The Story Spine

This week, I’ll be doing my express creative writing workshops in two libraries. These workshops aim to help people put together stories in the shortest possible time, in this case, two hours. You may be wondering how it’s possible to tell your story in two hours. It’s actually surprisingly doable, particularly with the help of a story spine. I’ve introduced story spines to my workshops in recent times to speed up the process of writing their stories.

What is a story spine, you might ask?

It may be trite to say this, but it is literally the spine of your story. Like the spine in your body, it holds your story together. It gives you a structure that you can add flesh to. It’s a series of sentences with words deliberately left out, so it’s up to you to decide how the sentence is completed. The sentences are designed to help you plot the beginning, middle and end of your story.

A story spine is a skeleton that you can hang your story on.
A story spine is a skeleton that you can hang your story on.

What to Put in A Story Spine

The first sentences introduce you to your character.

There was once a man called ____

They also set the scene

He lived in a ______

In the middle of the story, a problem is presented which the character must solve. You also learn more about the character and their role in the story.

The treasure was stolen because _____

Only (the character) could rescue it, because _________

Towards the end of the story, the story spine centres on how the problem is resolved.

(The character) got the treasure back when he ______-

Technical Point

You’ll notice I put (the character) in brackets. When creating your story spine, you’ll need to be careful about how to refer to the character, since you don’t know what sort of character the write creates. When referring to the character, I put (name) in brackets after the blank space, so the writer can insert the name they’ve chosen for their character. Elsewhere, I refer to the character as he/she, and the writer can cross out whichever pronoun doesn’t apply.

Bringing the Story Together

Story spines are beneficial because they help people organise their thoughts and they can see how the ingredients of a story fit together. In the workshops I’ll be doing this week, we’ll do three activities to help participants come up with a character, plot and setting. The participants will then use the ideas they came up with during the activities to fill out the story spine. By filling it out, they’ll start to see how they can use the information they gathered during the activities to help them finish the story.

When they finish the story spine, they then flesh out the story. I indicate to them which parts of the story spine to use for the beginning, which for the middle and which for the end. For example, sentences 1-6 could be used to set the scene in the beginning, 7-12 for the climactic middle and 12-18 for the exciting ending.

Have you ever used story spines yourself, as a creative writing student or tutor?

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Three Lessons Commercial Fiction Authors Can Learn from Literary Authors

Following on from last week’s post about how literary fiction writers can learn from commercial fiction writers, I want to turn the tables. Commercial fiction writers can be envious of the kudos that literary fiction writers get from critics and the awards they win for their books. Again, there are certain lessons that commercial fiction writers can learn from their literary counterparts.

Here are three things that commercial writers can do to make sure that their writing stands out in their crowded genres and earns them the respect they deserve.

Choose Language Carefully

Commercial fiction writers don’t like to complicate things. They get on with telling their stories, in simple, uncomplicated language. But there are times when it pays to pay attention to how you tell your story, to the language they use. Literary writers are very precise in their descriptions and think hard about how what words will fit. They also take care to shape their sentences for a polished effect. Even though commercial writers emphasise content over style, they can invest a little time making sure that their sentences flow and that they create vivid descriptions that live in a reader’s mind.

Show, Don’t Tell

When you read a literary novel, you often have to work at it to figure out what the author is trying to say and who the characters are. While this means a little extra work, the effort rewards the reader. People often read commercial fiction to escape rather than to tax their brains, but commercial fiction authors still need to trust that their readers will enjoy your book more if you hint at what’s going on, rather than spelling everything out

Create 3D Characters

Commercial fiction authors can sometimes fall into the trap of creating stock characters, who conform too strongly to their genre, whereas literary authors tend to go for flawed but fabulous characters who are recognisably human. It can be a challenge for commercial authors to stand out, but creating fully rounded characters who have a quirk in them that stands out is certainly one way to do it.

So what other lessons can commercial authors learn from literary authors?

Three Lessons Commercial Authors Can Teach Literary Authors

If you look at bestseller lists for books, you will see very few literary titles in the top 10. That honour tends to go to authors of more commercial fiction, particularly thrillers and women’s fiction. More literary authors, who may spend years toiling over their novels only to sell a few hundred copies at most, may wonder what commercial authors are doing that they are not.

