Sunday, January 6

The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 1

The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 1

I'm going to continue my Starburst Method series today, but first I'd like to say a few words about Hugh Howey's book Wool and why we write. If you'd like to skip to where I start talking about the Starburst Method scroll down to the heading "The Starburst Method, Continued".

Hugh Howey and Wool

I started reading Wool yesterday and was amazed by the story. Hugh Howey's characters and events are emotionally compelling. The world of Wool is stark, filled with unpleasant realities, but the characters refuse to give up, they refuse to abandon their humanity.

Here's HH's dedication:
This collected work is dedicated to anyone who dares dream of a better place.
When I read that something clicked for me.

Wool is more than a book. It tells the story of a Silo and the people who live within its metal grip but, somehow, Hugh Howey has managed to do what all great authors have done since time immemorial, he has reached beyond himself, beyond his story, and connected with something universal.

I'm bringing this up because I don't want to lose sight of this aspect of the craft.

What I talk about in these essays—the questions I present ("What is your character's goal?"), the formulae—are meant to be intuition pumps, to help get us thinking in terms of story, they can't be the whole kit and caboodle.

Okay, now let's continue on with our series.

The Starburst Method, Continued

This post is part of a series about a method I'm calling the Starburst method. You can read the first two chapters here:

1. The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do
2. The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters

I wonder if "Starburst" doesn't give a misleading impression because instead of starting with something small and rapidly expanding we're starting with something big and nebulous—our relatively unfiltered and perhaps contradictory ideas for a story—then honing them.

Perhaps this method is more like sculpting, cutting away parts that don't belong and adding ones that do.

Five Paragraphs: Setting Up The Story

Today we're condensing our story down into five paragraphs. By the end, ideally, we will have reduced each paragraph to a single sentence. Each paragraph represents one stage of the hero's journey.

Let's go through them.

1. The Ordinary World

1.a. How is your hero DISTINCTIVE?

Christopher Vogler writes:
Most stories take the hero out of the ordinary, mundane world and into a Special World, new and alien. This is the familiar "fish out of water" idea which has spawned countless films and TV Shows (... The Wizard of Oz, Witness, ... Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, etc.).

If you're going to show a fish out of his customary element, you first have to show him in that Ordinary World to create a vivid contrast with the strange new world he is about to enter. (The Writer's Journey)
Last time we started to get acquainted with our protagonist. Although we don't know everything yet we have an idea what he does for a living, his name, his special ability as well as his weakness, and so on.

Here's another question: In the ordinary world, where your hero isn't perhaps very heroic, what is the most distinctive thing about him or her?

Is he a troublemaker? If so, quickly write down an example, something that shows he's a troublemaker, a malcontent.

Or perhaps your protagonist is much too much caught up in what society expects of him.

Or maybe he is hopelessly in love with someone unattainable.

Think of some one thing that your character is noteworthy for, that makes him distinctive. That sets him apart from everyone else. What is it that makes the other characters in your story care about him? (They may want to murder him, but that's still a kind of caring! He influences the actions of others.)

For instance, Nathan Bransford in the query letter for his book, Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, had this to say about his protagonist:
Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magillan Middle School ...(My Query Letter for JACOB WONDERBAR)
In only a few words NB paints a clear picture of his hero.

1.b. How is your hero TRAGIC?

That's the first part, setting your hero, your protagonist (I'm using those words interchangeably) as distinctive. Now we need to explain his uniqueness.

There's another part to being a hero, the tragic bit. Many, perhaps most, heroes have something very wrong with their lives, some tragedy. This tragedy can perhaps help explain why he is distinctive in the way he is.

For instance, if your hero is a thief perhaps it's because his parents died when he was a child and he had to raise himself on the streets.

This is how Nathan Bransford put it:
Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. (My Query Letter for JACOB WONDERBAR)
Jacob is a terror at school but we get the idea that's partly because of his dad's absence. That one sentence encapsulates, summarizes, gives us a snapshot of the hero's distinctive challenges and character.

2. Friends and Helpers

Everybody needs somebody, even heroes. Who are your protagonist's friends and helpers? What do they do for the hero? What are their weaknesses?

In Lord of the Rings Pippin and Merry are troublemakers. They love eating (they could eat their weight in lembas!) and smoking 'leaf' and they nearly get Frodo killed more than once, but no one could fault heir bravery when a friend was in danger.

