Showing posts with label amwriting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label amwriting. Show all posts

Monday, November 19

Outlining: Kim Harrison's Character Grid

Outlining: Kim Harrison's Character Grid

A few days ago I wrote a post about how to use MS Excel to outline a novel. That post grew out of my own need for a visual structure, a way to see my novel in front of me all-at-once. (See: Using Excel To Outline Your NaNoWriMo Novel: Defeating the sprawl)

Today I want to talk about another way of using Excel to outline your novel: The Character Grid.

This method comes from Kim Harrison, author of the Hollows Series. Let's dive right in.

"My rule is no more than one scene shift per chapter, and try not to stay in any one place for more than two consecutive chapters," (Kim Harrison, Character Grid)


In the following, knowledge of the world of the Hollows is plus, but you can get the gist without it. The following should give you something of a feel for Kim Harrison's process. She writes:
Yesterday I rewrote my plot to take out the demon plotline and expand two others of crime and love. It made a much more tidy story and I was able to dig deeper into the relationships instead of skimming over them.

My one page synopsis turned into a 13 page synopsis, casually broken into maybe-chapters. Today I’m going to begin to break this up into clear chapters so I can better balance the entire work as to pacing, place, and characters.

I don’t want to spend too much time in the church, or be moving from place to place in any given chapter. My rule is no more than one scene shift per chapter, and try not to stay in any one place for more than two consecutive chapters. Same thing with characters.

Variety keeps the reader interested and the story moving. So to better see the patterns that the story is taking and head off any potential problems, I have come up with a character grid. It’s about the only piece of “software” that I use, and it’s just an Excel spreadsheet that I’ve modified to my needs. Here’s the one I used for ODW [Outlaw Demon Wails] [see Figure 1, below]. (I inserted the paragraph breaks) (Kim Harrison, Character Grid)
Here is Kim Harrison's Character Grid:

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)

(Here is a link to the original character grid.)

Kim continues:
Characters are down the side, the locations of the scene are on the top, and the action is at the bottom.  (this is an early version, so it might not dovetail perfectly into the published book) The color shift is an indication of a change in day (which can be seen by the dates) and the chapter numbers are under that.  The Xs are when a character is an a chapter, and sometimes I use an O to indicate that they are in the chapter by way of phone or scrying mirror.  I usually have the month and day the book takes place in across the top, and the sunrise and set and average temps at the bottom, but I recently had a software upgrade, and I lost my headers and footers in Excel.  (sucks big time)

My character grid is how I first realized that Jenks was in almost every chapter in the earlier books, and I’ve become better at getting him out so other characters can shine.  It’s also how I know if I have a character who is needed for a crucial scene, and yet is not introduced anywhere until that scene.  Very bad.  Same thing with the bad guys.  I try to have them show up early, and then at least one more time before the end.  Another rule of thumb is don’t introduce too many characters in the same scene, even if they are returning characters.  I like to have only two at the most, and will break a chapter just to avoid this.

A character grid of some sort is also a great way to make sure that your male to female ratio isn’t wildly out of balance.  Mine usually slant to the male end of the ratio, but since Rachel is female it works out.  Oh, and when you go to rewrite and need to add something that revolves around a character, it’s really easy to go the grid, see where they are, and place your clue instead of spending an hour thumbing through the file and guessing where to put it is. (Kim Harrison, Character Grid)
Kim Harrison's post is one of the best I've read on plotting and structuring your work-in-progress and it's part of a series.


Kim Harrison's Series On How She Plots A Novel


1. Where you at in NaNoWriMo?
"Today, in my official Not-NaNoWriMo, I have again procrastinated with other work, confining my rough draft of book ten to ideas in my head. Tomorrow, I will pick up my pencil and write something down. Promise. How about you? Where you at?"

2. Writing starts with “I want”
"I’ve been developing my writing style for over a decade, and this is what works for me. There’s no wrong way to do it as long as you’re making progress.)
I want. . .
That’s what it’s all about at this point for me. What do I want to see or accomplish in this 500 page monster. So today I’ll be sitting down with about ten sheets of paper and a pencil."

3. Procrastination: I’ds da queen
"My word count is still zero, but I’m almost ready to start writing. My post yesterday gave you some indication of how I went about organizing my thoughts for a new book. Well today, I’m going to tell you exactly what I did."

4. Day Two Of The Plotting
"Well . . . I took my six pages of notes from Thursday and wrote up a free-flowing, one-sentence brainstorming list of “ways to start” and a list of ”ways to end.” I still don’t have a good way to start the book, and I won’t until I have the end, but my goal is to have in the first five pages the hint of the problem that is settled in the last so to make a full circle."

5. Character Grid
"For those of you who haven’t been to the drama box in a few days, I’m taking the opportunity of NaNoWriMo and me just starting rough draft to detail out my plotting process. Disclaimer:everyone writes differently, there’s no wrong way to do it. This is what I’ve come up with over the last ten years or so, and what works for me. It’s a process that’s still evolving. Oh, and my word count is still zero."

6. And on the fifth day . . .
"So far, while using my character grid, I’ve found that I’ve got a slow spot, and I moved some things around to quicken it up. I also named a new character, learned a few things about him, and Rachel has told me she likes him better than the guy I thought she’d be interested in. He kind of likes her, too, or maybe he just likes the way she makes him feel. (Be smart, Rachel.) I’ve also learned what the story is about besides solving the crime and settling the love interest. (By the way, it’s not settled.) What I’m talking about here is the character growth, I suppose. And without character growth, not only would the story be stale, but I’d be bored to tears writing it."

7. And now . . . it begins
"... again. (grin) Last night, I finished breaking my 13 page synopsis into chapters, using it as a guide to write about a page of handwritten notes about each chapter, being careful to include who is in it, where to begin, and what poignant thought to end it with. It’s here that I usually find my hook into the next chapter that gets you to turn the page instead of turn off the light and go to bed."

8. Last day to send me your costume pictures
"Yesterday I finally finished my plotting and started actually writing the thing. Taking my one page of notes on chapter one, I spent the morning writing out the dialog, then in the afternoon, I turned it into prose. Today I’ll take my one page of notes on chapter two and do the same, and in about three to four months, I’ll have turned my 27 pages of notes into a 500 page manuscript."

How do you plot your novel? Does it look anything like Kim Harrison's method? Thanks for reading!

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NaNoWriMo Update: I'm at 35,528 words, so I caught up last night and did an extra 500 words. That makes me happy. Hopefully I'll be able to get up to 38k tonight. (fingers crossed)

Other articles you might like:
- Vanquishing Writer's Block
- How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover
- Using Technology To Sell Books: Quick Response Codes (QR codes)

Photo credit: "I Want To Believe … In Fairies" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, November 14

Donald Maass Talks About How To Make Your Readers CARE About Your Characters On The First Page


I was mulling over what to write about for this post when I realized I haven't told you about the workshop I took from Donald Maass on creating standout characters.

Donald Maass is head of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York which sells more than 150 novels per year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. His latest book is Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling in Modern Fiction. Much of the material Donald Maass talked about in his workshop was taken from Writing 21st Century Fiction.

