Friday, 30 December 2011

HUGO - Story Analysis

WARNING - Contains spoilers!

Hugo - a `U` certificate (MPAA `G` in the USA) film that is as entrancing for a 7-year-old as it is for a 70-year-old - has a very different structure from anything else you might see this year. People love the film - but what do they say when you ask them what the story is about? They enthuse about the magic of the world to which the film takes us. They love the theme of clocks and clockwork. They adore the setting in Paris and the fantastic artwork and cinematography. But none of that is the story; it's all the other stuff. Let's try and focus in. 

What is the story's key question? Well, it doesn't have one. Who is the protagonist? Well, we are surely led to believe it is Hugo, and yet by the end, the protagonist is undoubtedly Papa George. What is the story about? Well, some people would say it's about the history of cinema. Some would say it's about the life of the film maker, Georges Melies. Some would say it's about Hugo's quest to finish building the automaton he started to build with his father and uncover its secrets.

So given that Hugo has such a disjointed story, how come it is so highly rated by the public? Well, for us story tellers, it simply re-enforces the key point in what makes the very best stories - hands up if you know what that is? 

Character Growth. In all great stories, at least one character, somewhere and somehow, climbs the ladder of life towards fulfilment. It is the number one factor in making a story that audiences appreciate. And despite all the difficulties with the story of Hugo, they all fade into insignificance because:

Every major character learns, develops and grows through the course of Hugo.

Think about it: Hugo goes from alone, grieving and living in fear to having a family, friends, safety and a sense of belonging.

Papa George goes from lost and forgotten to recognised for his achievements, talents and contribution to the world.

Even the (wonderful) bad guy, Gustav, goes from an injured, cruel and heartless child catcher to a happily engaged friend of one and all.

Even the supporting and secondary characters - Mama Jeanne, Tabard, Madame Emile and Frick, Isabelle - everyone (I guess with the exception of Hugo's father and Uncle, whose deaths trigger the story), are carried onwards and upwards in terms of human values and fulfilment by the events that comprise the story. This is why we feel uplifted and satisfied by the end.

Character growth. Look at any great story and I'll bet you a beer at least one character changes and grows through the telling (or fails to change and grow but the lessons to learn or the opportunity offered are evident to the audience). 

Make sure at least one of your characters changes and learns and grows, and your story will have a greater chance of being a winner.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Story Structure Choo Choo

People seemed to rather like my somewhat academic post on Reception Theory. So let's see if we can push it any further and still get a positive response. Try getting your head around this... 

In psychological terms, there are three elements to a text:

a) The words;
b) the things the words label, indicate or signify;
c) the conceptual meaning those words generate in the mind of the individual.

Words and what they label and signify are clearly variables and therefore not useful for analysis in themselves (imagine if they are in a foreign language - the words don't signify anything and the text becomes a useless scribble. Language is simply an agreed set of conventions shared by a community). No, a text is a dead pile of paper until it is brought to life through reading and the tangible value of a text is in the conceptual clouds of meaning that it can generate in the mind of the reader. If I give you a signifier: say, TRAIN you instantly have an image in mind and structural mental concepts bolted all around it to do with carriages, stations, track, ticket inspectors, passengers, drivers, signals, timetables and innumerable other things that make the signifier TRAIN meaningful to you in the real world.

But what exactly is the '8.15 Brighton to London' train? We all know, conceptually, what it is. But tomorrow it will be a different locomotive, different passengers, different driver, different carriages. It might not even leave at 8.15. But we all know what we mean.  

This is structure. Everything you can think of (in the peculiarly human, imaginative sense of thinking) exists only in linguistic patterns and only in terms of the other mental concepts you can place around it to give it a meaningful context. And it is ALL in the mind. But - and here lieth the problem - meaning is four-dimensional. The structures change continuously over time. When we absorb a text, we read one word at a time and the structures the words generate change and grow with every new word we add. Structure changes in mind, second by second, forever.