Here's what Nathan Bransford wrote about Jacob's friends:
He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled.
 Again, this paints a compelling picture.

To Be Continued

Tomorrow we'll continue this series and finish fleshing out our five paragraph summary. See you then!

What are you writing about at the moment? What makes your protagonist distinctive? Does she have a tragic past? Who are her friends? What are her friends' weaknesses? What can her friends do well?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: MS Word Styles
- How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon
- The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters

Photo credit: "Superlative Beauty // Footsteps of Happiness // Wonderful Moments // The Shelbourne, A Renaissance Hotel Dublin, Republic of Ireland // The Grand Staircase // ENJOY!" by || UggBoy♥UggGirl || PHOTO || WORLD || TRAVEL || under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, January 5

How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: MS Word Styles

How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: Word Styles

My apologies for all the posts today, but I didn't want to include step-by-step tutorials in this blog post so I made three separate posts. This post is a continuation of my series: How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon.

Let's look at how we can use styles in MS Word to drastically cut down on the amount of time we spend formatting a document. Doing it this way has not only saved me time it has saved me much frustration. For instance, when I publish on Smashwords, I get through the notoriously ravenous Meatgrinder, unscathed, on the first try.

By the way, I'm using MS Word 2007 so all my instructions are for that version of Word.

MS Word Styles 101

All the styles I use build on the Normal style, so the first thing I do is make sure that the Normal style is exactly how I want it.

Modify The Normal Style: Default Settings

Keep in mind that this is just what I do. This isn't the only way of using Word to format a document, but it's what works for me. If something else is working for you, use that. (And please tell me what it is in the comments! I love learning new things.)

If you'd like to step through the following with me but you don't know how to modify a style in MS Word, I've created a step-by-step tutorial: How To Adjust The Paragraph Settings Of A Style In MS Word.

Okay, back? Everyone knows how to change the paragraph settings of a style? Great! Let's do it.

Changing the paragraph settings of the Normal style

The first thing I do is make sure that my Normal style is set to what I call my Default settings. Here they are:

How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: Word Styles
Figure 1: Click to enlarge

In case the image isn't coming through I'll type them in here as well:

Paragraph settings:
Indentation: Left: 0"; Right: 0"
Spacing: Before: 0pt; After: 0 pt
Special: None
Line Spacing: Single
All the other styles we're going to use are built up from the Normal style so it's important we have it just the way we want it.

Creating Our Own Styles

Now comes the fun part! We get to create our own styles based on the Normal style.

If you don't know how to create a style in MS Word that's fine. I've put together a step-by-step tutorial that walks you through this. It has oodles of pictures. You can get to it by clicking here: How To Create A Paragraph Style In MS Word.


This is the style I use for all the text in my manuscript. I base it on the Normal style then adjust these settings (see Figure 2):
Special: First line: By 0.3"
Spacing: After: 6 pt
How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: Word Styles
Figure 2: Click to enlarge

Click OK and you're done!


I use "*  *  *  *" to separate scenes and I like to leave one blank line above it and one blank line after it. But, rather than actually use a blank line I do this with styles. Here's how.

Just like we did for our myBodyText style, create a new style and call it "mySpacer" (or whatever you'll find memorable). For myBodyText we left no space above and only 6pt below each paragraph. Now, though, we want to leave 12pt before the paragraph and 12 pts after. Also, we center the style (see Figure 3).

How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: Word Styles
Figure 3: Click to enlarge

Click OK and you've created your second style.

I'm going to pick up the pace now since you're familiar with creating and modifying styles.


Create another style, call it myTitle (or whatever you'd like). We're going to use this style to format the title of our book.

(Tip: Make sure you're basing these styles on your Normal style, the one we modified at the beginning of this tutorial.)

Here are the changes I make:

a. Increase the font size two points
I use Times New Roman 12 point for my Normal style so I'll increase the font size here to 14 pt. You may want your title to be even larger, and that's fine. Experiment. You might want to italicize your title, or make it bold. Play around, find out what looks good to you.

b. Center the style.


You might wonder why you couldn't just center your text without using a style. I've found that when I do as much formatting as possible through my custom styles, things go more smoothly.