By the way, if something I've written looks wrong it's my mistake, not Donnald Maass'.

How To Make Your Characters Pop Off The Page


What makes a character 'pop' off the page? How can you construct a character your reader will immediately care about? That's our goal.

As head of a New York literary agency, Donald Maass reads many manuscripts. He said there is something missing from almost every protagonist. One thing.

But let's step back for a moment. Before we talk about what's missing, let's go over the three basic types of protagonists:

1) Everyman/Everywoman


This kind of protagonist is like you and me. They are ordinary, at least to begin with.

Write down your favorite thing about your protagonist. Why do you love them?

Now, ask yourself: How can readers immediately experience this quality I love?

2) Hero


This kind of protagonist is already strong. Brave. Important.

Perhaps their job puts them in danger. They are responsible.

If your protagonist is a hero type, write down one way in which they are human, ordinary and regular, just like everyone else. Perhaps they are superstitious. Perhaps they have self-depreciating humor. Perhaps their car won't start.

3) Dark protagonist. Anti-hero


This protagonist has self-loathing. Many paranormal characters fall into this category. Perhaps they are a werewolf, a shapeshifter or a vampire.

If your protagonist is like this, write down one way your character want to change. One way they wish to be less tormented. What would that look like? What could the end of suffering look like for this character? How can they be more human?

Let your reader feel, let them see, your character yearning for change.

The one thing that's missing


Let's go back to what DM said, above, about one thing being missing from practically every manuscript he reads. It's this: he didn't care about the protagonists after reading the first page.

You NEED to find a way to make your readers care about your protagonist ON THE VERY FIRST PAGE.

DM suggests that if there's no way you can make your reader care about your protagonist in the first page that you might want to rethink your opening.

Our goal: to create a sympathetic character


The goal is to create a sympathetic character your readers care about. Some people say you want to create a protagonist readers can IDENTIFY with but not necessarily CARE for. DM disagrees. The reader needs to care about your protagonist, not simply identify with them. (See also: How To Get Your Readers To Identify With Your Main Character.)

So, how do you get your readers to care about your characters?

What makes you care about people?

Probably a number of things. We like people who are strong, who are good, who are principled and who are brave.

Readers want something to cheer for.

So, how do you accomplish this?

Creating a sympathetic HEROIC character: what DOESN'T work


Here's what NOT to do: use an action opening that makes your protagonist seem perfect. DM says that action openings leave readers ice cold. They don't care. The protagonist is too perfect.

Your reader needs to see your protagonist as a real person. They need to see they're human. Your protagonist, especially if they're a hero type, needs an ordinary thing (for instance, a car that won't start, a superstition, and so on).

Creating a sympathetic DARK character: what doesn't work


These protagonists are sexy, haunted, alluring, they look great in leather. They're tormented, depressed, miserable. Who wants to be around that?

Your readers back away from suffering. What we don't back away from is HOPE.

How to get readers to care about your character:

You need to find a way to make your character STRONG, REAL and give them HOPE.
As you write your characters ask yourself: What engages your heart? What makes you feel connected? Drawn in?

After the opening


So far we've talked about how to get your readers to care about your protagonist on the first page, certainly in the first couple of pages. Now let's talk about how to KEEP your readers caring about them.

Give your main character a FOUNDATIONAL ATTRIBUTE


Even ordinary characters (type one, above) have one thing they are exceptional at. Something they know a lot about in which they're an expert.

- Are they analytical?
- Are they faithful?
- Are they curious?
- Are they determined?

Now give your protagonist a habit or tick that suggests they're the opposite of whatever foundational attribute you've given them.

For instance, let's say your protagonist is highly focused, that's his foundational attribute. Have a scene where he's in an ice cream parlor. He's so highly focused he can't do a simple thing like decide what kind of ice cream to get.

Your character needs weaknesses as well as strengths. Make sure that in at least three places in your manuscript you show your character's weakness, his quirk.

I want to stress that DM thought we needed to be specific when we show how our character's foundational attribute benefits them as well as how it hurts them.

Ask yourself, what can your main character DO that no one else can? Now write a scene where this ability is a benefit and another where it's a hindrance.

Your Character & Self-Awareness


What does your character know about herself that is true?

There is something about them that is even MORE true, but they don't know it yet. What is it?

When and through which character are you going to clobber your protagonist with a recognition about him or herself? When would be a good time to do this?

What is one thing your protagonist knows about people that no one else does?

Why does he know this? Is it because of who he is?

In your story include a character on whom your protagonist cannot get a read.

Who does your protagonist love the best? What is one thing that is bad or unflattering about this character? What is one thing they do wrong, something that the protagonist sees through? The protagonist knows this character well enough to see something negative about them.

Pick any small thing in your story, something trivial, a little piece of friction between two characters. Make this illustrative of a larger principle at work in the world. Here is where you can give your protagonist an exposition. they can feel some anger, some sense of injustice, about what happened even though it is small.

What is the most selfless thing your protagonist does? confession, humility, forgiveness. Something they do for someone else. They sacrifice themselves.

Pick another of your characters. How will this character be changed by the selfless act of your protagonist? SHOW how they are changed by what your protagonist has done.

What makes a character interesting


Quirks are interesting, it's probably why we have so many quirky detectives.

Characters that are special, gifted, are interesting. Characters who see more, who care more than WE DO are interesting.

Did you ever have a slog day? Sure you have, we all have. Those days we just want to go back to bed. We've also had days when we're alive, our brains are on fire. We feel in command of ourselves and our world. Those days we want to be alive. THESE ARE THE KIND OF CHARACTERS READERS CARE ABOUT.

Make your characters real.

Your protagonist can, in a way, always be ON.

Antagonist


In a romance, the hero is often the heroines antagonist and vice versa. The hero and heroine need to be together but something is keeping them apart. What does the heroine want? Love? Security? Respect? The hero is getting in her way, he is slowing her down.

What does your antagonist believe in? What is their ONE TRUTH?

In what way is the antagonist's one truth actually right and true? What do they think is wrong with the world? What is REALLY wrong with the world?

Write a scene about the moment when your protagonist understands and accepts that the antagonist is right (perhaps not globally, but about some one thing), that their one truth is really true. Do they humble themselves and say, "You're right. I see it"?

What is the moment when your protagonist realizes that the antagonist is right? It's sometimes said that those who hate us know us the best. In a sense, your protagonist and antagonist will know each other very well.

What does your antagonist most want to bring about? What is their perfect world?

What is the WORST thing your antagonist does?

There is a thing your antagonist has sworn never to do, they think it's wrong. They say to themselves, "I'll do anything, anything at all, but never THAT" What is the thing they've sworn never to do?

At some point your antagonist will do the thing they've sworn never to do. Why do they do it? They do it even though they abhor it, they do it reluctantly and against their principles. For what good purpose was it done?

Remember: the antagonist is the hero of their own story.

Secondary Characters


Pick a secondary character, a friend of the protagonist. What is the single biggest way these characters are different?

