Siren Stories: The Blog

Siren Stories: The Blog

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Zoe Bartlet's Studies

Writing CraftPosted by Jonathan McKinney Wed, February 01, 2017 20:18:40
So, you’re a writer, or a budding writer, or an aspiring writer, and you want to learn how to improve? Jonathan McKinney, author of the Schildmaids Saga, has a series of blogs that can help.

Every scene, as you know, must have tension. Someone wants something they don’t have. Tension. It might be that a character wants to chase his departing sweetheart through an airport, to declare his endless love. That’s what he wants, that’s what he needs to do. Until he’s done it, there’s tension. It might be something more everyday: a woman is late for work, a kid wants to reach the cookie jar, or whatever. But there has to be dramatic tension. Otherwise, you don’t have a scene, you just have people talking and doing stuff.

This week I’m thinking about how to layer a scene with multiple layers of tension.

The dialogue in the first four seasons of The West Wing is incredible. Aaron Sorkin wrote an absurd amount of the scripts during those years, and I’m not exaggerating when I say absurd. He pretty much wrote all of them. And, because his characters talk so fast, his scripts were almost twice as long as the industry standard for a forty-two and a half minute piece of televised fiction.

But, while the output is staggering in and of itself, it’s downright astounding when you consider the quality of the work actually being produced. As a writer myself, I am floored by the feats Sorkin performed during those years. (As a fan of TV, I’m just grateful.)

So I’m going to try my best to unpick some of the techniques applied by Sorkin so that we can benefit; and, for now, I’ve chosen a scene from the seventeenth episode of the first season, entitled The White House Pro-Am.

The American President, Jed Bartlet, who is a white man, arranges a meeting with his daughter Zoey, who is also white. She’s planning to go to a club opening with her African American boyfriend Charlie, but because the Secret Service has been receiving death threats from white supremacists, who ‘don't like that the daughter of the President is dating a young black man’, President Bartlet has to tell his daughter that, while she can go, Charlie can’t.

So, that there is President Bartlet’s primary motivation. He wants to break the news to his daughter. But Sorkin doesn’t jump straight in with that. He has Bartlet ask Zoey, a college student, about her studies, asking her what her schedule for the day is. This is Sorkin grounding the scene in something not related to the current storyline, which fleshes out the character of Zoey—in that she’s at college—but, also, of Bartlet—in that he takes an interest in her life.

Anyway, she tells him that she has ‘Intro to Cinema and 19th Century Studies’, and this opens up a really effective, lighthearted running tension between the two characters. President Bartlet wants to know why she isn’t studying “math”, as the Americans call it. She jokes that she’s not studying math because she already graduated high school, and her father tells her she should be studying it at university too.

He teases her about her studying Intro to Cinema, and finally gets to the point, bringing up the death threats, and explaining about the club opening.

So, the whole math thing serves as a kind of humorous back and forth before the meat of the scene. We immediately call back to it, though:

Bartlet says: ‘I met with Butterfield and some Secret Service Agents this morning.’

Zoey replies: ‘What did I do?’

And Bartlet says: ‘You didn't do anything. They think you should be taking more math.’

The quick call back keeps the dialogue light and energetic, and now the scene drops the math thing and focuses on the Charlie thing. Zoey understands, and tells her father that she’ll break the bad news to her boyfriend over lunch, and then Bartlet’s assistant comes in and we move on.

But Sorkin isn’t done.

One of the other storylines in this episode is the death of the Federal Reserve Chairman, Bernie Dahl, which Bartlet finds out about a few scenes prior to this one. So, as Zoey is leaving the room, she stops and consoles her father. He explains that he didn’t know Dahl very well, and Zoey asks who is going to replace him.

Bartlet says: ‘I don’t know. You want the job?’

Zoe says: ‘Yeah.’

Bartlet says: ‘Can’t have it. Know why?’

Zoe says: ‘Why?’

And Bartlet says: ‘Not enough math. Bye.’

