What Works for Me – Concept Versus Story

Here’s another in my irregular series of posts about writing and publishing. As always, feel free to completely ignore everything that follows because as the title implies, this is just what works for me. Today I wanted to talk about something which I didn’t think about enough when I started out, but which makes an immeasurable difference to any creative project.

Ever put down a book or walked out of a cinema and felt disappointed because what you just read or watched didn’t live up to your expectations? Maybe it sounded like a good idea, but the author/film-maker’s execution of that idea left you wanting? When I started writing, dumb as this might sound now, I don’t think I fully appreciated the difference between a story and a concept.

You’ll hopefully have noticed a couple of recent film recommendations here (well, one recommendation and the other a less than enthusiastic write-up). On Saturday I wrote about ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and on Monday just gone, THE PURGE. It struck me when I sat down and watched these two movies in quick succession that there’s a commonality between them I hadn’t appreciated before: they both deal with variations of the same basic concept, but take them in wildly different directions and with varying degrees of success.

Both films start with a similar premise – crime rates in the USA have exploded, and the authorities have been forced to take radical steps to try and bring things under control. In ESCAPE, Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison, walled off from the rest of the country, once you’re in you don’t get back out. In THE PURGE, all crime is legalised for a single twelve hour period each year. So far, so good… both approaches sound like decent starting points for dystopian movies (provided you don’t think about the practicalities of either ‘solution’ for too long). So why is ESCAPE hailed (by me) as a classic and THE PURGE hailed (again by me) as a misfire? Well, I could write for hours about the relative merits of both films, but I think much of it boils down to concept versus story. ESCAPE starts with a cool concept which it explores through the use of interesting characters and an engrossing story. THE PURGE doesn’t.

I know I’m being unfair and overly simplistic here and there’s more to THE PURGE than I’m letting on, but I think it’s an important distinction to make: a good concept alone does not an interesting book or film make.

As I said at the beginning, when I started writing, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this differentiation, and until I did understand, I didn’t get anything decent written.

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What Works For Me – Inspiration and Ideas

My last What Works For Me article went down really well so, whether you want it or not, here are a few more words of dubious wisdom. This time: the generation, gestation and harvesting of IDEAS.

When you write, there are a number of things you inevitably get asked over and over. One of the favourites is where do you get your ideas? For me, that’s a really interesting question. The easiest answer is something glib like dreams, or they just appear out of the ether, but that’s no help when you’re sitting in front of a classroom full of kids or when you’re on a panel at an event in front of an audience that’s expecting you to say something enlightening/witty. There’s more to it than that.

My last piece talked about the process I follow to turn an idea into a book, so I thought it would be interesting to go back a stage and look at how those ideas appear in the first place and what I do to nurture and develop them. As always, this is what works for me. If it doesn’t work for you or you have alternative suggestions, let me know and I’ll put together a follow-up post.

Firstly, what do I mean by ‘idea’? It’s a pretty bland and unscientific word. I guess it would be more appropriate to talk about ‘inspiration’. I’m talking about something that stimulates you… something that makes you want to know more, that makes you ask what if…? What’s important is recognising when this inspiration strikes, and doing something about it.

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What Works For Them

I had some great responses to my post about planning last week, several from fellow authors who were keen to tell me how they do things. As I keep taking great pains to work out, the What Works For Me posts are exactly that: what works for me. I thought it would be interesting, though, to share What Works For Them. It illustrates perfectly my point that there are no ‘one size fits all’ rules to writing.

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What Works For Me – planning

In a post a couple of weeks back I said I’d answer some of the questions I’m asked regularly about writing. Today I want to talk about planning: how much planning I do and how it fits into the overall writing process. But before I start (and I can’t stress this enough) please remember that this is just how I like to do things: not the best way, maybe not the right way, but it’s what works for me.

Planning is something I’ve talked to a lot of other writers about, and it seems everyone has a different way of going about things. Some folks sit down with the barest idea and just start writing, but I know that’s the very worst thing I can do. Staring at an empty screen or a blank piece of paper brings me out in a cold sweat. It induces a kind of uneasy panic and is very rarely productive. Some folks, right at the other end of the spectrum, do a huge amount of planning before starting a project, working out every tiny detail before they write even a single word. They might plan backstories for every character, draw maps of key locations, and so on. I think I’m probably somewhere between these two extremes.

Thinking about it, though, we all must do a similar amount of planning, perhaps just at different stages of the process. We all start with the spark of an idea, with the ultimate aim of turning that idea into a finished story that someone can pick up and read.

I’ll talk about harvesting ideas in my next post (because if I had a quid for every time I get asked where the inspiration for my stories come from, I wouldn’t need to sell any books to pay the bills) so, for the purposes of today, let’s assume you’ve already got your killer idea and you know the general direction you think your story is going to take. So how do you get from that initial idea to a completed story?

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What Works For Me

I’ve already said I’m going to be much more visible in 2014, with a lot of original content planned for this site. Today I’d like to introduce a new feature: What Works For Me.

Personally, I think there’s only so much about writing that you can learn from other people. I think it’s something which can’t necessarily be taught. I also happen to think it’s not all about following hard and fast rules: if you can put a series of words and sentences together which have an impact on a reader, then you’re a writer and to hell with grammar and spelling and whatever people say you can or can’t do.

Like many others I speak to, I’m by turn foolishly arrogant and desperately insecure about my writing. I’d love to be a literary giant, but I know I’m not and never will be. I write what I write – I write what I like to read, actually – and, fortunately, enough people seem to like what I do to enable me to scrape a living from it. I try not to lose sight of how important, and how fragile, that is.

I don’t feel at all qualified to be dispensing writing advice but, at the same time, I do get asked a hell of a lot. And that’s what this is all about. I think it makes more sense for me to answer these questions publicly and hopefully discuss my approach with any interested parties, than to keep sending similar emails out to numerous individual folks as and when.

The view from my chair. And yes, the DVD of Autumn is there for a reason. I haven't watched it for a couple of years. I figured it's time for a reappraisal. Blog post coming soon...

The view from my chair. And yes, the DVD of Autumn is there for a reason. I haven’t watched it for a couple of years. I figured it’s time for a reappraisal. Blog post coming soon…

So, if you’ve got a question about writing or publishing you want my take on, fire away. Want to know how I come up with my characters, why I write the way I do, why I don’t care what caused the Hate in Hater or the infection in Autumn, want to know about the advantages and disadvantages of traditional/self-publishing as I see them, how to set up a small press, the things to look out for when you’re arranging an author event, getting to the end of your first draft, how much you should or shouldn’t plan, why I’ll never tell you what my main characters look like…? Whatever you want to know (within reason!) please ask, and I’ll try and tell you what works for me. (Important disclaimer: it won’t necessarily work for you). Either email me direct, use the contact form, or send a message via Facebook, Goodreads or Twitter.

(Polite note: please don’t ask me to read your book/short story etc. at this time, or ask me what I think of your idea… that’s not what this is about. Much as I’d love to give individual feedback, my commitments mean it’s just not possible right now. I’ve had to say no to a lot of people asking for blurbs recently, and it’s likely to stay that way throughout 2014. Sorry).