ACW

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Monday, 26 June 2017

Three Act Structure for Novelists


Part of my day job used to be teaching scriptwriting for stage and screen at Northumbria University. One of the foundational modules was all about three act structure. For film writers, it is essential that they have an understanding of this influential model as the vast majority of produced screenplays follow it. For playwrights it is important too, although the theatre sees more experimentation in form than commercial film. But what about novelists? Yes, they can also use it.

In fact, I do. My books are written using the three act structure model I learned through scriptwriting. I find it very helpful to plan my novel in this way and it helps me as I’m writing to keep on track and not lose sight of the big picture. Knowing the approximate word count for each section of the book is enormously helpful for me. It helps, for instance, for me to know that my inciting incident will kick off at around 18 – 20,000 words, and that I need to have a ‘point of no return’ in the middle of the book, which will be around the 45K mark. Then as I’m approaching the end, it helps me to know my ‘act three’, the final section of the book, should start gaining momentum at around 65,000 words.

This way of writing may not be for everyone, but it certainly is for me. Perhaps you might want to consider it too. There are lots of books you can read to help you understand this structure. Some of the best are Robert McKee’s Story and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (which ties the three act structure into a classical mythical model). But for now, here is a brief introduction (and a graph):



Act 1: The beginning - the introduction of the main characters and their world. This is where you establish the primary conflict of the book. What does the main character want and what or who stands in his or her way? What propels the character to start out on their journey? In my literary thriller The Peace Garden, for instance, we meet Natalie as she is arriving at her grandmother's house and she discovers that there is a plant thief in the neighbourhood. She sets out to find the thief but on the way discovers that there’s a far darker secret hiding in the quiet suburban cul-de-sac. In my 1920s mystery, The Jazz Files, we meet Poppy Denby as she arrives in London, gets a job on a newspaper and then is tasked with finishing the investigation started by a journalist who has died in mysterious circumstances.

Act 2: The middle - the character has now started on their journey to find love, right a wrong, uncover a mystery or escape a vicious killer. But what happens to them on the way? This is where the character faces obstacles and setbacks, detours and challenges, in the quest to find a solution to their problem at the risk of losing everything. In The Peace Garden, Gladwin, whom Natalie has befriended in her search for the plant thief, returns to his home country of South Africa to face a murder charge and sends Natalie a series of letters in which he tells the story of his past. In The Jazz Files Poppy follows a complex web of corruption, deceit and murder in her quest to find out the truth about the death of a suffragette seven years earlier.

Act 3: The end - the story reaches a climax as the characters come face to face with their greatest fear or their greatest desire or their greatest challenge. The questions that are raised in the beginning and the middle should be addressed by the end. This does not mean everything needs to be tied up neatly, and there can be some suggestions that everyone will not live happily ever after, but the story needs to be complete in some way or you will run the risk of leaving a dissatisfied reader. Both The Peace Garden and The Jazz Files reach a climax as the heroines come face to face with their respective antagonists and finally solve the mystery.

The optional denouement - the aftermath of the climax. Once the character's problem has been solved, what does their world look like? What has changed? This can be an internal or external change, but most novels have a combination of both. Don’t linger on this section; this should be one short chapter or an afterword. In some novels there is no denouement because everything is summed up in the climax. The denouement is a useful place to briefly wrap up sub-plots but the main plot must be resolved at the climax. In The Peace Garden there is an explosive climactic chapter then a quiet denouement set seven months later. The Jazz Files’ denouement takes place two weeks after the climax, when Poppy is back in the newspaper office.


Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing tutor, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction) was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger award in 2016. The second book, The Kill Fee is a finalist for the Foreword Review mystery novel of the year 2016/17, and the third, The Death Beat, will be published in October. Her novel Pilate’s Daughter  a historical love story set in Roman Palestine, is published by Endeavour Press and her literary thriller about apartheid South Africa, The Peace Garden, is self-published under the Crafty Publishing imprint. Her children’s books The Young David Series and the Young Joseph Series  are published by SPCK.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

When I feel tired and fed up I listen to this song

A Cat of Many Colours, by Fiona Lloyd



 
            Recently, I (along with several other ACW members) attended a writing retreat at Scargill. I love these weekends: the opportunity to connect (and reconnect) with other writers – surrounded by stunning scenery – is invaluable; but there’s also the freedom to discover new ways of writing.

