Tuesday, January 29

Gone Fishing: Back in a Week

Sorry folks, my arm is acting up.  I have to give it a complete rest, I think a week should do it. (cross fingers)

Good writing! See you in a week.

Sunday, January 27

Michael Hauge On How To Summarize Your Novel

Michael Hauge On How To Summarize Your Novel

Michael Hauge's Story Mastery

As some of you know, my right arm is out of commission so all typing--except for this blog!--is out of the question. As a result, I've been taking care of tasks I normally put off.

Tasks such as filing papers.

I struck gold! I went through some of the handouts from conferences I've attended--I thought I might find something interesting for a blog post--and came across Michael Hauge's handouts, along with my notes from the workshop he taught at Write On!

Michael Hauge's Biography

For those who don't know, Michael Hauge is a story consultant, what some folks call a story doctor, as well as an author and lecturer. The following is from his bio:
[Michael Hauge] has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Robert Downey Jr and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network.
Michael has been involved "in the development of I AM LEGEND, HANCOCK and THE KARATE KID".

I was riveted by Michael's talks. If you ever have a chance to attend one of his workshops I recommend it.

Novel Summary Template

The really cool thing about Michael Hauge's template is that it isn't just a 'plug in the description' kind of thing, he ties it into the underlying structure of the story.

I'll do this in two parts. First, we'll look at the template, then we'll look at how the template ties into the underlying story structure.

This is straight from Michael Hauge's handout:
When hero who empathy/setup, is opportunity, s/he decides to new situation/preliminary goal. But when change of plans s/he now must outer motivation/primary goal but hero's plan as well as second goal. [NOT a necessity, except in most Romantic Comedies] in spite of the fact that outer conflict.

Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure

Now let's take Michael's tempate and see how it lines up with a story's underlying structure (see Figure 1). In the next section I'll give an example and pull everything together.

Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure
Figure 1. Click to Enlarge

KM Fawcett has written an amazing article: Michael Hauge's Six-Stage Plot Structure. I encourage you all to read it, she gives the best summary of Michael's system I've seen, here is a sample:
A character arcs when he moves from his identity to essence.

Identity = emotional armor (facade) worn to protect himself from some wound.
Essence = who the character is when the emotional armor is stripped. True self.
What is your hero’s wound? From the wound grows a fear. This fear gives IDENTITY (emotional armor) to the character.

The character should have a physical goal, but that goal is primarily a symbol. It represents an emotional need (the true goal). The end reward must satisfy the character’s emotional need.
The only way the character can get to his longing (his emotional need) is to step out of his IDENTITY (emotional armor) and into his ESSENCE (true self).

Once you’ve established your hero’s WOUND, FEAR, IDENTITY, ESSENCE, EMOTIONAL NEED and PHYSICAL OUTER GOAL, we can move onto The Six Stage Plot Structure.
That is only the start of her analysis, to read the whole thing, click here: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Plot Structure.

Michael Hauge's Example: Shrek

Okay, so now we're going to bring everything together. We're putting Michael's structure for a summary together with his underlying plot structure and coming up with something you can use to wow editors as well as the next person who asks you: So, what's your story about?

Hero = Shrek
Role = lovable, courageous ogre
Setup = lives alone in his swamp because the townspeople reject him, has his home invaded by fairy tale creatures
New Situation = go tell the powerful Lord Farquaad to send them back home
Change of plans = Farquaad sends Shrek on a mission in return for his swamp
Outer motivation = rescue a princess and give her to Farquaad
Hero's plan = overcoming a fearsome dragon
Secondary goal = win the love of the princess for himself
Outer conflict = a) Farquaad will stop at nothing to get her, b) Shrek is afraid she'll reject him, and c) she's secretly cursed with turning into an ogre herself every night.

So here's how that reads:
When Shrek, a lovable, courageous ogre who lives alone in his swamp because the townspeople reject him, has his home invaded by fairy tale creatures, he decides to go tell the powerful Lord Farquaad to send them back home. But when Farquaad sends Shrek on a mission in return for his swamp, Shrek now must rescue a princess and give her to Farquaad by overcoming a fearsome dragon, as well as win the love of the princess for himself, in spite of the fact that Farquaad will stone at nothing to get her. Shrek is afraid she'll reject him, and she's secretly cursed with turning into an ogre herself every night.
An added bonus is that since the summary is drawn right out of the structure of your novel, it's tethered to it, so doing this exercise before you write the first draft could save you a TON of work later.

Try it out! What is the summary for your work-in-progress? 

Other articles you might like:

- Six Things Writers Can Learn From Television
- How To Succeed As A Writer: The Value Of Failure
- The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome

Photo credit: "Metrò Paris" by superUbO under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, January 26

Six Things Writers Can Learn From Television

Six Things Writers Can Learn From Television

Today I'm going to talk about 6 things fiction writers can learn from television, but before we get to that I'd like to talk about a fantastic site I just discovered.

Nerdist Writers Panel

I've always wondered what it would be like to be a TV writer so I was ecstatic to learn about the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast. TV writers for shows like Modern Family, Family Guy, The Office, Big Bang Theory talk about their experiences. It's fascinating. Many thanks to Matt Debenham for recommending the site.

6 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Television

1. 'You can’t just tell the story of Some Guy. You have to tell the story of THE Guy Who….'

TV is all about the characters, even premise-heavy shows like Burn Notice. Matt Debenham writes:
There have been a dozen shows that tried to replicate the mix of sci-fi and mystery that seemingly made LOST a hit, but the secret to LOST was this: People came for the crazy premise, they stayed for the characters. The writers took time to show us exactly who Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Hurley, Charlie, and Claire were. In fact, the flashback structure LOST used from the start was there explicitly to deepen the characters, which the creators knew would then keep us invested in the mystery. People watch because they love to become invested in characters. They love to know them, they love to worry about them, they love to be surprised by them. 6 Things Prose Writers Can Learn From Television)

2. Good Characters are Obsessed and Broken

Great characters are the most DRIVEN and the most DAMAGED. They are active.

An active character is one who:
- wants something
- does something related to those wants
- have what they do in (2) be bad for them.

Rule of thumb: Bad for the character? Great for everyone else!

Example: Walter White from Breaking Bad. Matt writes:
Walter is obsessed with becoming a bigger and bigger player in the meth business. Which is probably a fairly normal trait for someone in the meth business. But Walter is broken because his attachment to meth stems not from money, which was his original version of things (he was dying of cancer and wanted to leave his family with some security after he was gone), but from a desperate need for respect. Family doesn’t really enter into it. Walter White is driven by pride — to the degree that he continues on despite the bodies and ruined lives and broken relationships piling up around him. Walter’s obsession is what helps him, a former high-school chemistry teacher, quickly become the biggest meth player in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Walter’s brokenness is what keeps him from getting out despite the fact that his work constantly endangers his life and the lives of those he supposedly loves. (4 Steps (And a Bonus!) To Making Character Everything)

3. Be Entertaining To Others

Some folks write to please themselves and that's great, but if you want an audience, write for the audience.

4. Don't explain everything.

Leave key information up to the audience to figure out. Leave room for revelation.

