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.
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 – Filtering
New writers often want the reader to know that their character is thinking, looking, or realizing, without describing what they are doing. For example, “Jack looked over at Jill who was also climbing up the hill.” This distances the reader from the action, the animation. Filter words are words that remove the reader from the story and focus on unnecessary details.
He looked at. He felt that. She realized that.
A reader is part of the story, not just one character. Rather write “Jack and Jill went up the hill.”
The narrator is a separate character in the story. They have a unique personality and opinion about the events, and it is usually the narrator’s opinion that makes the story entertaining.
Tip #2 – Write once, Edit twice.
Edit structure boldly. Are you able to delete an entire page without flinching? If the story needs it, it must be done. Does the story make sense? Are the events clear and well illustrated? Get your story flowing and fix up paragraphs that skip important details. Fix events that are out of sequence.
Don’t waste time polishing details until the story, the backbone, is strong.
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. A dream.
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. If you don’t have something to say, don’t fill up the space with unimportant words. Come back to it later.
There was no one in the road so he went to the window and opened the blinds. He looked out of the window and aimed the gun. He shot four people.
He pried open the old blinds, dust falling everywhere. Standing out of sight he leaned forward until he could make out 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 closed my eyes and smiled.
Here the reader could imagine what you want them to feel, and perhaps feel it too.
Tip #4 Avoid cliches like the plague
Avoid starting your story with
-the character waking up or having a dream.
-running away from something.
-a weather report (unless it is relevant)
-looking in a mirror and describing themselves.
Avoid wizard/elf/mutant/vampire/werewolf stories. You have the power to create a new world, use it! Fan fiction has its place, but don’t expect success based on someone else’s world. You may also end up in hot legal trouble if you infringe on someone else’s lore, even if they based it on other lore.
Avoid making your lead character perfect. Give them interesting conflicts we can relate to.
Avoid prophecies – we may as well just skip the story and read the last page.
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 through their actions.
Is your character a bit quirky? Use this to move the story forward. Let your character’s unique traits be important, it’s better than simply telling the reader your character is quirky for no reason.
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. Why did the character need to look around? Explain why or delete it.
“Hi.” he said.
“Hey.” she replied.
“Can we talk?” He asked questioningly.
“Shh. It’s Gary,” she replied and walked away.
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 characters’ 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.
Readers are clever – 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. You should write for yourself, until you feel each page. There is no one more interested in your story than you, so if you are not getting emotional reading it you can almost guarantee that a reader will be bored reading it.
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 circle.
Give a reading. Listen to a reading.
Of course, all advice is deadly. Only take advice that improves your writing and your story and never lose your unique voice! If there was only one way to write engaging stories all writers would follow it.
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?