Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as writer.
– Ray Bradbury
You’ve probably heard the term ‘method acting’ on TV or in interviews with actors. It’s where an actor gets into their role by becoming their character for a while.
Heath Ledger is a famous example, staying in character for his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight even when the cameras weren’t rolling. His portrayal of the mad Joker is praised by critics as one of cinema’s most authentic characters. Sadly, Heath’s personal problems cut short his contribution to the world of cinema, but it highlights how interesting, and sometimes dangerous method acting can be.
John Lee is the only method writer I know. He not only researches his characters, but will take on the role of one of the them to research character interactions. He is able to glean subtle nuances and opinions about the characters that most other writers will struggle to find.
In preparation for SuperModel, Lee became a fashion photographer for a year and worked with hundreds of up-and-coming models in the fashion industry. I asked him how it affected his writing style…
CS: “How does method writing help the writing process?”
JWL: “Method writing, or perhaps immersive writing, tells me more about the people around me than I can imagine. When I started writing Supermodel I knew I was out of my depth when it came to the psyche of the teenage girl, so I worked with models to find out what they wanted in life, what they struggled with. I learned what it was like to be a girl, really, very different from being a guy.”
CS: “You became a fashion photographer to study for this book. Would you have been able to write the book without immersing yourself in the characters?”
JWL: “It would not have been the same book. A lot of the anecdotes in Supermodel are based on real events, things that happened to models. When I started out I had this naive impression of models having this easy job anyone could do, but let me tell you, it’s a lot tougher than it looks. You have to have nerves of steel.”
CS: “So there is some truth in what you write about the experience of models?”
JWL: “What surprised me is how many models have the same stories. How many are asked by almost every photographer, male or female, to get naked. How many agents just wanted their registration money, and then forgot about them. A lot of models are bought and sold between agencies like slaves. It blew my mind. All those cliche’s are not really cliche’s, they’re quite real. It’s really tough being a model, you get taken advantage of at every turn. These are things normal models don’t talk about to regular guys, I think because it’s embarrassing, but when you’re in the industry they open up.”
CS: “Your character, Amanda, is a shorter model. Is it that hard for shorter models to become successful models?”
JWL: “I made an effort to work with shorter models, to find out if it was harder for them. And, oh yes, I mean for runway shows the clothes are made months in advance, so you can understand it there. But for photoshoots, who cares how tall the models are? There is a type of racism in the modelling industry against shorter, or rather, normal sized people. It’s more than just practical size.”
CS:”What would you tell your lead character if you met her, knowing what you know now?”
“JWL: “Good question. I’d tell her sometimes you have to shovel shit for a living, and that’s okay. And don’t let people change you. If you become something else, well, then you’re living a dream, not a life.”
CS: “Will you be method-writing again for your next book?”
JWL: “To a degree. The next one, Blood Games, is pretty much a horror story. I want to find out why people are fascinated with horror, without becoming that myself.”
CS: “Do you recommend method-writing to other writers? Has it helped you write better?”
JWL: “It has helped me understand people better, and to bring things into my writing that are more interesting than me, us writers are pretty boring and solitary creatures. Acting classes and doing something like method-writing is a real rich source to draw from. All of us writers need help with structure and language and so on, but what we really need are those insights into minds we don’t understand.”
It was an absolute joy chatting with John Lee about method-writing. Look out for his Novel, Supermodel, published by Swann Books, in December.
Sparked is an otherworldly Epic of Vampires and the Undead, Hsien W. Lou’s debut novel tells the tale of Ner Relc Alcott, the immortal son of Death, sent to Earth to capture undead beings. The undead are stealing Sparks from people on Earth to extend their own lives.
Hsien, what motivated you to become an author?
I have always had an interest in writing and wanting to express personal, interesting and strange tales. I hope that people would be able to relate and find them interesting and fun.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Writing is enjoyable, creating a whole universe with unique, simple characters and placing them in interesting, puzzling situations and finding how they solve them is great fun, at times it seems like the characters begin to write themselves.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Yes, it was about two children. A boy and a girl. The boy was trapped in another world that was linked to the girl’s mirror. So one day the mirror in her bedroom cracked and she entered the world to save the boy but she ended up trapped there too. It was a horror tale, it did not end well.
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
I spend it working as an environmental consultant, volunteering at church, reading, spending time with family and most importantly sleeping.
What is your writing process?
My writing process begins with a strong storyline. I like to create original storylines and once this is done it is quite easy to follow through because it tends to place a foundation and you continue to flow from there.
When did you first start writing?
It seems like I have been writing forever but I do recall starting with poetry and then deciding to write short stories and now novels.
What are you working on next?
I am working on three new books, the sequel to sparked, a romance novel and a fantasy book about a mage. I realised I really like writing fantasy, when I write the story, it flows out easily.
