writing | writing tips

Writing Blind Characters: What You Need to Know

July 7, 2017

So, you’ve decided to write a blind character. Good for you! The world is always in need of more characters with disabilities, especially when those disabilities are represented correctly.

Want to make sure you’re ticking all the good representation boxes? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’m a partially sighted person, and I’m here with this handy guide to help you write blind characters that work.

1: How ‘blind’ is ‘blind’?

What? That’s obvious. All blind people are totally incapable of seeing, right? Right? Wrong.

According to WHO, an estimated 285 Million people in the world have a visual impairment. Of that number, only 39 Million are  considered blind – that is, completely unable to see. The rest are considered ‘sight impaired’, which just means they can’t see as well as the average person. They might have a moderate visual impairment which only affects their life a little bit – or they might have a severe visual impairment which makes life a lot more difficult. That impairment might be in their central vision, or in their periphery, or they might have blind spots. They might not even be ‘missing’ vision at all, but still be unable to see fine detail even with corrective lenses.

For example – I have reduced peripheral vision. I’m still partially sighted, but (lucky me!) I can still see a great deal. I have no problems reading or writing or recognising faces. But crossing roads and navigating crowds is pretty difficult!

When you’re writing a blind character, think about what kind of visual impairment they have. It’s easy to throw down the blanket statement ‘they’re blind, they can’t see’, but that’s not representative of most sight impaired people’s experiences. Plus, making a character totally blind can lead you down that slippery slope of making your disabled character entirely helpless – or worse, finding some excuse to negate their disability completely.

2: Blind People aren’t Magic

Think of the blind characters you know. Toph Beifong. Terezi Pyrope. Daredevil. The OA. What do they all have in common?

Yup. They all have special powers that just happen to cancel out their visual impairment.

In case it wasn’t clear, that’s not how disability works in real life. If you really want to go the route of having a character be blind without actually having to figure out how they’re going to navigate the ins and outs of your plot, why not give them one of the many conditions that are easily cured or prevented – or better yet, just write a sighted character from the start. At least that way you won’t be pulling a bait-and-switch on all the readers who just one time wanted to see a character sharing their struggles, instead of handily negating them.

Here’s a thought: if your characters have magic powers and disabilities, why not give them powers that have nothing to do with that disability? Let’s have wheelchair users that shoot fire from their eyes and partially sighted people that fly. Isn’t that much more interesting than never having a character be disabled in name only?

Oh, and in case it isn’t clear: there’s only one man in the world who can echolocate, and it took him years of practice. As cool as it sounds, you don’t gain super hearing to compensate for your visual impairment.

3. Canes and Braille

There are a number of tools that partially sighted and blind people can use to make their lives easier. I’m going to look at a few of them here.

First of all, not all blind people read braille. In fact, only 1 in 5 blind schoolchildren use braille to work. Have you ever tried reading braille? It’s crazy hard!

Well, I’m being a bit facetious there. The truth is, braille is an old technology. Nowadays we have plenty of gadgets that can read for us – from the tried and true audiobook to the high-tech scanner. You can read about some of the tools available to help blind people read and write here.

For some characters though, braille (or your fantasy universe equivalent) is going to be their only option. The best way for you to find out what reading braille is like is to try it yourself! Plenty of household items have instructions in braille – medicine definitely does. Learn what it is you’re supposed to be reading, and see how easy it is to pick up.

As for canes, there are two types: Symbol Canes, and Mobility Canes.

Symbol canes are for people with moderate visual impairments. It’s mainly for the benefit of sighted people who might not realise that the person has a disability. I have one of these. They’re about 3 feet long, they fold up for easy transportation, and yes, they do that awesome daredevil thing when you unfold them again. The key thing to remember is that these canes never touch the ground – they’re supposed to be held across the body, so that sighted people spot them and go ‘Oh, a partially sighted person. Better be careful not to run them over/walk into them/tell them to watch where they’re going.’

Mobility canes are the kind of cane most people picture a blind person using. They’re adjusted to the height of the user, and they have a little rollerball on the end that is moved across the ground to detect bumps in the road or the edges of pavements. In the U.K. we have bumps before every crossing to indicate that this is a safe place to cross the road.

Now, obviously canes are not intended for use as weapons. But I’ll tell you what – when I’m out walking late at night and I hear a stranger’s footfall a little way behind me, I feel a lot better knowing that what I’m holding in my hand isn’t an indicator that I’ll be an easy target – it’s a three foot long stick made of carbon fiber and metal, and getting whacked with it will hurt. Now that’s something to bear in mind for your action sequences.

