Showing posts with label SiWC 2011. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SiWC 2011. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 1

SiWC 2011: Getting started and Heading in the 'write' direction, by Robert Dugoni

Here are more of my SiWC notes, these are from day two, Saturday. I've mentioned Robert Dugoni before, but I don't think I've been able to communicate ... well, how inspirational his workshops (and keynotes!) are. Every time I walk away from a talk he's given I feel: Yes, I can do this!. If any of you ever have the opportunity to hear him talk, I recommend it.

My apologies in advance for the fractured nature of these notes. I repeat certain tips and the notes themselves are less organized than I'd like. My instinct is to tuck this post away until I have time to do it properly, but I know that's not going to happen, especially not during NaNo! So here my notes are, in all their imperfection.
What is the primary purpose of the novel? It is to entertain.

Your CHARACTERS entertain, NOT the author. If author tries to entertain then the story stops.

1. Backstory
Sometimes there is the temptation for the author to say, yes, we'll get to the story, but let me tell you about this first. You need to weave the backstory into the story.

2. Too much description
Sometimes there is the temptation to stop the story and describe a character. You don't have to describe a character unless it is important to the story.

AN EXCEPTION: If something is a marker, then you need to describe it. For example, if your character is wearing a Channel dress, that's a marker. If your character pulls up in a hummer rather than a VW, that's a marker. If it isn't a marker, then you don't need it. Most readers don't care. If it isn't really important don't stop the story to describe it. Also could sprinkle description throughout the book. Give us the description as it becomes important to character.

Have character moving and talking as you give the description.

RESEARCH: It is important if its important to the characters.

Be careful about giving your characters your personal opinions. Guard against your own attitudes and beliefs bleeding through to the character where it isn't appropriate.

Ask yourself: Are the characters entertaining or am I intruding into the story? The best authors are internal to the story.

Your story is really the journey of your characters. The physical journey they take is the plot.

Emotional journey. Emotions get people, and your characters, to do things. Emotions give motivation. Basic human needs. Love, greed, protection.

Most books are about basic things.
- To win (a game) ( a contest) (the love of another)
- To stop (the world ending) (the abuse)
- To escape (a bad situation)
- To retrieve something (think Indiana Jones)
- To destroy something (Lord of the Rings)
- To save something or someone

Right now, write down the physical journey your character is on. What is their motivation for doing it?

Good. Now write down the emotional journey your character is on. What is his or her motivation for doing it.

Raising the stakes
Don Maass' books are great. Read them.
- How would you raise the stakes? You have a victim, how are you going to raise the stakes? How about revealing that the victim is the hero's brother? That's one way of doing it.

The hero has to care. What happens if the hero fails in reaching the goal? Raising the stakes means making the hero lose more, makes the loss more painful and less likely that the hero can recover. Make the goal more personal to the hero, that's how you raise the stakes.

Your goal is to establish the TONE of the book early. Each kind of book is going to have a different tone that will cure the reader that the books is, for example, a mystery, or a thriller, or a romance, etc.

Early on, introduce who the story is about, your readers need to meet the protagonist.

Also, you need to introduce the story problem early on. For instance, in the Lord of the Rings, the story problem is that the hero needs to take this ring a destroy it. Give your readers the story problem at the beginning of your story.

Hooking the reader
Classic openings in literature:
a. Everyday hero. Their everyday life. If your hero is a housewife, you see her going about her day, if your hero is a trial lawyer, you see them arguing a case, etc.
b. Action scene. The hero in action.
c. Emotional scene. Outside action opening. Da Vinci Code. Don't start with the hero. Start with the killing.
d. Prologue. Start in a time or place different from the rest of the book.
e. Flashback opening. Water for elephants. Take scene from the book and put it at the beginning. Like a scene out of sequence.

Warning: Readers don't like prologues. If you absolutely must have a prologue, call it chapter one.

Remember to write scenes where you use all your senses.

Some people say never start a book with your hero on a plane, train or in a car. Why? Because it's a static environment. It is difficult to have action or dialogue. You will be tempted to have your character thinking and thinking and thinking. That's not very interesting.

Your hero must have a goal. For instance, let's say that your hero can't be late or she'll be fired, but she also HAS to have her morning coffee. She peers into the coffee shop, there's no line up! She rushes inside and an elderly lady steps in front of her and she takes forever to order. The elderly lady is an obstacle that creates suspense.

Okay, so now your hero is late for work. She goes to the office. Her boss isn't there. She looks down the hall, but her boss isn't there either. Perhaps she'll be able to make it to her office and her boss will never know she was late! Her hero walks into her office and there's her boss, standing in her office.

