December: Rambo and the Art of Story Structure
‘There was a sculptor. He found this stone, a special stone. He dragged it home and he worked on it for months until he finally finished it. When he was ready he showed it to his friends. They said he had created a great masterpiece, but the sculptor said he hadn’t created anything. The statue was always there, he just chipped away the rough edges.’
These almost poetic words sound like they were written by one of the world’s greatest thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato or Socrates. If you thought this, you were nearly right. They were said by that other great thinker, Sam Trautman. Colonel Samuel Trautman. Of course he was the military mentor and commanding officer of everybody’s favourite military veteran, John Rambo. In Rambo III, Trautman uses this metaphor to explain that his protégé had great potential to become a soldier and franchise lead.
The reason that I have brought up this relatively obscure, and cheesy, piece of pop culture is because, as we move into the final month or two of Te Papa Tupu, I have been thinking about how it has all gone so far. I would not go so far as to describe myself as a master sculptor – in fact even the word mediocre would be a stretch. I have, however, realised that the essence of the story that I have been writing is already inherent. All it needs is for the rough edges to be chipped away.
So, after several months of chipping away the part of the stone that needs to be chipped, the most is the actual structure of the story. From the outset, I had a clear beginning that would encompass the ‘before world’ of the main protagonist. Essentially, it is a young man intrigued by the prospect of adventure far beyond the realms of what he has always known. As he grows older, that world seems smaller and smaller, while the potential of the unknown is alluring. I also had a very clear ending in mind: a contrast where the young man learns the hard way that great adventure is tempered by some harsh realities.
The tricky part that requires a metaphorical stone to be chipped away is working out the middle of the story. It is crucial to make for a compelling story. Simply connecting the beginning to the end also limits what can be achieved by a compelling middle section.
So, with the finish line in sight, I need to call on a bit of Colonel Sam Trautman’s fighting spirit and get chipping away at the stone in order to bring this story out. The challenge is to do it in such a way that it enhances the structure of the story and doesn’t read like simple ‘filler’.
November: Historical Research
Kia ora world wide web. The novel I am working on belongs to the genre of historical fiction. It is set during a major period of upheaval in the world, in Aotearoa and also in Te Araroa. Because of this genre, a certain degree of research is needed to try and add authenticity to the story. This has presented several challenges. In fact, in some ways, it would have been a lot easier to write a story about vampires or hobbits or warring factions in Westeros (writing them well may have been a challenge though). So what are the challenges of writing historical fiction?
The first is writing a character. Specifically, for this project, the main protagonist is fictional. He is, however, based on anecdotes of actual people. The challenge with writing such a character is twofold. You want them to be original, yet at the same time recognisable. So there is always this conflict about the type of character that is being created as the writing happens. Are they so original that they are not connecting with potential readers? Are they too recognisable that they are reading as being boring or uninspired? The second challenge is that as the settings and events are based on historical fact and are crucial to the heart of the story, the character is at risk of being too passive. They are a window to that time in history (which is what I actually want to happen) yet themselves are ineffective or inconsequential to what is taking place. No one wants to read about a passive character.
Writing historical events is the next challenge. What do you leave in? What do you take out? How much is needed to successfully recreate the time period and moments in history that the story is set in? The challenge is that if you overload the story with facts and dates and details, it overpowers the story. On the flip side of that coin, too little reference to historical detail leaves a story that does not do justice to that setting. It risks being a simple backdrop, rather than a key feature that helps drive the story. Historical fiction should endeavour to achieve the ideal of a period that propels the story rather than be a simple side note. At the same time, Google is a far more convenient means for readers to learn key details. Libraries are other great sources of information. A historical fiction novel should hopefully provide a story that draws on these events and settings but should share a story that highlights this history from a different perspective.
So, historical research is challenging. It is a mix of responsibility to the legacy of the events of the past and offering a fresh and engaging story to the reader.
