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By Robin Richards, Mar 15 2016 02:03PM

I went to one of those inspirational speaker events last year. Okay I’ll admit it, I have a bit of a weakness for that sort of thing – all that positivity buzzing around the room, the leaping up, high-fiving your neighbour and shouting out, ‘You can do it!’

This particular inspirational patter merchant told us, ‘Don’t sit on the fence!’ I think at the time he was trying to get the audience to subscribe to his ludicrously overpriced training programme, the implication being if you didn’t jump in with both feet (and your credit card of course) you were indecisive and somewhat lacking in the positivity department. ‘Don’t sit on the fence,’ he said, ‘if you do you’ll get splinters in your bum!’

I’ve been thinking about his comments recently especially with regard to planning and writing my next crime novel – working title: Nasty, Brutal and Short. Writers tend to fall into two camps, two opposing poles, when it comes to planning and writing fiction; there are the planners and then there are the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers. Some writers, the planners, will plot and plan their novels meticulously. They will dust off their copies of Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Bob McKee’s Story and offer up a silent prayer of thanks to the late Syd Field and the Three-Act Structure, and they set about it. There will be plans, plot points, inciting incidents, character profiles, flow charts and a host of other displacement activities we all engage in when we really should be getting down to doing some writing.

And then there are the seat-of-your-pants writers for whom planning and plotting is anathema. They jump straight in, start writing and trust to the flow from their wellspring of inherent creativity to see them through from ‘Once upon a time …’ to ‘… and they all lived happily ever after.’ They are from the school which advocates jumping off the cliff and growing your wings on the way down.

Somewhere along the line each writer has to address the question of just where they are on this planning - creativity continuum. For me, being the cautious type and having spent more years than was probably good for me teaching psychology, and more recently, creative writing to students, I tend to err towards being a planner. After all the best textbooks on creative writing recommend planning and after years in education tutors always tell you, ‘plan your essays, plan your projects, make sure you have a beginning, a middle and an end; tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em that you’ve told ’em.’ Of course when you are a student you take no notice of this, you bury your head in the sand, ignore the looming deadline and when you can’t ignore it any longer you dash your essay off in a mad panic the night before it’s due in, usually just after you’ve come home from the pub, and hope for the best. One of my colleagues cut it so fine once that he was racing down the corridor, dissertation in hand, with mere seconds to go and all of his classmates cheering him on.

Planning your novel provides a sense of security and who, after all, embarks on such a journey without a map? I’ve never been a fan of ‘free writing’ and whenever I sit down at the laptop I like to have a basic outline of where I am going at the very least, yet there is something very attractive about the seat-of-your-pants approach. It sounds much freer, more creative, more artistic, more bohemian, more writerly even, than the boring planners. Not for them is the anal retentive life of the meticulous plotter, this is the approach of the free spirit and for them anything is possible.


So the planning was done, the character profiles sketched out, the graphs drawn and all the plot points mapped out – all I had to do was the writing. I made a start on the first draft and it was … well it was a bit like wading through treacle. It wasn’t going bad, but neither was it going particularly well. The words were not so much flowing as dribbling onto the page. I came to one of those neat little plot twists I’d planned and it turned out to be not so much a reversal, more of a three-point-turn with ‘L’ plates on the front and rear.

I hit ‘delete’ threw my plot outline across the room and started again, this time with no clear idea of where the story was going to go but go it did. The words somehow came, they started to string themselves together, became sentences, then paragraphs and after a couple of hours of this, a chapter. It was less stilted, had more flow and it read quite well. Okay it wasn’t Henry James but it was quite readable.


By all means be a planner or be a seat-of-your-pants writer, it probably has more to do with temperament than writing style. It’s good to know how you function best but in writing, as in all areas of life, polarised thinking is seldom the most helpful. If you’re a planner be prepared to hang loose occasionally and go with the flow, and if you are a seat-of-your-pants writer there will come the time when a little bit of forethought and a few judicious notes will help move the narrative forward. Extreme views may be beloved of the media, they make for great headlines, but in reality it’s the grey area between the two opposing poles which is the most productive.

And the inspirational speaker? Sorry mate, you got it wrong, sometimes there is a very good argument for sitting on the fence and as for the risk of splinters in the bum, well I think I might just invest in a pair of Kevlar lined underpants.




By Robin Richards, Jan 5 2016 05:11PM

Once upon a time, in a former life, I was a student nurse. One day in class I was stunned when our tutor, trying in vain to explain some intricacy of human anatomy, went across to a tall metal locker, the kind you find in gym changing rooms, flung the door open and pulled out a very old and rattling full sized skeleton. If that wasn’t dramatic enough the skeleton in question, being something of an ancient relic, started to disarticulate. As the lesson progressed bits fell off and by the end he was left with a just a skull, a backbone and a ribcage, and a heap of other assorted bones scattered on the floor around his feet.

Having aspirations to being a writer, even then, I made a note of the event. Wouldn’t it make a great comic short story I thought, if the police found the human bones and arrested our professor for murder? Somehow I never got around to writing that story but it prompted this blog about where stories come from and just who can lay claim to a specific idea.

