Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Characters - another perspective

Vanessa Grant looks at her characters in a different way to McKee. Her Hero/Heroine should have one major motivation driving the story, that she calls the Prime Motivating Force. She believes it should colour their every thought and affect their every move. The PMF should stem from a dramatic event in the character’s past. She recommends a character checklist: Do the characters fit the story spark? Are they alive? Do you care about them? What do they want? Why can’t they have it? Should they have it? What happens when goal meets obstacle? What then? What doesn’t work about the whole thing? When it doesn’t work, throw out the character, spark or setting and begin again!

Look closely at the top picture and I think you'll agree that the deer is perfectly camoflaged against the winter foliage. Had it not been for its white rump, I wouldn't have spotted it. We stared at one another for about a minute, and then dog-walkers appeared from the opposite direction, the deer gracefully turned tail, leapt the fence into the woods and disappeared.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Who are you?

Then there’s character, the peculiar mix of human traits that makes up each and every one of us. Not just our physical appearance –‘thick black hair fell across his brow’- but if he bites his nails, talks in a pompous style, flaunts a lace-edged handkerchief when addressed suddenly. Does he really like women, or despise them? Was his childhood kind or hideous? Does he work? If so, what at? Is he RC or CoE? Does he care about either? How does he spend his money, where does he live, does he eat sparingly or greedily? Even when we’ve got all this down pat, we slowly realise it’s no more than a mask for the creature inside. How long does it take to be real friends with someone? Days? Weeks? Years? Look at a best friend. Are they honest, or will they cheat on paying bus fares? Do they argue carefully, or noisily, flaring up when anyone disagrees with their point of view? Are they arrogant about those with little talent? Can you answer such questions? Do you really know this person? True character, we’re always told, is revealed through choices made under pressure. McKee thinks there’s a key to character, and calls it desire. What does the character want? Then comes motivation. Is the protagonist prepared to do something about it, or let it go begging? Lots can be learned from other characters, who see a different side of your protagonist. Gossip may be just that, or it may enlighten in a way that surprises. Often we want something desperately without knowing why we want it, or even if we should have it. But it is a key to the character, for as long as the desire for that particular object lasts.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Inciting Incidents

The inciting incident is the reason for everything that follows, so it needs to be well thought out. I used to be guilty of writing an attention-grabbing first page that would hopefully catch an agent’s eye. It never occurred to me that I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to how the rest of the story was going to flow from it. Now I find my first page incident has to work extra hard and be the springboard for the rest of the story.
It’s probably true that most authors first start writing in a haphazard way. In my first attempts, I used to think what would I do if…..Then I discovered that wasn’t anything like enough. What I should have been thinking was what would this character do if he’s in open country and hounds chase him…

Sometimes what happens is less important than how, to whom and why it happens. There should be insight, too, or else nothing is learned or gained. Actions cause Reaction, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Insights can come swiftly, or take their own sweet time. But however long the pause, there has to be a renewed action from the hero, which in turn often elicits a surprising reaction. This sequence of Action/Reaction builds into a Turning Point, and the reader should be empathising with the protagonist every step of the way as he nears his goal.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

He's a hero?

My current hero is approaching a very tricky moment in his life. Matho has escaped Arran’s imprisonment, hotfoots it to Edinburgh to rescue Phemie, and is unaware that the Queen Dowager Marie de Guise has put out an order for him to be brought before her to atone for a previous crime. The threat of losing his life would, I imagine, focus his thoughts in a way nothing else would. This led me to thinking - What Does A Hero Really Need?

Willpower, Persistence, and to be Empathetic. These are essential. He needs a goal, plus an unconscious desire, usually the antithesis of what he thinks he wants. He cannot be passive. His goal, or desire, must be realistic so the reader can believe he might succeed, and the author must give him a chance to attain his goal. He must be likeable, though perhaps not always sympathetic. Some of the most wonderful heroes can be less than sympathetic, as in Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford. Yet the reader still empathises with him and his goals.
What reveals character? The choices he makes under pressure in pursuit of his desire. Choices made when nothing is at risk don’t amount to much. Does he tell the truth when a lie would save him? If he does, then we know he’s honest. Maybe stupid, but honest.

Writing experts say that a good, complex and truthfully written character should be revealed in the story as something more than he presents to the world. Easiest example: James Bond as rich playboy, but spy extraordinaire when the chips are down.

