On the basis of our follow-up discussion we decided to do a further example for the next meeting but this time on a standardised storyline. The advantage of this is that everyone knows the story and we can compare outcomes.
A fairy tale tells a story, in its simplest form, so we chose Cinderella. Let’s see what we come up with!
Anyone who wants to, can bring some text to share up to a maximum of 300 words. The topic can be anything you like. Last time we had exceptional readings on a variety of topics. The contributions were engaging and of surprising depth.
After an hour of general discussion about our individual on-going projects the group asked me to share mine with them. This led to my sharing the use of the Storyboard.
What I do is take a single simple idea and built a framework around it. In scriptwriting, this is called a storyboard and is the basis for a variety of writing styles, particularly fact-based fiction, my preferred genre, where the story needs to follow a set path.
E.G. – developing a movie idea
In this case, my task was to take a song lyric, deconstruct it into its characters and then imaginatively shape a life around each one of them.
My chosen song, ‘The Piano Man’, by Billy Joel, is about people visiting a late night bar to drown their sorrows and contains the formidable line, ‘they are sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone!’
Basically a storyboard is just a scratch pad or, to use Scrivener’s process, a cork-board where you pin up post-it notes and can shuffle them into some sort of order. So on each ‘post-it’ I head it with each character’s name and pin them all in one section.
I am fortunate in my recent writing life to have researched a massive history book which involved me interviewing nearly 100 interesting people, some of whom were in the final years of life. In almost every case the questions were tailored around what little information I had about them.
questions of characters
Likewise, in this situation, we apply a little intelligence to the questions we ask each player. Of course, there are the obvious ones: how old are you, colour, sex, creed etc? But then we go deeper. Why are you lonely in a bar? What has life done to you to get you here?
In one line we are fed: ‘Paul is a real-estate novelist, who never had time for a wife.’ What on earth is a real-estate novelist? So Paul, tell me about your life as an estate agent, wasn’t much fun, eh? Sold a few houses, market crashed, and you wrote what? Maybe you saw how the sub-prime market worked and discovered the smokescreen and corruption that lay behind the banking system that eventually brought the global economy to its knees? That would put me in a late night bar, for sure!
Then there’s the waitress, who is ‘practising politics’? We’ve all met her. Doing a night job to pay her way through college? Where better than in a downtown bar? Bound to be a few washed up senators lurking around here?
… and the rest
Each one gets given a history based around what little info we have on them and then, for me, in this exercise, the fun really starts, with the shifting of the pieces. Out of these eight or so sad people, who knows who? Which one has had their life touched by another? Where have all their paths crossed?
select a protagonist
As with all good stories, we need a protagonist, and I chose the old man who is asking the piano-man to play a tune he used to know ‘when he wore younger man’s clothes!’
This guy has been around, right? Bound to have bumped into some of the other players in his 3 score years and ten? So I stick him in the middle, and weave the others around him.
it’s a learning exercise …
As this is only an exercise, I want to keep it tight, maybe a script for a 15-minute movie, or a short story. So I make only three to four scenes involving each player, each on its own post-it. I am a great believer that scenes and characters are only borrowed and there is rarely anything original left to invent, in the same way that there are only so many notes in a music scale. So, in the majority our scenes we use everyday situations that readers can relate to.
pull it together
The timing works out that the old man could have been a veteran from the Vietnam war, so there is his first scene, in the jungle in 1969. But we don’t want a chronological history of each person; that’s no fun, far too conventional! So let’s mix them up. Paul sold houses – maybe he sold one to the old fella just before the market fell?
That waitress seems like a nice girl; perhaps she helped the old man across the road or woke him up when the train reached his stop? Venn diagram centre! So finally, when we walk into that bar at 9 o’clock on a Saturday, a quick look around and we have everyone pegged down.
neat line, neat idea
Eventually, after some enjoyable head-scratching, this exercise will end up with maybe 15-20 scenes, all in a neat line, so the author, and subsequent director, can colour them in as he or she perceives them. As with musical notes, it is the combinations and order in which they are played that make a tune.
That, to me, is what a storyboard is, a simple melody.