Ideas are meat and drink to writers, we are always dreaming them up and filling endless notebooks, but just whose idea is it, who is entitled to write it, indeed it who owns an idea. The answer is nobody does. You can’t really copyright an idea even though people have tried and there have been high profile legal cases where authors, publishers and literary executors have argued the toss while the lawyers have got fat. Indeed the cynical side of me would say these court cases have more to do with generating publicity than righting a literary wrong.

An idea alone is of little value, the critical thing is what you do with the idea. Develop the idea, work it up, write it out and then start on the process of re-writing and then you will have something of value.

I was once a member of a writers’ group where our tutor gave us an idea just as a starting point, our task was to go away, write it and then bring it back the following week. It was astonishing to see the scope and diversity of stories from this single idea; one student had written a ghost story, another a heart-warming tale about cats, there were a couple of romances and I came up with a pretty cack-handed bit of crime fiction that didn’t win any fans. But the point is one idea generated a huge variety of stories.

It also happens that more than one writer can come up with exactly the same idea. My skeleton story (which I was going to call ‘Dry Bones’) lingered amongst the yellowing pages of my notebook for years until one day, with another writers’ group, one of the other writers read out a story based on that precise idea; a quirky story about someone being arrested when human bones from an anatomical skeleton were found in her garage. Okay so I felt a little bit miffed that she’d stolen my thunder but really I couldn’t complain, after all she was the one who had written the story whereas I’d done nothing more than chew the end of my pencil in the vain hope it would write itself.

Having ideas is hugely important but don’t let them moulder as I did with my skeleton idea. Get out there, create them, write them up, shape them and flesh them out; don’t be like me with no story and left with nothing but a virtual heap crumbling of ‘Dry Bones.’


Note: These days anatomical skeletons are made of synthetic materials. The remains of the old and crumbling skeleton from the School of Nursing was eventually given a proper burial.



By Robin Richards, Nov 4 2015 04:33PM

I was already getting suspicious glances from the owner of the café. The waiters were muttering amongst themselves and throwing dirty looks in my direction. I ignored them, ignored them all and carried on writing. JK Rowling may have written Harry Potter at a café table in Edinburgh, she wouldn’t have written it in this one. I looked up from my scribblings and out beyond the palm trees and the sandy beach to the blue waters of the sub-tropical Atlantic Ocean beyond. As most of the other customers were clad in bikinis and swimming trunks I doubt if they even had anywhere to conceal a notebook and pen but I had been well schooled, a writer is never off-duty and even when I was on holiday my notebook and pen went with me.

Research shows that if you don’t jot an idea down within thirty-seven seconds, you lose it (although goodness knows how they ever came up with a way to measure that), and I’d been taught, right from my earliest days as a writer, to always carry a notebook and to write down my ideas as soon as they occur, no matter where I was or what I was doing. Sound advice maybe, but it would not be the first time it had got me into bother, quite simply notetaking in public is not really socially acceptable and it can make onlookers twitchy, like the café owner and the waiters in this instance. I think they had me down as some kind of undercover hygiene inspector or, at the very least a covert reviewer for Trip Advisor. I finished my note, drank the rest of my expresso and called for the bill, which they brought with surprising alacrity, and I moved on.

Sideways glances from waiters I can ignore but some other instances of note-taking irritation have been less easy to shrug off. When I was scribbling in a hospital waiting room once, a man came up to me and asked if I was writing out my last will and testament. ‘No’ I replied, ‘yours’. He left in a bit of a huff. But for me, the worst, occurred a few years ago, when I was standing outside a small veterinary surgery on the High Street, jotting down a phone number in my Filofax. The vet, in something of a frothing rage, stormed out and angrily accused me of spying. This particular vet had a reputation locally of being great with small furry creatures but a world class grump with their owners. He may, in all fairness, have had some justification because a glossy new branch of Vets 4 Pets had recently opened just a few doors away.

As if this wasn’t bad enough travel writer Colin Thubron was once quizzed by the KGB about the contents of his notebook – apparently his handwriting was so bad they were convinced it was in code.


So here are a few thoughts about how to make notes in public without upsetting vets, café owners or being accused of international espionage:


1. Always having your notebook with you is a good strategy, you never know when that world beating or bestselling idea will come to you. Claudia Azula Altucher claims that in the 21st century, ideas have become the new currency.


2. Sometimes, of course, it just isn’t possible to carry a notebook, even so make sure you have some means of making a note. I find index cards are good or, as one of my writing teachers recommended, a small pad of ‘Post-It’ notes. When I was hiking from Land’s End to John O’Groats I kept a map in one cargo pocket of my walking trousers and a folded sheet of A4 and a pencil stub in the other, and I’d jot notes down as I went along. These notes, when fully written up, became my first book LE-JOG-ed, which went on to scoop a Beach Book Award in 2015.


3. The simple rule is always to have something (anything!) which you can make a note on. For me notes made on shopping lists, the backs of envelopes and even beer mats have gone on to become books, articles and blogs.


