Tag Archives: Writer

Writer, don’t lose the plot!

“The essential foundation of all good storytelling.”

THE first six sessions of Write, Regardless! are about establishing an online social media platform, something all writers need to be doing for ourselves long before we start the process of publishing our books. Think of it this way… once you’ve got the regular selling process in place, it leaves you more time and energy to focus on regularly creating. To that end, we’ll start looking in more detail at the writing process, beginning with what I believe to be the essential foundation of all good storytelling: effective plotting.

Dig away at your plot

Every writer plots differently, but plotting a story is never executed just once or in isolation, it tends to evolve throughout the process of putting a title together. This article is something you’ll probably need to dip into across the writing of your work in order to stay on course with your plot.

Plotting a first draft

I am often asked if it’s possible to plot well in a first draft, and whether writers can keep track of where we are in our unfolding plots. The short answer is that I am a great advocate for belting out a first draft without focussing too much on plot. See where the inspiration takes you. There is a payoff for this rule-free ‘luxury’, however, which is that eventually we have to get tough on our plots in order to shape subsequent drafts. Having said that, the more we write, the more we become capable of shaping a plot in a first draft.

“This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining.”

Second draft and beyond

There’s no excuse for neglecting a tough plot analysis while executing your second and subsequent drafts. This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that some literary fairy godmother is going to magically appear and make your first draft perfect. Submitting an incomplete, unworked manuscript is the height of writerly laziness and nobody in the publishing trade is paid to make your raw draft into a workable book. That’s your job. Luckily, there are tools to help.

Bite-sized plot structure

Depending on what genre and format you’re writing, there is more than one way to plot a story. The archetypal five-act plot is the classic structure for novels and can be applied to long-form non-fiction. The archetypal three-act plot is commonly applied to screenplays and plays, although it’s really a truncated form of the five-act plot. Remember, these are a plot’s starting points. The rules are not there to break (if you want to entertain readers/viewers) but rather to bend. Your ability to be flexible with the rules is what will make your writing original.

Perfect plot points

Drilling deeper into plot structure will expose more detail on precise moments that heighten the experience for readers/viewers, such as the narrative hook, the call to action, and the point of no return. Don’t complete a second or subsequent draft of your books/scripts without them.

Fighting the ‘formula’

I’ve had many animated discussions with writers who don’t believe in structured plots. I am not here to convince anyone of the need to plot their stories, but I do know that a joke has a formulaic structure (set-up, punchline) and a ghost story by a campfire has one too. Try telling such stories without sticking to tried and true plot structure will leave the teller looking as though they have no sense of humour. We all anticipate a punchline in a joke, and we know a ghost story has a chilling moment ahead, yet we submit to the formula without question. Plotting a novel or screenplay is no different, in fact these writing formats require more conscious plotting, since they are longer and fall further from the formula, especially if we seek to be original.

ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.
ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.

The Hamlet argument

Many plotting naysayers pull the Hamlet card, suggesting the Prince of Denmark’s “To be, or not to be” speech by William Shakespeare is literature’s greatest example of a character in some fascinating kind of stasis that gives all writers an excuse to avoid plotting better stories. While it’s true Hamlet works himself into a state of not knowing what to do, his famous monologue is actually almost halfway through Shakespeare’s plot. The play opens with the unlikeliest of events – the purported appearance of a ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore, and on the basis of what may be an hallucination, the hero drives the action through several major plot points before he pauses, thinks, and wonders if it might be better to die than go on. Sorry, plotting naysayers, Hamlet is not your trump card, nor is Waiting for Godot. Great stories have plots.

Create battles

When I get into a plot funk, I use a handy device to cut the crap and uncover what needs fixing by finding the ‘battle’ in my story. All journeys of protagonists (‘heroes’) and antagonists (‘villains’) involve conflict between the two. They get in each other’s way. I believe writers’ reticence to structure these conflicts is the greatest obstacle to good plotting. Name your hero and villain, and let them do battle. If you miss this fundamental core, you’ll have no plot.

When plotting and marketing combine

Rare is the writer who has not fantasised about our work in its finished form, imagining our books on shop shelves, complete with our ideas for titles and covers. This daydreaming can be an absolute writing killer, but there is a way to spin it into plotting gold… although my advice would be to try this process only when your first draft is done.

