Friday, December 30

Blake Snyder and the Six Things that Need Fixing

Blake Snyder and the Six Things that Need Fixing


In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder writes:

“The first 10 pages is also where we start to plant every character tic, exhibit every behavior that needs to be addressed later on, and show how and why the hero will need to change in order to win. She's an isolated writer who lives in a make-believe world (Romancing the Stone); he's a hip, slick, and savvy foreign-car importer who's as glib as he is cold (Rain Man); she's a ditzy airhead who doesn't appear to have much substance (Legally Blonde).

“And when there's something that our hero wants or is lacking, this is the place to stick the Six Things That Need Fixing. This is my phrase, six is an arbitrary number, that stands for the laundry list you must show — repeat SHOW — the audience of what is missing in the hero's life. Like little time bombs, these Six Things That Need Fixing, these character tics and flaws, will be exploded later in the script, turned on their heads and cured. They will become running gags and call-backs. We, the audience, must know why they're being called back! Look at Big and its primary set-up: "You have to be this tall to go on this ride." On the list of Six Things That Need Fixing there are other needs besides a height requirement. The kid in Big can't get the girl, have any privacy, etc. But in Act Two he gets all those things when he magically turns Big. And those call-backs only work because we have seen them in the set-up.”

I had heard about this idea of Things that Need Fixing before I read Save the Cat—Dwight V. Swain talks about tags and traits in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer—but I like the way Blake Snyder spells it out.

A Thing that Needs Fixing


1. A tag or trait the protagonist has and wants fixed, or ...
2. A tag or trait the protagonist doesn’t have but wishes he did.
3. Something that needs to be shown in Act One and then ...
4. Used as a running gag or call-back in acts two and three.
5. Resolved in Act Three.

(If you're unfamiliar with a three act structure, see: A Story Structure in Three Acts.)

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. A tag or trait the protagonist has and wants fixed.


Blake Snyder mentions Big and that movie does contain terrific examples. The protagonist wants to be taller, wants to be able to talk to girls, wants to have privacy, and so on. During the course of the movie he has each of these desires fulfilled but things don’t turn out quite they way he thought they would. The end result of experiencing these changes is, toward the end of the movie, a renewed appreciation for being a kid.

2. A tag or trait the protagonist doesn’t have but wishes he did.


In The Matrix Neo wants to meet Morpheus and learn the truth about The Matrix. Throughout the rest of the movie Neo has this wish fulfilled on various levels. At the Lock-In he learns, physically, what The Matrix is—it spews his physical body out and, in the process, nearly kills him. At the next level Neo enters The Matrix and learns, in a limited fashion, how to control it. Then, at the end of the movie, Neo transcends the matrix and can alter it in any way he wishes.

3. Something that needs to be shown in Act One and then ...


When the protagonist—or any main character for that matter—is introduced, they are introduced doing something (even if this is just talking to someone), they are introduced with some sort of initial goal, and we give them tags and traits. In this opening scene we somehow manage to show the audience, get them to understand, the protagonist’s deep desires. (Generally a main character will have an internal and external desire, but one will take precedence over the other in the plot.)

4. Used as a running gag or call-back in acts two and three.


In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. It’s a character tic, and it’s called back in Act Two when he’s thrown into the Well of Souls along with a few hundred snakes.

5. Resolved in Act Three.


Continuing from the last point, Indy’s fear of snakes is never (to my knowledge) resolved, but I wouldn’t want it to be! It is a minor weakness in an otherwise courageous character, something that makes him more human. In Big, though, the protagonist realizes that, despite all the things that irritated him about being a kid, he wants to go back. Now, because of his adventure, he sees himself in a new light.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending the beautiful Moleskine Classic Notebook. I’ve written before about how I write my Zero Drafts in longhand. I know this won’t work for everyone, but I find that ideas come to life easier when I have a pen in my hand and write longhand (see: The Benefits of Handwriting). Of course a Moleskine notebook isn’t a requirement for that! But if you want to treat yourself I can wholeheartedly recommend this journal. I buy myself a Moleskine if I’m celebrating something, or treating myself for reaching a long anticipated milestone.



That’s it! I hope you have have very merry and safe Happy New Year! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing! :-)

Wednesday, December 28

Flash Fiction Writing Prompt: What Scares You The Most? Describe Yourself Confronting It.

Happy Holidays! How was your Christmas? I hope it was filled with love, laughter and great food.

I'm feverishly working on my new book, on track for a soft launch by January 3. SO! Today I thought I would share a writing prompt, something to keep our collective muses happy as we head into the New Year.

Writing Prompt: What Scares You The Most? Describe Yourself Confronting It.


The Challenge: In 250 words or less write about:

What scares you the most? Describe yourself confronting it.

 That's it! Please share your creative scribblings.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I would like to recommend the book that inspired today's writing prompt, 642 Things to Write About: Young Writer's Edition, by 826 Valencia. This book is one of the few paper reference books on my shelf and I use it regularly. I love these prompts! They're fun; I think of them as candy for creatives.



Friday, December 23

Writing a Review

Writing a Review


In elementary school I dreaded writing essays. I had no idea how to proceed.

That all changed in high school. I had an amazing teacher who made essay writing understandable, even simple! Here’s the key: the rule of three.

The Rule of Three


This rule dates back to Ancient Greece. Don’t ask me why it works, but it does. For instance, pretty much everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. People, events, stories and even essays.

The Structure of an Essay


Beginning: Say what you’re going to say.

Middle: Say it.

End: Say what you’ve said.

Let’s look at this in more detail. Let’s say you have to write an essay about what makes Gadget1 a better gadget than Gadget2. Breaking this task down:

Beginning


The beginning one or two paragraphs (it depends on how long your essay is) contain your thesis statement. This is your claim, your statement, the idea you are going to argue in favor of. For example, let’s say that you claim:

Gadget1 is better than Gadget2.

Of course this isn’t enough. Why is it better? Just stating that one thing is better than another isn’t going to convince anyone. We need to give reasons. Here again we draw on the rule of three. Here’s the complete thesis statement:

Gadget1 is better than Gadget2 because it costs less, works faster and is more aesthetically appealing.

So, for instance, the opening paragraph might go something like this:

Gadgets are ubiquitous in our society. At this point it’s not possible to get through a normal day without relying on one gadget or another. Two of the gadgets people use most are Gadget1 and Gadget2. Both of these do pretty much the same thing which raises the question: Which is better? After rigorous testing I can definitely say that Gadget1 is better than Gadget2. As we will see, Gadget1 costs less, works faster and is more aesthetically pleasing.

Of course by stating this we’re implying that any gadget that costs less, works faster and is more aesthetically appealing is better. But that’s okay. That’s a defensible claim. If I need to buy a can opener and was presented with two can openers and the first cost less, worked faster and was more aesthetically appealing I would definitely buy it! So, moving on.

Middle


At it’s core an essay is an argument about an issue that isn’t easy to settle. If you and a friend disagree about what year World War II ended, a quick internet search will settle the matter. Why? Because there is a simple, straightforward and universally accepted answer.

In the case of our example, though, it’s not quite so straightforward. Different folks may receive slightly different results from their testing. Different folks may appreciate different things in a gadget. In this sort of question rational people can disagree and in this sense there is no one universally correct answer in the same way as there is for the start and end dates of WWII.

Here, we’re not concerned with coming up with the RIGHT answer, as much as we are interested in coming up with a REASONABLE argument.