I genuinely love this scene. I think it’s outstanding. In just over two minutes, Sorkin delivers this weighty, hard story, of the interracial romance and the white supremacists, which is going to bubble along right up until the end of the season. But he also nods to the events going on within the span of this episode, with the mention of the deceased Federal Reserve Chairman—but what really elevates it to an A+ scene for me is the running math tension.

So, say you’re writing a scene and you have your Character A driving the scene and Character B responding. Ask yourself what the relationship between the characters is. What is going on with them, in their daily lives?

You have your primary tension: the “club opening”, for example. If you can introduce a secondary tension that grows out of the pre-existing relationship between the characters, as Sorkin did with the math tension, you can really lift your scene from good to brilliant.

See, so much character work is coded into the math tension. You see Bartlet disappointed that his daughter isn’t following the wisdom that guided him as a young man, but you also see that he’s playful with it, and she doesn’t leave feeling like he’s really disappointed by her. You see what I feel is a strong, if not quite perfect, father daughter relationship.

And in addition to all that, it’s funny. But look again at the punchline, when Bartlet tells Zoey she can’t have Dahl’s job because she’s not studying math. It would be easy to construct the joke using fresh events. But Sorkin does it by folding in the events of the episode. This is fantastic work. When you’re writing, try to do this as much as you can: try to fold in details that you’ve already specified in the text, where you can.

Have a think, right now. Your work-in-progress—what events have occurred, which you can fold in to future scenes? Doing this really settles your reader, and lets him or her feel like you know what you’re doing, and it glues otherwise disparate events together in a truly satisfying way.

Go and watch the scene if you are able to. It’s fifteen minutes in to episode 1:17. And think about your characters, and how you can layer their interactions with character-developing, secondary tensions.

Find me on Facebook and Twitter and get in touch, and, by all means, buy my books, which you can find out about here.

Peace and love, fellow writer. Go and write.

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Mr Vandermar's Pigeon

Writing CraftPosted by Jonathan McKinney Sat, January 21, 2017 08:00:29
So, you’re a writer, or a budding writer, or an aspiring writer, and you want to learn how to improve? Jonathan McKinney, author of the Schildmaids Saga, has a series of blogs that can help.

You sit down to write a scene. You’ve got two characters, and you know where your story is going, so your two characters discuss the necessary plot details, and your scene ends. It works. It moves your story forward. It all makes sense. But it’s pale. It’s dry.

This is an easy trap to fall into.

You attempted one thing with your scene, and you accomplished it. But to elevate your writing, you want to be looking to accomplish as many things with your scenes as possible. This is what brings your stories to life, makes them dense and crunchy and vivid.

So, how do we do it?

In Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel Neverwhere, the author has such a scene to write. Around the middle of the story, the two most prominent bad guys, Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar have a conversation that moves the story forward.

The context is: Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar are assassins. Slimy, stinky-breathed assassins. They’ve been hired by someone, whose identity is at this point in the story a mystery, and who we refer to only as “the governor”. Mr Croup, who is the smarter of the two, is growing frustrated that the governor keeps changing his mind about what he wants the assassins to do.

Mr Croup says: ‘Kill her, kidnap her, scare her. Why doesn’t he make up his mind?’

When this scene happens in the story, it’s important, because I was starting to wonder the same thing. This conversation reassured me that the author was also aware of the problem and that it was all part of the plan, and not simply inconsistent character work.

But, the author wants to do more than merely tidy up his plot. He wants to entertain. He wants to reveal and develop his characters to his readers.

So he doesn’t start the scene in Mr Croup’s POV, with what would be a perfectly good, but somewhat perfunctory: ‘Mr Croup was confused’.

No, he starts in Mr Vandemar’s POV, with a simple: ‘Mr Vandemar was hungry’.

By rooting this scene in the terribly mundane, utterly relatable short term goal of “find food”, Gaiman is able to deliver the actual story momentum via Mr Vandemar’s companion Mr Croup, who, while Mr Vandemar goes about sourcing some sustenance, rants about his confused frustration:

‘Scare her,’ muttered Mr Croup, disgustedly. ‘Scare her. That we should be brought to this.’