This one is easy, just create a new style, call it whatever you want--I use "myCenter"--and make sure that you center align the text.


This is the last one! This will help your document headers come out the way you intend.

Creating this style is falling-off-a-log easy because you've just done it for myCenter. You might wonder why bother to create a new style for myHeader when it's exactly the same as myCenter. Here's why: You might want to do something unique to your header that you don't want communicated to everything you've centered.

For instance, let's say you want your header in bold or you want to decrease the font size. If you were using myCenter for this then those changes would be communicated to every paragraph you'd used that style for. And that probably wouldn't be something you'd want.

It may seem odd at first, but I try to create a new style for every function, ever kind of thing I want to do. You may end up with two or three more styles but, over the long run, I've found it sames me a lot of work.

How To Format A Header For Your Manuscript in MS Word

Oh, one more thing!

You all probably know how to do this already but, just in case you don't, I also want to talk about how to format your headers so that you have that nice name-on-one-side-of-the-page, title-on-the-other look (see Figure 4).

How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: Word Styles
Figure 4: Click to enlarge
But that's another tutorial and this post is long enough, so I'll direct you here: How To Format A Manuscript Header Using MS Word: Name On One Side, Title On The Other.

I hope you've gotten something out of this decidedly 'unwriterly' tutorial. Tomorrow when I continue this series on how to format an MS Word document and upload it to Amazon I'll pull everything together and show you my 'master template'.

Other articles you might like:

- How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon
- The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters
- The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do

Photo credit: "Here comes the sun..." by chantrybee under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

How To Format A Manuscript Header Using MS Word: Name On One Side, Title On The Other

How To Format A Manuscript Header Using MS Word

I used MS Word 2007 for this tutorial.

Just in case this is clear as mud, here's an example of what I'm talking about:

How To Format A Manuscript Header Using MS Word: Name On One Side, Title On The Other
Click to enlarge

We want the author's name on the left side and the title of the book on the right.

Formatting Your Manuscript Header In MS Word 2007

1. Make the headers different for odd and even pages

a. Click the "Insert" tab on the ribbon and then click "Header" (see Figure 1).

How To Format A Manuscript Header Using MS Word: Name On One Side, Title On The Other
Figure 1: Click to Enlarge

b. Click "Edit Header" at the bottom of the menu (see Figure 2).

How To Format A Manuscript Header Using MS Word: Name On One Side, Title On The Other
Figure 2

c. Select "Different First Page" and "Different Odd & Even Pages" (see Figure 3).

How To Format A Manuscript Header Using MS Word: Name On One Side, Title On The Other
Figure 3

Don't close the header yet!

2. Type in the headers for the odd and even pages

a. On the header for page 2 type the authors name, last name first and first name last. For example:

Doe, Jane
If there is more than one author:

Doe, Jane; Smith, Michael

b. On page 3 type the title of the book.

c. Select "Close Header and Footer"

That's it!

Update (Jan 6, 2013): 
I've run into a glitch. I've found that MS Word can be cantankerous when it comes to Headers. Sometimes I'll have the "Show different first page" option checked, delete the header on the first page, but instead of it only being removed from the first page it'll also be deleted from the rest of the odd pages.

Here's a work around. Make your first page--your title page--a different section by inserting a "different page" section break. Get into the header (if you're in Print Layout just double-click in the header) and make sure that, for both the odd and even pages, "Link to Previous" is NOT selected.

That should fix it.

Other articles you might be interested in:

- How To Adjust The Paragraph Settings Of A Style In MS Word
- How To Create A Paragraph Style In MS Word
- How To Modify A MS Word Paragraph Style

How To Adjust The Paragraph Settings Of A Style In MS Word

How To Adjust The Paragraph Settings Of A Style

All information in this tutorial applies to MS Word 2007.

a. Bring up the window named Modify Style. (I talk about how to do this here: How To Modify A MS Word Paragraph Style.)

b. There is a button named "Format" in the lower left corner of the Modify Style dialog box (see Figure 1). Press the button.

How To Adjust The Paragraph Settings Of A Style In MS Word
Figure 1: Click to enlarge

c. From the dropdown list select "Paragraph" (see Figure 2)

How To Adjust The Paragraph Settings Of A Style In MS Word
Figure 2: Click to enlarge

d. You should now see the Paragraph window (see Figure 3). 