4. Blind people aren’t helpless

In case it wasn’t obvious from the rest of this post, blind people are not helpless. Let’s hear that one more time: blind people are not helpless. I’m being particularly stubborn about this because it’s a trope people love to abuse: ‘aah, my glasses! I can’t see without my glasses!’, etc.

Close your eyes right now. Aah! You can’t see! But you can hear. You can touch and even smell. Sure, none of those things are good enough to replace your sight, but you’ll find (especially if you’re in a familiar environment) that you’re able to move around fairly well. Go on, try walking to the next room and back with your eyes closed. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t so hard, right?

Now remember that that’s a worst case scenario. Most blind people can use scanning techniques to anticipate obstacles out of their immediate vision. Even totally blind people can get around unfamiliar places with a lot of planning and an auditory GPS system… or a guide dog. And everyone can get around their home environment as long as there are no pesky tripping hazards in the way.

Tl;dr? Blind people aren’t helpless. That’s all you need to remember. We’re as resourceful as any other human being.

5. Blind people aren’t Amish

What I mean by this is that blind people can totally use the internet. Screen readers are the usual method of doing this, but remember that partially sighted people with central vision exist, too. The OA actually showcases this quite well – Prairie has a (really outdated) PC with screenreader software that, well… reads the screen.

Most smartphones also have this capability, and you can buy special covers for smartphones without buttons that make them easier for blind people to use.

I’m going to hop onto my soapbox for a second. There’s a catch to this whole blind-people-on-the-net thing, and it’s that most webpages are not even remotely optimised for screenreaders. To interpret images, this technology relies upon accurate alt-text descriptions (you know, those things that make XKCD comics extra funny). Lots of screenreaders are also a bit unreliable, prone to trying to read HTML tags and being totally unable to pronounce punctuation. So that’s something your character could struggle with – apart from that though, they’re likely to be as technologically adept as anyone else. Unless they’re also like, really old.

(Psst. There’s free accessibility software available that will help you get an idea of what this kind of stuff does.)

6. ‘Watch your language!’ ‘…’ ‘Oh my god I’m so sorry!’

The above is an exchange which literally never happens. Blind people speak the same language that everyone does. They’re just as likely to let slip a ‘see you later!’ as you are, and it’s really not a huge deal. We don’t suddenly become incredibly precious about the words we use when we lose our sight.

So unless your character has a good reason to be oversensitive, ‘sighted’ phrases aren’t something they’ll object to. Now, we’re all prone to giving our friends a good ribbing now and then. Whenever somebody describes something as being ‘in the corner of their eye’ I feel compelled to go ‘Oh that must be nice!’ and pout in what I really hope is a comical manner.

Equally, blind characters are likely to make snarky comments about people making light of their disability, or forgetting about it entirely. There’s that great moment in Avatar: The Last Airbender when Toph gets handed a piece of paper and is asked ‘what’s this?’

'Well it sounds like a sheet of paper, but I guess you are referring to what's on the sheet of paper.'

 

Now, I have one last point to make:

7. Blind people can, and do, blink.

I kid you not, this is something I have had to explain before. No further questions, please.

 

 

 

 

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Uncategorized | writing | writing tips

Worldbuilding? More like World Breaking.

February 13, 2016

 

I’m working on a project. It’s spiralling wildly out of control and part of the reason why is that this project of mine is set in what I’ve lovingly termed the post-post-apocalypse. We’re talking so far into the future that people don’t even remember the event that sent their distant ancestors running from their city flats and into the wild, there to live out the rest of their days in tenuous peace. We’re talking so far past the apocalypse that the apocalypse has literally no bearing on the content of the story any more, and yet still I have spent hours and hours researching likely apocalyptic scenarios in search of something that sticks.

Why is that important? Because the apocalypse might be irrelevant to the here and now of my story, but it forms the backdrop of literally everything and everyone in it.

Also, researching horrible apocalyptic scenarios that could reasonably happen in the next 50 years or so has been marvellous fun. Here’s how you too can cosy up with the NSA and start planning your very own apocalypse.

Step one was to decide on the sort of apocalypse I was interested in. I knew right away that I didn’t want anything too permanent, because I didn’t want my characters to still have to deal with imminent danger every day, and I didn’t want anything too fatal, because I wanted to actually have characters in the first place.

So, a sort of backwards engineering took place. I wrote down everything that I needed to be true ~500 years after the apocalypse. Here is that list:

  • The population of Britain has to drop from 61.4 Million to 18.8 million.
  • The population must have a reason to disperse into small countryside settlements.
  • Imminent dangers i.e radiation, famine, disease must either be avoidable or have been significantly reduced.