So, what are our reasons?

Gadget1 costs less than Gadget2

This is simple and straightforward ... or so it seems! How many stores were surveyed? Was Gadget1 less expensive at every single one? It’s important not to cherry-pick results, mentioning only those that help support the thesis statement. But if, say, the price was checked against that of a major online retailer (*cough* Amazon *cough*) and it was markedly less expensive, that’s significant.

Also, the size of the price saving is significant. Would you save less than 1% of the purchase price by going with Gadget1 as opposed to Gadget2? If so, that’s hardly worth mentioning unless Gadget1 and Gadget2 are very expensive.

Gadget1 works faster than Gadget2

How much faster? 10%? 5%? 1%? Did it ALWAYS work faster or were there certain conditions in which it was slower? Many of the same questions we raised above are relevant here as well.

Gadget1 is more aesthetically pleasing than Gadget2.

So far we’ve talked about fairly objective measures. This one is subjective. That said, you and others have your reasons for feeling one looks better than the other. Give them, be specific, and your readers will likely agree.

End


Summarize what you’ve said. There really isn’t more to it than that.

Depending on the kind of article you’re writing it can be nice to take a chatty informal tone. As with everything, make it your own and try to have fun with it.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to you. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

I’ve read and reread The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby. For those of you who are more pantser than plotter, you will find Truby’s books a breath of fresh air. From the blurb: “John Truby is one of the most respected and sought-after story consultants in the film industry, and his students have gone on to pen some of Hollywood's most successful films, including Sleepless in Seattle, Scream, and Shrek. ”



That’s it! Have a wonderful Christmas! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing!

Thursday, December 22

The Structure of Change

The Structure of Change


The Hero’s Journey and Change


Ages ago Chuck Wendig wrote an article about story structure [1], focusing on the Monomyth. It’s one of my favorite articles on the subject. I bring it up here because of one of the many compelling points he made: each story has its own unique structure.[2]

I agree! 'Breaking' your story and seeing how it compares to a universal structure such as the monomyth can be a terrific way to help writers check whether their plot has gaps, to see if their main characters could be more fully fleshed out, and so on. But it is vitally important to take any talk of universal structure as a guide, a suggestion, and NOT as rules carved into stone.

No one writes a story because they want to manifest a universal structure, the point is for each story to incorporate a CHANGE on a fundamental level. Keep in mind that the idea of a universal structure for a story is an abstraction. It’s like saying the average resident of New York owns 1.2 dogs. The statement is meaningful but we’ll never see 1.2 dogs peeing on a fire hydrant!

Editing


I’ve found it’s often best to save thinking about story structure for the editing process. I need to first let my creative self have it’s way with the story (which, for me, means writing a Zero Draft) and then, when I sit down to transform my Zero Draft into a First Draft, I break the story and to where the plot holes are, where it’s misshapen, and so on.

I find that puzzling out a particular story’s structure is an invaluable editing tool. (Shawn Coyne talks about this in his wonderful book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.)

What do I think about when I’m actually writing a Zero Draft? I think about change. That’s what I try to keep in the front of my mind and (hopefully!) by so doing, incorporate change into the story on a fundamental level.

To sum up. In my view it is important to understand the Monomyth. Not because you’re going to incorporate all—each and every one—of its twists and turns, but because you will, inevitably, incorporate some.

Zero Draft: The Structure of Change


So what does this look like? What is the structure of change?

Most importantly—and Dwight V. Swain and Jack M. Bickham picked up on this in their (wonderful!) books on writing—the protagonist must do something. Which means the protagonist must WANT something. Which means there must be obstacles—both internal and external—that keep the protagonist from achieving what she desires. (After all, if she wanted something then immediately got it, that wouldn’t be interesting!)

In any case, from my recent perusal of scripts, especially TV scripts, most particularly screenplays from Supernatural, here is the story progression that occurs:

Teaser


In the beginning of the story the characters are introduced. The audience sees their pain points, their desires, their flaws, their strengths, and so on. But how does this happen? In TV often the first glimpse we get of the characters is in the teaser.

In the case of Supernatural, a monster attacks someone; sometimes this person is killed, sometimes they are just taken. There is usually darkness, fear and a lot of blood. The Teaser often sets the concrete goal: hunt and kill the monster that did this.

Protagonist’s larger problem


The protagonist has a problem, a thorn in the flesh, something that runs deep, something that can’t be shrugged off. Perhaps she feels responsible for the death of a loved one, perhaps she feels wronged—betrayed—by a loved one and those ill feelings are festering. Often a deep dark secret is involved with the protagonist’s problem, a secret she actively protects for whatever reason. Perhaps the secret is of something embarrassing, perhaps the secret is simply something she wants for her own. Letting go of the secret, opening up about it, is often necessary for true healing.

State the story’s thematic premise


We’ve seen, above, that the protagonist has a problem. Because of this problem he wants something. Granted, this want can be somewhat nebulous (e.g., to be loved, to get justice for the death of a loved one, and so on). This want becomes the theme of the story. For example, in the first episode of Supernatural after the pilot (Wendigo), Sam feels guilt over his girlfriend’s death. In a dream, he visits his girlfriend’s grave and says, “I should have protected you, I should have told you the truth.” He deals with his guilt by throwing himself into his search for her killer. In the process Sam becomes uncharacteristically angry when Dean wants to help folks along the way.

In “Wendigo” the theme was explicitly stated when Dean asks Sam: What are we supposed to do? What does Dad want us to do? The answer: hunt monsters.

In “Skin,” Sam wants to keep in touch with his friends from Stanford but Dean tells Sam that’s just not possible in their line of work; his friends wouldn’t be able to understand what they do or why they do it.

In each of these episodes (Wendigo and Skin), Sam’s desire (and, perhaps, Dean’s reaction to it) sets the theme. Although, again, not every story needs an explicit theme (for example, the episode “Hook Man” isn’t as strongly themed as some of the others).

Have a specific, concrete, goal


Have what the character wants be specific. To solve a specific murder, to win first prize in the pie eating contest, to demonstrate your best friend’s innocence, and so on.

Throw obstacles, internal and external, into the protagonist’s path


An example of an external problem would be: the evil critter locked Sam and Dean in a cell. If they don’t find a way out they will die. An internal obstacle might be that, because of Sam’s guilt over his girlfriend’s death, he’s vulnerable to a certain kind of monster who is attracted to people who carry around a lot of emotional baggage.

Plan 


Make it clear how your protagonist’s actions are intended to bring about achieving the concrete goal. The reader may see that what the protagonist is doing is extremely unlikely to yield the result the protagonist wants—other characters in the story may see this as well—but as long as the protagonist is convinced he will (and as long as this conviction makes sense for the character in the context of the story) it's okay.

Stakes


Make it clear how your character's plan could go right as well as how it could go completely, terribly, wrong. In other words, make the stakes clear to the reader. Spell it out. Also, raise the stakes at least twice, preferably three times. And make it clear whenever the stakes are raised. Right before the climax the stakes should be the highest in the story and it should—at least for a moment—seem completely hopeless.

Synthesis


Often the protagonist will overcome his great flaw with the help of synthesis. By this I mean the synthesis of the theme and the B Story.

The synthesis is not something that occurs in every story; it can be tricky to pull off. Sometimes a flaw is just a flaw and the protagonist fails because of it. This failure can work well in a series where another character can save his bacon, giving the protagonist time to work out his issues. In a later story you can have the protagonist finally synthesize the moral from the B Story with the theme and emerge victorious.