What’s the story behind your latest book?
It’s about a lazy thirteen year old mage whose parents are the most powerful mages in the universe but he has no powers at all. He witnesses the culprit who kidnaps a few of his classmates at school and goes on a journey to save them and in the process finds his powers.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in a small town and a close knit family. And since my family is a big supporting factor and most of the time we get a long fairly well, I always want all the characters in my book to have happy endings but it is almost never the case.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I think Terry Pratchett’s Mort had a big impact on me, I love his writing so humorous and interesting. He can really liven up his words and characters.
Describe your desk
My desk is a mess, there are random papers and sticky notes and different coloured pens scattered everywhere. My laptop is placed on top of the papers, I don’t think you can see the colour of the desk any more, instead of brown I think the appropriate name is paper desk.
What do you read for pleasure?
I read fantasy books, I am currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance. It is a great read, especially the main character Kaladin, I enjoy the way he is overcoming his personal challenges.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
My loud alarm clock.
What do your fans mean to you?
They mean a lot, I do hope they find an interest in the books and I believe it is important to gain their opinions of the story and characters. I think it is important as fans/ readers assist you to improve so I do value them and their opinions.
How do you discover the books you read?
Sometimes I will randomly pick a book in the fantasy section of the bookstore and read it. I find appealing storylines that attract me and also inspire me to write.
Who are your favourite authors?
Terry Pratchett, C. S. Lewis, Victor Hugo, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Julia Quinn, Lewis Caroll, Mark Lawrence
Thank you, Hsien, and best of luck with your novel, Sparked!
Sparked is scheduled for release Dec 2014/Jan 2015, so look out for it in all your favourite places, like www.swannbooks.com.
Swann Books embraces digital publishing and paperback novels.
Historically, a novel would need to be 80,000 words to hit the maximum profit margin versus printing, transport and storage cost. That is no longer the case. Now, a story can be as long or as short as it needs to be and still be published.
Swann Books publishes everything from Flash Fiction, short stories, to novellas and novels.
Flash Fiction, poetry or prose
Less than 2,000 words.
Will be published as part of an anthology with 20 other Flash Fiction stories.
Will be published with 2 or 3 other short stories.
Can be published on its own at a reduced price. These are popular ‘bus and train books’ as they can be printed in a smaller format than regular novels.
Novels longer than 150,000 words should probably be split into multiple books.
It is highly recommended for new writers to start with Flash Fiction and work their way into writing epic novels. When working with shorter stories you are forced to trim all the fat from your novel and find the shortest turn of phrase, making it a cleaner experience for your readers.
Spelling and grammar are important, but some problems are harder to find until you’re aware of them. Try these top 10 tips, they will make your writing better.
Tip #1 – Let go
Write a section freely. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, and exact phrasing of ideas in the first run. Write from the subconscious. Let it go, let it flow. Leave the book for at least a week before editing.
Tip #2 – Write once, Edit twice.
After completing a section, first edit the structure. Does the story make sense? Are the events clear and well illustrated? Again, don’t worry about spelling, grammar, here. Keep that for last. Get your story flowing and fix up paragraphs that skip important details. Fix events that are out of sequence.
After you’re satisfied your phrases make sense, start on spelling and grammar. You will often delete paragraphs, so don’t polish them until they flow.
Tip #3 – Show, don’t tell – Use your reader’s imagination
A book is not just a collection of events, it is a doorway into a different world.
Imagine you are an observer in the scene. What do you see, hear, smell?
Don’t explain what your characters are thinking. Rather describe their body language, their actions, and words.
Don’t tell the reader about something before it has revealed itself in the story.
There was no one in the road so he went to the window and opened the blinds. He looked out and aimed the gun. He shot four times.
He pried open the old blinds, dust falling everywhere. Standing out of sight he leaned forward and quickly looked at the road below. Satisfied that no one was looking his way he perched his rifle on the window sill, breathed in, and squeezed the trigger. Four shots. Four muffled echoes. Four people lying crumpled on the ground.
Get our of your character’s mind. Don’t explain what they are feeling, rather give the reader clues. Let the reader figure it out for themselves. Don’t tell the reader what is right or wrong, let them decide based on the events and dialogue.
I ate the ice cream. I loved it.
The cold ice cream melted in my mouth. I smiled and closed my eyes.
Here the reader could imagine what you want them to feel, and perhaps feel it too.
Tip #4 Avoid Cliches
Don’t start your story with the character waking up or having a dream.
Don’t start your story with the character running away from something.
Don’t start with a weather report.
Don’t describe what your character sees as they look in a mirror.
Avoid wizard/elf/mutant/vampire/werewolf stories. You have the power to create a new world, use it!
Avoid making your lead character perfect. Give them interesting conflicts we can relate to.
No prophecies. We may as well just read the last page. A story is mostly about the unknown.