5. Plot, Narrative Structure, Is Everything

Structure matters because without it there's no story. Structure isn't formula. Structure, plot, simply provides framework for content, it doesn't dictate content. For example, Michael Hague, from Story Mastery, talks about the five key turning points of all successful scripts.

6. You Have To Go On To The Next Project

In the movie Bossy Pants Tina Fey said, "The show doesn’t go on when it’s finished; it goes on because it’s 11:30" (Kris Rusch: The Value of Imperfection).  Nina Munteanu writes that

Robert J. Sawyer’s response to the question of “when do you stop revising?” was “When you’ve taken out all the boring bits.” That may seem on the face of it either too simple or too abstract. But, in fact, he is right on the mark. (When Do You Know Your Story Is Finished?)
How can you tell when the boring bits are out? Nina gives these tips:

1. Objectivity: Distance yourself

If you think your manuscript might be done set it aside for a few weeks, or as long as you can afford then read it again with fresh eyes.

2. Is each scene essential and well developed?

- Does your character have clearly defined goals in each scene?
- Is there conflict? Something keeping the character from achieving his or her goal?
- Is the point of view character's goal tied into the story goal?
 You need to know when to step back and pronounce your work done. If you don't have an editor and are making this call on your own it can be difficult.

What is your favorite TV character? Why?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Succeed As A Writer: The Value Of Failure
- The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome
- Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse

Photo credit: "bee zzzzzzz Sunday" by linh.ngan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, January 25

The Writer's Life: Repetitive Strain Injury

The Writer's Life: Repetitive Strain Injury

A couple of days ago I typed four thousand words of fiction, a thousand words of non-fiction, went to bed, and woke up with a useless arm.

Of course it's not completely useless, it can still do essential things like helping me drink coffee, but I can't raise it out to my side. Not without excessive use of colorful language, that is.

So, today, I thought I would offer up my experience as a cautionary tale, one of those horrific stories after-school specials are made about, the ones that make young children afraid to look under their beds. (Or in closets. Beastly things, closets.)

What NOT To Do With Your Mouse

I'm renovating my office so I set up an oh-so-very temporary one in what is basically an oversized storage closet.

It's not as bad as it sounds.

The arrangement has its perks, when I spill my coffee I'm right next to the cleaning supplies! But there's one enormous downside: my desk is too shallow. Actually, my 'desk' is really a deep shelf. If there is a villain in this little morality tale it would be the shelf (cue dramatic music: dun dun dun).

Trust me, my monitor was not designed to sit on a shelf, it has a huge oval base that, while ensuring it would remain upright through a magnitude 8 earthquake, makes it a space-hog. I can't fit both my monitor and my keyboard on my desk-shelf at the same time.

(In terms of plot, this would be the complication. Deciding to move my office into the oversized closet would be me accepting the call to adventure. BAD call.)

My solution: slant my keyboard and monitor so they can both sit on the desk at the same time.

At the time I was proud of myself for making a difficult situation work, but that was the start of my problem because the angle of the keyboard forced me to mouse at an awkward angle.

(Kids, if something feels awkward don't do it!)

A couple of days later a strange stabby, shooting, pain came to live in my right shoulder. At that point I should have put two and two together and realized that my unnatural mousing posture was hurting me.

Ah, nope. I had no clue. I was obsessed with meeting my deadlines so I barely gave it a second thought.

The pain gradually increased until the day I told you about, the day I went on a typing marathon and woke to find my right shoulder on strike.

(You may wonder how I'm typing this, let's just say slings can be very versatile.)

If my tale were a proper after-school special it would have a resolution--my renovations would be finished and I'd have moved back into my office, in a little bit of pain but much wiser because of my brush with RSI.

Here's hoping!

Repetitive Strain Injury And You

You're probably much more savvy than I was about ways to avoid and treat repetitive strain injury, but I thought I'd include a few tips.

Tips for avoiding repetitive strain injury:

1. If it hurts when you do that, don't do that!

2. If you get a shooting pain in your shoulder don't ignore it and hope it'll go away. Figure out what might be causing the pain and fix things.

3. Hot and cold compresses. I had intended this to be a silly list but one thing that has helped me are hot and cold heating pads. Overnight, I have less pain and more mobility. (I'm not saying you should try this, for all I know it could make the injury worse long-term. No medical recommendations here!)

Here are a few articles/sites on RSI I've found helpful:
- Repetitive Strain Injury (Wikipedia)
- RSI Awareness
- Harvard RSI Action
Have you ever had a repetitive strain injury? How did you get it? What did you do to treat it?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Succeed As A Writer: The Value Of Failure
- The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome
- Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse

Photo credit: "Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - Son in the Tub" by MAJ Aaron Haney, posted by familymwr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, January 24

How To Succeed As A Writer: The Value Of Failure

How To Succeed As A Writer: The Value Of Failure

We've all failed. Seth Godin believes that failing is good but that failing big is even better. Why? Because unless you're failing you're not really trying. (NexGen Interviews - Seth Godin)

But how does this philosophy apply to writers? That's something I've been thinking about lately. This morning I came across How to Become a Writing Rockstar: A Simple Guide. In it Henri Junttila asks: What is the goal of writing?

When we know what the goal is, perhaps he can understand how failure can help us. So, here's what Henri thinks the goal of writing is: To write authentically, to write honestly. "When you stay true to your quirky self, you are already a rockstar."

That echoes something Seth Godin said:
We should blow up the expectations of writing and say something worth saying and say it in a way that’s personal. It turns out that the internet, for the first time in the history of mankind, says to everyone, ‘Here’s a microphone. If you want to talk, talk. If you want to write, write. If you want to make a difference, make a difference.’ How horrible it would be to refuse to take your turn at the mic. (Why We Are All Artists: Seth Godin in Conversation – Part 1)
You might say, "Oh, but what if people don't like me! What if I release my work on Amazon and I get a bunch of 1 star reviews?"

1. Failure Shows You How To Get Better

Here's why failure is so important: it shows you how to get better. Seth writes:
Bob Dylan was booed off the stage in 1967 when he went electric. He was booed off the stage in 1974 when he went Gospel. He’s been booed off the stage since then and yet he still fills theaters. The Monkeys, on the other hand, have never been booed off the stage and they’re just an oldies act. Being booed off the stage is a key part of being an artist. (Part 1)
So, congratulations! Sure, you failed, but you tried something. And, as a result, you learned something.

2. Failure Is Safer Than Not Failing

What you did is actually a very safe thing. Seth writes:
I want to use the words uncomfortable zone [rather than "danger zone"] because it is, in fact, a very safe place to be because it’s not fatal. No one ever died writing a blog post. What we’re saying here is that for a while anyway, the safest thing you can do is to be as uncomfortable as you can stand to be. (How to become a Successful Writer: Seth Godin in Conversation – Part 2)
Your writing career is not over because you wrote and published a story that people hated (and I'm pretty sure not everyone hated it). Remember: YOU didn't fail, your story did. 

The key: Don't take failure personally.

Seth Godin puts it this way:
Most people who are getting started in writing do not have the confidence of a best-selling author. They are not comfortable sharing their work far and wide. They’re not comfortable saying, ‘I don’t have a publisher. I’m going to publish myself. Here, I wrote this.’ They would rather have the safety that comes from saying, ‘Well, I didn’t decide this was good. Penguin decided this was good.’ ‘I didn’t decide this was worth reading. Simon and Schuster decided it was worth reading.’