Most stories concentrate on the hero when he is initially thwarted in something. (If everything falls at his feet, there is no conflict, and thus no story. Give him a problem, watch him struggle with it.) What if he doesn’t succeed? What are the risks? What’s at stake? The bigger the stakes, the higher the risk, the better the story.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


Words like plot take on a whole new meaning when we toss in the words archplot, miniplot, and antiplot. In the beginning I groaned when they cropped up on the page and flipped over to something more interesting, but now I gather my courage, and read on. Here’s what I’ve discovered:

We all know what a plot is, don't we? Here’s McKee’s definition: ‘the internally consistent interrelated pattern of events that move through time to shape and design a story.’ (Not that I phrased it quite like that, but I get the idea.)
The Classical Design or Arch Plot features a protagonist who struggles against external events to achieve his goal through continuous time to a closed ending with all questions resolved and emotions satisfied. The plot must be consistent and believable. Characters struggle with inner conflicts as well as external events.
A Mini-plot is simple and shorter but retains the main elements of the Classical Design. It is usually but not always described as a Sub Plot, and sometimes leaves an open question at the end. Occasionally it creates irony by treating the main plot in an alternative way. More often, it throws complications into the main plot.

The Anti Plot, sometimes called Anti Novel or Theatre of the absurd, challenges and often contradicts the traditional forms. It often exploits or ridicules formal principals. (I don’t want to go there at all.)
The frogs have nothing to do with plot, just incase yhou were wondering. They've come to my attention because all six of them were having another orgy in our garden pond this morning.
If you are, have ever been, or will be, interested in Tudor Roads, have a look at my blog today on the website.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Spring is here

Spring has arrived. How do I know? Because three days ago, under bright blue skies and warm sunshine, we had five full-grown frogs in our tiny garden pond – having an orgy. Their contented croaking echoed around the garden all day. Result? Patches of frogspawn next in the murky water next day. There’s also a drake and two ducks on the castle pond and he doesn’t let them more than a yard away from him. Looks like there’ll be more ducklings this year. The trees flourish buds and tiny frills of green about to unfurl. The grass is growing again. There’s no doubt about it – Spring is here.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

It's Goodbye to Mitchell

My favourite series of the moment has lost it's major character. Sob. I know a woman of my age shouldn't get so hooked, but when actors of such calibre get together with a script that is full of odd quirky humour in the middle of high drama, what's to stop me? Certainly not the fact that the BBC aimed this series at the 18-34 age group.
I'm talking about Being Human. The final segment of series three played at the weekend, and Mitchell is leaving. In fact, Mitchell is dead. It's Aidan Turner who is leaving to join Peter Jackson in the next Tolkien film.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The qualities an author needs

According to McKee, a writer needs certain qualities.
First of all comes a love of story and the dramatic, with all its sudden surprises, and revelations.

Close behind it comes the love of truth and the belief that lies cripple everything, for every truth must be questioned down to one's own secret motives.
The list goes on ~ a love of humanity, an ability to empathise, to crawl inside the skins of others and see with their eyes
A love of sensation - recognition of the physical and inner senses
A love of dreaming - where imagination takes you
A love of humour - life's saving grace, the one that restores balances
A love of language - the sound and sense it creates, an understanding of syntax and semantics
A love of duality - that feel for life's hidden contradictions, and a healthy suspicion that things are not what they seem
A love of perfection - to write and write in pursuit of the perfect moment, the perfect sentence
A love of uniqueness, the thrill of audacity and a stone-faced calm when met by ridicule
A love of beauty, that innate sense that treasures good writing, hates bad and knows the difference
And finally a love of self - a strength that never doubts, loves to write and bears the lonliness

Saturday, 12 March 2011


Sometimes I like to go through the underpinnings of creative fiction in the hope that eventually the knowledge will fix itself in my brain. Tonight I have been looking at what makes a scene.
Ideally, every SCENE is a story event. To quote McKee: a SCENE is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance.
In simpler language: a SCENE should not change its setting, and once begun, time runs in its correct sequence to the end of the scene. Within that SCENE, something has to happen that changes the character’s views, potential action or perception, and it has to be noticeable to the reader.
Then you can have a SCENE BREAK, and begin the next with a change of setting, time and the characters present if you wish. Or you can stick with character and place, but make it an hour later.