If you can setup a satisfying synthesis then, in my opinion, you can construct an ending your readers will love and remember.

Climax


There needs to be an element of finality about this conflict. Perhaps the protagonist and antagonist have fought previously and both walked (or limped, as the case may be!) away, but that’s not possible this time. This time one of them is going down.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to you. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

I’ve seen the movie The Big Short (starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell) and loved it so much I wanted to read the book: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis. I have it and it has been on my To Read list for ages. Perhaps that will be one of my New Year's resolutions: read The Big Short! Have you read it? If so, what did you think? Was it as good as the movie? Better?



That’s it!

Notes:


1. NSFW --> 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure, by Chuck Wendig.

2. Another wonderful point Chuck Wendig made was that structure should adapt to the story, not the other way around. I agree! That’s something I don’t stress enough.

Monday, December 19

Screenwriting for Prose Writers

Screenwriting for Prose Writers


I have never written a screenplay! But I would like to. So I’ve researched the topic. Here are the highlights:

1. Screenwriting is collaborative.


Prose writers have control over what happens to what they’ve written. An editor can make suggestions—even _strong_ suggestions—about what they’d like to see changed, but (depending on the contract you’ve sighed!) the writer usually has final say. (Although, of course, the publisher gets to decide whether they’ll publish your book!)

Screenwriters, on the other hand, have their work changed on a regular basis. Why the difference? The following is from screenwriting.info:

“... film is a highly collaborative medium and the director, cast, editor, and production crew will, based on your ‘outline,’ interpret your story their way when it is filmed. They may consult you, or they may not. Other writers may be brought in or you may be asked to re-write the entire thing. That's life, in the world of screenwriting. But because so many people are involved in the making of a film, a script must conform to standards that all involved parties understand and thus has a specific format or layout, margins, notation, and other conventions.”

So let’s take a look at screenwriting conventions:

Screenwriting Conventions

Much of what I say below has been taken from “How to Format a Screenplay - 5 Basic Elements: FRIDAY 101” by Indy Mogul over at YouTube. In what follows I go over each of his points but, in case you’re interested, I’ve embedded his video below.



In what follows I’ll draw from the following:

(Click Image to Enlarge)


This image is from a draft of the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark.[1]

1. The Slug Line


Example:
EXT. PERU - HIGH JUNGLE - DAY[1]

Let’s step through this example.

1.i) EXT.


Possible values here are exterior (EXT.) or interior (INT.) depending on whether the scene takes place inside or outside.

1.ii) PERU - HIGH JUNGLE


This names or describes the location. It can be, as here, the name of a place or it could be a description such as TEMPLE or THE SANCTUARY.

1.iii) DAY


This describes when the scene takes place. Examples of possible values are DAY, NIGHT, DUSK, CONTINUOUS, LATER, etc.

2. ACTION


Example:
The dense, lush rain forests of the eastern slopes of the Andes, the place known as “The Eyebrow of the Jungle.” Ragged, jutting canyon walls are half-hidden by the thick mists.[1]

The ACTION is a description of what happens in a particular scene.

2.i) Present tense. Always write the action in the present tense.


2.ii) Capitalization. Capitalize a character’s name the first time it comes up. Also, capitalize words you intend to call attention to. A sound for instance, or a sound effect. Something that helps set a scene.


2.iii) Leave a space. Always leave a space between the slug line and the dialogue.


3. Character Name


3.i) Character names are always capitalized and centered.


3.ii) If the character is speaking from offscreen add (O.S.) after the name.


Example: JEEP GERMAN (O.S.)

3.iii) If the character is not physically in the scene, if it’s just a voice over all (V.O.) after the character name.


Example: SHERYL (V.O.)

4. DIALOGUE.


Example:
INDY
We don’t need them.

Dialogue goes under the name. No quotation marks.

5. PARENTHETICALS


Between the name and the dialogue. Parentheticals add detail to whatever it is the character is doing while speaking.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I’m going to recommend a book I’ve gotten a LOT of use from. 642 Things to Write About by San Francisco Writers' Grotto. Originally I bought it to use for writing prompts, but I ended up it for my own warm-up writing exercises! From the blurb: “This collection of 642 outrageous and witty writing prompts will get the creative juices flowing in no time. From crafting your own obituary to penning an ode to an onion, each page of this playful journal invites inspiration and provides plenty of space to write.”



That’s it! Well, almost. I’ve found a couple of sites that let folks download screenplays for free! The selection is a wee bit limited, but they have many classic screenplays (e.g., The Matrix, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.) and even a few that are new.

IMSDb.com - Movie screenplays.
SimplyScripts.com - Movie and TV screenplays.
TheFilmStage.com - Screenplays of movies up for an award in 2016. (Thanks to Naomi for the link!)

I’ll talk to you again on Wednesday. Till then, good writing!

Notes:


1. From the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Saturday, December 17

6 Ways to Squeeze More Hours Into Your Day

6 Ways to Squeeze More Hours Into Your Day


Lately I’ve been especially pressed for time. I want to publish the non-fiction book I blogged during NaNoWriMo and I’d like to do this by January 1st. I think that’s completely doable if I can find enough time to put in the hours needed.

Since I’m sure many of you are in the same boat—perhaps you want to turn your NaNoWriMo treasures into an awesome first draft—I thought I’d share some of the time management tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years.

1. Focus


What is the one thing you want to accomplish today? Not the three things or even the two things, but the one thing.

Ask yourself, what would, could, you do today that will get you closer to your goal? What is the one thing that, even if you didn’t get anything else done, you would have a sense of accomplishment if you completed it?

What I do is make a to-do list at the beginning of each day. Each task is something that can be done in less than 4 hours. Then I go through the list and make one item on that list a priority.

How does one choose the one task? I like to mark all my tasks as being either important (for accomplishing my goal) or urgent (there’s a ticking clock). Any task that is both important and urgent I star. If only one task is both important and urgent then I’ve got my one task! If there are more than one I decide between them. But, as with Highlander, (think Sean Connery) “There can be only one!” (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

I picked up this tip from The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.

2. Be specific


If the one thing you want to accomplish today is to publish your next book then, if it’s written, edited, proofed, you’ve obtained cover art, and so on, great! That’s doable. However if your next book isn’t written yet then that’s a goal that can’t be accomplished in four hours or less! So it needs to be broken up into bits that can be accomplished in a reasonable about of time. (The amount of time that works for me is four hours or less, but you may well be different.)

Generally speaking, the more specific a detail is the clearer it is what is required to complete the task. When it’s obvious how to complete a task then, more often than not, it can be accomplished quickly.

Let me give you an example. Say that you want to write one short story a week. That’s your goal. Now let’s break down the task into manageable bits.

Task 01: Determine how many words your short story will be. 


Before I begin a writing project I like to know approximately how many words long I want it to be. To determine this ...

Task 02: Choose 5 short stories that are in the genre you want to write in and that you personally love.


Task 03: Determine the length of each of these five short stories.


I let the length of these stories guide me in deciding how long I want my short story to be.

Task 04: Divide the number of words you want to write by the number of words you can write in an hour to yield the number of hours it will take you to write your Zero Draft.


Task 05: Determine how many hours a day you can set aside for writing. Compare this number to the number of hours per day you’d have to write if you wanted to publish one short story a week and adjust the number of words in the short story until you have a fit. Now all that’s left to do is to mark off a block of time in your favorite scheduling program (I use the MacOS Calendar app).