While Mr Croup has his little moan, Mr Vandemar takes ‘half a prawn and lettuce sandwich [from] a waste-bin’ (notice the detail). Now, reading the book, my first thought was: “Oh, that’s gross. Mr Vandemar is eating an old sandwich from a bin”. But Mr Vandemar doesn’t eat the sandwich. He tears it up and begins throwing it to the stones to attract pigeons.

At this point, I’m really grossed out because I realise that Mr Vandemar is probably going to eat a live pigeon.

Mr Croup gets back to moaning about the governor’s intentions, and when Mr Vandemar runs out of sandwich, he rushes into the crowd of pigeons and grabs one. Mr Croup congratulates him on his catch, and, with a sigh, he closes his part of the scene, saying, ‘Well, anyway. We’ve certainly put the cat among the pigeons now’ (referring to their actions in the previous scene, where they scared the “her” he keeps talking about).

Finally, the scene ends thus: ‘Mr Vandemar held the pigeon up to his face. There was a crunching noise, as he bit off its head, and commenced to chew.’

Now, see what Gaiman has accomplished here.

1: He’s demonstrated that Mr Croup is aware of the fact that the governor’s actions are inconsistent. As I said before, this reassures the reader that the governor is not just acting in ways that allow our heroes to succeed for no reason. Gaiman hasn’t sacrificed the governor’s character so as to allow his protagonists to survive, to allow his story to keep going. No. Something is going on, and we will find out what.

2: He’s provided clear, disturbing insight into the quite grotesque eating habits of Mr Vandemar. Those habits tell you quite a lot. The scene demonstrates Mr Vandemar’s rudimentary problem solving skills, and, given that catching a pigeon probably isn’t easy—I’ve never tried—the scene also demonstrates Mr Vandemar’s impressive physical proficiency.

That’s quite impressive for a scene that lasts for little more than one page. And, fellow writer, keep in mind that Gaiman has done way more with this scene than he was required to do. No, the scene would have been perfectly fine if it had just been Mr Croup ranting to Mr Vandemar, with Mr Vandemar responding. But “perfectly good” isn’t “excellent”, and this scene is excellent.

So, the next scene you sit down to write, try this. You have your main story purpose in your head already. That’s the first thing on your mind. Character A wants this or that. Try to get into the heart and soul of Character B. What does Character B want? It’s likely not what Character A wants. Find it, and root your scene in Character B’s POV, and allow the A story to move forward reflectively.

Food is a strong, mundane character goal. But unless you have an interesting character like Mr Vandemar, you might find that ‘Bill went to the kitchen and took out a biscuit’ doesn’t really cut it.

No. Try and reveal whatever it is that’s exceptional about Character B. See, it’s not the fact that Mr Vandemar is hungry that makes him exceptional. It’s the fact that he catches a pigeon and bites its head off. And that’s what elevates this otherwise C grade scene to an A.

Find me on Facebook and Twitter and get in touch, and, by all means, buy my books, which you can find out about here.

Peace and love, fellow writer. Go and write.

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Writing Through Doubt

Writing LifePosted by Jonathan McKinney Mon, January 16, 2017 21:10:10
You feel it, deep down. Your work in progress is garbage. No one would enjoy it. No one could enjoy it. It makes you apprehensive about returning to it at all, and so you procrastinate and remain in that place of doubt and frustration.

It's possible your story has real problems that you need to fix, and if that's the case I understand. You can work on that later, though, when your first draft is finished. This little piece of advice is about pushing through that sense of doubt you feel about the first draft of your story as you're writing it.

It gets me all the time.

I'll be writing something and I'll be stuck. I think the phrase that non-writers are obsessed with is "Writer's Block". When you're blonde Johnny Depp, drinking hard, in a cabin in the woods somewhere, and you're trying and trying but the paper in the typewriter contains nothing but insufficient first sentences.