            One of our suggested tasks was to choose something from a selected group of objects to use as a writing prompt. The challenge was to “make us see things in a different way”, using our chosen object. The only other constraint was that we had to use a maximum of 300 words. I was immediately drawn to a multi-coloured cat, with beads at the end of its whiskers. Why did it look so sad, I wondered, and whatever had happened to its whiskers?

            Below is the piece of writing I produced. I’m not suggesting it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but I hope it will encourage you to have a go at a similar writing exercise, maybe using one of the objects in the picture – let me know how you get on!

            Go on: stare, if you must. It’s always the same when I go somewhere new. I’ve learned to keep looking straight ahead, but I know that if I turn around, all other eyes will swivel instantly to an indeterminate point a paw’s width above my head.
            I wasn’t always like this: as a youngster, my fur was a sleek, respectable blend of tortoiseshell, and my whiskers were groomed to perfection. But, like most young toms, I enjoyed a good scrap, and by the time I was fully grown, I was covered with scars.
            That’s when the problems started. Wounds which had appeared superficial began to fester and stink. Infections linked scratches to gashes to bites, causing a constellation of sores to erupt all over my body. My beautiful fur fell out in clumps. Worse still, my whiskers – which had been savaged in one particular incident – developed strange, rounded lumps, almost as though my human had taken to threading beads on the ends.
            Naively, I assumed that the scars – not to mention those weird growths – would heal and disappear over time. Instead, the lumps hardened and calcified, while my coat regrew in shocking primary hues. My human said I was more handsome than ever, but the other cats lined up to mock me.
            Last week, I found a kitten cowering in the hedge at the far end of my garden. Her fur was bedraggled, her whiskers shredded, and one ear split open from top to bottom. She stood up as she saw me approach, and a front paw wobbled beneath her. I crouched alongside, trying to make myself as small and unintimidating as possible, aware all the time of my beaded whiskers bobbing up and down.
            “There’s no need to be afraid,” I said, “I’ll walk with you.”



Fiona Lloyd works part-time as a music teacher, and serves on the worship leading team at her local church. Fiona blogs at www.fjlloyd.wordpress.com and at http://thejesusonthebus.blogspot.co.uk. You can find her on Twitter at @FionaJLloyd. Her first novel will be published by Instant Apostle in January 2018. Fiona is vice-chair of ACW and is married with three grown-up children.
          

Saturday, 24 June 2017

My Favourite Book of the Bible

The book I like most in the Bible is the New Testament Letter of James. I really can’t think why Martin Luther called it ‘a right strawy epistle’. I take strength from Isaiah’s prediction that in the new world ‘the lion shall eat straw like the ox’. I’m happy to be a spiritual ox, building moral muscle by chewing over James’s wisdom, and I look forward to being joined at this dinner in the world to come by all the fastidious lions who go chasing up and down the scriptures to find something juicy!

Strohballen im Park By Celina Berghaus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Eight reasons why I like this book so much

It comes in handy bite-size chunks


In my Bible it’s divided by headings into twelve parts, each round about a dozen verses. Every section is about something of real importance and relevance—trials and temptations, not showing favouritism, controlling the way one speaks, judging others, and so on.

It is so loving in the way it addresses us


James speaks to his readers (or hearers, as they would have been back then) as if they are members of his family: ‘beloved brethren’, or ‘my brothers and sisters’ as a more modern version has it; ‘my beloved’. These addresses occur about ten times, and the constant repetition is very heartwarming.

It is so primitive (in the best sense)

It is obvious that this document comes from the very dawn of the Christian church. In chapter 2, verse 2, the Christian assembly is called ‘synagogue’, which suggests that we are still at the stage when the church was a Jewish institution with Gentile members. And the teaching is very much in the tradition of Jewish wisdom literature, simpler to follow than the complicated theological discourse of most of the New Testament letters.

It reads like a letter from a close relative of the Lord


You’ve only to look at the imagery and listen to the language to sense the atmosphere of the gospels. James’s metaphors, like Jesus’s, are based on the natural and agricultural world around him. (My private theory is that they picked up their idiom from their Mum.)  We have: the flowers of the field in chapter 1, horses and ships in chapter 3, fog in chapter 4, farmers in 5. Strongly reminiscent of gospel teaching is the image of riches rotting, clothes being eaten by moths, and gold and silver rusting, and that of the grapevine not bearing figs.

