Showing posts with label genre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label genre. Show all posts

Thursday, February 11

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1)



In the last few posts I’ve discussed a story’s setting. Today I want to discuss a story’s setting and how it changes in the context of the hero's journey.

Setting Reflects Changes

The setting of a story changes as the story progresses. Often, the setting for each scene mirrors the hero’s arc. (If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of the hero’s journey, I’ve written about it here.) 

Just in case all that is clear as mud, let me give you a few examples of what I mean.

Setting Reflects Story

Dichotomies: Tagging the hero and villain

In the movie, The Matrix, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are dressed in black while their opposition wears business suits. 

Here the opposites are agents of order versus agents of chaos. The agents of order (and, yes, they were actually called Agents!) are dressed in business suits and are part of an irredeemably corrupt system.

The agents of chaos, the ones wearing black, are trying to tear down that corrupt system. It was clever to subvert the audience’s expectations and have the good guys wear black. This nicely illustrates that aspects of a setting, such as the clothing/uniform each side wears, helps with characterization. Or, at least it can. 

On the topic of business suits, in The Matrix the enemy was an outside force but often the enemy is closer to home, sometimes it even wears a seemingly friendly face. In the movie, The Firm, Mitch McDeer’s opposition was the people he worked beside everyday and they all looked alike. They wore the same thing, they had the same kind of house, the same kind of car (expensive!). They were “one happy family”™. The sameness was part of what made the opposing force so insidious and scary.

Setting Reflects The Protagonist's Need

In general, at the beginning of a story the protagonist has a weakness, a need. For instance, take Susan. She has a weakness that prevents her from realizing her full potential, something that prevents her from living a life that is as meaningful as it could be. In order for Susan to meet this need, she must change. But this is mixed news for Susan because there is no change without destruction, without sacrifice, and that brings turmoil, pain, and possibly death.

The storyteller’s goal is to construct a suitable crucible for heroes-to-be like Susan, one that will challenge her and, ultimately, singe off the bits that have to go to make room for new and improved bits.

The Hero’s Desire

A story world should explain the hero's desire for their goal. In “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere's desire is to never, ever, be poor again and his specific goal is to make partner in a wealthy law firm. At the beginning of the film he’s poor and working as a waiter while still receiving top grades from one of the best law schools in the world, Harvard Law School. That nicely illustrates Mitch’s ambition and intellect. 

Here’s another example. (I know I used this example too much!) Luke Skywalker was a skilled pilot but, while his uncle kept promising he could leave the family’s moisture farm and attend the academy, something always came up to prevent it. A droid would break down, the crop wouldn’t be as big as expected, and so on. This meant they couldn’t afford to hire someone to replace Luke, so he felt obliged to stay.

Another thing. I see Luke’s landspeeder as a representation of this conflict between Luke and his family. It reminds us of Luke’s desire to become a pilot as well as the sacrifices he has to make. (That, and landspeeders are just plain cool!)

The Opposing Force

A story wouldn't be much fun if the protagonist wanted something then, without further ado, got it. They must be opposed. This is the job of the antagonistic force that opposes the protagonist in their attempt to attain their goal. 

There is a symmetry between the hero and villain. Whatever the hero’s specific goal is, it needs to be something that both the villain and he want, but which at most one of them can achieve. Both can fail but both can never win

The Hero Confronts Death

At some point the hero will suffer a devastating setback. It will seem to him that his quest is over. It is at this point that the hero often has an epiphany, a revelation. 

How could the story world reflect this, both the danger and the epiphany? 

This is going to sound obvious because it is obvious… I could say ‘dead obvious’ but I think that would be going too far! ;) Anyway. Often the hero confronts death in a setting that brings death to mind. So, how do we do that? What makes us fear? Well, the dark. So caves, dungeons, crypts, pits--sometimes even one’s bedroom at the witching hour! What was that noise? Footsteps? But no one’s home! 

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke and his allies are nearly crushed in a trash compactor. Countless movies have the hero visit a creepy old house, or abandoned insane asylum. Perhaps the hero is lured into a cellar, or a dark and musty basement (the Paranormal Activity movies), and then is brought close--even symbolically--to death. (Also, sometimes at this point one of the hero’s allies dies. In a mystery this will often give the hero/sleuth a valuable clue.)

That said, the hero could confront their mortality anywhere; for example, in a law office or as the hero runs through a crowded city. There are no hard and fast rules. The only thing you can take to the bank is that if you don’t write anything you’ll never have a story! So write!

-- --

I think that’s a good place to stop for today. I’ve only blogged half my chapter, so I’ll try and get the second half up tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)
Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)
Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)
Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles
Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense
How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)
Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Sunday, February 7

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)


This post is a continuation of yesterday's post BUT in what follows I don't talk about horror stories. Alas. Horror stories are very fun to talk about--or even to write about. Here I go on about the various wonderful ways in which your setting can affect your story.

