Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2 posts in a day?!

Yes, I'm considering a Batman pastiche...

I'm also considering some sci fi...

And some Bond...

Fresh from the notes!

Here's an update taken directly from my notes....

Villains are the most diverse and often the most interesting characters in fiction for many reasons. My personal favorite stems from the idea that the villain can express things the author couldn’t, that the rules don’t apply to them, so they are free to act without limitation. I find that incredibly interesting and satisfying, particularly because it gives me permission to express ideas such as murder, lust and anger, where I would otherwise be unable to do so in person or in a more positive character.

Whether your villain is an intergalactic warlord, the most infamous serial killer, the little old lady who poisoned the vicar or the neighborhood bully, all villains are built on a solid foundation of principles. I outline three below, but many more exist.

1. Villains are built just like any other character, but with a different philosophy from your protagonists. Follow the previous steps for character construction, but be sure to pay particular attention to the philosophy the character expresses and demonstrates. The villain’s motives and ideas may not and need not be ultimately dissimilar from the hero’s plans, but there will be a wholly different approach, and a different interpretation of the outcome.
2. Villains have a more immediate view, but with a much wider scope. A good villain is someone who is very present-minded, very much aware of what’s going on within the plot, and very savvy to the immediate concerns. But from this direct focus comes a huge array of extrapolations about the future. This is best represented in action of fantasy villains where they’ll use a Macguffin (The Ring, The Ark, The Grail, etc) and take over the world. These extrapolations define the “stakes” for the character.
3. Villains will cross whatever line the hero won’t, and don’t normally consider it a great and profound feat to do so (or vice versa). A serial killer will butcher victims while the police won’t. The stuck-in-the-mud conservative parent won’t approve of the interracial relationship. Whatever the issue, the villain takes the opposite view. This is not necessarily true in all cases and with all thoughts, as the villain and the hero may be of similar minds on several topics, even they never get expressed. But for some issues, often the ones at the heart of the emotional arc of the story, the villain and hero sit opposed, and for good reason – this allows emotional investment by the reader and gives us someone to like and someone to despise.

Examine your favorite stories and see if the villains there follow these (and other rules), and employ them yourself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Types of Scenes, Part 1

Below I list the types of scenes available in fiction. This is by no means a complete list, nor a chronological list -- I'm just writing this down as a placeholder while working on more blog content.

Scene of Introduction
Scene of Exposition
Scene of Narration
Scene of Climax
Scene of Resolution
Scene of Discovery
Scene of (False) Resolution
Scene of (False) Discovery
Scene of Delayed Climax

Thursday, October 28, 2010

John's Thoughts about NaNoWriMo, and NaNoWriMo John-style

November is NaNoWriMo, which is the month when all the writers, pretend-writers, wannabe-writers and folks who want to use the internet for more than masturbation and piracy (as if such a thing is possible?) to churn out a novel in a month.

It's a great idea. It's a great idea in the same way that eugenics could be a great idea in the Sims. Put out a novel in a month? Isn't that what every writer dreams about as they sleep near their keyboards? Isn't that what the sugar-plum fairies of syntax dance about?

But we're just talking about the idea. Not the practice. I know why people don't talk about the practice of writing a novel in a month. I didn't realize it for a long time, and even worse, I was afraid to admit it for a long time.

The reason why so few people talk the act of writing a novel in a month is that it's hard work, and a lot of people lack the talent to do more than craft a slightly above-average story, not a novel.

And "novel" is a misleading word anyway. It conjures up published books we can grab on Amazon or off the shelf. And that's not the case here. It's a few thousand words that sit in a little box on the internet (not unlike this blog). And, just like this blog, it's not screaming "four book deal! With movie rights!". No, this is just an exercise, a big way to get people writing.

My problem isn't with writing. I like when people write. I find it to be a satisfying activity. But the difference between "writing" and "writing a novel" is that you need the three things Elizabeth George talks about: Discipline, Talent and Imagination.

NaNoWriMo is a nice idea, and it meets that Imagination criteria. But those other two elements? I think they went out for lunch. There's not enough discipline. You can hang out with writers, go to write-ins, and then copy your words into that little internet box.....and then what? Wait for December 1 to go back to slacking off? NaNoWriMo is a discipline cocktease. It may take 30 days to craft a habit, but those 30 days require a pretty stiff schedule with deadlines. I don't see NaNoWriMo swinging the mighty hammer down on people who trot out prose for a month. Usually, this is because "it's supposed to be fun". Yes, it is fun. But do you know what's even more fun? Making a career out of writing. Putting together a schedule at a job where you're your own boss, you spend your days writing and your nights happy. And...NaNoWriMo dangles that dream in front of Susie Homemaker and Billie the Unemployed without showing them what's behind the curtain of hard work.

Also gone is the talent, and it's not really gone, I should qualify that idea. It's not gone, it's drowned. It's lost in a sea of average writing, written by people who think they're in the upper 2% of the talent pool because some Mormon chick wrote a BS story about surrogate perfect love and raped the language for four books and films now.

Hi, this is reality calling. Not all of you are going to survive this Darwinian exercise. Writing is tough but fun (I had a professor once say it's like having sex while hang-gliding) but the fun increases proportionally to your talent. If you need to brush up on your grammar and your style, don't expect a circus if you need to spend hours learning not to split infinitives and clarifying your pronouns. But, once you get through the boot camps of grammar and structure, you're free to be a lethal commando of the language, dispensing adjectival and predicative death from the printed page.

So, if you're going to crack open the laptop for 30 days and write your little story, go for it. Just remember, if you want to get it on shelves, you need to treat every month like NaNoWriMo. And you need talent.

Let's get past this. Let's build our own NaNoWriMo. One where we know we have talent and skill and don't need some jackhole you've never heard of giving you the rah-rah speech when you get stuck at the end of a rough week.

I present you with NaNoWriMo, John-style, also called Just Write the Fucking Thing, version 1.5

Here by thy commandments:

1 Thou shall write AT LEAST 6 pages a day, where at least 4 of those pages aren't dialogue where you sprinkle forty words on a double-spaced page.
2 Thou shall write these pages IN ADDITION to doing all the planning and development simultaneously. None of this "spend the first week scratching out notes." Sorry ladies, learn to think on the fly.
3 The minute thee hesitates, pauses, or swears you're going to come back to it later, thou shall add an additional 2 pages to that day's requirement. And then for every further procrastination, tack on an additional page.
4 Thou will either count hours writing OR count pages written. NOT BOTH. And thou will track these hours everyday and email them to your friends. (There's still time to make a friend if you need to, or email me.)
5 Thou shall spend 30 to 45 minutes MINIMUM A DAY reading. Not your own work, and preferably not even work within your own genre. I like to use lunch hours for this.
6. Before the end of the month, Thou shall find a writing group and join. If you're already a member, you'll attend and put forth your best effort as a member of those groups. (Tomorrow or later tonight I will post about how to find a writing group) You will get this 30-day novel critiqued. There's no way around it.
7. Thou will NOT compare yourself to other writers, authors, agents, editors, writing people that you know.
8. Thou shall not cheat and either pay someone to write for you, or ask for help. If you do, you're a sucky person. And you have cooties. And you're lame.
9. Thou will NOT spend undo amounts of time considering your "voice" or your "genre" or your "platform" - your sole purpose is TO WRITE.
10. Thou shall make no excuses for your writing. It's a binary decision - either do it and do your best at it, or shut the fuck up about it and go take up knitting or interpretive dance.

Bonus commandment 1 Thou shall not be a coward, and stop writing halfway through the month because "it's too hard." Man up nancy.
Bonus commandment 2 When faced with a choice (either for yourself or your characters) between safety and adventure, thou shall always choose adventure. Always.

So let's look at the math.

At least 8 pages a day for 30 days is 240 pages. And if you want to gripe about how you can't do 8 pages a day, you can easily do 8 pages if you're passionate. Spark up your imaginations, stop being a puss, kill your excuses and do it already. Or go away. So, you've created AT LEAST 240 pages...a short novel, but you can tweak it later for the remaining 60 to 75 or so later.

I should point out that it's 240 more pages than you had last month, and it's quite a feat to go from 0 pages a day to 56 at the end of a week. If you're like me, you consider 100 pages to be the first benchmark a story has to break, so in 2 weeks, you're already over the benchmark.

There are some people who I doubt have the talent to pull this off. There are some people I doubt have the discipline to finish. There are some people who I doubt have the imagination to get started.

Either do it or don't do. Don't treat NaNoWriMo the way these casual blase writers do, don't trot it out once a year like you spend the other eleven months working on your opus.

If you're going to do it, commit, and apply every bit of brainpower and knowledge you have. If you're not, then no worries. If you're on the fence, make up your mind and ask yourself how long you're going to remain the sort of person who dreams about getting things done and when you'd like to start being the person who actually makes their dreams come true, one word at a time?