The good news (for most of us) is that it turns out most of the common apocalypse scenarios are totally survivable. The bad news for me is that most of the common apocalypse scenarios are totally survivable. I initially ruled out all-out nuclear war firstly because it seemed a bit obvious, and secondly because it seemed a bit untenable. The truth is that (according to nukemap) if a H-Bomb of 10.4 megatons were to hit London today, fatalities would number around 2,320,460. That’s terrible. But it’s not terrible enough. Even if that same H-Bomb hit every major city in the UK, the fatality rate would be a measly 5.5 Million, barely a dent in the total population – and everywhere south of Woking would be relatively untouched, along with most of Wales and Northern Ireland. That said, the fallout effects spread over everywhere else in the UK, across the North Sea, and even reach parts of Denmark. That’s bad news, because the effects of fallout hang around for (I couldn’t really find an accurate number on this) a really really long time. And that’s not the fun kind of fallout where you get three headed cows and giant blue dicked superbeings, it’s the kind of fallout where all your children die of radiation poisoning and you can’t grow any food and every day is a ceaseless struggle for survival in a decaying landscape and it could potentially last forever. 

And apart from all of that, if nuclear war ever actually became a threat, we (and by ‘we’ I mean the very rich and maybe some lucky engineers) would likely have a contingency plan. Like some kind of massive shelter. And maybe 500 years after that nuclear war we’d be able to reemerge from our shelters into a very different but very survivable landscape, but that story is called Fallout and it’s full of glitches anyway.

Let’s rule out some other scenarios. No meteors. 99% of the time they are totally harmless, and the one percent of the time they’re not they’re totally fatal. That’s ‘totally’ as in ‘they are responsible for at least one mass extinction event’, not ‘totally rad’. Ditto for solar flares, which would incinerate all life on earth in moments and probably won’t happen until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle several billion years away.

So let’s talk zombies. Well actually let’s not, because I ruled out zombies because they are a dumb idea that has been done to death, resurrected, and whacked in the head repeatedly until all semblance of consciousness has been destroyed. Let’s talk instead about the possibility of pandemic. A pandemic is like a zombie apocalypse, but less bitey and with more sneezing. As anyone who’s ever played Pandemic 2 (or its blatant ripoff, Plague Inc.) knows, it’s totally possible for the right virus to completely wipe out humanity. It’s also completely possibly for that virus to wipe out a little bit of humanity and die out because it wiped out a bit too much. Perfect.

Now let’s take that virus, or maybe another virus, or a parasite, or a particularly tenacious bacteria, and give it to our food. The 2001 foot and mouth epidemic (sorry, epizootic) in Britain resulted in the deaths of around ten million livestock. Fusarium Wilt is in the process of wiping out banana supplies the world over. Bees are dying out, which means that our plants are becoming harder to pollinate. We rely on GMOs which may or may not be susceptible to horrible diseases (no sources for that one, because this is a worst case scenario, remember?). The long and the short of it is, we are a few poorly-timed outbreaks away from nationwide famine. Throw in some new strains of flu, ebola, or meningitis in there and we have the makings of a pretty plausible minor apocalypse. People mass-evacuate from cities as the virus spreads among the densely packed population. Food shortages mean that the government resorts to rationing, which widens the class divide still further, which leads to rioting, distrust, insurrection, which leads to a military response… and it goes on.

If that seems a bit much, remember that the apocalypse is unlikely to be a single event, but rather a series of horrible, horrible mishaps. It will have to take place not just in one country, but in every country worldwide. Every failsafe must fail to be safe. Maybe war will be involved – it certainly hasn’t been beyond humanity in the past to pass up helping their fellows to make an ill-advised power grab. I’m not saying that the scenario I’ve envisioned is the most likely apocalypse, but it’s certainly the most workable one for me. Maybe your apocalypse will be different. The most important thing when planning world-end scenarios is to have fun, be yourself, and leave as much as you possibly can to artistic license. That’s how you avoid spending all night explaining to your new buddies in the sharp suits why you needed to know the effects of an improvised nuclear weapon in inner-city London.

 

 

 

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books | writing | writing tips

Reading Aloud

January 6, 2016

When I was four years old, something incredible happened to me. I was sat in my classroom, just before lunchtime, poring over a copy of Meg and Mog. All around me I could hear the gentle rhythm of my classmates reading aloud their own books. My own voice, small and wavering, joined them.

But then all of a sudden, something clicked. All of a sudden, I was no longer reading aloud – I was reading in my head. ‘Great!’ I thought, ‘Now I never have to embarrass myself by reading aloud like a baby ever again!’ There would be no more ‘sounding out’ of words like ‘and’ and ‘then’, no more long pauses while I carefully turned the page with tiny, chubby hands. All my reading could be stowed away safely in my mind, unscrutinised by teachers or friends.

