The Best YouTube Channels for Learning the Craft of Novel Writing

What do you do when you want to keep learning, but you’re totally done with reading about the craft of writing?

When the thoughts of reading even ONE MORE WORD makes you want to build a pyre of ‘how-to-write-a-novel’ books and watch them burn them while laughing maniacally.

How can you possibly learn anything, if your books are in flames and you’re refusing to read? Well, I have the answer right here, my friend. Burn your books safe in the knowledge that there’s help out there in the form of a little thing they call YouTube.

Yes, YouTube has its dark side. Yes, there are pranksters on there that light their own farts and taser their grannies because ‘bants’ and ‘lols’, but recently, I discovered that good people also make YouTube videos. Heroes without capes, here to save your manuscript.

Another benefit of listening to these videos is that you feel that yes, ‘there’s someone ooouuuut there’. They’re right in front of you. On your screen. You can see them and hear them and let’s face it, misery loves company. It’s satisfying to know that other writers are out there slogging away and suffering along with you.

So, I’ve had a gander, and a listen, and I’ve found what I believe to be the best ones. I’ll also link to some great videos from those particular channels.

Sit back, relax, watch, listen and learn.

Don’t forget to learn.

TED Talks on Writing

I love TED Talks. I trust them, because TED always manage to get the most amazing speakers onto their stages. The speakers are always polished and engaging, funny and informative. And most importantly, they know their stuff. There are talks on writing and story on the Ted Talks channel. Here is a great one on storytelling. Not specifically writing, but then, who the hell is going to read a novel with no story in it?

Andrew Stanton walks his way around the elements of a good story. He should know a thing or two about story, seen as he wrote Wal-E. A story with no words. A STORY WITH NO WORDS, PEOPLE. He talks about the importance of ‘making promises’ to your reader at the start, making them ‘care’ about the story you are telling, the roots of drama and character motivation.

The Creative Penn

Author and entrepreneur, Joanna Penn, has a great website, and this is her YouTube channel. She shares her own learnings here as well as advice from other authors in the form of author interviews.  You can subscribe to her channel, so that you don’t miss any new videos as they are released.

This is a good example of what’s on offer on Penn’s channel. A brilliant interview with James Scott Bell on dialogue. Bell offers advice on how to write authentic dialogue, maintaining a distinctive voice for each individual character, how to get information in through dialogue in a natural way, weaving subtext into dialogue.

Vivien Reis

Author, Vivien Reis, Reis produces short, engaging videos with great advice on how to improve and slim down your bloated writing, and how to shape its flabby ass up. This is a great video on identifying words to cut from your novel, and sharpening up your prose.

Katytastic

Kat O’Keeffe isn’t a published author (yet), but boy does this woman read. A lot! She focuses mainly on book reviews on her channel, but gives great writing advice in some of her older videos. Because the advice is old it can be hard to find on her channel, but it’s worth having a good rummage. The tips aren’t new, but they are communicated clearly, concisely and vividly. Not only did I enjoy watching the video, but I actually think the advice was communicated with so much energy that it might stick this time around. I highly recommend the video below.

Over to you: If you can suggest any other YouTube channels or specific videos that you feel help with the craft of writing, please suggest them/link in the comments below.

What can an Aspiring Novelist Learn From The Movies?

Do you ‘see’ your story before you write it? I know many writers do. For me writing a piece of fiction is like taking a movie that’s playing away in your head, and attempting to put it down in words. Trying to do so in a way that it can be understood and visualised by a reader.

Given that most novels/short stories start out as a movie in a writer’s head, I began to wonder if I could learn anything about writing a good novel from watching movies. I thought about the movies that I most enjoy, and I decided to watch them again, but actively, the way that I read now, and see what I could glean from them.  To try and uncover what made them so magical to me.

It sounds obvious, but actually a movie is probably the best way to study the craft of storytelling. The story structure jumps out at you much more clearly and cleanly than with a novel because you watch a movie in one sitting. On KM Weiland’s website Helping Writers Become Authors she includes a Story Structure Database . She is a novelist herself, and is an expert in story structure, but most of her focus in this database is on film. In this database you will find analyses of the structures of some of the most famous movies ever made. It is worth having a look before watching your next movie. You’ll start to see the structure emerge as you watch it.

