Friday, July 29, 2011

Memory Loss

I’ve often wondered (until I actually went and found out) why it was that whenever a hero lost his memory, his ninja training remained fully intact, as well as his car racing abilities and his perfect tomato slicing skills. (Think Jason Bourne)

Well, here is the answer:

Our long term memories are divided into two big parts, namely declarative and non-declarative memory.

Declarative memory is basically a database of facts and information.  Names, places, events etc.  To recall declarative memory, we have to think consciously about it.

For interest’s (and length’s) sake, declarative memory is further divided into semantic and episodic memory.  Semantic memory is straight facts and events, such as, what the name of your country is.  Episodic memory deals with events that are directly related to time.  I.e. what you were doing when you heard about the tsunami in Japan.

Which brings us to non-declarative memory.  This is the memory that deals with motor-skills and actions.  For example, how to speak.  You might have heard of muscle memory before.  It’s when you can’t consciously remember how to do something, but your body still knows how.  Say, if you haven’t driven a car in a while, and you get back behind the wheel, you’ll take a few moments to figure it out, but the position and circumstances in which you find yourself will allow your muscles to ‘remember’ what to do.

Back to our ninja hero who lost his memory.  It is entirely possible (perhaps even likely, I don’t know) for a patient to lose only his declarative memory.  Therefore, all his motor skills and muscle memory of how to do things will remain untouched and still ready to be used in case of emergency.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Logical Sequence of Things

This is what an angry plot looks like.

Things follow on other things, and logical sequences are usually the norm (with humans anyway).  This little bit of knowledge comes in handy when I’m writing a story, but sometimes I forget about it.

Recently, while I was plotting (making up a plot, not devising evil schemes), I came upon a point where I struggled to figure out what exactly should follow next.  None of the solutions seemed worthy of mention, nor would any really work.  My main character had to get an object, but it was impossible to get.  This is where Orson Scott Card’s advice came in handy.  If you can’t go on, there’s probably something wrong with your story.

More in line with my theme today, events don’t follow logically, therefore the next logical event is not satisfactory or not possible.  Right?


So I looked back to my previous plot points and noticed that there was a certain sequence that I simply described as ‘escapes from the library’.  How?  I didn’t know, and that proved to be a bit of a problem.

So I thought on it a while and came up with a solution of how my protagonist would escape and what events would transpire.  The moment I did that, the next plot point didn’t work.  The events of the previous one caused a character to be somewhere where he wasn’t supposed to be.  And let’s just say, something got left behind which my plot wanted in the hands of the enemy.

So with a little tweaking, I fixed the plot there and had to follow a new direction.  I laughed merrily as I skipped past the plot hole and onto the next point.

My point is this.  Sometimes (maybe most of the time?) the story plots itself, and all you need to do is step out of the way.  Follow the logical sequence if it is readily available and don’t force things in that steers the plot from its natural conclusion.

Side note: I do not mean, delete all surprises.  I mean, don’t stand in the plot’s way when it wants to go somewhere.  Show it an alternative that it finds appealing or just get out of its way (it’ll make you pay if you don’t).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Crafting a Story : Title and Results

12 weeks ago, I started this whole thing.  For those who don’t know, I decided to create a story by using words from a random word generator to inspire each of the main components of a story (protagonist, antagonist, etc.) and then derived the story from that.

Finally, I came up with this as a high concept which describes my story:

A man unknowingly gets involved with the girlfriend of a robber he killed, causing the robber’s vengeful ghost to return.

All in all, I’m quite happy with the result.  I don’t know how well it’ll do in practice, but I think I got all the kinks worked out.  The important part here is that I have a finished story premise after twelve steps of which five are simply paragraphs derived from random words.

I said that I would give the story a title, so here goes.

Titles often have something to do with an important point early on in the story that shapes the rest, so let’s start there and see if anything good comes up.  Also, I want to show the supernatural element in the title if I can.

The inciting incident is when our protagonist gets involved with the antagonist’s girlfriend.  A Ghost Who Lost Life and Love.  The ghost that lost first his life, then his love.  But it sounds a bit clunky.  I think I’ll go a bit further into the story.  A Familiar Face.  It doesn’t convey the supernatural element, but it has a nice ring to it, and sort of foreshadows that the ghost is someone they know, so I think I’ll keep it.

