Friday, August 1, 2014

Seth Godin: You must fail to succeed



Lately I’ve been thinking about failure and the fear of failure, so naturally I turned to Seth Godin and read--or reread--some of what he had to say on the subject.

1. Seek out projects you can afford to fail at.


“If you under-reach a little, nail it, succeed, declare victory and repeat, you’re probably better off.”[1]

We don’t have to go for broke, it doesn’t have be all or nothing. Start small and work up.

2. Be brave.


“[...] I’m talking about the guts to take responsibility for your art. [...] the guts to open the door yourself.”[1]

No risk, no reward. Creating art is scary because it makes us vulnerable. 

“Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” 

In order to connect with others, in order to reach our readers’ emotions, we have to fuel our writing with our own deep losses, our own tragedies, our own vulnerabilities. That’s scary.

3. Take the 10,000 hour rule to heart.


“The 10,000 hour rule is legit. If you spend enough time working through really difficult challenges, you’re just going to get better at it.”[1]

The more you publish, the more often you publish, the better you’re going to get at it--provided you learn from your mistakes.

4. Don’t make it personal.


“If you let the lizard brain run amok, if you turn problems into referenda about you, about your goodness as a human being, it’s not going to end well. A key to discernment is to figure out the truth of what you’re looking at and act on it, not let it act on you.”

Yes, sometimes reviews can review the author and not just the author’s work, but writers need to find a way to separate themselves from what they’ve written and not take criticisms about the work as criticisms about themselves as writers or as people. Something which can be difficult to do if you took rule number three to heart and bled all over the page.

5. Failure is the key to success.


“Fail.

“The single best way to overrule your fears is to call their bluff by making the fear come true.

“Do something you know will fail.

“And then fail again.

“Once you fail at what the lizard brain is so petrified of, it will lose its power over you.”[1]

Obviously Seth Godin is talking about non-fatal failures. And he’s not talking about intentionally failing at work or failing as a husband (or wife) or failing as a parent or failing as a human being. He’s talking about taking risks, perhaps relatively small risks. 

If a person wants to climb Mount Everest they don’t start by climbing Mount Everest, they start by climbing a steep hill. They start by taking lessons. They start by trying, and probably failing, to achieve smaller goals. 

I cannot guarantee that as long as you keep trying that, eventually, you will succeed.

I can guarantee that if you let a fear of failure keep you from trying that you will never succeed.

*  *  *

I’ve been working on a longer article about the fear of failure, but I wanted to share Seth Godin’s words with you. I believe what Seth Godin says: once we lose our fear of failure it will lose its power over us. Or, as Frank Herbert put it: fear is the mind-killer.

That quotation is one of my favorites:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Fail. Fail again. Kill the fear. It’s the only way to truly succeed.

Notes/Links/References


1. Seth Godin – Full Stop Failure over at Turnaround Magazine.
Photo credit: "streetmusic" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How To Write A Kick-Ass Blurb

How To Write A Kick-Ass Blurb


I’m going to interrupt my series on the structure of a short story to talk about something we all love to hate: writing a blurb. There are different names for it, but a blurb is the bit of copy that tells potential readers what a book is about. 

Examples of kick-ass blurbs:


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling:


“Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is. That's because he's being raised by his miserable aunt and uncle who are terrified Harry will learn that he's really a wizard, just as his parents were. But everything changes when Harry is summoned to attend an infamous school for wizards, and he begins to discover some clues about his illustrious birthright. From the surprising way he is greeted by a lovable giant, to the unique curriculum and colorful faculty at his unusual school, Harry finds himself drawn deep inside a mystical world he never knew existed and closer to his own noble destiny. (103 words, Unknown)”

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien:


“In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell into the hands of Bilbo Baggins, as told in The Hobbit. In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as his elderly cousin Bilbo entrusts the Ring to his care. Frodo must leave his home and make a perilous journey across Middle-earth to the Cracks of Doom, there to destroy the Ring and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.” (132 words, Unknown)

Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming:


“In the novel that introduced James Bond to the world, Ian Fleming’s agent 007 is dispatched to a French casino in Royale-les-Eaux. His mission? Bankrupt a ruthless Russian agent who’s been on a bad luck streak at the baccarat table.

“One of SMERSH’s most deadly operatives, the man known only as “Le Chiffre,” has been a prime target of the British Secret Service for years. If Bond can wipe out his bankroll, Le Chiffre will likely be “retired” by his paymasters in Moscow. But what if the cards won’t cooperate? After a brutal night at the gaming tables, Bond soon finds himself dodging would-be assassins, fighting off brutal torturers, and going all-in to save the life of his beautiful female counterpart, Vesper Lynd.

“Taut, tense, and effortlessly stylish, Ian Fleming’s inaugural James Bond adventure has all the hallmarks that made the series a touchstone for a generation of readers.” (153 words, Unknown)

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, by Nathan Bransford:


“Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled. But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver one night they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown. That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away.” (140 words, Nathan Bransford)

A blurb is a succinct summary of the book, one that communicates the essence of who the main characters are, what they want and what is preventing them from getting it. In other words, it tells potential readers everything that you’ve written in your 100,000 word book (except the ending!) but in 200 words or less.

Yep. Sure. No problem

Sometimes I think writing the blurb is more difficult than writing the book! 

A Blurbing Strategy


Before I even think about starting to rough out a first draft of my blurb I’ll sit down and answer a few questions about my story (see below). Of course I’ve already answered these questions before I sat down to write the book but, let’s face it, things change. I often start out writing a book with an extensive outline only to have it unravel while I write. But that’s okay. As Lee Goldberg has said, he finalizes his outline only a few days before he finalizes his novel! For me, an outline is something that helps me keep track of where I’ve been, where I am and where I’m going, wherever that may be! 

What your blurb needs to reflect is the finished book. If you write something in your copy that sounds great but doesn’t reflect the book, disappointed readers will come searching for you with hot tar and feathers.

Be warned!

The Questions


As I mentioned, above, before I start writing a blurb I’ll answer the following questions just to get my mind running along the right track. This helps give me the words and phrases that I’ll use in constructing the blurb.

To make things more interesting, I’ll answer these questions about the story of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

1. Who is the main character of the story? 
A: A young orphaned boy by the name of Harry Potter.

2. What is the hero’s initial goal? (The goal he has at the very start of the story. For example, Luke Skywalker’s initial goal in Star Wars: A New Hope was to go to the academy and become a pilot.)
A: Harry wants to be accepted by others, to be surrounded by friends and family.

3. What person or force opposes the hero achieving his initial goal?
A: His mean aunt and uncle and their horrible son, Dudley Dursley.

4. What is his story goal?
A: To stop Voldemort getting his hands on the philosopher’s stone. In preventing this Harry will save Hogwarts and the rest of the world.