On a micro-level I found that, you can a lot from movies about scene building, perspective and focus, point-of-view, shifting timelines, juxtaposition, pacing, settings, characterisation through clothing, gesture, communicating emotion through facial expressions, tone of voice, body-language and dialogue, creating suspense and tension, pacing, opening and closing a scene.

Here are the movies that I re-watched, and what I found to be the best lessons from each in terms of good storytelling:

1. The Talented Mr Ripley: The Flawed Protagonist and        Tension-Building

This is one of my favourite movies of all time, and I think it offers writers a lesson in subtle tension-building. The story starts out pleasantly enough and then slowly, slowly the tension begins to build. It simmers, and then it fizzes and then it crackles, and then explodes, before subsiding and slowly building again. In this movie, a look, a movement, a gesture can create ripples of unease.

In terms of points of view, it is very interesting. Ripley is the villain, but he is also the protagonist. It forces viewer into an awkward position. Though we feel a certain sympathy for Ripley, he also makes us feel uncomfortable. We dislike him, and yet we continue to root for him.  It goes to show, we will root for the protagonist no matter how flawed he is, as long as he inspires some sympathy and those around him are a little less likeable.

The scene below is just beautiful. It demonstrates how to make a villain sympathetic, and how beautiful dialogue can be.

2. Blue Valentine: Juxtaposition, Emotion and Characterisation

Love stories begin when the two people first meet. They chart their relationship as they start to develop feelings for one another. Then (oh no!) there’s an obstacle in the path of their love, and then (yes!) the obstacle is overcome and there’s some big romantic crescendo and they finally get it together. At the end it’s all ‘and they lived happily ever after’.

No normal relationship is ‘happily ever after’. Nope. ‘Happily most of the time after’ is the best you’re gonna get. Characters in romantic movies are pretty impulsive and liable to make very bad decisions, so let’s face it, happily ever after is most definitely not on the cards for these people.

This is the movie about what happens to those characters after the credits roll.

And it’s about the slow, painful demise of a romantic relationship and I love it. Like Dickens this movie uses juxtaposition very effectively. The best of times are powerfully juxtaposed with the worst of times. We witness the characters’ journey as a couple. Their naive hope at the beginning of their relationship and the moments building up to its heartbreaking conclusion.

In terms of characterisation, the two main characters are complex, and their emotions are incredibly raw. Their interactions with one another are worthy of study. Their body language, their facial expressions- how she folds into herself when he holds her. They say so much without saying a word. An important tool in the writer’s toolbox.

The clip below is an example of the use of juxtaposition in the telling of the story. The making of a promise alongside the breaking of it, tears of joy alongside tears of pain.

3. Pulp Fiction: Dialogue, Changing Points of View, Timelines, Characterisation

Pulp Fiction combines memorable dialogue, with bucket-loads of action, vibrating visuals and an unforgettable soundtrack. Subtle, it ain’t. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer to the chops. Unlike Ripley or Blue Valentine, watching this movie won’t teach you anything about subtlety. What it can teach you is how to successfully tell a story using multiple points of view and shifting timelines. It can also teach you how to characterise using compelling dialogue, and through hairstyles, makeup and clothing.

So much is communicated in movies through facial expressions, body language or gestures, but in this film either the characters are speaking or they are doing pretty horrible things. The main characters have good poker-faces. Given that most of them are shady individuals, that makes a lot of sense. So we depend on dialogue and action to learn about the characters. Setting aside the action, Tarantino writes great dialogue. It’s witty and snappy and interesting and powerful and meandering and occasionally it appears superfluous, but it feels authentic. The authenticity of the dialogue lends credibility to the action going on around it.

I’ve linked to one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. Iconic for its use of powerful dialogue.

4. Boogie Nights: Dialogue, Story Structure and Character Arcs

I seem to have a dark penchant for stories where everything starts of nice and dandy, and everyone is loving life, and it’s all just grand and then everything goes to absolute shit. The Great Gatsby, The Talented Mr Ripley, Boogie Nights…it all goes to hell in a hand basket and I love it.