2. Setting And Character

I've already written about the importance of the social environment of the story for character development (see the links at the end of this article), and given that we are social critters, it’s obvious that it would be significant, but I want to step back for a minute and ask what will at first seem like a silly question: Why? 

Why is it the case that the social environment is so important for character development? It is the social environment, the society, that sets the rules for what counts as acceptable conduct. The society sets up the specific expectations for your character, how they should act, who they should love, what profession they should study, and so on. The social environment sets up what the society thinks the character’s goals should be, it sets up the default value structure. 

(And this is one reason that the first five or ten percent of a story is so important, because you’re setting up these background conditions, conditions that everything else in your story will contrast against.)

Of course your character will depart in various ways from what is expected of them, and that’s good. That creates conflict. However, everything depends upon making it clear what values your hero is departing from.

Shared Customs

As Dwight V. Swain says in his excellent book, Creating Characters: How To Build Story People, shared customs (customs such as which clothes are acceptable for which occasions) and appropriate behaviors (for example, how to behave in a church as opposed to a temple as opposed to a mosque as opposed to a synagog as opposed to...) are just the sort of things that breathe life into, and that differentiate, characters.

When developing a character I ask myself what social rules and practises, what rituals and traditions, this character follows.

Another thing I try to pay attention to when creating a character is the distinction between knowing a social custom and following it. Perhaps a character knows that Custom A is mandatory, but do they follow it? Perhaps they follow it in public but not in private. Perhaps if they are given an opportunity to depart from the norm, they will. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, that says something about them.

3. Setting And The Senses

In the classic movie Die Hard, the initial setting was a Christmas Party, in Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the initial settings was a long abandoned ancient temple. The particular setting of your story is essential to bringing the world to life. How do things come to life for us? What makes us pay particular attention to something? 

In a word, vividness. 

Everything, of course, comes to us through our senses--smell, taste, sight, touch or hearing--and then is stitched together, somehow, to create our own personal version of this wonderful world in which we live. For us to pay attention to one particular thing, for it to be memorable, it must stand out from the rest.

As Dwight V. Swain writes in Creating Characters, our world is made of hot, sticky, ashvalut and looming, grey skyscrapers, barking dogs and purring cats with bottomless copper eyes; it's made of cheese so pungent it will make your eyes water, and hot bitter coffee, fresh squeezed apple juice, and hot sticky cinnamon buns. It's made of the comforting weight of linen and the harsh blare of car horns. 

Sensory impressions bring a story to life, immersing readers in the story world, wrapping it around them, drawing them ever deeper into the fantasy you're weaving. Swain writes that "the seen, the heard, the smelled, the touched, the tasted" are how we spin a world into being. So, what is the takeaway? Make your images vivid.

4. Setting and Conflict

Conflict isn’t everything, but if you don’t have conflict you don’t have a story. 

Conflit is what results when a character's efforts to attain a goal are opposed or frustrated. What sorts of things oppose a character's efforts to attain their goal? Quite a few. Another character, sure. Often it is that character themselves! But many times what opposes a character's efforts to attain their goal is the setting itself. 

For instance, perhaps your protagonist, Hank, is a teenager and his goal is to win the prestigious Sunnyside Surfing Competition but he can't win unless he trains. That’s a problem because Hank's family recently moved from the sunny, sandy beaches of Sunnyside California to the snowy confines of Montreal Canada and it's the middle of December. That means Hank can’t surf, so he can’t train for the competition. So he’s not going to win. Here just a change of setting sets up a problem, an obstacle to the protagonist reaching his goal.

Increasing Conflict

Have you ever watched the television show, Monk? The screenwriters were fabulous at using setting to introduce conflict. Here’s the description of the show from IMDB:

“The series follows Adrian Monk, a brilliant former San Francisco detective, who now consults the police as a private consultant who battles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

For example, in Mr. Monk and the Psychic (season 1, episode 3) Monk is introduced to the police commissioner, someone he needs to impress since he wants to get back on the police force.

Monk wants to convince the commissioner that he has his OCD under control. But, Monk is Monk. He is unique. In one scene the commissioner has a few crumbs on his jacket. That’s the setting. Monk is compulsive about cleaning and really wants to brush the crumbs off the commissioner's jacket but he knows that would seem odd to the commissioner and if he seems odd then he won’t get his job back.

What does Monk do? Does he sacrifice his chance to get back on the police force so that he can brush the crumbs of the commissioner’s jacket? Of course he does! And what happens because of this? Conflict.