Just write the fucking thing, write as if your life depended on it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A snippet of some Character notes....

I've been teaching some Character construction elements...and here's November's contribution.

Character 201 - Three Good Traits of an Action Hero/Heroine
We begin the second tier of Character development by looking at more specific types of heroic characters. We will assume knowledge and familiarity with the six points Character 101 and may reference them regularly. We start with the Action hero/heroine.

I first must define the Action hero/heroine, NOT as the protagonist of the Action genre, but by the character-derived label and redefine the character as such:
The Action hero/heroine is that main character which undergoes an internal transformation due to external actions or consequence.

The key element here is “internal transformation due to external actions”, because the action-oriented character is driven to be a certain way (his internal philosophy) due to circumstances in his life.

Below I identify three traits that adhere to the definition given above –
1. If the external actions occur prior to the reader/character relationship, we are often told about those actions either through flashback or dreams, but in any case, the information is given to us through exposition, not dialogue. So Trait One of the Action Hero – Exposition/Narration reinforces the present philosophy.

2. If the external actions occur during the reader/character relationship, we see the starting-state of the character to often be divergent from the proposed philosophy. Trait Two of the Action Hero – The character experiences an upward or downward character slope overall, not a sine-wave.

3. The Action Hero is more than the sum of the problems, but is known for how he handles a particular problem, one that the audience is often referenced to or hears about secondhand in exposition. Trait Three of the Action Hero – The past plays an important part for the hero, but the reader is only given full access to the present. Any past at all is lensed through the perspective of the Hero at the time.

Let’s identify each one in-depth
Trait 1 Exposition/Narration reinforces the present philosophy – Whatever the character is experiencing presently in the story (I mean presently as whatever page the reader is on, not the specific tense), is going to reflect, demonstrate or be expressed through the character’s philosophy.
If the character is hard-boiled, with a dislike for women, then the experiences with women (should and) will show this. In the first-person, the narration should not to outright say “this is how I feel about X” but that feeling about X should be able to be picked up by the reader without too much effort or too great an inference.
Granted, we want this character to grow and arc through the story, even in the slightest margin, so over the course of the plot, and as consequence or by-product of his actions, the philosophy will change, and as a result, the nature of the character changes. This change need not be some massive Freudian accomplishment, it can instead be something simple or even the start of change, but change will occur and it will result in a changed character.
A character that lacks change can still be heroic in nature, but if the character does not change, then the story and the plot may not hold sufficient challenge as to clearly test the character. Remember: at the very least, the character is tested. It’s hard to be heroic when you’re not breaking a sweat or risking anything.
Trait 2 The character experiences either an upward or downward trend, not a sine wave in terms of progression. I refer here to the character arc, and in its largest, story-wide setting, not the individual chapter progression (if any is written or plotted). What I am discussing here is an overall trend in film, and how to avoid it in writing – in film now, the focus is on the average, or slight average character discovering extraordinary circumstances (like having to fight the seven evil ex-boyfriends or having to travel across country to woo the woman he loves), these are “safe” characters, as their character arcs are clipped – the character sits within a wide z-score, the sweet spot of the bell curve so that the character’s low moments “aren’t so bad” and the high moments “aren’t too unbelievable.” A character like this is neutered, jacked up on Thorazine and is only compelling in situations or saved by single lines of dialogue. This character development is a recent evolution and goes as follows:

80s nerd -- Had to face the jock (usually) and overcome adversity to get the girl

90s nerd -- Had to survive a series of trials (get into college, fight the preppy kid, pass math) in order to be “good enough” to get the girl. The girl is no longer the reward for accomplishment, it becomes a meritocracy, and the hero has to jump through hoops to get what he wants.

Current nerd -- The character’s negative traits (shyness, anxiety, virginity, etc) are amplified and exaggerated so that the character is heroic in name only. There is no profound in the character, the traits do not wither or recede, and it seems as though the events happen despite the character’s faults.

In short – the character is no longer tested, and by definition is the hero of the story, but not a heroic character.

Trait 3 The character is known for how he handled one problem in the past, but furthers his “legend” in the current story. This is most true in the Action/Adventure genre, when past exploits are often mentioned by secondary or tertiary characters as a way of demonstrating how badass the main character is. While this is not always true of main characters (especially for fish-out-of-water or young characters), there are invariably a number of heroic leads this can apply to. In fantasy, it’s the all-powerful wizard or warrior who assists the main character. In detective stories, it’s backstory, how the detective managed or bungled one case and it’s labeled him a success or failure. The “legend” is usually only broken out to educate the reader, and is often poorly done in dialogue. If the legend can be told in part, or told through a particular point of view, it’s far more effective and compelling, without “giving too much away too soon”.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A link elsewhere...but it's really good.

I saw this via StumbleUpon (a total timesink that is occasionally indispensable).

75 books every writer should read

This will replace the majority of my reading list(s).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Musical Interlude

I share this with you:


Flashbacks are the most often used crutch by writers looking to expand their particular story without moving the chronology or pace forward in real-time. They are a convenient way to shoehorn a lot of information into a short passage of time. They are also a convenient way to explain things that may be considered too abstract or too vague in another form.

However, because they are a crutch, they are open to abuse. And abuse of flashbacks comes in several flavors, a few of which are described below.

The flashback is tangential and almost irrelevant to the present moment – Any flashback that has its start based on a small item and then diverges greatly from that item can be seen as tangential. (For example, in soap operas, flashbacks start when a phone rings, but within the flashback itself, the phone ringing is a wrong number or completely inconsequential to the nature of the flashback). Just because an event occurs both in the present stream of the story as well as within the confines of the flashback DOES NOT make that event relevant enough. As creatures of habit, characters have many events occur regularly (they eat, sleep, talk, etc) so making the jump from the present-moment to the recalled flashback through a regular occurrence is vague and erodes the importance of the flashback. Don’t believe me? Imagine I’m trying to describe to you some intense memory, perhaps the time I fell down a flight of stairs, and I start the description with something to effect of, “When I fell down the stairs, I was breathing, just like I am now…”

Having too narrow a tangent makes the bridge to the flashback weak, and does not imbue a great deal of confidence in the information gained by them. It can lead to a scene or information feeling forced into the story, as if you realized too late you had to include material or explain something.

Likewise, when the flashback is too obvious, the information gained is also seen as disingenuous and unnatural. This is the reverse of the above situation. More often than not, the flashback in this case is a memory, usually cued or started with an object, often a photo or sound. When the guy sits at his desk and stares at the picture of his dead wife, naturally we have an expectation that we’ll then be whisked away to a particular scene, to show that he does love his wife and he was happy then, but dammit now he’s miserable without her. This spewing of vacuous cliché does not show any quality as a writer, other than the fact that you too can sound completely boring and elementary.

Yes, there are many great ways to cue memories and to then use those memories as tools for growing insight and information, but do you have to use all the same tools as the person next to you?

Consider please for a moment that instead of the picture of the wife on the desk…..

· The smell of burnt coffee reminded him of a time when she burnt his coffee
· He stared out the window and saw a shadow pass by, surely it was a bird, and not the shadow of a woman plummeting 40 stories to her death exactly the way his wife did?
· He bent down to tie his shoe and heard the sounds of heels clicking on the floor, the way his wife did just before she left to go out to the theater.

There are multiple and innovative ways to segue from the present moment and introduce expansive information, please make an effort to keep your approaches new.

There also exist rules of flashbacks, as in structure that must be followed for a flashback to work properly. They are detailed below:

1 Flashbacks must be closed loops – A flashback is essentially a scene within a scene, and must possess a beginning, middle and end unto itself, and must clearly conclude before the present-moment may resume.

2 Putting a character into a flashback, making them remember, must remove that character from the present-moment-action – No character in the middle of remembering their pet dog will be consciously aware enough to be able to avoid the assassins chasing them down the street. Once engaged in a flashback, once that memory is cued, that person doing the remembering is INCAPABLE of acting within the present, as all their faculties are tied up in remembering and to some extent recalling, the past.

3 Flashbacks are character relevant – Unless there are shared experiences, telepathy or supernatural forces at work, Character A cannot recall the flashback of Character B in exactly the same way Character B could. Even if A was right next to B at the moment the event occurred, their memory of it MUST be from the perspective of A.

4 Not all dreams are flashbacks – Those dreams that are predictive in nature or that foreshadow, are not technically flashbacks. Flashbacks deal specifically and only with the past. Whenever the future enters into it, it’s foreshadowing, which will no doubt be discussed later.

Flashbacks fail when they do not naturally, natively or seamlessly impart new information or understanding about existing information. Flashbacks fail when they come when we expect them, and when they rob us of the emotion of the present moment.

Remember, a flashback freezes the thinking character and the audience out of the present moment. So, if a character has a flashback of his family in the middle of a war scene, when the flashback ends, we’re smashed hard into the battle. Either the line between present and flashback must blur somewhat or the audience is in for a jarring reconnection with the present.