Boogie Nights focuses on the story of ‘Dirk Diggler’, but it also interweaves the narratives of porn director Jack Horner, and his other young proteges, as they seek to fulfil their various dreams. Dirk’s star in the industry quickly ascends due to his massive ‘talent’, and it is a happy time for him and the other characters. As Dirk becomes addicted to drugs and his star begins its steep descent, the rest of the characters go down with him (pun totally unintended).

After a number of harrowing scenes, where it is made clear that they will never be treated with respect by the hypocritical members of ‘normal society’ characters emerge battered, bruised, jaded. They are each forced to compromise as they come to the realisation that the most valuable thing that they have is their highly dysfunctional, porn ‘family’. In spite of the fact that it is a movie about the porn industry, there is a purity to the story that I find really endearing, because it is fundamentally a story about finding out where you belong, and the importance of family.

Of all of the movies I’ve picked, this one most clearly demonstrates the concept of  a story arc and character arcs.The director does a lot of fancy tricks with cinematography and the soundtrack is amazing, but the story structure is simple and powerful.

Another thing I love about this movie is the dialogue. The characters are mostly naive, delusional dreamers. Dirk in particular is hilarious, but with absolutely no sense of self-awareness and not a hint of irony. The result is equal parts funny and tragic. In the clip below Dirk and his best friend Reed, are trying to get out of porn by breaking into music business.

Over to you: Let me know in the comments below what movies inspire you to write? What movies do you think demonstrate best how to tell a good story?  What have you learned about good writing from watching movies? What is the best dialogue/your favourite scene from a movie?

Special Island Event, West Cork Literary Festival

Last week I started to get a longing to go to another literary festival. I don’t know where it came from. Actually, I lie. I do. I wanted to anything but edit my novel, but what better way distract myself? As I read through the the programme  for the West Cork Literary Festival I couldn’t believe my luck when I spotted A Special Island Event with Cynan Jones & Jon Gower to be held on Whiddy Island. These men tackle similar themes in their books that I do in mine. I felt it was an opportunity to learn from them and get a fresh perspective on my own novel.

I set aside my novel, told myself this was a ‘work trip’, booked accommodation and packed my bags.

Cynan Jones’s latest novel, Cove, is about a man who is struck by lightning whilst kayaking on the open the sea. Consequently, he loses his memory. It is a story of his struggle to remember and his struggle to survive.

The theme of memory is central to the novel. Memories lost, and memories found. It explores how memory shapes our present reality, how the past and the present relate to one another, how objects confirm and reaffirm the memories that we have and finally, how unreliable and fragile our memories are. The novel is beautifully written, and the prose tightly wrought and vivid. As you read you feel the overwhelming intensity of the man’s isolation and vulnerability. The image of the flimsy body of the kayak floating over the vast might and magnitude of the sea beneath him is a powerful one.

My novel deals with similar themes: isolation, memory and the fragility of the mind, but in a different way. Mine opens with young man washing up on the shore of the island, a stranger who has apparently lost his memory. Despite this. the main focus in terms of memories lost, is the slow erosion of memories, and our desperate efforts to anchor and preserve them: through passing them on to others, photographs or attaching memories to objects or places. The need to remember, so as to to prevent the second death of those loved ones that have passed.

An Island Called Smith is a book about an island off the American coast that is likely to disappear due to rising sea levels. The island (Smith Island) is an island with a unique history and culture and is an important habitat for birds and other wildlife. Smith island is in danger of sinking into the sea and being forgotten. Thankfully, that won’t happen because it is now immortalised in this book.

The book captures the colour and the heart and soul of the place. Jon does this through interviewing locals and through presenting the story through the filter of his own personal experience of the island.

We learn about the beginnings of this island community and how it has developed in its own unique way. What would be considered eccentricities have become part of the fabric of the island’s culture. Jon is careful to record facts and figures in his book, but they are not presented in a flat, static way. Anecdotes are woven through to add colour. Names of bird species are clustered together so that they read like poetry.