Here's another example, one you've probably seen countless times in movies and on TV. Two characters are sitting at a table. Perhaps it is a job interview or perhaps it is a first date. The general idea is that it is a situation in which one of them is trying to impress the other. Then a server walks by, stumbles, and spills scalding coffee into the character’s lap who most wants to impress the other. 

How will they react? Will they jump up and yell at the server? Will they be gracious and downplay the incident? Will they turn the incident into a joke and make the other character laugh? How that character handles this situation, this conflict, will help reveal what kind of a person they are.

These are just a few of the ways in which the setting can be used to introduce or increase conflict. The way I think of it, characters are not created to populate a world, a world is created to, as John Truby wrote in The Anatomy of Story, "express and manifest your characters, especially your hero."

And that’s it for today! Thanks for reading, good writing, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)
Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)
Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)
Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles
Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense
How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)
Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, February 6

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)


(FYI, this post is part of my How to Write a Genre Story series. By rights I should have titled it How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Mood (Part 2), but I couldn't resist the more evocative title: "How to scare the pants off someone!" There are links, below, to other articles in this series, but you don't need to have read any of them to understand what follows.)

Setting does many things in a story. 

First, it helps establish the mood. Do you want your reader to be horrified (horror/thriller)? Do you want your reader to be curious (mystery)? Do you want your reader to be excited to explore a society dramatically different from their own (fantasy)? And so on.

Second, the setting brings the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing. 

Finally, the setting of a story is used to introduce, and increase, conflict.

Today I'm going to chat about the first of these, setting and mood. I'll address the second and third points in the very near future.

1. Setting And Mood

Mood draws the reader into a story. Since one of the reasons to tell a story would be to produce a particular emotion in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is crucial.

An Example

How can setting affect mood? 

I think the best way to illustrate this is by talking about horror, both the mood and the genre. So let's say that you’re writing a horror story. Naturally, you want to horrify your readers.

It is so obvious I hate to say it (well, type it), but a person isn't going to be horrified if they aren't afraid. What has to happen for a person to be afraid? They need to perceive a threat and feel vulnerable to that threat. 

For example, imagine that you're walking down your front path to get your mail from the cute letterbox your kids got you for Christmas. You hear a noise, perhaps a footstep, to your right. Out of the corner of your eye you see something pink and frilly. "Oh that's Mrs. Jones," you think. Mrs. Jones is your relentlessly friendly nextdoor neighbour who walks around in a poofy pink dressing gown. You turn to wave but then you see that Mrs. Jones has turned into a shambling, half decayed zombie. And she's heading right for you!

Perhaps you're made of sterner stuff than me, but I would be horrified! I would promptly forget all about getting the mail and, fearing for my life, run inside. Why? Because (of course!) I would be afraid of being turned into the thing my grey haired, slipper-wearing, absent-minded next door neighbour had become. 

I think that fear is, fundamentally, an acknowledgement of, or recognition of, my vulnerability in the face of imminent danger. 

Here is a partial list of what I think evokes a feeling of horror:

- Recognition of the imminence of my death or the deaths of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of my pain or the pain of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of the unknown (or unknown unknowns).
- Recognition of the imminence of my disfigurement or the disfigurement of my family/friends. (Think of slasher films like Saw.)
- Recognition of the imminence of disillusionment or the imminence of destructive revelation.

Now ask yourself: What sort of setting would help communicate these sort of feelings/thoughts to the reader? What would its characteristics be? 

I had intended this post to be about how to evoke more moods than just horror, but here are a few things that I think would contribute to evoking that particular mood.

4 Things that Evoke Horror

The Dark

The dark hides things, it makes the familiar alien, it contains unknown unknowns. Chaotic things lurk out there beyond the light of the bonfire.

I know that observation isn’t original, but the dark is used in (I’m rifling through my memories) every single horror story for a reason.

Isolation

When the hero confronts the Big Bad they can’t receive any help, they have to confront the antagonist all by their lonesome. If the hero is to win and escape the horror, they will have to do it relying on their own wits and strength. This is especially true in the case of a horror story. 

The hero, or the hero and his allies, usually travel to someplace remote and unusual. Someplace they haven't been to before. (And then of course there's a story a local tells them that scares the pants off them but which they discount, and so on.) At the end, the hero's allies have met an unpleasant death but she is still there and now she's really ticked off and has a plan. But all of this is facilitated by the isolated nature of the setting. Otherwise she'd just use her cell phone to call someone for help!

Monsters

The monsters that scare me the most are normal things that have been twisted. I haven't been the same since I read Stephen King's book, Pet Sematary! 

Here's an example of how twisting a familiar setting can create horror. The story is called Bad Dreams and was published anonymously on Dramatica.com but, before you head off there, know that the site is NOT work safe. That's putting it mildly. But this story is fine, it is one hundred percent PG.