Practice with them. Keep them small, and ration the information you give out in them. Give away too much in a flashback, and the information will be taken as previous character knowledge, and the audience can therefore (rightfully) ask: If they already knew how to do it, why didn’t they?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Post #19 - Building Better Opening Paragraphs

Building Better Openings – Drop-In Versus Action Openings

The opening sentences for anything written are critical. They can establish tone, pace, style and give the reader an expectation of what they can look forward to in the coming hundreds of lines and thousands of words.

Of all the different ways to start fiction, two are most often used. They are relatively polar.

In Media Res – “In the middle of things” Meaning that the story opens to and with an action sequence, such that the reader is drawn directly into something evocative and something occurring at the first present-moment of the story.

Most often this is done to create a sense of tension, or to establish a speedy pace and connect us immediately with the character(s) involved in the action.

Drop-In – Also called a “cold open”, this is a slower approach, often focusing on setting or backstory and not a specific character, such that the reader can gain a particular foothold of information before the story accelerates or gains traction.

There is no superior choice here, it is a matter of preference.

Use In Media Res when…
· You want to start off with a large bang and a lot of action
· You want to connect us more with a character, especially when that character will be greatly tested throughtout the story
· You want to set up a very fast pace, with a very short fuse

Use a Cold Opening when…
· You want to present a lot of general information early, and get it out of the way
· You want to ground or anchor the reader in the world, moreso than in one character (in case you believe the character is not strong enough or too incredible)
· You want to give a sense that the reader is “zooming in” gathering progressively tighter and tighter focus until they reach the characters or action beat.

Again, preference rules the roost, but remember you do have some points to consider:

1. Establish for the reader (whoever they are) that you have a particular way of writing, a certain rhythm and cadence to you words

2. That you have created a world that is worth investing the reader's imagination and emotions into (because you want the reader to care about what goes on in the story...so they keep reading)

3. That you're not writing this whole story (possibly hundreds of pages) just so that some other human can write you a check (it's nice, but aren't you doing this passionately?)

4. That you have created a character (or characters) that feel fully-developed, and live as realistically as possible.

Remember, we're painting onto the minds of the readers, so while this opening is the first brushstroke they see, hopefully, it's not the last.

Go practice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

From the Mailbag: I wrote a draft, am I a writer?

So I wrote a draft, am I a writer?

Technically we can argue that whenever you write, whether it’s a grocery list or a stack of sonnets, you’re a writer.

But I challenge you to not take such a pedestrian and boring stance. While there’s nothing wrong with calling yourself a writer because you’ve put words on paper, because there are thousands, if not millions of people who have written something and it’s never gone past the computer screen or a readership of the four other people in the Gossip Girl fan-fiction message board.

There was a time when I would argue that the simple act of writing makes you a writer, but there is a sad fact there – not all writers deserve to be published, and some don’t even deserve to be read. I am well aware that this stance makes me a bit of a jerk, and entirely unpopular among many Meetup.com writing groups, but I’m not writing these notes so that people like me, I’m writing these notes to get you writing.

So I’ll say it again – You’re a writer when you commit to get published and throughout that process. In all other efforts, you’re a storyteller.

The world needs storytellers so don’t mistake my segregation. But the world needs writers and authors, and you can be one but for that to happen, I have to quote my high school teacher, who said I’d never amount to anything in any field that included words:

1. You have to write today better than you did yesterday
2. You have to write everyday, even if the guy next to you writes twice as much half as often
3. You have to get your head out of your ass and screw it on straight.

If you’ve not realized this yet, publication is a job. It’s not a reward, it’s only barely a consequence of good writing. The whole process takes a lot of time, dedication, patience and talent. And if you’re lacking any of those, you’re not going to make it. You can build patience and determination. You can find time. The only thing you can’t create is talent, so if you’re entirely lacking at the start, it’s not going to work. But, if you have even an inch of it, you can develop it.

Sad truth though – not everyone has the talent.

Talent isn’t measured in rejection letters or how often you get published or paid. Talent is measured in the reception of your work by multiple audiences. It is not a matter of paychecks or the number of people who cite your work in their own. Talent is a matter of making a difference in the imaginations and passions of whoever reads your work.

Writing is the expression of the imagination and creative spirit by way of that talent. You can’t and won’t get far without out it. Until you take all necessary steps to make writing a job, and make all the other steps to press your talent into service for the rest of your mind, you’re not a writer.

Plain and simple.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Post 18 -- Sentence 101: Propositions

I've talked before about Sentence Abuse, the idea that a poorly-written sentence grows up to be a poorly-developed paragraph, and that badly-raised paragraphs birth awful pages. It is a wonderful macro view of things, zooming out progressively further and further above the writing until you see an overall picture.

But equally important (and occasionally I will argue more important) is the micro-view - that all writing lives and dies at the sentence level.

Too often in grammar-nazi environments there is a sterilization and autopsy of the words; that there has to be this treatment of the words as clinical objects long since expired before we work with them. This lack of emotional connectivity to our words is the source of writing problems -- our connection to what we write is what drives our conscious efforts to select the words at their best moment (I'm reminded of commercials that say products are picked at the height of freshness) rather than just fill the page and make excuses about it later.

There can be no excuse and no succor given when you're consciously aware and making bad choices in writing. Assuming responsibility and making a vigilant effort to improve is your only recourse. Ignorance only takes you so far, and intentional ignorance of rules like grammar, structure and detail seems (to me) to be the hallmarks of cowardly writers who won't assume the responsibility or the potential that failure exists along their paths to success.

Don't be a writing coward. Nothing is gained from being mediocre on purpose.

We look today at the underlying construction of sentences, past the thicket of grammatical terms and getting to the concepts they represent. Yes, there is a level of thought that goes deeper than "subject/predicate" and "noun-verb agreement". This level is called "propositions" and it is a greatly conceptual level.

A proposition is a statement about the reality constructed in the writing that may be accepted or rejected by the reader/audience.

The proposition is not so much the specific word, but rather the idea that a word or words represents in the context.

Here is a sample sentence: I'm going to go play Madden 2011.

It's not an elaborate sentence (I'll do one of those next), but all the same, it creates propositions (which I occasionally call 'conditions'). I've listed out the propositions:

  1. There exists a being called "I".
  2. There exists something called "Madden 2011".
  3. "Madden 2011" can be played (inference: It is a game.)
  4. The being called "I" is going to play the game called "Madden 2011"
I've drawn out the thinking in these 4 statements intentionally. You can understand who I am and what I'm about to do without taking it to that level all the time, but the demonstration is obvious -- whatever we say, and however we say it, work together to create an image. And it is that image which leads to a reaction in the part of the audience.

This shows that it is not the particular word which prompts response, it is the image conjured by the word (the proposition) that is reacted to by the audience. Perhaps a reader is jealous that I have Madden 2011, or that I have the free time to play. Perhaps the reader is angry that I'm not spending more time writing blogposts. Perhaps a reader is totally uninterested in what I will play, but interested more in that I am playing.....it doesn't matter - as long as A reaction is felt by the reader.

Yes, that's correct. I don't care ultimately what is felt, as long as something is felt. Why? Very interesting question - let's step aside and examine it.

Sidebar: Why are you writing? Are you writing so that you express something that others do not? Are you writing so that others may experience something? Are you writing entirely for mercenary financial reasons because your present job (if any) is unrewarding? The answer to that question is what shapes your view of your audience.

If you're writing because you have to say something (or that you have something to say and you fear it won't be heard otherwise) then you're compensating for feelings of inadequacy or esteem -- you've just made the writing all about yourself, rather than the audience or story.

If you're writing because you want the audience to experience something specific, and you're only allowing them to feel one particular way, you're essentially controlling a group of people, which is ultimately impossible and unsatisfying.

If you're writing for mercenary financial reasons, I assure you, that path is not quick or easy, and forsaking the audience in place of dollar signs is only going to make the path harder and more treacherous. Also, please leave me alone -- I have ZERO patience for you if you're only in this for money. (Likewise, the people who list money as even the second item in the list of 'Reasons I write' should run far away from me.)

You cannot force the audience to only think one way, and doing so is transparent and obvious and will cost you readers as they quickly label you as "mean" "passive-aggressive" or "bullying"By not controlling, by giving them their own full range of emotions, I'm accounting for all the factors I can't know about (like preferences, biases and assumptions).

While an individual word can elicit a response, because it's a fancy or archaic word, it is the reaction to the concept of the word which a writer needs to care more about.