How To Adjust The Paragraph Settings Of A Style In MS Word
Figure 3: Click to enlarge

That's it!

Other articles you might like:
- How To Create A Paragraph Style In MS Word
- How To Modify A MS Word Paragraph Style

How To Create A Paragraph Style In MS Word

How To Create A Paragraph Style In MS Word

a. On 'the ribbon' you'll see an area marked "Styles", click on the arrow in the lower right corner (see Figure 1).

How to create a paragraph style in MS Word
Figure 1: Click to enlarge

b. This will bring up the Styles window (see Figure 2).

MS Word 2007 Styles Window
Figure 2: Click to enlarge

c. On the bottom right of the Styles Window there is a button with what looks like a double "A" on it (see Figure 3). That is the New Style button. Click it.

Figure 3: Click to enlarge

d. This will bring up the window: Create New Style from Formatting (see Figure 4). That's it!

Create New MS Word Style
Figure 4: Click to enlarge

Other articles you might like:

- How To Modify A MS Word Paragraph Style

How To Modify A MS Word Paragraph Style

How To Modify A MS Word Paragraph Style

Two Ways To Modify A Paragraph Style

This information pertains to MS Word 2007.

Modifying an existing paragraph style is easy. There are two ways you can so this.

1. First way to modify a paragraph style:

a. Go to the "Home" tab on the ribbon, find the "Styles" area.

b. Click the arrow in the lower right-hand corner. This will bring up the Styles Window (see Figure 1).

MS Word Styles
Figure 1: Click to enlarge

c. Hover the mouse pointer over the style you wish to modify. A down-facing arrow will appear on the far right (See Figure 2).

Modifying MS Word Styles
Figure 2: Click to enlarge

d. Click the down-facing arrow and select "Modify" (See Figure 3).

Modifying MS Word Styles
Figure 3: Click to enlarge

That's it!

2. Second way to modify a paragraph style:

a. Go to the "Home" tab on the ribbon, find the "Styles" area.

b. Hover your mouse over the style you wish to modify and right click on it.

c. A menu will appear. Select "Modify".

That's it!

Photo credit: "Tagging: Maldives Style" by nattu under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, January 4

How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon

How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon

Apparently it's possible for the editor to eat an entire post. I know this because it just happened. (sigh) I think after this I'm going to type my drafts into Word or Scrivener so that at least I'll have a rough draft to fall back on if Blogger feasts on my finished, polished, prose.


I'm going to take a day off from my Starburst Method series to talk about how to format a Word file for uploading to Amazon. I think everything I say will also be applicable to Smashwords but that platform may have one or two special requirements.

The Anatomy of a Formatted File

When your Word file is formatted ready for upload to Amazon it will have several sections. Below are the most common ones I've seen.

1. Title section

- Title
- Author's name

2. Copyright section

- "Copyright"
- Copyright symbol
- Person or company that is copyrighting the work.

3. 'Plain language' explanation of your wishes regarding whether your book should be copied without your permission.

4. Link(s) back to your website or blog, social media sites, etc.

5. Reading samples of your other books

6. Table of contents

7. ISBN number

8. Blurbs

- One or more authors telling prospective readers your writing is terrific.

9. Book description

- Tell readers what your book is all about and hook them in 500 words or less.

10. Acknowledgements

11. Dedication

12. The story

Many of these sections aren't mandatory and I've listed them here in no particular order. Yes, you'll probably want to start off with your title section, and certain sites will want you to put your copyright information up at the front of the book but, other than that, the order the sections come in is up to you.

What follows is just what I do. If you decide to do it differently--for instance, place your acknowledgement section at the back instead of the front--that's great! Do what works for you and the book you're publishing.

Required Sections

Here are the sections you need to have in your finished, formatted, file before you upload it to Amazon:

1. Title section
2. Copyright section
3. The story

That's it.

If you've never published a book before I'd suggest that you be kind to yourself, take things easy, and publish a short work and keep it simple. After you have one success under your belt and you're feeling bolder then start adding sections.

One section I would add, even if this is your first time, is a link section. This can be as simple as a link back to your website or blog. That way folks will know how to find you and your other work. (I'm taking it for granted that you have a website or blog where you list all your work.)