My argument is that all the things that feel uncomfortable are actually the safest things you can do. To every novelist who is complaining or bitter about all the publishers who won’t publish them, I say: Take your novel, make it into a PDF. It’s free. E-mail it to fifty of your friends.

If your novel strikes a chord, they will e-mail it to their friends and the next thing you know, a million people will read your novel for free. If a million people read your novel for free, you’ll have no trouble whatsoever selling your next one.

On the other hand, if the fifty people you sent it to don’t share it with anyone, then you haven’t written a good enough novel, and you should start over. But either of those paths is better than sitting at home complaining about the fact that you can’t get published. (Part 1)
We’ve just eliminated scarcity. There used to be scarcity of shelf space, scarcity of publishers, and scarcity of paper. All that’s gone. There’s unlimited shelf space, unlimited digital paper, and an unlimited number of publishers. You can’t continue to blame scarcity for the fact that your writing isn’t in the world.

You have to accept that putting your writing out there is no longer difficult. What’s difficult is getting someone who encounters your writing to share it with someone else. That changes the kind of writing you should be doing. You shouldn’t ever again be writing to please an editor. (Part 2)
Seth admits to failing:
I don’t consider it a good day unless I fail. I’ve written thousands and thousands of blog posts. Most of them aren’t that great. I’ve written books that didn’t sell as well as the publisher wanted. I’ve launched internet projects that have fallen on their face. I’ve had negotiations where I completely misunderstood what the other person was looking for, or they misunderstood me, and we walked away from each other.

The Key To Success As A Writer

Don't write to please everyone. If you do that you'll please no one.
If you’ve accepted that the rules of the game are that you are not willing to write unless everyone likes what you write, then you’ve just announced that you’re an amateur, not a professional, and that you’re probably doomed. Whereas the professional writer says, ‘It is almost certain that most of what I write will not resonate with most people who read it, but over time, I will gain an audience who trusts me to, at the very least, be interesting.’ (Part 2)
The power of the internet, for writers, is that we can find a small group of people who are interested in the same things we are, the the things we write about. Seth writes:
I was in Iceland last week ... and one out of every six hundred people in the whole country came to see me speak. This would be the equivalent of fifty thousand people seeing me in the United States, which has never, ever happened.

Iceland teaches an important lesson. It’s such a tiny place, yet it’s possible to have a café that succeeds. The café succeeds not because everyone in Iceland goes there, but because enough people go. Whether you live in New Zealand, Malaysia or the United States, the internet connects you to four billion people.

All you need to make a living is for four thousand to adore you. And you need forty thousand to be a hit. That’s forty thousand out of four billion! Those are really good odds! (Part 2)

The Bottom Line

If failure is okay (but mistakes are not), then is there anything you shouldn't do? Seth Godin says there is one thing you should never be: boring. He writes:
Whether you’re a writer or the maker of widgets, you won’t be able to keep going if you’re boring. (Part 2)

Seth Godin's Advice To New Writers

Seth Godin was asked to give advice to new writers. What should a new writer do? His reply:
There are three steps: write, ship, share. When you write and ship and share and you see whether or not it resonates, you will get better at what you do.

The more you write and ship and share, the more people will come to depend on what you’re doing and the easier it’s going to be to spread your ideas. At some point, people will come to you and say, ‘I’m not getting enough of what you’re doing. Here’s some money’, or ‘I’m not getting enough of what you’re doing. Please come speak to my group’, or ‘I’m not getting enough of what you’re doing. Please coach me so I can do it too.’ But none of that happens until you write and ship and share. (Part 2)
My Question: Are you convinced? Do you think failure is necessary for success?

Other articles you might be interested in:

- The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome
- Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse
- Fleshing Out Your Protagonist: Creating An Awesome Character

Photo credit: "Stupid garbage compactor ..." by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 23

The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome

The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome

How To Write A Bestseller

If anyone knows, please do tell! Of course part of it is luck. Getting your content out in front of the right people at the right time.

Topic counts too. Writing about something--whether it be hobbits in Middle Earth, buried silos, or kids finding a body--that will grab the public's attention, something they will be intrigued by enough to both read and recommend.

So, other than that, what's the secret to writing a bestseller?

Of course I know there's no secret, not really, but I do think there may be rules of thumb.

When I read Stephen King's work--and I know I keep mentioning Mr. King--but he has had an enormously successful career and his work has been used as an example of how to write in many of the writing workshops I've taken as well as in many of the books on writing I've read.

Dig Deep And Go For The Emotional Jugular

When I read Stephen King's work what has struck me is this: the emotional connection.

Always, always, always I feel for the characters, there is a part of me that emotionally connects with them, their successes and their failings. It's not a thinking thing, this connection, it's an emotional thing. It's not a matter of the head but of the heart.

Right now I'm reading Dean Koontz's novella, What The Night Knows. His opening paragraphs paint a picture. It's a beautiful, compelling opening that does a good job of both drawing me into the story and creating an atmosphere, a feeling.

But it's a different feeling from that created by King. It is more about thinking and looking, about understanding the characters. I like the characters, I'm interested, I do care about them, but I'm not emotionally invested in them they way I get when I read a King novel. I feel protective of those characters the way I feel about my good friends.

Of course, I'm talking about my responses. You may have had different responses. In which case, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

An Analysis Of Stephen King's Misery

I will talk about Misery but first I'd like to backtrack a bit.

I've previously written about It and The Dead Zone, two of my favorite books by Stephen King (It is one of my favorite books by any author). Another book King wrote, and that sold well, and that was said to be, by some, one of his best books, was Misery.

Misery begins differently than many of Stephen King's other books, with a man struggling to regain consciousness. But, in each case (The Dead Zone, It, Misery) there is a dilemma, almost a contest, that starts things off. Always, this dilemma/contest is intensely personal for the main character.

The Dead Zone

In The Dead Zone Johnny, a six year old boy, goes down to the local pond to ice skate. He's good at ice skating, better even than the other kids his age. The contest is between Johnny and the other children as well as between Johnny and himself.

Specifically, Johnny wants to do something he's never done before, something Timmy Benedix could do: Skate backward. King writes:
[Johnny] skated slowly around the outer edge of the clear patch, wishing he could go backward like Timmy Benedix, listening to the ice thud and crackle mysteriously under the snow cover farther out ... He was very glad to be alive on that cold, fair winter day. Nothing was wrong with him, nothing troubled his mind, he wanted nothing ... except to be able to skate backward, like Timmy Benedix.
.  .  .  .
"Timmy!" he shouted. "Watch this!"
He turned around and began to skate clumsily backward. Without realizing it, he was skating into the area of the hockey game.
.  .  .  .
[H]e was doing it! He was skating backward! He had caught the rhythm--all at once. It was in a kind of sway of the legs ...
Just then, in the midst of his six-year-old elation he receives the injury that will change the rest of his life.

The Dead Zone: Analysis

So, what do we have? A sympathetic character achieves a personal goal, does something, accomplishes something, that gives him a great deal of satisfaction and that readers can relate to (a lot of kids have strapped on ice skates and done a few laps around an ice rink).