That’s it! Don’t give up if you fall behind. Over time you’ll get a better feel for the number of words you can write per hour.

It’s the same process for anything. Say you want to sell your car. Break the task down. Where are you going to list it? Craigslist? Your local newspaper? How much should you charge? Look up how much similar cards are being sold for. And so on. By breaking the large task up into small manageable bits, each of which can realistically be done in a day, even tasks that seem impossible get done.

3. Be realistic.


Avoid setting unrealistic goals. If you don’t meet a goal then it becomes much easier to let the next one fly on by.

4. Don’t let failure stop you.


Someone one said, the only way you can fail is if you stop trying. Your first attempt might fail, as might your second, third, fourth, and so on, but as long as you don’t give up, as long as you keep trying, you haven’t failed. You’ve just learnt a lot about what doesn’t work!

Never give up trying to accomplish your goal. Instead change how you’re trying to accomplish it. Approach it from another path, another direction. Or perhaps make the goal more specific or perhaps more general.

The only way to ensure failure is to give up.

5. Don’t multitask.


Do one task at a time giving your full attention to that task. I like to set a timer. I’ll give myself 50 minutes to work on one task, take a 10 minute break, then go back to work. After two work periods like this I’ll take a 30 minute break. Rinse and repeat.

6. Know thyself


Start recording the amount of time it takes to complete each task. Before I did this I really didn’t know how long it would take me to do various things. This made scheduling must more difficult than it needed to be!



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I want to recommend one of my favorite books in the world, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, by Dr. Seuss. From the blurb: “Like mistletoe, candy canes, and caroling, the Grinch is a mainstay of the holidays, and his story is the perfect gift for young and old.”

If you’d rather watch the movie—watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas was a Christmas tradition in my family for many years!—here’s the link: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the movie.



That’s it! I would love it if you shared your time saving tips and tricks. :-)

I’ll talk to you again on Monday. Until next time, good writing!

Wednesday, December 14

How to Begin Writing Your First Screenplay

How to Begin Writing Your First Screenplay


I’ve never written a screenplay so I’ve decided—even though I don’t plan on branching out into screenwriting—to rewrite one of my stories as one. Just for practice because I think that stretching myself, my abilities, is a good thing!

Writing a Screenplay: First Things


1. The Logline or One-Line


I’ve written an article about this (See: Creating A Logline). Basically, a logline is a sentence that spells out in dramatic fashion the central conflict of a story.

The central conflict is composed of three things:

1) The protagonist’s goal.
2) The person or force that opposes the protagonist’s goal.
3) The stakes of the conflict.

Here is a formula:

[Protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist’s name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

An example logline for Die Hard:


Headstrong NYPD detective John McClane wants to save his estranged wife and her colleagues from certain death at the hands of Hans Gruber, a mercenary willing to sacrifice anything to get his hands on $640 million in bearer bonds.

Joe Bunting over at The Write Practice wrote an article about how to write a screenplay. He gives the following tip on how to craft your logline:

“It’s also helpful to put a summarizing adjective in front of your characters to give a sense of their personalities.”[1]

Here’s his example: “A headlong orphan and his Vulcan nemesis must save the Federation (and themselves) from revenge-seeking Romulan from the future.”[1]

2. Write a Screenplay: Beat Sheet


After the logline it’s time to hammer out the beats in the beat sheet.

First, a few terms:

Thesis world: The Ordinary World of Act One.
Antithesis world: The world of Act Two, a world that is the opposite of the thesis world.
Synthesis world: The world of Act Three. A Synthesis of the Thesis and Antithesis.

Example:

Thesis world -> protagonist trusts his peer group.
Antithesis world -> protagonist doesn’t trust his peer group.
Synthesis world -> protagonist trusts himself.

Example of a beat sheet: The Winter Soldier.


Description of what should be in a beat sheet:


1. Opening Image. Give a brief description of who the protagonist is before his world changes.

2. Inciting Incident/Catalyst. Protagonist is thrown out of her familiar world—the Ordinary World—and she begins her quest.

3. Start of Act Two. Protagonist is first challenged by new things. There must be drama. It must be clear whether the protagonist succeeded or failed.

4. Midpoint. If things are good for the protagonist early on this is where they go bad. If things are horrible for the protagonist early on then this is where they begin to go his/her way.

5. Bad guys close in. Often there is a ticking clock involved.

6. All is lost/Dark moment. Lowest part of your characters’s story.
The dark moment or dark turn does against what hero believed in the thesis world. Act Three is the synthesis world.
Finally reaching the tower where the princess is being kept, the hero finds… she’s not there! And not only that, it’s a trap! It looks like the Bad Guy has won.

7. Break into Act Three. Protagonist has an epiphany. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis.

8. Epiphany. Things turn around. “Step 4: The hero now has to come up with a new plan. And it’s all part and parcel of the overall transformation of the hero and his need to “dig deep down” to find that last ounce of strength (i.e., faith in an unseen power) to win the day.”

9. Race to the finish. A plan is formulated.
“Thinking on the fly, and discovering his best self, the hero executes the new plan.”

10. The Climax. The protagonist and antagonst square off. This is the final confrontation between them. It must be clear that the outcome of this context will be final. No do-overs.

11. Wrap Up: Cash out the stakes. Tie up any loose threads.

Synopsis


A synopsis doesn’t include subplots or minor characters. It is only about the main character and his/her plotline.

Capitalize the names of characters the first time they appear. Also, the synopsis should we written in the third person, present tense.

Rather than create an example of my own, I’ve found an article that includes a wonderful example so head on over to Publishing Crawl and read How To Write a 1-Page Synopsis.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to recommend a book I’ve read through many times, I’m talking about 1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts by Ryan Andrew Kinder. I’ve used many of his prompts as writing exercises to begin my writing day.



I haven’t talked about how to write a screenplay per se, this post is already long enough. I’ll save that for next time.

That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you on Friday. Till then, good writing!

Notes:

1. How to Write a Screenplay: The 5 Step Process.

Monday, December 12

Be a Book Doctor: How to Evaluate Your Own Story

Be a Book Doctor: How to Evaluate Your Own Story


Book doctors are wonderful. A book doctor is someone who isn’t your husband/wife/parent/friend, someone who can be objective toward your manuscript, someone who can dispassionately evaluate the content and structure of your story. And this can be an enormous help, especially at the beginning of your manuscript when you’re working on your story’s overall structure and shape.

But you don’t have to send your story off to someone else. You can be your own book doctor. How? The first step is to put your manuscript in a drawer and try to forget about it for a week or two. When you take the manuscript out of the drawer you’ll be able to see it more objectively.

There are a few stories I wrote so long ago that I no longer remember them. Reading them again was like reading the work of a stranger. It was painful but rewarding! At the time I wrote it I felt that something was off but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly needed to be fixed. When I reread the story after a period of years I realized that the story had no midpoint, no crisis, no moment of revelation. The good news: as soon as I saw the structural defect it was surprisingly easy to fix.

So, if you don’t want to send your work off to a book doctor then put it in a drawer for a couple of weeks. Reread the manuscript through from top to bottom and ask yourself the following questions:[1]

Scenes:



  • Does each scene have a goal and stakes? Does the main character want something in every scene, even if it is only a glass of water?
  • Do you include sequels after the scenes? Or even mini-sequels between scenes (this works especially well if you have one scene per chapter).


