This above all, ask yourself, in the stillest hour of the night:
‘Must I write?’
Delve deep into yourself.
And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must’ then build your life according to this necessity: your life, even into its most indifferent and slightest hour, must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
Near the front of my library is a section displaying new books which the librarians believe readers might enjoy. They are shelved under four titles, Plot, People, Places and Prose, and it struck me that is exactly what writers need to ensure is in their each and every manuscript.
PLOT: Michael Hauge says it’s the writer’s job to ‘elicit emotion’ in the reader, so have you structured your plot to achieve that? If you’re writing a horror/mystery/thriller, have you built in the elements of fear and suspense. A fantasy? Wonderment. A love story? Hope, longing, challenges and celebration. A comedy? Will the reader laugh out loud?
PEOPLE: Are your characters three dimensional or stock? Have you created well-rounded ‘real’ people who move your plot forward organically by their actions, hopes, fears and choices? Or have you, the writer, moved them around, like pieces on a chess board, to suit your vision of the story?
PLACE: What’s your setting? Your world? Is it real and vibrant? Have you got the details – eg historical – right? Does your reader feel they are ‘there’. Can they touch, taste, hear, see, smell their surroundings.
PROSE: I once had the great pleasure to meet the author Maeve Binchy, and now, whenever I read one of her books, I hear her voice in my head in her cadence and description. Is your voice unique? Do you show rather than tell? Is your prose active rather than passive, drawing the reader in rather than holding them at arm’s length.
Get those four Ps right, and you are well on your way to finding YOUR book displayed on one of those library shelves!
Notes from the workshop given by Diana Cranstoun at When Words Collide, Calgary, August 11th, 2017.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BIOGRAPHY AND A MEMOIR?
Biography/Autobiography: the story OF someone’s life. (Beginning to end, chronological order.)
Memoir: a story FROM someone’s life. (Eg Wartime Memoir)
WHO ARE YOU WRITING THIS STORY ABOUT?
If it is about another person, where are you going to get your research from?
WHO ARE YOU WRITING THIS STORY FOR?
For general publication?
Your answer will affect what you put in your memoir and how you present it.
WHY ARE YOU WRITING THIS STORY?
You have a story to tell that only YOU can tell.
We all have unique experiences in our lives. If you don’t tell your story, who will?
You may have a secret to share.
Big Secret – you may have participated in some major event that you have not been able to tell people about.
Little Secret – something small, but unique experience that people don’t know about you.
You’ve got to love a city that has a museum dedicated to writers. The three celebrated in Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and R.L. Stevenson – remain widely read and revered even today. Sir Walter Scott has been credited with ‘inventing’ the historical novel with tales like Kidnapped and Ivanhoe, we all sing Robert Burns’ most famous song, “Should Auld Aquaintance Be Forgot,” at New Year, and who hasn’t dreamed of finding their own Treasure Island or been frightened by a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde character.
For a small city of less than half-a-million people, Edinburgh has produced (or been the home to) an amazing number of writers. Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Irvine Welsh, J.K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, Iain Banks, Ian Rankin, Robert Fergusson, Muriel Spark, Kenneth Grahame.
Outwith Edinburgh, the list of Scottish writers includes J.M. Barrie, Val McDermid, Louis Welsh, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Nigel Tranter, Alistair MacLean, A.J. Cronin, Dorothy Dunnett, George MacKay Brown… it goes on and on. and on…
For a wee country, Scotland delivers a ‘muckle’ literary punch.
A bit of back story. In 2009, I visited France with my friend Anna to retrace my father’s desperate journey from the small village, Vis-en-Artois – where he was stationed with the British Army 1940 – to the spot on the bloody beaches of Dunkirk where he was plucked to safety by one of the ‘little boats’.
I had written to the mayor asking if anyone remembered Dad. The mayor passed my letter on to Madame B, who had been a child during the war.We visited her and had a lovely day. She didn’t remember my dad, but just as we were about to leave, she said, ‘Come back on Monday. My friend Noel knew your father.’
Monday, we return to Vis-en-Artois. We’re the first to arrive at Madame B’s. My husband has e-mailed a picture of my Mum and Dad taken in 1936. It’s one of my favourites. They look so young. So Happy. So in love.
