Writers’ Tools: Story Forge

I have been meaning to write this post for a long time, as evidenced by the fact that the first photo I took for it was while I was still planning my wedding and I’m been married almost seventeen months!

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Back in March 2012, I saw this cool Kickstarter project on my Twitter timeline (back when one’s Twitter timeline wasn’t chock-full of Kickstarter, Indiegogo and the like). I was immediately intrigued and backed it, making it the best $25 I’ve ever spent on my writing.

What is Story Forge?
What may at first look like tarot cards for maximum upheaval in your life are in fact prompts for the fiction writer’s imagination. Using the suggested layouts in the accompanying booklet, you can pick a plot, design a dramatic decision or concoct captivating characters. The deck is nominally divided into five suits – Destiny, Wealth, Will, Emotion and Identity – but this has never greatly affected the outcomes for me. You can read more about them from the creator’s mouth here).

Why use it
All writers have strengths and weaknesses. Me, I’m mad for plot. The genesis of a story for me is always the grand plot or the intriguing inciting incident- the “what if” moment. Once I have that down, the rest of the components follow after.

character-backstory

I have a problem with character. I love writing their dialogue, but I hate discovering their backstory. It causes me a major headache time and again. With Story Forge, I can generate hundreds of characters with fascinating, diverse stories and that is my main usage of the deck.

The cards aren’t proscriptive and have multiple and varied interpretations. As I’m dealing the cards, I elaborate on them to fit into the established narrative of the layout so far and make notes alongside the card titles. And it’s still your story. Card doesn’t fit? Discard and deal another. I remove the blank cards from the deck, because I don’t find them useful, but they can be an invitation to create an unusual twist.

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As well as a full backstory, there’s a layout for “Character ‘Quick Pick'”, which helps to flesh out minor characters beyond a name and an irritating dialogue quirk. There are also a number of plot layouts, covering genres like Action, Romance and Film Noir, and specific layouts for major turning points. I have never used these personally, but “The Hero’s Journey” will be familiar layout to anyone acquainted with Campbell and Vogler.

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They are also fairly portable and slot nicely into a medium-sized handbag alongside your tablet and index cards. I have received some strange looks from ticket inspectors on the train, but they really are versatile enough to be used almost anywhere!

I have used Story Forge cards to create three-dimensional characters for my current short film “A work of art” and current Wine and Women feature film project. When my feature spec received notes that characterisation needed work, I realised I’d neglected to Story Forge and I went back to the drawing board, delving deeper into my characters and their history and motivation.

If you want to develop your plotting and characterisation skills, I highly recommend Story Forge cards to enhance your writing. You won’t regret it.


Story Forge is available here.

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Freudian Script: Psychosis

Welcome to a new series of Freudian Script, where I delve into psychology and psychiatry for writers.

My focus over the next few weeks will be on common mental health disorders, including basic facts, common portrayals in fiction, and how writers can accurately and sensitively tackle these diseases in their work.

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is designed for writers of fiction. If you are concerned that you or someone you know has symptoms of mental health problems, please see your doctor.

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My first topic is PSYCHOSIS. Frequently misunderstood and misrepresented by writers and journalists alike, psychosis covers myriad diseases and comes in many varieties. Psychosis is NOT psychopathy – the terms “psychotic” and “psychopathic” are not the same thing, though these terms are frequently (and inaccurately) used interchangeably. While I will discuss psychopathy and sociopathy at a later date, we will concentrate on psychosis for now.

What is psychosis? In the broadest sense, psychosis is the inability to distinguish what is real and what is not. It is found in diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder, and can also be triggered by use of psychoactive chemicals (e.g. cannabis, LSD, etc.). Organic psychosis can originate due a neurological condition, such as dementia or a brain tumour.

In this post, I will concentrate on the favourite form of psychosis in fiction: schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia covers a hodge-podge of diseases that have psychotic features, the most common form of which is paranoid schizophrenia. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when folks were still figuring out mental health disorders, the diagnosis of these conditions was a bit haphazard.