It's a romantic idea, but I don't think it's a realistic idea.

I think that the sense of dread comes not from insufficient inspiration, but a self-created super-harsh judgement about existing inspiration.

Because chances are you know what your scene is supposed to accomplish. Chances are you know what the next scene and the subsequent scene are supposed to accomplish. But the problem is you've been staring at these events for so long, you're passed caring.

You read it back and suddenly all you see is garbage.

It's too literal, so you're a child.

It's not literal enough, so no one will see what you're doing.

The characters are flat. The "funny" lines are not funny. You're the joke. You're wasting your time, writing about people who don't exist, doing dumb, impossible things, and your work sucks.

In that state, it's real easy to stop writing and do something else. Not forever, but just for now. Until "the feeling" returns. That vague sense that the story is actually good. That vague sense that the dialogue is interesting. Maybe, if you entrust yourself to fate, inspiration will strike and you will be back on track, another time.

I argue with this voice in my head a lot. Especially while drafting. But the voice is wrong. The writing doesn't suck. At least, no worse than normal. (All opinions welcome.) The problem is one of perspective. You are too close to the work.

You know that feeling when you love a song? And you listen to it over and over and you know you're slowly killing your love for it but you can't help yourself?

It's like that.

Of course, if you spend so much time so close to your characters, they're going to start annoying the shit out of you. The dumb stuff they say won't seem clever, it'll seem moronic. And every little flourish you dare insert into the prose will begin to look like the crappiest block of crap that was ever crapped.

The fact remains: your characters need you to shove your hand up their puppet holes and make them talk because they're nothing without you. You know what it is they want. You know what it is they're working toward. So get to work. Not every line has to dazzle all the time. You know that.

Writer's Block is bullshit. It's just that feeling you get when you stop being your own perfect audient for a while.

Get to work.

All the techniques you admire in other writers can be applied to your own writing later. That's the beauty of the second draft! For now, make those damned people talk. Make them act. You know what they want. Now make them go and get it.

Peace and love.

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Intro to Story Craft For Writers

Writing CraftPosted by Jonathan McKinney Sat, January 14, 2017 08:50:28
So, you’re a writer, or a budding writer, or an aspiring writer, and you want to learn how to improve? Jonathan McKinney, author of the Schildmaids Saga, has a helpful series of blogs that can help.

Welcome to the first instalment of my new blog series, Story Craft For Writers. Every Saturday, I’m going to take a piece of existing fiction and deconstruct it, and analyse it, so that together we can learn from it. It might be a scene from a book, or from a TV show or movie; it might be, for example, the way that an entire story is structured—but it will always be a critical look at something that’s made its way into the world and, to some extent or another, succeeded.

If you’re wondering how it’s going to work, I’ll explain. I might take a scene that’s been really expertly put together. I’ll take it apart, explain what the author was doing, what techniques he or she was using, and put it back together; and in doing so I’ll reveal how we can apply the same techniques to the composition of our own scenes.

Some weeks I’ll focus on creating strong dialogue. Other weeks, I’ll focus on strong character moments. As we go forward I’ll look at theme, and at conflict; I’ll look at particularly effective foreshadowing; and I’ll look endlessly at one of the greatest, most important things of all: character goals.

(Quick tip: Unless every single one of your characters wants things, you have a problem. But you know that already.)

Now, it’s important that you, dear writer, understand that you won’t have to have read everything I talk about, or watched it if it’s a movie or TV show. This is not a book club. This is like school. Within each blog I will provide all of the context necessary for you to understand what all the characters want, what they’re working towards, and what the stakes are. So, obviously, there will be massive spoilers in every blog. I will make it very clear which work I’m looking at well before you dive in, if there are things that you’re precious about keeping unspoiled.

(My advice, though: forget spoilers, come learn. It’s going to be fun, and I swear it’ll get your brain all excited to sit down at your keyboard and start writing.)