How, should the boss say, "You're fired!"? No, at least, not until the next chapter. You need to keep the story moving forward.

Chapter Breaks
One thing you should ask yourself is: Does this chapter have a better question for the next chapter (a question the next chapter has to answer) if I take out the last paragraph? Often an author will summarize the chapter in the last paragraph, this is bad because it's boring. Your job is to get the reader to turn the next page. How do you do this? By raising story questions.

The first word of every scene
Use the first word of every scene to hook the reader. Raise a question. Readers are curious people by nature. If you raise a question in the first sentence they will want to answer it.

Flirt don't tease. Don't go 35 pages without answering a question you've raised.

Make the first sentence of every chapter great. Don't throw away the first or the last sentence of any scene.

Give the reader something interesting right away, as soon as your story begins. An interesting character should appear right away. Like going to a cocktail party or a book-signing. Unusual people, even people you might think are a bit crazy, are very interesting. The worst judgement you can make about someone is that they are boring.

Settings: Third element
Your settings help you tell the story. For instance, in a scene lets say you have a few tarantulas in a terrarium in an elementary school classroom. The teacher is putting some papers into her briefcase and her principal walks in. The teacher glances at the terrarium. The spiders are gone.

Opening scenes: Don't over-populate your first scene.

If a scene doesn't advance the story then cut it.
Here is a link to Robert Dugoni's home page.

My notes from other workshops I attended:
- SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Two: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema
- SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Three: The Psychology of Plotting, Michael Slade
- SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Four: The Inner Journey, Donald Maass

Friday, October 28

SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Four: The Inner Journey, Donald Maass

Over the years I've been told countless times that Don Maass is a great teacher, so one of the workshops I looked forward to attending at SiWC was Donald Maass's The Inner Journey.

Donald Maass did not disappoint. I'm sure I'll use every exercise he discussed during NaNoWriMo!

(By the way, when I use the word "hero" in my notes, I mean the protagonist of a story, whether male or female.)
Why do we keep reading a story? What keeps us interested? Micro conflict. Line-by-line conflict. Resonance. Associative devises: reverses and parallels.

Write with a theme. Write what you care about. Write with a purpose. What is it that moves our hearts as we read? What is it that keeps us in its grip as we read? The emotional side of the story. The inner journey of our heroes. This inner journey can even change us as we read.

To open our characters emotionally we have to open ourselves emotionally.

There are two things we're going to talk about today:
1) The emotional landscape of the story. What are your characters feeling?
2) The journey of the character, the character arc. The character arc is the sequence of changes a character goes through, the series of changes that transforms them.

Part One: The emotional landscape of the story

What story are you working on? What is your favorite place to write? See yourself there, see the computer screen. What feeling are you afraid to put on the page? Write it down, right now, write it down.

What will leave you feeling raw if you write it down? What would be too truthful, too painful, too true? Too angry? What might end your relationship with your special person? What are you hiding from yourself? What is it that you don't want to admit? What is it that you know you have to do but you haven't? What aren't you telling yourself?

To whom in the story does this feeling belong? Who owns that feeling?

When is it, in the sequence of the story, that the character feels this way? Who is going to hear about this feeling? What is going to happen when they do?

This is what I mean by writing emotionally. You need to open yourself up to do this.

In your life, what makes you blissfully happy? Write down the first thing that comes to mind.

Put this happiness into a physical container. What is the most surprising thing about this object? What is it about this object that is wonderfully familiar? Delightfully strange? If you were to give this object, this happiness, as a gift to someone else, if they were to take it into their hands what is the first thing they would say?

Is this object fragile or is it unbreakable? Is this object one colour or is it many? What is its surface like? How big is it? How heavy? When others see it are they curious about it, or are they afraid of it? Do you want to share it, or hide it and keep it for yourself?

Craft a paragraph or passage in which you describe this feeling without naming it ("happiness"). Tell how this emotion looks and feels to others and yourself.

Remember, this emotion exists independently of you. What do you want to do with it? What have you discovered about yourself because this object is in your hands?

When is the moment in your story where you character experiences this happiness? This bliss? Can you put this into your story? Have you? Does it work?

This is a way of writing about primary emotions. "He froze in fear" does not make anyone freeze in fear. Big emotions like blissful happiness are very difficult to communicate so that THE READER feels it.

You can do this with fear, rage, humiliation, lust, etc.