So that's what I'm going to talk about. Publishing a simple, bare-bones document with minimal formatting. No bells and whistles. But, first, let's get a couple of questions out of the way.

Do I need an ISBN number?

You don't need to have an ISBN number to publish your books on Amazon. It's easy to procrastinate publishing your first book because the process is unfamiliar and perhaps daunting. You can always get an ISBN number after you publish your story. The important thing is to publish it.

I do think it's a good idea to buy a block of ISBN numbers from (if you're in the US) Bowker. Here's a link to Bowker's extensive FAQS.

In Canada ISBN numbers are free but you have to be a publisher to obtain one. (See: How To Get A Free Canadian ISBN Number)

Do I need to register my copyright?

I'm not a lawyer, and this is NOT legal advice, but I think it's better to have something and not need it than need it and not have it. That said, you don't have to register your copyright in order for your work to be copyrighted. This is from Wikipedia:
It is a common misconception to confuse copyright registration with the granting of copyright.

Copyright is itself an automatic international right, governed by international conventions - principally the Berne Convention (which dates from 1886). This means that copyright exists whether a work is registered or not. (Copyright Registration)
Having a copyright and protecting it are two different things. This is from the U.S. Copyright Office:
Do I have to register with your office to be protected?
No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration.”
If you want to be in a position to defend your copyright in court it's a good idea to register your copyright.

Also, and as I'm sure you know, a number of sites pirate books--offer them free for download without the copyright holder's permission. If you find your book on one of these sites you have a chance of getting it taken down if you can provide proof of copyright.

Whether you want to register your copyright is up to you. You can publish your book without doing so.

Hello Amazon!

It's conventional that the first program one writes in a new language prints out: Hello World! Or at least that was true in my day. This is our equivalent. We're doing this to get the hang of things and show ourselves this publishing thing isn't scary at all. So go through your writing, do you have a short story that is finished, beta-read, proofed, edited, typo-free with sparkling prose that's ready to be uploaded?

Great! Let's do this.

The sections in our simple book

1. Title section
2. Copyright section
4. Link to your website or blog
5. The story
6. Link to your website or blog

To Be Continued

Well, I'm at just over 1000 words so I'll end this post for today and pick it up again tomorrow.

Update: Here is the second installment in the series: How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: MS Word Styles.

Have you ever published your work yourself? If so, what did you think of the experience? Was it harder than you expected? Easier?

Other articles you might like:

- The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters
- The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone
- How To Sell Books Without Using Amazon KDP Select

Photo credit: "Destination Unknown" by VinothChandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, January 3

The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters

The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters

First of all, I'd like to thank all the folks who contacted me with feedback about my last Starburst Method post: The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do. Your comments were overwhelmingly positive and reminded me again why I love to write. Thanks! :-)

Let's dive back in.

Yesterday I talked about what our objectives are. We're starting with an idea, perhaps a vague one, and shaping it until we have a clear notion of our stories' main themes. At that point we'll start developing the story itself. First we'll develop a five paragraph summary after which we will hone our ideas even further and craft a sentence that summarizes our entire story.

Why are we interested in creating a summary of our story?

I talked about this in the last section, but, basically, it will help us wow both editors and family members when we're asked what our story is about. Also, It will keep us on track while we write it. Last, but certainly not least, it will allow us to spot any weaknesses in the skeleton of our story before we write it.

What we need to begin: Some idea of what our story is about

This could be as vague as: I want to write about a group of clueless young people going to vacation in a lonely cabin in the woods. We just need something, some seed, to start from. Hopefully this will act like (to switch metaphors) a grain of sand in an oyster and we'll form something wonderful around it.

This blog post is more of an exercise, so you'll need pen and paper or the electronic equivalent. Okay? Ready? Let's go!

I'd like you to write down your answers to the following questions:

1. The Protagonist

- Is your character, as my grandmother would have said, gainfully employed?

If so, what do they do? Do they like what they do? If not, what would they rather do?

- If your character doesn't have a job, how do they get by?

Perhaps they do something less than reputable.

- What is your character's name?

If you don't know yet, that's fine.

- Your character has a special ability. What is it?

This could be something paranormal like being able to read another person's mind or it could be something wonderfully mundane like being unbeatable at chess or having an eidetic memory. Or being a fantastic cook.

- Your character has a weakness. What is it?

