Sunday 26 January 2014

Social Media: Eight Things We Can Learn from Old Style Journalism

By Candy Gourlay

Well I say 'old-style' because I was a journalist in the eighties and the nineties. This post is about how journalism has taught me stuff I now apply to Social Media.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Learning to Write - my journey in How To books

IKEA manuals. Mmm.
By Candy Gourlay

My husband often makes fun of me because I like reading instruction manuals. Before I can even begin to take the packaging off a new kitchen appliance or family widget, I'll be poring over the instructions.

I can't help myself. There's something gripping about a good step by step.

So when I became serious about writing novels, I set out to read all the How to Write books I could get my hands on.

In the beginning, I obsessed about the parts that made the whole. Setting, Characterisation, Dialogue, Viewpoint - with viewpoint perhaps the trickiest thing to master.

Viewpoint was chapter two in The Craft of Writing a Novel by Dianne Doubtfire, my first writing bible. No matter how many books you've read, viewpoint (as in first person, third person, omnisicient, etc. - not to be confused with Voice) can be bewildering.

'If this isn't properly understood, the whole edifice of your novel will disintegrate,' Dianne Doubtfire writes. 'Ask yourself whose story it is. The answer to this question is vital to the planning of your book.'

Doubtfire suggests you experiment before deciding what your approach to viewpoint will be. 'Your choice will depend on the kind of novelist you are and on the demands of your story.'

Doubtfire's book had chapters on Planning, Plot, Mechanics of Improvement, Theme ... but as a beginner novelist I remember being entirely focused on isolated components of the novel like character and setting.

Perhaps I wasn't ready to think about my story as a whole yet.

Writing a successful novel demands not only talent and determination but also a high degree of craftsmanship. No textbook can supply talent or determination, but craftsmanship is another matter. The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire

The first time I heard of the 'inciting event' was when I read How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey (for some reason, I never did read Part One).

Frey starts by exhorting the writer to transport his or her reader into the 'fictive dream'.

'As a fiction writer, you're expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.'

Before this book I often read interviews with authors claiming that they 'wrote for themselves'. Frey made me realize that a novel was a two way thing, a relationship between the author and her reader.

It was also the first time I realised that a novel had to be a chain of cause and effect. It was the first time I read the words 'the inciting incident', that initial event that sets the story into motion.

So how do you get the reader from sympathy, identification and empathy to being totally absorbed? The answer: inner conflict ... Inner conflict is the storm raging inside the characters: doubts, misgivings, guilts, remorse, indecision ... It is this participation in the decision-making process, when the reader is feeling the character's guilt, doubts, misgivings, and remorse, and is pulling the character to make one decision over another, that transports the reader. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey

Skimming through it now, I realize that a lot of this book went over my head. Why? Because at the time, I was doing more reading than writing. It was only when I was immersed in writing that I began to understand what the hell all these How To books were talking about.

It was at about this stage that I bought Story by Robert McKee - a fat book if there ever was one. The introduction was fantastic, with statements in boldface like:

Story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace.


Story is about respect, not disdain, for the audience.


Story is about archetypes, not stereotypes.

Brilliant! But the rest of it ... well, I found it hard to read. It dazzled me with jargon - the Structure Spectrum, Character Revelation, Ironic Ascension ... and I'm ashamed to say I gave up and put it aside for a year or three.

I had written three novels before I picked it up again. I'd done some time at the coalface - walked into all the blind alleys, took all the wrong turns, wrote and rewrote the words that refused to come to life. And reading Story again, things that confused me before began to make sense. It turned out that practical experience was necessary to really get the most out of the book.  I had found another bible but I had needed to live my craft before I could make use of it.

'Show don't tell' is a call for artistry and discipline, a warning to us not to give in to laziness but to set creative limitations that demand the fullest use of imagination and sweat. Dramatizing every turn into a natural, seamless flow of scenes is hard work, but when we allow ourselves the comfort of 'on the nose' narration we gut our creativity, eliminate the audience's curiosity, and destroy narrative drive. Story by Robert McKee

Even though I wasn't ready to read McKee, I was learning a hell of a lot from other books.

I had a major eureka moment while reading Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein. It might seem obvious to some of you but it wasn't obvious to me then that a novel is an unfolding. What you don't reveal will drive the reader to keep reading.

As a journalist, I had been trained that it was imperative to state the 'So What' of a news story within the first paragraphs. I had to forget all that.

'The engine of fiction is somebody wanting something and going out to get it,' says Stein. 'And if you let him get it right away, you're killing the story.'

If you build a scene, don't let the reader's emotions rest. Salt your buildup with ominous detail. At the end of each chapter, be sure you are thrusting the reader forward to the next chapter, then don't take the reader where the reader wants to go. Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein

I am embarrassed to admit that it took me a long, long time to face the fact that I needed to learn how to plot. How I wish I'd started thinking about plot earlier. It would have saved me a lot of years of aimless writing.

I thought I understood plotting. I thought my years as a reader had taught me all I knew. Plotting was story wasn't it?

But there was more to plotting than I thought and I only really focused on figuring it out when I attended a workshop taught by Lee Weatherly on writing synopses.

Lee was trying to show us how easy it was to write a synopsis if we simply built the synopsis on the framework of the three acts of our story.

Lee showed us a  graph that looked something like this one I found on Sara Wilson Etienne's website.

What's missing in this diagram is somewhere near the peak should be labelled 'the rug-pulling moment'

Three acts? What three acts? If I had read Story by Robert McKee, I would have known by then that novels and screenplays were built in acts. And I would have know about rising tension, that the stakes had to become higher with every scene. That at some point, the character reaches a crisis - Lee called it a 'rug-pulling moment' - when everything seems lost.