Let your readers feel a feeling without naming it. What is the dominant emotion felt by your protagonist? A certain dream? A certain drive? An emotion? What is it?

Your protagonist needs to express this feeling, she needs to get it out. The story god strikes a character mute. What is the one thing the character can do to let everyone know how they feel? What can the character DO to express this feeling?

These exercises provide a way of working on the emotional landscape of the story. How do we make the reader feel what we want them to? By turning emotion into ACTION.

"He stood mute with rage."
"He used a sledgehammer to turn the car that had killed his wife into a useless mass of twisted metal."

Write down a moment when your hero feels numb. Overwhelmed. Burned out. Exhausted. Confounded.

Write down, in addition, what someone else does as a result of the hero expressing this.

Do you see a place in your story where your character is just going to let go and say, "I don't give a f**k"?

Open an emotional landscape for your protagonist.

Part Two: Emotional Change

What is your protagonist's worst habit? Their weakness? Their blind spot? What would your hero like to change about themselves? What do they know needs to change?

What is the moment, early in the story, that your protagonist tries to change what needs to be changed and fails? Why does she fail? Why can't she do better?

What is the moment in this negative characterization when your protagonist causes embarrassment? Who notices? Who says nothing? Who turns away and tries to pretend that didn't happen? When in the story does this negative trait actually HELP her? Why does it help her? BE SPECIFIC!

As your story continues this negative trait continues. Your character can't stop it. Who does the character alienate? Offend? Disgust? Who tells off the character? Who rejects the character? Who just can't take it anymore?

Having bottomed out, what is something your protagonist does differently? Reader must be able to see that your protagonist has changed.

Working backwards in your story. How could you make this action something your character would never do? Make them highly resistant to this action. Have them dislike it or hate it. They find it to be a flaw/weakness in others. Then, at the end of the story, they have the weakness.

Some people would call what we're talking about here the character's flaw. I like to say that it is solmething the character is powerless to change but does.

Think of three or four ways this thing that needs to be changed is made evident to the reader.

Change involves: a) healing and b) reconciliation

What is your character's deepest childhood hurt? What incident scared her the most? Which detail of this moment does your hero remember clearest? Which part hurts the most?

Write down one place where something identical happens but in the current day.

In the course of the story there will be something ... an obsession ... that your hero can't let go of. There is a deeper reason why the hero can't let it go. What is the deeper psychological reason?

What other character in the story sees that hidden reason before your character sees it? What will your hero say to that character when that character confronts her? Will she deny it?

Who in the story does the hero most need to forgive? Who do they hold a grudge against?

What would have to happen for the hero to forgive that character? What would it take to make it okay? Let that happen if you can. If it is a change for that character that you can include.


Is there some way your protagonist needs to change. Something they need to let go so that what hurt before doesn't hurt anymore. So that they say, "That's okay. I understand".

Grand Arc: Inner Journey, Inner transformation
What is the most important thing that your hero needs to know about herself that she doesn't?

Write down three reasons your protagonist has not to care about the thing they need to know. Through the story find a way of tearing down each of these three reasons.

What is your protagonist's greatest hope? What is her greatest dream? What is the idea? What is it that they wish for or dream about?

Is there a way for your protagonist to taste what they hope for? Can you put it within their reach?

In what way is your protagonist naive? Is what she hopes for impossible? Childish, unrealistic? Not going to happen? When is your protagonist going to realize this? What will replace that hope or that dream?

I want to challenge you. I challenge you to enact this in the manuscript without exposition. No thoughts or feelings. Dialog only: What truth or principle does your hero cling to the hardest? About the world in general. What do they believe, foundationally, is true? Write down three or four ways you can crush that truth. Three or four ways that you can show that this foundational belief is wrong, flat out wrong.

When does your protagonist have to admit they were mistaken? What does she come to believe instead? What will she do or say to someone else to show this new truth?

End of novel: What will your protagonist see or understand about themselves? Work back and find five places to direct your hero away from what they will learn about themselves at the end. Something OUTWARD, CONCRETE and EXTERNAL. Something keeping them from where they need to be, from where they need to go as a human.

What is the biggest thing that is different about your protagonist because of this change? Remember, this change should be something that the character is seemingly INCAPABLE of doing.

This is opening an emotional landscape, building profound change for your hero. This is NOT plot.
Twitter: @DonMaass
Don Maass mentioned that he tweets weekly breakout prompts.

Wow! I walked out of that class wanting to buy all Don Maass's books. One book everyone has recommended is: Writing the Breakout Novel. That's one book I am definitely reading.