Also absent here is the idea that propositions are the work of short sentences. In fact, longer sentences give a better foundation for propositions, as evidenced below:

"On that cold day in January, when the snow finally stopped falling, I was able to come to terms with my loneliness - that menacing spectre felt because of the conspicuous absence of hugs, affection, companionship and conversation. "

To list propositions, you can either start linearly (from the beginning clause of the sentence) or work impactfully (finding the elements that are the "punch" of the sentence. Here I'll work linearly:

  1. It's January
  2. It's a January with at least one cold day
  3. It had snowed before the time of this sentence/scene.
  4. The speaker is lonely
  5. The speaker, up until that moment, was not comfortable being lonely
  6. The speaker describes loneliness as a spectre
  7. The speaker proves loneliness through a lack of hugs, affection, companionship and conversation.
  8. The speaker values those things.
This is eight of the fourteen possible propositions available in that sentence.

Examine your own work so far and see what propositions you can find, and see if the unspoken concepts match your intentions. If they do, great. If not, then consider matching the unspoken with what's on paper to see if that improves the writing.

Note: This material will be covered in FAR greater detail on August 30th, and will be expanded thereafter in later posts.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Post 17 - Characters Need Relationships

Good morning everyone, I'm sorry for the delay in posts.

This morning I want to talk a little about relationships, specifically those that connect ALL your characters, not just the protagonists.

I think, too often, people focus on the relationships that the heroes of the story have, and overlook the possibility or presence of the same relationships that the antagonist may have. Yes, badguys need love too.

While it verges on cliche to parrot the relationship to both parties (the hero and villain both having the same middle school teacher), I think that part of what fleshes out a great character (and villains should be as well-crafted as the heroes) is that they have relationships.

The badguy can have a relationship with...his banker...that maybe doesn't make him all that evil (unless it's an evil banker). The hero can have a relationship with his landlady that doesn't paint him too favorably.

My point is this -- relationships lead to interactions (and vice versa), so their presence in the story add some often needed depth to the characters involved.

Would we care so much about Snape killing Dumbledore, if we didn't build this great relationship and reverance between Harry and Dumbledore?

Would we be in tears at the end of Field of Dreams if we didn't set up the relationship between father and son throughout the whole movie?

Would we care so much about Winnie the Pooh if we didn't see his relationships with all the other animals of the Hundred Acre Wood? (Oh yeah, I went there.)

One of the most critical elements in character building is the formation of relationships around that character. No character lives in a vacuum, and no character is truly alone.

Note: Let me dispel something that got emailed to me about this point -- The "loner" character might be isolated and by himself, but he may carry the memories, feelings or ideas of other characters with him. In a visual medium, we see these other characters through flashback and dream sequence, so while the character is physically singular, he is emotionally and mentally involved with other characters. The same is true for the widowed or orphaned character, who relates to absent characters through how he feels.

Relationships hinge on the strength of the emotions in them. It is nowhere near enough for the reader to be told "the characters are in love", we must see this love played out in actions and emotions. Demonstration of those emotions allow the reader to invest in the character either positively (wanting them to succeed) or negatively (wanting them to be stopped). The surest way to demonstrate these emotions is create them in context.

I'm not saying all heroes need a love interest, and many stories are done well without them. This goes far beyond the immediate answer of "have a character fall in love". I've identified a few more depth-granting relationships below:

  • A character and his parents
  • A character and his goals before the story, compared to the character and his goals at the start of the story
  • A character and his siblings (or lack thereof)
  • A character and the perceived competition he's in for X item or Y person (note the word: perceived)
  • A character and the actual competition for X item or Y person
  • A character and scorned love
  • A character and himself, if he is conflicted about something
  • A character and the perceived societal rules, philosophies or laws.

There are loads of others, those are just what I thought of while sitting here.

It's not enough to just list the relationship as a bullet point in your stack of notes about the character. No one sees those notes, so the detail you put in them had better translate into the text somewhere, or else you've just wasted the opportunity.

Now don't take that to the other end of the spectrum, and turn every bullet point into a massive relationship epic. Some relationships don't need to be super-detailed. The character who sells the character coffee on page 215? Yeah, the reader probably doesn't need to know that the barista's fondest desire is to play competitive tiddlywinks because his father was an abusive doubter of the power of tiddlywinks, which caused the boy to grow up stunted and ashamed of his talents....he pours the coffee, that's his job on page 215, and the relationship that matters most is his relation to the action of that service.

Don't confuse deep and rich characters with their relationships. Relationships are what characters have, and relationships are what make the characters rich and deep, not the level of detail you write when describing the textures of fabrics and facial hair.

What I encourage people to do is write out the list of connections. Sometimes a web sort of design can be employed, but sometimes (at least for me) a list can be used. It looks like this:

Character #1
- HATES Character #2
- DISCOVERS Character #3, then RESPECTS Character #3
- SON of Character #4

By emphasizing the starting point for the relationship, I know to ground the characters that way. Since no relationship is static, I know that I can push the relationship(s) forward into new territory, as would make sense for the character given the circumstances (otherwise, if I change the relationship without reason, the reader is left scratching their head).

Any character would benefit from any relationship. Try it out, see how you can connect the characters and see if those connections strengthen what you've got down on the page.

Happy writing

Friday, July 23, 2010

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Post #15 -- Emotions vs. Statuses

If you've ever played a Final Fantasy or Zelda game, then you're going understand this idea pretty quickly. However, for many people, it's been a long time since they checked out a heart container or limit break, so I won't ask you to go play those games in order to grasp this.

Over the course of writing, we're generating characters that hopefully have or express feelings. Feelings are the bridges to the audience principally because the audience is comprised of people who also have feelings. If you can imbue feelings to a fictional creation, then audience (hopefully) sees that creation as real, even if it's only in the context of the pages of the story.

Different from feelings are things called statuses (or sometimes status conditions, but that's a little redundant). They also play a role in characters, but they're not feelings.

Wait, I'll explain each and this gets clearer.

An emotion is felt by the character in response to something. Emotions are REACTIVE, meaning that they require something to trigger them. X happens, it generates an emotion. This cause-effect relationship is key to crafting strong emotions, even if the emotion you want isn't "appropriate" at the moment it's being experienced.

(Note: "Appropriate" is a relative label that often gets abused or misplaced. "Appropriate" chiefly concerns itself with the ideas that an action (which in this case is an emotion) must fit in with the surrounding context so as not to appear abnormal or unique among a group. "Appropriate" often counter-balances the outliers on the bell-curve, meaning it breeds a level of conformity and solidarity. "Appropriate" is some external judgment placed on the the specific situation, and sometimes, for true potency, "appropriate" can be tossed out the window.)

Emotions are how the character feels (about something/someone). To describe these we use words like angry, sad, aroused, challenged, bitter....a whole host of adjectives designed specifically to evoke an image in the reader's mind. (If I say, "I'm sad." that creates a particular mental picture for the reader. If I go on further and say "I'm sad, can't you see the tears in my eye?" I've further developed that picture but not actually increased the emotion at hand.)

Emotions add depth, and they do not do a great job of advancing plot...emotions EXPLAIN things. (Note that they both start with "E".) They are qualifiers, and they relate best to questions of why and how. (Why do they feel that way? How do they feel now? etc) I try not to say that feelings act best with the verb "feel" in mind, because I think it's rather poor writing to use the word to describe itself.

It's hard to say that "sadness" or "anger" by itself would advance a plot. But that does not mean an emotion cannot inspire or lead to an action. Emotions are like fuses for actions. Having a clear fuse makes the bomb bigger.

Remember: Emotions help create images, they can precede actions, they add depth to whatever is "current moment." Emotions also require something to trigger them. That "something" can be an action, another emotion....but it's some event that can best be described NOT IN DIALOGUE (think exposition or narrative, mostly).

But, characters can feel more than emotions. The responses to the environment are also felt, but they're not emotions. They are called "statuses".

Consider this: Billy fell down and skinned his knee. Tears poured down his face as he sat on the curb.

When we examine what Billy felt, we have to remember that there are two parts with combine to composite the "feelings." We may identify the tears and label them as sadness or pain. But Billy felt more than that. Look at the action taken - he fell and skinned his knee. He felt, in a physical sense, the rough texture of the ground against his skin.

Status is not just what the character is doing, but it is also the condition that impacts the character at the time of observation (I can see the physics people looking to me to point out the Literary Observer Effect, but I'll save that for later).

Another way of describing his "status" is to consider his "state" (short for 'state of being'). Billy's status? Bleeding, crying, sitting, hurt. He feels this things, but they are not feelings.

Status is used more as a location and descriptor. It tells us about where the character is in relative space and experience. A character may be conscious, unconscious, bleeding, drunk, falling, speaking, praying.....and a lot of other gerunds and nouns.

I have tried, while writing this, to find a single line I can create for this, but I find the items in question to be too closely related.

Emotions are felt in reaction to experience.
Statuses are felt or occur in response to action.

A status can lead to an emotion (I am single now, so I cry a lot). And emotions can lead to statuses. (I am scared, so I act timidly) Knowing that the two are related, but individually different helps you shape characters both as single-standing creations and also within the context of your writing.

I hope this helps. Keep writing, we'll talk soon.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Post #14 - Tools for creating your masterpiece

At Ken's suggestion (you're checking out his blog right? Go visit him after you're done reading this post.) I've got a list of some software that can help you write your great work. It doesn't matter what you're writing or how good you are it, these tools can help you.