5. What person or force opposes the hero achieving his story goal?
A: The main force that opposes Harry is Lord Voldemort--He Who Must Not Be Named--acting through his human agent. 

Forming The Blurb


There are a many different ways of doing this. I’ll go through it two different ways. For my first try I’ll write three paragraphs. In the first paragraph I’ll tell readers about the hero and his goal. In the second paragraph I’ll introduce opposition to that goal and in the third paragraph I’ll make the stakes clear.

Paragraph 1:
Harry Potter saved the world when he was a baby. Of course he didn’t know what he was doing, but it was still a pretty great thing to have done! Unfortunately, Harry had to go live with his mean aunt and uncle who never, ever, told him who he really was: the most powerful wizard in all the world.

Paragraph 2:
One day an owl delivered a message that would radically transform Harry’s life, if only he were allowed to read it! After a giant forces Harry’s relatives to tell him who he is really he’s whisked off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For the first time in his life Harry is surrounded by people just like him; he feels accepted and happy.

Paragraph 3:
Just when it seems Harry’s new life is guaranteed he learns that a plot has been hatched that will destroy both Hogwarts and its beloved schoolmaster. Harry is faced with a choice: leave it to the grownups or risk everything to defend what he loves. 

That was under 200 words. But we can trim that down. How about this:

Harry Potter, the most powerful wizard alive, lives with his decidedly non-magical and very mean aunt and uncle. Life would be much easier--or at least more interesting--if Harry knew he was magical, but he doesn’t.

All that changes when a giant arrives to take Harry Potter off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry loves it at Hogwarts where he is surrounded by children just like him. 

When-He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named endangers the school, Harry risks everything to save Hogwarts and the rest of the world from destruction.

That was 95 words. This last blurb was a bit different. In the first part the reader is introduced to the hero, in the second part the reader is introduced to the special world of the adventure (rather than the complication) and in the third part we introduce the complication (the threat) as well as the stakes.

That’s it! 

Do you have tips for writing a blurb? What works for you? Or perhaps you have a blurb you wouldn’t mind sharing. If so, leave it in the comments with a link to where folks can buy your book.

Other articles you might be interested in:



Photo credit: "Bedruthian Steps -9-" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Structure of a Short Story: The Setup

The Structure of a Short Story: The Setup


Last time I broke the structure of short stories into five discrete parts: 

1. The Setup
2. First Complication
3. New Plan
4. Major Setback
5. The Climax

Today, let’s discuss the first part: setting up the story. Here we need to introduce the story world, the characters and the story question, and we need to do it in a way that is so entertaining readers won’t be able to put it down.

1. The Setup


Traditionally, the setting and everything it includes is developed in the first quarter of a story. That means if we want to write a 4,000 word story that we must complete the task of introducing the setting in 1,000 words or less. That doesn’t seem like much! It’s even worse for flash fiction. A 1,000 word story would have only 250 words for introducing and developing the setting.

Whenever I write a short story I’m always tempted to give more than 25% to the setting. After all, it is, arguably, the most important part of the story. The first few paragraphs will hook a reader--or convince them to put the book down. Which means things must happen. Preferably exciting, remarkable, things. But a reader won’t care about your protagonist before they get to know him. If they don’t care about him then they won’t care about any of those exciting, remarkable, happenings. So one must first take time to set the story and properly introduce the characters. It’s a catch 22!

I think there are two general paths one can take here: the descriptive opening or the action opening.

Descriptive Opening


Paint-me-a-picture. Some writers start off with description. They strut their poetic prose and trust that their readers will hold on long enough, read on long enough, to be slowly drawn in and carried away by the story.

Action Opening


Describe-as-you-go. Other authors start out with action (not necessarily physical action) and insert dribs and drabs of description along the way. 

Which kind of opening you choose will depend both on what kind of opening you want to write, what kind of opening is best for your particular story and what genre your story fits into. There is no one right answer and neither opening (descriptive or active) is, of itself, better than the other. It is a matter of taste and the expectations of your readers.

I’ve noticed that descriptive openings are more common in certain genre--fantasy for instance. Action, mystery, adventure and thriller books tend to jump right into the action and insert just enough description along the way so that the reader isn’t confused. (No one likes a white room!)

Examples: Descriptive vs Active


I went to my reading library and, more or less at random, took out two short stories, one by Terry Brooks and the other by Agatha Christie. The first is a terrific example of a descriptive opening and the latter of an active one.

Terry Brooks, “Allanon’s Quest” (approx. 11,000 words)


“The storm clouds scudded across the night sky in roiling clumps that blotted out the half-moon and stars and enveloped the land beneath in heavy shadow. The woods surrounding the village of Archer Trace, fifty miles north and east of the city of Arborlon, stirred uneasily. The trees swayed, and their leaves shivered with a metallic rustling as wind tore at the branches in sharp gusts and rain pattered heavily against the leaves. A drop in the temperature had already announced the storm’s arrival, the air damp, chilly, and raw. Intricate patterns of lightning flashed, and bursts of thunder rumbled from across the eastern edge of the Sarandanon.”

Notice that there is nothing about the protagonist in the first paragraph; this is strictly world development. Here we see an author taking a great deal of trouble to set up the world and establish a mood.

Agatha Christie, “The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife” from “Parker Pyne Investigates”. (Approx. 4,000 words)


“Four grunts, an indignant voice asking why nobody could leave a hat alone, a slammed door, and Mr. Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city. Mrs. Packington sat on at the breakfast table. Her face was flushed, her lips were pursed, and the only reason she was not crying was that at the last minute anger had taken the place of grief. ‘I won’t stand it,” said Mrs. Packington. “I won’t stand it!’ She remained for some moments brooding, and then murmured: ‘The minx. Nasty sly little cat! How George can be such a fool!’”

Compared to our first paragraph this one moves with the pace of an explosion. At first I was tempted to think that Agatha Christie gave the reader less information than Terry Brooks, but after studying the openings I came to see that it was just information of a different sort.

Let’s list and compare the information these paragraphs give the reader.

Setting: What time of day is it?
TB: Night.  This is explicitly stated: “The storm clouds scudded across the night sky [...]”
AC: Morning. Stated. “[...] Mr. Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city. Mrs. Packington sat on at the breakfast table.”

Setting: What’s the weather like?
TB: There’s a storm bearing down on the land. So there are high winds, swaying trees, a drop in temperature, the air is damp and there’s thunder.
AC: No idea.

Setting: Where are we?
TB: The woods surrounding the village of Archer Trace, fifty miles north and east of the city of Arborlon.
AC: In a kitchen at a table laden with the remains of breakfast.