Kurt Schneider, a smart German bloke, developed a set of “first rank” symptoms of schizophrenia, which suggested that schizophrenia was the likely culprit.

They included:
> Voice hallucinations – external, talking about the person, providing a running commentary on what the person is doing or the person’s own thoughts heard aloud
> Thought interference – the feeling that thoughts are being inserted, removed, blocked or broadcast to the world
> Delusions of control – that someone or something is controlling the body, including movement and changing feelings
> Delusional perception – where an ordinary perception takes on extraordinary meaning (e.g. “The traffic lights changed and I knew I was an angel”).

Of course, the experience of psychosis is not limited to these facets, but they are more aligned with schizophrenia. Note the absence of the Hollywood favourite: visual hallucinations. Of course, film is a visual medium and therefore visual hallucinations are more dramatic and convincing.

See: A Beautiful Mind.

The real John Nash primary experienced his psychosis as delusional beliefs of organisations working against him and, later, auditory hallucinations. Note also how the hallucination talks directly to Nash, which is again atypical.

People with schizophrenia who experience auditory hallucinations often have delusional explanations for these voices. For example, “the neighbours are spying on me” or “the government has bugged my house”. It is difficult to convince people these delusions are false, but particularly if they come from countries with a history of political oppression (e.g. Iran, Sri Lanka, etc.).

A particularly good example of schizophrenia portrayal is Sarah’s brother Michael in “Love Actually”. The delusional content, while bizarre, is not played for laughs and the scene in the hospital is fairly accurate (though the nurses are a bit odd). But Michael is a plot point, not a character.

So, why might a writer include a character with psychosis? The most obvious reason is The Twist. Perhaps one of the main characters is an hallucination? Maybe the government conspiracy thriller is actually someone’s mental breakdown? Maybe we’re all still inside the dream? Psychosis takes the Unreliable Narrator to the extreme. Also, conversely, the diagnosis of a mental illness in the context of a plot where aliens really are invading adds another obstacle to your protagonist.

A psychotic experience, whether part of a chronic mental illness or as a one-off episode, possibly related to drug use, is the epitome of terrifying. Voices from people you cannot see, persecution by unseen agents, the feeling of being controlled. The experiences of people with schizophrenia may make interesting reading for any horror writer looking for new ways to provoke fear.

With all chronic conditions, it is important to think twice before giving a character schizophrenia. It is well-documented that Aaron Sorkin didn’t know what he was letting himself in for when he gave President Bartlet multiple sclerosis, and that dominated a large portion of series plot in “The West Wing”. Schizophrenia can be well-managed, yes, but there are consequences to having the disease and the treatment, as well as the associated stigma.

NEXT TIME: In two weeks, Freudian Script will look at a common but potentially fatal disease which is often snubbed – Depression.


If you need advice or guidance on writing a character with a mental illness, please contact me by e-mail or in the comments below – I am always happy to help out!

Dear Technorati…

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Time For My Close Up: My First Photoshoot!

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When I found out I needed a promotional photo for my upcoming novel “Binary Witness”, I panicked. A quick flick through the options revealed a lot of big white dress and my engagement pics were two years and five hairstyles ago.

So I started hunting for a headshot photographer and a friend recommended Shane Gunning in Reading (who I also recommend, because he’s fantastic!).

My friend and I took a jaunt up to Reading and I freaked out over what to wear. When writing, I usually wear t-shirt and jeans (what I’m wearing now, in fact) but that wasn’t quite the look I wanted. I picked a turquoise green jumper dress with black tights and boots, with a thick black coat to keep out the cold. I put on some make-up, including a bit of cover-up for those late-night writer’s dark circles, and I did something with my hair that made it look less like I’d just crawled out of bed (default look).

Rosie Claverton, December 2013

Shane and his wife Anne really put me at my ease in the little church hall and library, but my natural broad grin wasn’t quite what he was after. It was time for Serious Crime Writer Face.