Before I start, I do want to draw your attention here. This is a chart detailing the expenses of some of the leading writing software available. I want you to specifically look at 2 parts: The cost and the features.

Yes, $269 dollars for software. And if you note the features, that $269 doesn't include spellcheck. So you might be able to crank out an entire series of books filled with typos.

So I looked at all these pieces of software...and then looked at my wallet. And then I looked at the material I teach monthly at meetings, where it doesn't cost anyone $269 to get help.

Now I'm not saying that the people who made software shouldn't be paid for their work, and I'm not saying that some of that software is really exceptional for some people, but there has to be a set of tools that I can get TODAY so that I can start writing, TODAY, right?

I found them. Here are 3:

yWriter5 (Cost: FREE) -- I love this program (it's on the laptop). It was not hard to install or figure out, there's an awesome video explaining everything on the website, and it works in much the same way I do - by scenes and in long strings of work. This is definitely a writer's tool developed by someone who writes...there's not a lot of marketing and flash and bells and whistles. This program will get you on the ground floor of your work easily and keep you focused. You'll want to check this out.

Storybook (Cost: FREE) -- Similar to yWriter, this program really focuses on good organizational elements to make the act of writing incredibly creatively and targeted. No more meandering through thoughts, forgetting your notes or skating by when you're not sure. This is a complex story's best friend, thanks to its Plot Strands features (keep track of all your bits, twists and turns). This is the program on one of the writing computers I use.

Pen and Paper
(Cost: Nominal) -- Okay, so my third choice isn't software. But, it is a great tool for your masterpiece. Let's face it: I don't always want to lug around a laptop and the power cord and the cumbersome case. I have things to do, places to go and I think a lot faster (and easier) when I'm not looking for an outlet "just in case". To use this tool:

  • Get a box of pens.
  • Get a few legal pads, steno pads or pieces of paper.
  • Start writing.
I've always got a few pens in my pocket and paper at hand. Far less need for an outlet this way, and it's just faster for to scribble a note like, "Adjust August meetup RSVPs" than get the laptop, dig it out, clear space on the table, plug it in, login to the wi-fi, get on the site, and then start adjusting the things I need. Simple is often better, especially when I need to write.

So that's the sort of stuff I use, but I'm always on the lookout for more or different ideas. Let me know what you're using. If you've got other stuff (free is always a good thing) tell me.

Post #13 - Plot and Characters working together

I think I was unclear at some point, or I was not sufficiently explanatory because I'm getting the impression from people that you either write plot or you write characters, placing one ahead of the other in terms of importance.

It's not a matter of importance, it's a matter of definition and quantity of description. Both are important -- you cannot find story without plot or without characters. (If by some stroke of genius you know a story where there no characters and/or no plot, please email me...I'm curious about this.)

You need to have characters AND you need to have a plot. At the most simple level, if you have characters and no plot, they just exist on the page without a reason to do anything. If you have pages where characters are created, but they're not doing anything, that's a character study or a nice biography you've written, but that's not a story. If you have a plot, but no characters, then you've created a problem and have no one to solve it or grow because of it.

Both these components of writing are critical, but my point has been, and remains that there are different schools of thought and different talents that distinguish one from the other. There are some people who promote plot over character, just as there are some people who make more complex characters over simpler plots. It is not a mark of competition or superiority, just difference. I think for some people this is a particular sticking point that one has to be subordinate to the other, but both must be masterfully written...which explains why they spend a lot of time worrying about writing, don't you think?

Relax. Both have to be done, and you may end up doing one better than the other. It's totally okay. We all still love you.

In the great big scheme of your book, whatever it is you're writing, to have the characters and plot work together, and often off each other. It's a great dependence that cycles like this:

* Either the plot or the character exist first (chicken/egg argument)
* If the plot came first (meaning the author developed the problem first), then the character is created to solve the problem.
* If the character came first (meaning that the author had someone in mind, but not what they'd do), then the plot comes along to challenge the character.

An average plot is rescued by brilliant characters (we can point to various TV shows having weak episodes made tolerable by great acting, and by various books in an author's library being better than others).

An average character is made magnificent by a challenging plot (Frodo is an ordinary hobbit who saves Middle Earth, Batman was just a guy until his parents were killed).

Let's get more into this:

We'll start with look at the situation plot-centrically:

What's your plot? If you can't immediately spit it out in a few sentences, then you need to write that out somewhere, and keep it in mind. Now gauge that problem, that conflict, that opportunity and consider the character(s) required to really make that problem not only resolved by truly epic in its scope. (You have hundreds of pages to explore the problem...be sure it's got some weight to it).

Write out your plot, not in a long-winded clunky way, but in a pretty open and direct way. Make a whole sentence out of it. I'll make an example:

A man must overcome his issues. No! This needs more. Remember, this is your story we're discussing. This is how you're going to encourage the world to see it? This is the best you, the creator of the work, has to say about it? Break a mental sweat, let's see what you can do.

A man must overcome his emotional and mental fragility to find his sense of meaning and love of life after losing it to failed relationships, failed opportunities and fear. Yes! Brilliant! See the depth here, see the craggy nature, where we have so many elements we can expand on? For people who don't see all the richness of this plot, I'll extract them:

  1. The man must overcome the issues, which immediately says that he believes them to be greater than he is, or that they will be a difficulty.
  2. The man gets his first layer of depth here, listed as emotionally and mentally fragile. This makes the character compelling. How is the fragile guy ("fragile" is left for the audience to define) going to overcome the issues?
  3. We start to see the issues outlined. He's lost his sense of meaning, his love for life, and he's been in some failed relationships and failed opportunities. Now this fragile guy has context.
  4. And just to ice this cake, we end the sentence with a raw emotion, to really grab the audience - fear. There isn't a specification to the fear, so people are left to guess what the fear is. We have clues in the prior words, but we're uncertain...and intrigued.

So we've created a plot, and along the way created the mold of the character best suited for that plot. There is a natural symmetry to this creation, we have in one sentence created a problem and the being attempting the problem. Both work together, because both are integral to the other's existence. Would the man be fragile if he had not suffered? Would the issues be there if there was no one to experience them? (Please don't get philosophical, we're speaking strictly literary, to see the constructive potential of the symbiosis.)

In the course of 3 days, since teaching about Plot, I got two emails asking me how people can figure out their plots. Here is the quick-and-dirty way:

1. Think about what problem there exists in your world. (There's an evil wizard!)
2. Give the problem more depth by attaching it to consequences. (The evil wizard wants to rule the world and enslave people!!)
3. Give the problem a sense of urgency (Only one man or one way exists to stop the wizard, and time's running out!!!)

That's plot generation in 3 steps.

But, wait. What if you have a great character and no idea what to do with him? Time to consider this issue from the character side:

Who's the hero? Who is this fantastic character that mirrors and connects to the audience (so that they can relate to him) but may possess abilities the audience craves (so that they can project themselves into his role)? Go write it down. I have an example here:

He's a guy who realizes that he can communicate with animals. Okay...that's a great ability for the audience to crave, but what does he do with it? How does that power (which the audience doesn't normally have) allow him to connect to the audience? Try again.

He's a guy who realizes he can communicate with animals when he gets struck by lightning. This is the common misstep people take. They expand the character with another detail, rather than taking the existing details and pushing DEEPER. This is often the problem with most current comedies, where a character is introduced and given a power or skill, but the plot-conditions to test that skill are incredibly shallow or transparent. We want to go deeper. This is the guy the audience is going to stick with and root for in your entire book. And the best you've got for me is lightning? Think deep, think about what an audience experiences.

A guy realizes he can communicate with animals, and decides to use this power to finally fulfill his dream of fighting crime. THIS is the depth of character we wanted. If you're not immediately seeing the depth, here it is.

  1. A guy (who may just like us) gains an extraordinary power, one that many people may be interested in.
  2. This power allows him to do something he's always wanted to do, which is fight crime. This is also the audience may have wished for or desired.
  3. We know that because he's chosen to fight crime, either he believes crime to be a problem or crime ACTUALLY is a problem wherever this guy lives.
  4. We know this guy has dreamt about fighting crime, so we may extrapolate that dream into his own feelings of inadequacy or longing for purpose. Those feelings are felt by the audience.
Now I'm not always sure if I can boil down character generation into 3 steps the same way I did with plot, but if I had to, I'd say the parts are these

  • Pick two emotions, feelings or ideas. One must be greater than the other, but both do have to be somewhat complimentary. (You can't pick "Always helps the elderly" and "fears lemons"...they just don't go together in this exercise). It doesn't matter which of the two is the greater, as long as you can keep the two straight.
  • Give those emotions a body, either capable or desiring to be capable, male or female, young or old...but think about the sort of person that would have those two emotions you picked.
  • Describe the character in short list form (see below). Physical traits, elements of voice, personal history...all of these things come into play here. Names are optional but eventually the character needs one.
I've written it out here.