Character: How many characters?
TB: No human characters are introduced, though the world, the environment, the weather, may have equal importance to any of the characters.
AC: Two, but a third and fourth are implied:
- Mrs. Packington: the client. 
- Mr. George Packington: Mrs. Packington’s motivation.
- The minx: the complication. 
- Mr. Parker Pyne: The protagonist.

Character: What is the protagonist’s goal?
TB: No idea.
AC: One suspects it has to do with revealing the “sly little cat” to Mr. George Packington for what she is. 

And so on. I am amazed that such a great deal of information was given in just the first paragraph. Both Terry Brooks and Agatha Christie set up their respective stories brilliantly. One day I would like to step through a (very!) short story and systematically dissect how the author answered each of these questions.

All right, so. After we’ve gone through and written our story out, what questions should we have answered in the setup?

Questions for developing a setting:


What time of day is it?

Morning, afternoon, night?

Where are we?

Indoors or outdoors?

If we are outdoors, or near a window, what is the weather like?

What town, city, village, etc, are we in? Also, are we in a house, an apartment, a houseboat, a motorboat; are we in a forest or afloat on an ocean?

How many characters?

You’ll likely have a protagonist and antagonist. Also, it often helps to give the protagonist a helper or a mentor, someone he can talk to as well as someone who can help her out if she needs it. Speaking rather callously, giving the protagonist a helper (or mentor) also gives the writer someone to kill off in a highly an emotional way about 3/4 of the way through the story at the major setback. For example, Obi Wan Kenobi sacrificed himself near the end of the second act in Star Wars: A New Hope.

What is the protagonist’s goal?


The protagonist generally doesn’t get their story goal until about the 25% mark. Even so, they generally have an initial goal, something to get the story going.

What motivates the protagonist?


Whenever I think about a character's motivation and what distinguishes their motivation from their goal I think of a cartoon I once saw: a man in a rowboat, pursued by a shark, paddles for shore. Despite the man’s best efforts the shark gains on the rowboat. The man sees this and paddles harder, faster; he paddles until his lungs burn. Will he be able to reach land before the shark upends the rowboat and eats him?

In that scenario the shark is the man’s motivation to row for shore and the shore is the goal.

How does the protagonist intend to achieve his goal?


How the protagonist intends to achieve his goal probably won’t be remotely close to how he actually achieves his goal (if he does). Still, the protagonist should have something of a plan even if it’s along the lines of: We go there, raise hell, grab the thing and come home.

What are the protagonist’s stakes?


What will happen if the protagonist doesn’t achieve her goal? What will happen if she does?

Are the protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals mutually exclusive?


The answer to this question should be: Yes! This is why the antagonist and protagonist are at each other’s throats: if one gets what they want the other cannot. It is the immediate source of their conflict and, as such, forms the engine that drives the story forward.

Now, for each of the above questions that mentioned the protagonist, substitute “antagonist” for “protagonist.” Remember, the antagonist is the hero of his own story. 

At the end of the setup, does the protagonist take her first step toward achieving her goal? That is, does she begin to set her plan in motion?


This question is often answered at the end of the first act when the protagonist commits to her quest. She becomes “locked in” to a certain course of action and cannot go back to the way things were. Further, she does this of her own free will knowing what the stakes are.

That’s it! Next time we’ll look at the next stage, the next bone in the skeleton, of our short story The First Complication.

Photo credit: "Maria" by Daniel Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Structure of a Short Story

The Structure of a Short Story


Let’s talk about story structure. 

When I read a story or watch a film I always try to identify where I am in the story’s structure. It’s a compulsion. True story: I’ll be sitting on the couch with my friends watching a movie and suddenly exclaim: “That’s the lock in!” or “That was the major setback!”

Yes, they hate me.

Here’s how I think of it: regardless of length, structure is what organizes a story, what gives it lungs to breathe and feet to run. 

Just like human skeletons, no two story structures are exactly the same although there are going to be certain broad similarities. Most living humans have a head, upper body, two arms, two legs, two feet, five fingers and ten toes. Similarly, most stories have a beginning, middle and end, they have a protagonist and antagonist, and they have quirky, interesting, characters who have goals they are passionate about achieving.

Further, just like wee little tiny babies have the same basic bits as the tallest basketball player or the biggest weight lifter, so short stories have the same basic bits in the same places as longer stories.

At least that’s what I think. 

Here’s what I’m going to do. Over the next five posts, I’m going to talk about what I see as the five main parts of a short story’s structure:

The Parts of a Short Story


1. The introduction


This is where characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the one is hooked into the other. The protagonist has committed herself to achieving a particular, concrete, goal. Further, she has devised a plan, a way of overcoming the antagonist’s opposition to her achieving that goal.

2. First complication. 


The hero discovers that her plan isn’t going to work. Significant adjustments are needed. She is put into an unfamiliar environment, one to which she is particularly ill suited. She also meets new friends as well as new enemies. The stakes are raised.

3. New Plan


The hero has come up with a new plan for how she is going to overcome the opposition to her goal. She (and possibly her ally) now puts this plan into action. It does not go well. (Or, possibly, even though her attempt to achieve her goal is horribly bungled she succeeds! One might see this in a comedy; for example, one having to do with procuring a love potion.)

Even though the plan doesn’t go as expected, even though there is some bickering between the hero and his ally, they lick their wounds and regroup.

4. Major Setback


The protagonist goes about taking another run at the problem. She begins to devise another plan but then her world is turned upside down. Either something she was counting on having is taken from her (perhaps her magical powers are taken away or her mentor is killed) or something is added: an insurmountable difficulty. 

Either way, this is the start of an avalanche of bad that falls squarely on the protagonist. 

At this point, the protagonist will have an epiphany and realize how to defeat the antagonist and achieve her goal.

5. The Climax


The hero prepares to put her plan into action and then confronts the antagonist. Often there is an element of deception involved. It seems as though the protagonist hasn’t learnt her lesson, it seems as though she has misjudged. But then we find out that was all part of her crafty plan. 

Wrap the story up by cashing out the stakes. How did winning (or losing) affect the protagonist and her allies? When she goes back to the ordinary world how are things gong to be different for her?

Differences between a short story’s structure and a novel-length story’s structure: 


Keep in mind that the structure I’ve just outlined is for a short story. There are differences between this and the structure for a novel, particularly in the middle. In a 2,000 word short story a writer can’t give the protagonist more than one or two failed tries at achieving their main goal. In an novel, though, the protagonist will likely have sub-goals, each of which will have it’s own try-fail cycle.

Also, stories of over 50,000 words often have a B-story (and possibly C- and D-stories as well). A 2,000 word short story generally doesn’t. 

Well, that’s it! Monday, I’ll talk about the structure of the first part of a short story.

