection – with the author of the text, and what they wanted.

But, said Bowles, this all changed when he put on a mask. Yep,. he couldn’t see the director any more but that’s not as fatuous as you think. It narrowed his awareness to just him and the text. And then it was as if all doubts vanished; the white noise of other people disappeared and he was suddenly certain of the emotions and truth in a dramatic moment. He knew, from inside, what to do.

It strikes me that writers spend a lot of time second-guessing. We’re surrounded by muddling influences. What’s popular in the market, what our favourite authors recently did. Suggestions from our extended writing family. Even, requests from our readers.

Writing has never been so connected. We can bust out of isolation, join social writing communities and cheer each other through Nanowrimo. As soon as a chapter leaves the brain, we can offer it for comment if we wish. Oh I’m not saying it isn’t fantastic to have support and guidance. If I disapproved, I’d hardly bother you with my weekly volume of bloggery. I love the world wide web of creativity we have. But no one knows a work’s bones as well as its creator. Are we taking enough quiet time to discover its deeper, instinctive truth?

I think there’s a part of writing that cannot be social. It must be done alone, unplugged and in a safe space. That’s how we strike out and find true inspiration – for the direction of a story, the meaning of a setting, the innate humour in a scene. It’s how we develop instincts we can rely on and a voice that’s indubitably our own. It’s how we become original and authentic.

Like those actors, there are times when we need to put on the mask and see what we find.

Thanks for the pic Douglas R Witt

TINY NEWSFLASH Continuing the theme of creating our own space, I’ve revamped my author website with a new design and some extra pages, including Why I self-publish and a picture tour of my writing process.

Let’s discuss in the comments: Do you take time to retreat with your work? What do you do to cultivate your writer’s instinct?


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How to pace a story so that it hooks the reader

2550606_3285dbc56f_z‘Tell me about pace,’ said one of the panellists in my video interview at John Rakestraw’s. If we hadn’t had a time limit I’d still be talking now.

A well-paced story is like an act of hypnosis. It has a travelling beat that takes control of the reader’s attention. It proceeds at just the right speed to trap the reader a little longer, urge them to turn another page.

How is it done?

With constant development and change.

You might assume pace is only a concern in fast-moving plots, such as thrillers. Not so. Every story will benefit if it is written with an awareness of pace; even a leisurely character journey.

Indeed, pace is a fundamental in most dynamic artforms – not just storytelling.

Video and music

If you’re making a video, you want to change something every 15 seconds. The change might be subtle, such as fading a colour, or panning a picture so the view reveals more. Or it might be obvious, such as switching to a different image or bringing in new music. Listen to a piece of music and you’ll hear how it’s being constantly modified. Even a simple verse/chorus/verse structure, which appears predictable, is developing. Other instruments are joining, variations are being made with the phrasing, note patterns or rhythm.

Singers do it too. When I used to take lessons, I was told that if a lyric is repeated, it must have different emphasis or emotion. (‘I get a kick out of you’ ‘I get a kick out of you’.) Listen to an actor repeat a line. The repetitions will not be the same (unless for a deliberate effect).

Law of physics

So audiences need change. This is, if you like, a physical law of any dynamic art. They need to be kept attentive while we have our wicked (or wonderful) way with them.

How can we do this in stories?

1 In a story, pace comes from change. Always be developing. In every scene. The change doesn’t have to be big. It can be tiny, such as the reader’s perception of a situation or a shift in a character’s attitude. But every scene should take the reader somewhere they didn’t expect. Scenes with no change lie flat on the page.

2 Remember the singers and actors. Look for repeated lines, emotional changes and plot events. If you repeat something, develop it or make sure it will be read differently – perhaps with new significance. (Unless you intend deliberately to keep it static.)  Another type The beat sheet step by step – starring Harry Potterof repetition is the function of a scene – in My Memories of a Future Life, I jettisoned a scene that repeated an emotional beat I had already covered. Here’s the post that explains. This kind of repetition is hard to spot. The surest way I’ve found is by making a beat sheet, where I summarise the entire book by writing the purpose of each scene. This reveals the kind of repetition that will spoil the forward momentum. More about the beat sheet (left) in NYN1.

3 Don’t be slow but don’t rush. An ideally paced story keeps up with the reader’s need for change. Although we want to pull them along, we don’t want to overtake them. Paradoxically, if you do this, they might feel the story is slow. So when your trusted critique partners tell you a scene flags, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut material. Try writing a version where you enlarge a moment, explore it more. See if that does the trick.