Let's take our train a little further. Every turn of the wheels forces new clouds of smoke into the sky above the smokestack. The smoke emerges in powerful billows, builds and grows, then as the train moves on, the smoke settles and floats a while, then dissipates in the distance. The smoke and its precise shape at any given moment can only ever be a snapshot of precisely that moment on that one and only journey. As readers, our eyes run like a train along the rails, taking in a journey of words. Every word we read billows cloud-shaped structures of meaning in our minds. We read sequentially, and each word we take in forces the smoke-like structures of meaning to change and grow. Strongest at the point of immediacy; but as we read, we forget. Like the smoke that changes above the smoke stack and dissipates in the distance, we cannot remember our precise mindset when we took on a new word and its meaning to the story at a particular moment along the way; we only retain the broad essentials that we need to understand the story going forwards. We end up completing a story, and we derive learning and pleasure and new understanding from completing that journey, but we don't remember the precise shape of our understanding of the story at any particular point, because it was ever-changing and amorphous. The journey was a unique, personal one-off experience, not an object that can ever be fixed. It never had a single, unified, grand structure that defined it.

And in the same way that a snapshot of the smoke billowing from a train's stack cannot possibly tell us anything about the individual journey that is being made by that train (let alone any individual passenger's feelings on that journey), so any structure that claims to represent any story is lost like wisps of smoke into far distant skies.

Stories are mental concepts. The text is merely the track along which our eyes run. Stories are the journey-in-mind - they have a time dimension. There is never a single representative structure that defines any story because it changes over time. There couldn't possibly be a single journey-defining shape of the smoke. Ever.

Structuralists have noticed that every time they find some rails they can successfully deduce information about a journey. And they go on to presume lots of things about the signals, stations, ticket inspectors, drinks trolleys, carriages and the rest of it.  

However, the real structure of a story is not about the rails; it's not about having three acts, a turning point on page 27 and four types of conflict. Story structure is different for every reader. It is more like the smoke above the stack. Ever-changing, indefinable, unique at every single moment and never, ever available for definitive structural analysis. A journey is about the way people feel and what they experience, not about the rails on which the journey took place. 

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Interview with The Creative Penn

I was recently privileged to spend some time with Joanna Penn - an author who has taken full advantage of new media to provide some of the best known author support resources on the internet.

She interviewed me one sunny day in London and then edited my ramblings very kindly to make me sound like I know what I'm talking about.

Below I have added a couple of points that aren't as clear as they could be in the video, but first, here's the video:

To add a couple of points to my answers, one of the finest ways a series writer (like John Sullivan - Only Fools and Horses or Lee Child - the Jack Reacher series) incorporates character growth into the story without his protagonist growing out of any chance of a sequel is not only to have a secondary character change and learn and grow instead of the protagonist. One of the best techniques for keeping your main character unchanged is to have him win through to the opportunity to change and grow and then turn it down. Jack Reacher does this a lot, actually, and I forgot to mention it. As part of his crime-busting adventures he might, for example, meet a wonderful woman and having become a hero in the town he could easily settle down there and become a family man with the keys to the city... but he isn't ready for that. He is still brooding and troubled, and (usually at dead of night) tears himself sadly away, slips out of town and disappears for ever... All ready to rock up in another troublespot to fight crime and climb the character growth ladder from a good low starting position all over again in the next book.

Many great stories either have a secondary character doing the changing and the growing (Marty's dad, in Back to the Future) or the lead character is offered the chance to change and grow (to the point that we in the audience recognise the opportunity) but for some reason - such as Jack Reacher's ongoing search for himself - does not take that opportunity (Robert Neville in I Am Legend has to kill himself to realise the benefit to humanity of the journey he has taken).

This is really important - the most powerful stories have a character change and grow across the telling of the story, and yet the reason sequels often fail to grip is because the protagonist has already made his life-defining journey - his character has grown. In my opinion, my first book (Ocean Boulevard) is the most powerful, because it describes a journey from a boy to a man; life defining character growth. Whilst the second book (Jumping Ships) is very funny and appears pretty popular, it's not as good as Ocean Boulevard because the protagonist (me!) can't go from a boy to a man more than once. After that, it is 'adventures of a man', and the character growth is limited.

So be careful with character growth. It's the most powerful story component... but the character, once fulfilled, won't be able to make the same growth again.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Do Writers Make Any Money...?

Many of the published authors I know - quite understandably - like to give the impression that they are fully professional, but the truth is they are earning less than £10k a year (with the occasional exception we shall come to in a minute...)