No two islands that I have visited over the past year have been the same, they really are unique, and that is why Jon’s work to preserve the memory of this place is so very important. We risk losing many more islands to the sea: breaking up tight-knit communities, destroying cultures and destroying habitats due to a lack of action on climate change.

Despite their differences, on all of the islands I’ve been to, the older people  share a fear of their community dying out and their culture and local history being forgotten. There is a natural desire in the older people there to prevent that.  A human need to be remembered. The excitement and opportunities offered by the mainland are luring young people away in their droves. Neither Smith Island, nor the island in my novel are any different.

Cynan and Jon read from their books. The parts they read out were gorgeous, but learning about the two men, how they write and how they came to writing, was just as interesting to me. Both men hail from Wales. They each spoke about their childhoods in Wales, discussed the influence that the musicality of the Welsh language has on their English prose and the place that the landscape of their native country has in their writing. They shared personal stories, which were in turns moving and funny, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them.

After approaching them to sign books, I very cheekily, asked both men for an interview. Both agreed, so hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll have something up on my blog.

This was the only event I managed to get to at the West Cork Literary Festival this year, but it was well worth the trip. I’ll definitely be back in 2018. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to explore Whiddy Island before or after the event, but I did make a new friend. I named him Island Cat. Yes, he is a cat, and yes, I came up with the name all by damn myself.

His body was sinewy, he had an angry little face on him and there were chunks taken out of both ears. He looked rough as a badger’s bum, but I was missing my own cat. I needed to get me some moggy love. But was petting him worth losing a finger? Island Cat looked like the kitty equivalent of Vinnie Jones. Despite fully expecting a clawing for my efforts, I tentatively petted him. To my surprise, I found that he was extremely friendly.

We managed to become temporary best buds as we basked in the sun outside The Bank House pub. He was a lovely little fella and I might even find a space for him in the final draft of my novel.

Lessons at the 12 Month Mark

Today, the 1st July 2017, is the one year mark since I went a bit mad, quit my nice, secure, well-paid job with paid holidays and a pension, and decided write a novel. It’s a good time to take stock and reflect on where I am, the big lessons I’ve learned, and where I want to go next.

Lesson 1: A year isn’t a long time when you’re writing a novel

I thought a year was loads of time. I thought I’d have a bit of spare time at the end to kick back and chill while waiting for the publishers to come-a-knocking. I’ve missed my twelve month deadline, but I’m not beating myself up about it. I’ve shifted it to my birthday, the 14th August, and on that date I am just stopping. Ready or not. I’m drawing a line and accept that ‘this is my novel’.

When I set my twelve month deadline I didn’t take into account the following:

  • Learning, learning and more learning
  • Trial and error
  • Reading, reading and more reading
  • Allowing the book to rest between edits
  • So much editing, oh sweet Jesus, the editing
  • Waiting
  • Life outside writing
  • Perfectionism
  • Avoiding
  • Paralysing fear
  • Procrastination
  • Blogging
  • Social media
  • YouTube
  • Amusing cat videos

and FINALLY

  • That a year is a very short time to write a novel. Even seasoned novelists struggle with twelve month deadlines. Given that I had so much to learn, it was always going to be tight for me.

Lesson 2: Writing full-time is feckin’ lonely, man

Writing is lonely. There are aspects of office work that I definitely miss, and people are one of them. I’m not as much of an introverted misanthropist as I thought I was. I like humans. Most of them are grand. I miss my co-worker humans, not enough to leave writing behind, but just enough to make me think I need part-time work outside of writing, because I need people. No woman is an island.

Lesson 3: Writing is a craft, so I have to keep learning

I wrote about this in an earlier post, about the craft of writing. I thought that having a ‘big idea’ should be enough. What an arrogant prat I was. How naïve! Having said that, I don’t like the idea of writing-by-numbers. I definitely believe that rules are made to be tested and bent and broken, but that ultimately, you must know the rules you’re breaking. Rule-breaking must be conscious, so that you can weigh-up risk and benefit, so that you can go into it knowing that this is the right decision for YOUR book. I know now that nobody else can make that decision for you and you have to trust yourself. But that knowing the rules first is imperative.