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness--it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralysed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift.

Great story, right?!

The setting used here is familiar. Intimate. Isolated. The protagonist is in his bedroom with his wife and child. Would the story have the same impact if it was morning, rather than the witching hour? Would the story have the same impact if the exchange took place while the protagonist was preparing to drive to work? I don't think so.

I think that the closeness, the intimacy, of the threat contributes to the isolation. If the wife was in the kitchen or even just out in the hall the situation wouldn't feel so intense and creepy. It's the intimacy of the threat (your wife is lying right behind you) that adds to the feeling of isolation. For example, I'm in a crowd then someone sticks the muzzle of a gun in my back and tells me, "Don't scream, don't talk, just walk." I'm instantly isolated because I can't call for help.

Surprise, Disorientation & Isolation

I've already talked about some of these things, but I need an excuse to trot out one of my favorite horror scenes. This scene--well, I suppose it is more like a series of scenes--occurs toward the end of one of the best horror movies ever made, Alien. (Yes, okay, that's my personal opinion. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.)

Toward the end of Alien, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) makes her way to the shuttle, she runs down twisting hallways expecting danger at every turn. For me, that was the most suspenseful part of the movie. 

The dark--both of the spaceship and the surrounding, suffocating, emptiness of space--isolates the hero from any possible aid and disorients her, magnifying her fear--which, mysteriously, has become your fear even though you're perfectly safe and sitting snugly on your couch chowing down on buttered popcorn. Or, no, wait! that was me. ;)

Well, that's it for today. If you'd like to chat or ask a question or tell me I'm wrong, leave a comment. Until then, good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)
Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)
Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)
Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles
Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense
How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, April 24

Chapter Length And Genre

Chapter Length And Genre


The other day I wrote about James Patterson (see: 7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose). I learned a lot about the man, things I had known but hadn't thought too much about. For example, Patterson sells more books than anyone else and has done so since 2001; one out of every seventeen hardcover books sold has Patterson's name on it.

Now, granted, Patterson doesn't write all these books himself. Some believe that whenever he writes a book with another author that Patterson's sole contribution is his name on the cover.

While I wouldn't be the least surprised if Patterson left the bulk of writing to his co-authors I think he contributes one very important thing: the outline.

Outlines


Whether are not to outline can be a contentious subject. Some writers feel outlines sap a story of its life, of its artistic worth. Others feel that without an outline they could waste valuable time going down dead ends, doing rewrite after rewrite after ... well, you get the idea.

One thing that I have heard from every writer who has used an outline is that it saves time. Sometimes a lot of time.

It came as no surprise that James Patterson uses a detailed outline. The extent to which it changed during the writing did come as a surprise. I believe that sometimes writers think of an outline as something set in iron, but it's not. It just gives you a detailed account of where you've been and where you intend to go. You can always change your mind.

I think the great advantage of an outline is that, like a map, it lets you know where you are.

Since Patterson's chapters are short, averaging about 600 to 700 words, even one paragraph of chapter summary composes a significant amount of the book. If his book is 60,000 words long, the outline would be about 1/6th the length of the manuscript!

Copywriting


A few months ago I began listening to the podcast Under The Influence, by Terry O'Reilly. The podcast is all about how advertising affects ordinary people. 

One of my favorite episodes is Advertising Alumni, about famous people who began their careers in broadcasting. When I heard James Patterson's name mentioned, it took me off guard. Here's an excerpt from the program:
"Patterson took a job as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson in 1971. He went from being a writer to Creative Director to running the ad agency in only two and a half years, and was later named CEO at the age of 39.

"While there, he penned the slogan, "I'm a Toys 'R Us Kid" for the toy retailer, and "Aren't you hungry for Burger King now" for the fast food giant.

"He wrote his first book on the side, called, The Thomas Berryman Number in 1976, but it was turned down by over 30 publishers.

"When it was eventually published, it would win Patterson the Edgar Award for Crime Fiction.

"But his breakthrough book came in 1992, when he published Along Came A Spider.

"Against all opinions in publishing, Patterson insisted the book be promoted with television commercials. He wrote, produced and paid for the commercial himself, and aired it in the three most influential book cities in America - New York, Washington and Chicago.

"When the ads went on, the book jumped onto the best seller list immediately.

"In 1996, James Patterson would leave the advertising world, and focus on novel writing full-time.

"Unsatisfied with the publishing industry's informal approach to marketing, he handles all his book advertising - from the design of covers, to the timing of releases, to the placement in retail stores. And he demands to see market share data and sales trends.

"Stephen King once called James Patterson, "a terrible writer."

"Patterson just shrugged it off, saying that thousands hate his stuff, millions like it.