Earlier posts in this series:
SiWC 2011 Day One, Part One: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema
SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Two: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema
SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Three: The Psychology of Plotting, Michael Slade

Tuesday, October 25

SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Two: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema

Sorry for the fractured nature of this post (you can read part one here). I don't work for a few hours, so let's do this!

The first workshop I attended was Don't Flinch and was taught by Robert Wiersema.

Now, when a writer goes to a workshop it's a good idea, a really good idea, to have something to write on. But in the confusion of registering I had left my notebook in my luggage and of course I'd checked that in at the hotel!

A little thing like not having anything proper to write on never stopped a writer. During registration I'd been given a folder containing sheets printed on only one side.

(For those of you interested in what folks were given, here's a list: a detailed itinerary of workshops (one for each day), the etiquette of conferences, information about the silent action, information about the blue pencil sessions and editor appointments, an advertisement for a writers' retreat, a double-sided two page sheet with short bios of all the editors, agents and presenters. The rules of the silly writing contest, an article welcoming us to the convention and last--but certainly not least--a map.)

Armed with my unconventional writing material I took notes, and more notes, and still more, until I'd gone through all the backs of the handouts and, in desperation, began to write on the back of my folder! This was fine, but for the rest of the conference I felt a bit like the killer in Seven, carrying around a manilla folder covered with close scribbling.

Okay, the class. Here's what Robert Wiersema said was the key to building suspense: You take a bunch of characters, make your readers care about them, set monsters loose on them and then don't flinch. You need to let horrible things happen to them.

(Important disclaimer: These are my notes so I could be mistaken about what Robert Wiersema said, so don't blame him if you read something startling or something that makes no sense, that's me. :)
You want a gun in the first act, this creates an implicit promise. This creates questions. When will the gun go off? Why will it go off? Who will pull the trigger? Where will it go off? This is true for any kind of genre. If you're writing a romance then the question is: When will they get together? Why will they get together? Where will they get together, etc. The techniques of building suspense, of building elevated tension, are the same.

What does "not flinching" mean?
1) HOOK. You have, at most, two pages to grab a reader. You have to grab them in the first scene, in the first sentence. How do you do this? You create a question in the readers mind. The reader must answer the question to understand the sentence. This is like foreshadowing, but it is less blunt/obvious. A hook is implicit foreshadowing.

2) PLOT. How does the plot build suspense? Imagine you're driving down the road and you see a car in the ditch. What is going to happen? That's right, everyone will slow down to look at the car and they'll wonder: What happened? It is part of our nature.

- frustrate your character. Which newspaper headline would arrest/grab your attention: "Man on the run" or "Man captured"?
- Have reversals. Character should be frustrated at most turns. Here's the trick: the plot should be inevitable but not predictable. The plot should not be the same thing you and your readers have seen dozens of times. How do you avoid this?
- THE KEY: The reader should always know slightly more than the character. Let the reader know an event is coming before the character does.
- In order to create suspense, the readers' expectations must be both met and undermined. What we are talking about here is shameless manipulation. You are telling people lies in order to get the response you want. This is blatant audience manipulation.

Writers who are great at audience manipulation: Nicholas Sparks and Dan Brown. These writers are good storytellers and their pacing is good. They have good pacing within each sentence, within each paragraph, within each chapter of their stories.

How can you affect the pacing of your writing?
- Short fast sentences increase tension.
- Description, long words, long sentences, lower tension.
Your story is like a pot of soup, you don't want it to boil and you don't want it cold. You have to keep adjusting the temperature to get it just right. This means introducing stretches of increasing, and then decreasing, tension.

Elmore Leonard was the writer he said: Leave out the stuff people don't read. Leave out the boring bits.

- The rhythm of your story is dictated by what you need your story to do. Use the pace to cue readers as to what their reaction should be. Don't treat your readers dishonorably. Cue the reader, tell them what you want them to feel. For instance, if you want them to feel heightened tension then use short sentences and raise the tension.
- The sorts of things that increase tension: Showing as opposed to telling and dialogues.
- The sorts of things that lower tension: Telling as opposed to showing, description, long sentences, etc.

If you're going to focus on something, focus on it for a reason. Use it. You must only focus on what is important to the story.

- The stereotype is that thrillers are plot machines. Story arises naturally out of characters. Plot is artificial. Everything: the story, the tension, etc., should come out of the characters. In order for this to happen your characters needs flaws and scars. For instance a classic flaw was pride. Pride is a great flaw to fuel tension and suspense.

- Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Kimble was arrogant. He was a surgeon. When he was falsely accused of his wife's murder that was the first situation in his life he wouldn't control. He doesn't plot his escape, it happens to him. Kimble needs to become innocent to reclaim his place in society. Throughout the movie he works to get back what he has lost.
- Hitchcock: Hitchcock was a master at using a person's flaws against them to drive a plot. He used suspense to drive a plot. Vertigo is an excellent example of this. Right from the beginning you know that the Jimmy Steward character is scared of heights and that he'll struggle with this fear at the end. You know this, but knowing it doesn't make the movie less interesting, it builds suspense. It increases tension. Rear Window was like this as well.

Protagonists and Antagonists
The reader must be swept along through the story because of their kinship with the protagonist. The antagonist must be as strong as the protagonist. The antagonist is the hero of their story.

Example: Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lector is the antagonist not Buffalo Bill, even though Buffalo Bill (aka Captain Stottlemeyer to all you Monk fans) is the murderer. (The instructor asked the class to name the murderer in Silence of the Lambs but it took a minute or two for any of us to come up with the answer.) We remember the Lector character because that character is well developed. We have questions. Hannibal was the protagonist in Hannibal. So, what I'm saying is: Make all your antagonists the heroes of their own story. The antagonist is the physicalization of the negative force.

Load up on your archetypes
People are afraid of the same things. They fear disease, the dark, public shame, loss of a child, death, injury, maiming. These are only a few of the things that make every single one of us shake in our boots. These are the things, the events, that populate our nightmares. Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive was being pursued. That's the fear. The fear of being caught, the fear of footsteps in the dark.

- Unbelievability. Tension needs to be believable within the world you create. A good example of BELIEVABILITY is the universe Jim Butcher created for his series, the Dresden Files. This is a universe filled with wizards and vampires and witches and all manner of fantasy characters, but it reads like a matter-of-fact account of the day-to-day happenings of Chicago. How is this achieved?

a. Don't have characters do what you have established they wouldn't do. For instance, if the character is scared of crowds then when they escape through a crowd at the end of your book show that this isn't an easy thing for them to do, don't have them do it blithely.
b. Continuity and logic problems make a story unbelievable.
c. Don't treat your character or reader as stupid. Your questions, your situations, shouldn't have an easy answer that the character doesn't think of. That's the sort of plotting that makes a book airborne -- readers will hurl it against the wall and stop reading.

Example: In Hitchcock's Psycho there's a beautiful young girl who comes to a creepy hotel and, instead of taking one look at it and the macabre Norman Bates and making a run for it, she checks in and takes a shower! Would you do this? No! What makes it believable that she would? Well, she's just stolen some money and is on the run. This cuts her off from any help society could provide. Also, she is to meet her boyfriend at the hotel and they didn't have cell phones in those days, so she has to stay put.

d. Don't resolve the central question of your story too soon.
e. Don't cheat the reader. You want them to read your next book. If you cheat them -- for example if a chance meeting at the end of the book resolves the tension -- then your readers will loose interest.

Not making stupid mistakes, creating the right pace, etc., all these things are skills, we learn them by going through the process of creating and writing stories. Everything that I've said today about what makes a story good, you know this already.

Here's what I want you to do. If you've found a book that has kept you reading far past your bedtime then read it again. As I said before Dan Brown is great at this. Read and watch movies (movie soundtracks are shamelessly manipulative).

Another thing you can do to improve your writing is, when you give your story to readers, ask them to put a mark in the margin where they began to lose interest.

Point Of View
You can have more than one first person POV character, you can even have POV characters that have different points of view (e.g., first and third). Do what works for your story.

Suspense is always a matter of stakes. You want to let the reader know, early on, what the stakes are. Kill or maim someone adorable early on. For example, The Firm with Tom Cruise. What are the stakes for Cruise? If he stays with the firm and the feds show it's connected to the mob then Cruise looses everything: his money, his job, his freedom. On the other hand, if he cooperates with the feds then he won't go to jail, but sooner or later the mob will catch up with him and he'll be dead. Nice choice!
- You can know the outcome and still create suspense. There was a movie where the story was told by a drowned person. You know the narrator dies at the end, but the stakes were still raised.

Summing Up
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.
So, those are my notes! I had no idea this post would be so long. Yikes! I must be able to scribble pretty quickly.

I guess I'm not going to be able to get to the other Friday workshops today, "The Psychology of Plotting" by Michale Slade and "The Inner Journey" by Donald Maass.

Stay tuned!