Here we are again. Some of us have the lurgy, others are recovering, one or two are in rude health and don’t even know what a lurgy is. Many may have been supping medicinal whisky (this being Scotland and all) … even if they didn’t have the lurgy.
Some of us couldn’t make it, others did. All in all we are growing and finding our feet.
Writer Andy Frazier joined us last night. He shares a few thoughts about the experience below. Thanks for this, Andy.
Back into the swing
Although I have written numerous books on a wide range of subjects over the last ten years, I must confess, apart from a monthly magazine column, it has been just over two years since I last sat down to write in a professional capacity. During that time my focus has been on our other business, something which involves much more stress.
Reaching my wits end last week, I suddenly realised that I was becoming a slave to time, rather than its keeper, and months were passing by with a rushing sound usually reserved for cyclists.
Itch to scratch
So, on Wednesday morning when I sat at my desk, instead of the usual admin, I opened Scrivener, my writing ‘app’ of choice, and started scribbling. In amongst those files are a few pages of ideas, research, crazy facts and half written projects.
An hour’s distraction from the day to day problems around me was all I was seeking. Next thing I knew, it was getting dark outside.
On Thursday morning, by pure coincidence, I saw a poster on social media for Writers’ Neuk, who were due to meet that evening. I have to admit to having never physically been to a writers group before, although I do belong to a few online. Had it been any other day, I am not sure I would I have noticed it but, on this day, I decided to attend.
What I found was not only a friendly bunch of like-minded people, but each one with a passion for the written word and a desire to share and receive ideas from others.
Not knowing what to expect, I had taken with me my scribbles from the day before, which had been little more than an exercise I had set myself, to get the ‘juices’ flowing again.
For our inaugural Writers’ Neuk meeting in Colinsburgh Library we invited Merryn Glover, author of A House Called Askival, to speak to us about her book and about being a writer.
A House Called Askival is based upon her own experiences growing up in South Asia and upon the period following the Second World War, when India was partitioned. Born in Kathmandu, to missionary parents, Merryn was brought up in Nepal, India and Pakistan, before training as a teacher at an Australian university.
A House Called Askival is Merryn’s first published novel but she also writes short stories and poetry, which have been published in magazines and newspapers. Over a number of years, the BBC has commissioned her plays which have been broadcast on Radio Scotland and Radio 4. Her poem, Driving Lesson, is in the Autumn issue of Northwards Now.
Merryn read an excerpt from the first chapter of her book, which was greatly enjoyed by all.
Explaining how much she enjoys writing, Merry shared some of the difficulties of being a writer, namely ways of getting published. She enjoys writing every day and is greatly encouraged to do so, by family and friends. Askival was published by the now defunct Freight Books and she is currently in discussion with another publisher, with a view to having her second novel published.
There then followed a general discussion and questions on the writing process and getting work published. Merryn advised us, as budding writers, to:
never stop writing
consider the audience who will read our work
write to communicate with your readers
A lively discussion followed as the focus moved towards getting writing out there.
publishing, and all that
Self-publishing can be a way forward for many writers. It has its drawbacks but it is one way of becoming known to readers and publishers.
We also discussed how publishers focus on a number of aspects of a writer’s work including:
social media activity
Activities like these are becoming ever more important since many newspapers publish fewer literary reviews.
marketing experience leads to improvement
Merryn suggests that attending book festivals was a way of getting her novel highlighted and cited her own attendance at the Ullapool Festival as being a positive step in becoming more well known.
She approached several publishers with Askival and now appreciates that the number of times it was refused led to improvement in it, as she kept going and adapting and changing, according to their advice.
research, rest, write, research again
We discussed how research for a novel can prevent an author actually getting down to writing a story. Merryn suggested taking a break from the research and coming back fresh, for the next stage. Her advice was that there needs to be enough of a framework to help readers understand time, place and events but mostly they want to engage with the story.
Merryn now lives in the Scottish Highlands, where she is a high school librarian, relishing the challenge of encouraging teenagers to keep reading.
We very much appreciated Merryn coming along to speak to us and offering advice an inspiration.