Then the sympathetic character, through no fault of their own, receives a crushing blow that will transform the rest of their life. As a result of this blow they have a challenge: Give in or overcome.

Stephen King's It

The Dead Zone was published in 1979 while It wasn't released until 1986 (Stephen King Biography). But, still, these books open in remarkably similar ways.

At the beginning of It we meet George who is, like Johnny, age six. George is "a small boy in a yellow slicker and red galoshes" who runs along beside a boat made out of newspaper.

George is adorable.

The boat was made by his brother, Bill. Bill loves George and would have played with him but he was ill and confined to bed.

This is the 'through no fault of his own' part. Bill couldn't help being sick and not being able to help his brother. Yes, he made the newspaper boat for his brother, and yes George probably wouldn't have died that day, that way, if he hadn't been playing with the toy Bill made for him. But still it wasn't Bill's fault. Though, of course, we understand that Bill wouldn't feel that way about it.

When the newspaper boat goes off the side of a "deep ravine" George laughs aloud, "the sound of solitary, childish glee a bright runner in that gray afternoon".

George's "strange death" is the crushing blow life delivers to Bill the way falling on the ice, the injury he received, was Johnny's.


What I've talked about so far are openings, just openings, and that's all I'm going to do because, really, those first few paragraphs are the most important determiners of whether your book will sell, whether the person reading your work will buy it.

The rest of the book sells your next book, or perhaps one from your backlist. It's the first few paragraphs that sells the one a potential fan, a potential buyer, opens up and starts to read.

At least that's how I look at it.

Stephen King's Misery

So, let's look at Misery now. What's the setup here?

A man, Paul Sheldon, gets into a car accident while driving under the influence. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes and nursed back to life in her spare bedroom.

For the first few paragraphs Paul is fighting for consciousness. Here's King's first mention of Annie Wilkes:
His first really clear memory of this now, the now outside the storm-haze, was of stopping, of being suddenly aware he just couldn't pull another breath, and that was all right, that was good, that was in fact just peachy-keen; he could take a certain level of pain but enough was enough and he was glad to be getting out of the game.

Then there was a mouth clamped over his, a mouth which was unmistakably a woman's mouth in spite of its hard spitless lips, and the wind from this woman's mouth blew into his own mouth and down his throat, puffing his lungs, and when the lips were pulled back he smelled his warder for the first time, smelled her on the outrush of the breath she had forced into him the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman, a dreadful mixed stench of vanilla cookies and chocolate ice cream and chicken gravy and peanut-butter fudge.

He heard a voice screaming, "Breathe, goddammit! Breathe, Paul!"

The lips clamped down again. The breath blew down his throat again. Blew down it like the dank suck of wind which follows a fast subway train, pulling sheets of newspaper and candy-wrappers after it ...
There's a lot to say about that passage. Yesterday I wrote about Ray Bradbury and mentioned what he had said in Zen In The Art Of Writing about it being important for writers to read poetry. I'd wager that Stephen King reads his fair share of poetry! It's a beautiful example of poetic prose.

Anyway, that's not what we're discussing right now!

This passage seems to follow the previous pattern, though not as obviously. No, we don't have a six year old child, but we do have someone vulnerable. Helpless. Sympathetic.

The crushing blow is Annie Wilkes; Paul's car accident and being rescued by her--if one can call it a rescue!

The rest of Misery is about how Paul deals with the crushing blow. Does he let his situation get the better of him or does he fight like hell and overcome?

That, I think, is a common setup for King's books.

The Pattern

I'm not saying that Stephen King has a formula, not at all. I'm just saying I've noticed a certain pattern to a few of Mr. King's openings and the pattern goes something like this:
A sympathetic character under stress (they have either achieved something or had something important stripped away from them) receives a crushing blow that will transform the rest of their life. As a result of this blow they have a challenge: Give in or overcome.
This is the last installment of my series, The Magic Of Stephen King, but I want to write other articles that look at what makes certain stories--fictional or otherwise--work. What makes certain videos, certain news stories, go viral? What makes certain books bestsellers? But that's for another day!
What other stories--they could be Stephen King's but they don't have to be--fit this pattern? Have you written a story that fits this pattern?

Other articles you might like:

- Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse
- Fleshing Out Your Protagonist: Creating An Awesome Character
- Dean Koontz And 5 Things Every Genre Story Needs

Photo credit: "Another day in paradise" by CptHUN under Creative Commons Copyright 2.0.

Tuesday, January 22

Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse

Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse

"If science fiction is escapist, it's escape into reality," Isaac Asimov

 "... writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that," Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury's, Zen In The Art Of Writing, is soul food.

I love Ray Bradbury's writing. Something Wicked This Way Comes had a profound influence on me as a young writer--but for some reason, even though it was recommended again and again, I neglected to read Ray Bradbury's book on writing.

That, I realize now, was a mistake.

How To Keep And Feed A Muse

The chapter I'm reading at the moment is How to Keep and Feed a Muse. Mr. Bradbury gives some remarkably detailed advice.

What To Feed Your Muse

1. A lifetime of experiences.

We must feed ourselves on life.
It is my contention that in order to Keep a Muse, you must first offer food. How you can feed something that isn't yet there is a little hard to explain. But we live surrounded by paradoxes. One more shouldn't hurt us.

The fact is simple enough. Through a lifetime, by ingesting food and water, we build cells, we grow, we become larger and more substantial. ...

Similarly, in a lifetime, we stuff ourselves with sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures of people, animals, landscapes, events, large and small. We stuff ourselves with these impressions and  experiences and our reaction to them. Into our subconscious go not only factual data but reactive data, our movement toward or away from the sensed events.
These are the stuffs, the foods, on which The Muse grows.

2. Read poetry every day.

What kind of poetry? "Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. Don't force yourself too hard. Take it easy."

3. Books of essays.

You can never tell when you might want to know the finer points of being a pedestrian, keeping bees, carving headstones, or rolling hoops. Here is where you play the dilettante, and where it pays to do so. You are, in effect, dropping stones down a well. Every time you hear an echo from your Subconscious, you know yourself a little better. A small echo may start an idea. A big echo may result in a story.
.  .  .  .
Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture. If your reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves, half your fight is won. The most improbable tales can be made believable, if your reader, through his senses, feels certain that he stands at the middle of events. He cannot refuse, then, to participate. The logic of events always gives way to the logic of the senses.

4. Read short stories and novels.

Read those authors who write the way you hope to write, those who think the way you would like to think. But also read those who do not think as you think or write as you want to write, and so be stimulated in directions you might not take for many years. Here again, don't let the snobbery of others prevent you from reading Kipling, say, while no one else is reading him.

How To Keep Your Muse

Ray Bradbury advises that not only should we write every day, but that we should write 1,000 words a day for 10 or 20 years!

Great advise. Truly excellent. Myself, though, I hope it doesn't take 20 years! Of course, if it does, it does. Writing is the kind of thing that, if one can be discouraged from it, one probably should be.
And while feeding, How to Keep Your Muse is our final problem.

The Muse must have shape. You will write a thousand words a day for ten or twenty years in order to try to give it shape, to learn enough about grammar and story construction so that these become part of the Subconscious, without restraining or distorting the Muse.