Acts:



  • Does each act have a main overriding goal and are the stakes spelled out?


Overall Structure:



  • Is there a major turn/twist of the plot at the 25, 50 and 75 percent marks?
  • Is there a clear Call to Adventure?
  • Around the middle of the book—the midpoint crisis—the protagonist needs to understand the story world in a different light. Sometimes this information is about one of the characters—the love interest, the protagonist, the mentor, the protagonist’s helper—or about the Special World of the Adventure.
  • Is the Special World of the Adventure strikingly different from the Ordinary World of  the protagonist’s ordinary life?
  • Is the protagonist locked into the quest by the 25 percent mark.
  • Does the protagonist have an All Is Lost moment at around the 75 percent mark?
  • Is there a race to the finish after the All Is Lost point and before the climax?
  • Is it clear that the climax is a final test, one that at most one character can win?
  • Are the stakes cashed out and all loose ends tied up before the story ends?


Protagonist:



  • What state of affairs would make the protagonist happy?
  • What danger/obstacle prevents the protagonist from achieving this happy state of affairs?
  • Does the protagonist have a moral compass? Does the climax hinge on a moral issue? That is, does it hinge on a point of selflessness vs unselfishness? (Selfishness: Abandonment of conviction for the sake of personal advantage. Unselfishness: Adherence to principle despite the temptation of self-interest.)
  • This is just something to think about, it’s not a hard and fast rule: Is the protagonist good but not the brightest penny in the jar or are they brilliant but morally flexible? It doesn’t always happen that the protagonist is one or the other, but there does seem to be a bit of a tradeoff between these two characteristics.




Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

A few months ago I read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. He is a master of telling folks how to make the most of their time. He helped me! In time for the holidays he's come out with another book: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers. I haven't read it yet, but it's at the top of my to-be-read list.





Notes:


1. Many of these questions I’ve taken from Janice Hardy’s wonderful article: How to Be Your Own Book Doctor.

Friday, December 9

How To Use An Editing Program To Improve Your Writing

How To Use An Editing Program To Improve Your Writing


A good editing program will tell you how many words your story has, how many of those words are unique, how many sentences there are, how many paragraphs, how readable your text is, the number of cliches you’ve used, and so on. 

And that’s great, but one thing I don’t like about editing programs is that, often, the numbers displayed don’t give any context. For example, if I have 10 adverbs in my story is that bad or good?

The trick, I’ve found, is to compare my writing with that of my favorite authors; those people whose work I both love and envy. For me that’s writers like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood.

What follows is a comparison of two of my trunk stories—I wrote them when I was a teenager—with sections of Stephen King’s and Neil Gaiman’s work. 

Here are the results:



As you can see, the major difference between my old work and my favorite authors is the number of cliches in dialogue and redundant words. Beyond that, my old stories had more vague and abstract words. Also, my sentences were shorter than my favorite authors and I used shorter paragraphs.

That information is valuable. It shows me ways I can work on improving my craft.

Conclusion


Editing programs can be wonderful if you take the stats they give you with a grain of salt. Their value is in letting you compare your writing with others, to see the differences and similarities. If I love Stephen King's writing but he uses a few adverbs, I'm not going to be overly concerned about using a few adverbs even though I agree that they are weeds that deserved to be plucked from one's writing.

My own personal yardstick is the authors I admire, the authors I want to write like (and I don’t mean exactly like; each writer needs to have his/her own voice). But you have ideas about what good writing is and what bad writing is, and you've acquired these ideas from reading other writers. There are authors you think are terrific writers and authors you would be devastated if anyone compared you to.

The editing program I use is Pro Writing Aid. It doesn’t work well on larger blocks of text (10,000+ words) but it tells you many things about your manuscript: grammar, overused words, readability statistics, cliches, sticky sentences, vague words, repeated words, sentence length, consistency, dialogue, pacing, pronoun use, and much more. I’ve used the program on and off for a couple of years and, because I personally use and like their product, I’ve become an affiliate for them. 

What editing programs do you use? Have they helped you become a better writer? I'd love it if you shared your experience. :-)



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I'd like to recommend The Mental Game of Writing: How to Overcome Obstacles, Stay Creative and Productive, and Free Your Mind for Success by James Scott Bell. Lately I've been struggling with anxiety and find reading "you can do it!" books soothing. And James Scott Bell is a really nice guy (I met him!) who gives terrific advice.



That's it! Have a great weekend and I'll talk to you again on Monday. Till then, good writing!

Wednesday, December 7

Editing Your Zero Draft

Editing Your Zero Draft


NanoWriMo is over! If you participated and wrote more than you would have otherwise, you’re a winner. If you ended up writing 50,000+ words, that’s awesome!

It’s been a week since NaNoWriMo ended so you’ve had a chance to distance yourself a little bit from the story. If you don’t have sufficient distance from your writing the danger is that when you read your Zero Draft you won’t be able to be objective. What I try to do is put my manuscript away for a week or two so I can come back to it with new eyes.

In any case, after enough time has passed rescue your manuscript from the drawer and read it from start to finish. There’s only one rule: don’t edit until you’ve read the whole thing. This is torture for me, but it’s important to re-load the whole story into your mind without changing anything.

When I read something that’s not right, a misspelling, etc., I want to go into the file and fix it but if I were to do that then I’d start adding sections that didn’t need to be added and deleting material that was necessary for the development of a future event.

I find one way to lessen the temptation to edit is to print a hardcopy of the manuscript and, if I must make notes, then at least I can’t change the electronic file. By the way if you want to save paper and load your manuscript into an app that allows you to mark up a file I recommend GoodNotes, it’s the app I use.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read:

- Does a character’s name change halfway through the story? Is the name spelled the same way throughout the manuscript? Do all the names you use begin with a different letter? Are all the names sufficiently distinct from each other?

- Is each character absolutely necessary to advance the plot? Can two (or more) characters be merged into one? Or are there too few characters?

- Do NOT worry about grammar or spelling (other than for names) at this stage. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to end up not using a lot of the text in your Zero Draft. Fiddling with grammar and spelling would just waste your time.

->After your first read through.

After you’ve read your story through try to answer these two questions:

(a) What state of affairs represents happiness to your protagonist? Being together with friends and family? Winning the lottery? Retiring from their job? Going into business for themselves? Traveling the world?

(b) What danger threatens to keep the protagonist’s dream from becoming reality?

Now try and answer these questions:

What is the protagonists external goal? That is, what concrete thing or state of affairs does the protagonist desire to bring about? For example, in Die Hard John McClane wants to protect his wife and the other hostages and defeat the terrorists.

Is there a physical object that represents this goal? For example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones wanted to bring the Ark back to the United States.

In the recent movie “Arrival” the protagonist’s external goal is to understand why the aliens arrived on earth, to understand the alien language.

Make sure you know what the protagonist’s goal is—it will form the spine of your story.

Story Structure


I’ve written quite a few posts about story structure (link and link) so I won’t go into that here. But be sure that your protagonist’s external and internal goals are what drives the key scenes of the story.

Antagonist


Another thing to focus on at this stage is that the protagonist has a suitably strong antagonist. You want the antagonist and protagonist to have the same goal and for it to be impossible for them both to achieve the goal. Also, it tends to work well if the protagonist and antagonist are alike in many ways.

If the antagonist is the protagonist's nemesis then he/she will be quite a bit like the protagonist but differ in at least one important respect.