Find one way to use what you've just written down in a scene. At what point in your story does this secondary character most understand and love your protagonist? At what point do they hate the protagonist?

What is their most important piece of shared history? What have they done together? What can this secondary character trust your protagonist for? What will the protagonist always do for them? Bail them out at 3 in the morning? Change their tire in the middle of a snowstorm?

Find a moment in your story where trust is broken, when the protagonist doesn't do what the secondary character trusted them to do.

What does the secondary character know about your protagonist that your protagonist denies? Is there a moment in your story when the secondary character calls your protagonist out?

What is the greatest gift the secondary character can give to the protagonist? The protagonist may not know they need this gift even though they do.

Underutilized secondary characters weaken a story.

That's it! If you ever have an opportunity to take a workshop from Donald Maass, do it! I've never met anyone who was disappointed.

Do you have any advice to add? Any questions you ask about your characters that helps them come alive?

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NaNoWriMo update: Alas, I didn't get my 2,000 words done last night! I did 1,000 though, so I'm up to 25,081. Hopefully I'll be able to do 2,000 words tonight which will bring me up to 27,000.

Other articles you might like:
- 8 Do's And Don'ts Of Writing Fiction From Neil Gaiman
- Using Technology To Sell Books: Quick Response Codes (QR codes)
- Is Serial Fiction Profitable? Hugh Howey Says: Yes! Even With Absolutely No Promotion

Photo credit: "Black & White Flower Pattern" by VinothChandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

8 Do's And Don'ts Of Writing Fiction From Neil Gaiman

8 Do's And Don'ts Of Writing Fiction From Neil Gaiman

It's the middle of NaNoWriMo and I need an infusion of writing wisdom. So I've turned to Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, PD James and Ian Rankin for their personal do's and don'ts of writing fiction.

Neil Gaiman

1 Write.

2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3 Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5 Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7 Laugh at your own jokes.

8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matte
"Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it." I need to hang that above my desk.

Margaret Atwood

1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3 Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4 If you're using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

5 Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6 Hold the reader's attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don't know who the reader is, so it's like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

7 You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.

8 You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

9 Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

10 Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

"Don't sit down in the middle of the woods." Yes, I can see that could be dangerous! And in more ways than one. Though it can be painful to delete words, especially during NaNoWriMo.

PD James

1 Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.

2 Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

3 Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

4 Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.

5 Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

"Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious." I've always thought this might be so. Especially when I was a kid, I had the habit of mimicking the style of the last author I'd read.  But Ms. James' advice flies in the face of the often given admonition to read both good and bad writing. Why read bad writing? I think the idea is that one can learn a great deal about story structure from seeing it go wrong.

Ian Rankin

1 Read lots.

2 Write lots.

3 Learn to be self-critical.

4 Learn what criticism to accept.

5 Be persistent.

6 Have a story worth telling.

7 Don't give up.

8 Know the market.

9 Get lucky.

10 Stay lucky.
"Learn what criticism to accept." Readers tastes differ, what one person likes, another will despise. I've found it helps to send my work to several readers. I pay attention to a criticism if it rings true to me or if a few of my readers complain about the same thing. I've found that being part of a writers' circle helps enormously.

For more writing advice, read Ten rules of writing fiction as well as Ten rules for writing fiction (part two) and find out what advice Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Esther Freud, David Hare and AL Kennedy, among others, give.

Photo credit: "liquid fire" by paul bica under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, November 10

What's The Difference Between Paranormal Romance And Urban Fantasy?

What's The Difference Between Paranormal Romance And Urban Fantasy?

The question is inevitable. You're at a get-together and someone asks you, "So, what do you do?"

Fair question, right? Then why do I feel so sheepish?

Here's me: Um, well, I guess ... I write.

Usually my interlocutor is interested. "Oh, how fascinating! What do you write?"

Ah, there it is. THE QUESTION. I used to say I was a genre writer but, inevitably, people looked at me blankly and asked, "What's that mean?".

So I thought, well, just pick a genre, something most folks are familiar with, something which more or less describes what you write. If they're interested you can refine the description later. So here's what I said.

"I write fantasy"

My questioner flushed and took half a step toward me. "You mean, like, dirty books?" they whispered.

Back to the drawing board.

Here's my current response: Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer without vampires.

So far it's worked, everyone I've spoken with has either watched Buffy or at least knows what I'm talking about. If they don't--this only happened once--I wave my hand in front of me and say, "Oh, you know, Joss Whedon's stuff". They understand that, or at least feel they should, and so change the subject.

Paranormal Romance Versus Urban Fantasy


If my experience at parties is any guide, most non-writers aren't familiar with the names of the genres they enjoy. And that's just fine. But we're writers and names can make a huge difference.

If you've written a horror novel and it's mistakenly categorized as paranormal romance chances are many readers who buy it won't be happy and may even leave disgruntled reviews.

Not good.

Here's how I think of the difference between these two genre:

Paranormal romance


A paranormal romance is fundamentally a romance. In the beginning of the story the lovers-to-be meet each other, are powerfully attracted to each other, but there is a reason, a very good and perhaps tragic reason, why they can't be together.

This reason, whatever it is, complicates their lives in various ways until the midpoint of the story when either things change slightly or they throw caution to the winds and, er, connect.  It turns out that being together was a bad idea, but perhaps for an all new set of reasons, and the would-be lovers are separated until the 3/4 point when our couple finally admits to themselves and each other that they are hopelessly in love.

Unfortunately, though, for 'a very good reason' (tm)--often something to do with a greater good--they must now say goodbye. Forever. Fortunately, just before all hope is lost and the two are irretrivably severed from each other and all hope of happiness fades the problem is solved and our lovers fall into each others arms and, probably, beds, and live together happily ever after (HEA). The End.

What do you mean, I must have read a lot of paranormal romances? ;) Of course I have, they're great! I especially like Katie MacAlister.

My description, above, was tongue-in-cheek, but I tried to hit some of the plot points a romance story needs to cover. A much better description can be found here: Xtranormal: How To Write A Romance Novel. That's the structure. That's the skeleton of every romance novel, paranormal or otherwise, ever written.

What's paranormal about paranormal romance?


Generally what makes a romance a paranormal romance is the addition of paranormal abilities. One or more of the characters have abilities that are considered "beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding" (Google Dictionary).

According to Wikipedia, a paranormal romance blends together, "themes from the genres of traditional fantasy, science fiction, or horror". That seems about right. No category these days is rigidly defined, but that seems to capture the expectations of readers when they pick up a book they've been told is a paranormal romance.

Urban Fantasy


Urban fantasy is the gritty bulked-up cousin of paranormal romance. Where a paranormal romance is fundamentally a romance, an urban fantasies is fundamentally a fantasy. There is a LOT of variation within the fantasy genre and so there is a lot of variation in urban fantasy. That said, it does have some unique aspects.

1) An urban fantasy must be ... well, urban


The bulk of the story has to take place in a city. The urban fantasies I've read generally take place in the cities of today, but in a world where we've realized that vampires and witches and werewolves (oh my!) exist.

That said, the city could be one from the past or the future, or it could be on another planet entirely.

