Tuesday, September 9

The Royal Order of Adjectives

The Royal Order of Adjectives & Going On Vacation

Lists are powerful.

I don’t know what I’d do without them. Lists of names for characters, lists of locations, lists of interesting words (like rutabaga).

Today I’m making lists of another kind, lists of items I must remember to take with me on vacation.

Yes, I’m leaving the country and won’t be back until the end of the month. I probably won’t post here again until I get back.

The Royal Road of Adjectives

Before I leave, I’d like to mention something I came across: the Royal Order of Adjectives. I hadn’t heard of it before—maybe that doesn’t say a lot for the school system—but, apparently, there’s an accepted order that the various kinds of adjectives should adhere to.


Here’s the handy-dandy graph, complete with examples. This is from Grammar.ccc.commnet.edu’s page dedicated to adjectives. It’s the best primer on adjectives I’ve come across, highly recommended if you’re into that sort of thing ... which it seems I am. Now. 

The Royal Order of Adjectives (click to enlarge)

For example: A delicious little square vase of old red Italian silk roses.

It’s interesting to play around with the adjectives in the chart and see what sentences you can come up with!

While you’re doing that I’m going to slink off to parts unknown. I’ll miss blogging here, but it’ll be nice to have a short break. I’ll be back, with renewed vigor, at the end of the month. I might even have a few stories to tell! It’s amazing what crawling out of one’s writer’s cave every once in a while can do.

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

Friday, September 5

Keeping A Writing Journal

Keeping A Writing Journal

“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. [...] [I]f you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”
Madeleine L’Engle
Today I want to talk about something a bit different: writing journals and whether writers should keep one.

I keep a writing journal and it has helped me enormously. That said, I suspect if you saw it my journal wouldn’t look like anything you’d classify as a writing journal. 

For the last few years I have scribbled, daily, in a book I keep ready-to-hand when I’m in the house. (When I go out I keep a pad of paper in my purse and transfer anything I write there into my daily journal.)

While this journal may contain the odd (and I do mean odd ;) insight into life, the world and everything, what mostly fills its pages are bits of writing that in years past I used to commit to random pieces of paper, pieces that would drift around my office. Inevitably, they would disappear and I would be left with the vague feeling that I’d written something important on one of them. 

I think what happened is that I’d grab a piece of paper and use the reverse side for a shopping list, or to take a message, or to dash off a to-do list, and then I’d forget there was writing on the back and recycle it.

After years of this I hit on the notion of keeping a notebook as a kind of—this is how I think of it at least—RAM. The book is, essentially, an extension of my memory. I write in it all the things I would like to remember a hour, or a day, or a year from now but absolutely won’t unless I record them.

And it’s much more difficult to misplace a book than unattached slips of paper!

My writing journal is also the place where I doodle, do math, sketch out cover ideas, program code, and first drafts of blog posts and stories.

Yes, it is a bit of a hodgepodge, a dogs breakfast (for some obscure and likely bizarre reason I love that phrase, “dogs breakfast”) but being-difficult-to-find is a step up from lost. To mitigate this problem I’ve developed a system of labeling that involves multi-colored highlighters and yellow post-it notes. My goal is to make it obvious what information each page contains, especially when that information is the first draft of a story.

After writing that I feel a bit naked! I’ve never discussed my writing journal before.

Anyway, there it is. I wish I had developed this system years ago, less of my writing would be lost and a (crude, confused) record would exist of what I’d written on a day to day basis. 

You might wonder: Would keeping this sort of life-in-a-bucket journal be of help to you? Maybe! If you regularly lament that you can’t find a short little note, or a writing sketch, you jotted down then, perhaps, an everything-in-a-tin journal might be helpful.

One thing I can guarantee you: after a year or two, seeing a couple dozen journals snuggled up beside each other on your bookcase will make you feel like a writer—because you are!

Either that or it’ll remind you of the movie, “Se7en.” Whichever. ;)

Photo credit: "Stargazin" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, September 4

Subplots And The Great Swampy Middle

Subplots And The Great Swampy Middle

Today I’d like to talk about something that puzzled me no end when I first began writing: subplots. I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s book, “Story” and what follows draws liberally from his insights.

The Shifting Sands of Terminology

Subplots, main subplots, main plots, central plots, minor arcs, major arcs, and so on. As I’ve read about writing over the years each of these terms has been pressed into service to describe the interwoven threads of a story.

The idea that I came away with—and it’s not at all a bad way of looking at it—is that a novel length story isn’t composed of just one plot but many. One of these plots will form the spine of the story and the other plots, the subplots, are woven around the spine, strengthening it, giving it depth and complexity. 