Photo credit: "Manoa" by Daniel Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Spice Up A Boring Scene With Conflict



Have you ever written a boring scene? Of course! We all have. It’s called a first draft. Today, though, I’m talking about scenes that have snappy dialogue and vivid descriptions and yet are better than warm milk at putting readers to sleep.

When presented with a scene like this a writer has two choices: cut it and send it to the great recycle bin in the sky or make it work. One way to make a lifeless scene work is to add conflict.

On Monday, I began looking at how conflict can add interest to what would otherwise be a boring scene by examining a scene from Michael Bay’s movie, "The Rock." Today I’m going to talk about Chris Winkle’s article: “Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story."

1. Put the good guys and gals in a jar and shake!


Give the protagonist’s allies deep and abiding differences. Give them differences that can make it impossible for them to work together, even though they're both--theoretically--on the same side.

The classic example here--it even has a trope named after it--is Leonard McCoy and Spock. These characters embodied two opposing states or qualities: Reason/logic versus emotion.

For example, this is a familiar scenario from Star Trek: A member of the away team has beamed down to a hostile world. He is in trouble. If the Captain doesn't intervene, he'll die. The problem: If the Captain uses advanced technology to rescue the team member, then he will violate the Prime Directive. (Like that hasn't happened about a zillion times!)
Spock: You can do nothing, Captain. To interfere would violate the Prime Directive. Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. The crewman must be sacrificed.

Bones: Spock, you pointy-eared hobgoblin, do you have ice water for blood?! He is our crewman; we can't just leave him out there to rot. It's not civilized, it's not human.

Spock: Doctor, I fail to see what his species has to do with it.

Kirk: Gentlemen!
Or the difference could be more light-hearted, Bones looking forward to the diversions of a pleasure-planet versus Spock's complete disinterest.

2. Ramp up the protagonist’s inner conflict.


Protagonists are just like your average human--even when they’re from another galaxy. They want things that are mutually exclusive. For example, they want their parents to be proud of them but they also want to live their own lives as they see fit. Sometimes these two goals coincide--often they don’t.

Spock’s father wanted him to attend the Vulcan Science Academy but Spock chose, instead, to join Star Fleet. His father was not pleased. It made those rare times when he stayed on the Enterprise especially interesting.

3. Have a strong rivalry between the protagonist and the scene antagonist.


Winkle writes that what is important in an enemy is that “their goals and methods directly conflict with your hero’s.”

For instance, if a scene is dragging but you don’t want to cut it then think about introducing an enemy, one whose goals and methods are opposite to those of the protagonist.

Winkle suggests that to amp up the interest you could make the scene antagonist someone who the protagonist hurt in the past or vice versa.

4. Cripple your protagonist temporarily.


Take a proverbial crow bar to your protagonist’s kneecaps right when he needs them the most. (This is what happens at the Major Setback.)

For example, perhaps the hero has something, perhaps a magical gem, magical powers or perhaps a person (for instance, his mentor) he counts on to help him achieve his goal. Take this away, take away his support system, and take it away at the worst possible moment. (for example, when Obi Wan Kenobi dies in “Star Wars: A New Hope.”)

Or you could disgrace your protagonist socially. Perhaps your protagonist is the CEO of a company that needs the goodwill of its investors to bring her plans to fruition. If she is disgraced, this backing will disappear. Alternatively, perhaps the protagonist is about to sign a lucrative, life changing, contract with a large company when pictures of her posing beside dead exotic animals surface.

5. Bring on the destructor!


Winkle’s subtitle for this point is “Unleash Disaster,” which is a much better subtitle, but I re-watched “Ghostbusters” last week and couldn’t resist.

If you’ve ever played “SimCity,” you know the unholy glee of unleashing a disaster on your unsuspecting Sims. It can be entertaining to sit back and revel in the destruction, comfortable in the knowledge you’ve saved the game.

The same thing goes for your story. Winkle writes:

“There are all sorts of natural disasters waiting to challenge your hero and endanger innocent bystanders. Disasters work well for characters that are traveling. They’re also a great option if you need a conflict that only shows up once, then disappears.”

Well said! And it can be a good way of killing off unnecessary characters.

Natural disasters can transform a setting in short order, mixing things up, introducing multiple sources of conflict: food and water shortages, different and more severe weather patterns and of course all sorts of wild and hungry beasties wandering around.

Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story,” by Chris Winkle is a terrific article, one I highly recommend.

That’s it! If one of your scenes drags, how do you fix it?

Photo credit: "max" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Bayhem And The Importance of Conflict

Bayhem And The Importance of Conflict




Today I want to take a look at Michael Bay's movie The Rock and examine how Bay uses conflict to keep our eyes on the screen.

The Importance of Conflict


At the time The Rock (1996) was released several critics were less than kind. Though generally positive in his comments, Roger Ebert pointed out that the movie borrowed from: The Fugitive, Bullitt, Escape From Alcatraz, The Third Man, Alien, Die Hard and Pulp Fiction.

Nevertheless, Ebert concluded his review of the movie by saying:

"No matter. Director Michael Bay ("Bad Boys") orchestrates the elements into an efficient and exciting movie, with some big laughs, sensational special effects sequences, and sustained suspense. And it's interesting to see how good actors like Connery, Cage and Harris can find a way to occupy the center of this whirlwind with characters who somehow manage to be quirky and convincing. There are several Identikit Hollywood action stars who can occupy the center of chaos like this, but not many can make it look like they think they're really there. Watching "The Rock," you really care about what happens. You feel silly later for having been sucked in, but that's part of the ride."

Roger Ebert, to my surprise, gave The Rock 3.5 out of a possible 4 stars.

I agree. I watched this movie to be entertained. Well, that, and to try and understand why Michael Bay's films work. (And, despite what his numerous critics say, they do work, especially at the Box Office.)

Here's why I think Michael Bay's movies work: Conflict. Namely, the expert management of sustained conflict. 

(That, and keeping the viewer slightly off-balance, not giving them a chance to look away. This, though, is more about cinematography. By the way, one of my marvelous Google+ contacts, +Chris Pitchford, shared this link to what I thought was a valuable, thoughtful, analysis of what makes Michael Bay's movies work: Michael Bay: What is Bayhem?)

In any case, as I watched The Rock I thought about Winkle's article, Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story, and thought about how these tips/tricks could be seen in Michael Bay's work.

For example, Winkle writes: "Conflict is what makes a story interesting."

And I think that the success of The Rock supports that point.

For example (spoiler warning) the last scene of the movie has Stanley Goodspeed (played by Nickolas Cage) running from a chapel towards a beaten up old car. The car has a "just married" sign taped to the back and tin cans have been attached to the bumper via string. Stanley's bride--still wearing her white wedding dress--is behind the steering wheel watching for her husband. Stanley bursts out of the chapel pursued by a cleric who passionately accuses him of filching something. Cage hops in the car and his bride floors it. The car shoots forward, trailing streamers and a host of tin cans. As the car pulls away Stanley examines the package he absconded with: a roll of microfilm. The tiny package holds the governments most guarded secrets: Who shot JFK? Do aliens exist? And so on.