I don’t think I’ll be writing this story any time soon, but it is quite solid, so I might take a shot at it eventually.  As far as I’m concerned, this experiment was a success.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Storytelling Lesson I Learned from Back to the Future

Knowledge given to the readers but kept from some of the characters can be just as powerful as knowledge given to some characters but kept from the readers.

I learned this via David Baboulene’s book, since I’d never actually seen Back to the Future before.

After the sequence where Marty gets sent into the past, the viewers already have the knowledge that Marty comes from the future, though none of the other characters (except Doc Brown later on) know this.  In fact, it is imperative that they don’t.

Say, for instance, the movie had started with Marty already in the past and the viewers just as unaware of his time traveller status as the other characters.  Ignore, if you will, the problems with the plot that could occur (no scenes where Marty talks about his time travelling and no clear goals).

Therefore, the story would end with a twist, revealing that Marty was a time traveller all along.  However, there would be a great deal lost, namely the tension that would come with the knowledge that any moment, someone could become aware of Marty’s time travelling.  As I’ve said before, tension is a pretty important part.

If the story had been swapped around like that, there could have been changes in protagonist or whatever the case might be, and the holes could be fixed and it could have been a great movie.  I’m not saying that having a twist ending is bad.

What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t hesitate to give your readers insider info simply because you want a stronger end.  In fact, you might be giving away tension because of it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Surviving A Block - Part 2

Last time, I discussed the first four actions that you should take when you hit a block.  Here is the last four.

When altering your story to fix the problem, it might be a good idea to improvise.  Change the roles around a bit.  For example, you could change the irritating little sidekick (that you hated anyway) into the villain’s grunt that frees the hero from the tar by accident, instead of creating an all new character.  Come up with as many different solutions as possible and consider swapping roles or adding new dimension to a character (if you were to give the villain’s daughter a crush on the hero, you can save him from the tar that way).  Find alternate uses for things.

Value Living
Value the story you want to tell.  Don’t just change the ending so that it can fix your problem.  It does not help you to write a story that you don’t want to write.  Keep in mind the things that you want to say with this story, or the ending you want to have.  This may seem in conflict with Vanquishing Fear and Panic, but it is simply the flip side of the same coin.  There is a fine line, so make sure you stay in the middle.

Act Like the Natives
Do what other writers do to get past blocks.  Take a walk or a shower, play a musical instrument or listen to calm music.  Whatever works for you (if you don’t have anything like that, try out other people’s methods to see if they work for you).  Walking is scientifically suggested to improve your creative ability, and talking to other people and getting their ideas is also a great way of loosening your creative muscles.

Live by Your Wits, But for Now, Learn Basic Skills
Know your craft.  Know all the moving parts of a story.  Learn the basic skills before you get in a situation like this one.  Furthermore, know what you want from your story.  If you don’t, you’ll just stumble around endlessly, changing one thing after the other.  Get the necessary skills for your particular story.  The things you’ll need (such as how to place fake clues etc. in a mystery novel) to complete your story.  Do this before you start the story.  You don’t want to have a hundred pages of text that you later find shouldn’t have been there.  When you’re in the midst of a block, go with your gut, but for now, learn basic skills.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Crafting a Story : High Concept

To avoid further confusion, here is my definition of a high concept:
An interesting concept that can be easily understood and delivered in a few words.

An example of one is Back to the Future.  A kid goes back in time, meets his parents when they were young, and his mother falls in love with him (courtesy of The Story Book by David Baboulene).

21 words.  It does not encompass the entire story, but it delivers the main premise, in high concept form.  Therefore, I’m going to start with my premise and whittle it into a high concept.

This story is about a man and a woman being chased by the ghost of someone who he killed and she betrayed.  Here I go.
A man kills a robber in defence and gets involved with a woman, but after the woman has a séance, the robber’s ghost comes back to haunt them. 
Almost, but I want to add that the woman is the robber’s girlfriend. 
A man gets involved with the girlfriend of a robber he killed in defence, not knowing that she had been involved with the robber, and the woman calls a séance, which causes the robber’s ghost to return from the netherworld and haunt them. 
Okay, that’ll work.  Now, this is 43 words, but more importantly, it handles a lot of points.  In order to get to a high concept, I need to take out the unnecessary information, sticking only with the core of the story.