Next week, when I begin this series properly, I’m going to look at a scene from Nail Gaiman’s fantasy novel Neverwhere, from 1996. Again, please don’t rush out and read the book in order to prepare for this. You won’t have to. It won’t help at all. By all means, go and read it, but do so for the fun of it.

For, I will explain the necessaries.

The following week I have it in my mind to talk about a scene from an episode of the increasingly idyllic-looking TV show, The West Wing—but I may change my mind before then, if something else jumps out at me.

I will try to mix things up. I want to get to a breakdown of the climax of Matt Haig’s The Radleys; I want to deconstruct Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy; and, when it comes to storytelling excellence, I will fall back regularly on the works of Joss Whedon (the overlord), as well as regularly checking into Stars Hollow for examples of incredibly energetic dialogue.

I may occasionally want to throw a Tarantino in. (Trigger warnings at the ready.) And, I would like to look closely at some of Terry Pratchett’s work too, especially for the construction of wonderful characters.

So there’s your basic gist. Come with me. If you don’t learn how to put together better scenes, better characters, better stories … your money back.

Oh! I should also mention that, from time to time, the analysis might not be positive. I might want to look at storytelling choices that maybe don’t work. I promise, though, I’ll be respectful. I don’t like hating on stuff people work hard on and invest themselves into. That said, if we can improve by looking at scenes that fail, I’m cool with it.

And that’s about it for now.

(Final point: I’m not going to perpetually crucify the adverb. For, ‘Adverbs are fine,’ I said tiredly.)

Find me on Facebook and Twitter and get in touch, and, by all means, buy my books, which you can find out about here.

Peace and love, fellow writer. Go and write.

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Self Promotion

Writing LifePosted by J.J. Barnes Fri, January 13, 2017 10:45:44
Writing a book is a huge achievement. Editing a book is, in my opinion, an even bigger one because writing is fun and editing is stressful. Getting that written and edited book released to the world and selling copies of it is the biggest achievement ever... well other than releasing my babies into the world which was a far more painful but ultimately more heart warming accomplishment. But the books come a really, really, REALLY close second.

Of course, I had naively assumed that once that release process has happened that your work is done. You can sit back, be inspired for your next novel, and watch the money roll into your bank account.

Alas, much like children, the creation and release is only a tiny part of the long term project. Much like children, it requires continual work.


Because writing the book is one thing, but if nobody knows it's there, they aren't going to buy it. And if they do know it's there, you then have to convince them that it's worth it. Because the market is saturated, there are thousands and thousands of books, and people only have so much time, and so much money, to invest in reading. Making people choose your book over any of the others is the challenge.

How do you do it?

Well this is the hard part, because if you're terribly British about these things like I can be, then the idea of screaming to the world that your book is fantastic, your voice is engaging, and that experiencing the two together will change their life, is one that makes your insides recoil in horror.

You don't want to be a pest. You don't want to be obnoxious. You don't feel comfortable tooting your own trumpet.

But if you don't do it, who will?

When I released Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit, my first novel, I was so proud of myself. And with good reason. As I said, writing and publishing a book is something many people only dream of doing so being proud of that accomplishment is legitimate. But now I am learning to tell people.

I used to rely on an occasional tweet. An apologetic reminder that hey, I wrote a book guys! I felt daft, people wouldn't want to hear from me. People would be annoyed that I was trying to sell to them. But it's not the case.

In today's fast paced world of social media, your announcements will be swept up in a sea of similar ones. Your tweets will whizz down people's feeds really fast and be gone. If you only announce it once every couple of weeks with a foot shuffle and awkward cough, nobody will notice.

So do it. Get over the embarrassment and shame and tell the world what you did!

I worked my arse off to write this book. I cried, I stressed, I studied. I wrote it and rewrote it. I put my heart and soul into creating a story I was so desperate to tell, and if nobody knows about it what was it for?

So I'm learning. I'm learning to share my pride, my accomplishment.