Perhaps they are egotistical in the extreme, perhaps they have no social graces, perhaps their age puts them at a disadvantage, perhaps--as in Mr. Monk's case--their strength is (attention to detail) is also their weakness.

- What, above all else, does your character want? In other words, what is your character's dream?

For instance, Mr. Monk wanted to be a detective again. More than anything else, that's what he wanted. For each episode, each story, in that series Mr. Monk had a goal and that goal reflected this this want, this overall desire, in some way. We're not talking about concrete goals here, we're talking about lifelong, life-directing, desires. For instance, wanting to be a well-paid, full-time, writer.

The BIG question:

- What is your character's goal? 

This should be something concrete. Think of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. What was his goal? To acquire the ark. In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke's goal was to destroy the Death Star. Yes, ultimately, Luke wanted to defeat the empire but his goal in that story was to destroy the Death Star.

You may not know the answers to all these questions right now and that's fine. We're 'priming the pump' here. The really important question for our purposes is the big question: What is this character's goal?

2. The Antagonist

I like to think of the antagonist as the hero of his own story. In their own eyes they're doing the right thing, even the good thing. Sure, not all antagonists are like this. There are megalomaniacs who are bent on ending the world, but those guys (and gals!) are usually kinda crazy and while that's fun to read it's a different kind of antagonist. I find that they become less of a person and more like a force of nature.

I probably should have said something about this yesterday, but in this series of articles I'm talking about writing a very simple story, so we're looking at the conflict that exists between two people (external goal) or between a person and themselves (internal goal).

So, with that in mind, answer the same questions as you did for the protagonist, but now with the antagonist in mind.

Go on, I'll wait.

3. Make Sure The Antagonist's Goal And The Protagonist's Goal Are Mutually Exclusive

It has to be impossible for both your protagonist and antagonist to achieve their goals. They can both fail, but they can't both succeed. For instance, if Indie gets the ark then the Nazi's don't have it and vice versa. The Death Star cannot both be destroyed and, at the same time, obliterating planets in the service of the Empire.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones's attempts to acquire the ark were repeatedly blocked by his rival Dr. Rene Belloq. Belloq's goal was to get the ark. Indiana's goal was to get the ark. Only one of them could have it.

I'm not going to say that the goal has to be tangible, but if you haven't written many stories you might want to be kind to yourself and go with something tangible, something like an ark or a maltese falcon or a ring.

4. What Are The Stakes?

We're almost done for today, just one more thing: What are the stakes? What happens if your protagonist doesn't achieve her goal? Another way of saying this is to ask: What happens if the antagonist achieves his goal?

Dreams vs Goals

Before we go any further I'd like to say a word or three about DREAMS and DREAMS VERSUS GOALS. In Star Wars IV Luke's dream was to defeat the Empire, which meant defeating the Emperor. How, in practical concrete terms, could this happen? Answer: By accomplishing the goal and destroying the Death Star.

In Raiders Indie had two dreams: defeat the Nazi's and have the opportunity to study the ark. How could he make each of these dreams come true? By accomplishing the goal and acquiring the ark.

In Raiders the Nazi's would have won the war. In Star Wars IV the Death Star would have gone on destroying planets and the rebellion would have been crushed.

So, what is at stake? It is the dream.

Here's how I think of it: The goal is like the dream's avatar. Indie's dream and Belloq's never go head to head, they can't. They can only compete at the level of goals.

Make The States Clear and Personal

We need to know (a) what the states are--what happens if the protagonist fails and the antagonist doesn't--and (b) what this means for the world in general and, specifically, for the protagonist.

For instance in Raiders if the Nazis had gotten hold of the ark it wouldn't have been good for the world, but it would have been even worse for Indie because he'd have been dead. (Of course in Raider's, strictly speaking, Indie failed and the ark itself stepped in to save the day.)

In Star Wars IV if the Death Star isn't destroyed then the rebel alliance will be crushed and the empire will have won but it would be even worse for Luke because he, and everyone he cared about, would be dead.

In Jim Butcher's book Changes if Harry Dresden doesn't save his daughter from the Red Court then he, and everyone he is related to, will die.

Summing Up: Examples

At this point you should have something like this:

Star Wars IV:  Protagonist

Name: Luke Skywalker

Occupation: Former farm hand, Jedi in training, helps out the rebel alliance.

