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The Gary Provost Dramatic Sentence
A guest post by Peter Rubie.

My friend Gary Provost and I created what we teasingly called the Gary Provost Sentence (with some help from Aristotle). Here it is:

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This is classic dramatic structure. It works because it’s story telling that is most satisfying to the reader. Aristotle defined good drama as storytelling that defined character, created atmosphere, and advanced the action of the plot. No one has ever really substantively improved on this beautifully simple yet profound definition, though I think Norman Mailer came close when he said in a TV interview “The best fiction is where art, philosophy, and adventure all meet.”

Let’s go through Gary’s paragraph again. This time we’ll stop along the way and I’ll talk about the elements of plotting. Once you understand these elements whether you’re a literary novelist or a writer of non-fiction, or a genre writer you’ll be able to plot any story you like.

Once upon a time… something happened to someone…
This is what we call the inciting incident. In other words, it’s what caused the story to kick in. Say your story begins on Thursday. Don’t begin it on Wednesday, just to set the scene and introduce the characters, a classic amateur flaw. Plunge us right into the action the moment it starts. Why? Because nothing significant happened on Wednesday. You’re not writing someone’s life, you’re writing the story of a watershed moment in that life. The thing that happened to upset the equilibrium or the balance in his life is the thing that begins the story. That’s the inciting incident. That’s where your story should start.

…and he decided that he would pursue a goal.
There’s something this person wants. What is it? It’s the prize, the thing he’s trying to get through, all through the story. What is it that your main character wants? In the long run what does he hope to achieve?

So he devised a plan of action,…
Let’s call this The Strategy. How is our hero going to go about pursuing his goal, or prize? What’s he going to do? What’s his plan?

…and even though there were forces trying to stop him,…
This is the opposition, the conflict. Conflict is the basis of all drama. Our hero wants something, and he’s figured out a way of getting it. Something has to get in his way, something or somebody has to have a conflicting goal, and a conflicting plan C something has got to try and stop him. Nobody’s interested in reading a story about an guy who wanted a million dollars and got it. They want to read about a guy who wanted a million dollars and had a lot of trouble getting it. There are forces coming against our hero, there is conflict.

…he moved forward because there was a lot at stake.
Ah, The Stakes! What our hero wants, what plan he’s devised to get it, and what this effort will cost our hero? In chess, every move forward gains something, but it also loses something as well. Nothing of any importance in this life is free. In one form or another we always pay a price for what we most desire. In a story the stakes have to be very high. What are they in your? Life or death, lovers lost forever, friends becoming implacable enemies, something very important we can all relate to. You don’t want to write a story about a guy who is going to lose his typewriter or his comb. It’s got to be something very important, something big enough to disrupt his life, to change him from what he was into someone else by the end of the story.

And just as things seemed as bad as they could get,…
This is known as the Bleakest Moment. Things are dark and dreary for this person. Everything has gone wrong and it seems as if the forces of opposition arrayed against him have won. But somehow, from the darkness of his despair and depression, from his failures, he finds the strength to persevere and overcome against overwhelming odds.

…he learned an important lesson,
Aha, a revelation. Our protagonist comes through his Bleakest Moment with a gift C understanding. At last he sees, he understands something about life that he didn’t understand before. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, are about people growing and changing, about their insights into the human condition. By the end of the story, this new knowledge has changed our protagonist for the better. He is a little wiser, and a little stronger, he has a little more faith in himself, or in others, or in the bountiful nature of life. He has grown and learned a lesson.

…and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it,…
He makes The Decision. The important thing to remember about this decision is that when he makes it, he gains something, and he gives something up. It isn’t much of a decision if someone says, “Hey, here you are. Here’s a million dollars, you can take it or leave it.” But if someone comes along and says, “Congratulations, now you can get your million dollars. But there’s one catch: if you take it you’ll never see your daughter again. And if you want to keep on seeing your daughter, you’ll never get another chance to get your million dollars you’ve just earned.” This now, is an important decision our hero must make.