I’m not at all surprised that for most people, the art of reading aloud is lost in those first moments of silent triumph. If I hadn’t had the benefit of being a massive show-off (I could do all the voices, and sometimes the actions, and I wanted everyone to know about it), I might never have read a book out loud again. Most people never do read aloud again, unless they’re forced to by their teachers, or later, by their children. We all know that reading aloud is good for us, and good for our listeners, but very few of us actually do it.

Isn’t that weird? I started thinking about reading aloud again the other day, halfway through a drunken dramatic reading of that keystone of modern literature, My Immortal. ‘What if,’ I thought, ‘What if I read aloud more often? Would it be weird, like singing in the shower? Would it be interesting? Would anyone want to listen?’

Then I forgot all about it and spent the next hour eating pizza and building a blanket fort.

A few days later, I realised that I might actually have been on to something. Reading aloud, I realised, was a good thing to practise doing. Firstly because I am a writer, and sooner or later I’m going to have to read something to someone, and it would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to stumble through names of characters or places I’ve just now realised I’ve never heard pronounced before.

Secondly, reading aloud is a great way to edit. When I wrote scripts, I read back the lines to myself (while waving my arms around and pulling funny faces, of course) all the time, to double check that they made sense. Why not do the same for my prose fiction? Why not do the same for other people’s prose fiction?

When we read aloud, we appreciate the written word in a way that we don’t when it’s ‘in our head’. In our head, we’re much more forgiving of misspellings and odd turns of phrase, because our brain, being the clever little snot that it is, has a tendency to correct things for us.  Out loud, there’s no such escape for the bland dialogue or the misplaced comma.

When we read aloud, we force ourselves to really take note of everything we read. We run the words along our tongues like each one is a particularly satisfying ice lolly. We learn to appreciate each pause for breath. We give the characters voices, and we spot immediately any weird deviation from their usual personality. I’ve heard it said a hundred times that any good writer first has to read, has to pore over the classics and the moderns in search of that little kernel of technique that they can adapt for their own work. Reading aloud helps us spot problems in a work, but it also helps us to appreciate when something is really, really good. Did that last sentence sound good to you? Read it again. Say it in your own voice. Say it in someone else’s voice. You could do this all day.

Don’t want to sit around in an empty house reading to just yourself? Find a willing audience. Children, obviously, love being read to. Apparently, so do pets.  If it’s your own work you’re reading, try signing up to an open mic and give it a test run in front of a real audience. If you want to get a feel for a certain style, or just test out your voice, why not volunteer for the talking newspaper, or join a reading group? If you find that reading aloud is the best thing you’ve ever tried, I’d like to hear about it. Or, if you try it and end up ridiculed by your peers and peed on by your cat, I’d like to hear about that too. The comments section is right there, below this post.

 

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writing | writing tips

Dreams and Inspiration

January 5, 2016

Everybody dreams. Everybody has woken, shivering, in the middle of the night still brushing imaginary shadows from their face. Everybody has drifted off on the bus, wondering if the stranger sat beside them might be a secret agent, or a wizard, or any number of unlikely things.

Our dreams are limitless, in ways that the real world is not. Taking inspiration from our dreams seems natural, even for realistic fiction – and for fantasy genres, our dreams can provide a good starting point for the magical and fantastical.

I keep a dream journal under my pillow (it’s not a very big journal), along with a pen, and whenever I wake up in the middle of the night, or when I’m blinking away the cobwebs in the morning, I try to jot down the gist of what I was dreaming about.

It’s not easy, at first, to remember your dreams – your brain treats them a bit like a yoghurt carton. First it wants to scoop out the gooey memories  of your day so it can digest and make sense of them over the course of a night, and then when you wake up, it tosses out the dream.

And like a yoghurt carton, if you are so inclined, you can scoop those dreams out of the rubbish, scrape out every last morsel of inspiration, and examine it under a microscope.

That’s the first step to recalling your dreams. Be prepared for the disappointment that comes when you awaken, full of brilliant ideas, only to find that they’ve drifted out of your mind in the few seconds it took to open up your notebook. Be prepared to really rack your brain for just one moment of your dream. Be prepared to really irritate your partner by waking them up at 6AM to grab your journal from beneath the pillow.

Slowly but surely, it will get easier. Instead of being able to recall nothing but vague shapes and key ideas, you’ll be able to remember tiny, almost insignificant details and complex plots. You’ll find that your dreams become richer and more varied by the day. You’ll be able to pick out recurring themes and symbols. Now comes the easy part – using your dreams in your writing.

Start by paying attention to the atmosphere of your dream – the sounds, the colours, the feel of different objects. Dreams take us to places we can quite literally only imagine – so make them real with your writing. Say you dreamt about dancing on a cloud. How does it feel? Is it cold? Warm? Was there music? What could you see around you? The trick is to blend your real-life experiences and expectations with the fantasy of the dream world.