2) An urban fantasy must have paranormal elements


Like a paranormal romance, an urban fantasy will have one or more characters who have abilities that are considered beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding. Being such as witches and werewolves, demons and vampires.

3) In an urban fantasy the outer goal of the protagonist IS NOT the love interest


In a romance the outer goal of the protagonist is the love interest; it is their bond, their eventual union.

Recall the structure of a romance I discussed, above. If this is the structure of a book that has been shelved in the urban fantasy section then the book has been misshelved. That book is NOT an urban fantasy, it's a paranormal romance.

In an urban fantasy something OTHER than the love interest is the protagonist's main goal.


Example: Jim Butcher's book Changes (The Dresden Files series)

In Changes Harry Dresden's outer goal is to save his daughter's life. I chose this book because the protagonist's goal is clear cut (and because it's a great book!). The red court vampires are going to ritually sacrifice his daughter unless Harry does something about it. The rest of the book is Harry doing something about it.

Changes is also the book where ... okay, no spoilers. But, as in most of the Dresden File books, there is a romantic element, a romantic subplot, but this romantic element is decidedly secondary (as one would expect) to saving his daughter's life. So it's usually there, but it's never the main thing.

Clear as mud? :-)

Okay, I've rambled on enough for today, talk to you again tomorrow. I studiously worked away on my NaNoWriMo manuscript and am now at 16,036 words and ever single word I typed was painful! lol Yesterday was NOT a fun writing day, hopefully today will be better. I want to reach 18,000 words by the time I go to bed.

Keep the NaNoWriMo faith! WE WILL FINISH!!

Other articles you might like:
- A NaNoWriMo Pep Talk From Neil Gaiman
- David Mamet On How To Write A Great Story
- How To Earn A Living As A Self-Published Writer

Photo credit: "Nosferatu (1922)" by twm1340 under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0.

Thursday, November 8

Third Person Omniscient, Third Person Limited or First Person. Which Point of View Is Right For You?

Third Person Omniscient, Third Person Limited or First Person. Which Point of View Is Right For You?

In a recent post Nathan Bransford talked turkey about Point of View.

First Person


In the first person perspective everything that happens in your story is told through your narrator's perspective. For example:
"Ouch! That hurt," I yelled. Jan glanced back and grinned.
"Oh, I'm sorry, was that your foot?" she said.
I glared at Jan's back as she peddled off into the distance, laughing maniacally. She would pay. Oh, yes, she would pay.
Nathan Bransford says this of it:
The really compelling first person narrators are the ones where a unique character is giving you their take on something that is happening, and yet it's clear to the reader that it's not the whole story. You're getting a biased look at the world, which is central to the appeal of the first person narrative. [1]
For example, in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series each story is told by Harry Dresden, Chicago's only consulting wizard. As a result, the books are infused with his personality. A very good thing! But the reader doesn't know whatever Harry doesn't know and sometimes that's quite a lot; enough, certainly, to keep the story interesting.

Nathan Bransford suggests that if you use the first person prspective that you make your character likeable. Or at least likable enough to pass the "stuck in an elevator" test. He writes:
Would you want to be stuck in a room with this person for six hours? Would you want to listen to this person give a speech for six hours? If the answer is no, then you might want to reconsider. [1]

Third Person: Limited Versus Omniscient


In the third person perspective, limited, you are, as the name implies, limited to one person's point of view while in the omniscient mode you can peek into the minds of all your characters and report what you find. While the latter is VERY convenient it's not as personal.

Here's an example of third person limited:
"Ouch! That hurt," Karen yelled. Jan glanced back and grinned.
"Oh, I'm sorry, was that your foot?"
Karen glared at Jan's back as she peddled off into the distance, laughing maniacally. Karen decided that Jan would pay for defiling the pristine newness of her sneakers.
It's not quite as personal because you're not hearing Karen's thoughts first hand, you're being told them by someone else.

In third person omniscient you can dip inside the head of anyone in the scene.

The Choice: Do You Want To Head-Jump?


Nathan Bransford writes that the decision whether to use third person limited or third person omniscient comes down to whether you want to head-jump. He writes:
Third person limited is, well, limited. The perspective is exclusively grounded to one character, unless you cheat a little. This means that you have all of the constraints of first person (all the reader sees is what the protagonist sees), but with just a tad more freedom. The reader will wonder a bit more precisely what that character is thinking and there's a bit more of an objective sensibility.

One of the classic third person limited narratives is the Harry Potter series, and Rowling strays from Harry's perspective in only a tiny few rare instances. She therefore had to bend over backwards to filter everything the reader needed to know about that world through Harry's view. If Harry can't see it? It doesn't happen for the reader.

I would wager my sorting hat that things like the invisibility cloak and the pensieve were extremely inventive ways around the narrative challenges posed by third person limited. There is no "offstage" for the reader to witness something that Harry can't see, so instead he has to be present to see he shouldn't  (invisibility cloak) and witnessing historical events for himself (pensieve).

Third person omniscient is, ostensibly, a bit more freeing, because you aren't limited to a single character's perspective. However, it's also very difficult because for a reader it's very disorienting to head-jump. If you're inside one character's head and then jump to the next character's head and then another, it's very difficult for the reader to place themselves in a scene. They just have whiplash. [1]
He ends by saying:
That's the key: Whatever perspective you choose, it has to be grounded. The reader has to know where they are in relation to the action so they can get their bearings and lose themselves in the story.
Nathan Bransford's entire post is well worth reading--heck, all his posts are!: Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited.

Other articles you might like:

- David Mamet On How To Write A Great Story
- How To Earn A Living As A Self-Published Writer
- Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive

Referenced articles:
1) First Person vs. Third Person, Nathan Bransford

Photo credit: "Writing" by ^ Missi ^ under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, November 7

Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive

Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive

Think of what a story would be without structure. Many of us don't have to imagine it, we have those stories buried under our beds!

Structure helps move a story along, it lends novels that most mysterious of things: narrative drive. The I-can't-put-it-down quality that keeps sane people up way past their bedtime.

Structure also helps writers when we have that feeling: Gee, shouldn't something be happening about now? But what? Following a structure, or even reading about it, can generate ideas.

The Purpose Of Writing/Storytelling


Screenwriters talk about structure more than novel writers, so I've been studying screenwriting. Not with the intention to write a script--novels are challenging enough!--but to learn about different story structures.

Whether we're talking about writing a novel, short story or a screenplay, it's the same basic idea: We're telling a story to an audience. We are entertainers seeking to wow the crowd.

One concept I discovered recently, that of the Pinch or Pinch Point, is another tool a writer can stow away in her toolbox just in case she needs it. And, during NaNoWriMo, who knows what will come in handy before the month is through.

Pinch Points


A pinch point is a reminder. It's a reminder of who the antagonist is and what is at stake. Further, this reminder isn't filtered by the hero's experience. In other words, it's not just how the hero sees the antagonist, or antagonistic force, this is how they are. Here we see their true nature. (Story Structure Series: #9 – Pinch Points, Larry Brooks)

The Structure Of Your Story: How To Use Pinch Points


There are two pinch points--sometimes just called "pinches"--in a novel or screenplay. Assuming a three act structure, the first pinch comes halfway through the first part of the 2nd act (3/8 mark) and the second pinch comes halfway through the second part of the 2nd act (5/8 mark).

