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The gift of endurance. Yeah, right.

Re-reading Story by screenwriting guru Robert McKee the other day, I came across this quote in a section headed The Gift of Endurance: ‘Long before you finish [writing], the love of self will rot and die, the love of ideas sicken and perish … Of all the reasons for wanting to write, the only one that nurtures us through time is love of the work itself.’

Cheerful, huh? Especially on a short winter’s day, with weeks of getting up in the dark still to go.

I mean, let’s face it, who does love the work all the time? All too often the actual process of writing is frustrating, demoralising and painful. Who hasn’t ever asked: is my story any good? Will anyone buy it? Can I really do all this over again?

It sometimes feels as if self-doubt is an interminable negative feedback loop, constantly undermining our confidence in our ability to do the very thing we love.

And there it is again. That word. Love.

Personally, I suspect that it’s part of the problem. Saying ‘I love writing’ implies it is necessarily a deeply rewarding emotional experience. When it’s not, a lot of us seem to blame ourselves: maybe we don’t love our characters enough or our plots; maybe the people who believe in us are just plain crazy.

But what is left if we don’t buy into the notion that we have to love what we do in order to keep doing it? Well, here are a couple of things that cheer me up no end.

According to research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, elite musicians, athletes and chess players weren’t born with unique gifts. They are instead highly motivated individuals who have to complete at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over a period of more than ten years in order to achieve their exceptional abilities.

To quote Christian Jarret’s handy 30-Second Psychology, for this type of practice to work, ‘You don’t just repeat what you know but instead constantly seek to stretch yourself. This inevitably involves forensic self-criticism, repeated failure and a dogged ability to keep dusting yourself down and trying again.’

Sound familiar?

Then how about this, also from Jarret: ‘Anxious individuals are more prone to attribute negative events to flaws in their nature, rather than circumstances.’ That’s from the section about Fundamental Attribution Error.

So, with all due respect to Mr McKee (who I admire a lot), forget about endurance being a gift. It’s bloody hard graft. And that’s the point. Lucky you if you do love the work, but that’s not the only way. For me, for example, ‘the work’ is too abstract a concept to keep me going year after year. I have to care passionately about this story, these characters, their troubled dreams.

Keeping this passion alive is like tending a fire: I have to sit down beside my story and look into its depths. If it’s dying, I feed it more research, more imagination, more hard work. Sometimes it consumes reams of notes about the main character’s motivation, or a single sheet with a clearer articulation of the theme. At other times it needs more knowledge gaps. Tighter scenes with more dramatic turning points.

More cake for the writer. Chocolate. Wine. Another long walk with my darling dog…

But yes, sometimes I have to close down the flue and walk away, trusting that the embers won’t die completely.

I have boundless admiration for people who keep writing regardless. Did you see that tweet about this year’s winner of the children’s & YA category of the Costa Book Prize? Apparently Brian Conaghan received 217 rejections. Two hundred and seventeen! Unbelievable. I’d have walked away long ago, no question about it.

So all power to him – and everyone else who keeps on keeping on.

May your fire never go out.

This blog was first published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on January 15th, 2017.

Facts, fiction & the New Scientist

Among the many joys of meeting fellow writers is the discovery of yet another fan of the New Scientist magazine who, like me, finds inspiration for fiction from its tantalizing summaries of the latest discoveries at the very edges of human knowledge.

Week-by-week we lap up articulate rejoinders to the myriad sceptics of scientific method, and wonder at remarkable revelations about our scarily breakable natural world. It is a lifeline of rationality in this supposedly post-truth era.

According to my first editor, being a fan of the New Scientist isn’t uncommon among writers for young people. She didn’t just mean Science Fiction writers. Apparently, NS fans include authors working across the whole spectrum of genres.

Which rather begs the question, if we’re so keen on scientific truth, why are we wedded to lying, AKA creating fictional worlds?

At some other time – when I’ve organised my work-life balance rather better than it is now – I’d love to ask fellow New Scientist reader/writers for their take on this apparent contradiction. I’d also be fascinated to read your views on the subject if you felt inclined to share them.