Of course, you’re not going to dream up a novel in one night. Drawing inspiration from dreams is the same as drawing inspiration from anywhere else – you have to build on those isolated moments of imagination to create something bigger, something better. Try merging snippets of dream together to create a prompt, or combine your dream journal with your real-life journal to create characters, places and situations that are well and truly unique.

 

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theatre | writing | writing tips

Playwriting 101 : Thinking about Character

April 15, 2014

Last time, we looked at the bare bones of writing a play – now, we’ll go into a little more depth. This is what I learned about creating and developing character from the Engine Room program at The Garage, Norwich.

Your characters are the backbone of your entire story – without them, the events of your plot have nothing to act upon. Your characters will inform the entire shape of your play (or story, or novel, or whatever). Their personalities will determine what happens, and more importantly, why it happens.

01 : Creating Characters

The first step towards creating a character is deciding what they’re like. Fairly straightforward, right? Just a basic idea of their personality and role in the plot is enough to start off with. When I was coming up with ideas for the protagonist of my play, I had a particular character in mind. I was thinking of a guy in his late teens, who’d just dropped out of uni and had no ideas about what to do with his life. This character eventually became Freddie, who’d just failed his A-Levels and had become stuck in a dead end job that he didn’t enjoy.
Well, that was enough to start out with. But it wasn’t enough to write a whole play about. At this point, Freddie was looking kind of two-dimensional. He needed a little bit of depth to his character, so that I had something to build upon.
There’s plenty of exercises out there that will help you bulk up a character. To start with, try a character questionnaire, like this one. The idea with these is to pretend that you’re interviewing your character, and answer the questions accordingly. Note that this one has a question to do with quirks and habits that your character has – this is especially useful for scriptwriters. A character with a quirk is a character that’s instantly recognised by the actor and their audience. Don’t forget that even something seemingly superficial, like a stutter or a tendency to interrupt other people, says a lot about a character’s personality. For example, I have a grouchy old man character. Before he even says a full sentence, I have him ‘tch’-ing and shaking his head at Freddie. This is his quirk, and it tells the audience immediately that he is grouchy, and that he disapproves of Freddie’s actions. It draws them in – why does this old man have a grudge? What will he do next?
If you have someone else to bounce ideas off of, and you have a good idea of the way your character talks and acts, you can ask your helper to interview you as though you were your character. This is a great way to discover early on if something’s gone a bit weird in character development. Through this method, I discovered that the Freddie in my head was a bit of a weird caricature of every rubbish teenager I’d seen on TV. That had to change. The more questions I was asked as Freddie, the more his character began to round out and become sympathetic, instead of weird and annoying. One rule for this method : there can’t be any ‘I don’t know’-ing or ‘that’s a secret’-ing. Act as though your character has taken a truth serum and has to answer everything honestly. If you can’t think of how they’d answer a particular question, think harder. If you really don’t think your character would want to answer a question, think about why. Freddie, for example, wouldn’t want to answer the question ‘What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?’ Why? Because he’s the kind of person who projects a false sense of confidence – he just couldn’t deal with telling a total stranger his deepest darkest most embarrassing moment. Later, I managed to work this into the play. Remember that this isn’t a test of how well you already know your character – it’s an exercise to help you get to know them better. It really does help!

02 :  Showing Character with the Billion W’s

By now you should know who your character is. Great! Now comes the hard part – introducing them to your audience.

I’m going to go ahead and repeat a piece of advice you’ve probably head a gazillion times already : ‘Show, don’t tell.’ This is the nugget of wisdom on which all modern writing (and modern writing courses) is based, and it’s even more important in scriptwriting, because more often than not you will actually have to show things. 

In a novel, you can (probably) get away with writing : ‘John looked down at the shoe in his hand. It evoked the day, many years ago, when he first saw it on the shelf at Clarks. The leather shone seductively in the late afternoon light, and from that moment forth, John knew that that shoe was made for him.