In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Beloq is Indy’s nemesis. Both men are archaeologists and are driven to procure relics. But they operate by very different moral codes and view the relics they hunt for very differently. Indy appreciates the relics for themselves while Beloq is primarily interested in what the relic can do for him in terms of wealth or power.

The number one thing that you need to keep in mind as you re-read your Zero Draft is to be kind to yourself. There are going to be awful bits and there are going to be glorious bits. Don’t stress about the disastrous passages, focus on the good, focus on what works. Stay positive.

If you’re anything like me there are going to be a LOT of drafts between now and your final one. It’s a process of weeding out what doesn’t belong and gradually shaping the story. It’s early days still. If you keep at it you’ll end up with a story you love.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I am feeling whimsical so what better book to recommend than Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling. From the blurb: "When Magizoologist Newt Scamander arrives in New York, he intends his stay to be just a brief stopover. However, when his magical case is misplaced and some of Newt's fantastic beasts escape, it spells trouble for everyone…"



That's it! I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing. :-)

Tuesday, December 6

Writers: How To Get Rid Of Fear

Writers: How To Get Rid Of Fear


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.”
—Frank Herbert, Dune

Fear is real. It’s that hard fist that twists your gut, that grabs hold of your heart and squeezes. It’s an elevated pulse and the inability to catch your breath.

Everyone’s number one fear is different. Perhaps you might be terrified by the thought of receiving a one star review. Or of your mother/father/grandmother/child discovering you write erotic fiction. Or of publicly putting yourself out there, doing the work, publishing your writing, and failing horribly. Or ... I could go on forever.

Beating The Fear


Here are a few things I do to deal with fear that work for me:

1. Recognize that fear is an emotion.


Often my fear is just a feeling of untethered doom. I’m not afraid of any one thing, the fear just flows through me grabbing the things I’m currently most anxious about and blowing my natural hum-drum concerns WAY out of proportion.

2. Start shutting off the fear by shifting from emotional mode to analytical mode.


This is true for me: the more fearful I am the less rational I am.

I’ve found that strong emotion and analytical thought don’t happen at the same time. If I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack I’m not thinking rationally and vice versa. Which makes sense. If I’m having a fight or flight response the blood is being directed toward the bits of me that are good at either fighting or fleeing. And, sad to say, none of those bits are inside my noggin.

But it’s often difficult to make that transition from run away emotion to analytical thought. Here are a few questions I ask to help me shake the fear, to help me take back control:

3. Name your fear.


By “name” I mean write it down. Be specific. Often fear is just a feeling of untethered doom, it’s not cognitive at all. Force yourself to pin down exactly what you’re afraid of. What are you afraid of losing? If what you fear comes to pass, what would that state of affairs look like?

Sometimes I have quite literally been afraid of nothing. After writing my fear down I realize that even if it came to pass it wouldn’t significantly damage me or anything I care about.

Keep in mind that fear is a shapeshifter, a chameleon. It’s more of a feeling than a thought. As I said, for me it’s often a feeling of doom that wraps it’s black tendrils through me and follows me wherever I go.

Often we don’t really know what we’re afraid of, or the fear shifts, takes on different forms. Since we can’t pin it down it lurks in our head and takes on innumerable forms.

Fear has physical effects that are themselves harmful. It is very difficult to be emotional—and fear is one of the strongest, primal, emotions there is—and thoughtful at the same time. The very presence of fear makes it more difficult to think clearly.

Fear feeds anxiety. Write down what you’re afraid of, pin it down. Be explicit. Detailed. As soon as you see it you can start thinking about it rationally and the fear will begin to lose its power over you.

4. Do something.


In general, doing something is better than doing nothing, even if that something is simply reciting an affirmation like Frank Herbert’s “I must not fear.”

Do nothing and your fear will probably win. If you do something then the fear might still be there but maybe it won’t. If you keep trying, if you keep working at it, you will find something to banish the fear.

Don’t let fear paralyze you. When that happens the fear becomes an endless loop feeding itself, continually growing stronger as you grow weaker.

5. Do something that will make what you fear less likely.


Do something practical that will mitigate the consequences if what you fear comes about. For example, my number one fear used to be that I wouldn’t be able to support myself with my writing. What did I do when the fear hit? I threw my energy into writing and publishing!

6. How likely is it that what you fear will come about?


My fears are generally rational in the sense that they _could_ happen, what I tend to lose sight of is that it is improbable in the extreme that that exact thing will happen.

When you write down your fear be sure to make it specific. Detailed.

Don’t just write: I am scared I will be a failure.

Write: I am scared that after all the years of work I put into my manuscript, after all the money I spent having it edited, that I will publish it and everyone who reads it will hate it and leave a one star review.

There are LOTS of ways to be a failure and it’s easy to give that fear power if we don’t pin it down exactly what we’re afraid of. After we write it down our rational mind can go to work analyzing it and (this has been my experience) it immediately starts to lose it’s power over me. If that doesn’t happen then I’m usually not being specific enough.

7. What can you do to make the fear less likely?


Fear is often a reaction to change or potential change. Change is scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Often change is both good and bad. The trick is to optimize the good and minimize the bad. Ask yourself: what can you do that would make it less likely for what you fear to come about?

For myself: Write more. Publish more. The more one writes and publishes the better one becomes at both. Professional writers aren’t those who have no fear, they are people who have learnt to write anyway to, as Steven Pressfield says, Do The Work.

8. The worst case scenario rarely happens.


When I’m stressed I imagine a worst case scenario. And that might be okay—after all, it’s not a bad idea to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. What I find I have to keep firmly in mind is that this worst case state of affairs isn’t my current state of affairs _and it may never be_.

I want you to imagine something. Imagine a state of affairs, one not as bleak as the worst case scenario your mind/brain/soul is fixated on. Now realize that this future is possible. Perhaps it is just as likely as the bleak one that has been gnawing at you.

9. Every day do one thing that brings you closer to your goal.


Ask yourself: What could I do that would make my fear less likely to come true?

Every day do something that brings you closer to your goal then write it down what you did in your writing journal. Then, at the end of the month, look at what you did that month.

Look at where you were at the beginning of the month and where you are now that the month has come to an end. Realize that you have made progress toward your goal. Realize that you _can_ achieve your goals!

10. Embrace Failure.


If you’re not failing you’re not trying and if you don’t try you’ll never win. Simple as that. To banish fear we must act. We must fail to win.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

I’m re-watching the TV show Supernatural. I love that show! Though I love the Sam and Dean characters, they aren’t the stars of the show, the monsters are. This is a monster book for writers: Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction by Philip Athans with an introduction from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.



That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on Wednesday. In the meantime good writing! Don’t let fear win.

Thursday, December 1

How To Write A Cosy Mystery: The Sleuth

How To Write A Cosy Mystery: The Sleuth


I’ve written about the difficulty I used to have writing mystery stories, something a number of you empathized with. At the time I thought it was odd I couldn’t write a mystery since I’ve read them all my life.

The other day I realized most of the mystery stories I had been reading during that time were written before I was born. I think that's one reason I had such trouble writing a contemporary mystery—I was out of step with today's readers. To fix this I ended up taking my own advice (see: How To Tailor A Story To Readers) and read a number of contemporary mysteries.

I chose cozy mysteries and selected 4 popular authors, buying one book from each author. Each book had a rank of less than 5134.