Try it on for size

If you can’t tell someone what your story is about, it’s probably not well plotted. When you have a first draft, try writing a blurb of your work. If this is hard work, it will show you where your plot is weak. If you don’t know who to focus the blurb on, it’s likely you don’t yet know who your protagonist is. Not being able to create an interesting blurb for a manuscript is a sure sign it is not well-plotted.

Synopsis vs blurb

When you’re approaching the point of submitting a manuscript to a publisher or a literary agent, or you’re preparing to independently publish your work, you will need to create either a synopsis or a blurb of your title. A common trap for writers at this stage is to conflate a synopsis (an abridged version of a title allowing a quick analysis of its entire contents, including all plot points) and a blurb (a promotional ‘taster’ of the work which holds plot points back to generate interest). Writers need to reveal all plot points in a synopsis sent to prospective publishers and agents – let them in on your story’s mysteries. Independent publishers need to entice readers by holding back some plot points (particularly our story’s outcomes) when creating blurbs.

Case studies

During my research on the plotting process, I put a few well-known plots through their paces. Because the stories were not mine, the once-removed quality of the analysis made it easier, and I advise all writers to analyse the plots of their favourite books and scripts. Here are my plot examinations of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Sum of Us, both works of fiction, and A Cry in Dark, a non-fiction screenplay. Try your own plot analysis as a way to grow familiar with the way stories are structured.

WRITE REGARDLESSRecap

Structuring an engaging story by building a great plot is not something that magically happens in the editing process. It takes an understanding of storytelling that should be second nature to good writers. But have no fear, good plotting can be learned if you’re prepared to be tough on yourself.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Writer, spread the word!

“The bare minimum requirement is this social media platform you’re building.”

BY now, I hope you’re a regular online publisher, consistently uploading articles in your field of expertise. You have configured your website to automatically send your articles to your web of fabulous social media assets. As a result, you should notice you’re attracting a bit of a following – other bloggers, facebookers, tweeters and social media users. If you’re somehow thinking that your titles will eventually reach readers without this process, good news, I am graduating you from Write, Regardless! right now, because this course is not for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve come to terms with the reality that it doesn’t matter if you want to be a traditionally or independently-published author (or life has chosen one of these pathways for you), the bare minimum requirement is this social media platform you’re building.

The endless journey

Here’s a harsh reality: the distribution of your work will be your task for as long as you are publishing. The job of informing potential readers never stops. Let me say that again: it never, ever stops. I recently read No Picnic, the autobiography of Australian film and television producer Patricia Lovell, the force behind the screen version of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Lovell’s book gives a fascinating insight into the journey of the independent creator, and one of her memorable revelations was how the role of marketing and publicising her films was lifelong. Decades after they had disappeared from mainstream movie houses, Lovell was still selling her creations to TV networks, foreign territories, and video and DVD distributors. Each phase of this required new artwork, marketing packages, and adopting new forms of communication. If you want to create, you must make marketing, publicising and distribution a part of your life. It will often take more time and energy than writing.

Doubling your distribution

You may have noticed that using the automated ‘publicize’ function (spelled that way on US-originated WordPress) on your website does not give you much choice in the wording of your posts on your social media assets. When sending them to Twitter, it gives you no chance to add elements like #hashtags to the tweet. This can limit the extent to which your distribution is operating, so here are some simple ways to boost the distribution of your online publishing.

Top Twitter tips

Twitter is one of the greatest shop windows the publishing world has ever seen. Embracing it takes some fortitude, because it’s a shallow experience most of the time, but it is also what you make of it, in a maximum of just 280 characters! The first step is to come to terms with what #hashtags do when used correctly. For many on social media, they’re a clever (albeit useless) way to underline your point, like saying #PeopleCantUseHashtags – see what I did there? Using such pointless hashtags will connect you with no-one, but adding #auspol to your tweet on your review of a politician’s latest book will put that article in the pathway of thousands of political enthusiasts. #Auspol is short for ‘Australian Politics’, so you can probably guess what #qldpol and #vicpol stand for, right? Hashtags I often use include #LGBT, #MarriageEquality and #Writing.