OK. So if I'm going to be brutal about this, who better to start in on than Me. I am able to say perfectly honestly that my book sales are in the thousands each month, and I am top 10 (and even number 1!) in some Amazon categories. All very impressive and worthy and yes, I'm very proud of that; BUT... at an average net profit of around 50p per book, that still doesn't amount to a decent living. As George Bush once said: Do the math: I would need to sell 100,000 books a year to get £50k before tax, and then pull off the same trick year after year after year to call it a living. I have five books out there, and yet I still take extra work as a story consultant, I give seminars, write articles and I take writing contracts for corporations in order to turn my earnings into a 'proper' living. 

I think it is important that aspiring writers understand the world they are entering - one of the very biggest disappointments in my career was when, having finally got a proper professional publishing deal that would put my books in the shops, I still couldn't 'turn pro'. I was so massively proud to get a deal, and yet I couldn't give up my day job.

As a writer, as you mooch about on Twitter and Facebook and look enviously at the blogs (and sometimes, the self-hype) of 'successful' authors, remember this: The writers making serious money are either:

      a) celebrities with a sideline in books (David Beckham, Katie Price, etc. sell more books than all of us 'real' writers put together...);
      b) writers with major film deals for their stories;  
      c) authors with at least six published books in the shops.

As a rule of thumb, if you ain't heard of someone from their writing, they ain't making a decent living from their writing...

So How Can *I* Make Money?
The VERY best way to plan realistically and to be sure to make money yourself is to plan towards c) above. Aim to write every day in order that you produce a book every year in order that you start to make a living from pure writing in 6 years. 

This might seem like a ridiculously long time, but in publisher terms, this is normal cycle times to plan against, and pushing very hard to get a deal on your one and only first novel is not going to get you far unless it is quite extraordinary. Bear in mind that even if you got a deal tomorrow, it would be around 2 years before your book hit the shelves anyway. So a five-year plan is the best timeframe to have in mind if you want to succeed. Get this: 

500 words a day, six days a week will give you back a 100,000 word book in 8 months. Polish and edit for four months == a book a year. Now, that's manageable, isn't it?! 

Fire and Forget
It also helps enormously if you don't sit at home watching the letterbox. Fire and forget, is my motto. In other words, remember How to Be a Writer in Three Simple Steps: 

1) Write the best stuff you can. 
2) Send it off, and forget it; 
3) Go to 1. 

Forget the submission. Get on with the next one. Rejected or accepted, you have a lot of work to do, so move on and keep busy. Expect rejection (there WILL be rejection...) and be pleasantly surprised when (not if...) you get something other than rejection. 

Writing is very much a 'more haste, less speed' world, but you can't get anywhere without product, and if you work hard,you increase your chances of overall success with every year that passes. And stick to a genre! Become known in the one field. That might not be something you want to do, but if you want commercial success, you have to stay within a genre (See my blog post on the critical importance of Genre HERE).

The writers I know who get success are highly professional. They are highly productive. They hit one genre. They don't daydream about being a writer - they get stuck in and do it. They are single-minded and they work very hard at getting product out there.  Does this describe YOU?! 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Masochist: "Whip Me!" Sadist: "No!"

In case it's not obvious from the title, this blog is about Discipline. I regularly catch writers out at my seminars. They have fantastic 'plans', but not nearly enough writing is actually going on. Lots of thinking, not a lot of doing.
"Let me guess," I say. "You're planning a year out, right? And you're going to use it to write a complete work."
The year out is the top answer, or a carefully planned overseas retreat somewhere sunny, or a five-year plan to a career change that will allow them to turn pro... They are surprised that I know their plans, but are also genuinely yearning for the year to come when they can go full-time, act like a professional and really immerse themselves in their novel.

Well, if you are in this space, awaiting some perfect world in which you will write soulfully and immersively and professionally, I have news for you...

9 out of 10 of the people who work like this won't ever get that year out. The 1 in 10 who do will be hugely shocked to find that, when given the time to write full-time, they actually can't manage more than around 4 hours a day anyway. The fact is, you can't deliver effectively for more than this; not every day. Most pro writers deliver an average of around 2000 words a day, and guess what... you can do that now in your daily life. Make time - today - and tomorrow - and the next day - and just do it. Don't wait for the mythical year off. Don't wait for the retreat. Don't dream it. Do it. Now.