I’m expecting Noel to be a woman, but of course that would be Noelle. Noel is accompanied by his wife. Like Madame B, they are both friendly, alert, white-haired, fresh-faced, on the ball.
We’re introduced, I show him the photo of Mum and Dad. ‘Ahh.’ He smacks the picture in that Gallic way. “Jacques Cranstoon.’
But I’m not totally sold. After all, I wrote Dad’s name in my letter to the mayor and perhaps Noel wants this connection to the past as much as I do.
And then he says something that sends a shiver up my spine. ‘Et votre mere, Marie.’
Nowhere – nowhere – had I written my mother’s name. This is very, very, real.
We talk, Anna interpreting as I catch only every fourth or fifth word. My dad was billeted next door to Noel’s family. Throughout that bitter winter of 39/40, with no heat or lighting in their accommodation, Dad and another married soldier visited Noel’s family’s warm house every Friday evening to write letters home to their wives.
Noel reaches into his pocket, pulls out a small, rather battered brown leather diary, and offers it to me. ‘Your dad gave it to him for Christmas 1939,” Anna translates.
The hairs on my arms stand on end. It’s as though, to borrow a quote from Alan Bennett’s History Boys, a hand has reached out of the past and taken mine.
My Dad, dead for 30 years, is in the room with us.
Look at any diagram of three-act-structure and you’ll find two main turning/plot points (Act One into Act Two/ Act Two into Act Three) and a midpoint.
Michael Hauge calls the midpoint, the Point of No Return (PONR). In aviation terms, the Point of No Return is that point in a flight where the aircraft does not have enough fuel to return to its point of departure, and must make it to its destination safely or crash and burn.
At the PONR in a story, something happens in the ‘plot’ that will turn the story around and take it fractionally closer to the end than the beginning. There is no going back. For example, in a mystery novel, it might be a clue that finally puts the detective on the right path to solving the crime.
When it comes to character development, something will happen here that allows the character to become closer to the person he will be at the end of the story than he was in the beginning.
James Scott Bell calls this the ‘Mirror Moment’. He says: ‘What I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.’ It’s a moment, not a whole scene. He also says, the midpoint of your story is where your character faces some kind of death.
Physical – where there is a real threat to his life.
Professional – where his reputation is on the line.
Psychological – where something inside the character changes.
JK Rowling says, ‘It is our choices that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities,’ and it will be at this point in the story where a character makes a choice – or understands the ramifications of past choices – that gives them a glimpse of who they truly are, or want to be. It is the moment of transformation from who the character was, to who they will become. It’s when they get the chance to look in a metaphorical mirror and see themselves in a new light.
CASINO ROYALE: There are stories where the character doesn’t change/arc – James Bond. Hercule Poirot. Indiana Jones. Miss Marple – but every rule comes with an exception. Casino Royale – the version with Daniel Craig – tells the story of how James Bond becomes ‘James Bond’, so the character does arc in this story. Check out this ‘mirror moment’ in Casino Royale – halfway through the movie – which actually uses a mirror!
Look at the dress Bond brings for Vesper Lynd to wear. It’s on a plastic hanger and looks like it’s just come from the dry cleaner’s. Compare that with the tuxedo she has for him. And that moment, when he wears a tailored suit for the first time ever, watch his reaction when he looks at himself in the mirror. He’s seeing himself a little differently. Interestingly enough, this is the first time you will hear the strains of the Bond theme in this movie.
Contrast that with the last scene in the movie where he is fully revealed as ‘James Bond’ and we hear to whole theme for the first time.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: Open Pride and Prejudice half way through the book and you will find a couple of scenes: 1) Where Darcy visits Elizabeth and offers her a horrible proposal of marriage. 2) Where Elizabeth reads the letter Darcy writes to her following her refusal of his offer.
The title Pride and Prejudice tells you what the book is about. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are proud people – he of his wealth and position, she of her ‘discernment’. For them to end up together at the end of the book, they’ll both have to find a bit of humility and get rid of their prejudices.
And the first stirrings of that happens in the middle of the story. Darcy is so shocked by Elizabeth’s refusal – ‘And this,’ cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, ‘is your opinion of me!’ – that he goes home and writes Elizabeth a letter explaining the truth about Wickham. After she finishes reading it, Elizabeth says, ‘ How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. ‘I who prided myself on my discernment…. Till this moment, I never knew myself.’