Here is the result. 
A man unknowingly gets involved with the girlfriend of a robber he killed, causing the robber’s ghost to return and haunt them. 
22 words and on the important points.  I’m satisfied with this (though, it might be a bit ambiguous).

EDIT:  After Mood pointed it out to me, here is the altered version, which sets the mood better.
A man unknowingly gets involved with the girlfriend of a robber he killed, causing the robber’s vengeful ghost to return. 
(20 words now)

That’s it.  Next week, I’ll look at what I got from this randomly generated story, and maybe even give it a title.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Birthday Bash Blogfest!

J.C Martin's awesome blog is officially one year old.  To celebrate, she is hosting a blogfest.  Here are the rules as posted on her blog.

Write a story (or a personal account) that begins with the phrase:
“A lot can happen in a year…”
The catch? It must be a drabble, i.e. exactly 100 words long, no more, no less. The starter phrase will not be included in your word count.
Some guidelines:

  • Proper nouns (names, etc.) count as just one word, e.g. ‘New Mexico’ is one word
  • Hyphenated phrases count as one word, e.g. ‘self-defence’ is one word
  • I shall be lax with conjunctions: you may count them as one word! 

I'm not sure when I was supposed to post this, but it seemed like a good idea to do it on the actual blog birthday.  So here is my entry:

“A lot can happen in a year…”
Those were the words my mother had uttered when I told her I wanted to train with the Knights.
“We’ve been fine for ten, mother.”
My father died when I was little.  My sister and I were all that my mother had left.  We often worried that bandits would attack our homestead.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to fight them off.  But if I trained with the Knights, I could protect my family and my land.
I returned home, after a year, armed with the skill to fight off bandits, but I had only cinders and rubble to defend.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Id, Ego and Superego

After I read the post Nevets made on his blog, I decided to spring into action.  So today, I’m going to jump into a random non-writing related topic.  (Okay, so it’s not ENTIRELY non-writing related, as it can be applied to characters, but I thought it best to ease you guys into the idea.  Also, it’s not really random, since psychology has always interested me.)

Side Note : If you are confused as to why I am doing this, read Nevets’s post here.


This specific approach to explaining personalities – there are quite a few theories – is based on work that Sigmund Freud, the Hemingway of psychoanalysis, did.  There are a whole lot of things surrounding it, but I’ll talk to you about the id, ego and superego.

According to Freud, every human psyche can be divided into three parts, the id, ego and superego.  The id and superego is basically in an eternal battle with the ego as mediator.

The id is primal instinct.  Your uncontrolled and selfish desires.

The superego is societal norms and repercussions as well as conscience.  It takes the consequences of your actions into account, stopping you from doing things simply because you want to.

Your ego then mediates between the two.  You could say that the id and superego both plead their cases to the ego and then the ego makes a decision.

To explain, here is a scenario.
You are homeless and very hungry.  An old lady with a bag of apples walks past you.  If you were controlled by your id, you would jump up, grab the bag of apples from the lady, and start eating.  If you were controlled by your superego, you would sit there and do nothing.  However, you are controlled by your ego, which takes into consideration both things: 1) You’re hungry and the lady has food, and 2) It’s not right to take other people’s things.  It finds a middle ground, and prods you to ask the lady for an apple.

If you are hungry enough and you know the lady won’t give you anything because you look scruffy, your id might ‘take over’ per se, making you grab the apples and run.  However, your superego will still have its go, making you feel guilty afterwards.

In conclusion, the ego must find a way to satisfy the primal desires of the id in a way that is acceptable for the societal rules as specified by the superego.  This is only present in humans.  Other animals are ruled solely by their id.

Note: I have taken this information from my Psychology 101 course, so it might not be 100% accurate.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Surviving A Block - Part 1

I don’t like using the term writer’s block (mostly because of the stigma attached to it), but I’m going to use it here, with an explanation of what it means to me.  A block is when you get somewhere with the story that you’re stuck and you can’t figure out how to continue.