Avoid FBI agents who travel by helicopter to that one guy who is the world’s best at XYZ, and give him full authorisation to lead the entire army.
Avoid that final airport scene where the pretty girl is going to fly away unless someone runs after them.
Tip #5 – Talk to me
Has it been five pages since someone spoke?
The reader might be getting lonely and bored. Entertain them. When characters talk the reader feels like they are in the room. Keep the reader in the room. What do your characters do when they talk?
The danger here is your characters talking about things just to pass the time. If a dialogue isn’t helping the story or your character, delete it.
Tip #6 – Unpack your bags
Reveal the nuances of your characters and locations. Is your character a bit quirky? Use this to move the story forward. Let your characters have quirks in their movements and speech. Let others respond to this. This is better than simply telling the reader your character is quirky.
Tip #7 Silence the passive voice
Passive sentences sound like they are being read out by an accountant.
Passive: He was driven to the house by the cab driver and then the car door was opened by him.
(something was done by something)
Not very interesting, it’s a shopping list of events, not an animated image.
Active: The cabby took the money and grunted a thank you. John grabbed his broken case and stepped into the rain. (something did something)
Tip #8 Trim the fat
You don’t need to write every movement and direction unless it reveals character or plot.
Fat words are words that don’t add anything to the sentence.
If cutting them out makes no difference, cut them out.
Adjectives are like jewelry – Adding a few is stylish, but don’t overdo it!
He started walking to the shop. When he got there he bought a loaf of bread.
He walked to the shop and bought a loaf of bread.
Readers know how walking works, you don’t need to explain it, unless there is a good reason.
He turned left into Picard Street, looked up and to the right, and turned right into Doris Lane.
He drove down Picard Street, looked around, and stopped in Doris Lane.
Readers know how driving works. Explaining it is boring.
“Hi.” he said.
“Hey.” she replied.
Readers know how talking works, you don’t need to tell them. Leave out dialogue attribution unless it would confuse the reader. (e.g. if a character talks out of turn, or at the beginning of a paragraph)
A better attribution is to reveal more about your character’s state of mind.
“Hi.” John fidgeted with his blazer, avoiding June’s gaze.
“Hey.” She pulled out her cellphone and walked to the car.
“Can we talk?”
“Shh. It’s Gary.” She walked away, giggling at something Gary was saying.
Tip #9. Write up, not down.
Your readers are more clever than you . Seasoned readers are intelligent – you don’t need to ‘dumb-down’ concepts or use smaller words unless larger words obstruct the flow of the story. Find the best word. If you can’t think of the best word use a thesaurus, of course don’t overdo it and use words no one understands.
Tip #10. Read it aloud
Most problems are discovered by reading aloud. Better yet, reading to a friend or another writer.
Grammar exists to help people flow through a book as if they are listening to it, anything that you struggle to read your readers will struggle to understand.
Join a writing group. They’re usually called writer’s circles.
Give a reading. Listen to a reading.
TOP 5 GROANERS Writers Should Avoid
or, How to get Rejected by a Publisher in 5 easy steps,
by Cathy Swann
You know how your story starts with your character waking up from a dream?
Where they dreamed they were running away from something symbolic?
Or you gave the reader a weather report, because the level of precipitation is very, very important to the plot even though it will never be mentioned again?
Or your character gets out of bed from their dream of being chased by a train and they go to look in the mirror and you describe what they see, and you think, I have found it, I have found a way to describe them all in one paragraph and get it out of the way so that I don’t have to think about it later, I can
You’re one bullet away from being a Powerpoint Presentation.
Maybe you wrote about an epic battle between a wizard/elf/mutant/vampire/werewolf and his estranged father. Even though you have the unimaginable power to create entirely new worlds… you don’t, you plagiarize someone else’s world.
Maybe your lead character is perfect and never messes up and always catches on to every ledge they jump for, after all, they are the protagonist. Your protagonist never has any conflict, never makes the wrong choice, never stops to take a shit in twelve days.
Your character, so desperate for relief, must obey a prophecy revealed in the first page of your story and now you drudge forward, knowing what will happen at the end, hoping some suicidal reader will drudge along with you. You’re plodding forward to the anti-climax like some aged donkey because you deleted all the mystery, all the wonderful unknown, all the things that made you feel something.
While you wait, your FBI agent races to find that one guy who is the world’s foremost expert in his field, haunted by his past, and together this unlikely duo must fly across the world and be given full authority over the entire US army to prevent the attack of zombies/ebola/nuclear destruction/beings from another dimension.
Your story ends at the airport, where the rebellious anti-hero runs after the general’s shy daughter and catches her just as she’s about to board the plane.
And you shoot yourself.
As you fall down in slow motion on the tiled floor, security guards rushing over to beat the shit out of you, you wonder, why 5?