It is passionate about justice


Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you…You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. I think that chapter 5:1–6 is the best prophetic invective in the whole of Scripture. It makes me think of the appalling imbalance between the incomes of rich MPs and those of the sick and disabled whose benefits they voted to cut. And then it makes me think of my house with three WCs and the third world slums where people have no toilets at all.

It is uncompromising about ethics


It puts the way we think, speak, and act at the very forefront of our Christian life. This is not in any way opposed to the ‘spiritual’ or ‘devotional’. It shows that the two strands are inextricably intertwined.

Let’s not fool ourselves that we are spiritually advanced if we speak critically or viciously: if anyone thinks that he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, that man’s religion is vain. How many Christians do I know whose talk is uncontrolled? Come to that, what about mine?

Let’s not think that we are spiritual if we organize our lives around our own ambitions to be well off and successful: Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

It prioritizes prayer

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. I trust that the outcome of the recent general election testifies to that, knowing how Christians joined in prayer in the days before Pentecost. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault… (how unlike him we are!).

It is enormously encouraging in a down to earth way


Alongside the admonitions and warnings are placed the most amazing assurances for us if we choose to persevere in the life it depicts. The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Beautiful, or what? (And did you catch the echo of the Beatitudes?)

So what example does it offer to a Christian writer?


It’s very noticeable that it contains no doctrinal presentation of Jesus—no declarative exposition of his ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. Just once, James calls his immeasurably greater brother ‘the Lord of Glory’. There are a couple of references to the Parousia. Otherwise, no Christology. Instead, the whole letter is suffused with the presence of Christ. In its stern, yet affectionate, admonitions it speaks with the voice of Christ. And in its vignettes of everyday ethics it displays the Christlike way of living.


We could try copying that approach.


Friday, 23 June 2017

Unappetising sandwiches and thin places - by Helen Murray

Forrest Gump's life was famously like a box of chocolates. Mine's more like a sandwich.

All the bits of my life are like layers: family, friends, health, work, church, and so on. It's a good sandwich. A well-filled, appetising one, most of the time. It's when something is off that it all goes wrong. 

My problem is my inability to compartmentalise. When something is wrong - a sandwich component is bad or absent - whether it's a touch of blue mould on the bread or a tang of rancid butter - the whole thing is inedible. No matter that the cheese is my favourite, and there's just the right amount of pickle, or the perfect crispy bit of lettuce, I can't enjoy the sandwich because part of it is not right. 

In times of stress or confusion, it's as if I've dropped the sandwich and it's landed on the floor in a heap of component parts. In accordance with the five-second-rule I scramble to pick it up, hastily reassembling it on my plate, but it doesn't really work. Now there are bits of carpet fluff and nothing is where it should be. It's not appetising any more. (And perhaps the metaphor is stretched a bit thin).

So, I find myself reflecting on what has gone wrong with my sandwich in recent months, or even years. For quite a while I thought that I was simply trying to get too much between the two slices of bread. Too many fillings meant that it was impossible to bite without everything sliding out of the other side and landing on your shirt-front. In response to this I pared down my commitments to concentrate on what was most important, along with the things that simply could not be changed. 

This worked for a while, but the stress slowly began to accumulate again. I found that the shoulds and oughts and musts crowded back in. Only recently have I realised that even my writing had become a burden; a heavy weight that was making me feel oppressed and anxious. 
  • should be writing. 
  • I have a gift for writing, and I should be using it. NB: the parable of the talents.
  • I've told people I'm writing a book; what will they think if I say I've given up?
  • If God has planted this dream in my heart, I should be working towards it.
Even my blog, my long-standing source of joy, comfort, inspiration and encouragement was too much. Too hard, too heavy. I have been overwhelmed. Something has had to give, and it is the writing. It's been all I can do to find something for this blog each month, and a long time since it had any relevance to writing. Apologies for that. 

Too much to do, so little space: physical, mental, spiritual. 

Then, two things happened. 

One.
I saw this Tweet:  
'Sometimes you've got to give up trying to fulfil your dreams and just fulfil your orders. Eventually you discover that the two will merge.'  @JarrodL Cooper
Two.
I went on the ACW Writers' Weekend at Scargill House, near Kettlewell in Yorkshire. A few days before the weekend I had a strong desire to phone up and cancel as it seemed simply too much effort to make on top of the normal non-stop hamster-wheel pace of life, but I reminded myself how wonderful last year's weekend was and how imperative it had seemed to me then, to book again for this year. I threw some things in a suitcase and hauled myself north. 