Here is a guide to surviving in such a situation, inspired by the U.S. Army Field Manual 3-05.70 Survival, but changed to fit this situation.

Size Up the Situation
When you first encounter a block, you need to figure out what is causing it.  Orson Scott Card said that writer’s block is your mind’s way of letting you know there is something wrong with your story.  First, you must identify the problem.  If you don’t know what your protagonist should do next, your character doesn’t have a clear enough goal for the story/chapter/scene.  If you don’t know how your protagonist will escape the boiling tar pit, you might have put him in the wrong situation (or you just need to think more).  Figure out what the problem is so that you can address it.  If it is a problem that will need you to change something to fix it, continue with the rest of the steps.

Use All Your Senses, Undue Haste Makes Waste
When you’ve identified the problem, don’t take the easy way out just to get on with the story.  This could simply lead to more problems in the future.  Most blocks will be the result of a problem earlier on in the story, so you can’t fix only the one problem and expect things to go smoothly.  Don’t rush into it and make sure you think everything through.  The same applies to Sizing the Situation Up in the first place.  Don’t jump to conclusions, rather make certain.

Remember Where You Are
Ensure that you are aware of your location in the story when you want to make changes.  Know what has happened and what still has to happen.  Figure out what things will need to change in your previous pages/notes/flashcards in order to accommodate these new developments.  If the new changes severs a thread that would have led to a plot point further on, you either need a new solution or you need to change that point as well.  (Note: It is advised that (unless you’re still in the planning stages) you should make only notes of the changes that need to occur in earlier parts and only fix them later.)

Vanquish Fear and Panic
It is important that you do not cling to certain aspects that are hindering your story.  Don’t be afraid to change things or cut out great moments.  In most cases, your story will turn out better.  If not, you can always add it back in.  (Make a file with all the parts that you cut, instead of just deleting them.)  Fear of changing things can also make you procrastinate, which will push your target of finishing a story on by some time.  Set fear aside and do what needs to be done.

(This came out longer than I expected, so I’m splitting it up into two parts.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Crafting a Story : Summary

I’m going to work through some of the backstory to get the entire thing in correct chronological order.  I’ll go into detail on some points and skim over others.

Henry, after a day of working in his store, goes to the café on the corner.  While he’s looking for bread that hasn’t expired, Jasmine enters, followed by Irwin a few seconds later.  Irwin walks around the back, not seeing Henry, and pulls on his mask as Henry watches.  Irwin realises that Henry had seen his face and contemplates killing him, but decides against it.  Instead, he tells Henry to forget his face.  He pulls Henry to the front counter and leaves him there, after which he demands money and grabs Jasmine as a hostage.

After he gets the money, Irwin drags Jasmine out, holding the gun at his side.  Henry summons up his courage and grabs the gun.  Irwin releases Jasmine and fights Henry for it, and in the struggle, it goes off, hitting Irwin in the chest.

Henry is not charged and Irwin dies.  Jasmine falls in love with Henry.  She then starts to visit him in his shop often and they start to form a sort of relationship.  Jasmine, still feeling guilty about Irwin’s death, arranges a séance with Irwin’s spirit.  It awakens him and he is in a frenzy, breaking apart some of the house.  The medium chases Jasmine out.

Meanwhile, Henry attends the reading of the will of his uncle, in which he receives a house in the woods.  (I’ll probably start the actual story here) When he sees Jasmine again, he sees she looks a bit strained (because of the séance) and he decides to invite her with him to go look at the house that weekend.

The two hike up to the house late afternoon.  Irwin’s spirit goes with them, and he tries to extend his reach into their world, because he is angry.  When the two go to sleep, they hear noises and so forth.  Henry dismisses it sounds of an old house, while Jasmine worries.

The next day, all sorts of weird things start happening.  Irwin is starting to gain control of his outside environment and he starts opening and closing drawers and so on.  Henry checks out the house to see if it’s in good condition.  Jasmine sees the things happen first.  After a while, Henry also sees them.  It’s a bit creepy, but he cannot let himself believe in the supernatural, so he does not run while he can.