Lesson 4. Writing is hard and letting go is the hardest part

I was lulled into a false sense of security when I started writing my novel. I remember the elation I felt when I finished my first draft. I thought

‘I have something great here. That’s the part over with. Time to do a little tidying up, and on to the next book!’

How wrong I was. I thought the rest of the writing process would be as easy, if not easier, than the first draft. It isn’t.

Writing is hard.

I’m on my final draft now, and this is the most difficult part of the writing process by far. It is when self-doubt begins to sneak in, when you begin to question every word you’ve written, when you find it hard to be objective about your work.

I’m going around in circles trying to decide what needs to be fixed, and how to go about it, and where to start. I’ve never been in such a death-spiral of confusion and indecision before and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I had a think about it the other day, and I think it’s a mixture of two things, fear and perfectionism which is manifesting itself through procrastination. I’m a bit afraid of changing my novel and making it worse. I’m a bit afraid of not seeing its flaws, not changing it, and that it won’t be good. I’m a bit afraid of finishing up and letting go and putting my novel out there. And I’m definitely afraid of letting go if my novel isn’t absolutely perfect.

I know what I have to do. I have to fix plot-holes, rework the story, rewrite scenes, revise dialogue, do additional research etc. I don’t know where to start. I’ve ignored all my own advice, and found myself in a rut.

I just need to keep reminding myself to just approach everything in small chunks, and not become overwhelmed by the mammoth task ahead of me. I’m taking a mini-break from the novel to write a few other bits, and I hope that’ll press the ‘reset’ button, and get me over this massive hump. Oh, and stick to my deadline.

Lesson 5: Walking is amazing for problem-solving and inspiration

Stephen King’s, On Writing was what got me started with walking every day. I have always been averse to moving my lower limbs, so I would never have tried it only for he suggested it and he gives pretty good advice. I now believe this is the best piece of advice he gives in his book. I wrote about this in an earlier blog-post, but walking takes your addled and foggy brain and gives it a good shake. All kinds of amazing things flutter down from secret compartments up there. Inspiration is found, problems solved, plot-holes filled, story structure repaired. Your brain just whirrs into life, like a machine, and starts spitting out all this good stuff. I can’t explain it. I just know it works.

Lesson 6: I love writing. I’m addicted to it. I can’t stop.

What is getting me through this final-draft process is that, at the finish line, there’s a shiny new novel waiting for me to start writing. The first draft process, which is just so pure and exciting and so much fun, will begin anew, because I love writing. I’m not stopping. I can’t stop. I have to write.

Lesson 7: I’m willing to have less money if I can keep writing

I have had less money this year, I haven’t been able to do so many of the things I took for granted before, and yet I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m willing to be financially poorer in order to write. I don’t know if I can make a living, let alone a good living, as a writer. I’m aware that in most cases, writers can’t live on their writing income alone. Although I hope to be the exception, and that my writing will sustain me, I’m realistic about this.I know the in the near future I’ll have to return to office work as I look for a publisher or an agent. What I know for sure is that when I do, I’ll choose a job that won’t prevent me from writing: either because it leaves me with no time to write, or because it causes me so much stress that I find I can’t write.

Lesson 8: Writing can heal you

I am a happier person for writing every day. I was a fairly lost person for a long time, and prone to pretty dark moods and feelings, which I buried deeply and which I sought distraction from. Writing reintroduced me to myself.  It made me feel content to be alone again. I’m no longer afraid of my own thought processes. Though I spend more time ‘in my head’, ironically, writing has forced me to reconnect with the world around me. I am seeking out sensation, beauty, emotion. Writing helps me to make sense of the world, put my thoughts in order and put life in perspective. Regardless of whether you’re planning on publishing your work or whether you’re just journaling for yourself, writing is cathartic, and healing.

Writing is a really good thing. So I write. And so should you.

Over to you: How long have you been writing your novel/ how long did it take you to write your first novel? What did you learn about yourself along the way? What are your plans for the future?