Special Ability: Strong in the force.

Special Weakness: He is impatient. Young. Rash. Prone to anger. He may not be teachable, he may fall to the dark side of the force.

Wants/Dream: To find out who is father was and exact revenge on the person who killed him, as well as on the empire in general.

Character's Goal: To destroy the Death Star and, in so doing, defeat Darth Vader and the Empire.

Star Wars IV: Antagonist

Name: Darth Vader

Occupation: Former Jedi, Emperor's apprentice.

Special Ability: Strong in the force.

Special weakness: Anger and pride made him vulnerable to the dark side of the force.

Wants/Dream: To make the empire strong--unassailable--and snuff out the rebel alliance.

Character's Goal: To safeguard the Death Star and use it to solidify the Emperor's hold over the known universe.

To Be Continued

In the next section of this series we will take the basic skeleton we've come up with and flesh it out. Specifically, we'll learn more about the ordinary and special worlds our intrepid protagonist must venture through as well as pit our protagonist, the hero of our story, against his arch-nemesis.

Update: Here is a link to the next article in this series: The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 1.

Happy writing!

Other articles you might like:

- The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do
- The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone
- Scene Goals: What Do Your Characters Want, Why Do They Want It, How Do They Get it?

Photo credit: "A Little Rancor" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 2

The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do

The Starburst Method: Introduction

Have you ever wanted to write a story, and you had the beginning of an idea, but you didn't know who the antagonist was or what your protagonist wanted, what her goal was?

I've been in that place a few times and it's not fun. The good news is that the more one writes the easier it gets but that is small comfort in the beginning.

The Goal: A One Sentence Summary

I'm going to try something. I'm going to try writing a series of three or four articles, intended for the beginning writer, filled with exercises and pointers to help someone take the raw clay of his imagination and shape it until not only do you know what your story elements are, but you have written a five paragraph, then a one paragraph, then a one sentence summary of your piece.

At least, that's the plan! I hope you folks give me feedback and share your experiences with me along the way.

At the end of this process you won't know everything about the story incubating inside you (why did I just think of the movie Alien? ;), but you'll know the main things:

What We Need To Find Out:

1. Who your protagonist is.
2. What your protagonist wants.
3. What your protagonist's special ability is.
4. What your protagonist's weakness is .

5. Who your antagonist is.
6. What your antagonist wants.
7. What your antagonist's special ability is.
8. What your antagonist's weakness is.

9. What the states are/the cost of failure.

Numbers 2 and 6 must be such that if one goal is achieved the other cannot be. Either the antagonist gets their way and the protagonist loses big time or vice versa.

Ready? Let's get started!

The Starburst Method

We've each developed our own way of writing. For every 10 writers there are 11 methods! No one method is better than any other since the ultimate test is whether a method works for you. Does it help you write? Does it improve either the quality or speed of your work? If so, great!

This method might suit you, and it might not, but if you don't try it out you'll never know.

The Basic Idea: The One Sentence Description

Here's the basic goal: You will work from an initial concept to produce a one sentence description that communicates who the protagonist is, what she wants, as well as the central conflict of your story.

Why one sentence?

There are a number of reasons why you would want to refine and condense your idea until it can be expressed in one eloquent sentence.

1. Keeps you on track

It's easy to start off writing one story and end up writing a completely different one. Many, many, years ago I started off with a female protagonist who had psychic powers and ended up in the wild west with a male protagonist named Bronco Bill. Yes, that's extreme, but it's easy to wander off topic.

Here's a less extreme example: if you don't know where you want to go, what your story is about, you may waste your valuable time creating scenes that don't push the story forward.

Of course an outline helps (see: Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining) but condensing your idea down to a one-liner will encourage you to figure out the main themes of your story now--before you spend 200 pages writing a gritty urban fantasy only to discover the romance between your protagonist and her handsome helper is the real story you want to tell.

Trust me, rewrites aren't fun. The fewer you have to do the better.

2. Helps you write your pitch

Traditional Publishing
If you plan to submit your story to a traditional publisher you'll need to write a query letter and as part of that letter you'll have to tell the editor/agent/publisher what your story is about in approximately 300 words or less.

That's not easy. I know writers who think writing a query letter is more difficult than a novel! But when you know the core elements of your story your pitch will be much easier to write.