Clear as mud? Here's a drawing:




First Pinch Point:


The first pinch point reminds us of the central conflict of the story.

Second Pinch Point: 


The second pinch point, like the first, reminds the audience of the central conflict of the story, but it also is linked to the first (Wikipedia, Screenwriting). It shows the audience the threat (whatever it is that still stands in the way of the hero achieving his goal). The pinch point scene lays out what the hero has yet to conquer/overcome/accomplish. (“The Help” – Isolating and Understanding the First “Pinch Point”, Larry Brooks)

My background isn't in screenwriting but, to me, pinch points seem a lot like sequels. Not exactly like a sequel, though, because sequels come after the scene, after the action. Perhaps a pinch is like a scene+sequel. You show your audience the antagonist in all their unadulterated glory (or horribleness) and then you see the aftermath, the personal consequences for the hero, the goals he has still accomplish and why he must accomplish them.

Examples of Pinch Points


First Pinch Point 

[I]n Star Wars, Pinch 1 is the Stormtroopers attacking the Millennium Falcon in Mos Eisley, reminding us the Empire is after the stolen plans to the Death Star R2-D2 is carrying and Luke and Ben Kenobi are trying to get to the Rebel Alliance (the main conflict). (Screenwriting, Wikipedia)

Second Pinch Point

In Star Wars, Pinch 2 is the Stormtroopers attacking them as they rescue the Princess in the Death Star. Both scenes remind us of the Empire's opposition, and using the Stormtrooper attack motif unifies both Pinches. (Screenwriting, Wikipedia)
So, in Star Wars, the pinch points remind us that the Big Bad is the Emperor. Further, the pinch points are related--the second one calls back to the first--through the use of Stormtroopers.

Even if we end up not using them, the concept of pinch points can help remind us that we shouldn't lose sight of the antagonist in the story. Sometimes this is a danger when the antagonist works behind the scenes, through his or her minions, and receives little "on stage" time.

# # #

If you're doing NaNoWriMo this year, best of luck! How's it going? It's been tough for me. Life has a way of intruding on my writing time. But that's okay! I'm at approximately 12,075 words, hopefully I'll have over 14,000 by the end of the day.

Go NaNo-ers! :-)

Other articles you might like:

- More Writing Advice From Jim Butcher
- How To Get Your Readers To Identify With Your Main Character
- Chuck Wendig And The Battle Song Of The Storyteller

Resources:
- Syd Field's Podcasts (Syd Field was the first person to publish a book on modern screenwriting)
- StoryFix (Run by Larry Brooks)

Photo credit: "Ice Storm" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons 2.0.

Friday, November 2

How To Write 10,000 Words A Day

How To Write 10,000 Words A Day

Yes, that's right, 10,000 words a day. It's not a typo.

Google+ is terrific! For the past few weeks I've been busy meeting a gaggle of fellow flagellants writers planning on going through NaNoWriMo this year.

One of these wonderful people, Joanie Raisovich, posted a link to Rachel Aaron's article How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. Of course I had to go look!

How To Write 10,000 Words A Day


I was skeptical. 10,000 words a day. Really? But I read Rachel's article and her method made sense.

I don't want to spell Rachel's method out in great and gory detail--she does that in her wonderful article--but I don't think she would mind if I touched on two things I believe are at the heart of it's success: creating a detailed outline (I call it a 'micro outline') & turning the scientific method loose on yourself.

1. The Secret To Writing 10,000 Words A Day: Create A Micro Outline


In the following when I talk about an outline I don't mean the traditional kind of outline (Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining). By all means, have that too, but don't stop there.

Let me give you an example. In one of the first scenes of my NaNoWriMo story a little girl climbs into the tiger enclosure at a game preserve. My heroine, Robyn the park administrator, not only needs to save the little girl from the normally placid tiger (Shadow), but needs to save Shadow--the game preserve's most popular attraction--from being killed.

An ordinary outline of the scene might read like this:
- Robyn enters park
- Food missing
- Girl in enclosure
- No tranquilizer gun
- Hank going to shoot tiger
- Robyn steps into tiger cage
That's the first chapter. The incident is resolved in the next chapter.

Here's what I'm calling a Micro Outline. We take the ordinary outline and break it down further.
- Robyn (heroine) arrives at her office in the game reserve. Setup character.

- Jane, head trainer, tells Robyn all the food for the animals has been stolen. Describe how dangerous this will make the large cats. Start to develop the character of Shadow, the golden tiger. There's something different about this tiger. He seems almost ... human.

- Robyn sees a crowd gather around Shadow's enclosure and knows something is wrong. Receives call from Jane. Robyn runs to enclosure.

- Robyn told young girl is in cage with Shadow and that the tranquilizer gun is missing.

- Child's parents are hysterical, police have been called.

- Hank, a park worker who was a sniper in the military, is set up with a rifle and told to kill Shadow if it looks like he's going to attack the child.

- Jane tells Rod to bring over the tranquilizer gun from the elephant enclosure but it'll be at least 5 minutes before it arrives.

- Robyn doesn't want Shadow killed. She doesn't believe Shadow would ever hurt a child but she can't take chances with her life.

- Shadow moves and Robyn sees Hank make the decision to kill Shadow.

- Robyn enters the tiger's cage and places her body between Shadow and the little girl as well as between Shadow and Hank's bullet.
I suppose I could just have called the above a detailed outline, but generally I don't write even detailed outlines with this depth of description.

The Point: Writing A Micro Outline Eliminates Surprises

When I read the two outlines, the traditional outline and the micro outline, I get much more of a sense of the scene from the micro outline. It also lets me work out timing problems and helps me decide where I need to insert tidbits of backstory.

For instance, when Jane and Robyn are discussing the stolen food I can include something about the most famous occupant of the preserve, Shadow the rare golden tiger, and how if the game preserve ever lost him they'd have to close their doors. The reader also needs to sympathize with Shadow, they need to know he's not an ordinary tiger and that this factors in Robyn's decision to risk her life for his.

Anyway! Getting back to the point of this post. (grin) You see what I mean about a micro outline. You're basically stepping through the scene talking in some detail about what is going to happen, but you haven't done any of the writing yet. When you DO get down to writing, it's all there, on paper and (much more importantly!) in your mind. You know what you want to write.

Once again: I think the key to success here is that in mapping out your story at this level of detail you now hold pretty much the completed scene in your mind so, when you sit down to write, the guessing, and the writer's block, is gone. You know what happens in the scene, all you have to do is write the darn thing! :)

2. Know Thyself: Use The Scientific Method To Make You A More Productive Writer


The second great thing Rachel Aaron discussed, and like all Great Things when I mention this to you you'll roll your eyes and say, "Well, that's just common sense!" But, honestly, have you ever done it? I haven't!