4 Use variety. Readers get numbed if too many successive scenes have the same tone (except at the climax). Vary the feel of each scene. Give readers a breather after major revelations. Give them a lighter moment or regroup around the campfire after you’ve put them through the wringer. Another way to use variety is to cut away to a subplot. The contrast will intensify the impact of all your scenes. Again, the beat sheet will show you this at a glance.

5 Become aware of your prose. Pace can come from your style. Not from show-off words or sparkling metaphors, but at a basic, moment-by-moment level. Virginia Woolf said ‘style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm’. What might she mean? I like to think of it as the fall of syllables in a sentence. This is independent of length; a well-paced long sentence is as easy to read as a short one. But often we use more syllables than an idea needs; we cram in adjectives, adverbs and similes when we’d be better to choose a more vivid verb. (‘She shouted in a harsh voice’ or ‘she roared’.) A smooth sentence, though, makes every syllable count and uses them with grace. It has a quality of control, which keeps the reader in surrender to the writer’s mind.

And so…

Pace keeps a story alive and restless, makes it grow in the reader’s mind. It sets up an imbalance, a need for resolution. When this stops, you let the audience go. And the proper place for that is …


thanks for the runner pic Jacobo Garcia 

Well that’s my take on pace. What’s yours? Let’s discuss!

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How to revise your novel without getting stale – take a tip from Michael Caine

Do you hate going over your novel again and again?
Take a tip from Michael Caine and see it as
rehearsing your novel

Some writers hate redrafting. Analysing, dissecting and rewriting their work? A sure way to make themselves hate it.

But if you’re hoping to amuse a buying public, your first draft will probably not be good enough. I’ve written about this before in I had no idea novel-writing was such hard work.  Only the superhuman can get everything right on the first go. (I’m talking here about self-directed rewrites, before you show the novel to anyone else. Rewrites instigated by beta-readers, agents and editors are a different kettle of fish.)

So redrafting is a fact of life for writers. If you do it with gritted teeth, that’s a problem.

It so happens I love this phase. But I didn’t realise why until this week.

The penny dropped when I heard Michael Caine on the radio answering a question about giving natural performances.

He told the interviewer: I use one of the basic principles of Stanislavski. It’s called the method. That’s not looking at the floor and mumbling and scratching your bum. With the method, the rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation. By the time they say ‘action’, I’ve been through those lines 500 times.

This is exactly how I see my writing process.

The rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation

When I am drafting, I am in a continual state of rehearsal. Dissecting, questioning. Inventing new ways to test my story. Taking the characters for little rides outside the story. Digging for fundamental truth. I keep the writing rough while I chop the order of events around, concoct new scenes and drop them in. I always use mybeat sheet. My current WIP, Life Form 3, got so darn difficult it needed its own tool, and so I rewrote it as a fairy tale.

Certainly this can be frustrating, particularly when the story is flagging, there are too many unknowns. There’s always a stage where I’m convinced I’ve ruined an exciting idea. That’s why it’s called work.

But what comes out of it is intensely creative.

Ready to roll

There comes a day when I feel I understand, with a big U, fanfares and fireworks. I know what the characters want in each scene, what they show other people, what they’re hiding. I know the character of the book – its world, its struggles, what voice it has. I am confident the reader’s heart rate will soar in the right places.

That’s when I’m ready to relax and tell the story properly – with the final, in-depth rewrite.

Final draft is the performance

Performance. You know what I mean. If you’re a writer you have an urge to perform in prose. You can’t just dash off an email to a friend, a comment on someone else’s blog, a report for work. Even a note to the milkman will always be a bit of a song and dance. Words are never just words, they are indelible. That’s what we really enjoy, right?

My final pass is the performance – the language, style, voice. With all the work I’ve done, I’m ready to grab hold of the reader and show them something special.

Part of the problem with revising is that you get stale. But if with each pass you are building something richer and better, it gets more exciting, not less. Crucial to this is to keep the text rough until everything is place. Then you can give yourself something to look forward to – telling the story. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Are you a method writer? How do you motivate yourself through redrafts?

You can read more about my beat sheet and other revision tools in Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available from or outside the US from Lulu

Thank you, Tea, Two Sugars, for the picture

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