You should know what is at stake in the SCENE before you begin. Does the thing at stake change during the SCENE? Is it a positive, negative or a neutral change? If it is neither positive nor negative, how has it changed, or why is it there?
SCENES can be broken down into BEATS and we don’t mean a short pause. In this case, a BEAT is an exchange of behaviour, either proactive or reactive. BEAT by BEAT the scene is formed, and ought to lead to a TURNING POINT.
BEATS build into scenes and a run of 2-5 scenes builds into a SEQUENCE. The final scene of a SEQUENCE should deliver a scene of greater power and impact than the previous scenes. A series of SEQUENCES builds into an ACT, or a moment that turns on a major reversal for the character in some way.
Now I ought to go and look at my wip and see how I’m doing.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Women and Fiction

For International Women’s Day, lets think about the female in fiction.

Girls grow up reading about adventurous girls – think of George in Blyton’s books, Nancy and Peggy in Ransome, Hermione in the Potter books, Lara in the Pullman stories.

But when puberty strikes, the spirit of adventure seems to depart, and the heroines swop their dungarees for slinky frocks. They turn their gaze to the womanly arts and yearn to earn the love of a Good Man. Maybe real life takes over, their hormones change or we simply can’t have both men and women going out into the world and doing feats of derring do. For men, and books with male heroes, do keep up the adventurous fictional life long after their childhood and teenage years end and real life takes over.

Why don’t we do the same for women? Read the article in the Guardian: click

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

An AWard

'One Lovely Blog Award'.
There are rules for the award: first of all, Accept It!
(I do, I do, and thank you Deborah for thinking of me.)
Then post the Award on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award and their blog link. Pass the award on to 15 other blogs that you've newly discovered. Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award. (Sorry guys - I'll be doing this after I've done my grocery shopping today!)
Unfortuately I don't check out blogs on a regular basis, but there are one or two I look it often - and here they are:
Anne Whitfield
Anita Davison
Sarah Duncan
Vicky English
Sarah Callejo
Maybe wandering down the grocery isles I'll think of one or two more. If so, I'll add them later.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

World Book Night - how was it?

World Book Night. I watched on tv, and the only part I enjoyed was the hour with Sue Perkins. The rest was the usual stodgy stuff about literary novels that often, as so many people agreed, may be full of beautifully crafted sentences but don’t have a plot.
Sue admitted to spending her life reading literary novels, and claimed her favourite was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Bombarded by the BBC with a selection of bestsellers from the last fifty years, she began to feel that she wasn’t at all well read and pursued interesting interviews with several best selling authors including Ian Rankin, Felix Francis, Joanne Harris, Lee Child, and others.

I have to admit that as an English Lit graduate, I haven’t read all the classics. I did read Crime and Punishment, but beyond the general premise of committing murder and feeling guilty, I don’t recall much of it. The same with Oblomov, who stayed in bed all day. War and Peace is still waiting, and may go on waiting. Anna Karenina I enjoyed.

All it really means is that I am still discovering novelists like Wilkie Collins and Stevenson's peculiar episodic adventures like The Black Arrow. My Sony reader gives me access to the classics for free (or a very small fee) and it is illuminating to read the old classics now, when I’m attempting my own (coughs delicately) epic.
The last segment of WBN on tv was a group of five people who got together to decide which twelve novels by newly published authors would make the grade. (Since none of them were known to me, I wasn't overly moved by their reasoning.) The novels were all literary (as opposed to potential bestsellers), and when the fifty were whittled down to 12, the panel agreed that many of them showed distinct signs of Creative Writing School rules. (Evidently there are now some 200 courses available around the country.) Flashbacks and other stylistic features abounded and one judge declared regretfully that out of the 50, he couldn't recall a single novel whose storyline travelled in a straight line from A to B to the end.
One has to wonder if creative writing schools are going to kill the creative instinct rather than nurture it.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Interactive books

Keith Stuart imagines ‘a new breed of novels, and a coming generation of writers, to play with the ebook format and develop lots of new interactive ideas.' Many writers already contribute to games, films, comics and novels, merging narrative methods as entertainment possibilities evolve. Readers of crime fiction enjoy sorting the clues from the red herrings, so why not elaborate on that?
One drawback he mentions is that electronic books could be overtaken by adverts. A red alert might pop up every time a real location is mentioned in the text. Readers might be required to hang around in Clerkenwell to 'unlock some extra info on Bill Sykes.' (Not an engaging idea if you live three hundred miles or more from London.)
Yet I can imagine that readers of Jane Austen might actually like to have pic of Colin Firth as Darcy pop up on their screen, or be interested in an illustration of a gown described in the text; why not a picture of Pemberley? A treasure map in adventure novels, a Google map of a city with a specific, relevant spot marked?
As Stuart says, ‘It's not sacrilege, is it? It's just... new.’
Used wisely, it could enhance the reading experience. But there lies the danger. Open the door and the ads might pour in before you can get it shut again. Or maybe we want to make our imagination work and dream up our own version of what’s presented in words. Our brains get precious little exercise these days of tv, film and dvd where its all visualised for us.
Read the full article: here
I took a series of pics early on a misty, frosty morning yesterday and I think the winter colours have a beauty all their own. Look out for more over the next week or two.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The importance of a son