The difference a hashtag makes

Here’s an automatically-generated (‘publicize’ function) tweet. It looks pretty, but there’s no hashtags.

Here’s a manually-created tweet on the same article. Note the hashtags, and the ‘retweet’ and the ‘like’ the tweet attracted, which is a small, but effective, boost for the article on Twitter.

To make a tweet promoting your article, simply copy and paste the URL of that article (the web address – everything that appears in the box at the top of your internet browser) into the tweet. Twitter will automatically reduce it in size to no more than 20 characters, leaving you another 260 to use in the tweet. Watch how other tweeters make tweets work – short and sweet, pithy and pushy, or just plain funny. It’s up to you, have fun!

If your tweet gets ‘retweeted’ it means another tweeter is sharing it with their followers. Give another tweeter a thrill and retweet their tweet to your followers. Retweets are distribution gold.

Facets of Facebook

Walking the Facebook tightrope as a writer with articles to promote and titles to sell can be wearying. Facebook is free, but over time Facebook Page account holders have been encouraged to buy (or ‘boost’) posts, and as that facility took off, Facebook began to curate who sees posts on Facebook Pages (business account) and Timelines (personal account). To counter this limitation, I often manually post an article to my personal Timeline at a different day/time in the hope that it gets a greater reach. Facebook keeps its functionality very secret, so no-one knows how the algorithms really work.

“The most effective way to use these systems is to participate and reciprocate.”

Targeting social media users

One great workaround for the Facebook algorithms is being able to target, or ‘tag’ people into your Facebook post. I use this function to alert some of my followers to an article they may be interested in, or linking to a business, such as a bookshop that is stocking my books. You simply type the @ symbol before the Facebook Page name, or a Timeline name (to tag me you’d type @MichaelBurge:AuthorArtistPublisher) and it creates a hyperlink to that Facebook post, drawing attention to your article and a providing a link to that business, a win-win for you and them.

Public vs Private

All posts from a Facebook Page are automatically public – everyone can read them. Posts from a personal Facebook Timeline can be set to public or private, as you’re posting, or afterwards. If you want a post on your personal timeline to be distributed by your followers to all their followers, you need to set it to public. Keep on top of Facebook’s regular changes to the ways its system works in this regard.

facebook-privacy-memeSocial media etiquette

There is none, you must set your own standards. Some people will not follow those who don’t follow them back (#TeamFollowBack). Others hate tweets and posts that seek to promote something, and blatant self-promoters get regularly unfollowed. There are all kinds of traps – getting blocked, trolled, overlooked – it’s a minefield, and now and again you’ll see some poor soul trying to ‘keep it positive’ on Facebook because they’re ‘sick of all the negativity’… LOL. Newsflash: Nobody owns Facebook! All you can do is stick to your pathway and not compare yourself to others – be aware that many social media accounts have purchased those 250,000 followers just so they look popular and relevant.

Reciprocity is free

Across my first years on the social media, I found the most effective way to use these systems is to participate and reciprocate. If we expect others to read our articles, we are rightly expected to read theirs. A little give and take goes a very long way. Now and again you’ll feel the heat of a rampant social media abuser. Ignore them or block them, delete the mess they’ve left on your timeline, and move on. Social media fights are ugly.

Real life is still better

Nothing sells your message more than meeting you in person, allowing others to gauge your demeanour, enjoy your personality and your level of humanity. In addition to social media distribution, I encourage writers to put themselves out there on occasion (I force myself to). Go to events – you can post Facebook content from such gatherings, or ‘live tweet’ from them to your social media audience (as a journalist would do), and spend time meeting people who may be interested in your work.

WRITE REGARDLESSRecap

As you create your books for publication, it is important – many, including me, say imperative – that writers build a distribution network. One of the most effective ways of starting is on the social media, but it’s just the beginning of a process that will continue for as long as you seek readers for your books.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Writer, you’re a journalist!

“We can no longer rely on paid journalism to get our messages out there, we simply need to start doing it ourselves.”