Ah, Scargill. They say it's a 'thin place' where heaven and earth seem closer than usual, and they're right. I've been three times now (booked four but did indeed cancel once) and each time I have met Jesus there right alongside some lovely lovely people. 

This time I did things a little differently. 

Usually I follow the programme assiduously, going to every workshop, every session, using all spare time in my little room writing away, because it's a writers' weekend and that's what you're supposed to do, no? I always do what I'm supposed to do. This time, I found myself exploring the breathtakingly beautiful grounds for the first time ever. It helped that the weather was perfect. 

I found a bench, I sat and gazed at the gorgeousness around me. I wrote in my journal. I felt the sun on my skin. I listened to the sheep, the cows, the birds, the wind in the trees. I saw a deer. I traced my way around the prayer labyrinth and wandered through the woods. I found another seat looking down on the striking Scargill chapel, with it's pointy roof just like a pair of praying hands. I breathed in the clean air and let my shoulders relax. 

'Give up trying to fulfil your dreams'. When your dreams become oppressive, perhaps it's time to put them to the side without feeling guilty about them. I don't want to write my book. There's so much going on just with normal everyday life that there's no space in my head for writing. If I claw out a little time to write these days, my mind snaps shut and I can't think of anything. It's become another should, another ought. 

'Just fulfil your orders...' Well, I am here, now, and my life is what it is. It is not this way by chance. This 'season' of life (I don't particularly like that term which smacks to me of Christian jargon, but I concede that it's probably right) is one that is fast and full. Full of good things; full of family, growing children, to-ings and fro-ings and crises and anti-climaxes, tears and laughter. Good things, that should be embraced, not resented. They won't last forever. I am needed. Trying to shoehorn in my dreams right now is proving stressful, and impossible.

I am here for a reason, with only so much time and energy. 
  • Yes, I am a writer. Okay, I will write when I can. 
  • Yes, I have gifts, but the God I know won't look at me, thin-lipped with disapproval if I can't do justice to my writing right now. It's not the only gift I have. I have my precious family to care for and bring up, my part to play in the ministry at church, the day-in-day-out job of keeping life on the rails. He has equipped me for those things too.
  • What people think is not my concern. I answer only to God.
  • As for the dream - I think perhaps if God planted that seed in my heart, then in His timing He will give it what it needs to grow. I am loved and accepted and approved of just as I am, whether I achieve or not. Jesus saw to that. 
So I'm back to the seasons. The beauty and stillness of Scargill seeped into my soul that summer Saturday afternoon when I 'should' perhaps have been learning much needed lessons about the craft of writing. I will learn them another time. Instead of listening to the readings in the house I was wondering at the handiwork of the Author of everything. For once, I didn't do what I was supposed to do, and I cannot describe the freedom of those couple of hours. 

I have made peace with the letting go of my writing dreams. I don't know if Mr Cooper is right in his assertion that my orders and my dreams will one day merge, but I know that holding onto them so tightly that my fists are clenched white has done me no good. The stagnant presence of those dreams in my life-sandwich has spoiled the taste of the whole thing, so I have lifted the crust and taken them out. *

Maybe those dreams are not discarded, just packaged up carefully to keep off the dust and placed gently on a shelf for another time. A less full, rushed, juggling kind of time. A more spacious time. I don't know, but I trust God with that. 

Until then, I need to concentrate on now. I have my orders. 

Love those who need loving. Do what needs to be done in the strength I have, in the place I'm in. Stop, when I can, and rest. Learn. 

Listen to His voice and do what I see Him doing. 

That's the Plan. 





*... in much the same way that one removes the slice of gherkin from a McDonalds cheeseburger. 




Helen Murray lives in Derbyshire, England, with her husband, two daughters and her mum.

As well as writing and reading, she drinks coffee, takes photographs, swims, breeds Aloe Vera plants and collects ceramic penguins.

Helen has a blog: Are We Nearly There Yet? where she writes about life and faith.