To give you an idea what that means, according to the Kindle Best Seller Calculator, a book with a rank of 5133 sells about 32 books a day. Not bad! Sure, if the author is charging a dollar for the book they’re only receiving about 35 cents in royalties but that’s still $11.00 per day or $330 per month. That’s a bill payment! [2]

So let’s take a look at the characteristics of a modern cosy focusing on the sleuth.

Sleuth


The Sleuth Is An Amateur


The sleuth is, generally speaking, not a professional investigator. She may be, for example, a party coordinator, a mystery writer, a bookstore owner, a caterer, a librarian, but she’s generally not a police detective, coroner, medical examiner, private detective or even newspaper reporter.

As we will see, the sleuth often owns her own small business, one that brings her into close contact with her fellow townspeople.

The Sleuth Has A Connection To The Police


Because the sleuth is an amateur it comes in handy for her to have a connection to a professional like a police detective. Perhaps the sleuth’s boyfriend is a detective, or one of her in-laws. If it’s a small town and your sleuth runs the local bakery then you could always just have the detective come in for a coffee and sweet pastry every morning.

The Sleuth Is Likable


The sleuth is usually unambiguously good. They are no antiheroes in a cosy mystery!

As soon as I wrote that I thought of Sherlock. Of course Sherlock isn't a cosy! But still. It’s a quintessential British mystery. I would argue that even though Sherlock defines himself as a high-functioning sociopath that he is both good and (for the reader at least!) likable. Why?

Because Sherlock has various good-guy qualities. For instance, he is loyal in the sense that he stands by those who stand by him. And he is good in the sense that he does not repay those who do him good deeds with evil—at least not intentionally! Anyway, moving on ... ;)

The Sleuth Investigates


What does the sleuth investigate? Three things: the crime scene, the suspects and the clues.

Although the murder itself is often done offstage, the sleuth should investigate the scene of the crime. Generally this means going there and taking a look. Since she’s not a professional and, really, has no legitimate reason to be there, this can take a bit of creativity. Which may be why the sleuth often finds the body! Problem solved.

Much less common, the sleuth learns about the crime scene through intermediaries—for instance, she might not have been on the case when the first murder occurred and so must talk to the detectives who were there, study their notes and so on.

(I’ll cover the suspects and the clues in a later post.)

The Sleuth’s Hook


The Sleuth, being an amateur, needs a reason to investigate the crime. Perhaps this is why—at least in the books I’ve read—the first victim is often found either on the sleuth’s property or nearby.

Another possibility is to isolate everyone in the story so that characters can be pressed into different roles. For instance ...

  • It could be that the worst snowstorm in recorded history has cut off the inn, or possibly the entire town. 
  • It could be that a flood has demolished the only bridge into, or out of, town.
  • It could be that the sleuth is part of a team building exercise.
  • It could be that the sleuth is part of a small English village.

The Sleuth As Character


The sleuth is, of course, the protagonist so the same pointers apply here that apply for any protagonist. When the sleuth is introduced, answer as many of the following as you can:

  • What does the sleuth desire above all else?
  • What is her ruling passion?
  • What does she fear?
  • What does she do better than anyone else?
  • What are her tags?

The Sleuth: Tropes 


Tropes aren't necessarily bad, it just depends on how reflectively they're used.

Leaving the big city.


In most of the cosy mysteries I've read the sleuth has moved from a big city back to the small town they grew up in.

Disastrous romantic relationship in the backstory. 


Often the sleuth has had a disastrous romantic relationship in the city and this is part of the reason she moves back to her hometown. Sometimes the significant other comes to visit the sleuth and this becomes a subplot.

The sleuth becomes the owner of a small business and struggles financially.


Very often the sleuth owns some sort of business that brings them into regular contact with townspeople. Sometimes she has inherited the business from a family member such as a parent or grandparent.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I'm recommending Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion, and Theme by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld sold by Writer's Digest. From the blurb: "Writing Deep Scenes teaches you how to write strong, layered, and engaging scenes—the secret to memorable, page-turning plots. It's filled with practical tools for building layers and nuance into your scenes, employing the right scene types at the right junctures, and developing a profound understanding of how plot and scene intertwine."



References


This article drew from material in the following articles:

4 Things You Should Know About Writing a Cozy Mystery Novel
20 Tips for Writing the Cozy or Traditional Mystery
Writing the Cozy Mystery
The Mystery of Mysteries: 16 Steps to Writing the Cozy Mystery
How To Write a Cozy Mystery

Notes:


1. How To Write A Murder Mystery, by Lee Goldberg.

2. I’m NOT saying that if you choose to write a cosy that you will meet with similar success! I know you know that, but I thought I’d better say it anyway. :-)

Monday, November 28

How To Tailor A Story To Readers

How To Tailor A Story To Readers


Usually we just want to write the best darn story we can, one that we love and—hopefully!—others will love as well. And it's a good bet others will. But perhaps you want to target your story to readers of a certain kind of story.

Which brings us to the other way of writing a story; namely, to find out what folks love and then write that kind of story.

A Few Questions


1. Which category do we want to target?


Let’s say we’re interested in writing a mystery story that features a British detective and that we’ve singled out the category:

Books > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > British Detectives

2. How many books do we want to examine?


We want to pick the most popular books that most closely fit the kind of book you want to write. Pick between 5 and 10. Buy them, read them, study them.

3. What to look for?


  • How long is the book? How many words?
  • Read the blurb. What elements are highlighted? Does the blurb fit the story?
  • Look at the cover. What items are featured? What themes in the story do these items reflect? Do the themes/items featured fit the story?
  • How many protagonists? One or two?
  • What point of view is the story written from? First, second or third?
  • If the book is written using the third person, is the narrator limited, omniscient or something in-between?
  • Is the pacing fast? Slow?

I’m not suggesting that anyone research a market and then write a book designed to sell in that market. That’s not an attractive thought for many, perhaps most, writers. And that’s fine. But there are many fine writers who have taken work as a ghostwriter, or a copywriter, or other area where one needs to be able to write to spec.

Even if you would never consider writing to a market, if you’ve written a story that you know fits a particular category, it might still be worthwhile to try and answer the questions in (3). Why? Because it will help you market your book to readers of that category.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I want to recommend one of James Scott Bell's books, Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between. From the blurb: “Some writers start at the beginning and let the story unfold without a plan. They are called "pantsers," because they write by the "seat of the pants." Other writers plan and outline and know the ending before they start. These are the "plotters." The two sides never seem to agree with each other on the best approach. But what if it's not the beginning or the end that is the key to a successful book? What if, amazing as it may seem, the place to begin writing your novel is in the very middle of the story?”



That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!

Friday, November 25

Turning An Idea Into A Story

Turning An Idea Into A Story


I know I’ve touched on this in a couple of previous posts. To be honest, there’s an old story I’ve written, one I love, but I know the structure is wrong. While I’ve become much better at spotting structural defects in the works of others, when it comes to my own work it’s devilishly hard because I’m so close to it.

I think that this is, at least in part, because I don’t need to read the words to grasp my story, it’s already in my head.

What I want to think about today is how to take an idea and treat it a bit like a piece of knitting or crochet that needs to be blocked. By this I mean, just as I would stretch a crocheted snowflake over a mould so that it would take on the appropriate shape, so a story idea can be positioned within a structure to see how well it fits, where it’s thin as well as where it bunches.

True, I wrote about this last time, but today I want to approach it from a different angle. Last time I talked about a writer’s audience and how this can influence the content of the work. Today I want to focus on shaping the story idea itself.