I believe that literary authors can learn valuable lessons from their commercial counterparts. There’s a reason why these books sell by the truckload, and if literary authors can learn to incorporate some of the techniques of commercial writers in a way that fits with their own style, they’ll increase their appeal to the reading public.

Here are three techniques you can use to help you achieve monetary as well as literary success.

Write Like You Speak

Commercial writers are able to capture the rhythms of everyday speech in their writing, which makes it easier for readers to slip into the story. This comes out particularly strongly in their dialogue, which reads as convincingly as if it were real conversation. Don’t be afraid to add in current slang or dialect words to bring colour to your dialogue.

Tighten Your Plotting

Commercial authors create a great sense of momentum in their writing. You get the sense that something could happen at any minute, and you keep reading to find out what it will be. Commercial fiction writers understand the power of story and create stories that sweep you along, helping you to forget about the outside world. While you can create compelling plots through character interaction, it’s good to build your story around a compelling event that will engage readers.

A Satisfying End

Most literary novels leave their readers hanging. I understand that the authors want readers to make up their own minds, but real life is ambiguous enough, so it’s nice to feel a sense of completion when you finish a book. Commercial authors deliver this in spades. It can be satisfying for a reader to work at a book to glean its message, but it’s a good idea to reward readers for their work at the end.

What lessons do you think literary authors can learn from commercial fiction authors? Or do they need to learn any?

Self Publishing Day at Irish Writers’ Centre

This week, I thought I’d bring you a report from the Self Publishing Day organised by the Irish Writers’ Centre. The Centre has a long tradition of holding publishing days, which give budding authors the chance to hear from experts in the publishing industry and get tips on sending in their manuscripts. This time, the Centre decided to embrace the brave new world of self publishing and the day featured five leaders from the world of self publishing.

Morning Presentations

The day began with a guide to the Dos and Don’ts of Self Publishing and the presenter was Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin of writing.ie. Vanessa has a wealth of knowledge at her fingertips, and she managed to cram most of it into her 90-minute talk. The real value of her talk lay in the fact that she is a self published author with  a strong background in traditional publishing, so she was able to give insights from both side of the fence. The kernel of her message was that you should make sure that your self-published book looks as much like a traditional book as possible.

Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin from writing.ie,(Image, asiam.com)

Editor Robert Doran then took us through the different types of editing and what you should expect from your editor. His talk clarified the differences between editing and proofreading and within editing itself, which can often be confusing. He also discussed the value of getting a sample from an editor – it turns out that opinions are divided on this topic.

Afternoon Sessions

The afternoon was devoted to marketing and sales for self published authors. Anne Marie Scully of Orchard Wall Publishing, a digital publishing company, spoke about how to make use of online advertising tools. She previously worked at Google, so she had a particular insight into Google Adwords. Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin was back again for the last session, in conversation with Robert Doran and two self published authors who had made it.

Emily Evans has sold 84,000 copies of her young adult romance novels and Catherine Ryan Howard has turned her self-publishing experience in a career, offering advice to other authors through her conferences and her book, Self Printed. They had plenty of nuggets of information to share about how to run successful book marketing campaigns, and were particularly enthusiastic about WordPress websites.

Audience Participation

People were free to ask questions while the speakers were talking, and there was lots of lively discussion, about topics like libel, the correct spelling of manana and the use of pen names, as well as more nitty gritty questions about how much you can expect to spend on self publishing.

Online Participation

Successful self published authors have a strong understanding of social media and the digital world and the conference put a lot of emphasis on the digital world. For example, there was a hashtag that people could use for Twitter, so that when they tweeted about the event, it would be easy for other people to find out about it. But I believe that there is still a schizophrenic attitude towards the online world in Ireland. The people who are immersed in it can’t imagine why other people aren’t. Meanwhile, there is still a fairly vast swathe of people who have either chosen not to go online or are a little frightened of it.

Therefore, I think it would have been better if the presenters had pitched their talk on the basis that people knew nothing about social media or the digital world, as the audience seemed a little confused by the material at times. I also believe that traditional marketing methods still work, and it would have been good to see those covered in the talks as well.

Overall, I commend the Irish Writers’ Centre for organising this day, and for opening up a mine of valuable information to help people realise their dream of becoming self published authors. It’s interesting to reflect that when I went to my first publishing day at the centre, self publishing was dismissed as a footnote. Now it gets a day of its own.