It gets dark and Henry and Jasmine are back inside the house.  Irwin uses telekinesis to reform his shape (somewhat) and speaks through a speaker (not very clearly) and doesn’t reveal much except that he is Irwin.  At this point, Henry is freaking out and Irwin starts throwing knives.

They try to run out of the house, but the doors won’t open.  Jasmine, with her knowledge of the supernatural, leads Henry to the bunker at the back of the house, which is made of solid iron, making it a safe haven from Irwin.

They make some attempts to get out, but Irwin stops them everywhere.  Eventually, Irwin speaks to them again, calling Jasmine out on her betrayal (thus revealing her involvement in the robbery).  Henry panics, thinking that Jasmine had led him into a trap.  He locks himself in the bunker, leaving her outside.  Irwin kills her.

With Jasmine dead and himself trapped, Henry breaks down.  But eventually he musters up courage, to get out and get revenge at the same time, and kills Irwin in some way (maybe stabbing his pseudo-physical form with an iron shaft).

That is pretty much how the story will go.  I’ll try and catch the main idea in a high concept next week.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Structure of Story

Side Note:  I got distracted and forgot to post yesterday.  So let’s just pretend that it’s Friday today, hm?


I talked about structure a while ago.  Structure should never be used to develop a story, but it can be used for a good purpose.  Particularly if you are stuck with a scene or a sequence, structure can be a huge help to figure out what’s wrong.  I learned this from David Baboulene’s book, the Story Book, so if you want to know about structure, story or subtext, visit his blog or buy his book.

Baboulene says somewhere that every story is basically the classic three act structure – a small beginning, act one, the long middle, act two and the short end, act three.  No matter what structure you used, the three act structure will probably apply.  Structure goes even deeper.  Every act in your story will also have a three act structure.  Each of those acts has a three act structure.  Every scene has a three act structure.  You can literally break every piece of your story into three pieces, the build-up to the problem, the conflict and complication of the problem, and the resolution, win or lose.

When you take this into account, each scene (and story, and sequence etc.) should have a protagonist (for that specific part; thus the person who has the most to lose in that particular part), and he should want something, and something should stand in his way.  Then he attempts to overcome this and he either wins or loses.

I find this breakdown of things into buildable blocks very useful because it allows you to take a scene (or story or sequence) apart and figure out which part isn’t working.  When you work with a small part, finding the problem is much easier.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Talent or No

Do all great writers have talent? Must one have a pool of talent to draw upon in order to be great at something (writing, in this case)? As far as I’m concerned, talent is somewhat overrated.

Here’s how I see it. Talent gives you a head start. It also lets you develop a skill easier than others. But talent does not equal success, nor does no talent equal failure. Talent or no, you need to work hard at what you’re doing. Talent is the difference between tearing words from your gut or pulling them from your overcoat pocket (paraphrased from Charles Peguy).

A lot of people say that talent is necessary, though it must come together with work and luck. I do not fully agree on this. Yes, you need to have some kind of aptitude with words, being able to string them together in coherent sentences, but in most cases, this can be learned. Writing is a skill, rather than an innate ability. Some people will have the extra head start in the form of , say, language proficiency. However, it isn’t necessary.

Not having talent will make things a lot harder, so a lot of people will give up. It will take time to catch up to those already running at full speed while you’re still trying to walk. But in the end, determination and persistence can pull you through.

On the other side of this spectrum, I think that you need to love what you do. You can’t force yourself to be a writer. If you do, you’ll never succeed in the way you want to. But perhaps the love for writing is your talent expressing itself.

All I know is this. Never give up because something is hard or because you think you aren’t good enough. If you keep at it, you get better, no matter what your innate abilities might be.

I, for one, realise that I don’t put enough time into my writing. I don’t work hard enough. I often give up for the day when a plot hole seems too wide to cover. But I’ll keep on trying. Working harder and getting further. I can only get better.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Crafting a Story : Secondary Character

Today, I’ll talk about our secondary character, Jasmine.