In the meantime, this from New Scientist caught my eye.

A special issue about knowledge (issue no. 3119) addressed ‘the biggest questions about facts, truth, lies and belief’. Among its many revelations was this: ‘Brain-imaging studies show that when we answer trivia questions or look at blurry images designed to pique curiosity, areas associated with our response to food and sex light up. That suggests we treat knowledge as a similar primary reward.’

Knowledge, it seems, can be addictive.

For me, this surprising fact prompted an immediate question: are writers who love the New Scientist likely to be happier when writing stories that require plenty of factual research, rather than the sort of stories which rely more on inner explorations of the imagination and memory? And if that’s true, is that why I’m still hankering after the kind of in-depth historical research I did for my debut novel, rather than knuckling down to finish Book 2?

In the serendipitous way of these things, this topic promptly popped up again when author Kathryn Evans of MORE OF ME fame posted a fascinating blog about Second Book Syndrome over on Notes from the Slushpile, which in turn encouraged lots of interesting comments.

http://www.notesfromtheslushpile.com/2017/04/second-book-syndrome.html

The discussion of this phenomenon reminded me of something I’d heard David Almond talking about several times: he called it, ‘the freedom of knowing your limitations.’ That is – to paraphrase – finding the setting or subject which will define you as a writer, and weaving the threads of each story around this central creative core.

But how can we find that core without spending years exploring dead-ends?

In this regard, the New Scientist had some helpful words too.

As Anil Ananthaswamy put it, the question ‘Who am I?’ has resonated since antiquity. Science and philosophy distinguish between a ‘phenomenal self’ – through which we experience ourselves as distinct bodily entities living in time and space – and the ‘epistemic self’ which is capable of observing, understanding and modulating our motivations and behaviour.

Such a duality in perception is, of course, familiar territory to the fiction writer. Our characters are endlessly going on inner and outer journeys towards greater self-knowledge. Logically, then, this process ought to be able to help us find our own creative cores, too.

For some writers, no doubt, it is easy: guided by instinct, you just get on with it. But if, like me, you’re still wondering what it is that is truly worthwhile writing about, a good hard look at ourselves (rather than the fickle marketplace or how well an earlier work sold) is probably the best starting place.

If we’re enthralled by family dynamics, that’s what we’ve got to write about. Ditto if it’s the emotional turmoil of first love – even if we might have to wait a while for the YA market to pick up again. But if it is factual research that floats our boat, I guess we have to be true to that too.

Eureka! Nailing epiphanies [BIG FIVE part 2]

I’d planned to start this blog by diving straight into the Big Five personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness & neuroticism (acronym: OCEAN) – and extoll their virtues as the best tools ever for crafting character arcs.

But during a FB discussion about the Big Five earlier this month for WriteOnCon (an online conference well worth catching next time, btw) I remembered why I’d found them so helpful when redrafting my debut novel:

OCEAN had nailed the problem of how to make an epiphany work.

The anatomy of epiphanies had been bugging me ever since James Scott Bell’s Writing Your Story From The Middle persuaded me that a Midpoint Epiphany was a great plotting device. John Yorke’s Into the Woods expands on them at length, but story structure alone didn’t seem enough by itself so I turned to psychology instead.

What are the Big Five?

After millennia of debate about how many aspects there are to human personality, current psychology has (broadly) settled on five categories: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness in fulfilling a task, the multiple facets of extraversion plus all the variations of agreeableness & neuroticism.

Taken together, they express the myriad permutations of personality.

These categories aren’t binary. People aren’t Open or Not Open. Each is a sliding scale from more to less, and encapsulates aspects of personality that tend to go together.

Being sociable, talkative & assertive are manifestations of extraversion, for example, while being systematically late, lax and indifferent indicate a low level of conscientiousness.

Under sufficient stress these traits are mutable, evolving in response to major life events – events so important they make us step up to the mark and decide what we’re prepared to do to achieve our greatest ambitions or defend that which is most dear to us.