It's the same with my blog. Whereas I used to write a post and share it, then move onto the next thing because I didn't want to be a nuisance, I now share it again. I tell people I wrote. Because if you wrote it, it's worth reading. And people need to know.

So take to Twitter, Instagram what you've done, contact the media, tell the world. Be proud in your writing because you should be.

The market is saturated but it's for a reason. We, as a species, love to read. If we didn't there wouldn't be such an abundance of newspapers, blogs, magazines and novels available. We love to read, we lap it up. We crave more and more input and need people to put it out there for us.

So celebrate that, make sure the people looking find you, and imprint your confidence in your product all over this saturated market.

Be proud of your work.

J.J. Barnes xx

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When Do You Write?

Writing LifePosted by J.J. Barnes Sat, January 07, 2017 08:33:56
There are so many tales of famous authors who need certain conditions to be able to write. Circumstances, locations, all perfected to give the optimum writing conditions to create masterpieces of literary fiction.

Agatha Christie famously wrote in the bath whilst eating apples. Marcel Proust only wrote at night from his bed. Maya Angelou wrote in a stripped bare hotel room with only a bottle of sherry and ash tray for distraction. They're famous for a reason, respected for a reason. They found circumstances beyond the ordinary to write in that produced the best possible results.

But what of me? Where do I write?

It's something I'm often asked. People imagine me hunched over a laptop, steaming mug of coffee at my side. Perhaps classical music playing or maybe I need a fresh breeze. Perhaps I have to wear a certain pair of socks or prefer the anonymity of a coffee shop in the city.

The reality is somewhat different. I write whenever and wherever I get the chance.

I am a mother of three under five, two daughters and a step son, and we have no nanny or au pair. We have a small house rammed to the brim with toys and children.

One of my most popular blogs on Rose And Mum And More, Why You're A Crap Mum, was written whilst the big two crashed around and I cooked spaghetti. I put the laptop on the kitchen counter and between shouting at my offspring to stop climbing on each other / stop pulling the cat's tail / stop climbing the walls, and between peeling, chopping and stirring, I wrote.

As I write this I am breastfeeding my smallest whilst the biggest watches television to my left and Jonathan McKinney writes on his own laptop to my right.

My second novel, Lilly Prospero And The Mermaid's Curse, was written primarily whilst I was pregnant with my youngest. I was very ill, spent a lot of time in hospital, and very tired. But whenever I was able to I wrote. I wrote and edited and wrote some more. The book was released exactly one week before the baby was born.

So what's the lesson here?

If you're a writer you're a writer. If you love it you will do it.

I write first thing in the morning, any time from 5AM onwards, before the daily bustle begins. I write last thing at night after the children are in bed and food has been eaten, before I fall exhausted into bed and prepare for the night feeds. I write whilst parenting, I write whilst cooking, I write in silence or in noise. If I have the writing in me it needs to come out.

My perfect writing situation? Calm, quiet, coffee. Enough background noise that I'm not distracted by silence, enough quiet that I'm not distracted by noise. Somewhere private but not isolated. Somewhere warm but not sweaty, comfy but not drowsy making.

But life doesn't always provide such circumstances. First, before anything else, I'm a mother. But next I'm a writer. I wake up thinking first about my children, and second about my writing. I fall asleep writing in my head, I narrate life experiences as if I were writing them, working out how best to describe emotions as they're had, dramas as they unfurl. I pull inspiration from daily life without any intention because writing is as much a part of my identity as my children are.

If you're a writer you will write. Sometimes you'll find it easier than others. Sometimes the words will flow more naturally than others. Sometimes the quality will be better than others. None of that matters. You can improve poor quality writing, you can't improve no writing.

If you're a writer you will write. Write whenever and wherever you are able. Write because you need to. Because if you don't write you'll forever feel incomplete, forever like something inside you is waiting to burst out. Write because you love it and because nothing in this life could fulfil you more.

Thanks for reading.

J.J. Barnes x

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