The plot that forms the spine of the story, let’s call this the central plot, this plot line involves the main character’s pursuit of her goal, the obstacles she has to overcome, the cost of winning/failing as well as the final outcome.

But not all stories have subplots. There are good stories—heck, great stories!—that don’t have subplots. “The Fugitive” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” for example. 

So, what’s the deal? Do we need subplots? If so, why? What do they do? What’s their function in a story?

Subplots are a tool—one of them—that will help get a writer through the Great Swampy Middle of Despair.

Everyone who has struggled through a first draft is intimately acquainted with what Jim Butcher calls The Great Swampy Middle (GSM). Let me, first, talk about what the GSM is and why it exists, then I’ll discuss how subplots are a solution to this problem.

Why the Great Swampy Middle Exists

I’ve often written about the three act structure and in those posts tend to make it seem as though the following is how a story is divided up into three acts.

Act One: The first 25% of the story.
Act Two: The middle 50% of the story.
Act Three: The last 25% of the story.

But as was the case in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the third act can be—and often is—much shorter than the first one. McKay writes in “Story”:

“In the ideal last act we want to give the audience a sense of acceleration, a swiftly rising action to Climax. If the writer tries to stretch out the last act, the pace of acceleration is almost certain to slow in mid-movement. So last acts are generally brief, twenty minutes or less.”

As McKee says, in reality a story often breaks down as follows:

Act One: The first 25% of the story.
Act Two: The middle 60% of the story.
Act Three: The last 15% of the story.

Act Two bulges out from between acts one and two like a grotesque muffin top. With sixty percent of the action of the story unfolding in the second act it’s easy to get bogged down here. And that gives birth to the Great Swampy Middle of Despair.

Subplots are one of the tools we can use to firm up this flabby middle part.

How To Defeat The Great Swampy Middle

Robert McKee in “Story” writes that there are two things that will help us get through the GSM. They are:

1. Use subplots.

McKay writes that “Subplots have their own act structure, although usually brief.” As an example, McKay weaves three subplots into a hypothetical central plot with each subplot peeking at a different time.

Let’s break this down.

a. Subplots increase the number of major scenes.

By weaving subplots around the central plot we can have an interesting reversal every chapter or so. Although not every subplot will have four major scenes—an Inciting Incident and three Act Climaxes—there will be enough so that an interesting event happens regularly enough to keep a readers attention.

b. Subplots give a story depth by giving it layers of complexity.

For example, think of “A Midsummer Nights Dream.” All the love stories end happily but some end “sweetly, some farcically, some sublimely.”

c. One of the subplots (often the most developed subplot) can contrast the theme of the main plot, giving the story a depth and interest it would otherwise lack.

For example, the central idea or theme of a story could be about True Love, what it is and how it affects those in its merciless grip. The main plot could revolve around the protagonist and his search for, and finding of, true love. As a counterpoint to this, one could have a subplot about two people who think they’re in love but who really aren’t. They say and do all the right things but, in the end, when their love is tested it fails. They cannot—will not—sacrifice everything for the other. 

Then we see the aftermath. What one couple gains and the other looses. This gives the theme a depth it would have lacked had only one aspect of the central idea been explored.

d. Each complication in a subplot affects the central plot.

In “The Matrix” Cypher betrays Morpheus to The Agents. This was a victory for Cypher; it got him closer to his goal of once again being submerged in The Matrix. This same event was, obviously, a major blow to Neo. So here we see how a major scene in a subplot creates conflict/tension in the main plot and, as a result, drives the story forward.

2. Increase the number of acts.

The second way to defeat the Great Swampy Middle of Despair is to increase the number of acts. You will have noticed that many stories—especially action-packed stories—don’t have subplots. They don’t need them. The audience wants a fast paced story and with a major reversal coming every few minutes that’s what they’re going to get. 

The movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral” had five acts and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had—hold onto your hat—seven! Which, as McKee points out, means there was “a major reversal every fifteen or twenty minutes.”

The downside of this is obvious: the pace can be exhausting! Both for the writer(s) and the audience. Each reversal, each climax, must outdo the one before. And that’s difficult to do. It’s easy to resort to cliches or to dangle the hero off the edge of a cliff one too many times and stretch the audiences/readers suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. 

Sameness—even when it’s a stunning explosion-filled end-of-act climax—gets old fast.

Okay, that’s enough for today. Now go write something just for the sheer pleasure of it. (grin)

Talk to you tomorrow. Cheers!

Photo credit: "fields of gold" by Helmut Hess under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0.

