During a recent workshop with the YA author Emma Pass she recommended that wannabe writers try Story by Robert McKee.
She did warn that she'd read it with a notebook to hand - and it does require some serious concentration. But she also said that it had revolutionised the way she wrote - changed her life, in fact. So I bought it, and am making slow but steady progress through it. It is primarily written for scriptwriters, but there is lots of useful information for all writers.
Anyway, in the summer holidays, which are frequently a bit of an involuntary sabbatical in my house, I have to find other ways to work. One of the things I'm doing is studying this book. Already some of the insights have affected the way I'm thinking about my work in progress, to the degree that, when I get five minutes, I'm not rushing to write, but hurrying to read the next part of this book.
There is, of course, always a danger that you spend so long reading about writing that you never write; but I'm also afraid of then discovering huge problems with my plot and having to go back and unpick things that could easily be put right now.
So, here are two thoughts from McKee's book.
He talks about the 'craft' of writing, and its loss. "If your dream were to compose music, would you say to yourself: "I've heard a lot of symphonies....I can also play the piano...I think I'll knock one out this weekend"? No....you'd head for music school to study both theory and practice...Too many struggling writers never suspect that the creation of a fine screenplay is as difficult as the creation of a symphony." I find it very encouraging, to know I'm not the finished article yet, never mind my work! And I also need the encouragement to push myself harder in order to be the best I can. It's easy to shrug and say, "That's the best I can do, so it'll have to do" when what I really need to do is say, "It's the best I can do at the moment, so I must get better"...
The other thing I've found fascinating is what he has to say about cliche (especially cliched ideas, rather than hackneyed phrases). This is something I worry about in my own work, and McKee suggests that the antidote is to know your characters and world inside out, and to explore those through memory, imagination and research. He says that those who don't know their world well enough, when they try to write about it, 'come up empty' and so they fill the void with experiences from TV, stories and movies, therefore coming up with familiar, cliched ideas. Some of his tips to combat that are really interesting, too, and I need to apply this to my work in progress and see what magic I can work, and if I can strengthen this weak area of mine.
I'm glad for this chance to improve myself, even though I'm not managing much writing time.