The scene is very short. The needed information is communicated--Stanley found the microfilm--but what could have been a fairly dull scene was turned into a spectacle, something that didn't give the audience the opportunity to look away--not that we wanted to.

And how did Michael Bay accomplish this? Through conflict. Through spectacle. The conflict: the cleric pursuing Stanley. The spectacle: a cleric chasing a groom out of the chapel he was just married him. Their getaway car trails paper streamers and tin cans. That has to be the worst getaway car in the history of movies! But that's just it, the whole thing is over the top. 

Cage finding the microfilm could have been dull. It's not like at the end of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark where we see the warehouse that seems to stretch to infinity, providing another (similar) hint of mystery. It is as though the movie says: here are the secrets worth knowing. And then they are placed beyond our reach.

In my post on Wednesday I'll talk about Chris Winkle's article, Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story, and explore how inserting conflict into an otherwise lackluster scene can help make it pop.

Links:
Photo credit: "Kidzilla Babysitting" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Talking About Conflict: Harmony vs Discipline

Talking About Conflict: Harmony vs Discipline



I’m always looking for new ways to include conflict in a story.

As you know, a basic theme of any story is the conflict that exists between characters--as well as between characters and the setting/environment itself. One effective way of generating this conflict is to set up two sides with opposing beliefs. Today I’d like to talk about two such opposing beliefs: Harmony and Discipline.

Discipline


According to the excellent article, Harmony versus Discipline over at tvtropes.org,[1] those who believe in Discipline hold that:

People should seek to gain “a measure of control over themselves and in so doing the world around them.”

Discipline is “the belief that mankind can and should master themselves and their environment for the betterment of all. Be it through mastery of the self through rigorous mental and/or physical training, study, exploration or with laws and civilization, this rigorous pursuit usually advocates science, progress, capitalism, Magic in its intellectual aspect, religion in its intellectual and organized aspects, innovation, urbanization and curiosity. Discipline believes that Harmony is too focused on preserving and accepting, and is in fact defeatist by not trying to improve things, this is why Discipline tends to be active.”

But everything has its drawbacks. People who believe in Discipline can be prone to the following errors:

- Interfere where they shouldn’t

People who live their lives according to Discipline often don’t know when to leave well enough alone.

Develop a God complex

Sometimes a person can feel they know so much about the world around them and how to control it that they are, in effect, god—or at least a god. This is never a good thing.

- Sacrifice today for tomorrow

All we ever have is the now, today. Occasionally the followers of Discipline ask others to sacrifice their todays for tomorrows that may never come.

Harmony


Those who believe in Harmony hold that:

People “should accept themselves and the world as it is, seeking not to control either but to coexist harmoniously with the forces in their environment.”

Those who believe in Harmony hold that “untamed nature, be it physical, natural or mental, is preferable and that mankind should not try to dominate or change the environment in which it finds itself. It [Harmony] believes that doing so is Prideful and unnatural, leading only to heartache and calamity. It believes that it is nature (be it Mother Nature, plain old nature, Sentient Cosmic Force, The Lifestream, magic, or even human impulses) that binds us all together into a greater whole that knows how best we should all coexist. Because of this outlook, Harmony tends to be reactive, correcting problems rather than seeking to prevent them.”

Like Discipline, Harmony has a dark side:

- A door to chaos

“Harmony tends to have a wild, uncontrollable and potentially destructive side. It's (usually) completely without malice, but that's cold comfort when a tornado or magically augmented mastodon tears through your house.”

Harmony vs Discipline: Increase Conflict & ‘Hook Into’ Setting


These beliefs relate to how a person should live their life—that is, what the best possible life would be like—and how the world should be. 

Interpersonal conflict as well as societal conflict

The dichotomy between Harmony and Discipline presents a way to amp up conflict in your story; furthermore, this is a dichotomy that science fiction and fantasy writers have been using for decades. For example, think of pretty much any episode from Star Trek, the original series (This Side of Paradise, The Apple, What Are Little Girls Made of? and so on).

Conflict between characters (as well as societies) and the world in which they live.

We all know that to tell an immersive story one’s characters must be ‘hooked into’ their environment—in other words, into the setting—and working with the themes of Harmony and Discipline is a great way to do that, one that many science fiction writers have used for years.

Example: Jedi vs Sith


Do you let The Force “flow through you and enact its will upon the galaxy? Or chafe at the ‘chains’ so imposed and bend it to your will?”

Question: Have you used the Harmony vs Discipline dichotomy in your own writing?

Notes:


1. All quotations in this article are from Harmony Versus Discipline over at tvtropes.org.

Photo credit: "At The Water Hole" by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, July 14, 2014

4 Ways To Write Every Day

4 Ways To Write Every Day


I need to write every single day.

Everyone's different, I know that. What works for others doesn't always work for me and what works for me won't always work for others.

Writing Daily


When I work on a zero draft, or first draft, I work on it daily. But I'm not always working on a draft. Sometimes I'm editing, sometimes I'm on vacation (a real vacation that includes neon coloured drinks with absurd miniature paper umbrellas), and sometimes the minutia of life rises up like a tsunami and sidetracks me.  

Even when I don't have a WIP I'm trying to coax from the ether I still write daily. I blog, I do a writing exercise or I work on flash fiction.

The bottom line is that I've found if I don't write every day then it gets more difficult to write when I need to sit down and spend a few hours doing that creative thing writers do where we capture a story and put it into words.

Ways To Write Every Day


After years of writing, I've noticed certain things about myself, my writing routine, and I thought I'd pass them on in case you're one of those people who's a bit like me.

Here are some suggestions for ways to write every day:

1. Write and publish a blog post, even a short one. It can be extremely satisfying to write something, finish it, proof it, and publish it all on the same day, especially if you're used to writing 60,000+ word novels. If you don't have a blogging platform, here are a couple of articles that can step you through choosing one:

- Choosing a Blogging Platform over at BloggingBasics101.com.
- How Do I Start a Blog? over at BloggingBasics101.com.

(BTW, I don't have any sort of affiliate relationship with BloggingBasics101, I just think those two articles have a lot of useful information.)

2. Complete a writing exercise. I wasn't fond of writing exercises until recently but now I'm enjoying them. There's something about completing a short (under 300 words) story--giving it a beginning, a middle and an end and then publishing it as a comment so that others can read it and, if they like, give feedback. It generally only takes me a few minutes. I find it can be a nice warmup exercise for my writing day.

- Writers Write (Google+) has a terrific writing prompt they share every day.