"He has written over 100 novels in the past 30 years, 47 of which topped the NY Times best-seller list, making him a Guinness Book of World Records holder. And he has sold more books than Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined." 
My takeaway from this is that James Patterson has a goal: he wants to sell a lot of books. 

How is he doing that? By writing the kind of books people want to read. 

Of course, that's the trick, isn't it? Figuring out what people want to read, what kind of stories they'd like to hear. One aspect of this, one that I've overlooked until recently, is chapter length.

Chapter Length


I was in a drugstore yesterday and stopped by the rows of books they have at the back of their magazine section. Right on the end was one by Mary Higgins Clark (incidentally, Clark, like Patterson, used to be a copywriter)[1]. 

For my article on James Patterson I had gone through various books of his and calculated the average length of his chapters, which turned out to be around 640 words. As I stood in the drugstore isle, I opened one of Clark's books and looked at the length of her chapters. 

They were about the same length as Patterson's. 

When I got back home I checked and found that her latest book (published April 1, 2014), I've Got You Under My Skin, has an average chapter length of 768 words. I'll Walk Along (published May 12, 2011) has an average chapter length of 1,021.

You may be thinking: so what?

I mentioned these chapter lengths to a friend who doesn't read anything on the bestseller list and they were surprised. "That's short!" they said.

And it is. Very short. But that's only when you compare these books to books from other genres.

My Research


Here are the chapter lengths of two of the top sellers in the Amazon Kindle Store:

The Target, by David Baldacci. 
- Published: April 22, 2014
- Currently #1 on the Amazon.com Kindle Store.
- Around 1,555 words per chapter.
- Genre: Thriller, Assasination thrillers

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
- Published: Oct 22, 2013
- Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Currently #2 on the Amazon.com Kindle Store.
- Around 24,767 words per chapter.
- Genre: Literary Fiction.

Now, of course, that's not even close to being representative, but what a difference! The Target's average chapter contains 1,600 words while The Goldfinch's average chapter contains 25,000 words. That's a novella! That said, of course the books couldn't be more different. Baldacci writes light entertainment; a literary snack if you will; while Tartt's book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

I looked at a few more books and found that, as one would expect, there are trends within genre. Romance books tend to have longer chapters (about 3,000 words or so), as do science fiction novels. Thrillers, though, tend to have shorter chapters of around 600 or 800 words. 

I would like to write another post about this sometime, about the average chapter lengths of the bestselling books in each genre and how that has changed over time.

In Summary


It sounds simple, perhaps even simplistic, but I think that the key to James Pattersons phenomenal success has been, at least in part, his focus on creating stories readers want to read. I think he approaches writing with marketing in mind and uses his talent for catching the public's interest to write books that will entertain them.

Part of crafting a book that will entertain is knowing the expectations genre readers have when they open a book. For instance, thrillers are supposed to be, above all else, suspenseful. Page turners. Romance books are supposed to be about the emotions, the ecstasy of love won and the agony of its loss. And so on.

It may sound silly, trivial, but readers of a particular genre or sub-genre also expect chapters to be a certain length.

Common sense might tell us that a chapter can't be 600 words long. But Patterson shows us that it can. 

What genre do you write in? What is the average length of your chapters?

Notes/Musings



"Before beginning the actual writing of her books, Higgins Clark prefers to develop an outline and perhaps detailed character biographies. Each chapter is continuously revised as she writes, so that when she is ready to move on to the next chapter, the current chapter is considered done and is sent directly to her editor. By the time the editor receives the last chapter, the book is primarily done." (That information comes by way of A Conversation With Mary Higgins Clark.)

Photo credit: "Far de Capdepera" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, March 31

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Every story has a unique structure; no one structure fits them all. That would be boring. Good writing, good stories, may be a lot of things--thought provoking, exciting, uncomfortable--but they aren't boring. 

That said, stories of the same genre have a structure in common. Which really is just another way to say that all stories within a certain genre follow certain broad, general, rules. That is, after all, an important part of what makes a genre story a genre story! 

Genre


I know it's obvious, but for a story to be a murder mystery it must have both a mystery and a murder. There will also be various clues as well as a sleuth who investigates them. Certain characters will be suspects and there will be at least one murderer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the sleuth will, at the end, reveal not only the solution of the mystery but how he winnowed away the lies and subterfuge to arrive, finally, at the truth. As a result, order is restored.