(Ironically, there is a mirror in this scene!)
Elizabeth and Darcy still have a long way to go before that second – successful – proposal at the end of the book, but at the midpoint of the story, they cross that line from being who they were, and how they saw themselves and each other, to who they will be by the end.
THE HUNGER GAMES: Set in a dystopian future, Katniss Evergreen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the murderous Hunger Games, where out of 24 participants, only one victor will be left alive at the end.
Midway through the book/film, Katniss finds herself facing physical death. She has no weapons – except for a knife – is trapped up a tree, and is literally waiting to die when daylight comes. Then something happens which can change her fortune, but only if she decides to go for it. Watch carefully for that ‘moment’ when Katniss realizes she has a chance to live. By the end of the scene, she has a weapon she is skilled in using, has killed some of her deadliest opponents, and has allies in Rue and Peeta.
DANTE’S PEAK: A perfect example of when the midpoint of action and character development meets beautifully. (Unfortunately there is no Youtube link for this.)
A mountain is threatening to erupt, but the scientists won’t know for sure until sulphur gets into the water supply. Hero and heroine have been badly hurt in previous relationships and wary of becoming involved with anyone again.
Midpoint of the story is when hero and heroine come back from enjoying an evening at the bar. She sends the babysitter home and invites him in for coffee. Both are nervous – ‘I haven’t been with anyone in a long time.’ – and are leaning in for their first kiss when her daughter calls down from upstairs. She’s thirsty. Can she have a glass of water? The heroine turns on the tap. It’s contaminated with sulphur.
The mountain is now going to blow – not right this minute – but there is no doubt it’s going to go.
Hero and heroine have taken the joint risk to open up their hearts again. (In a love story, the midpoint is often where the hero and heroine will kiss or make love.)
It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes things ‘connect’?
Although I wasn’t born until long after The Evacuation of Dunkirk, it’s always hung there, over me, throughout my life. My dad was one of the 350,000 men rescued from its beaches in May 1940 by one of the ‘Little Boats’, and I have come to believe it was, perhaps, the defining moment in his life.
My dad was a good, honest, hardworking, honourable man, and I sometimes think any illusions he had about mankind were, literally, shot to hell on the beaches of Dunkirk. He didn’t speak about Dunkirk very often, but when he did, one of his memories was of watching Nazi pilots bomb a hospital ship clearly marked with the Red Cross.
So when I saw the trailer for Christopher Nolan‘s movie Dunkirkthis week, and saw a clip of a Red Cross ship being bombed… well it brought all those memories back.
The second ‘connection’… ? A friend and I were talking about our favourite Christmas movies. Mine is The Bishop’s Wife, made in 1947, starring Loretta Young (who looked like my Mum) and Cary Grant. What has that to do with Dunkirk? Well it turns out, the original book of The Bishop’s Wife was written by American writer Robert Nathan who also wrote a poem about Dunkirk.
There weren’t just men on the beach at Dunkirk. British army nurses were rescued from those beaches too. And I love the idea – as in this poem – that at least one of those Little Boats had a girl on board too.
Will came back from school that day,
And he had little to say.
But he stood a long time looking down
To where the gray-green Channel water
Slapped at the foot of the little town,
And to where his boat, the Sarah P,
Bobbed at the tide on an even keel,
With her one old sail, patched at the leech,
Furled like a slattern down at heel.
He stood for a while above the beach,
He saw how the wind and current caught her;
He looked a long time out to sea.
There was steady wind, and the sky was pale,
And a daze in the east that looked like smoke.
Will went back to the house to dress.
He was half way through, when his sister Bess
Who was near fourteen, and younger than he
By just two years, came home from play.
She asked him, “Where are you going, Will?”
He said, “For a good long sail.”
“Can I come along?”
“No, Bess,” he spoke.
“I may be gone for a night and a day.”
Bess looked at him. She kept very still.
She had heard the news of the Flanders rout,
How the English were trapped above Dunkirk,
And the fleet had gone to get them out
But everyone thought that it wouldn’t work.
There was too much fear, there was too much doubt.
She looked at him, and he looked at her.
They were English children, born and bred.
He frowned her down, but she wouldn’t stir.
She shook her proud young head.
“You’ll need a crew,” she said.