I am not very good at Serious Crime Writer Face. It kept breaking into Helpless Giggles Face and Headmistress Glare Face, but he somehow found a collection of photos where I look half-decent and like I am a Proper Author of Murder and Mystery.

I chose the picture to the left for my official Harlequin/Carina Press photograph and a couple more are peppered around the website. It was a fun experience, but I much prefer to remain on the other side of the camera!


All photography courtesy of Shane Gunning. BINARY WITNESS is due for publication by Carina Press on May 5th 2014.

I Have Nothing: Why “The Bodyguard” Musical Needs More Plot and Fewer Songs

Yesterday, I took my parents out to see “The Bodyguard” musical. My mum loved it, my dad suffered it, my husband continues to grumble and I was entertained.

Spoilers ahoy for “The Bodyguard” film and, to a lesser extent, the musical – if you haven’t seen the film, why not?! Go! Watch!

Done? Good. Now I’ll begin.

First off, I love “The Bodyguard”. My mum bought it for me as my first 15-rated DVD for my 15th birthday. I’ve used it with script editors to discuss the plots of mysteries I’ve been writing, as it uses some classic diversionary tactics.

The musical is, obviously, more musical than the film. There are many more songs. Because they are shoe-horned in to make a film into a musical, they are largely superfluous to the plot. I love the musical format, but I feel musicals that are not full libretto should have songs which enhance and serve the plot. Extraneous scenes are not useful in either musicals or films.

“The Bodyguard” musical goes one step further – it amputates elements of the plot to make time for more songs. Of course, any adaptation takes liberties with the source format. That is the process of adaptation. Musicals need more songs, therefore something has to give to stop it turning into a four-hour dragfest.

But because murder does not lend itself to musical theatre (though Sweeney Todd would argue otherwise), the musical emphasises the love interest angle between Frank and Nicki. To the tune of three or four songs. And the cost? Nicki’s character loses the most interesting thing about her: her role in the hit on Rachel.

To recap: in the film, there is a disturbed stalker who sends letters – and is a decoy. The real threat is a hitman, also a bodyguard, who is hired by Nicki in a fit of drunken jealousy. He also hits on Rachel in Miami, from which she narrowly escapes, and stirs all of Frank’s jealousy.

In the musical, the stalker is the villain. The “twist” is that he is ex-military and that Nicki once replied to one of his emails, which may have encouraged him. The whole fiasco in Miami is glossed over in one song. The bodyguard rival character does not exist. (Also, perhaps less noticeable if he were not my favourite character, the smartarse driver Henry).

By losing the twist elements, the plot is thin and predictable. The motivations of the “villain” lose coherance, with the Feeb characters desperately trying to exposit why he’s behaving so bizarrely. The spectacle of the musical loses its shine because it’s backed up by a whole lot of nothing between songs.

Without solid logical plot, you can spend as much money as you like on actors, locations, CGI and your film/TV show/musical will be pretty but lacking in substance. It won’t stick in the mind of the audience and it won’t make it onto their DVD shelves.

In the land of the blockbuster, story is still king.

2013 in review

So now is the time of year where writers waddle to their blogs, stuffed with Vegetable Wellington, and reflect on how everyone in the industry got the goddamn breaks except them.

Or some such thing.

My goal for this year was simple: seize my opportunities and write!

Here’s what happened:

– I submitted my Cyber Crime Sleuth novel to Carina Press and it was accepted for publication. It will be published as BINARY WITNESS in May 2014!

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– I wrote the first draft of the Cyber Crime Sleuth sequel for NaNoWriMo 2013.

– I wrote a short film called “A work of art”, which was shot under the expert eye of Emma Ashley in August and is now in post-production.

– I started work on a Wine and Women feature script with Nicholas John of Changeling Films.

– I was a guest of Euro #scriptchat, talking about Multi-Platform writing.

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– I started a new blog series called Freudian Script about psychology for writers. It’s been on hiatus but will return in the New Year!