It took Lee Weatherly's diagram to tell me that I needed to get on top of plotting.

I bought Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. 

Bell starts the book with his own journey story. He was a lawyer with an itch to write novels. But he decided he couldn't write because he was told 'Writing cannot be taught'.

But the itch wouldn't go away so he set out systematically to learn the craft. And discovered that 'Writing cannot be taught' was a big lie. Because he was learning.

It was through Bell's brilliant book that I learned about the three act structure, about how you move from one act to another the way you move through doors - doors of no return. And I learned that if a reader is to read on, stakes must rise, things must get worse.

Fiction is forward moving. If you frontload with backstory - those events that happened to the characters before the main plot - it feels like stalling. Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

Thinking about plot led me to 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias. There are lots of books that try to reduce plots to the lowest common denominators - they say all the stories in the world can be reduced to seven basic plots, or ten, or 12 ...

'The trick for any author is to find out what works for him and then do it. The same is true when it comes to plot,' Tobias says. 'How many plots are there? The real question is, "Does it really matter how many plots there are?" Not really. What matters is your understanding of the story and how to create a pattern of plot that works for it.'

I was after a quick fix when I was looking at books about plot. I chose Tobias' book because of the simplicity of his structure. He would outline the basics of a particular plot structure and then provide a checklist on how to develop the story. The checklist for the maturation (coming of age) plot for example includes the following:

1. Create a protagonist who is on the cusp of adulthood, whose goals are either confused or not yet clarified.
2. Make sure the audience understands who the character is ... before an event occurs that begins the process of change.
3. Contrast your protagonist's naive life (childhood) against the reality of an unprotected life (adulthood

... and so on.

It sounds stupid and obvious, reading it like this. But when you're immersed in creating a story, you are easily overwhelmed by the world of your imagination.

These books have transformed me as a writer and yet I haven't been a loyal friend to them, hiding their covers when I'm reading them in public places - because it's embarrassing isn't it, to be seen with a How To book in public. It's an admission of ignorance - you're no author, you're a  learner.

Ah, but allow me to quote Neil Gaiman quoting his friend Gene Wolfe for the nth time on the subject: 'You never learn to write a novel.  You only learn to write the novel you're on.'

Anyone who is setting out to write a book asks herself, 'What is my story?'

We could always use a little help finding the answer to that question.

Visit my author blog on - in my latest post, The Writer is You, I ask why it's so hard to give others permission to pursue their passions.

Monday 13 January 2014

What if there was a Netflix for Books? (the recommendations engine not the business model)

By Candy Gourlay

Here we go again. The success of Netflix, the subscription-based, all-you-can-watch streaming media provider, has got everyone talking death.

The death of divd rentals, the death of dvd itself, the death of TV, the death of cinema.

We in the book industry know what that's like. With the technological revolution in full swing, respected book critics are getting the elbow from fading newspapers, award winning authors are only as good as their sales, libraries are falling like dominos, and bookshops watch helplessly as Amazon chomps at their customers. Winner takes all.

So I was intrigued when my son turned to me the other day and said, 'Mum, I love reading but I never know what to read. I wish there was a Netflix for books.'

He didn't mean Netflix as in the media provider's all-you-can-watch business model - A model that has been adopted by eBook platform Oyster to push e-books - he was referring to Netflix's powerful recommendation interface.
If you liked 1960s Star Trek, the first non-Trek title that Netflix is likely to suggest to you is the original Mission: Impossible series (the one with the cool Lalo Schifrin soundtrack). Streaming the latest Doctor Who is likely to net you the supernatural TV drama Being Human (the UK version). Watch From Dusk Till Dawn and 300 and say hello to a new row on your homepage: Visually Striking Violent Action & Adventure. Trying to understand the invisible array of algorithms that power your Netflix suggestions has long been a favorite sport, but what’s actually going on in that galaxy of big data, those billions and billions of ratings stars? Turns out there are 800 Netflix engineers working behind the scenes at their Silicon Valley HQ. The company estimates that 75 percent of viewer activity is driven by recommendation. The Science Behind the Netflix algorithms that decide what you'll watch next

The question got me thinking. What if there really was such a thing as a Netflix for books?

Instead of writing a chapter or cleaning the living room or ironing another mountain of shirts, I spent a few hours trying to visualise what such a Netflix-for-Books app would be like.

Here's a Slideshare of what I came up with:

In my fantasy, my Netflix-for- Books app - lamely called Bookfix - combines a powerful recommendation engine with reviews.

Professional critics will be differentiated from the hoi polloi in the style of Rotten Tomatoes, the movie database with its tomatometre. Perhaps Bookfix could build a reputation by paying top critics to review books in addition to the usual reader reviews.

But most fantastical of all, when you press the 'buy' button, you get a gamut of booksellers to buy books from, in whatever shape or form you want it.

In my fantasy, this app helps steady the industry. And because the industry is steadied, publishers find themselves taking more risks.

And because the publishers are taking more risks, the body of work they produce turns out wider, deeper, richer.

In my little fantasy, we not only save the book industry, we save the culture.

*cue triumphant blast of trumpets*

Having done all that, I thought I ought to do a Google search to see if anyone had ever come close to my brilliant idea.

Here's the good news:

In 2011, Goodreads acquired Discoverbooks to create its recommendation engine.

So my fantasy isn't a fantasy. A Netflix recommendation engine for books already exists! You can read more about it here.

And the bad news?

Goodreads is now owned by Amazon.


Here's a little video to cheer you up.

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