When I had an office job, I used to get up at 5.30am and write for 1.5 hours. Then another half-hour on the train and another at lunchtime, and still did right by my employer (sort of...) and by my family in the evening. Steven King said this: 'Talent is as cheap as table salt. The difference between the talented and the successful is the work they are prepared to put in.' Do you want to be successful - or are you merely talented?

Whatever it takes, if you're serious, you must write every day. 2000 words a day can bring you a substantial book - 100,000 words - in 50 days. Let's say you can do half that - no, half it again - 500 words a day. You do 500 words every day - that's a single page of A4 every day - you'll have a 100,000 word book in under 7 months. Polish it and edit it and rewrite it - that's a book a year, no problem at all...

Discipline, folks. If you have talent, productivity is the secret of success.


Sunday, 5 June 2011

Character and Plot - One and The Same Thing..?

Due entirely to the lovely words written about me by Jenny Long in this month's Writing Magazine letters page (thank you, Jenny, if you read this...), I would like to share with you the magazine article she was so pleased with in the hope that it causes uncontrollable love for me in you too. Feel free - don't be shy. I have an unlimited capacity for love, particularly for ladies who write to magazines to tell them how wonderful I am, so you go for it. If that's the way you feel, you let it all out. Treat yourself. I won't complain. :-)

Here we go then. A cut down version of the full article.

If you are like me, you are unlikely to understand the next two paragraphs, but by the end of this article we will visit them again and hopefully you will understand them and your life will be all the richer for it and you will love me. Here we go, then:
Plot is character, and character is plot, because as soon as a character takes a meaningful action, his action is driving your plot (whether you like it or not). Conversely, as soon as an event happens which elicits a meaningful reaction from your character, then his true character is developing in the eyes of the audience (whether you like it or not).

Note that it is not the event which reveals a player’s character, but his reaction to the event. The action he takes defines his character. Similarly, it is not the event which drives the plot (as you might expect), but the action taken by the character that defines the event, and drives the plot.

Confused? Let’s step through some explanation, and then come back to these paragraphs at the end and see if we have got anywhere.

Action without character
Let’s look at what happens if we separate plot from character. There are three levels of action without character, each with increasing subtlety.

1.       At the blatant end, we have an event with no character involvement whatsoever. Lightning strikes a tree in a remote forest. So what? It’s not a story because no reaction is required of an emotional protagonist. This is not a story. This is a screensaver.

2.       In the middle ground, we have an ‘emotionally detached’ action. If you watch the news and see that someone was killed in New York, the event is meaningless because you are not emotionally connected with the individuals on the news.

If we increase the known character, we increase the emotion: say we find out that John Lennon has been shot in New York. This is a person we ‘know’; we have been through his Act l and Act ll, and now relate to the tragedy at climax. Look at the emotion on the faces of the friends and relatives of the deceased in New York as they experience the same death, but on a different level of emotional involvement.

3.       The most subtle example of action without character actually happens rather a lot in stories that fail to grip. A character takes an action, but it is not a meaningful action, because there is no dilemma riding on his decision to act. If the character is, say, Luke Skywalker, we know he will ‘decide’ to kill the next stormtrooper to come round the corner, and the one after that, and the one after that. Sure, his life is under threat, but that just serves to make his decision to kill even more obvious. His decisions involve no dilemma, so we learn nothing about his true character. However, if the next representative of the Dark Side to come round the corner is also... his father, suddenly he has meaningful decisions and difficult choices with severe consequences Can he kill his father? Can he risk not killing his father? Now his decision is meaningful... and we in the audience cannot move until we know what he is going to do...

Character without Action
From the opposite end of the argument, let’s say we are shown a man. So what? Until he does something, we don’t know anything about him. Let’s dress him up as a policeman. OK, so now we have some characteristics as our brains overlay stereotypical presumptions about what makes up ‘Policemen’, but beware: this is still an individual without character.

Characteristics are just the wrapping. We don’t know if this person is courageous, extrovert, alcoholic, cowardly or a good father. We don’t even know if he is a criminal or not! Only his actions can reveal these things. When he is faced with a difficult decision - say, to risk his own life to save someone else’s, that is when we will find out about his true character. What he does will define him. And guess what: what he does – the actions he takes - instantly becomes the plot (whether you like it or not).