But there are different kinds of murder mysteries, each with a more particular, more exact, set of requirements.[5] A cosy or whodunit (think Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers) should have all the above plus a logical, rational, solution. No hocus pocus, no unfounded intuitions, are allowed. Also, the focus is on the mystery of the murder (it seems impossible that the person was murdered yet they were) as well as how the sleuth goes about solving the crime. In these stories it is crucial that the storyteller play fair with the reader and tell them everything the sleuth learns as he (or she) learns it.[7]

A hardboiled detective story, on the other hand, often focuses less on the mystery and it's solution and more on action and gritty realism. Thrillers are different. Though they generally crank up the suspense, thrillers have about as much mystery as any other kind of story. 

Another popular genre is romance. Breaking that down further, there's contemporary romance, fantasy, erotica, gothic, historical, military, paranormal, regency, and more. 

The thriller genre, on the other hand, breaks down into legal, military, political, (my favorite) psychological, suspense and techno-thrillers. And many, many, more.

My point is that each genre--mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, horror, etc.--breaks down into sub-genres and each of these sub-genres have their own conventions, their own requirements. Their own structure.

If one writes a book and then markets it as a psychological thriller but doesn't talk about their characters' psychological states, if they don't do a study of their characters emotions and how they change over time in response to the (multiple) tensions in their environment (as exemplars of this see William Golding's Lord of the Flies or Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club), then while they may have written a thriller there really wouldn't be anything uniquely psychological about it. As a result, anyone who bought the book who wanted to read a psychological thriller would be disappointed no matter how good the book was.

As Lorenzo Semple Jr. said in his interview with Lee Goldberg, if he sat down in a restaurant and ordered fish but the server brought him, instead, a beautifully cooked steak he'd be upset no matter how good the steak was. Why? Because he wanted fish! He'd feel deceived. Ripped off.

If a reader feels mislead about the kind of books they've bought then they aren't going to be happy with the book or, most likely, the author. Personally, I think that's the reason for the lion's share of one star reviews: a reader's expectations were not only disappointed, they were taken out behind the barn and shot. 

Since there are so many different genres and sub-genres I won't even try to talk about a typical structure for every one. Though, that said, I do talk in some length about mysteries--whodunits in particular--and what the requirements of that form are.

Further Reading/Links/References


1. Write Your Own Murder Mystery, by Lindsay Price over at theatrefolk.com.
2. List of literary genres, Wikipedia.
3. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James.
4. Mystery Fiction, Wikipedia.
5. It is often said that the primary distinction between genre and literature is that genre is plot/structure driven while literature is not (mainstream is often viewed as moodily occupying a no-man's-land between the two). Humbug! Literary stories simply don't have as rigid, or as much, of a structure, but they do have a structure. I love reading Ursula K. Le Guin on this subject and agree with her completely:

- Le Guin’s Hypothesis, by Ursula K. Le Guin over at Book View Cafe. In part she writes: "Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicates and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art?" Yes. That. Exactly.
- On Serious Literature, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I found this gem on Ms. Le Guin's website (ursulakleguin.com). It is a piece of flash fiction (only 577 words). Marvelous. 

6. Storyville: What is Literary Fiction? by Richard Thomas over at litreactor.com.

Thursday, May 9

4 Tips On How To Find A Genre To Write In

4 Tips On How To Find A Genre To Write In

Writing a story is great.

Writing a story that sells is even better.

The quality of a book obviously influences how well it will sell. Is it riddled with grammatical errors? Does it have narrative drive? Are the characters three dimensional? Do they have goals? Do they have something to win or lose? Are they likable or at least possible to identify with?

But the quality of a book isn't the ultimate arbiter of sales. Though I read and enjoyed Dan Brown's, The Da Vinci Code, no one would suggest it was a better book than, say, Ernest Hemingway's, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and yet it sold more copies by orders of magnitude.

Part of the task of a writer--a writer who seeks to earn their living from their scribbles--is to write a great story, the other, equally important part, is to sell the story.


Finding An Audience


As soon as one mentions selling it brings up the question of audience. Who do we want to sell our story to? Who would be interested?

In her article What I Learned from Thomas Edison and Steven Soderbergh and How it Applies to Novelists, Julianna Baggott recounts the story of Thomas Edison's first invention, a vote calculator, and how it failed because there was no demand for it. It was a wonderful piece of machinery that did exactly what Edison expected of it, but no one wanted it so it was a commercial failure.

I think writers have it a bit easier.

We have all heard this advice countless times before: write it, make your story as good (within reason) as you can, and as long as you love the story, it will sell. To someone. At some point.

But it would seem to make sense to at least have a certain audience in mind before one sets pen to paper. As Russell Blake holds (point #11), know your audience before you write your book:

Read a fair amount of the genre, look at the reviews of your competitors, of the bestsellers in your genre. Figure out your audience before you start writing. (Russell Blake's 26 Tips On How To Sell A Lot Of Books, My Paraphrase)


How To Pick A Genre To Write In


1. Write what you love


I'm probably the worst person to give this advice, I love reading murder mysteries but haven't written a single one. And I love experimenting and often write in quirky genres. But (as I remind myself constantly) there's nothing wrong with writing for the market.  One just has to find a popular genre that holds one's interest.