I read somewhere that the last instalment of The Tudors will have Henry’s death bed visited by some of his former wives. Given that most of them are dead, I thought that would be interesting, and started watching the programme once more.
There’s glamour still, lots of sex and the sheen of silken costumes, (in which the ladies must have frozen while the men are bundled up in thick brocade and heavy velvets) but the show is no better now than it was when I first tried it. Henry seems ageless, and strangely Irish. Nowhere does it suggest Catherine Howard’s frantic couplings with Culpepper might have been because pregnancy was what was required and Henry wasn’t doing the job.

The problem of childlessness attracts a lot of attention today, but it cannot match the strain such a matter put on a sixteenth-century Queen. Her one function in life was to bear sons. If she did not, she was a failure. Anne Boleyn reached Henry’s side by education, personality and courage, but then had to accept that everything hung on the production of a son. Her step-daughter Mary, who understandably resented Anne, no doubt laughed at her problem; but she too would fall foul of the same problem in years to come, and so, in a different way, did Elizabeth.

One son – one would think it surely could not be too difficult with a man like Henry. Yet time went by and the living sons did not arrive for Anne Boleyn any more than they had for Katherine. Anne, like Katherine before her, shouldered the blame. Yet large families were not the commonplace we might think in the sixteenth century. Women spent what must have seemed like lifetimes being pregnant, but that did not always translate into living families. And especially it did not mean that a son and heir was a given. Many families of the time produced only daughters, or no children at all, and titles skipped to nephews.

Did Henry have sexual problems? In 38 years he slept, over a period of time, with eight women, including both wives and known mistresses. Only four of the eight conceived and produced healthy children, one for each of four women – Katherine, Anne, Elizabeth Blount and Jane Seymour. Other pregnancies ended in stillbirth, miscarriage or death in the first few days of life.

It certainly raises the possibility that Henry was the root cause of his lack of heirs. It seems clear venereal disease was not to blame, as is sometimes suggested. His medical history and treatments are most unlike those of Francis of France, who definitely had the pox. There are no payments in the household accounts for the particular medications in use at that time for such a complaint. The so called syphilitic leg ulcer was likely caused by osteomyelitis as a result of an injury in the tilt yard. A seventeen-hands horse in half armour falling on someone is apt to leave an impression and the wound never healed satisfactorily. It caused Henry massive pain when abscesses formed deep in the bone.

Medical knowledge of the time could not deal successfully with such an injury. He never rode to the joust again, and increasing immobility coupled with a huge appetite led to an ominous weight gain. Pain led to shifting moods plus outbursts of irritation and temper.

When Anne Boleyn miscarried in July 1534, it probably brought back all the doubts Henry was prey to during his marriage to Katherine. Today we know that anxiety about virility can lead to loss of potency, and he must surely have suspected, deep down, that he was the problem. A wife who produces no sign of pregnancy is one thing, but a wife who becomes pregnant but produces weak and sickly children is another thing again. Henry would know, as would his courtiers, of families where in-breeding produced deformities. They would also know of infertile stallions and bulls. From there it was a small step to the obvious conclusion.
It was more than a year before Anne was pregnant again.
At George Boleyn’s trial, he was asked if his sister, Anne, had told him that the King was unable to attain or sustain an erection. They say that the question was written, and the fact that George answered verbally ensured that he was executed.

Anna of Cleves may not have been Henry’s type, as we say these days, but his reluctance to bed her suggests his at least partial impotence. More conclusive is the fact that Mary Boleyn and Katherine Parr became pregnant the moment they married and bedded other men.

If Catherine’s dalliance with Culpepper had led to pregnancy, Henry might have feared that his son would not inherit the crown of England. The Tudors systematically ridded themselves of all Plantagenet heirs to keep their throne secure. Henry couldn’t take the risk of a Culpepper bastard ousting his son. Nor could he face the public shame of Catherine claiming she carried another man’s son...she had to go.