A player’s character is defined only by his meaningful actions
The plot is defined only by the actions taken by the players

Writers are taught to define their characters in isolation. They also have a plot they have mapped out to the finest detail. They then find that the way the character wants to behave, if he’s true to himself, is not helpful towards a plot which needs a different behaviour to drive it believably. The story is compromised from the outset because the character is not credible in taking the actions the plot demands.

Considering either plot or character in isolation from the other will trip you up, because whichever you consider will drive the other whether you like it or not. The practical point is that we effectively have to develop both plot and character at the same time and as the same thing. Join them together. Don’t think about ‘plot’ and ‘character’. Think about the two as one story made of Character Behaviours.

Stories are about character behaviours. What characters do is who they are and what characters do is what happens.

When your writing has this unity of character and plot, your stories will burst into a third dimension of power that comes from consummating their relationship. And you’ll know it and feel it when it happens, and you’ll never write without it again. So, do those first two paragraphs make sense now?! I do hope so!


Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Kings Speech - Why is this such a Great Bad Movie?

More people have asked me about The King’s Speech than any other this last year or two (that and Benjamin bloomin’ Button). Why do some people love it and some people hate it? We all know it is a successful film, but where lies the power in the story, and why does it polarise opinion to such an extreme? Here’s why:  

The King’s Speech (2010) is a character drama, based on fact, with a story driven by the kind of subtext that audiences find most powerful: character growth and learning. If a character changes and learns and grows through his or her experiences through a story (or is offered the chance to change and grow but fails), these tend to be the stories that audiences rate most highly. Protagonist ‘Bertie’ takes such a journey of development, from a stuttering prince, lacking in confidence and dreading the idea that he might ever be required to take over the throne, to managing his speech impediment, becoming ‘his own man’, able to give speeches and strong enough to take on the responsibilities of monarchy with confidence and authority. The story’s major focus on character growth and learning leaves The King’s Speech well placed to become a classic. However...

...despite this massive positive, on the negative side, the story is low or skewed on most of the other forms of subtext that would be required for it to be extraordinary. There is, for example, a large bias towards revelation subtext over privilege (i.e., most storylines involve information being kept back from the audience and revealed at the end of the story event (revelation) rather than ‘privileged’ information being given to the audience and kept back from a character). Most great stories have a broad equality between these two fundamental forms, or a bias towards privilege if anything. The King’s Speech has a bias towards revelation, one or two examples of which would have been much more powerful in privilege and would have given the overall story more power and balance.

For example, the speech therapist, Logue, is not properly educated or qualified for the role he takes on. King George refers to him as ‘Doctor Logue’ and Logue does nothing to correct this misinformation. We in the audience also assume he is a doctor and qualified speech therapist, so when he is uncovered, the revelation comes for us at the same time as it does for The King. This subterfuge would have been far more powerful if the audience been given privileged knowledge that Logue was deceiving the king throughout, a continuous subtext would have been in place for a large proportion of the story, manifested in the form of a key question for the audience: ‘what will happen when The King finds out?’ This would also have introduced an element of antagonism to the key relationship, again a highly important factor that is largely missing. There is no out-and-out ‘bad guy’, and the main relationship is far too friendly and respectful to be as intriguing as it could so easily have been.

There is almost no subtext through subplot. What subplot there is - principally that surrounding the love life of Bertie’s brother, Edward, is not developed or used dramatically in itself (i.e., there is no effective storyline concerning the arc of Edward and Mrs Simpson), and therefore this subplot does not prove an effective facilitator for subtext in the main storyline. (It is effective in providing a key turning point - Edward`s relationship with Mrs Simpson was the reason ‘Bertie’ had to become king - but the opportunity this relationship offered was not used to its optimum in story terms.) 

Other forms of subtext through, for example, dialogue, action, implication, promise, metaphor and question are not used to any great extent at all. The story lives and breathes only through the character growth and learning of Bertie.