Don't misunderstand, I think stretching oneself as a writer is both good and necessary; if we aren't growing we're devolving, atrophying. BUT the rent must get paid and there's nothing wrong with picking a popular genre to write a book in.

Recently I've done a number of posts on how many authors write as much as 3,000 (or more!) words a day and maintain this frenetic pace. I think that a big part of the key to success as a midlist writer is to find one, two or (possibly) three genres you like to read, genres you understand, and then familiarize yourself with what is expected.

2. Understand the conventions of the genres you write in


Deny your readers what they expect (that the crime will get solved, that the lovers will live together in bliss for the rest of their natural, or unnatural, lives, and so on) and no matter the technical merits of your book there'll be hell to pay.

I'm not talking about a formula, not exactly, but (for instance) a romance writer isn't going to get far unless she understands that sometimes readers insist on a "happy ever after" (HEA) ending.

3. Short is good


One of the keys to indie success is to produce new work quickly and regularly. Judging from what Nathan Lowell and Russell Blake have said, novels do better than novellas, but in the interest of producing a lot of work quickly you might not want to choose a genre, such as high fantasy, where readers are used to 120,000 word tomes!

Also, I've found that it takes me much more time to revise a 80k manuscript than it does a 60k one. The longer work requires a more complex story and with a more complex story more things can go wrong.

4. Make a long term commitment


This is related to point 1, pick a genre you love. Another point that Nathan Lowell and Russell Blake agree on is that writing books in series helps to build an audience. Russell Blake went so far as to say that books in a series sold four times better than his standalone books.

That means that whatever genre you write your book in it should be something you could envision making a long-term commitment to.

This is why I think it's a mistake to ever write in a particular genre solely for the money. Can you imagine being tied to a series that stretches to 20 or so books and absolutely hating it? This has happened to several well-known authors (Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot and Sir Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes).

What genre(s) do you read? What genre(s) do you write in?

Other articles you might like:

- Russell Blake's 26 Tips On How To Sell A Lot Of Books
- Is There Such A Thing As An Aspiring Writer?
- Writing Exercise: Flexing Your Verbs

Photo credit: "HPIM0567" by enigmachck1 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, June 24

Ursula K. Le Guin On Literature Versus Genre

ursula k le guin, literature vs genre
Ursula K. Le Guin

What is the difference between genre and literature? Here's what Ursula K. Le Guin has to say about it:
I keep telling myself that I’m done writing about Literature vs Genre, that that vampire is buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and garlic in its coffin. And then it pops up again, undead. Its latest revival is a cheery one in an entertaining article, “Easy Writers,” in the May 28 New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who discusses the literature/genre divide and while seeming to make light of it does a pretty thorough job of perpetuating it.
 .  .  .  .
If we thought of all fictional genres as literature, we’d be done with the time-wasting, ill-natured diatribes and sneers against popular novelists who don’t write by the rules of realism, the banning of imaginative writing from MFA writing courses, the failure of so many English teachers to teach what people actually read, and the endless, silly apologising for actually reading it.

If critics and teachers gave up insisting that one kind of literature is the only one worth reading, it would free up a lot of time for them to think about the different things novels do and how they do it, and above all, to consider why certain individual books in every genre are, have been for centuries, and will continue to be more worth reading than most of the others.
You can read the rest of her excellent article here: Le Guin’s Hypothesis. Thanks to the Passive Voice Blog for bringing Ms. Le Guin's post to my attention.

This is completely off topic, but Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929 which, by my calculations, makes her 84 this year. She is one amazing lady. I think I need to re-read her book The Left Hand Of Darkness.

Tuesday, September 13

Indie Success Story Bella Andre: Two pennames are better than one


In the past 18 months Bella Andre has self-published 12 books in two genres: spicy contemporary romance and sweet teen romance. Further, she has published under two different pen names: Bella Andre (erotic romance) and Lucy Kevin (sweet young adult romance).

Her key to success?
Diversification across genres and author brands.
Thanks to Joe Konrath, here is her incredible story:
In April 2010, I began e-publishing with two sexy, contemporary, backlist Bella Andre romances. After having a bit of unexpected success in those early months, I knew my chance had come to finally write the book my readers had been sending me emails about for five years. When LOVE ME did better than I ever imagined--Joe and I spoke on the phone last summer and I remember telling him I was shocked to have sold 1000+ copies of that book. He cheered!--I realized there was something to this whole e-reading business.

