The Writing Life

### Bernard Cornwell’s Writing Advice

Bernard Cornwell is the author behind the Sharpe series, which have, like Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels set in the same Napoleonic period, achieved a kind of cult status. The Sharpe saga was later turned into a television mini-series by the BBC and aired in the U.S.A. on PBS. What follows is an encapsulated version of his “writing advice” which can be found at his [website][1]:

* Find an agent.
* Get the story right. Do not worry about anything except story. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Kurt Vonnegut once said that every good story begins with a question.
* Once you have your story, you must keep it moving. If I could have my life over again I would rewrite the first third of _The Winter King_ to compress the story, because when I wrote it I was too busy creating a world when I should have been keeping the characters busy. [JL: But some writers mistake busy characters for a story.]
* Want to write a better book? When I wrote _Sharpe’s Eagle_, never having written a book before, I began by disassembling three other books. Two were Hornblowers, and I forget which the third was, but I had enjoyed them all. So I read them again, but this time I made enormous colored charts which showed what was happening paragraph by paragraph through the three books. How much was action? And where was the action in the overall plan of the book? How much dialogue? How much romance? How much flashback? How much background information. Where did the writer place it?
* How much research is needed? Stay focused on the project at hand. Why explore eighteenth century furniture making if the book does not feature furniture? Do as much research as you feel comfortable doing; write the book; and see where the gaps are; then go and research the gaps. Don’t get hung up on research: some folks do nothing but research and never get round to writing the book.
* In the end, you have to write the book. A page a day and you’ve written a book in a year.


### Write a story that is juicy

These days, when I sit down to write, I don’t think about the message I want to convey with a story. I don’t think about what the film is “About”. Instead I try to find a story that gets my juices flowing, then I attempt to discover why my juices are flowing in such a way, and once I do, I try to find a way of conveying that, that once discovered, seems all too obvious.

#### Oliver Taylor’s Scene Analysis

13 May 2006. I’ve come up with a set of questions I ask myself that I use when I need help getting started or getting thru a scene. These questions have been lifted and combined from two sources.

There is an acting technique called Practical Aesthetics, which is most clearly defined in the book A Practical Handbook for the Actor. In it, the job of the actor is defined as,
>Find[ing] a way to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play. Thus the actor must be able to decide what is going on in the text in simple, actable terms.

A bad actor will look at a scene and say, “This scene requires that I be angry, because at the end I yell at the other character.” A good actor will say, “When I yell at the other character it shows that I’m angry.” How do you act angry? You assume all the traits of an angry person, you grumble, you scour, you put on a mask. That mask is the worst thing you can do as an actor because it gets you further away from the most important thing you do, “Find[ing] a way to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.”

Masks of anger, joy, confusion, all distance the actor from anything real that is happening in that moment.

As a writer you are also attempting to create something that feels real, as if the scene unfolds without the slightest effort, sending it’s characters reeling into fits of rage, joy, whatever. Like a bad actor, a bad writer will say, “This scene requires him to be angry, so I’ll have him yell at her.” A good writer will say, “Him yelling at her reveals that he is angry.” The thing to note about this distinction is that you’ve identified what’s important about your job as a writer, instead of focusing on an angry thing for him to do, you’ve shifted the focus to revealing a piece of information. And that’s what writing is all about, revealing information.

The job of a writer is to discover what series of events best illustrates an idea or an emotion. Just like the actor, your job is one of translation, the most difficult part which is that it all comes down to this: you have to write something that a person can do in front of a camera.

Practical Aesthetics states that: “”[A] Physical action is the main building block of an actor’s technique because it is the one thing that you, the actor, can consistently do on-stage.””

Notice any similarities to writing a scene?

#### The checklist

The technique prescribes a checklist for choosing an action. (Descriptions are my own).

1. Must be physically possible to do.
2. Pleading for help, Good. — Attaining the American Dream, Bad.
3. Must be fun to do.
4. You must make a scene interesting, if you’re not interested how can the audience be interested?
5. Must be specific.
6. You must have a clear path to follow, generality is death.
7. The test of the action must be in the other person.
8. By looking at the other person you must know how close you are to completing your action.
9. Must not be an errand.
10. The action must be something that it is possible to fail at.
11. Cannot presuppose an emotional state.
12. Any action requiring you to put yourself in a state before or during a scene will force you to act a lie.
13. Cannot be manipulate.
14. A manipulative action will force you to act in a predetermined way.
15. Must have a cap.
16. You must have an end to work towards.
17. Must be inline with the intentions of the writer.
18. You are part of a whole, not a whole itself.

These descriptions are, of course, inadequate at best. A Practical Handbook for the Actor is cheap, and an invaluable resource. Go buy it.

#### Asking Questions

When Francis Ford Coppola was adapting _The Godfather_ he asked himself a series of questions while reading the book’s scenes and thinking about how to adapt them. He then wrote the answers to these questions in the margins of the book. The idea was that these questions would assist him in finding out what was important, and relevant, about the particular scene in question. His questions are listed below. (For this example I’ll analyze the first few pages of Braveheart.)

##### Synopsis

* We are told that this is going to be a story about a man named William Wallace. This story may not follow accepted history exactly, but “history is written by those who hang heros.”
* Scottish Nobles are fighting England for control of Scotland. William Wallace is 12 years old. His father and older brother are on their way to see a friend (a nobel) who was supposed to meet them after a meeting with the King of England’s men.
They arrive and find all the nobles murdered. William, who has followed them, stumbles into the barn. This event will scar him.
* Imagery & Tone — Specifics that stand out.
* Cobalt mountains beneath a glowering purple sky fringed with pink; a cascading landscape of boulders shrouded in deep green grass; faces purple and contorted by the strangulation hanging, their tongues protruding.
* The beauty of the landscape and the brutality of what is happening within it is a key juxtaposition that should be established quickly.

##### The Core

* William should be established as a headstrong child, doing what he feels is right regardless of what he is told to do, foreshadowing the events to come.
* The World — That does this say about this world?
* Betrayal is a key element of the story. The fact that the Scottish are not more wary of “dirty” fighting means that they doomed to one day learn that lesson the hard way. It is therefore important that it be shown immediately that the Scottish were being betrayed and tricked by the English — and that it works.

##### Pitfalls

* Making the English seem to villainous; the fact is that this was what war was like.
* Shoving too much history down the audience’s throat.
* Lingering too long on the setup, get to the hanging nobles as fast as you can.
* Making the Scottish complete angels.
List every obvious example in detail, this is not place for subtlety.


I’ve combined parts of both these lists and compiled a set of questions I ask myself when writing a scene.

* Synopsis: Short summary.
* Imagery & Tone: Specifics that stand out.
* The Core: What is important?
* Pitfalls: How can you screw this up?
* How does it end: How does the scene end?
* Who is in the scene: Character 1 / Character 2
* Character 1 wants:
* Character 1 can fail by:
* Character 1’s method used:
* Character 2 wants:
* Character 2 can fail by:
* Character 2’s method used:
* Who gets their way:
* Winning method(s):