– I redesigned my blog and it looks snazzy! (I also got to drink the latte in the banner image, which was a bonus).

– And I adopted a hedgehog called Humph!

I would also like to pay tribute to the bravery of my mother-in-law Pam Davies, who passed away in September after a long battle with breast cancer. Our family is still recovering from the long shadows cast by her struggle.

In 2014, I would love to continue my series of novels and also work on my scripts, which have taken a bit of a back seat.

I am looking forward to embarking on life as a professional writer (even if the day job still pays the bills) and embracing any and all opportunities that come my way.

May 2014 bring you fresh ideas, tireless typing fingers, and an antidote to adverbs! Happy New Year!

GUEST POST: Second Thoughts: Writing The Next Novel In A Series by Lucy V Hay

I am delighted to welcome Lucy to Swords and Lattes for our first guest post. Her screenwriting advice is always practical and rooted in years of industry experience. Recently, she has turned her talent to novelling and, while in the grips of my sequel writing, I thought it would be great to explore another writer’s point of view on wrestling with the agony of writing The Next Book.

Without further ado:

If you’ve ever written a novel, you’ll know it’s a painfully frustrating, isolating and generally miserable experience. It’s also like winning the lottery and all your millions are delivered in molten chocolate (or whatever is *your* fave, all the choc’s mineallminegetyerhandsoff).

It’s a weird thing, novel writing. You spend all your time wading through soul treacle, desperate to write THE END … And then you DO and you feel like your child has left home – those painstaking, slo-mo years rushed by so fast! – and then you burst into tears.

So, really: the LAST thing you want to do is do it all over again … yet you feel compelled to. Or at least, I do. And I can’t be the *only* masochist writer around, as there’s NOT many novelists with only one book to their name!

My novel, THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY is out next year in the English Language. It’s already been available for a year in German. Why? ‘Cos the Germans bought it and translated it, basically. Which was nice. Over there it’s known as BACHENTSCHEIDUNG or “Gut Decision” and is a stand-alone book (so far) about a young girl, the aforementioned Lizzie, who finds herself pregnant at 17. In SLIDING DOORS style, Lizzie is presented with all the possible options of dealing (or not) with this, such as having the baby; abortion; miscarriage and so on.

This book sold back in 2011, but then 2012 came around and I found myself ill with cancer. For the first time in my adult life, I found myself not working and having to – le gasp – SIT STILL for hours at a time as they filled me full of drugs. As is common with life threatening situations (I’m told), I was forced to make a few realisations about my life, most of which are too personal or boring to detail here. But one of them was this:

I want to write more books like THE DECISION, all about issues teens face – and if I get through this, I will.

Happily, I am now in remission. But having been slapped in the face with the notion of just how short life is, I’m going to do what I promised myself all those months ago and write THE DECISION as a series of books for teenage girls, aged 14-19. Each one will deal with a common medical or social issue and just like Lizzie has to deal with her pregnancy, each (female) protagonist will be presented with a dilemma of some kind and then all the various CHOICES of how it *could* play out … Some will not be as bad as she fears; others worse than she can imagine.

Why teenagers? Well, they get a rough deal: they’re monstered by the media and stereotyped by society constantly. Sure, some are a royal pain in the ass – I was a teacher at secondary level, plus I have a fifteen year old son myself – but generally speaking, I like teenagers; I remember what it’s like to feel adrift and alone, navigating one’s way to ADULT LIFE without so much as a map or directions. It’s tough being a young person at the best of times and let’s face it, now ain’t the best of times.

So I’m currently editing THE DECISION: JASMINE’S STORY. I wrote this during chemo and was pleased to find that despite being off my tits for most of the summer on a delicious cocktail of steroids and Taxol, it mostly works storyline-wise.