Here’s what that horrific piece of purple prose looks like in a script :

John looks at the shoe.
Not exactly Shakespeare, is it? If that’s all they’re given, your audience is never going to work out that John’s shoe obsession is just one way in which he expresses his desire to return to a simpler time, before the collapse of his ten-year marriage to the woman he loves.
Those homewreckers!
The audience also probably won’t appreciate a five minute monologue on the exact role the shoe plays in John’s shattered and lonely existence. Like I said, it’s not exactly Shakespeare. Theatre has moved on from the days when an actor would walk onstage, deliver an expository speech (or inspired monologue, your choice) and exit to give the actual plot some room.
So how about this? Let’s pretend for a moment that these characters are real people with real problems, motivations, and footwear addictions. At any given moment, your characters should be asking these questions :
Who Am I? : You’ve answered this already – it’s the aspect of their personality that’s coming forth in this scene.
Where Am I? : Does the setting affect how the character is behaving? Why is that?
What Time Is It? : Is it first thing in the morning, or the middle of the night? Are they a morning person or dog tired?
That’s all background stuff. It might affect the way our characters behave, but there’s nothing they can do about it. For now, let’s imagine that our character is Annie, who is about to confront her roommate Bob about stealing her socks. It’s the middle of the day and Annie’s just run into him in the hallway, in front of the guy she likes. (I have footwear on the brain today, sorry not sorry.) Now Annie is asking :
What do I want?
 
That’s the big question every writer, actor, and director should be asking of their characters. As we’ve already established, we can’t just have Annie walk up to Bob and hiss : ‘I am angry! I think you have stolen my socks! I want to make you feel bad! But I’m keeping this quiet because I don’t want the guy I like to think I’m a paranoid sock obsessive!’ That would look pretty bad on stage. As writers, our job is to have Annie say all that stuff, but in a way that doesn’t make her look like a robot missing her subtlety drive. Let’s ask some more questions.
Why Do I Want It? 
 
That’s a big one. Why does Annie want her socks back so badly? I’ve decided that it’s because the apartment is cold – she bought particularly woolly socks because her persnickety personality gave her the foresight to prepare for the winter, and she’s annoyed that Bob didn’t bother to think ahead too. This gives her some more motivation : not only does she want her socks back, she wants Bob to feel guilty about taking them.
What Am I Going to Do to Get It?
 
There’s three aspects to this one. What is your character going to do :
Physically? : Do they punch a wall? Go sit in the corner and brood? Start to cry?
Verbally? : Do they start yelling, or talk very quietly? Do they start to stutter or develop some other quirk?
Psychologically? : This is really, really important. A character might be looking at the ground and mumbling when on the inside, they’re screaming with rage. So how do we show that? Well, the subconscious has a way of showing its nasty wrinkled behind even when we’re trying to keep it hidden away (with fancy frilly conscious mannerisms or something. I’m not sure where I was going with that analogy).
For example, Annie might act totally cool about Bob stealing her socks in front of her crush, but later on, she’s planning to make him pay. She might say something like ‘We’ll discuss this later.’ Or maybe she’ll let Bob pass with a friendly wave and then catch him by the arm and whisper ‘Don’t think I’m going to let this drop.’ In this way, Annie achieves what she wants to do verbally (by telling Bob he’s in trouble), physically (by appearing as casual as possible) and psychologically (by successfully navigating the situation without making things awkward).

03 : KEEPING CHARACTER CONSISTENT

Keeping your character consistent is one of the most important parts of writing – it’s also one of the hardest. It’s no good planning out exactly what your character is going to act like if they then start acting differently as soon as the plot requires it.
-cough- Moffat... -cough-
I’m just going to leave this here.
In any given scene, you should be asking the questions we talked about above, and then answering them the same way your character would. Let’s look at Annie and Bob again. Say, for example, that Bob was an irrationally angry person. When I asked Annie about her aims in the scene, I forgot to ask Bob. While Annie is trying to make Bob feel guilty about stealing her socks while avoiding an awkward situation in front of her crush, Bob is doing the exact opposite. He’s trying to get away with Grand Theft Footwear, and because he’s a colossal jerk, he’s going to go ahead and make Annie look bad in front of her crush, too.
Inconsistency would be if I, as the writer, decided to change Bob’s character so that Annie gets to do what she wants. If I decided to let Bob suddenly see the error of his ways and be consumed with guilt, he’d be behaving in an inconsistent manner. If I let him yell: ‘Jeez Annie, stop being so anal-retentive and accusing me of stealing your stupid socks!’ he’d be a little more in line.
This also provides a bit of tension. After all, if Bob does nothing and Annie just continues with her day, then where’s the drama in this scene? Nobody wants to watch a bunch of characters getting everything they want, any time they want it. That’s bad writing.

Next time, I’ll be thinking about the most important part of any script – the scenes.

I hope this was helpful to you all – as always, feel free to leave comments and tips of your own!



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theatre | writing | writing tips

Playwriting 101 : Getting Started

November 21, 2013

This time last year, I was invited to take part in a 12 month scriptwriting course at The Garage, Norwich. “Don’t worry,” they assured me, “You don’t have to be a scriptwriter already, we’re just looking for people who want to have a go.”