…and in making that decision he satisfied a need…
Let’s call this The Hole. It is the Aengine that has been driving him to do stuff the whole of his life, and certainly for the duration of the story, though he may not even be aware of what that hole is.

…that had been created by something in his past.
This is the importance of the Backstory. The backstory simply means his past, whatever happened in his past relevant to the story you’re telling about our hero. The need or hole is something that happened to our hero before the story began. Something perhaps that haunts him. The enigmatic reference to the boyhood sled Rosebud, in Citizen Kane, for example. In someway the hero is still incomplete. He’s been injured, or he’s had a part of him taken away. Perhaps he’s lost his faith, or rejected love. Perhaps he’s a loner, someone who’s not good at sharing himself with others, and he comes into this story carrying this thing with him, needing this hole filled. And in the process of the story, the hole is filled as he comes to his realization.

Gary Provost and Peter Rubie were the co-authors of How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales. Thank you to Peter and to Gary’s wife Gail for granting permission to share this article, originally published at peterrubie.com, with us.

Gary Provost was born in 1944 and died in 1995. He was the author of many books across a range of genres including four award-winning young adult novels. Provost was also a highly sought after writing instructor and co-founder of the Writers Retreat Workshop. He published a number of writing advice books including Make Every Word Count (Writers Digest Books, 1980). Read more about Gary Provost at garyprovost.com, a site established and maintained by his wife Gail.
Peter Rubie is the CEO of Fine Print Literary Management. He is a former BBC Radio and Fleet Street journalist and for several years was the director of the publishing section of the New York University Summer Publishing Institute. Prior to becoming a literary agent he was a publishing house editor for nearly six years. He has also been the editor-in-chief of a Manhattan local newspaper, and a freelance editor and book doctor for major publishers. He was a regular reviewer for the international trade magazine Publishers Weekly, and is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction. He is a member of AAR, and regularly lectures and writes on publishing and the craft of writing. He is also a professional jazz musician who can be regularly found playing jazz guitar around New York City.
 


On Treating Writing as a Form of PlayA guest post by Eli Glasman, author of The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew

For years before my novel was published, I felt insecure about whether or not I was a ‘real’ writer. I don’t think this is a unique anxiety amongst unpublished authors and I responded to this anxiety in the way I think many people do: I romanticised the act of writing.

I told myself that the burden of writing fiction was thrust upon me and I had no choice but to sit each night and delve into the unknown to produce works of genius. Writing like this didn’t flow easily for me. And as a result, it was hard to read. The prose were pretentious and calculated. It was clear that everything I wrote was me begging the reader to think of me as a genius.

I told myself that if it was easy to write it meant that it wasn’t any good. Good fiction needed to be sweat over. If it was hard, it meant I’d worked at it and it was worthy.

This attitude to writing was one I’d been carrying around in my head since I was a kid. On my weekends and days off, I wrote all day. It was all I thought about. I’d obsess over the stories, especially the syntax, running through sentences over and again in my head until I’d memorised them.

I have a habit of over analysing myself, but I think I obsessed over writing as a childish way to simplify things, as I was not in an emotional position to take on the complexities of life.

It felt safer to focus on this alone, as it meant I didn’t need to focus on many of the pressures we all face, such as finding a job and becoming financially independent, or worrying about the things that may have been more specific to me, such as the Crohn’s Disease and my recent decision to no longer remain an orthodox Jew.

As I’ve spoken about previously on my blog, when I started socialising and earning my own money, I found that writing didn’t need to take on the task of carrying my entire sense of self and keeping at bay my anxieties. I felt more comfortable with my life and could relax and have fun with my writing.

As a result, my writing immediately improved, because I was treating it as what it really was, which is a form of play. In not romanticising it, I could allow myself to be crap for a little while and acknowledge that it was something I needed to learn to do, rather than some pure expression that flowed flawlessly through me.