Which seems to me a reasonable description of a character-based plot.

There’s loads of stuff about OCEAN on the web (and a bunch of online tests if you don’t mind some random organisation knowing who you are) but here’s a quick summary of each for ease of reference.

Definitions

Factors associated with openness include curiosity, original thinking, insight & creativity, openness to new & unusual ideas. Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas. Those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.

Examples of low-score behaviour Examples of high-score behaviour
Someone who prefers not to be exposed to alternative moral systems, has limited interests, down-to-earth attitudes, non-analytical, narrow-minded. Enjoy seeing people with new types of haircut, body piercing, curious, imaginative, non-traditional.

Factors associated with conscientiousness: organised, systematic, punctual, achievement-orientated, dependable. High levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, goal-driven. Tendency to be mindful of details.

Low score High score
Spur-of-the-minute decision-making,   unreliable, hedonistic, careless, lax Never late, hardworking, persevering, punctual, self-disciplined, dutiful.

Extraversion: outgoing, talkative, sociable, high energy, positive emotions, urgency, a tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others. Extraversion is the factor most strongly associated with leadership.

Low score High score
Prefers a quiet evening in, reading rather than parties, sober, aloof, unenthusiastic Life of the party, active, optimistic, taking charge,

Agreeableness: affable, tolerant, sensitive, trusting, kind & warm. A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic. Weakly related to leadership.

Low score High score
Quick to assert own rights with confidence; irritable, manipulative, uncooperative, rude. Agrees with other’s opinions, good-natured, forgiving, gullible, helpful

Neuroticism: tendency to be anxious, irritable, temperamental, moody, inclined to experience unpleasant emotions easily, including anger, depression or vulnerability. Sometimes called emotional instability. Tendency towards sadness.

Low score High score
Not getting irritated by small annoyances, calm, unemotional, hardy, secure, self-satisfied. Constantly worrying about little things, insecure, hypochondriac, feeling inadequate.

Constructing a basic profile incorporating these traits seems to me a more efficient way to create realistic, rounded characters than answering one of those long questionnaires about the colour of their favourite t-shirt & the TV shows they watch etc etc.

Better by far to know how open they are to new experiences or if they’re vulnerable and anxious. Not only will this signpost how they’re likely to react to unexpected events but also what actions they might plausibly initiate at each stage in their emotional/psychological journey. And once you know their deepest, repressed fears, you can merrily create the kind of obstacles that will test their underlying weaknesses to the utmost.

Think Snakes On A Plane. Who’d give the air marshal in that film a phobia about spiders?

Retrofitting character arcs

For me, OCEAN really came into its own when I had to rework a First World War coming-of-age script after receiving a development advance. The elements I needed were already in the backstory; I just hadn’t developed them enough.

I decided to take my protagonist step-by-step to a more mature place, one where she could – plausibly – reverse her deepest feelings about members of her family.

SPOILER ALERT: It became clear during the WriteOnCon discussion that people found a worked example helpful to see what on earth I was blethering about. This one is based on an Openness subplot. I hope it’s detailed enough to make sense without giving too much of the story away.

Act 1

 

   
1

 

Pre-story openness behaviour to be transformed Stubborn loathing of family member X, killed in action during the Battle of Verdun
2 Initial outlook Down-to-earth outlook on life, non-analytical, limited life experience, defensive about her opinions of her family

 

3 OCEAN traits permitting transformation Openness: a vivid imagination

Agreeableness: capacities for empathy & kindness

 

4 OCEAN traits preventing transformation Openness: refusal to accept alternative points of views about her brother

Neuroticism: an unconscious desire for a substitute father

 

Act 2

 

   
5 Transitional behaviour Aroused curiosity about the outside world as she starts her journey; fails first test by focusing narrowly on her quest rather than the suffering of others

 

6 Pre-epiphany behaviour Forced to consider profiteer’s point of view, forced to consider strikers’ PoV; forced to consider the selfishness of her motives.