I didn’t need any more encouragement. This time last year, I was terrified of my writing. I’d never read any of it aloud – I’d barely even shown any to my tutors. Kind of a bad start when you’ve just dropped 9K on a Creative Writing degree. But one thing I’ve learned this year is that writing is a lot easier than I ever thought it would be. Last month, I finished my first play. It was dead on 100 pages long, which translates to about an hour and a half of runtime. And it was okay. Not great, but not too bad, for a first try.
It turns out all I really needed was some advice on how to get started. In scriptwriting, there are some particular issues : how to format the script, how to write good dialogue, and how to write not only for the audience, but for the actors – and the director, and maybe the producer too. It’s a daunting task, and that’s why I’ve noted down some of the things I learned while I was writing. Hopefully someone out there will find it as useful as I did.

o1 : Getting an Idea

According to V for Vendetta and the edgy half of the internet, “ideas are bulletproof”. Maybe that’s what makes them so hard to hunt down.
The best ideas come from real life. You’ve heard it before : ‘Write what you know.’ I like to carry a little notebook around with me where I can note down any ideas I have during the day. They can come from anywhere : overheard conversations on the bus, things you see on the internet, talks with friends.
When I don’t have my notebook on me, which is a lot of the time because I’m amazingly absent minded, I use the notes function on my phone.
You might find that you’re just coming up with lines of words that don’t seem to go anywhere. That’s okay – note those down too. They might not fit with anything you’re writing right now, but you never know when you’ll be able to work those disembodied lines into something really neat!
You can also try actively looking for ideas : my favourite place to do this is, believe it or not, Wikipedia. Ever started out looking up breeds of cats only to end up reading about social issues amongst the inuits? You’ve been Wikipedia’d. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself absorbing all kinds of information – and the more information you have to hand, the more likely it is that you’ll find an idea. You can try this on other sites, too. Try Tumblr for gathering knowledge on points of view different to your own, and Flickr if you’re more of a visual writer. You never know what you’ll find lurking in the depths of the internet.

o2 : Formatting your Script

Script formatting was probably the biggest reason I never tried writing for the stage before. It just seemed so complicated. Let’s face it, it’s hard to concentrate on your literary genius when your technological ignorance is preventing you from getting the line indents right.
That’s why software like Celtx exists. It’s a completely free program that automatically formats your script for Stage, Radio, and Screen. If you’re not writing for any of those, it has an online library of templates that might be more to your liking. They even have one for the BBC standard script format. They’re not even paying me to write this, and I’m still plugging them as my favourite writing tool.
Celtx also has an online workspace called Celtx Edge, where you can access any scripts linked to your account from anywhere with internet access. There’s a 15-day trial, or you can get it for £9.99 a month. As a dirt-poor student, I haven’t shelled out for it yet, but it looks pretty good if you’re collaborating with someone.
You can find some resources on using Celtx here : 1 , 2
And if, on the off chance you’re browsing this on your washing machine or just don’t like downloading things some random blogger told you were good, remember that Kate Tempest’s hit new play, ‘Wasted’ was written entirely in good old Microsoft Word.
Just keep in mind that there’s a right way to write for everyone : there are lots of tools to help you with the standard format, but when it comes to writing for the stage, a lot of people aren’t really picky about how the script is packaged. What they really care about is your writing, not how well it’s presented.

o3 : Actually Writing

Some writers can pull ideas out of nowhere, and go on to write amazing things. Most people have a bit more trouble than that – it’s not that our ideas aren’t good, it’s that they don’t translate to the page in quite the way we were expecting.
Doesn’t matter. Keep writing it anyway. The worst that could happen is that you don’t like it – it’s not like you have to show your finished manuscript to the writing police or something. The fact of the matter is, you can only improve a skill – any skill – by practising. You’d expect to have to practise riding a bike, or juggling, right? Writing is like that. The more you try, the better you get. As in anything, failure only teaches us how to improve.
Skydiving is the exception. 

And in case you need that extra push out of the plane, try signing up to NaNoWriMo – this year gave budding writers the option to choose ‘Script’ as their genre and set their own target. The only catch is, you have to finish it in a month. Maybe you’re reading this way after November has passed. That’s okay! There’s nothing to stop you saying : ‘I’m going to write a script, and I’m going to finish it in X amount of months’. I finished mine in 6 – next time, I’m going to try and write even faster.

You can even try looking around and see if there are any scriptwriting workshops in your area – if you write already, there’s plenty of theatres looking for new voices. If you don’t write already, there’s plenty of theatres, writing groups, and tutors willing to help you start.
Or, if you want, you can go off on your own. The nice thing about writing is that you can go about it any way you like. Feel free to comment, and share your own tips!

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writing | writing tips

Why you should take a Creative Writing course.