Conflict and Antagonism is similarly narrow in depth and presence. Of the four types of conflict (internal, relationship, institutional, external), only one is genuinely deployed - internal conflict - the conflict between Bertie and his own internal daemons. This is clearly fine, and defines the story, but a little restrictive in a 2 hour film. There is very little relationship conflict, given the nature of the story - no out-and-out antagonist to speak of - and great opportunity is missed at the institutional level, given that we are talking about the Royal Family here, and the rules and regulations to which they are subject. There is also almost no external/coincidental conflict. It is extremely unusual for a successful story to have so little conflict beyond the main driver, and almost unheard of for there to be so little relationship conflict.

The King’s Speech is like the most boring boxer you’ve ever seen... but with the most amazing single punch. If he lands it, we have a spectacular knockout. If he doesn’t, it’s desperately dull. The King’s Speech manages to land a big enough punch to be a winner, and because that punch lands in the area of Character Growth and Learning, this is a film that will stand the test of time. It is also interesting to note that, because much of the revelation subtext turns to privilege on all but the first viewing of the film, this is a film that gets better with subsequent viewings.

If you are a writer reading this, make a note to self on just how important character growth and learning is to a story. All the greatest stories have it, and without it, The King’s Speech would be absolutely nowhere.

We have only really scratched the surface here in analysis terms. However, in the next year or two, as part of my PhD, I am going to have to undertake deep subtextual analysis of film stories like this and will publish the full documents here. Keep hanging out with me and I'll try to use this work to explain how Subtext totally defines the power, balance and grip of story! 


Saturday, 30 April 2011

Conflict and the Word Count...

There are many advantages to writing a book over other forms. Whilst screenwriters are generally squeezed into fairly narrow structural boundaries by their media, novelists have no limits. You can go anywhere, meet anyone and do anything you like!
However, novelists have one main problem over and above the more visual media. Generally speaking, their work is much longer. To fill a 100,000 word novel requires something like 4 times the material of a 100 minute film. There is also the double-edged sword that writing a book can be a lot more experimental. Constraints can be a very good thing in forcing a writer to be imaginative in coming up with creative ways of getting around limitations.

Novelists often come to me with a novel of between 10,000 and 50,000 words and they want to know how to turn this into something much longer WITHOUT getting out the dreaded padding.

The answer is to take the existing characters and find new forms of conflict to twine into their story. Let`s use Back to the Future for reference. It is fundamentally about a kid who is accidentally sent back in time. His key conflict is with the laws of physics and time travel. He has to find appropriate power in 1955 to match the nuclear reaction that propelled him there from the future in the first place. There are four types of conflict. Let`s see how each of these types can be used to add dimensions to the main plotline:

1)      Relationship Conflict. There is almost no story on earth that doesn`t include relationship conflicts. In Back to the Future, Marty is in conflict with his future mother, Lorraine (who falls in love with him); with his future father (who will not do what Marty requires of him so he can exist in the future); and with the bully, Biff, who wants Lorraine all to himself and bullies the weak and unassertive George. In your story, there is always space for another character providing a new set of conflicts for your protagonist.

2)      Internal Conflict. These are conflicts a character has with himself and his own fears and insecurities. Marty`s father, George, is in conflict with himself; racked with self-doubt and uncertainty. The outcome of the main plotline is directly linked to George`s ability to resolve his internal conflict.

3)      Institutional Conflict. These are conflicts against the rule-base of an organization; so the introduction of a policeman, doctor, teacher, bookmaker or anyone whose institutional rules will go against the desires and aims of the protagonist will always add a dimension. In the main story progression of Back to the Future, the school rules, as represented by the fearsome Mr Strickland in both 1955 and 1985, provide a surprising level of impact.

4)      External Conflict. You will note that all the above forms of conflict are – to a greater or lesser extent – open to being influenced by the character. External conflicts are story events over which the character has little or no control, so acts of God, machine malfunction, the random actions of incidental characters, illness, plane cancellations and so on. There are many minor interjections of this nature in Back to the Future, such as the fact that Marty got accidentally sent back in time in the first place.

  The key to successfully adding dimension to a story with additional conflict is to ensure that the new conflicts are directly tied in to the events that define your story and have an impact on the protagonist`s journey or character growth.

For lots more on conflict and antagonism, and the essential ingredient to make conflict effective (Triangulation) see The Story Book, or contact me directly and I will send you a freeeeee chapter on the topic.



Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Top Ten Tips for Stories that Grip!

In my work I have been fortunate to have conversations with famous people who have made their money from stories, including:
  • Bob Gale (scriptwriter of Back to the Future);
  • Lee Child (16 million Jack Reacher Novels sold);
  • John Sullivan (TV comedy writer of Only Fools and Horses; Just Good friends; Citizen Smith…);
  • Mark Williams (Actor in The Harry Potter films; Shakespeare in Love; 101 Dalmations...);
  • Willy Russell (Theatre supremo and writer of Educating Rita; Blood Brothers; Shirley Valentine…)
to name but a few. So, from the insights from these fine gentlemen, from my own experiences getting published and writing The Story Book, my work as a story consultant, from working on films and from undertaking my PhD in Story Theory, here are my top ten tips for writers.

1) If you want to be a writer, read a thousand books.

2) Write every day. Make it a priority, build it into your schedule and discipline yourself to it. Yes, being a writer is glamorous to talk about and a romantic place for dreamers, but the ones who make it work very hard, are professional and productive. Ask yourself: could you write 500 words a day? One side of A4? Yes? Good. If you do that, you'll have 90,000 words in 30 weeks, leaving 22 weeks - that's five months! - for editing and polishing, and you'll have a finished book in a year (and that's with Sunday's off!). Start today. One side of A4. Go.

3) Don't try to learn 'how to write'. No course or method or rule book or guru can tell you how to write. There's only one person who can tell your story your way, and that's you. Those who make it have self-confidence in writing what THEY think is great. Yes, learn about STORY - where story power comes from, how they work, why they exist, how they resonate, what factors are present in all great stories - then use that understanding to take responsibility and write your story YOUR way.

4) Yes, understand story structure, but structure is NOT a starting point for story development, so don't let it drive you. Let your creative brilliance run wild and free and write from the heart in creating your story; then later, use your understanding of structure in problem-solving and optimizing your story.

5) Most of all, understand SUBTEXT. And understand the creative behaviours that embed subtext. Subtext is the substance of story. If you have no subtext you have no story. The more subtext there is, the higher a story is rated by the audience. Fact.

6) Stories are about character behaviours. Don't think about 'plot' and 'character' as separate things. What a character does when he takes action will define his true character, and what a character does when he takes action will also provide the action. Character behaviours meld plot and character into a single entity (story). Get this right, and your story-telling will be tight, cohesive and greater than the sum of its parts.

7) All the greatest stories show us a character learning and changing and growing through the experiences of the story events (or failing to learn and grow, but the lessons are still evident to us as readers/viewer). Try to ensure that at least one character is offered the opportunity to climb the ladder of life. You will find that this is actually your real story, and this is what resonates with your readers and elevates your story.

8) True character comes only from putting your players under pressure to make difficult decisions. For a mountaineer to climb a mountain might be a huge challenge, but  he'd be delighted to do it, so the conflict is not meaningful and therefore the story is not meaningful. For a mountaineer to climb a mountain to save a stranded friend... risking his own life to do so whilst his children are begging him not to go and his wife says she’ll leave if he does... that is a story. Sit your characters on the horns of a dilemma wrapped in a choice of evils and sandwiched between rocks and hard places and your readers will be gripped...

9) It's really important to learn to handle rejection (there WILL be rejection...) otherwise you will never send anything off. I know many, many writers who develop their stories... then develop and develop some more... because they are so scared of the Judgment Day that comes the moment they admit it’s finished. There's no easy way. You have to grasp the nettle and get on with it or give up now. Put your ego to one side (the vast majority of rejections are nothing to do with your ability or the literary merit of your story); dig deep, be strong, and put it out there. When I asked John Sullivan for his advice for aspiring writers he gave me this series of steps that should define a writer’s life:

    A) Write the best stuff you can.
    B) Send it off.
    C) Go to A.

It ain't rocket science! But you do need to be brave, or else you won't get anywhere. As soon as your material is good enough, you WILL be recognised... and you WILL get a deal! And I promise you - once you’ve had 10 rejections, the 11th doesn’t hurt so bad!

Very best of luck with your work. Oh, before I go, I forgot number 10! Just one more tip we could all benefit from...

11) Get off the internet and go do some writing!