The first short story that I had published was one that I’d ‘let go’ for and allowed myself just to enjoy the writing process. Yet still, even knowing that the healthier approach was to try and enjoy it, I still fell back into old habits.

Shortly after my first short story was accepted for publication, I needed to have a small procedure due to the Crohn’s Disease, which required that I spend a few nights in hospital. Before I began the bowel prep, I received an email from the editor of Voiceworks with the final track changes on my story.

Before I started drinking the solutions, even though I’d been fasting all day, I did the edits on my story. In my head, I marked this as my commitment to writing fiction. It showed how important this was to me, how I would overcome any obstacle to pursue this craft.

In retrospect I see this as deluded and pretentious. I should have just said I was in hospital and asked for a few more weeks on the edits. I’m sure they would have been more than happy to oblige.

I now see that occasion as a lesson in what not to do. I will never force myself to write.

Now I write every few days, while thinking of my stories every day because I want to, not because I feel I have to. If I write until two in the morning it’s because I’m having fun, not because I need to validate that I’m a real writer.

I figure if I want the reader to stay up until two in the morning reading my book, I should be able to enjoy writing it until that time. I realise now that a reader will enjoy reading the novel half as much as I enjoy writing it. I need to glow as I’m writing to know a reader will feel this as they’re reading it.

I find that writing obsessively, telling myself it’s work, a burden that was thrust upon me, snuffs out that sense of fun. And I will produce a novel I wouldn’t even want to read.

More from Eli GlasmanOn How Getting a Novel Published Isn’t Just About Persistence

Eli Glasman is a Melbourne based, Jewish author. His writing has appeared in Voiceworks magazine, the Sleepers Almanac and in 2013 he placed second in the Josephine Ulrick short story competition. His debut novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew (Sleepers Publishing), about a homosexual boy in the Melbourne orthodox Jewish community, is available now from all good Australian bookstores or online 

 


Judging Your Own Work

4 September 2014 — 3 Comments

Judging Your Own Work - Brian McDonald

By award-winning writer and director Brian McDonald
Excerpted from Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate

 

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
– Thomas Mann

Don’t write for other writers. People are drawn to writing for different reasons and many people do it to seem smart. If you have a good first act, most will never recognize it, because they’re not really clear on what a first act does. They know nothing of construction, but will turn their noses up at the idea of it anyway. The less they know about it the more they will object to it.

The one thing I have noticed about people who are exceptional in their creative work is that they are always trying to get better. That’s how they got good in the first place. These people judge themselves against the best work. They aim for the top.

Just worry about the craft and the art will take care of itself.

Continue Reading…

Research Tools Every Writer Needs

In this guest post historical fiction author Kelly Gardiner shares some of the wonderful free resources that writers can use to make the most out of their research time.

‘Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression.’ – Robert McKee, Story

All writers need research. Whether you’re writing a memoir based largely on your own life, a story set in a neighbourhood you know well, a fantasy in a created universe, or a feature article, research can add depth, verisimilitude, and those telling details that further plot or character.

I write historical fiction, which involves more research than some other forms – luckily, I love the process of imagining, seeking, finding, interrogating and then integrating (or not) material that helps me populate an imagined past and draw its people.

So here are a few things I’ve learned that can help you, no matter what form your writing takes.

Find, don’t search

It seems so easy to look stuff up, doesn’t it? A quick Google search, and there’s a world of information at your fingertips. But is it what you really want, and is it any good?

Some tips on searching well: first, start with a broad query then refine it. You can add extra words to it if they are useful refinements, but don’t just keep adding terms. Think about what material you want to find. Who would write that? Try to imagine the words they would use to describe it. A good example is health information. If you want to see results from a whole lot of health forums on which people discuss their symptoms, use common words. If you want to read informed medical advice, search using terms a doctor or medico might use.