Of course I quickly went out and bought a Kindle and then a Nook later that fall and most recently an iPad. I released a couple more backlist books in October 2010 and then an original sequel to my Bad Boys of Football series that had been released through Pocket a few years back.

Amazingly, GAME FOR LOVE went to #28 at BN.com and was one of the top 5 erotic novels on Amazon for months at $5.99. This June 20th I launched a 8 book contemporary romance series about the Sullivan family with THE LOOK OF LOVE. It hit #19 on BN.com right out of the gate and has been a consistent Top 30 romance bestseller at Apple. Frankly, the whole thing continues to blow my mind.

Meanwhile, my husband had been watching my e-numbers rise for these self-published Bella Andre books and he kept saying, “Put out those fun chick lit books you wrote that no publisher ever bought!” Because I’d written them several years earlier, they needed significant rewrites, but I had always believed in the novels...and I like my husband to feel like I listen to him now and again. :) But since those books were very sweet (and snarky all at the same time), I knew they couldn’t be published as Bella Andre books.

Lucy Kevin came into being on a cold January morning in the Northern California wine country. Honestly, I figured 6 people would buy her books. To say that I was shocked when more than 25,000 people had downloaded SEATTLE GIRL and FALLING FAST by the end of February is a huge understatement. I released a third Lucy Kevin book in March titled SPARKS FLY.

The thing people are surprised to hear is that I didn’t draw from my existing Bella Andre readership for the Lucy Kevin books. In fact, until the Washington Post article came out, no one knew that Lucy and Bella were the same person, because I wasn’t sure the readerships would overlap between my teen-friendly books and my super-sexy romances. With the Lucy books I got to experience launching a new digital author--and building that readership--entirely from the ground up. It's been a lot of work, but I've loved trying to figure out what made people want to take a chance on a book. Heck, I’m still trying to figure that out :) and then find enough hours in the day to actually make it all happen!

Amazingly, here’s what happened--in some cases retailers were more excited to feature Lucy Kevin because the chick lit/sweet romance novels could reach a bigger mainstream audience. It simply didn’t seem to matter that no one had heard of Lucy Kevin. The fun, flirty covers (Oh, hello new graphic design skills I never thought I'd need!) seemed to draw people to the books and I’m guessing the $.99 to $2.99 price points helped, as well. Once I’d developed relationships with retailers via my Lucy books (I’m a “PubIt! Pro” for Barnes & Noble’s self-publishing wing), my recent launch of the more mainstream Bella Andre THE LOOK OF LOVE became even bigger and better.

But wait, that wasn't all Bella did. Besides being a writer and graphic artist she is a singer-songwriter. She writes:
I took things another step further in April when I decided to incorporate multimedia in my latest Lucy Kevin young-adult romance, GABRIELLE. In my previous career I was a singer-songwriter, so I wrote five original songs (rather, my songwriting heroine, Gabrielle, wrote them during the course of the story) and linked to them via Youtube and iTunes as an ebook package to create not only added value and excitement for my readers, but also another potential revenue stream.

Here's Bella's analysis of her success so far:
I really like not having to depend on one author name to maintain--and build--sales. Having two brands means I can build sales with new books while offsetting risks. We all know that diversifying our financial portfolios is a good money strategy. I’ve found that diversifying my e-book portfolio has not only been a good financial strategy, but as importantly, it had been a really lovely creative strategy, too.

So if you have a new idea or platform – if you want to try something completely different from what you’re doing now – I say go for it! Even if you think no one will be interested, the truth is that until you put your book out there, you'll never know.
Bella is an inspiration; a very talented inspiration! What she says about writing under more than one pen-name, or at least in more than one genre, rings true to me. As independent writers we aren't strangers to risk, why not try and reduce it?

Joe's comments are, as always, one of the best parts of his guest posts. To read the rest of his great blog post, click here.

Cheers!

Monday, August 1

In Defense of Genre


In A Genre Writer Accepts Himself, Will Lavender writes:

There is a war against popularity in many MFA programs in America, and in my 20s, I was on the front lines. I wrote literary fiction, the only work serious and relevant enough to be worth my time. I cut my blue jeans off at the knees and called everything ironic. I read John Banville's "The Sea" by an actual sea. I wrote the kinds of hard-bitten, muscular novelettes young men are supposed to become famous for writing.
....
In those first thrillers I read, I actually found a common bond to the experimental writers I'd once mimicked; in some of these books -- Abrahams' "Oblivion" is certainly one -- the writer looks to unmoor the very literary style he has invoked. Abrahams' novel is a detective novel, but it is one that slowly becomes unhinged; it is Raymond Chandler held up to a fogged, cracked glass.

If Lavender's books -- Obedience and Dominance -- are as interesting and well written as this article, then I think they would be well worth a read.