I've picked my 2 ideas/feelings/emotions to be "Loyalty" and "Tenacity"

My character will be named "Gary".

The embodiment of "Loyalty" and "Tenacity" looks like this:
  • short, stocky body
  • played some nose tackle in college
  • worked as a cab driver
  • muscled arms
  • scar over his right eye
  • drinks whiskey
  • calls women "dames"
  • always willing to fight
  • won't back down
Notice that in my description of Gary, I've created some springboards for writing. Why does he have a scar over his right eye? How good a nose tackle was he? Where did he play? How long did he drive a cab? Why is he always willing to fight?

Here's my rule of thumb: A character will rise or sink to meet the plot.

If the plot is too soft, too short, too elementary or too fluffy, then not even the greatest character can ultimately elevate it, and they will mute themselves in order to satisfy plot conditions.

If the character needs to be pushed, propelled and defined, then it is up to the plot to make this maturation possible.

All the pieces here must compose themselves into the particular engine of your story. So take the time to build your pieces carefully. You'll appreciate the hard work.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Post #11 -- Genre

Note: Originally Post #11 was really angry and profane. I have since calmed down. However, that profanity-laced tirade may be heard next Monday at my writing group.

Writers love knowing genres, and they absolutely love understanding what genre they fit into. It gives them, I think, a sense of belonging, and lets them find a familiar ground or even models for their own work. There is nothing wrong with availing yourself of multiple genres, looking for your "best fit". It's a lot like trying on new shoes, try a few pairs at the store to see what holds your foot the best.

The problem I see is that once people find a pair of shoes, or a style of shoe that fits their feet, then every other shoe goes out the window. And....that's not necessarily bad, depending on the type of action you're taking, but just as with shoes, one is not enough.

I really mashed up those metaphors into a sweet pulpy mess, didn't I? Let's try again.

Just as you have different shoes for different outfits, so too do you have different genres available to you for different pieces of writing.

If you're writing the next great epic romance between a human and her.......glow-in-the-dark were-ostrich, you're probably not going to find a lot of help in iambic pentameter or haiku. And while those two types of poetry would completely make you marketably unique, it's difficult to produce the work you intend under those conditions. But you can try it....who knows, maybe haiku captures the essence of their spectral flightless bird romance.

Now as far as specifics go, I don't know exactly how many genres there are. If that somehow makes me a bad writer, then I don't care. But I'll list a few here: Western, Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Horror, Thriller, Biography, Memoir, Mystery, Science Fiction...now under each of those there are sub-genres like Transgressive Fiction, Steampunk, Alternate History, Erotica, Supernatural Romance, Satire.....

See how diverse that list is? I start naming sub-genres, and you can argue that any of them are their own main genre. It's not about the quantity, it's about the classification.

There are specific elements that define the genre, and that are inherent in all works of the genre. (For instance, all mysteries contain an unknown element that needs to be solved and all thrillers contain pacing that encourages movement of characters and audience). Knowing what they are (which you can discover by reading work within the genre and some decent google-fu) is somewhat expected of you.

Now, either for reasons of great arrogance, caprice or accomplishment, let's say you can't find a genre that really speaks to you. The next logical step in the progression is to define your own...but before we get talking about that, let's make sure you're clear on what's going on:

1. You do understand that not every genre is for every story, right? No one story is exactly and only 100% one genre only, and that a lot of the best stories ever take handfuls of elements from multiple genres and appeal to broad audiences for a lot of reasons. You do know that no one (except maybe you) expects a story to be exactly and totally one genre, right?

2. You've done more investigating than just one genre, yes? You didn't just stop after looking at two romance novels and conclude there's not a genre on earth that can contain your wit, did you? Not doing your homework isn't going to make your writing suffer, but it will put some egg on your face when you get to marketing.

3. This isn't you trying to be better than other people, is it? You're not doing this to get attention or feel special or make your work standout because you feel you don't normally get a second look from people, right? You're clear as to why you're building your own genre, yes? Please don't be an obnoxious knob about this. What you're about to get into needs to be done for purely craft reasons, and should in no way support (nor will it) your monstrous and troubled psyche and ego. If you're not sure you're connecting with Planet Earth, I'd double-check all your fuses before you go down this road.

Now, having said all that, let's build you your own genre. Here's what you need.

  • A finished piece of work
  • An explanation of that work (a synopsis)
  • A list of themes/ideas/concepts found in the piece (I like to write these down)
Genre is defined by those themes, ideas and concepts. The presentation across genre may be similar (a lot of detective stories have a male lead detective or a younger junior partner, etc) but it is by those themes that you build the genre as a whole.

One piece does not a genre make! Although many snobbish hipsters and too-cool-for-the-room critics may say that a piece IS the genre, they're only saying that because there's more than one piece to evaluate and judge (and hipsters LOVE to judge).

So we take our concepts (which are not plot points or unique little bits of description, but those core elements that we want the audience to walk away with) and by listing them we see where our genre stands. Perhaps your genre speaks to the audience in a very damaged way, where the narrator always gets victimized and traumatized in the story. Maybe in your genre stories are dismissive about matters of class and social structure, blending everyone together into some bland association. Maybe in your genre you just love to have people engage in sex acts with food products --- what we're talking about your defining characteristics here, so fly that freak flag as needed. Get your ya-yas out. Live it up.

You may find that by listing your themes, you share a lot in common with other genres (this is a good sign). Now this mutual connection can serve a few purposes: (i) It can tell you that in fact you're part of that other genre (ii) It can give readers a starting point for their context.

Giving them a starting point is critical and hugely advantageous, because they're going to need a frame of reference (or comparison) to stick with your writing. Often, people will look for a kind of equation to describe things, so they know if they should plunk down the cash. An equation looks like this (totally made up on the spot)

Melville's symbolism + Butcher's fantasy + Kripke's dialogue + Rowling's length. (Don't get mad at me that I picked the dialogue from a TV show....)

See what I'm getting at? Based on my description of components, people know what to expect. Hopefully you'll forge a better equation out of your components that illustrate and earmark your work.

Your birthed creation, the monster to your Frankenstein, needs a name. I encourage you to pick an adjective that you can easily tack onto the word "fiction" (transgressive fiction, science fiction, feminist fiction), but you may also pick a title that speaks to your style (minimalism, trendy horseshit, etc). If the title does not match or clearly speak about the work (meaning it paints a poor picture of what lies ahead for the reader), consider a name change.

Yes it needs a name. Don't think for a minute that you can get by thinking that your work is so genius and so unique that it defies labels. If that's your thinking, two things will happen: (1) Critics will name it for you, most unflatteringly (2) Fewer people will read your work than you think, because people can sniff out arrogance a mile away.

There will be some genre discussion in my group on the 28th, but feel free to continue the discussion here.

Keep writing.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Post #10 - Building characters through backstory

Below I've listed the "classic" 44 questions you can ask yourself to deepen any character and add depth to them. There are questions that go deeper than these, and maybe I'll put those together for a future post.

You need not use all 44, but I encourage you to skim them and use the ones that interest you.

  1. What do you know about this character now that s/he doesn’t yet know?
  2. What is this character’s greatest flaw?
  3. What do you know about this character that s/he would never admit?
  4. What is this character’s greatest asset?
  5. If this character could choose a different identity, who would s/he be?
  6. What music does this character sing to when no one else is around?
  7. In what or whom does this character have the greatest faith?
  8. What is this character’s favorite movie?
  9. Does this character have a favorite article of clothing? Favorite shoes?
  10. Does this character have a vice? Name it.
  11. Name this character’s favorite person (living or dead).
  12. What is this character’s secret wish?
  13. What is this character’s proudest achievement?
  14. Describe this character’s most embarrassing moment.
  15. What is this character’s deepest regret?
  16. What is this character’s greatest fear?
  17. Describe this character’s most devastating moment.
  18. What is this character’s greatest achievement?
  19. What is this character’s greatest hope?
  20. Does this character have an obsession? Name it.
  21. What is this character’s greatest disappointment?
  22. What is this character’s worst nightmare?
  23. Whom does this character most wish to please? Why?
  24. Describe this character’s mother.
  25. Describe this character’s father.
  26. If s/he had to choose, with whom would this character prefer to live?
  27. Where does this character fall in birth order? What effect does this have?
  28. Describe this character’s siblings or other close relatives.
  29. Describe this character’s bedroom. Include three cherished items.
  30. What is this character’s birth date? How does this character manifest traits of his/her astrological sign?
  31. If this character had to live in seclusion for six months, what six items would s/he bring?
  32. Why is this character angry?
  33. What calms this character?
  34. Describe a recurring dream or nightmare this character might have.
  35. List the choices (not circumstances) that led this character to his/her current predicament.
  36. List the circumstances over which this character has no control.
  37. What wakes this character in the middle of the night?
  38. How would a stranger describe this character?
  39. What does this character resolve to do differently every morning?
  40. Who depends on this character? Why?
  41. If this character knew s/he had exactly one month to live, what would s/he do?
  42. How would a dear friend or relative describe this character?
  43. What is this character’s most noticeable physical attribute?
  44. What is this character hiding from him/herself?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Post #12 -- What You Put On The Page Is What We Get

I remember the early days of web design, where I'd fire up Netscape Navigator and marvel at the WYSIWYG editor. There was a time, at least for me, when this was a go-to tool, and it set a standard for me. The idea that I can immediately create something and see the results really drove me forward, even if the things I created were pedestrian or simple. As a result of this very immediate sense of gratification, I got spoiled, and expected that when I typed, clicked or dragged something, I'd be able to know that the result was directly related to my action. This made me lazy, but I didn't see it as lazy. I just thought everyone was doing things this way, and that they'd understand my "genius" no matter what I did.