- I share the Writers Write writing prompt on my Google+ feed and, occasionally, create my own.

- M.J. Bush often shares picture prompts.

3. Create short pieces of flash fiction and publish them. When I'm not busy writing an early draft of my WIP I try and finish one flash fiction story a week. I'll publish these either on my website or on Google+ (often under a pen name!). I find that doing these pieces as part of a writing challenge really helps me finish them. There's something about a group of people writing at the same time, committed to the same goal, to help keep me on track.

- #SaturdayScenes (Google+). +John Ward started the Saturday Scenes community a few weeks ago. It's a place where folks can share a piece of short fiction (generally under 1,000 words) and read the fiction of others. I've been having a lot of fun getting to know fellow writers and reading their work. I encourage you to check out the community.

We all have scenes we loved but had to cut, or trunk stories that have been gathering dust, #SaturdayScenes is a fun way of getting them in front of readers.

- Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenges. Every Friday Chuck Wendig puts together a flash fiction challenge that, in some way, relies on random chance. Here are the challenges from the last few weeks: @YouAreCarrying, Bad Parents, Doing The Subgenre Twist, Once Again.

4. Keep a journal. I used to think that my non-fiction writing shouldn't count as daily writing, but that's crazy! As I've mentioned, above, you can blog but you can also keep a private journal. Talk about what you've done that day, or how the weather makes you feel or how Aunt Joan would make a really good murderer. (I'm kidding Aunt Joan, love ya!)

Something I've been meaning to try for years is keeping a fake diary. I'd imagine I'd discovered one of my neighbours is an alien (yes, I've watched The 'Burbs a few times; perhaps a few times too many!). It could be a fun way to get some writing done and perhaps spark an idea or three. (I think I would write, "This is writing practise," above each entry so no one takes me seriously!)

5. Wattpad. I'm playing with the idea of writing a series of flash fiction stories that flow into each other, each forming an episode in a larger story. Perhaps they could be linked by the characters, or the situation or ... well, anything! It would be interesting to serialize something like this through Wattpad

That's it! 

Question: What do you do to write every day?

Photo credit: "Alien Life Of The Party" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

DIY: Turn Your Manuscript Into A Physical Book

DIY: Turn Your Manuscript Into A Physical Book
handmade books 36-38 by darkest-red, on DeviantART.

Today, rather than talk about how to write a book, I want to talk about how to bind one--how to, literally, create your own book.

Bookbinding & Writers' Journals


Dabblers in bookbinding--people like me--often make blank journals. These journals are creative, distinctive, and make a thoughtful gift, especially for friends who are writers. (Also, they are much cheaper than anything you can buy; my journals usually cost less than $3 each to make.)

But we can take this one step further. Instead of giving a blank journal, why not print one of your short stories, bind it, and give it as a gift. How cool would that be?! Giving someone a bound copy of your story: a print run of one! Now that's unique. (This is assuming, of course, that you hold the rights to the work.)

In the first part of this post I go over how to bind a simple blank book. Then we'll talk about how to print out your story for binding.

How to make a book: the basics


Rather than go through this myself I'm going to point you to excellent articles, and a video, that document the process.

a. VIDEO: Coptic Stitch Sketchbook


I've watched many videos on now to make a simple book and this is, hands down, the best:



b. Articles


If videos aren't your thing, here are a few articles that will give you the basics:

Chain or Coptic Stitch Bookbinding Tutorial
Create a Stunning Combination Coptic Long-stitch Archival Book

Printing your story for binding


So, now that we know how to bind a simple book, let's look at how to print the pages of your story so they can be easily assembled into signatures.

In just a moment I'll give you links to two articles which give excellent instruction about how to do just that, but the idea is very simple.

1. Decide how many pages/folios you'd like each signature to contain.

Now that we know how to bind a simple book, let's look at how to print the pages of your story so they can be easily assembled into signatures.

In just a moment I'll give you links to two articles which give instructions about how to do just that, but the idea is very simple.

1. Decide how many pages/folios you'd like each signature to contain. 


For my blank journals, each signature is comprised of 10 folios and each book I put together has 10 signatures. For a printed book, though, the number of folios each signature contains will depend on the length of your book, as well as the size/dimensions of the book.

For example, a book the height and width of a mass-market paperback will, all things being equal, require either more folios per signature or more signatures (or both) than a book the size of a hardcover.

2. Decide how many words you want per page.


The number of words which will fit on a page depends on the font you choose as well as the font-size. You will then need to figure out how to print your story so that when the signatures are assembled into a book the pages are in the correct order.

There are programs--InDesign for example--which will do this. You simply need to tell it how many folios you would like per signature and it will collate the pages accordingly. If you're a DIY type of person (like me!) here are a couple of articles that step you through the process.

How-To Create Booklets Using Microsoft Word 2010 by Austin Ruthruff over at groovypost.com.

How to Make, Print, and Bind Your Own Books, by Thorin Klosowski over at Lifehacker.com.

That's it!

If you've made your own book, post a picture on your webspace and leave a link in the comments. I'd love to see it. :-)

Photo credit: "handmade books 36-38" by darkest-red, on DeviantART.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Five Reasons To Write Flash Fiction

Five Reasons To Write Flash Fiction


Today I want to talk about flash fiction and why I think writers, especially beginning writers, should think about writing more of it. But first ...

Flash fiction: What the heck is it?


A work of flash fiction is "a work of extreme brevity." (Flash Fiction, Wikipedia). Although there is no generally accepted definition for what that means in terms of word count, "flash fiction" is often used to indicate a work that is less than 1,000 words in length.[1] 

One of the shortest stories I've ever read--and (arguably) one of the shortest stories it is possible to write, since it contains only six words--is Ernest Hemingway's:

"For Sale, Baby Shoes: Never Worn."
-- Ernest Hemingway

But it can seem odd to call both a 1,000 word story and a 6 word story by the same name. After all, one is a full-blown story while the other could be a tweet. Because of this some folks have begun to call extremely short works of fiction--works of, say, 300 words or fewer--micro-fiction.

Whatever name you would like to use, the kind of stories I'm talking about in this article are, as the dictionary definition has it, works of extreme brevity. To me that means works of less than (give or take) 1,000 words.

The Top Five Reasons To Write Flash Fiction


1. Flash fiction is quick--both to write and to read. 


The more you practise writing--and reading!--the better you'll become. Flash fiction is a quick read, by reading flash fiction you can accelerate the learning curve.

I'm not talking about passively reading, sitting back and reading for pleasure--though there's certainly nothing wrong with that! In fact, I think it's a must. But writers need to actively read complete stories.

Also, writers need to read to discover (a) what the author was trying to achieve (reader identification, building suspense, etc.) and (b) how they did it. 