 

7 (partial) MIDPOINT EPIPHANY Recognition of her narrow-mindedness, but still can’t bring herself to re-examine her feelings about X

 

8 Post-epiphany behaviour Observes the world more closely; dawning of true empathy for war-time suffering

 

 

Act 3

 

   
9 Completion of MIDPOINT EPIPHANY On eve of the ‘final battle’, makes her peace with X

 

10 Final Openness state In epilogue, evidence of new open attitude to disfigured & disabled soldiers

[This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site for the Scattered Authors’ Society, on February 15th, 2017.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creating credible characters using the BIG FIVE personality traits

This blog was written for an online creative writing class I ran for WriteOnCon on Feb 4th, 2017. A second blog for Awfully Big Blog Adventure includes the worked example mentioned at the end.

Hi and welcome to this blog about the ‘Big Five’ personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (acronym: OCEAN) – and how they can help fiction writers to create credible character arcs.

Here’s the starting point: after millennia of debate about how many aspects there are to human personality, current psychology has (broadly) settled on five. There are, of course, different opinions, but this blog is about these Big Five.

Taken together, they are the factors that express the myriad permutations of personality.

More important (for fiction writers at least) is the fact that these traits are neither immutable nor binary. People aren’t Open or Not Open, end of story. Each OCEAN trait represents a sliding scale from more to less (or good to bad if we’re being judgmental) and are subject to change in response to MAJOR life events.

To put it another way, personality can evolve in response to profoundly important events which test our fundamental strengths and weaknesses, events so important that they force us to step up to the mark to achieve our most serious objectives – which I reckon is a reasonable definition of a character-based plot.

So, if you’re looking for change in your story (and all the great writing gurus tell us we must), with events that change your protagonist’s underlying personality (making them a better or worse person, more capable or crushed etc.) then OCEAN is a great starting place.

 

Definitions

Just to let you know, this introduction is based on an excellent little reference book called 30-Second Psychology, edited by Christian Jarret. Necessarily, both his book and this summary are sketches. You’ll find lots more about OCEAN on the web; when I was looking, Wikipedia was as good a place as any to begin.

Basically, each of the big five encapsulates aspects of personality that tend to go together. Being sociable, talkative & assertive are all manifestations of extraversion, for example.

So talkative & assertive behaviour by a character will show the reader they’re an extravert, without ever mentioning the word. And since extraversion is linked to leadership, deciding your character is an extravert might also suggest a credible role for them in a group situation.

Clearly, one cannot be slavish about this. Many factors influence personality – family, wealth, culture, belief systems etc. – but I have found that creating a grid of each major character’s OCEAN traits is hugely useful as a descriptive tool, and potentially a prescriptive one as well.

So here are the Big Five.

Openness

Factors associated with openness: Curious, original, intellectual, creative, open to new ideas. Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity and variety of experience. This trait features characteristics such as imagination and insight, and those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.

Character with low-score behaviour High score behaviour
Prefers not to be exposed to alternative moral systems, has narrow interests, down-to-earth attitudes, non-analytical, inartistic Enjoy seeing people with new types of haircut, body piercing, curious, imaginative, untraditional
MY PROTAGONIST IS …

Conscientiousness

Organised, systematic, punctual, achievement-orientated, dependable. High levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, goal-driven. Tendency to be mindful of details.

Low score High score:
Spur-of-the-minute decision-making, unreliable, hedonistic, careless, lax

 

Never late, organised, hardworking, persevering, punctual, self-disciplined, dutiful.
MY PROTAGONIST IS…

Extraversion

Outgoing, talkative, sociable, enjoying social situations. High energy, positive emotions, urgency, a tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others. Extraversion is the factor most strongly associated with effective leadership.

Low score High score:
Prefers a quiet evening in, reading rather than parties, sober, aloof, unenthusiastic Life of the party, active, optimistic, fun-loving, affectionate
MY PROTAGONIST IS…

Agreeableness

Being affable, tolerant, sensitive, trusting, kind & warm. A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic. Only weakly related to leadership.