They raised the sail on the Sarah p,
Like a penoncel on a young knight’s lance,
And headed the Sarah out to sea,
To bring their soldiers home from France.
There was no command, there was no set plan,
But six hundred boats went out with them
On the gray-green waters, sailing fast,
River excursion and fisherman,
Tug and schooner and racing M,
And the little boats came following last.
From every harbor and town they went
Who had sailed their craft in the sun and rain,
From the South Downs, from the cliffs of Kent,
From the village street, from the country lane.
There are twenty miles of rolling sea
From coast to coast, by the seagull’s flight,
But the tides were fair and the wind was free,
And they raised Dunkirk by fall of night.
They raised Dunkirk with its harbor torn
By the blasted stern and the sunken prow;
They had reached for fun on an English tide,
They were English children bred and born,
And whether they lived, or whether they died,
They raced for England now.
Bess was as white as the Sarah’s sail,
She set her teeth and smiled at Will.
He held his course for the smoky veil
Where the harbor narrowed thin and long.
The British ships were firing strong.
He took the Sarah into his hands,
He drove her in through fire and death
To the wet men waiting on the sands.
He got his load and he got his breath,
And she came about, and the wind fought her.
He shut his eyes and he tried to pray.
He saw his England were she lay,
The wind’s green home, the sea’s proud daughter,
Still in the moonlight, dreaming deep,
The English cliffs and the English loam
He had fourteen men to get away,
And the moon was clear, and the night like day
For planes to see where the white sails creep
Over the black water.
He closed his eyes and prayed for her;
He prayed to the men who had made her great,
Who had built her land of forest and park,
Who had made the seas an English lake;
He prayed for a fog to bring the dark;
He prayed to get home for England’s sake.
And the fog came down on the rolling sea,
And covered the ships with English mist.
The diving planes were baffled and blind.
For Nelson was there in the Victory,
With his one good eye, and his sullen twist,
And guns were out on The Golden Hind,
Their shot flashed over the Sarah P.
He could hear them cheer as he came about.
By burning wharves, by battered slips,
Galleon, frigate, and brigantine,
The old dead Captains fought their ships,
And the great dead Admirals led the line.
it was England’s night, it was England’s sea.
The fog rolled over the harbor key.
Bess held to the stays, and conned him out.
And all through the dark, while the Sarah’s wake
Hissed behind him, and vanished in foam,
There at his side sat Francis Drake,
And held him true, and steered him home.
It’s Shakespeare by the Bow time again here in Calgary, and this year the chosen play is Hamlet. Produced by Theatre Calgary, it’s an opportunity for talented newly graduated drama students to gain professional experience, performing in a glorious setting.
According to Shakespeare Online, Shakespeare invented over 1,700 words that we commonly use today, including: addiction, amazement, bandit, blanket, cater, elbow, gossip, label, luggage, moonbeam, pedant, secure, swagger, zany. (Zany?!? Who knew? I always assumed that was a 1960s word!!)
It’s a long time since I’ve seen Hamlet, so I was surprised by the number of phrases I recognised that we use in our everyday language. The following is just a tiny sample:
In my mind’s eye. I shall not look upon his like again. All is not well. The air bites. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The time is out of joint. This is the very ecstasy of love. Brevity is the soul of wit. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. The play’s the thing. To be or not to be, that is the question. Get thee to a nunnery. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action. The lady doth protest too much. I must be cruel, only to be kind. There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. The rest is silence. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angles sing thee to they rest.
When it’s well done, Shakespeare remains alive, vital and very – very – relevant. And it can be fun too. Check out the various interpretations of one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines – To be, or not to be, that is the question… – performed by the RSC during celebrations for Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.
It’s been a hellish few months for the world. It feels like every day there’s an even worse story on the news. At times it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by feelings of grief and despair over current world events.
Growing up in Glasgow, I can remember my mother’s concerns when the world experienced its frequent periods of madness – especially when they occurred during the summer months – as they reminded her of that summer of 1939 when things spiralled out of control.
I have to admit that over the past few weeks I’ve started to fear that we’re barrelling towards something we can’t stop. So when I’m feeling overwhelmed with bad news, I read this poem – The Peace of Wild Things – by American poet and novelist Wendell Berry.
It helps me. I hope it helps you too.
The Peace of Wild Things – Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives
with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.