By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self. By training yourself in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.

You have learned to go immediately to the typewriter and preserve the inspiration for all time by putting it on paper.


Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime.

Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are—the material within you which makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.
.  .  .  .
Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven't friends. Go find some.
#   #   #

I haven't contributed a lot of commentary, above, because ... well, what could I add? One thing Mr. Bradbury said--I didn't include the quotation--was that he wrote 3,000,000 words before his first story was accepted at the age of 20.

Three million words!

Add to that, Mr. Bradbury wrote every day, every single day. He must have had a well fed, and very content, muse.

What is your favorite book on writing? What is the best writing advice you've received?

Other articles you might like:

- Fleshing Out Your Protagonist: Creating An Awesome Character
- Dean Koontz And 5 Things Every Genre Story Needs
- How Plotting Can Build A Better Story

Photo credit: "Dust" by Robb North under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, January 21

Fleshing Out Your Protagonist: Creating An Awesome Character

I know I've said this before, but Elizabeth S. Craig has a great Twitter feed for writers (@elizabethscraig). Whenever I want to read a helpful article on the art and craft of writing I just browse Elizabeth's tweets. (Her mystery novels are great too!)

I wanted to remember to say that because I found the article I'm discussing today through Elizabeth's tweets: She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About.

Chuck Wendig, Flash Fiction And A Horror Story

Yesterday I wrote my first horror story! I've been wanting to write one for ages but never had an idea that grabbed me, that made me think: that'd be a fun story to write.

The Power Of Writing Exercises

Honestly, I don't do a lot of writing exercises. I'd rather spend my time on my work-in-progress or developing a new story. But, as I say, I'd been wanting to write a horror story for some time but something was holding me back. It was difficult getting into the right head-space.

Recently I discovered Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenges. I haven't completed one, but it's fun plugging Chuck's categories into a random number generator and seeing what kind of story idea would pop out. Chuck gives 10 different subgenres, 10 different settings and 10 different things your story mush feature, then you either choose one thing from each category on your own or use a random number generator to do it for you.

Here are some of the writing prompts I came up with:

 Flash Fiction Challenge: The Wheel, Part Two (Part one is here.)
[Subgenre] in [conflict] [featuring ...]
- Bad girls in prison need to hide a body featuring a vengeful god.
- Lovecraftian revenge and a suitcase full of money.
- Alien abduction, a character being hunted and a mysterious stranger.

And, last but certainly not least, Chuck Wendig's latest flash fiction challenge features photos of places that look impossible but are actual landmarks. The challenge: Write 1,000 words inspired by one of the photos.

I decided to combine Chuck's last two challenges and write a horror story involving an alien abduction, a character being hunted and a mysterious stranger. Further, I decided it would take place here: The Crystal Cave in Skaftafell Iceland.

I also decided that the story would take me two hours to write and come in at just under 1,000 words.

Are you laughing? You should be! It took me around four hours and I blew way past the 1,000 word mark--I ended up writing about 3,000 words!

But that's okay. I now have the first draft of a story I'd like to read. And, for me, that's what it's all about. Sure, selling one's work is nice--we all need to eat--but a big reason why I started to write was that I wanted to create (or discover) the kind of stories I loved to read.

But now I'm at the stage where I need to develop my protagonist.

Fleshing Out Your Characters

At the moment my protagonist has a few bones, a more-or-less complete skeleton, but very little skin (metaphorically speaking, of course!).

Today, before I start work on the second draft, I need to put some meat on her bones and I do that by asking questions. A great resource I use regularly is Donald Maass' The Breakout Novelist Workbook as well as my notes from his workshops (see here, here and here).

Recently, though, I came across the blog post, She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About, by Susan J. Morris. Susan points out that all stories are about a character with a problem and how that character solves, or fails to solve, that problem.

Give your readers a glimpse, early on, of your hero's eventual greatness

Also, and I thought this was a brilliant way of looking at it, Susan points out that, at the end of your story, chances are your character (unless it's a tragedy) will become kinda awesome. And that's good because they'll need to be awesome to conquer the villain and achieve their goal.

But at the beginning of the story your character is a long way from being awesome. This is both good and bad. It's good because every character--especially your main character--needs an arc. It's bad because characters who aren't good at something tend to be boring; and that's VERY bad, especially at the beginning of a story when you're trying to convince people your story would be all kinds of interesting fun to read.

The solution: give your readers a glimpse, early on, of your protagonist's eventual greatness. Susan writes:
Your character is going to be awesome. Once they get to page 275. Heroes rarely start out heroes. But generally speaking, the unformed hero has about as much dynamicism as a lump of clay. Even if you are writing an origin story for your hero, you have to figure out what defines your character, what makes them awesome, and give us a glimpse of it early so that we’ll stick around to page 275.
That sounds great, doesn't it? There is a problem. At the beginning of your story you probably don't know exactly how the story is going to end and your grasp of those traits which make your character the heroine they were born to be is going to be limited at best.

The solution? Write a scene where your character is awesome, ignoring whether the scene would fit in your story. This is about discovering who your character is and what she can do. Susan writes:
One way to figure all that out is to write your character’s quintessential scene—the scene that defines them as a character. Don't worry about whether it even belongs in the book! Just writing the scene will help you work through their character. The first scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is quintessential Jones. You learn he’s an adventuresome archeologist who is afraid of snakes, that he has a mean arm with a whip and a near-constant smirk, neither of which help him against his constant antagonist, and that he always recovers his hat.

Character Questions

As I wrote earlier, I love using character questions to help me flesh out my protagonist. I don't have a cut-and-dried method, but I find if I know the answers to these sorts of questions before I begin editing my first draft that the writing, and re-writing, goes much quicker.
1. What does your character want more than anything and what is stopping them from getting it?

2. What is the one thing they wouldn’t do to get it?

3. What does your character fear more than anything, and what would make it even worse?

4. What unexpected thing are they really good at?

5. What assumptions do people make about them that always make them angry?

6. What event has changed the way they look at life and why?

7. What is hardest for them to forgive?

8. What are three positive and three negative adjectives you could use to describe them?

9. If your character had a facebook, what embarrassing secrets could we dig up on them?

10. When your character goes to a party, do they under-dress or over-dress? Do they come and leave on-time, early, or late? Are they a wallflower or the center of attention? Are they excited or filled with anxiety? (She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About)
How do you put flesh on your character's bones? Do  you ask questions? Freewrite? Do a character interview? Something else?

Other articles you might like:

- Dean Koontz And 5 Things Every Genre Story Needs
- How Plotting Can Build A Better Story
- Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection

Photo credit: "Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - I Can See You Now"by familymwr under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, January 20

Dean Koontz And 5 Things Every Genre Story Needs

Dean Koontz And 5 Things Every Genre Story Needs

Did you know Dean Koontz wrote a book on how to write genre fiction?

Actually, he wrote two books. One, published in 1972, was called Writing Popular Fiction and one, published in 1981, was called How To Write Best Selling Fiction. Both are out of print but I was able to borrow a copy of Writing Popular Fiction from a friend.

Five Essential Elements Of Genre/Category Fiction

Dean Koontz holds that there are five essential differences between genre and mainstream fiction.