Jasmine grew up in a poor neighbourhood and eventually got mixed up with the wrong crowd, i.e. Irwin. She agreed to help him rob a store by posing as a hostage, but in a shocking twist of events, Henry manages to grab the gun and shoot Irwin, thus “saving” her. This let Jasmine see another side of the world and hope for a better future. Perhaps she felt horrified that Irwin was just killed. Either way, she falls in love with Henry, who has thus become her saviour, not only saving her from her “hostage” situation, but also symbolically saving her from a bad life. Eventually, Henry gives in to her advances, but she goes to great lengths to conceal her history with Irwin – as it would create conflict between her and Henry. When the ghost of Irwin starts haunting her and Henry, her secret comes out and Henry, in an act of anger, locks her out of the safe bunker and she is killed, abandoned by both the men in her life.

Jasmine will be regretting her decisions all throughout the story, from getting mixed up with Irwin at the start, to not telling Henry the truth sooner, at the end. Thus, she’ll be second-guessing every move she makes and endlessly obsessing over decisions she made. All in all, she’ll be a pretty jittery character, one is is doing everything she can to keep everything stable, thinking too hard on things and so forth.

However, Jasmine grew up in a rough neighbourhood and had learned to act out in certain ways to defend against ruffians. She couldn’t be a softie, per se. But, after she meets Henry, she tries to act the way a higher class woman should act in order to impress him.

Therefore, the Jasmine that Henry knows is not the same Jasmine that she really is. Eventually, when the pressure gets too much (such as when her secret is found out) she will drop her mask and revert to her old self. This on its own will shock Henry and therefore agitate him even further, allowing his anger to get the better of him.

Lastly, Jasmine’s attitude towards Irwin will be one of fear. She feels guilty about what happened, but hoped to put it behind her (maybe she spoke to a psychiatrist) but when he pops up again and she realises it’s him, the pressure will be on and she’ll start acting out. Fear will be a powerful motivator, even more than Henry’s approval. She will be the first to realise Irwin’s intentions (or at least guess correctly) and she will be the reason Henry and she survives the first lethal attacks.

That’s everything I need for now. Next week, I’ll summarize the story, so I can see the entire scope of where it will take me.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Stories for Sendai Release

I’ve always had a soft spot for Japan, so when the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent disasters hit them, I really wanted to help. However, I was pretty much broke, and any contribution would have been, as put so nicely below, puny.

What really hit me was how the Japanese people reacted after the disaster. They didn’t run around, looting and pillaging. They moved in an orderly fashion, following the directions given. Really a great example to follow.

When J.C. announced the creation of Stories for Sendai, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. So I thought and thought, trying to come up with something. I think I wrote three stories before I got one that seemed right to me. I sent it in and waited.

I was really glad when I heard that my story had been accepted. This is my first published work, and I’m glad that it can be connected with such a noble effort.

Yesterday, Stories for Sendai was officially released. If you haven’t bought a copy yet, go over to Amazon (or whichever place also sells it; i.e. Take2 if you’re in South Africa) and get yourself one. You get 19 short stories and a poem, plus you get to help the people of Japan. A bargain if I ever saw one.

Anthology Information:
One of the largest earthquakes ever recorded hit the city of Sendai in the Tohoku region of Japan on Friday March 11. The magnitude 9.0 quake unleashed a deadly tsunami that slammed into Japan's east coast, leaving a swathe of devastation in its wake. Thousands of people lost their lives, and many are still missing or injured. Thousands more have been left homeless and destitute.
As a testament to the generosity of the world's citizens, emergency appeals have been swiftly set up in the aftermath of the quake, but I'm sure many of you, as we did, had the same thought: our donations seem so puny. There must be some other way we could make a difference!

With that in mind, Stories for Sendai was born!

Here’s a link to Amazon for the print and the Kindle editions.

Finally, there is even a prize draw!  Email a copy of your receipt to storiesforsendai (at) ymail (dot) com, and be entered for a draw for cool prizes! Here’s what’s on offer:
1 x $10 or £10 Amazon gift voucher
1 x First Chapter/Query/Synopsis Critique by Michelle Davidson Argyle!
2 x First Chapter / Query / Synopsis Critiques by J.C. Martin!
2 x e-book copies of CELESTIAL SEDUCTION by Jessica E. Subject, donated by author!
1 x ebook copy of MIDDLEWITCH MAYHEM by Heather Parker, donated by author!