In the immortal words of Ollie Olson,
Hei Konei Rā
October: ‘Parts of a whole’
Welcome to October, internet readers. I was never one for maths, but if there was a mathematical discipline that I had to choose as a favourite, it would be fractions. It applies to various things in lots of ways. Analogies about glasses being ‘half-full or half-empty’, something below par being called ‘half-pai’ and one too many brewskis leading to someone being ‘half-cut’. With regards to writing, fractions can be applicable also. Putting a story together requires breaking down parts of a whole. So, for my yarn, the parts that are done are essentially one-third of the story. That sounds like a convoluted introduction to simply saying how far into the yarn I am, but it is a milestone of sorts. Let me explain.
In the old days, before the downloaded flicks, Bebo and Myspace, Netflix, Linkedin, Facebook and NRL Fantasy, I was a prolific reader. I enjoyed New Zealand novels, and two of my favourites were The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera and Monday’s Warriors by Maurice Shadbolt. One thing that struck me about these novels was how the authors divided them into parts. It seems a simple thing to do, yet it’s also a master stroke. A film equivalent might be some words that flash over the bottom of the screen with ‘ten years later’ or something similar. What it would do is actually allow a division of some kind to be inserted into the story.
While it may be cheeky to mention two great New Zealand writers in this blog, it is a chance to use one of the tools they both employed. And so I have. I intend to divide my novel into three parts. The milestone I have recently reached is the end of Part I. Without giving away too much of the story, it concerns a young man who, instead of going away to boarding school, sneaks away with some mates and joins the Māori Battalion for adventure. Part I is very much his normal life as a young man, frustrated with the limitations of life on the farm near Te Araroa and presented with the chance to leave on an adventure.
So, in terms of how my writing is progressing, the hard part is done. The stage has been set. The only drawback by breaking the story into parts is that, to an extent, the end of one part and beginning of another equals a shift in time or location. Standing at the precipice of Part II means that I will effectively be restarting the story. Picking up the threads from another point in time. Any sense of victory at having reached the end of Part I was short lived as now the keyboard needs to start humming again to grind through the mountain that is Part II.
Fractions are all about parts of a whole. I will enjoy discussing that analogy when I have all the parts of the whole.
Kia ora people
If I were to liken writing to being an alcoholic, I would be confessing to falling off the wagon (given the many stories of alcoholic writers, it is probably an apt comparison). Unfortunately, the comparison isn’t the result of me not being able to stop writing, and, as a result, I write too much. It’s the opposite of that. I’ve been unable to get going. I could cycle through a host of excuses – the NRL, Mitre 10 Cup and Rugby Championship have all been compelling viewing; it’s been too sunny; too wet; work is busy, blah, blah. The reality is I have been lacking momentum.
Why is this? The reason I am battling with at the moment is that I have the start of the novel sorted and completed. I have the gripping conclusion ready to roll in my head – essentially that’s where all the action and fighting takes place. And the part I am up to is the in-between stage. In cinematic speak this is the part where Luke Skywalker is cleaning up his X-wing Starfighter. William Wallace is sharpening his Claymore sword. Ethan Hunt is buying all of the cool gadgets to pull off those mean infiltration tricks. Marcellus Wallace has just cued up some Al Green on the jukebox. Indiana Jones is reading up on the Holy Grail.
Chess players will no doubt refer to the importance of setting up pawns before the attack on the king. More experienced writers will explain that it is the role of the writer to bring such moments to life. To make them stand out and be something awesome. Of course it is hard to argue against that position. However, the reality is that the screen is blank for a long time. Any momentum is a slow unfurling of words. The easy thing to do is simply not have that part of the story. The plot is a fertile thing where nothing is locked in. But that seems to be too much of a short cut.
Momentum is the key to this puzzle, I think. One writer I enjoy is Conn Iggulden. He talks about knocking out 1000 words a day, regardless of their quality. One thousand words a day is a bridge too far for me at the moment – particularly with the part of the story I am working on.
What I did like about Iggulden’s approach is that, at this stage, the quality is not under the microscope. So, that approach should hopefully get me through this lean patch. My immediate goal is to build momentum and hopefully be firing on the other side of it.
August: ‘Historical Fiction’
Kia ora anō. The story I am writing is about a young man (in this day and age we would say a teenager, but in the 1930s/1940s, we would say a young man) who lives in Te Araroa on the East Coast of New Zealand. He leaves home to begin boarding school in Hawke’s Bay but instead stays on the train and joins the 28th Māori Battalion.