Along that bell-curve, people lost interest when I started taking shortcuts because the tools allowed me to do so. Subsequently, I wasn't involved in web design much longer after that. I had thought that my problems there were isolated to the world of JPEGs and image maps. They weren't.

I had started using that shortcut philosophy in everything I did, because I counted on people understanding whatever I did, because:

A) I did it, and I'm me and pretty smart and popular (and arrogant)
B) whatever I was doing was pretty obvious, and you had to be a blithering idiot not to understand.

Because of (A) I came to judge a lot of the world was (B).

I will admit that the bulk of this discovery didn't happen at all until a few years ago, and didn't happen in depth until some time last year, so there was over a decade of habits and philosophy built up where I thought I was Prometheus bringing fire to mortals and that the mortals were mentally two steps ahead of fruit flies on the scale of how-smart-things-are. In short, this whole mindset made me pretty much an asshole. How I ever found or held any job often boggles my mind. If then-me came to now-me for a job interview, I'd proudly, happily even, beat the snot out of myself. I deserved it.

This self-discovery was incredibly instructional, because I got a chance to see this same practice (not the arrogant attitude, not always, but definitely the shortcut practice of assumptions) done by other people. And I think because the arrogance was occasionally absent, it wasn't a matter of people being stupid and not realizing what's happening, it's just a matter of not thinking.

i. Not thinking that it matters to explain particular details or reasoning.
ii. Not thinking that other people wouldn't understand.
iii. Not thinking about the problem in stages or components, but rather as an end result to get achieved.

And all that build-up brings me to this blog today, with this to say, addressed to everyone writing something (fiction, non-fiction, whatever):

The reader(s) are going by what you put on the page, and if you introduce elements without explaining them, you create a lot of confusion.

I feel like this needs an example:

We set up a scene where a man is lost, wandering around with only the clothes on his back, and amnesia. He's staggering around for a few paragraphs, feeling quite angsty and confused, and we make it clear that he has nothing. Suddenly, about three paragraphs in, we mention that it's sunny so he puts his sunglasses on.

See the issue? He's got ONLY the clothes on his back...and then we see him in sunglasses. Isn't that convenient.

Now a lot of people will read great flexibility into the situation and they'll rationalize "only the clothes on his back" to mean that sunglasses are included. So maybe I am a purist in thinking that I take the author at their word (or lack thereof) when I compose a scene in my head based on what I read.

I'm uncomfortable with the idea that authors are inherently granted or gifted leeway in what they write. I think it's principally done because they went to all this trouble to write a book, and that's a lot more than what some members of the audience have done lately, so we can forgive the oversight.

That doesn't sit well with me. If the author went to all this trouble to write a book, the author could spend some time in the editing process making sure all the bits make sense.

Knowing many members of my writing group are reading this right now, several of them are translating this into: Now I have to detail EVERYTHING EVERYTIME.

Please, don't go overboard.

There must be space for the audience to squeeze into your story, alongside the numerous (and sometimes repetitious) descriptions of trees and cars and the world. The audience wants from you a certain level of description, but it's like snow:

A dusting of snow isn't enough to be pretty.
And six feet of snow is pain in the ass to shovel.
But in that two to three inch range, when they cancel school but it's not a blizzard and everyone can stay in and relax? That's magical.

On the flip side, don't over-trust them to fill in the details. Yes, they're going to in their own way, and you can't really stop them, but if you do let them go for it, don't complain that they're getting it wrong.

If all you create a tall character with brown hair, then you're open to many interpretations of "tall" and "brown". In your head you may have specifics (like six foot and honey brown) but you didn't say that, you left things wide open for the five foot ten oak colored man and the seven foot tall man with hair the color of burnt pancakes)

So what's the trick? Where's the sweet spot? Right here:

You must describe what you need to fill the scene, advance the story or present new information. All else is optional and at your discretion, but abuse of that chases away the reader.

How do you get there? Practice. Practice and feedback. Practice, feedback and experimentation.

I know you can do this.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Post #9 - How Roleplay Makes You Better

My practical experience in writing draws from a solid foundation of more than fifteen years experience being a gamer. I have played, written, edited and developed many RPGs out on the market now, and I use a lot of those skills to explain and illustrate my writing.

Roleplaying is more than the rolling of dice in a basement while a Zeppelin album blares in the background. It is essentially theater, as you take notes and material you've developed and bring a character to life. This is no different than what you're writing in your novels and short stories, only the material comes from different sources, and there's no dice dictating that you have a 16 Strength.

I have outlined here some points on what makes for good roleplay. Roleplay is essentially the expression of a developing character (as no character is truly finite and complete, because they're always gaining experience), so apply these rules to either your 7th-level outlaw or the protagonist of your man-versus-robot-snakes story...or whatever you happen to be working on.

I. Characters live because of conflict -- This is also called "motivation", and it can be summarized on micro and macro levels. The micro level deals with the immediate moments like what the character is doing now, in this second, in response to action X. The macro level deals with the larger overall goals and plans of the character, involving actions X Y and Z and long-term plans.

When you have a character, before you can give to them any sort of powers or nuances, you must find their conflicts. Why are they doing this? ("this" is whatever you have them doing) What do they want out of this?

It does not need to be so obviously stated, and to actually state it openly makes your character weak and transparent. But the audience should be able to follow along and understand the "why" based on the actions.

Example: Larry baits a trap in the forest.

We need say nothing else for the moment as to why Larry is baiting a trap, we can conclude that you bait a trap for the purposes of catching something. Any specification I give the character had better be more immediate in nature, otherwise the character will appear weakly designed. See here:

Bad Example: Larry baits a trap in the forest, because baiting traps is what orphan outlaws do when they've spent ten years on the run.

This is a bad example because the explanation that follows the action is macro in nature. Baiting a trap is just....baiting a trap, it is not a sufficient reason to explain being an outlaw or an orphan or spending a decade running. I have rushed this vital character knowledge, given it away too soon, and as a result the character looks weak.

Good example: Larry baits a trap in the forest, hoping that the seventh try is the charm. The rumbling of his stomach reminds him only of his previous failures.

This is the better example because the scene, the more immediate action is better described. The audience is brought next to Larry without delay, and the specific knowledge they gain about Larry is actually more sympathetic and connective. The audience may not understand the plight of the outlaw, but they'll easily understand being hungry and feeling possible frustration over failing to catch food.

The conflict the writer/actor brings to the character always has to be more immediate (because that's what the audience sees) rather than broader (because you want the audience to take the immediate actions as pieces of the greater whole).

The nature of the conflict does not have to be aggressive, against other characters. Sometimes, people act because of a lack of something, or because of a desire to change current circumstances...but that conflict arises and propels the character through the scene. Finding the conflict can help you ground a character when you get lost in a group of other characters or complex actions. When in doubt, come back to the conflict.

II. Characters have multiple levels -- No character is ever one-dimensional. If a character is coming across as flat, as if they're only focused in one direction, that's the fault of the writer/actor. Even if the written page only makes use of a certain set of adjectives and verbs, the writer/actor may take the inverse or opposite (essentially the unwritten set of facts) to help build the character.

If Larry the outlaw is escaping the sheriff, and he is afraid that he'll be hanged, we can reason that he wants to stay alive, even though the text does not say "Larry wants to stay alive". Because Larry engages in multiple actions, we see Larry in different contexts.

These shifting contexts are what deepen a character. We see Larry rob, flee and hunt and love and fail....all these actions generate responses in Larry that allow the audience to grow closer AND learn more about him.

Larry would die on the page if we only saw him hunt, and everything he did was lensed/displayed through the context of hunting. Yes, Larry may use hunting-language to illustrate his actions, but Larry does more than hunt. He also eats, and sleeps and does a ton of other actions.

The goal of all these actions is not to just fill up pages and take up time, the goal is to make Larry as close to alive as possible. It does not matter whether Larry is an American Indian, a fantasy creature, an accountant lost in the wild or a ghost. The idea of Larry is represented across multiple "channels".