Or didn't. I think it's just as valuable to recognize an author was attempting to create a certain effect and that it didn't happen. We've all had this experience, we're reading along, happy as a clam, and then the text falls flat and we're thrown out of the story. 

If we're a writer we don't just get angry and throw the book against the wall (though we may be tempted), instead we ask ourselves: What effect was the writer going for and why didn't he/she pull it off? Even more importantly, we ask: How could I re-write this snippet so that the effect does happen?

2. The more stories you finish writing, the better you'll become.


It's not enough to write a lot and read a lot. As Neil Gaiman says, it's just as important to finish what one starts. After all, I could write, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," every single day for the rest of my life and I can guarantee you it wouldn't improve me as a writer!

It is much easier to finish a 900 word piece of flash fiction--I can do that in about two hours--than it is to finish an 80,000 word novel.

3. Writing--and reading--flash fiction gives you confidence.


Reading the flash fiction of peer writers--people who have reached the same stage of this crazy journey you have--can help you because it can help you see your work in a new way.

Let me explain. When you read the work of peer authors you're bound to come across beautifully written stories. Yes, sure, this can be demoralizing if you think your stories have all the appeal of a white room, but you'll also see that these same authors don't always get it right. They'll stumble and when they do you'll see it. That is, you'll see where their prose went flat or their story turned left when it should have gone right and then something amazing and wonderful will happen to you: you'll be able to see these things in your own work

Or, maybe not. Maybe you're different from me. For myself, when I read a story I've written it's impossible to get past the story in my head. When I read a line I know what the line is supposed to say because I've got the story dancing around my brain. Unfortunately often the line doesn't say what I want it to and I can't see that because I'm too close to the story, I'm too connected

When I read another persons work and I see the flaw in their work often something will click, a mental connection will be made, and I'll suddenly realize that's what I've done too. But, often, I'll need to see this mistake in another person's work, first, before I'll see it in my own.

4. Writing flash fiction can give you an audience.


When we start out we write stories that we look back on in later years and quietly, reverently--even tearfully--inter in trunks and (if you're me) in shoeboxes under the bed. But those stories were important, they needed to be written. If they hadn't been written we'd never have gotten better. We'd never have improved.

It helps (especially when one first starts out) to share our writing--even if it is far from perfect--with others. 

Why? Because ...

First, every writer needs encouragement, especially in the beginning. 

Second, beginning writers need encouragement that doesn't come from their mother! Mother's have to love everything you've written, it comes with the job description.

5. Writing flash fiction makes it easier to make connections with other writers.


Readers love flash fiction. Yes, sure, there are probably exceptions, people who want to focus exclusively on longform fiction, but in general readers would prefer to critique a 1,000 word piece of fiction rather than a 100,000 word piece because ... well, because the most important thing a writer can do--and the thing they must do--is write. Time is precious and while it is important to critique the work of others the single most important thing a writer can do is write.

Joining A Writing Community


A terrific way to motivate yourself to write is by joining a community that helps motivate its members to not only write regularly, but to publicly share what they've written. 

Saturday Scenes on Google+ (#SaturdayScenes)


I'm a member of one such community: SaturdayScenes. Saturday Scenes was created by +John Ward with the intention of giving writers a friendly nudge to write more, to publish what they've written, and to read and comment on the work of others. 

Each saturday participating writers publish a scene (generally each scene is no more than 500 or 1,000 words) on their Google+ profile and then share a link to that post with the community. 

Saturday Scenes is only a few weeks old, but already a vibrant community has formed, one held together by the shared experience of publishing work and having it read, and commented upon, by others. 

For the last few Saturdays I've been sharing scenes from one of my "under the bed" stories, one that I've gone back to and fixed up. It's also a good way to share scenes that you love but which you've had to cut from a novel. 

Critters.org


Another terrific organization I've belonged to for a number of years is Critters, run by Andrew Burt (Aburt). If you join you'll need to commit to doing a critique a week, but in return you are pretty much guaranteed to get several thoughtful critiques of your own work.

Interested? Read more here: What is Critters?

Note: Critters.org focuses on short stories over 2,000 words long. You can submit flash fiction pieces but they aren't worth as much reading credit.

That's it! Have you written any flash fiction? If so, tell us about it. Did you enjoy writing it? What about reading the flash fiction of others?

Notes


1. I say this based solely on my experiences, how I've seen the word used. In putting up these descriptions I don't mean to imply that this is what the words mean, full stop, but only to make it clear how I am using these words.

Photo credit: "the tide comes in - wet feet" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Mark Coker's Tips On How To Sell More Books

Mark Coker's Tips On How To Sell More Books



Let's talk about book marketing. 

I prefer to concentrate on writing so I tend to shy away from marketing. That said, writers need to make a living wage if they are to keep writing, so marketing--learning how best to present our work to readers--is important.

Each year Smashwords founder, Mark Coker, shares the most significant factors in a book's sale on Smashwords[1]. Here is his analysis for this year: 2014 Smashwords Survey Reveals New Opportunties for Indie Authors

Even small changes can have big effects.


It will come as no surprise that, as Coker writes, "A few titles sell fabulously well and most sell poorly." But what Coker takes from this is worth thinking about: "An incremental increase in sales rank is usually matched by an exponential increase is sales."

The takeaway: Do those things that "give you an incremental advantage so you can climb in sales rank."

What follows are a few ways in which you can give your book an incremental advantage.

1. Longer ebooks sell better.


In the 2014 survey, as in earlier surveys, it was clear that longer books sell better. 

When I read this I wondered: How long is longer? 70,000 words? 80,000? 100,000? But Coker doesn't put a wordcount on this. All he says (see below) is that a book that has fewer than 50,000 words, all things being equal, would be at a disadvantage.

2. Price points: books priced at $2.99 and $3.99 sell best.


Mark Coker writes:

"The highest earning indie authors are utilizing lower average prices than the authors who earn less, but this doesn't mean that ultra-low prices such as $.99 are the path to riches.  $2.99 and $3.99 are the sweet spots for most of the bestsellers."

"FREE still works great, but it's losing some mojo [...]."

3. If you offer your book as a pre-order, it will sell more copies.


Mark Coker writes: 

"I think preorders today are where free was five years ago.  The first authors to effectively utilize preorders will gain the most advantage, just as the first authors to enter new distribution channels gain the most advantage.  Five years from now once all indies recognize that preorders are a no-brainer essential best practice, the effectiveness of preorders will decline."

4. Books in a series sell better than standalone books.


Not only do books in a series outsell standalone books but the best performing series have longer books.