As always, I would love to know what you think! Are you getting a bit worn out by NaNoWriMo? What kind of articles would you like to read? If you feel that you haven’t achieved your writing goals, what would you say was the single biggest thing holding you back?

The Beginning of a Story Hypothesis


“(1) A state of affairs, present or projected, that symbolizes happiness to your hero.

“(2) A danger that threatens his chances of achieving or maintaining that state of affairs.”[1]

What I try to do is imagine each of these states of affairs as vividly and concretely as I can. Then I write them down. This serves as a foundation for my story.

Example: Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.


What state of affairs symbolized happiness to Clarice Starling?

As the title of the movie suggests, the lambs being silent.

Let me unpack that. Clarice was abandoned by her mother after the death of her father. She was angry. How could her mother abandon her own child? But then Clarice abandoned the lambs because it was out of her control. Like her mother, she couldn’t do anything to help. By the time we meet FBI trainee Starling, though she is still angry with her mother on some level, she’s more angry with herself.

What danger threatens Clarice’s chances of achieving or maintaining the said silence? Two threats: the serial killer Jame Gumb and the FBI. The serial killer because he’s the one killing the girls, Clarice’s lambs. The FBI because they care more about politics and advancement than about saving a life.

Example: Raiders of the Lost Ark


The state of affairs that symbolizes happiness to Indiana Jones is taking the Ark back to the university’s museum.

The danger that threatens Indy’s chances of achieving this state of affairs is, primarily, Belloq, his nemesis. Belloq is also an archeologist, one who keeps stealing the relics Indy recovers.

Now it’s your turn. I’d like you to think of two things and creative a vivid mental picture of each of these situations:

1. What state of affairs, present or projected, symbolizes happiness to your hero?
2. What danger threatens your hero’s chance of achieving or maintaining this state of affairs.

Five Elements In Every Story


Swain writes that the following five elements are in every story (see below). In what follows I use Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example.

1. A Protagonist


A protagonist is the person who the world pushes on, the one who is threatened by a specific danger. He is also the person who, eventually, pushes back.

Example: Indiana Jones, relic hunter.

2. A Situation/The Inciting Incident


This is the “backdrop of trouble that forces him [the protagonist] to act.”[1]

Example: Two men from army intelligence visit Indiana Jones and tell him that the Nazi’s have discovered Tanis, the resting place of the Ark.

3. The Objective/Protagonist’s Goal


The concrete thing or state of affairs the protagonist desires.

Example: The Ark ensconced in the university’s museum back in the USA.

4. An Antagonist


The antagonist not only resists the protagonist, he fights against him.

Example: Whenever Indiana Jones finds a significant relic, Dr. RenĂ© Belloq is there to snatch it away from him. Now, Belloq is working for the Nazi’s and he uses his knowledge of Indiana Jones’ character against him.

5. The Disaster


If there is nothing at stake the story isn’t as exciting. Further, the stakes must be personal, they must endanger the people and things the protagonist cares about most. Also, the stakes must increase until, at the climax, the protagonist is faced with a disaster that is “Something Unutterably Awful.”[1]

Example: The Nazi’s have not only found the Ark, they open it releasing the raw power of God.

The Story Question


The story question is formed by fitting two sentences together.

Sentence 1: This is a statement and it should establish the PROTAGONIST, SITUATION and OBJECTIVE.[1]

Sentence 2: This is a question and it should establish the ANTAGONIST and the DISASTER.[1]

Here are a few different forms a Story Question could take:


Dwight V. Swain:

First form: “Will this focal character defeat his opponent, overcome his private danger, and win happiness?”[1]

Will Indiana Jones defeat Dr. René Belloq, overcome the Nazi war machine and avert global disaster?

Second form: When [Situation/Inciting Incident] [Protagonist] wants [Protagonist’s Goal/Thing That Makes Her Happy]. Will she lose her chance for happiness because [Antagonist] [Disaster]?

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are close to recovering the Ark of the Covenant, he sets out to claim the ark for the United States and her allies. Will he lose his chance to avert global disaster because Dr. Rene Belloq once again snatches Indy’s prize away from him?

Jim Butcher:

*WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*? [3]

Or: When [Inciting Incident occurs] [Protagonist] [Protagonist’s Goal]. But will he succeed when [Antagonist Opposes Protagonist]

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are going after the Ark of the Covenant he sets out to claim the Ark first. But will he succeed when Dr. Rene Belloq discovers Indiana’s plans?

Whatever form your story question takes it should be answerable with a “yes” or “no.”

Other Ways of Structuring a Story


These really aren’t other ways, they are different ways of representing or thinking about the same way. If you’re writing a short story or even a piece of flash fiction, these might be of a bit more help:

a. The Three O System: Objective, Obstacle, Outcome.[1]


Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately, Indy’s nemesis, Dr. Rene Belloq, is set on getting the Ark for the Nazi’s and he has no qualms about playing dirty. If Belloq succeeds the world as we know it could be destroyed.

b. Who, What, Why: WHO wants to do WHAT and WHY can’t he?[1]


Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately Dr. Rene Belloq and the Nazi war machine are set on taking the Ark for themselves.

The Secret Sauce: Linking this in with the protagonist’s character


I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. A BIG fan!

Every time Butcher releases a new book I block off a few hours of my day, curl up in my favorite chair and read the book cover to cover. Sure, I’ll go back later and re-read it. The second time will be slower, more careful. I’ll look at the structure of the story and try to analyze how Butcher created certain effects in the reader. But the first time through is pure unadulterated pleasure.

One thing I’ve noticed about the books of the Dresden Files series is that the main character, Harry Dresden—though clever and able to think well in the moment—isn’t the brightest bulb. Which is convenient since Dresden is uncompromisingly committed to doing the right thing (a.k.a. the moral thing).

What’s the right thing? It’s the unselfish thing. In other words, “Adherence to principle despite the temptation to self-interest.”[1]
What’s the wrong thing? It’s the selfish thing. In other words, “Abandonment of conviction for the sake of personal advantage.”[1]

This should really come through at the climax. Make sure that the moral issue is brought into play. The hero (and this is a big part of what makes a character a hero) does what he does for unselfish motives while the villain does what he does from selfish motives. I’m not saying it’s quite as clear cut as this, but (thinking about the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve seen) self-interest seems to be a dominant trait in most antagonists.[2]

As a result, though, often heroes are more good than bright. I’ve just mentioned Harry Dresden. It’s not that he’s stupid, far from it! But there are many people who are more intelligent than him in one way or another. That said, he excels at three things. First, he can think well under pressure. Second, he can think well in the moment, making a split-second decision that will (usually!) turn out to be the correct one. Third, he’s a planner, able to think of multiple possibilities and planning for them. He’s not brilliant but he can be exceptionally clever.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I’d like to recommend Master Lists For Writers by Bryn Donovan. The author goes over setting, various plot types, how to write action as well as dialogue—and that’s for starters! From the blurb: “Whether you’re writing novels or short fiction, screenwriting, or any other kind of storytelling, MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS is a rich source of inspiration you’ll turn to again and again.”



That’s it! I hope NaNo is going well for you. Remember, as long as you’ve written more than you would have otherwise, you’re a winner! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing!

Notes:


1. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

2. It is also true that every antagonist is the hero of his own story. The antagonist might see himself as a savior, unselfishly sacrificing himself—as well as, perhaps, those he cares about—for a greater good. Of course it could also be the case that he’s lying to himself!

3. Fundamentals—Story Skeletons by Jim Butcher.