1. A Strong Plot

Here's the formula:
[T]he hero (or heroine) has a serious problem; he attempts to solve it but plunges deeper into danger; his stumbling blocks, growing logically from his efforts to find a solution, become increasingly monumental; at last, forced by the harsh circumstances to learn something about himself or the world around him, to learn a Truth of which he was previously unaware, he solves his problem—or loses magnificently.
 That more-or-less sums up the hero's journey.

I find it interesting that James Frey said more or less the same thing in his book, "How To Write A Damn Good Novel". He writes:
[A dramatic novel] focuses on a central character, the protagonist, who is faced with a dilemma; the dilemma develops into a crisis; the crisis builds through a series of complications to a climax; in the climax the crisis is resolved. Novels such as Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold . . . are all written in the dramatic form and are all damn good novels.

2. A Vivid Protagonist Readers Can Relate To

Dean Kootz stresses that readers of genre fiction want to escape their lives, for a few hours they want to trade their existence for one that is more exciting. They don't want to read about someone trying and failing.

James Frey agrees and writes that "readers wish to read about the exceptional rather than the mundane". Your characters need to be "more handsome or ugly, ruthless or noble, vengeful or forgiving, brave or cowardly, and so on, than real people are."

A protagonist in a genre novel has ...
... hotter passions and colder anger; he travels more, fights more, loves more, changes more, has more sex. Lots more sex. Homo fictus has more of everything. Even if he is plain, dull, and boring, he'll be more extraordinary in his plainness, dullness, and boringness than his real-life counterparts.

3. Both Protagonist And Antagonist Must Have Clear, Believable, Motivations

I've written quite a bit lately about this point so I won't belabor it here. Point of view (POV) characters need clear goals. And the stakes (what happens if the character achieves her goal or not) they are playing for have to be crystal clear as well.

But there's something else, there's the question of motivation. Why does your character care about those goals? Why does he care about those stakes? Here we are talking about inner motivations.

Dean Koontz believes that all character motivation can be made to fit one of the following 7 categories:

- Love
- Curiosity
- Self-preservation
- Greed
- Self-discovery
- Duty
- Revenge

(I think one could also add: ambition and fear. I would slot 'conscience' in with Duty, above.)

Dean Kootz writes that two or more of these motivations must be present in any character for the result to be believable. For instance, Gothic heroines are often motivated by curiosity, love, and self-preservation.

He also cautions that a character should not be motivated by anything at odds with his basic personality. For instance, it would be difficult to imagine any of Tom Hanks' characters being motivated by greed for power or greed for wealth.

4. Lots Of Action

Whenever I think about an action movie I think of Indiana Jones in one of the first three movies of that series. Indie did a lot of running from bad guys, a lot of chasing bad guys and a LOT of fighting bad guys--and it was great!--but, as Dean Koontz points out, that's not the only kind of action.

- Movement from place to place
- Confrontations between characters
- A conflict of inner motivations

Dean Koontz writes:
The hero and heroine must constantly be engaged in conquering some barrier that grows logically from their own actions in trying to solve their major predicament.

5. A Colorful Background

Even if your characters aren't romping around the Bahamas, it's important you create a "stage on which hotels, houses, streets, and people are uniquely painted". This also helps create suspension of disbelief.

That's it! I think that sometime soonish I want to talk about James Frey's book, How To Write A Damn Good Novel. It has a  lot of great advice in it.
How do you think genre novels differ from the mainstream? DO you think they differ? Ursula K. Le Guin doesn't feel there is a useful distinction to be made.

Other articles you might like:

- How Plotting Can Build A Better Story
- Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection
- Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing

Photo credit: "high 1" by monster 777 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, January 19

How Plotting Can Build A Better Story

The Building Blocks Of Story: Plot Elements

Why care about plot elements? Because if all the elements of plot are in place--if they are clear and concrete--then you'll have a stronger story. Why? It will be easier to spot holes in the story. Also, it will show whether a scene is necessary to advance the story. If it's not then cut it!

The Benefits Of Knowing Where You Want To Go

Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story, is one of the best blogs on writing it has been my pleasure to read this past year.

And, of course, one of the reasons I love it is because she's a fellow plotter. Sure, the actual writing is done pantser style--whatever happens, happens, and I adjust my outline to reflect the story, not the other way around--but I like to know where I'm going, I like a roadmap, before I head out.

(Occasionally I wish I could be one of those types who can step outside, be inspired by the loveliness of the day--the sunlight, the warm fragrant breeze, the distant laughter of children--and decide to take a drive with no particular destination in mind. I had a friend who did this and it was splendid! But he always ended up somewhere interesting and there was always a gas station nearby. I don't have that kind of luck.)

So, there you are, at your desk. You have a scene to write, what do you do? How do you plan your scene? (What follows was inspired by Janice Hardy's excellent article: Four Ways to Pre-Write Your Scenes.)

Here's more or less what I do, or at least what I try to do!

1. Write a summary of the scene

If I'm writing a first draft I usually just write out what I know. For instance, if I'm sure my protagonist gets into a car accident and that she's saved from the twisted wreckage by a starving vampire then I'll write that down. At this stage I'm (for the most part) telling not showing. There will be minimal description of the setting and just raw dialog without any tags ('he said,' 'she said').

If I'm editing my first draft I'll take more time. Dialog tags will go in and, at the beginning of the scene, I'll type out the answers to a few questions (see below). If I don't know all the answers, that's perfectly fine, I'll just write in what I know now and fill the rest in later.

2. The Elements That Drive Your Plot

- What is your protagonist's goal in this scene?
- Why that goal? What's her motivation?
- What obstacle(s) prevent her from achieving her goal?

Answering these questions is important because it can help reveal whether this scene is necessary. For instance, if your protagonist's goal isn't tied in with the story goal--what your protagonist has to achieve by the end of the book in order to succeed in her quest--then the scene doesn't advance the story and should be either re-worked or cut.

By the time you're ready to send your baby, your manuscript, out to beta readers you should be able to answer all these questions:


Whose point of view is the scene being told from?

Narrative point of view

First, second or third? If third, is it subjective, objective or omniscient? (Narrative point of view)

POV character's external goal

In each and every scene all your characters must want something, they must have goals. Even if your teenaged character just wants to be left alone in his bedroom to play video games and eat nacho chips, that's a goal. That said, many times your other character's goals will be determined by your POV character's goal.

Make sure the POV character's goal is both clear (no ambiguity) and concrete (something you can see and touch). You can have a more abstract goal, but there should be a way to cash it out in concrete terms.

POV character's internal goal

Internal goals can be tricky. Give me a nice clear concrete goal like, "Rescue the Ark from the Nazi's" and I'm happy. The goal is clear (get the ark) and it's clear whether the hero has succeeded (does Indiana Jones have the ark?).

But your characters have inner goals as well as outer. The example I always think of here is Mitch McDeere from The Firm, how his inner goal was to get as far away from the trailer park of his youth as he could. He was afraid, at least in part, that his wife, Abby, would leave him if he wasn't rich, if he couldn't provide her the kind of life she'd been used to. He was wrong about Abby, but this was his fear, his inner motivation for being a rich lawyer.