Here's what I'm talking about: Rachel thought she worked best in the morning, then she started keeping track of: 
a) the time she started writing,
b) the time she stopped writing,
c) her word count,
d) where she was writing.
Rachel collected this information for a while and discovered, among other things, that she wrote most in the afternoon. Huh! This allowed Rachel to hire a sitter for the afternoons--the time she knew she was most productive--and go write in the place she knew she was the most productive--a coffee shop with no wifi. She also found that she wrote more words per hour when she wrote for over 5 hours (and less than 7) than when she just wrote for an hour or two.

Good to know! Of course Rachel stresses that what works for her may not work for anyone else. Her point is that we each need to find what works for us.

It really is incredible how often great innovation is driven by great need. I think Rachel's system is brilliant and am, today, going to begin keeping track of my writing sessions.

Once again, Rachel Aaron's article is called How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. She has also written a book, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, currently available in the Kindle Store for 99 cents.

#  #  #

What is the most you've written in one day? I think my top word count is around 6,000 words. Of course I was slightly batty by the end of it and didn't continue at that rate. I think Rachel's article came at just the right time for all of us! :-)

Other articles you might like:
- World Building & Story Creation: Use What You Know
- Does Amazon KDP Select Drive Away True Fans?
- NaNoWriMo: A Survival Guide
- SEO Tips & Tricks: How To Make Google Love Your Blog

Photo credit: "Atlas, it's time for your bath" by woodleywonderworks under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 1

World Building & Story Creation: Use What You Know

World Building & Story Creation: Using What You Know

1. Pattern your created world on this one


Don't try to re-invent the wheel. Re-purpose as much of this world as you can when you create your new one.

An example is Frank Herbert's invention of the Bene Gesserit. It has been a long time since I last re-read Dune, but I always thought Herbert may have modeled the sisterhoood loosely on the Catholic Church, but instead of only men being allowed to be priests, in the sisterhood only women are allowed to be reverend mother's.

Naturally the differences between the priesthood and the sisterhood are many and profound, but the similarities between the two are as defining as the differences.

2. Pattern your created world on an existing mythology


I was introduced to Greek Mythology in grade four and instantly fell in love. Use what you know.

Zeus (though you probably wouldn't call your character that!) could be a powerful, controlling, licentious CEO of an international corporation married to an incredibly strong, jealous, powerful and spiteful woman. As you can see from the description, many writers have mined the rich stories the ancient Greeks gifted to us.

Story Creation and Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient


Just because you create the world in which the events of your story will take place, this doesn't mean the world itself will be the focus on your story. In MICE terminology, it doesn't mean you'll write a Milieu Story. That said, having created this marvelous place, not to mention the people who inhabit it, chances are the world, it's quirks, how it differs from our culture, our societies, will be an integral part of your story.

Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you will have subplots involving Idea Stories (Is the King under a spell? How can we break it?), or Character Stories (A girl doesn't want to live the life her father planned for her, instead she desires to wed the man of her dreams--and her father's nightmares), or Event Stories (some guy who lost a ring wants to take over the world. Again.). Or perhaps some combination of all three!

Despite these subplots, though, your main focus will likely be the milieu in which the events occur, it will be the workings of the world itself. Typically, your story will begin when your main character enters the alien world and will end when they leave it.

#  #  #

This post was inspired by Lori Devoti's excellent article A No Stress Guide To World Building. Thanks to Elizabeth Spann Craig (website + blog) for tweeting a link to Lori's article.

Have you ever written a Milieu Story? How did you come up with the characteristics of your new world?

Other articles you might like:
- NaNoWriMo: A Survival Guide
- SEO Tips & Tricks: How To Make Google Love Your Blog
- Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Photo credit: "Tagged!" by JD Hancock under CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, October 31

NaNoWriMo: A Survival Guide

NaNoWriMo: A Survival Guide
"November dreaming" by mpclemens under CC BY 2.0

A few months ago one of my friends recommended Jim C. Hines' blog, and I'm so very glad she did! Today, on the eve of NaNoWriMo, Jim gave us all a pep talk.

Before I get to that, though, let me wish you all the best of luck during NaNoWriMo. I'll be right there beside you, down in the trenches, scribbling away. At the end of this post I've compiled a list of links that I call my "survival pack". Now, back to Jim's pep talk.

Here are the highlights:

"Nobody is born knowing how to write"


So true! Although I'm reminded of something Stephen King wrote in "On Writing":
[W]hile it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
I'm sure that Mr. King meant to be encouraging, but after I read that paragraph, for a whole week, I lay awake at night terrified I was a Bad Writer and there was no hope for me. I suppose it goes without saying I had a raging case of writer's block!

As a kid I was told there was an Unforgivable Sin. If anyone committed this sin they could not be redeemed and were doomed to hell. That worried me. A lot! Then someone said, "Look, if you're worried about committing the unforgivable sin, you haven't committed it".

Back to Bad Writers. If you want to get better, then you can. The only people who can't get better are those who don't try. If someone isn't a good writer (and, as Jim Hines points out, none of us come into the world that way) but they think they're awesome ... well, that's a problem.

So, never give up! All it takes to be a good writer is honesty and practice. Lots and lots of practice. (At least that's what I believe. I'll let you know how it goes. ;)

"There's no one right way to write a book"


Jim Hines writes:
There’s a lot of advice out there. Try different things. Experiment. Figure out what works for you. Anyone who preaches the Gospel of the True Right Way to write (or sell) a book? Smile and back away as quickly as possible. All those readers out there don’t care how you wrote the book. They just care if the end result is worth reading.
What he said.

"Give yourself permission to write crap"


I've found that if, on my first draft, I don't give myself permission to let it all hang out I'll wind up with something lifeless--if I'm able to write at all. Apparently I'm not alone. This is what Stephen King has to say:
If you're a beginner ... let me urge that you take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open.

With the door shut, downloading what's in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. ... There's plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly ... I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that's always waiting to settle in.

This first draft--the All-Story Draft--should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else. (Stephen King, On Writing)
Stephen King goes on to say that, after you write the first draft, you should put it in a drawer for a few weeks. Forget about it. Write something else. When you come back it's no longer your baby. At that point you put on your editors cap, open the study door and let the world in.

But the first draft is just for you. Write crap if that's what it takes. Just write.

"Do edit and rewrite"


I would add: Join a writer's circle/critique group.

A number of years ago I wrote my first full-length book. I hadn't intended to write a book, I started out writing a short story for my parents at Christmas. I was a university student and wanted to give them something from the heart. Well, that and I couldn't afford anything else!

The short story morphed into a book, my first, and--gleeful at my achievement--I wrapped it up and gave it to them.

I waited impatiently while my parents read it. (Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you ...) When they had both finished I asked what they thought (something writers should never do! If someone loved your book they'll tell you). They were polite but it was obvious they hadn't cared for it. I was crushed.

Well. A few months ago I re-read that story. It was truly awful.

I'm not sure if my story would have turned out better if I'd put it away for a few months and come back to it with a fresh perspective. I think, often, our first attempt at a novel is just not very good and we need folks, other pairs of eyes, to examine it and give us a fresh perspective. Especially in the beginning.