THE international media industry is in free-fall with the continued sacking and redundancy of journalists. I wrote about the social media’s impact on the media in 2014, and things have only gotten worse since. Our newspapers, magazines and television programs are full of what is known as paid content. This advertising vs. editorial battle is as old as the media itself, but when the boards of media companies no longer have one experienced news person in their ranks, it could be said the newsmakers have completely lost any control over editorial content. Even public news services are being paid to host advertising as news. It’s for this reason writers need to start behaving like journalists. We can no longer rely on paid journalism to get our messages out there, we simply need to start doing it ourselves.

PROFESSIONAL PANEL Panellists on ABC's QandA.
PROFESSIONAL PANEL Experts on ABC’s QandA.

Be an expert

There are many names for ‘experts’ in fields, influencers, for example, operating predominantly in the marketing sphere, but increasingly impacting the editorial content of the media. These are the people called upon to sit on panel shows or provide expert opinion in sections of the media. They often operate as brands – a marketing-oriented phenomenon designed to create awareness of themes, words, images and products. As writers in today’s media and publishing landscape, it is essential we take elements of these processes and turn them to our advantage. If you write a lot about the environment, for example, you can adopt branding strategies to focus your output in that field. Tweet and Facebook on environmental issues to your audience. Write articles about the environment on your website. Tag and categorise your metadata with environmental keywords, but know exactly why you’re doing it: you are on your way to becoming an influencer in that field.

Keep it real

Influencers and brand adopters are not required to be shallow, purely commercial types. If you are writing and researching subjects that you love, becoming an expert in those fields will come naturally. Write opinion pieces about current events related to your work. Publish reviews about new publications related to your expertise. This is all great fodder for your writing program.

“You don’t need a degree, permission or professional qualifications, you only need journalism skills and consistency.”

Share the love

When you’re ready, start to connect with other online writers and journalists – start with me, if you like – and talk about your work and where it’s taking you. Be prepared to be asked to contribute to other sites – this is a brilliant way to spread your metadata around and can be achieved in a number of ways. Other sites can reblog your posts directly from your site (and you can reciprocate), or you may be asked if you’d like a user profile for another blog, to upload and publish your own contribution – a very common way websites accept contributions. Don’t expect to be paid for much of this output, rather, come to accept it as excellent distribution for your work that will generate followers on Twitter and Facebook, which increases your reach as an expert in your field.

Citizen journalism is not for the faint of heart

One of the most effective strategies I adopted as an online publisher was becoming a citizen journalist. I wrote about the process in two parts – Voyage to the new news world – a process which not only led to increasing my readership but to paid work as an online journalist. I offer a gentle warning about citizen journalism – it’s very accessible, but also highly contentious, because it’s being relied on more and more by established media networks as a way to attract free content, and professional journalists can be very wary of citizen journalists. I wrote about this phenomenon in Stand up, citizen journalists. Citizen journalism is a minefield for writers who are also activists (or become activists over time, through their writing, like I did), so it’s helpful to ponder the fine line between reporting and activism, and freedom of speech. I wrote about this in You cannot burn a mummy blog.

Journalism standards

Adhering to some kind of personal or professional standards as a journalist is not compulsory, but in the online sphere, where readers lay waiting to catch every typo and piece of plagiarism, it’s wise to follow some basics if you’re just starting out. Here’s my best tips for anyone embarking on their own journalism.

Say no to naysayers

Large sections of the international media readership remain under the illusion that the content they read is created by newsrooms full of busy journalists poring over editorial schedules. The reality could not be further from the truth – newsrooms are mainly empty, solo journalists are juggling the jobs that entire teams once did, their hours taken up with meeting the advertorial agenda of management to produce the paid content in their masthead. Citizen journalists are filling the gaps, although whenever the readership complains, they often let off steam about media conspiracies and lazy journalism. Don’t let any of that stop you writing as an expert in your field. You don’t need a degree, permission or professional qualifications, you only need journalism skills, consistency and guts. Check my article on How to write wrong.

WRITE REGARDLESSRecap

As a writer and published author, you’re going to need to forge relationships with journalists. The best place to start is by becoming a journalist yourself. Work out what you’re expert in, and publish quality journalism on that. Keep an eye out for other journalists wanting to connect with you – these are invaluable future connections.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.