Your character is not defined by one action, no matter how intense the action may be. There remains a total of all actions, combined over the course of actions and reactions that defines Larry. The individual actions Larry does (he may kill the wrong man, for example) only illustrates Larry's potential -- we know that Larry can do these things, but it is the RESPONSES to those actions that help us discover Larry. If he kills the wrong man, is he remorseful? Excited? Unsure?

Remember this: Actions show potential, Reactions show depth and generate feelings (for both character and audience)

III. Characters exist in a universe -- No character lives in a vacuum. There are always consequences, results and changes brought on by their actions. If Larry kills the wrong man, he may feel guilt, but his actions may also produce anger in the family of the murdered man. If Larry robs because the taxes are too high, the baron who levies the taxes may respond. This exchange between the character and the world around it (other characters included) is what solidifies the depth of the character as well as the existence of more or on-going conflicts.

The trick here is knowing the scope of that universe. If Larry kills a man, without a good reason, I should not see an increase in the number of zebras born. Even if Larry possessed godlike powers, there is still a framework that creates boundaries for the character.

The scope of the universe is relative to the position of the character at the time of action and consequence.

If Larry kills a guy, Larry's focus is on that act, and those ramifications. Even in absolute insanity, Larry won't be thinking about shoelaces intentionally as a response to the murder. (Too many times, insanity is developed as strange responses to actions. It isn't. Insanity is the inappropriate response to the action)

This is strange (not insane):
Man #1: "Larry, you just killed a man!"
Larry: "Shoelaces!"

If I have thus far established Larry as being something greater than a mentally damaged savant, then what I've written makes Larry either retarded or I've just cheapened Larry's impact on the audience. It is not credible.

This is insane:
Man #1: "Larry, you just killed a man!"
Larry: "He won't be laughing anymore. No more sunny days."

Note the difference here - Larry's response to the action is not ignorance of the action, he's not denying he did it...he is qualifying his response to the action as being out-of-place. This is unsettling, and therefore compelling for an audience.

But not all characters are insane, so let's return to normalcy.

Larry can impact that which is immediately around him, and can only impact those things as great as his abilities are at the time.

A great example of this is in Star Wars. In A New Hope, Luke is able to fly the X-Wing and launch two torpedoes via the Force. At the time of the story, as far as Luke has developed, this is the extent of his powers. Although in later stories and canon, he many be able to wield an array of powers, at the time he's in the Death Star trench, all he's got is flying.

Harry Potter is another series where this holds true. The knowledge of later books is not available for Harry, so while he slowly educated in magic, he will not come to see it's full scale use until later in the series.

Characters evolve over time, and that evolution is not limited to the acquisition of power or knowledge or material benefit. It is through the passage of experience that grows a character - the powers gained are not proof of experience, the character still has to use them and react to them in order to grow.

IV. The secret to characters is not their intensity or volume, it's how closely the characters act like the audience. Whether you've built a superhero, a vampire, a naughty schoolgirl or a drugged-up musician, your character will lose all sense of balance, credibility and understanding if they aren't in some way or another, like the audience.

The audience isn't full of heroes, vampires, or whatever you build. It's full of people projecting themselves into those characters. This is a sympathetic bond, because as they project themselves onto the characters, you (the writer/actor) bring the audience (the human, the non-hero, the translatable element) out in the character.

So you may have a great wizard, and the audience wants to live in that world of magic and spells, but you don't want them getting lost in the spells and trappings of the world, you want them to FEEL for the character, and we create feelings by sharing common experiences and reactions. This great wizard may be able to conjure gold with a wave of his wand, but perhaps he's lonely, pining for one woman from afar.

This returns us to the talk of conflicts. If we've selected conflicts that the audience can relate to, we are humanizing the character. The audience may have no idea what a Deodanth outlaw on Khaas is like, they may have zero understanding of a pirate sailing in outer space, but they can entirely relate to themes in their own lives: loneliness, anger, passion, etc.

Selecting the conflict is not difficult, although the number of potential conflicts is huge. Don't be discouraged. Pick two or three of the most emotionally-stirring, or the ones that you (writer/actor) feel you understand the best. (I always pick feelings of loneliness, misunderstood genius, rebellion and vengeance for example)

Roleplay isn't about the fancy character in fantasy, it's about having a new way, a new perspective, to illustrate what you think or feel.

Give it a try. Roleplay your way through characters and watch them fly better than if you objectively dispensed information through them.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Post #8 - The Writer's Commitment

When a writer comes to me for help, no matter the simplicity or complexity of the help they need, the first thing I ask them is "What do you ultimately want to see happen?"

I ask them this because I need to know in what direction to travel along with them. If they hand me a draft and say, "Help me get this published." then I know how far we're going to walk together on this project. If they say, "I just need some tips on writing without adverbs, you know, for group." then I know it's a much shorter walk. There are a great number of people (I'd even say the majority of people) who drag their feet and dance around what it is they want to do. They aren't sure if they can get published, they're not sure if they're good enough, they're not sure if they want to be serious about it.

They're scared.

They're scared of the possible commitment that publication would ask of them. They examine their life in a heartbeat, look at their comfort levels and habits and gauge whether or not they want to have new experiences (some unpleasant) that although ultimately pay off would require change in the more immediate future.

Cowards, every single one of them.

I don't know specifically what they're afraid of. Maybe they're afraid the book won't sell, maybe they're afraid that people will ostracize them for writing. Maybe they're afraid that their seventh-grade teacher will track them down and red pen their book to death. Whatever the fear, it's keeping them from taking the writing seriously.

I've said that to a few groups before and people find me afterward to say, "I'm not afraid." and they're quite defiant about it, as though I've challenged them (which is sort of the point, actually). And when I inquire as why they haven't pursued publication then, they give me the answers of a person stuck in fear, "Well, I don't wanna." or "I could if I wanted to." I press them for more explanation, they don't have any to give me, and then they either vanish so that I don't hear from them again or they go tell their friends what kind of jerk of I am for not "understanding their process as artistes".

To make this point clear - If you come to me and say "I want to be published" there is a lot of hard work ahead of you. There are drafts and revisions and edits and submissions to do. You'll be spending a lot of time looking and dissecting something that you may have at one point considered just a hobby. If you want to keep things light, and treat it like a hobby, or (sometimes worse) something you do to pass time and sort out your life (you know, instead of actually sorting out your life), then you have considerably less writing to do, but a lot more living to do. I will treat you accordingly.

It's not that I dislike hobbyist writers, I know many of them, and many of them are quite talented who could be published easily in their respective genres. A lot of them have their reasons for not being published, and they're not afraid, they're just not interested. And that's fine. Good for them for having their heads on straight.

Do I dislike the writer who writes without purpose? Do I dislike the person who puts words together just to pass the time and sidestep their life and then hides behind the mask of "writing" when convenient? Yes. I have no patience for people who won't face their problems and effort to do something about them. If your life sucks because your parents still don't "understand you", or because "you still don't understand yourself" or because you boxed yourself into a dead-end job because you thought so little of yourself...then I have this to say:

Either do everything in your power to get your life (your actual life, not your writing life) together and moving forward or please do not slow the rest of us down. I do not entertain stupid people or stupid questions, and the people who wallow in their problems and who are addicted to their own negativity seem to be both stupid and loaded with stupid questions.

If you want to be published, if you want take the idea(s) out of Microsoft Word and put them onto paper that goes into book that goes onto a shelf so that someone can buy it, then commit to it 100% percent. It starts with a statement (that you can make aloud, and preferably in front of a mirror)

The statement -- I will be published. I will write this story, finish it, and do everything I can to get it published.

If this statement disinterests you, and you can clearly say, "I want to write, but not be published" then that's fine, and I encourage you to write your fingers off. But just know that if you ever want to turn the corner from hobby to profession, there is work involved. If you're scared of doing the work, remember that you'll never have to do it alone. There are resources and people you can turn to. If you're not scared of the workload and still don't want to be published then just go back to writing your stories and doing whatever you do.

I have talked before about decisions you make as an author. The first decision you make (and one of the biggest) is whether or not you're serious about this craft as a profession, that is, as a way to generate income. And I don't mean like passive Google-Ads income, I mean this: you write, they print, you get a check. If that process appeals to you, then please understand the following:

1. If you're going to do it, YOU are the only thing in the universe that can/will stop you.
2. In order to do this, YOU must write as though your life depended on it.
3. It will not be easy or quick but when has anything truly great in your life been either of those things?
4. A lot of habits are going to have to change and will change as a result of this process. The first of which is YOUR mind, as you will have to come to terms with the enormity of the task you're engaged in and the inherent brilliance of your own mind to perform it.
5. You must must must MUST know and believe that you're good enough to do this. People are going to try and stop you, hinder you or even discourage you. Do not let them. This is your life, your art and your work, let nothing stop you.

Take this seriously, it can only help you if you do.