A great way to meet people willing to read your work and give you their honest opinion is to join a writer's circle/critique group. If there isn't one where you live there are many online. I can recommend Critters.org. I was a member of Critters for a number of years and benefited enormously.

Write Every Day


This tip comes from me and is about life after NaNoWriMo. If you have a day job and kids and a life it can be excruciatingly difficult to write every day. But you don't have to write thousands, or even hundreds, of words. Some days life is going to overwhelm you. That's okay. But try to do a little bit.

If you're working on a first draft, try to write a couple hundred words. If you're editing, try for half a page. 

I'm a great believer in Jerry Seinfeld's Chain Method (How To Write Every Day: Jerry Seinfeld And The Chain Method). Try for that unbroken chain of X's. It will keep you from walking away from your novel for a week or two and forgetting were you were; losing the mood of the piece.

Of course, during NaNoWriMo you're not going to have to worry about this. It's kind of like a month of Write or Die.

#  #  #

Best of luck to everyone on the cusp of NaNoWriMo, the caffeinated month!

I've put together links to a few articles that might be of use:

The NaNoWriMo Survival Kit


- NaNoWriMo: 5 Tips On How To Get Ready

Jim Butcher: The art and craft of writing:

- Jim Butcher On Writing
- Jim Butcher: How To Write A Story
- How To Build A Villain By Jim Butcher

See also:
- 8 Ways To Become A Better Writer
- Writing Resources

Outlining:

- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal And The Mysteries Of Outlining

Characterization:

- 3 Ways To Create Incredible Characters

For when you're stressed and need a timeout:

- Helping Writers De-Stress: Meditation Apps

For those "butt in chair" moments when you just need to write:

- Write or Die: The App
- Aherk! Makes Writing App 'Write or Die' Look Tame

The postscript: Finding A Home For Your Book

- Query Tracker: Keep Track Of Your Stories
- 10 Reasons Why Stories Get Rejected

Saturday, October 27

Chapter Breaks: Where Should They Go?

Chapter Breaks: Where Should They Go?
"Stairwell, Annecy" by Alex Brown under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

A couple of days ago a friend mentioned she had trouble deciding where to insert chapter breaks. I said something blithe about breaking in the middle of tension, but it got me thinking. Where should we put chapter breaks? Are there rules of thumb?

As I was surfing the web this morning I happened across, not one but two, articles about where to insert chapter breaks. I love it when things like that happen!

The first article is Writing a Novel: Chapter Breaks by Courtney Carpenter and the second is 3 Ways to Know When to End Your Chapters by Aaron Elkins. I summarize their points, below.

Where To Insert Chapter Breaks


The Goal

You want your readers to continue past the chapter break. Or, since it's unlikely someone will read your book in one huge eye-reddening gasp, you want them to be interested enough in your story that they will come back after laying the book aside.

1. Use a chapter break to mark a change or transition

When you do your outline you'll map out scenes and sequels and then, as you write your first draft, indicate where you feel a good place is for a chapter break.

But that's the question, isn't it? What IS a good place for a chapter break! Aaron Elkins advises that "Changes of place, changes of time and changes of point of view are all excellent places for chapter breaks. (3 Ways to Know When to End Your Chapters)"

For instance, does your main character have to take a flight somewhere? End one chapter with him getting into the plane and start the next with him landing. Do you want to shift your point of view from one character to another? This usually happens at a chapter break.

2. Put a chapter break where the action is most dramatic.

Courtney Carpenter in Writing A Novel: Chapter Breaks writes:
The most important thing is that at the end of each chapter the reader should be craving the next chapter. Make the reader want to turn the next page. An old-fashioned cliffhanger is not required (though they still work), but tension of some kind is essential. End not where the action lulls but where it is the most dynamic. Give the reader new information right before you cut him off.
When you want to increase tension and make it impossible for your poor reader to put down the book--even at 3 in the morning when he has a 7 o'clock meeting--you can use one of the oldest tricks in the book: the good old-fashioned cliffhanger. You want to put your main character in peril, it seems almost certain he's going to die, he has only one small, teensy, improbable chance to live. It would take an incredible amount of skill/courage/brilliance on his/her part to pull it off.

You get the idea.

Use this ending sparingly. If your hero is in mortal peril at the end of every chapter and manages to save himself at beginning of the next chapter the trick will stop working.

Keep in mind that, as Aaron Elkins mentions, the cliffhanger doesn't always have to be about putting your hero in physical peril. It could be she has a deep dark secret she has decided to tell right at the end of the chapter. She reveals the secret at the beginning of the next chapter. Nice!

I hope you found something of value here to help with chapter endings and beginnings. As with most things there's no clear-cut answer. But I suppose that's why, at it's core, writing is an art not a science.

Best of luck!

Other articles you might like:
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work
- What to do if your book isn't selling: Tips from Johanna Penn
- Dialogue: 7 Ways of Adding Variety

Thursday, October 25

Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive


Yesterday I promised to write an article about the last tool Mary Robinette Kowal introduced in her (terrific!) workshop at SiWC last weekend, The Mysteries of Outlining. Namely: "Yes, BUT ... / No, AND ..." Another name for this might be "How to write a scene: conflicts and setbacks".

Characters need setbacks


If your main character got everything she wanted right away then your story would be as entertaining as watching paint dry. The solution: be mean. Give your main character setbacks, lots of them.

Conflicts & Setbacks

Your main character has goals, he wants things. In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones goes on a quest to find and bring back the lost Ark of the Covenant. About halfway through the movie he finds the ark but is captured and, along with Marion, sealed inside an ancient burial vault and left to die.

What follows is one of the BEST sequences of conflicts and setbacks I've come across. Let's start after Indie finds the ark.

Conflict: Does Indie find the ark?
Setback: Yes, BUT he is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.

Remember that it is established early on in the movie that Indiana hates snakes. Spiders and all manner of creepy-crawlies he's fine with, just don't bring him near a snake! (And, yes, I know that there's no logical reason why there would be THAT many snakes in an ancient burial vault, but the scene still works.)

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion survive the pit of snakes?
Setback: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Setback: Yes, Indie crashes a pillar through a wall providing them a way to escape BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that--for Marion at least--seem to come alive.

Conflict: Will Indie and Marion escape from the ancient burial vault they've been entombed in?
Setback: Yes, BUT the bad guys have the ark and Indie needs to get it back.

After every goal Indie achieves there is a setback. I just noticed we didn't come across a "No, AND ..." so lets keep going.

Another FABULOUS sequence in the first Indiana Jones movie--especially from the perspective of what we're talking about here--pulling the reader through a scene, creating conflict and using setbacks to create narrative drive--occurs at around 01:16:33 where Indie decides he's going to commandeer a plane. He fails in the end and it blows up but the sequence of goals/conflicts and setbacks is memorable.

Conflict: Will Indie commandeer the plane?
Setback: No, AND Indie is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.

Conflict: Indie and a bad guy fight. Will Indie win?
Setback: Yes, BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indie (AND the pilot sees indie and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).