The protagonist, Jasmine, is very different to Lizzie: an only child (Lizzie has five sisters), Jasmine is a runner and very studious, doing the sciences at the local college. Whilst Lizzie is not the life and soul of the party, Jasmine fades into the wallpaper so much she could be in the next room. Because Jasmine’s story is part of THE DECISION series, we find ourselves back in the fictional rural seaside resort of Winby, Exmorton and Linwood, where Lizzie lives. The two girls are not friends, but living in the same story world they inevitably cross paths and Jasmine appears fleetingly in Lizzie’s story and vice versa.

Most strikingly however, Jasmine has a best friend, Olivia, who is suffering from depression. Jasmine is able to recognise this because her mother, Linda, suffers from the same, albeit for different reasons. Unable to deal with the problems of her family or friend, Jasmine pretends to herself it’s not happening … Until one day, in which she is forced by a new girl – the archetypal “mean girl”, if you like – to make a choice: her old friend, or the promise of being “popular”.

The notion of being “popular” and what this means in explored in Jasmine’s story, meaning the theme of the book is essentially “self esteem”. This is what is making it so challenging for me to write and edit, because self esteem is very much a metaphysical thing, whereas a teen pregnancy, such as Lizzie’s is obviously PHYSICAL. Whereas Lizzie has LITERAL potential obstacles to deal with, Jasmine’s are much harder for her to understand, never mind address.

As a teacher, I saw many girls attempt to destroy one another for a chance of being “popular”. As a student, I remember the misery of being The Outsider and wondering if anyone could see the “real me”. Looking back now, I wish I could tell the scared little girl I was that none of that shit matters. It’s no accident that in my brain, Jasmine is essentially that part of me who felt left overlooked and humiliated by others’ mockery and dismissiveness.

At the moment, the beginning and end of the manuscript is strong. It’s the middle that is the issue. I think because I was scared – yes, scared – of writing about the metaphysical for the first time (not to mention feeling melodramatic because I was gravely ill), I wrote a ridiculous tangent into the middle of the story. Instead of “keeping it real” (something Lizzie’s story has been praised for, especially its “grittiness), in Jasmine’s I went into fantasy-land: there’s floods, rescues by helicopter and even a massive cliff collapse!

Now, of course all of those things CAN happen in “real life” and certainly, bits of it in the manuscript are exciting. But this sort of “larger than life” happening is NOT what THE DECISION series is about. THE DECISION series takes real scenarios that real teens may find themselves facing and presents them in a realistic and plausible way.

This is why I have set up Bang2write on Ask.Fm recently: I want teens to be able to ask me questions, anonymously if they want, about the issues they face. In addition, I am collecting articles for and about teenagers on a new B2W dedicated Pinterest board, The Decision: YOUR Story.

So my advice to writers who are struggling with a second or companion novel in a series? Think about your message, what you’re trying to achieve and who your audience is. Realising who you want to reach will tell you everything you need to know. Good luck!


BIO:

Lucy V Hay is a script editor, novelist and blogger who helps writers via her Bang2write consultancy. Lucy is author of the book, WRITING AND SELLING THRILLER SCREENPLAYS (Creative Essentials) and the novels, THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY and THE DECISION: JASMINE’S STORY, both out in 2014.

Writers’ Tools: How Google Maps Can Enhance Your Narrative

Now that NaNoWriMo is over, I have a few moments to do something other than pour words into my novel. One of my most invaluable tools this year, and in 2011, was Google Maps.

My mystery series is set in Cardiff and spills out into South Wales. While I was resident in Wales for seven years and spent five of those years in Cardiff, I am currently living in London. Therefore, real life research would require hopping on the train and having a limited wander in the time available.

Or I could just look up my location in Google Maps, plot out the route and make notes on the twists and turns of the adventure.

For example, here is a chase sequence from the first novel – from Cardiff Central station to the River Taff:

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(To orientate you, the station is at the very top of the image and Cardiff City Centre is north of that. The river runs south towards Cardiff Bay.)

This is not a route I have ever walked – why would I? I have left Central Station by the back exit but not to dive down a series of alleyways to escape my pursuit.