Tuesday, September 2

Guest Post by Chris Pitchford on Writing And Programming

Guest Post by Chris Pitchford on Writing And Programming

Today I’m going to do something a bit different. I don’t usually have guest posts, but when I discovered Chris Pitchford was coming out with a new book, The Agility of Clouds, I asked him to talk with us about his writing process, about how he—a programmer by trade—thinks about writing.

Take it away, Chris!

*  *  *

Programming is nothing like writing fiction, except that it’s totally like it.

I'm a software developer and a writer, and the two supposedly “non-overlapping magisteria" might be more connected than you might think. I'll leave the poetry of code as a discussion for another time, and focus here on similar processes. Writing a solid and engaging application is really like writing a solid and engaging story, at least, in how I view it all.

Bear with me please, as I go through my process of creating software. When I start building a new application, I start with the data involved as the core concept around which all the other elements are built. I define a model of the data, whether it's a username and password, or messages sent about, files uploaded or whatever. Even if I’m rushing and jump right in to building form elements within a user interface: a text field is different from a checkbox; they represent different data types. Those types become central to the development, and I make sure they are defined first.

But you'll notice—because you're clever that way—that in addition to mentioning the data model above, I mentioned software controls like form elements. The interface is just as important as the model, and the attention to detail in creating elegant controllers is the first thing a user will see and the last thing they remember. The last component of the application I build is the glue that binds the data model and the user interface. These views of the data are the transport mechanisms that deliver the pieces of the data from the database to the interface, and return the results of any interaction.

It all works very well, for projects large and small, in different programming languages and even different environments—mobile apps vs. server applications, for example. The whole process I just described is really just a design pattern, called in this case the "Model/View/Controller" paradigm, but how does it relate to writing? Well, that's the premise of this little article, and I appreciate your patience in staying with me so far.

So, let's just imagine I start writing a completely new story ex nihilo, my imagination the only thing that's filling a blank page with prose. Have I skipped the core foundation of the structure I mentioned earlier? Not at all, as the tone of the words I chose to write is one of those fundamental concepts. The model of the story, like the data of the application, is always present. Even if I'm not explicit about the style of what I'm writing before hand, I'm defining part of the model in how the words will follow my modest start.

Of course, when I write the actual words of the story, that is the interface that the reader will interact with. Their own imagination and background are as important as the words on the page; the story only comes alive when it's read. So, all the details of pacing, grammar, word choice and even dialogue attributions are part of the interface that helps the reader become immersed and merge with the story. But in order to get the details and the model to cohere, I have to have a plot, or glue that binds the themes to the details. After I set the model of the story that I write, I loosely outline the plot so that I can make sure the goals and results of the writing are revealed in the details.

Okay, that’s fine in theory; how does it work in practice? For my novel, The Agility of Clouds, I had originally focused on the character who was eventually to become the antagonist, Father Time. I outlined a story that followed his humble origins in Ireland to the English colonies in the New World before the Revolution, where his latent paranormal abilities would be awakened. His mentor would be the formidable Lady Seramis Helleborine, who became so interesting to me, she would eventually become the main character of her own book—the book I’m referring to—The Agility of Clouds.

But at first, the story was too dark, and I lacked a definitive theme—the reason why I was writing. For The Agility of Clouds, I decided on a theme very important to me to serve as the purpose of my writing: empowering women and minorities at a time of disenfranchisement and slavery. I further defined my style—specifically, the dialogue—to more closely match eighteenth century modes of expression.

With that new model in place, I created a new outline or view of my story. In this new outline, I plotted the development of the story as well as the emotional arcs of the characters. I made sure to cover the areas that would make the emotional connections I felt with the characters and their stories apparent to the reader. Then, it’s off to the races, and I will let you, dear reader, determine how the interface, or the actual text of the novel works!

*  *  *

Thanks Chris! A fascinating perspective; I'll never look at a user interface the same way again.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Chris Pitchford's latest book is The Agility of Clouds. Here’s a bit more about Agility as well as the man behind it:
C. J. Pitchford is a programmer and peripatetic prog-rock paramour and parent, living in a neighborhood in Denver, CO named for a cemetery and a mental health institute. He wonders which one of those is where he will end up…

His newest release, The Agility of Clouds, a sailpunk adventure in the spirit of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jo Walton, launched September 1. “Forced to spy for King George II of England by the scheming Lord De La Warr, Lady Seramis Helleborine faces the most dire enemy of all: Father Time. Of course, her enemies hadn’t counted on opposition from one of the most brilliant minds of the eighteenth century, as she pursues justice across the skies in her improbable airship, The Agility of Clouds.” Available in ePub for Kindle at amazon.com, it is also available in an illustrated trade paperback edition at amazon.com and in an illustrated iBook format at the iTunes Bookstore.
Photo credit: "Featherweight" by Daniel Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.