You can also find her here:

Pinterest: @HelenMMurray
Twitter: @helenmurray01






Thursday, 22 June 2017

Handing Over The Ticket by Emily Owen

Free Train On Tracks Royalty Free Stock Photography - 982257


I recently travelled by train from the East Midlands up to a little village in Scotland.  When the ticket inspector came, I scrabbled around for my ticket (why am I never organised enough to have it immediately to hand?) and showed it to him. He took it, checked it and handed it back to me but, before I could take the ticket, he started inspecting it again.  Of course, despite knowing I’d bought the correct ticket, I felt irrationally guilty and visions of me being turfed off the train at the next stop ran through my mind…

“Where’s that you’re going?” he asked. I could see him wracking his brains.  Then: “No, I’ve never heard of it.”

I told him it was in Scotland and, realising that I did know where I was going, he checked off and handed the ticket back before moving on down the train.

He didn’t know where I was going but the fact that I knew was enough for him.

As I sped northward, watching the beautiful scenery flash by, I thought about my ticket which had my destination written on. I thought about the ticket inspector who’d checked it off and handed my ticket back to me simply on the basis that I knew where I was going, even though he didn’t know. And I thought about life.

I don’t always know where I’m going. Sometimes I think I’d like a ticket telling me where to go, what to do, what to write, what to say.

There is such a ticket, it’s just that I’m like the ticket inspector, wanting to know: “Where am I going?” But, rather than wrack my brains and try to figure out what it says on my ticket, maybe I should also be like the ticket inspector and decide to hand the ticket back:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take (Proverbs 3:5/6).

This is a verse my sister and her husband had at their wedding, right at the start of their journey together. Time and time again, it’s been a ticket that they’ve handed over to God, choosing to let it be enough that He knows where they are going. Even when they don’t have a clue.

Perhaps we can all hand our tickets over to One who does know where we’re going, every minute. And let the fact that He knows be enough.

My train ticket did get me there. God’s ticket will direct our journeys in life, too. 

‘Do not depend on your own understanding….’

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

An ordinary man who lived an ordinary life! Ruth Johnson


A time to weep
and a time to laugh

A time to mourn 
and a time to dance

                   Eccl.3:4









Last month when I reported on a friend who walked into hospital on a Friday afternoon with pneumonia.  On Saturday tests were carried out, the results on Sunday revealing Steve's body was riddle with cancer, and he died on the following evening.  A shock to all who knew him.  Three weeks earlier he’d been fit enough to cycle the five miles to and from church, and besides the odd glass of wine, he didn’t drink and had never smoked.

The ‘thanksgiving’ celebration of his life was attended by at least five hundred people.  Relatives, friends from church, his naval career (when he’d married and had three children) along with colleagues and connections from many years of running his IT business.  People had been drawn to him, a man who lived, talked and walked in the love of the Lord.  And his son, following in his footsteps, spoke of the importance of faith in his father’s life, preached a Gospel based sermon to encourage those who didn't know the Lord to experience the Father’s love in this life, and have their destiny in death assured.

In the ‘Order of Service’ for Steve Sherwin (11 May 1957 – 1 May 2017) I was very moved by the poem written by his daughter in law.  It is, of course, deeply personal to her, but she has given me permission to copy it here because I felt, as writers you would appreciate it.   And, if you do, and would like to read more Helen can be found at: www.helensherwin.com

Dream on Dear One
By Helen Sherwin

Dream on dear brother
Hold your wishes before the Lord,
Where we failed to listen and act,
Go to the one who made it all,
Ask him what, why, how and when
Then reply simply with a nod,
For today you are standing
In the presence of your God.

Dream on dear father,
For in His Kingdom dreams come true,
Enjoy the perfect family,
A ready-made community for you,
Laugh that cheerful laugh, A joy no longer flawed,
For today you are standing
In the presence of your Lord

Dream on dear friend,
Lay peacefully and rest,
Your suffering is over,
Your strong faith won the test,
We thank God that we knew you,
But if we could be sold bold –
Oh we wish you could stay longer
With that ever generous soul.

Dream on dear son,
Let our sadness turn to joy,
Because you’ve taken on eternity,
I’m proud of you, my boy,
And though I ache to see you,
I’m reminded by the Psalms,
That at this moment you are resting,
In your true Father’s arms.
Dream on dear husband,

Be yourself before the Lord,
Though here I’ll always miss you,
I know we’ll meet once more,
A brother, father, son and friend,
There’s so much that you bring,
But today we know you’re feasting,
At the banquet of your King.