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Short Story Masterclasses - Eight Successful Writers Discuss the Short Story Form

Short Story Masterclass is a specially commissioned podcast series produced by Thresholds, an online international short story forum based at the University of Chichester, in partnership with the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. Each episode features an award-winning author discussing their approach to short stories. The series is hosted by Steve Wasserman, creator of the Read Me Something You Love podcast, and K.J. Orr who was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award in 2011. 

Episode 1: Sarah Hall and the sexiness of the short story form
Listen here
After writing four highly acclaimed novels, Sarah Hall published her first collection of short stories,The Beautiful Indifference, in 2011. The collection won the 2012 Edge Hill Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize. Hall is a tutor for the Faber Academy, The Guardian and the Arvon Foundation.

Episode 2: Joseph O’Connor and super-charging your language
Listen here
Continue Reading…

How to Submit Your Writing to Literary Magazines

Would you like to start submitting your work to literary magazines but don’t quite know how to even begin? Or perhaps you are unsure if you are making the right first impression with editors. This wonderful guide for writers seeking to get their work into print comes from the editorial team at Neon, a UK-based literary magazine published every quarter.
If you are looking for places to submit your work to be sure to check out our latest Opportunities for Writers post or see our list 9 Literary Magazines for New and Unpublished Writers.

This article is designed to be a complete and thorough guide for anyone who is interested in having their short story or poem published in a literary magazine, but doesn’t know where to start. You’ll probably find it most useful if you’ve never sent out your work before, or if you’re just beginning to try and get published. This guide is also quite specific to literary magazines. If you’re looking to publish an article, interview, review or feature then the process is quite different. If however it’s a short story, poem or other piece of creative writing that you want to publish, read on!

Step 1: Find A Suitable Publication

The first step is to find a magazine that you’d like to be published in, and which publishes the kind of thing you write. There are thousands of different literary magazines in the world, and each has its own unique tone and style. Familiarising yourself with a magazine by reading a few back issues greatly increases your chances of being able to publish your work there – and also helps support the magazine itself! If you can’t afford to buy a copy of the magazine, many have samples available to read for free on their websites.To help you find the right magazine for your work, there are a number of resources available. Duotrope’s Digest is by far the most comprehensive – for a small monthly fee you get access to a searchable database of over 2000 different literary magazines. Ralan.com,
PoetryKit and Neon‘s own list of UK-based magazines are also worth browsing.

Step 2: Read And Follow The Guidelines

Once you have found a magazine that publishes the kind of work you write, you should look for the magazine’s guidelines. These will usually be on a page on the magazine’s website, or printed in the magazine itself. By reading the guidelines you can find out things like maximum or minimum word counts, and the format in which the editor would like to receive your work.There’s some language which might be a little unfamiliar to you that crops up often in guidelines pages. Here’s a brief glossary: Continue Reading…

18 Countries 18 Publication Opportunities
A list of 18 literary magazines from around the world that accept international submissions.

Argentina
Digital publication The Buenos Aires Review publishes work by emerging and established writers from the Americas in both Spanish and English. All prose submissions – fiction and non-fiction – must be under 5000 words and poets are asked to send 3 to 6 poems at a time (up to 2000 words). The Buenos Aires Review also publishes cultural criticism and interviews.

Papua New Guinea
Stella describes itself as a thinking woman’s magazine from Papua New Guinea for the Pacific. The magazine covers fashion, health, travel, arts and lifestyle topics. Stella welcomes submissions of articles and creative-journalism from emerging and established writers from across the Pacific region.

Canada
The Malahat Review invites writers at all stages of their careers to submit their work. The magazine publishes poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction by writers from Canada and abroad as well as reviews of Canadian books. The Malahat Review runs four literary contests per year.

South Africa
Published four times a year, New Contrast is South Africa’s oldest literary journal. It accepts submissions of fiction up to 6000 words and poetry up to 75 lines. The journal welcomes writers from around the world, though preference is given to pieces which have some bearing on issues, events or reactions relevant to South African and in some case African contexts. Continue Reading…