How did this story come about? I’ll talk a bit more about the actual story in later posts, but I see this story as historical fiction. This reflects my own tastes. My favourite New Zealand novel is Monday’s Warriors by Maurice Shadbolt. In the last few years, I have been enjoying the work of Conn Igulden who has written two series of novels about Genghis Khan and the War of the Roses (he has written more, but those are the ones I have read).
I’m a teacher by trade, and last year, we took a tour with twenty-nine Māori boys who traced the footsteps of their whānau who fought in the 28th Māori Battalion through Greece, North Africa and Italy. As I mentioned at the start, I have a background in film and screenwriting. I have always thought that a feature film about the 28th Māori Battalion is needed. Over the years, I have heard that various people are working on such a screenplay.
This tour had me thinking about a concept for such a film, and in my head, I began to flesh out an idea for a script. Then, probably after thinking about the novels I enjoy, I thought, why not turn it into a novel instead? This appealed as a screenplay goes through a lot of stages of development – often to turn into nothing at all. But a novel is something that could primarily just depend on one person – the writer!
So I figured I would just write a novel. Technically, you press keys and form words and sentences, so the process seemed easy enough. Then, on Facebook one day, I read about Te Papa Tupu, so I thought I would flesh out the ideas that I had so far and write an introduction. Luck was with me, and here I am now, looking to write a novel – in fact, having to write one. I’m all in at this stage. Work had given me a day off at the start to go to a hui, and I’ve met with my mentor, James, and have been lucky enough to get support from the Māori Literature Trust and Huia Publishers.
So, now people other than me are invested. That puts some pressure and responsibility on, but that can be a good thing.
July: ‘Learn by Doing’
Kia ora. My name is Pere, and I am one of six writers selected for Te Papa Tupu 2016. I went to Taonui primary school in the Manawatu. Its motto was ‘Learn by Doing’. That is very apt because I don’t really regard myself as a writer, which is not a great admission for someone staring down the barrel of writing a novel for the first time, but I suppose neither was anyone until they had written something. It’s going to be a learn-by-doing process.
I’ve written a few bits and pieces here and there but nothing that could be considered recognisable. My style is probably best described as being a blurter. A blurter is similar to a blogger but with a lot less precision. I can blurt out some ideas, work with broad brush strokes to get something going. What I don’t really have is the finesse for the sharp, fine details. So, the next few months will mean a rapid up-skilling in working with fine details.
It has been a good start in that regard. Last week, we had a hui with the crew from Huia Publishers. This was a chance to also meet the other writers and some of the mentors as well as previous writers who participated in Te Papa Tupu. All of the projects were as varied as the people writing them. What struck me was how distinct their voices were. By comparison, mine seemed more like a first-year university paper, so there is a lot of work to be done to get it up to scratch. What was cool was to spend a day focused on how various people are looking to approach the same task. The kōrero ranged from graphic novels to anecdotes from writers who have been recently (and not-so-recently) published.
Fast-forward a week to today, and I met with my mentor, James George, at the Mount. James is not only a published author and a lecturer of creative writing but also a man with his finger on the pulse of the social history of New Zealand. His feedback on what I have written so far was clear and also suggestive of how I can look to improve and also continue to build the story. It is set against the backdrop of World War Two and the 28th Māori Battalion. James’s knowledge of various aspects of society – particularly Māori society – in the lead-up to World War Two was invaluable. I am looking forward to his feedback and ideas as this project progresses over the next six months.
My hopes for the story are that it adds to the canon of literature about the 28th Māori Battalion. Considering that Dr Monty Soutar’s seminal book Nga Tama Toa is what I regard as the Bible on the Battalion. This story is fiction built around the stories and anecdotes that are already known. I’m conscious not to make it a historical document and would rather it is something that is familiar to readers in terms of setting and events yet at the same time offers up something new. Learn by doing is probably the best way to get into it, so I’ll get busy blurting stuff out and look to craft it into something half-decent.