Your POV character will have an inner and outer motivation for each scene but I wouldn't worry if you don't have a clear idea what their inner motivation is on the second draft. That's the sort of thing that often emerges with the story, and the story often doesn't take its final form until you've gone through a few drafts.

External Complication

What is going to keep your character from achieving her goal? If your character were to achieve all her scene goals the story would be dull.

Similarly, if the POV character always flat-out failed to achieve the goal that wouldn't be interesting either. She needs to be frustrated in her attempts, she needs to be forced to modify her plans and adopt Plan B, another goal that will--they hope!--get them closer to achieving their final, ultimate, story goal. (See: Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive)


This is one of the most important aspects of any scene. What will happen if your POV character doesn't achieve her goal? What will happen if she does?

The stakes need to be, like the goal, both clear and concrete. (See: Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High)


What happens? At the very end of the scene, after the POV character has dodged all the proverbial (or not so proverbial) bullets, what happens? Does she achieve the scene goal? Probably not. Not completely. Usually some new complication is introduced.

An Example


A young woman, let's call her Anne, suffering from haemophilia cuts herself and must drive to the nearest hospital and receive treatment. If she doesn't get treated she'll die. On the way to the hospital a drunk driver slams his car into hers turning them both into twisted hunks of metal. Anne receives many cuts and starts to bleed out.

A starving vampire finds Anne, drawn by the smell of blood. He extracts her from the wreck and enjoys a nice light snack. Something in his saliva, or perhaps a substance released from his fangs, causes her blood to coagulate.

At the end of the scene the vampire decides he likes the taste of her blood and considers whether he should drain her dry or leave her to find her own way home (and possibly turn into a vampire).

The Elements That Drive Your Plot

POV: The young woman, Anne.

Narrative point of view: Third person subjective, also called third person limited.

POV character's external goal: Get treatment at the nearest hospital --> Survive the car crash --> Survive the vampire's tender attentions.

POV character's internal goal: To be able to live without fear of cutting herself and dying because she can't get treatment. To be normal or at least to find someone who will love her even though she isn't.

Stakes: If our POV character doesn't get treatment she will die; if she does, she'll live. The POV character will also likely die if she doesn't get away from the vampire, if she does get away, though, she will be terrified that she'll change into a vampire.

Climax: Our POV character didn't get to the hospital for treatment, but she no longer needs it. The vampire's bite saved her from bleeding to death, but now she has a bigger problem: The vampire is looking at her and he still looks hungry.

Or something like that! That isn't the best example, I made it up on the fly. Hopefully it'll give you an idea of what I've been talking about.

Janice Hardy goes over much more in her article Four Ways to Pre-Write Your Scenes. It's well worth the read!

Other articles you might like:

- Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection
- Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing
- Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High

Photo credit: "Geisha's taken my place in bed" by Dirigentens under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, January 18

Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection

Building Character: Fear And The Importance Of Imperfection

Your Characters And The Importance Of Imperfection

Perfect characters are boring. They need flaws, but not just any flaws.

In her article Push Your Character Into Interesting, Kathy Steffen writes:
Build the flaw from your character’s fears and desires and make it so important, if it were to be pulled out of your character, there would be no story.
Here's how I think of it: your character has fears and his fears lead him to make mistakes, big mistakes. As Frank Herbert wrote in Dune:
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. (The Bene Gesserit litany against fear, Wikiquote)

Examples Of Great Character Flaws And How They Drive Plot

Your character's fears will ruin them, if left unchecked they will prevent your protagonist from reaching her goal. Your characters must learn to face their fears, whatever they may be. Kathy Steffen gives a couple of great examples of this:
In White Oleander Astrid Magnussen needs to grow away from her mother’s influence and become who she really is, not the imitation that her mother has tried to make her. As Astrid journeys through various foster homes, we see her make mistakes by following what she’s learned from her mother. As the story progresses she begins to see her mother for what she is and finally decides to forge her own way in the world, all the better for having the confidence to leave her mother’s ways behind. The reader is rewarded when Astrid begins to understand her own true nature and follows her heart.
.  .  .  .
In What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz, the lead character, John Calvino carries a dark secret. When he was a boy, John’s family was murdered. As an adult he keeps this secret to protect his children, but the reader sees keeping the secret as his inability to face the past. Calvino’s fear takes center stage in the form of the malevolent family-murdering spirit and drives the action of the book until the end. The story is inseparable from the lead character, which makes for a tightly woven external and internal plot. (Character Flaw: Make it Count)

How To Create Flaws That Drive Your Story Forward

1. The fear is tied to the protagonist's external goal

In order for the protagonist to get what he wants, John Calvino must overcome his fear, confront his past and defeat the malevolent spirit. If he didn't have this fear we wouldn't have the same book.

2. How the protagonist's fear affects other characters

Show how your protagonist's fear harms the other characters in your story. Show how the hero, because of her fear, is responsible for bad things happening to the people she loves.

3. A strength, carried too far, can also be a weakness

We have been looking at how fear creates flaws, how it gives a character much needed weaknesses, but a strength can do the same thing if taken to extreme.

Kathy Steffen mentions Harry Dresden here and he is the perfect example. His protectiveness of women and children--particularly outrageiously attractive women who do all sorts of interesting things to his hormone levels--constantly allows him to be lindly manipulated by the bad guys and creates conflict.

And conflict drives story. Interesting story. Kathy Steffen writes:
Go even further and push a positive trait to the dark side to create an antagonist or villain. A character who is strong-willed and reliable (good trait) also needs to be in control or becomes pushy (uh-oh, getting grey-area) and can also insist on his own way, becoming cold-hearted and abusive (ah, the dark side) to get what he wants. Take a principled, idealistic character with a strong sense of right and wrong and look closer. Is he relentless and obsessed? Judgmental, condemning, self-righteous?
I didn't use this article for my blog post today, but I wanted to recommend it: Better Plotting: 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions. Lots of great, specific, advice.

Other articles you might like:

- Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing
- Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High
- The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

Photo credit: "James Dean" by zbdh12 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, January 17

Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing

Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing

I woke up today thinking about tragedy and its role in creating art.

What is it we hope to accomplish by writing? Do we write to evoke emotion? Do we write to create a world more real than the one in which we live? Do we write to tell the truth; not the literal truth, but the real truth?

Yesterday I blogged about how to create suspenseful stories and the importance of making what your character has to lose--the stakes--both high and obvious. I led with a picture of a real-life tragedy taken by John L. Gaunt, one that won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1955.

The photograph was of a couple who had just learnt their small son, he was only 19 months old, had been swept out to sea and was dead. The picture captures the parents as the woman, the enormity of her grief settling on her, turns toward her husband, the sea at her back.
Down by the water, Gaunt finds a distraught young couple by the shoreline. Moments before, their 19-month-old son was playing happily in their yard. Somehow, he wandered down to the
beach. He was swept away by the fierce tide.

The little boy is gone. There is nothing anyone can do. Gaunt, who has a daughter about the same age, takes four quick photographs of the grieving couple. "As I made the last exposure,
they turned and walked away" he says. The little boys body is later recovered from the surf.
I find Gaunt's photograph emotionally compelling. It is difficult for me to look at it and not feel grief.

But not every story needs to evoke raw emotion--grief, loss--in the almost brutal way this picture does.