Of course, I could’ve just made it up. No one would know the difference if my chaser and chasee turned right instead of left, or if he squeezed through a narrow alley or leapt a fence. If the facts were inconvenient or the drama could be improved by a slight detour, I don’t think a writer of fiction should be a slave to the absolute truth.

However, on a slightly larger scale, the geographical landmarks have a little more bearing.

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Note the van on the far left: the green line indicates the route it should’ve taken, and the blue line is the detour. At the second van, someone emerges on foot – the red line is the most direct route, the yellow route the path taken.

As I journey my character into Cardiff centre, I nudged the yellow line as he went, making decisions for him based on Google’s satellite images. Would he see the river from this point? How far would he avoid towns, main roads?

At one point, I had no idea how I was going to get him across a river and the satellite image showed only a dense woodland. So I looked at the routes detailed by the local rambling club and I happened upon a photograph taken of an old railway bridge at exactly the point where I needed a crossing.

While that instance was more luck than judgement, it gave me a starting point for my description. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where the boy goes – it matters that my readers care what happens to him, can visualise his trials and tribulations on this journey.

For example, there is a dilemma about the M4. On his route, he’s avoided it once already, only to find himself back there. At which point he realises that he must cross it at some point and now is the time. I could look at the bridge and the tree cover at each end, the position of the streetlights, the probability of someone seeing him. Did I need that information to the imagine the scenario? No. But was it easier for having a template on which to base it? Yes, absolutely.

So, Google Maps – not essential to the work of a writer, but a helpful aid to the imagination when plotting from afar.


Rosie’s debut novel BINARY WITNESS is available from Carina Press from May 2014 (Google Maps Not Included).

NaNoWriMo 2013: Achievement Unlocked!

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80,626

In 30 days.

I really need a holiday…*

*once I’ve actually finished the novel, because there’s probably another 2k or so to go…

Retitling: A Book by Any Other Name Would Sell as Sweet?

Further to my post last week about the acquisition of my novel by Carina Press, I thought I’d shed some light on one aspect of my journey to publication: retitling.

The working title for my novel was Ctrl+Alt+Del. I’ll admit that I was pretty happy with it – I felt it captured the elements of hacking, stalking and murder pretty aptly.

However, Carina rightly pointed out that search engine results would commonly bring up the keyboard shortcut in preference to the novel. Therefore I was asked to go through a retitling process.

It started with a Title Worksheet. This involved teasing out information about the book that could feed into a new title: genre, themes, conflicts, etc.

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The next stage was coming up with a new list of possible titles. I was surprised how difficult I found this, as I’ve always found picking a title one of the easiest parts of writing. Of course, this may because I’m naff at it…

bookshelves

For inspiration, I decided to look at our bookcases. My husband and I are both avid readers and we have three bookcases in our house (plus one for DVDs!). I turned to the two fiction bookcases and looked for titles that were particularly eye-catching, titles which would make me pick that book up off the shelf to see what it was about.

I wrote down the titles that grabbed my attention and then highlighted the ones that were distinctive, particular to the genre and content of that book.

title storm

I then generated a list of titles and sent them in. My wonderful editor Deb returned my list with some further suggestions, including usage of popular crime themes and concepts (death, justice, etc.).

And from there, my novel was retitled. I heard back at the end of last week what my baby would be named and I’m very happy with how it turned out.

Drum roll please…

BINARY WITNESS

Coming to a virtual bookshelf near you – May 2014!

Of course, if you’re not a novelist, or not yet at the stage of contemplating publication, a retitling process can be useful in other ways.

For example, when one acquires a pet hedgehog. One can devise a list of titles with one’s spouse. One can generate a list of names with one’s nieces and nephew and vote on our favourites.

But, when all’s said and done, if you get the little prickle monster home and he doesn’t fit in with any of your names, you’re going to have to come up with something different.

So, introducing my “retitled” hedgehog…Humph!

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