Low score High score:
Quick to assert own rights with confidence; irritable, manipulative, uncooperative, rude. Agrees with other’s opinions, good-natured, forgiving, gullible, helpful
MY PROTAGONIST IS…

Neuroticism

Being anxious, irritable, temperamental, moody. A tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, including anger, anxiety, depression or vulnerability. Sometimes called emotional instability. Tendency towards sadness.

Low score High score:
Not getting irritated by small annoyances, calm, unemotional, hardy, secure, self-satisfied. Constantly worrying about little things, insecure, hypochondriacal, feeling inadequate.
MY PROTAGONIST IS…

Some practical tips

Plotting

By filling in a third row in each of the five tables, and considering what actions, thoughts & emotions are CONSISTENT WITH THIS BASIC PERSONALITY TRAIT, you’ll hopefully avoid that awful moment when a reader says, ‘But they wouldn’t do that!’

And by seeing what type of character you’ve got in mind, you’ll probably also see which trait would most likely change over time (i.e. during you story), helping you define the sort of events which would achieve that outcome in the most dramatic but also realistic way

An OCEAN-based profile can also act a guide to how a character is likely to react to each new story event, and what actions they would credibly initiate at each stage in their psychological journey.

Making sure these actions & reactions build in a logical progression will increase the authenticity of the overall character arc, grounding even fantastical plots in credible human experience.

Even if your protagonist is a static James Bond type, OCEAN can help identify strengths which can be turned into weaknesses purely for plot purposes. For example, Bond’s relentless determination to kill the baddie (high score on the conscientiousness scale) could land him in ever deeper water. If only he’d stopped to think compassionately for once (Bond’s lack of empathy = a low score for openness) he wouldn’t have accidentally killed the arch-villain’s daughter in a fire fight (job done; she’s just collateral damage) bringing down the wrath of her psychopath father onto MI6 HQ in central London

An editing tool

Let’s say your story is about a burns victim terrified by fire (high score on neuroticism) who must learn to become calmly capable to save his best friend from the flames.

Alternatively, students in a small-town school with little experience of the outside world (low score on openness) learn in their own different ways how to understand the new refugee kids who’ve been moved into their class.

In each case, the OCEAN trait to be explored, challenged and overcome is fairly self-evident.

If you purposively decide this OCEAN-based change IS the story, then you can better judge whether each scene in the central plot and subplot/s is focused on this core trait.

As long as each test/conflict/challenge relates to the chosen core trait, and digs deeper and deeper into it, then the changes wrought by your plot events should, intrinsically, lead to coherent character arcs, ones with authentic emotional progressions and satisfying depth.

Retrofitting an OCEAN character arc.

You don’t have to create an OCEAN table at the outset.

For my First World War debut novel (out with Walker in 2018) I’d already written a plot-based script when I got a development advance to extend the ‘quest’ element and deepen my heroine’s character arc.

The elements I needed were already there in her backstory; I just hadn’t developed them enough. So I looked at each OCEAN trait, and designed new scenes which would take her step-by-step to a more mature place, one where she could – credibly – reverse her deepest feelings about members of her family.

I’ve drawn up a table showing each stage of this progression, based on the Openness trait, including her transitional behaviour, the turning point, and pre- and-post Epiphany stages. I’ll share this on the live chat if people are interested in seeing the process at this level of detail.

 

 

 

 

 

A Christmas wish for a writer friend

My gift would need a little magic and perhaps a small miracle or two.

On the eve of Christmas Eve, the last-minute wrapping & complex calculations for the cooking time of turkeys would suddenly disappear. Unwanted guests and unwelcome invitations would evaporate too, and grumpy partners and recalcitrant teenagers become, miraculously, cooperative. And the stage would be set.

In a light snowfall, a limousine would appear at their front door. A stretched limousine. Something outrageous like a Humvee. Pink. Or pure black, with tinted windows. Inside, champagne – and the passports of my friend and the people she (or he) truly loves…

Find out what the gift was via the original post in Author Allsorts:  Magic & far-away miracles: a gift for a best writing buddy (were money no problem!) By Rowena House