July 30, 2013

From an actual Creative Writing student! 

In my first year of university, I’ve met an awful lot of fellow writers. Some of them are already professionals (most of whom are very intimidating, but also very lovely!) but a great deal of them have been what I like to call ‘sort-of’ writers. Those writers who’ve spent their whole lives, or a great portion of them, writing. Be it fanfiction, blogging, or just the odd poem scribbled down in their journal, they write. Some of them write when they’re angry, or sad. Some of them write with their friends. Some of them write all the time and do absolutely nothing else. But when you ask them: ‘Are you a writer?’ they’ll all answer the same.

‘Sort of’.

One thing all these sort-of writers have in common is that they want to write. They want to be writers. But a lot of them won’t. A lot of them will pursue ‘sensible’ career options, and just keep writing as a hobby. That’s fine. But what about those of us who really do want to write for a living, who can’t see themselves doing anything else?
Well, then it’s time to take a Creative Writing course. 

I came to this conclusion in about January last year. I’d wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember, and for as long as I can remember, people had been telling me that I should go write for a living, that I’d be good at it, that I’d be the next bestselling author, that I could write the next [insert whichever series was popular at the time]. It was all very flattering.
Except that one.
But that’s a stupid idea, right? Surely, I thought, to be a real writer you have to ditch the thought of university completely, go travel the world, and spend the next thirty years churning out cover letter after cover letter before finally being discovered in the slush pile of a down-on-their-luck agent looking for the next Harry Potter. I also had some ideas about dying alone and disease-ridden in a garret in Paris, but I wouldn’t recommend that, either.
Instead, an amazing English teacher pointed out to me that I could spare myself years of heartache by just taking a creative writing course at university and seeing where that got me. After all, if I succeeded, I could very well go on to write professionally, and if I failed, then I had the added bonus of never having to pay back my student loan. It’s a win-win situation. And that’s the first reason you should take a creative writing course. 
The second reason is that you’ll get to meet other writers. This is less soul-destroying than you’d think. On my first day at UEA, for example, I posted a quick ‘Hello, does anyone else happen to be doing Creative Writing and do you think we could be friends?’ on our collective facebook wall, and the next thing I knew my new kitchen was flooded with about 20 fantastic fellow writers, all of whom were just as nervous and reluctant to talk about themselves as I was. It was an eye opener. I’d been expecting a group of hipsters to turn up wielding their Booker Prize-winning novels in one hand, and their star-studded Twitter page in the other. 
Seems about right.
Instead, I got two dozen perfectly normal ‘sort of’ writers who were just like me. And just like me, they’d been wondering if their choice of course was really, well, valid. See, they’d all been taught the same thing I had : that writing is a talent, not a skill. That it’s innate, not learned. As far as I can tell, that idea is wrong. 
Of course some people are going to spend more time writing than others. Those people will, most likely, be better at writing than others. But that time spent writing, and doing writing-related-things, is what differentiates between someone who wants to be a writer, and someone who just writes. We writers don’t have chromosomes shaped like semi-colons, in the same way lawyers don’t have lines of legislation for D.N.A. Writers like writing. And that, in itself, creates talent. 
My point is, a lot of people told me that I couldn’t be taught to write. That I was wasting 9k on something I already knew how to do. I thought that wasn’t true at all. After all, I knew my writing could be better. And if you’ve ever felt that feeling when you look at something you’ve written and know it could be improved, but not how, then yes, a creative writing course is for you.
A creative writing course won’t just teach you how to write – in fact, we do very little of that – it will teach you how to read. How to assert yourself as a writer. How to talk to other writers, and read other writers’ work, without worrying that you’re not good enough to write. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that writers – even my favourite writers – aren’t superhuman literature machines. They’re just average people… who write. I wouldn’t have learned that by sitting at home reading their novels religiously, praying to whichever god hands out copious amounts of talent that one day I could be that good – it was sitting at university, reading their novels religiously, and then meeting them in person only to find that actually, they’re pretty nice and normal and not godlike at all, that taught me that. 
So that’s the number one reason for taking a creative writing course – because it will teach you things about writing, and the business of being a writer, that you might never have learned otherwise.

A creative writing course will teach you to say things like; ‘I have one poem published and I still have both my ears, so I’m already doing better than Van Gogh.’ 
A creative writing course will teach you to say things like; ‘I would’ve poisoned Socrates too, he sounds like a jerk!’ 
A creative writing course will teach you to say things like; ‘Yes, I do Creative Writing. I’m studying it at university.’
And most importantly of all, a creative writing course will teach you to stop saying things like ‘I’m a writer… sort of.’ 
But seriously, look at this face and tell me you don’t want to punch it.

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