5. Books under 50,000 words sell fewer copies.


Mark Coker writes:

"Also interesting, we found series books under 50,000 words are especially disadvantaged.  This is not to say that you can't become a bestseller writing shorter novellas.  Multiple Smashwords authors have had success here.  But what the data does tell me is that successful novella writers might achieve even greater success if they write full-length.  The data appears to suggest that series books under 50,000 words might create friction that makes readers incrementally less willing to buy."

6. Offer the first book of a series free of charge.


Mark Coker writes: "We found strong evidence that series that have free series starters earn more money for authors than series that do not have free series starters." 

To sum up:


- Longer ebooks sell better.
- Books priced at $2.99 and $3.99 sell best.
- Books offered as a pre-order sell more copies.
- Books in a series sell more copies.
- Short books (books with fewer than 50,000 words) sell fewer copies.
- Series sell better if the first book is offered free of charge.

Question: What works for you? If you have a marketing tip to share, please leave a comment.

Notes:

1. Mark Coker's survey is based on "over $25 million in customer purchases aggregated across Smashwords retailers including Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, the Smashwords.com store, Sony (now closed), Diesel (closed), Oyster, Scribd, Kobo, public libraries and others." In other words, it is based on books offered on the Smashwords platform as well as on platforms owned by Smashwords' publishing partners. As a result, this data may not apply to those who sell on other platforms. That said, I have heard many of these points echoed by people who sell primarily on Amazon.
Photo credit: "June 2014" by *Light Painting* by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Eight Tips: How To Tell A Scary Story

Eight Tips: How To Tell A Scary Story



Here are eight tips on how to write horror from Brad Falchuk, the co-creator of American Horror Story. These pointers come by way of Joe Berkowitz's article "How To Tell Scary Stories, From The Co-Creator Of American Horror Story." (Thanks to +Moxlonibus Krypt, fellow horror aficionado, for sending me the link to the article.) 

1. Start with a big idea.


Think of movie posters. They usually try and communicate one big idea, the idea the movie is based on. Star Wars was swords in space, Indiana Jones was a fearless adventurer, and so on.

The big idea for the first season of American Horror Story was that of a haunted house. It was about how ghosts--and other, hidden, things--can haunt people.

How do you know if your idea is big enough?

- Does your idea immediately suggest characters for the story?
- Does your idea immediately suggest various adventures--or misadventures--that could embroil your characters?

2. Start with a believable situation, then twist it.


Create a scene your audience could easily imagine themselves in.

When I was a teenager I babysat. A lot. So did my friends. For those of you who didn't have the pleasure, babysitting involves a lot of sitting, alone, in a stranger's house after dark. Many times you don't have anything to do except look out into the darkness and imagine what sorts of things it might conceal, and what they might do if they broke into the house.

So, naturally, one of the favorite topics at sleepovers was our fear that someone would break in after dark and go all squicky on us. We talked about gruesome stories we'd heard and scared ourselves silly.

Brad Falchuk says:

"[...] you can imagine being attacked by some kind of monster in your house. It could be nighttime and you hear noises outside, and if you can imagine yourself in some character’s shoes at that moment, it’s scary."

3. Horror is about truth, falsehood and consequences.


Always include a lie; the more, the better.

Brad Falchuk says:

"Scary stories are very much about the idea of truth. What is truth, what is a lie, and what happens when you lie? For me the greatest horror out of anything you do is to lie, and so in any instance of great scary storytelling, there’s a lie. The biggest lie in the more typical horror movies is that you’re safe. You’re out by Crystal Lake, its beautiful there, and don't worry--those murders that happened were a long time ago! They’re not going to happen again! So you're living in a lie and you're going to suffer for it. In almost any great horror story, there’s a lot of lies."

I hadn't thought of it quite that way before, but yes. That.

Horror plays with the comforting lies we tell ourselves: "Sure the house is built over an ancient burial ground but, hey, we got it cheap! I'm sure nothing bad will happen."

Or perhaps a teenager tells her parents she's going to the family's summer cabin to study. Uh huh. Right. And then her (totally sober) friends disturb the spirit of the lake, or they run over someone, and then a gypsy curse is involved and it's all downhill from there.

4. Relationship trouble: real-life horror


The first season of American Horror Story is about infidelity. It's about how people, living people, can haunt our lives and how, sometimes, that doesn't stop after they die.

Memories of people and past events--of opportunities lost--do tend to stick around and pull one back into them when one least expects it.

5. Start an idea for a scary scene and work backward.


This works well for any kind of story. Brad Falchuk says:

"You might have this one thing, like, 'He’s a Nazi doctor doing experiments on people.' Then you just start talking through story points--does this happen? Does that? Once you hit one or two big story points--like, the doctor’s injecting something into the victim’s eyes or he chops off their legs and injects them with this stuff--then you start to think about how the victim got captured by him. What can we do in the scene before this one to make it feel even worse, and where does she end up after this happens?"

Wow. Injecting eyeballs. I'm definitely an amateur.

We're used to thinking about scenes in terms of one flowing into another so it is often less natural to think what the build-up, the preconditions, for a particular scene could be. Reversing the flow of the story, asking not what has to happen now, but what had to happen for this to be the case, is just as effective--sometimes more effective--in creating a gripping tale.

6. Don't be afraid to use tropes in your work, but be sure to put a twist on them.


Audiences often want the same thing as whatever else they loved--just different. Brad Falchuk says:

"You’ve seen the shower scene in Psycho--the shocking moment with the music blasting--and it’s hard to not use those kinds of moments. People come looking for them because they like them--they just want to see a different version."

That's the trick, isn't it? To take the thrills and chills from a great scene and transform it, give it a twist, and make it new but still scary as hell. BF gives us a few tips:

- If it feels too easy then it probably is. 
- Does this scene get you excited? If it does then it'll probably make others feel that way too.

BF tells writers to keep pushing, to go further, and suggests two ways of doing this:

a. Take the trope further along the same lines. The movie Saw did this well. That film wasn't my cup of tea but I have to admit that it pushed squicky torture to a new level.

b. Push the trope in a different direction. "Any time you think left, you go right. The moment when you think this is a great moment for brutality you go into kindness and vice versa."

7. Show the Big Bad in all its hideous glory.


But not too often. One of the reasons Jaws worked so well was the guessing, the not knowing. As BF says, in Jaws you see the severed head float by and imagine the moment of decapitation--and probably do a better job than most special effects departments!--but at some point the audience needs to see the shark, the big white, in all its hideous, low tech, glory. Great movie.

8. Have a big-picture outline.


You want to know where you're headed, even though that can (and usually does) change as you write the story.

You don't have to know every single aspect of the story, just the big picture. BF says that "It’s like driving from New York to L.A.: you know you’re going to get to L.A., but there’s 10 different routes you could take."

I like that analogy.

Again, all quotations are from "How To Tell Scary Stories, From The Co-Creator Of American Horror Story." Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: "Twitham Court Farm B&B" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.