4. If you plan to make extensive use of a notebook it is well worth remembering the way journalists are taught to work in a notebook. They write on the right-hand page only, leaving the left-hand page free for amendments, additions or further annotation.


5. Another trick to avoid drawing attention to yourself making notes in public is to buy a newspaper, open it at the page with the crossword, half complete the crossword puzzle then you are free to make whatever notes you want on the margins of the paper and nobody will think anything about this. You could do the same with a puzzle book or Sudoku.


6. Finally, once again technology comes to our aid. If making notes in public can arouse the suspicion of waiters, KGB Spooks and veterinary surgeons nobody will turn a hair if you are tapping something into your mobile phone or tablet. These days most have some kind of notebook facility so it’s really easy, or if it’s an old fashioned phone like mine, just send yourself a text.

Have you ever found yourself in hot water making notes in public? Do let me know.


Happy Note Taking!


References

Claudia Azula Altucher (2015) Become an Idea Machine, Choose Yourself Media.

Robin Richards (2013) LE-JOG-ed: A Mid-Lifer’s Trek from Land’s End to John O’Groat’s. Matador Books.



By Robin Richards, Sep 11 2015 01:02PM

The most heinous crime for contestants of The Great British Bake Off, the one guaranteed to bring down the wrath of Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, is baking a cake with a soggy bottom. Writers have a similar problem, sometimes we write a novel or story with a soggy middle.


In my last blog I talked about Syd Field’s Three Act Structure based on a beginning, a middle and an end; a structure countless movies are based on. Most writers are pretty good at writing the beginning (or Setup) and can come up with a firecracker opening, and the ending (Resolution or climax) doesn’t usually cause too many problems with the hero and the villain locked in a last desperate do or die struggle. But the middle … there is the problem, how do we get from firecracker opening to do or die climax, and all in just one act?


So here are a few lifelines for writers floundering in the uncharted depths of the soggy middle.


• Divide the middle act (the Confrontation) into three – it is usually longer than the first and the last acts anyway – so it becomes a five act structure rather than a three act, and put a major plot point or reversal in each of these acts – even better if you can make each one more gripping and nail-biting than the last.


• Have the hero, despite the villain’s opposition, progress slowly towards his or her goal, as if climbing a mountain, and reaching a ‘high point’ somewhere around the centre point of the story or a little after. Just when the world is looking great for our hero everything goes wrong and he or she is plunged into the very pit of despair. Anything which could go wrong for them has gone wrong and the entire universe hates them. This is the pit, the lowest point in the story they could possibly be.


• The rest of the story is how the hero climbs out of the pit to confront and overcome the villain, the antagonist or the forces of evil.


By Robin Richards, Aug 14 2015 10:25AM

Review of The Piltdown Picasso

'Set in London, the main character, Fax is likeable, witty but also edgy as he tries to uncover the truth behind the murder before he is tracked down by some unscrupulous characters or the murder is pinned on him by the police. The story is well written with lots of suspense and some interesting insights into the art world. I couldn't put it down.' - Amazon Review


Review of Le-JOG-ed

'Vivid descriptions of the towns and villages along the End to End trail highlight Robin Richards' post-retirement memoir of his journeys through the UK. Readers will cheer him on, agonize over yet another blister, and empathize with struggles and wrong turns. This is a good travel guide, of sorts, for those who like to read about nature, English village life and solo journeys.' - by NetGalley Reviewer



By guest, Aug 14 2015 10:13AM

Three is a magic number. It’s no accident that there were Three Musketeers, the Holy Trinity or even Three Stooges. And the rule of three applies in so many ways in creative writing, take Syd Field’s Three Act Structure for example – the backbone of most Hollywood movies. However there are three key elements which must be present in all good fiction and they are:


Person : Place : and Plot. Fictioneers ignore this at your peril!


Person – by this we mean character. We hear so much about character driven fiction but why is this so important? We, as human beings, are social creatures and as such we are most interested in, and care most about, other people. We want to know what they do, how they think, what makes them tick, what their problems are and, very importantly, what are they going to do about them! Writers must pay great attention to character and create well rounded three dimensional characters, interesting ones, characters the reader wants to hang-out with.


Place – generating a sense of place. The reader needs to feel that they are inhabiting the place the writer has created whether that is the mean streets of San Francisco, the court of King Henry VIII or the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. As Liesel Schwarz has pointed out, creating a sense of place is especially important for Si Fi and Fantasy writers where the reader does not have actual experience of the place they are creating. A good tip for any writer trying to create a sense of place is to follow the lead of travel writers: what does a place look like, what does it smell like, what does it feel like?


Plot – Plot is a dirty word to some writers, they will talk disparagingly about plot driven novels, yet plot is important, without plot nothing happens, there will be no story. Stripped down to its simplest form any plot or any story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. So once again we are back with Syd Field and his three acts: Setup (beginning), Confrontation (middle), and Resolution (end).



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'Thorougly gripping, fast paced. I couldn't put it down...'

A rip roaring tale of art and crime, this is the perfect book for all crime fiction fans.

'Thorougly gripping, fast paced. I couldn't put it down...'