Conflict: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indie. Will Indie escape being hit?
Setback: Yes, Indie dodges the pilot's bullets BUT the pilot keeps shooting.

Conflict: Indie is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like he has no chance of winning. Will Indie, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Setback: No, Indie is not going to win a fist-fight with the Man-Mountain AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Conflict: The pilot takes aim at Indie, from this angle he can't miss. Will Indie survive?
Setback: Yes, indie survives. Marion hits the pilot over the head and knocks him unconscious BUT as the pilot slumps over in the cockpit he hits some levers and starts the plane rolling forward while Indie fights the Man-Mountain on the ground below.

Conflict: Marion climbs into the cockpit to remove the pilot and stop the plane from moving. Does she succeed?
Setback: No, AND she gets locked inside the cockpit.

You get the idea. The entire scene is well worth watching.

One thing I want to point out before I go on to the next section and talk about scenes is that the stakes for our hero gradually escalate throughout the scene. At first Indie just wants the plane and gets into a fist fight, then there's an impossibly huge guy he has to fight, then someone starts shooting at him, then the plane begins to move, then there's a truckload of German soldiers who see him, then Marion explodes gasoline containers, then there's gasoline on the ground running toward the fire.

At the end of the scene an ocean of gasoline is rushing toward the burning remains of the gas canisters while the Man-Mountain continues to beat Indie to a pulp and, of course, the whole camp has noticed the gasoline barrels explode and is rushing to investigate. It's really quite something.

Scenes & Sequals


To flesh out this discussion let's talk about the larger picture. Conflicts and setbacks are parts of scenes and a novel is made up of scenes and sequels.

Scenes are where the action takes place, where your character has conflicts and setbacks until the end of the scene and he or she attains their goal, or not, as the case may be.  

Sequels are where your character reacts emotionally to what's happened, where he or she reviews the facts of their situation and perhaps wonders if their plan is working or whether it needs to be changed. Basically a sequel sets your character(s) up for the next scene and gives your readers a bit of a break from the fast pace.

I'm not going to talk about sequels here, except to point you to Jim Butcher's post on the subject.

Scenes


Here, according to Jim Butcher, is the basic format of a scene:
Point of view character: _______________________
Goal: ______________________________________
Conflict (scene question): ______________________
Setback (scene answer): _______________________

POV (Point Of View) Character

Both Mary and Jim say the same thing:
Make your POV character the one who has the most at stake. 
Jim Butcher qualifies this by saying it should be the character who has the most at stake emotionally. If one character may lose his cousin who he never liked and doesn't care about and another may lose his cat who is their best friend then make Cat Guy your POV character.

Keep in mind that, like all writing rules, if you know what you're doing you can break them.

Goal


The goal needs to be ACTIVE and it needs to be SPECIFIC. Michael Hauge advises writers to think of it in movie terms. How could you show the character's goal on the screen? It should be something concrete such as (these are Jim Butcher's examples) "Get out of the room alive" not "Do something to save the day".

Conflict: Will your character succeed? WHICH character will succeed? Your hero or the antagonist?


Conflict is whatever will make your character fail in reaching his or her goal.

Between characters. Conflict happens between characters, not between a character and the environment. In the second Indiana Jones scene the plane--specifically its propeller--acted as a threat to Indie, he could have been killed by being forced into its blades, but it was used as a prop, the conflict came from the Man-Mountain trying to force him into the blades.

Conflicting goals. Conflict happens between characters trying to achieve different goals. Antagonists have goals too, ones that, if fulfilled, would prevent the hero from reaching his or her goal. Jim Butcher writes:
All this really means is that you need an antagonist with the same specific, attainable goal, the same kinds of emotional stakes, as your protagonist. Once you've got the right kind of set up, the scene almost writes itself. (Scenes)
If only!

Setbacks

For every conflict that comes up, a question can be asked: Will our hero succeed? There are four answers:
1) Yes
2) Yes, BUT
3) No
4) No, AND
We've covered this, above. Briefly, "Yes" won't get us anywhere. The hero needs setbacks because if his goal were just handed to him that would be very dull. The hero doesn't get everything he wants until the end of the book--and sometimes not even then!

"No" can work but it can be frustrating and cast your hero in a bad light. Use sparingly.

The other two, "Yes, BUT" and "No, AND" we've covered, above.

So, what are you waiting for! Go write a killer scene. :-)

Update (April 28, 2014): I go into this topic in more detail in Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles.

Other articles in this series:
- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories

Other articles you might like:
- Jim Butcher On Writing
- NaNoWriMo: How To Reach Your Daily Wordcount
- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work

Wednesday, October 24

NaNoWriMo: How To Reach Your Daily Wordcount

NaNoWriMo: How To Reach Your Daily Wordcount
Copyright Mikleman, Some rights reserved. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

If you're participating in the collective insanity known as NaNoWriMo (I say that affectionately as one swept up in the madness) here are some tips for reaching your daily wordcount--typically around 2,000 words--each and every day.

Tip #1) Don't Edit


A friend of mine is writing an article on how to get your inner editor to shut the heck up--although she isn't as polite! I eagerly look forward to reading her tips, but getting your inner editor to zip-it while you write your first draft is essential.

Yes. Sure. Coax her out of hibernation when you begin your second draft but, until then, she can't help you. She is about limiting, changing, critiquing your creative output, and that's importgant, but it kills the momentum of a first draft and that's what you're writing during NaNo.

What's that you ask? How do you turn off your inner editor? Good question. I'm really looking forward to reading my friend's article! But what I do is just write and pointedly ignore any construction I think is clunky or could clearly be improved upon.

I remind myself I'm writing a first draft and that I write my first drafts for myself alone--NOT the world--and that I'll clean it up on my 2nd and 3rd pass through.

I think a person needs to write enough that they get to the point where they can trust that will happen (see: How to write every day: Jerry Seinfeld and the chain method).

Tip #2) Multitask


At the Surrey International Writers' Conference Diana Gabaldon, during her keynote speech, shared that she generally got stuck two-thirds of the way down a page. It didn't matter what she was writing--an email, grant proposal, speach, she would always get stuck two-thirds of the way down.

Her solution?

Go on to something else. Stuck on the third page of your novel? No problem! Write something else. Answer an email. Do a blog post. When you're done go back to your novel and try again.

I'm not saying this will work for everyone--I might get caught up in replying to emails and completely forget I was supposed to be writing! But it's certainly a great way to ensure you stay productive. :)

Tip #3) Butt In Chair


Writing is difficult. Many times it's the last thing you want to do.

Jim C. Hines created a great cartoon. The caption reads: The Muse Most Of Us Really Need. The muse is standing behind a writer, holding a gun on him, saying, "Write the %&#@& story!!!". Sometimes a picture really does speak a thousand words. What is the key to writing 2,000 words a day? Put your butt in your chair and write!

Best of luck on your NaNo adventures, and remember to hydrate!

Other articles you might like:
- 12 Writing Tips: How To Be A Writer
- Jim Butcher On Writing
- Perfection Is The Death Of Creativity

Photo credit: Mikleman