One of the authors I admire most is Ernest Hemingway. I think Hills Like White Elephants is the best short story I have read or will ever read. And, yes, there is a tragedy, a loss, but it is, compared to the enormity of the loss captured in Gaunt's photograph, more muted. It is, among other things, the loss of innocence, of hope.

So, what's my point?

Genre Versus Mainstream

Most of the books I read--urban fantasy sprinkled with horror as well as the occasional mainstream story--are not heavy on tragedy. Not the kind of tragedy evident in, say, Hamlet.

And that's not a bad thing.

I suspect that one of the reasons genre literature occasionally gets snubbed by those whose tastes run more toward the mainstream may be just this difference: genre fiction tends to be lighter. Funnier. It has happy endings. Not all the time, but a lot of the time.

Does that mean genre fiction is any less literature? That it is in some way lesser?

I don't think so. Perhaps it all hinges on how a person answers this question:

What are we supposed to be doing when we write? What is this whole writing thing about, anyway?

Some folks say, and I know this is glib, that "the purpose of writing is to evoke emotion" and that's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't say much. For instance, what kind of emotion? How intense should the emotion be? Why emotion and not, for instance, thought?

Earlier today I came across a quotation that articulates my answer to this question far more eloquently than I could. Unsurprisingly, it is from one of Ernest Hemingway's letters.

Ernest Hemingway On What Makes A Writer

This is the most true thing I've ever read:
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer. ("Old Newsman Writes : A Letter from Cuba" in Esquire (December 1934), Wikiquote)
What is the purpose of writing? To tell, to communicate, the truth whether that be through evoking emotion or thought. When I say "truth" I don't mean the literal truth, I mean the real truth. But it's not just that, good writing also creates a place, a space, another world for others to experience, if they choose.
I've shared my musings about why we write, what the purpose of all this scribbling is. But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Why do you write? Do you write to evoke emotion in your readers? Do you write to tell the truth--not the literal truth, but the real truth? Do you write to share your world, and your worldview? Or is it something else? 
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I had hoped to write about the importance of making your characters, especially your protagonist, flawed. Oh well. At least I have my blog post for tomorrow!

Other posts you might like:

- Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High
- The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence
- F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer

Photo credit: "Untitled" by thejbird under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 16

Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High

Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High

I love it when someone gives advice about writing that not only makes sense to me, but that makes me want to stop reading and write.

Often that someone is Steven Pressfield.

Stories Are Lame When The Stakes Are Low

Today SP wrote about stakes, about what your protagonist stands to lose if she doesn't achieve her goal. SP writes:
My own rule of thumb: the stakes for the hero must always be life and death. If possible, they should be life and death for every character in the story.

When I first came out to Tinseltown, I was struggling with a spec script. I just couldn’t make it interesting. I told my friend, the late director Ernie Pintoff. He said, “Have a body hit the floor.”

What he meant was raise the stakes.

Stories are lame when the stakes are low.

(By the way, all quotations from Steven Pressfield have been taken from: Have A Body Hit The Floor.)

Make The Stakes Clear

Make sure the stakes for each of your characters are clear. If they are even a little vague write a scene that makes the stakes clear.

Be concrete. How, exactly, would your character's life change if he didn't achieve his goal?

Do One Draft Just For Stakes

SP advises us to devote an entire draft to examining the stakes of our characters.
This is what I mean by devoting one draft to this topic only. Go over the entire story, asking yourself, “Are the stakes high and clear for all characters from start to finish?”

When the stakes are high and clear, the reader/audience’s emotions become involved.

The Ultimate Stakes

SP focuses on upping the body count in one's story as a way of increasing the stakes. That works and has advantages. It's beautifully concrete and easy for the audience to understand. You don't have to explain why a character doesn't want to die! If they did, that would require explanation.

But there are stakes other than life or death. SP writes:
A final note about “life and death.” The stakes don’t have to be literally mortal. But they must feel like life and death to the specific character. If Faye Dunaway loses her daughter to John Huston’s incestuous depredations in Chinatown, she will not literally die. Her fate will be even worse.

Destruction of the soul. Those are the ultimate stakes.

Don't Flinch

Robert Wiersema talked about stakes at the Surrey International Writers' Conference in 2011. I try and practice this.
Stakes, consequences. You've created a situation with potentially tragic results. There will come a time when you will want to save your character, to protect them. Don't. Don't flinch.

This moment is terrifying. If we were decent people we would protect our characters. You want a happy ending, but you can't cheat to get it.

You've created characters with flaws and turned the monsters loose on them. You have to be brave and unflinching. You have to do horrible things to nice people.

You don't need to beat your reader over the head with gore and lots of ugly details. You can leave these implicit. Readers have great imaginations, they will fill in the details.

If you do it right then it will hurt. It hurts us to hurt our characters, it hurts us to manipulate the reader. One thing you must realize: we also manipulate ourselves. Ultimately, we do all this manipulation because we are building truth.

We must have courage and strength and you must realize that, yes, you are cruel but here's the real truth: truth hurts and it is crucial that you don't flinch. (SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Two: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema)

The Stakes: Scene Questions

This is going to be my assignment for the day, to think about my work in progress and, for each scene, as well as every character in that scene, ask:

a) What is this character's goal?

- Is this clear? Is it concrete?
- If this character is a POV character, is her goal in this scene related to her ultimate goal? For instance, if she doesn't achieve her goal in this scene, will that make it less lightly for her to achieve her ultimate goal?

b) What are the stakes?

- What will happen to this character if she doesn't achieve her goal? What will happen if she does?
- Are the stakes obvious? Make it obvious how achieving her goal, or not, will affect your character's life. What does she have to lose? What does she have to gain?
- Are the stakes concrete? "My character will lose faith in mankind" is not concrete. "My character will be shot to death by Johnny" is.

c) Are the stakes high enough? 

- Death and loss of soul, loss of self, that's about as extreme as it gets. Depending on the kind of story you're telling, I don't think the states are going to be this stark, this extreme, for all your characters in every scene. And there are other kinds of loss. Loss of friends, loss of one's position in society, loss of independence, loss of faith.
What is the worst thing you've ever done to a character? Was it worth it? Would you do it again?

Other links you might like:

- The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence
- F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer
- Using Public Domain Characters In Your Stories

Photo credit: "Tragedy by the Sea" by cliff1066™ under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

This is the description of the photograph (see above) Tragedy by the Sea:
Tragedy by the Sea 1955 Pulitzer Prize, Photography, John L. Gaunt, Los Angeles Times April 2, J 954. Los Angeles Times photographer John Gaunt lounges in his front yard in Hermosa Beach, Calif., enjoying the sun. Suddenly, a neighbor calls out. "There was some excitement on the beach," says Gaunt. "I grabbed a RoIIeiflex camera and ran."

Down by the water, Gaunt finds a distraught young couple by the shoreline. Moments before, their 19-month-old son was playing happily in their yard. Somehow, he wandered down to the beach. He was swept away by the fierce tide.

The little boy is gone. There is nothing anyone can do. Gaunt, who has a daughter about the same age, takes four quick photographs of the grieving couple. "As I made the last exposure, they turned and walked away" he says. The little boys body is later recovered from the surf.