Don't worry if at the moment you don't have a clear idea of the elements of your story. We'll talk about that more in the next part of this series.

Independent Publishing
By the way, crafting a summary of your story is useful even for independent writers because you will need to create a blurb for your book as well as a description for the various online stores your book will be sold in. I find it helps to have a one sentence summary or tag line (also known as a one-liner), a two sentence summary, a summary about a paragraph long, and a longer summary of about five paragraphs suitable for posting in an online bookstore.

3. Makes you look professional

One question everyone is going to ask you the moment after they hear you're writing a story is: What's your story about?

The first time I was asked this I was completely unprepared and had the deer-in-the-headlights response: my eyes swallowed my face and I promptly forgot my name, let alone what my story was about. I think I stammered something like, "Well, it's about a girl."

Nice. Great description. Not. I'm sure the person walked away shaking their head thinking: She's a writer?

So, have your one sentence description memorized and rather than leave friends and family with the vague dread that they'll be asked to read the literary equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, be kind. Let them be proud of you and wow them with a snappy, concise, description.

Ready, Set, Write!

Ready to start? Great! Tomorrow we'll begin taking our relatively formless idea and molding it until it has the form of a story.

Update: Here is a link to the next installment in the series: The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters.

If you want to follow along with these posts and you don't already have an idea for a story, here are a couple of writing prompts that might help you get started:

A Writing Prompt: The Girl In A Mask
A Writing Prompt: The Thing was close
Writing Prompts: Defeat Writer's Block And Generate Ideas (This post contains links to several sites that list various writing prompts.)

Note: This series of three or four articles will draw material from a series I published on this blog last year, The Starburst Method. The present series of articles will focus on the first three steps of the Startburst Method and include a lot of new material. I intend to redo all of the posts in The Starburst Method and then publish them as an electronic book.


What is your idea for a story? How do you generate ideas?

Other links you might like:

- The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone
- Scene Goals: What Do Your Characters Want, Why Do They Want It, How Do They Get it?
- How To Sell Books Without Using Amazon KDP Select

Photo credit: "Droplets on dawn nastursians" by Lenny Montana under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, January 1

The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone

The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone

I loved The Dead Zone by Stephen King. I read the novel, watched the movie and then, much later, the TV series starring Anthony Michael Hall.

What's that advice writers are always given? We are urged to read the best, read what works. I shared a quotation of Stephen King's yesterday and one part of it stayed with me. King wrote that
[R]eading offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn't, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. (Stephen King, On Writing)
As I mentioned the other day in my post (The Magic Of Stephen King: How To Write Compelling Characters & Great Openings) the hallmark of Stephen King's writing (for myself) was its ability to (metaphorically) grab me by the throat in the first few paragraphs and drag me, at times kicking and screaming, through the novel.

I say 'kicking and screaming' (this is along the lines of the confession of a deep, dark, secret) because I don't like horror! Well, no, that's not true. What I don't like is a certain kind of horror, the nails on a chalk-board kind of psychological horror that Stephen King so masterfully produced in, for example, Misery.

I loved Misery. I read it cover to cover in a couple of days and then never read another King book for years. I was too scared!

Think about that. Stephen King got me to identify with John Smith so strongly I spent upwards of 8 hours of my life reading something that genuinely horrified me, and not in a good way. That, ladies and gentleman, is character identification on steroids. (Stephen King is also a master at generating narrative drive. See: Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 8: The Rough Draft & Narrative Drive)

So now to the question: How does Stephen King do it?

An Analysis Of Stephen King's The Dead Zone

I know I've been talking about Misery, and I will get to that analysis one day soon, but today I'm going to discuss The Dead Zone.

The question: How does Stephen King do it? How does he create that kind of Krazy Glue-like attraction, that bond, between the reader and his creations? His characters?

A few days ago I analyzed King's book, It, and, in that post, mentioned Michael Hauge's 5 ways to create character identification and attempted to use Michael's categories to analyze how King was able to weave his magic. If you're unfamiliar with Michael's 5 ways or what I mean by character identification, you might want to take another peek at it: How To Get Your Readers To Identify With Your Main Character.

The text: the first three paragraphs of The Dead Zone

By the time he graduated from college, John Smith had forgotten all about the bad fall he took on the ice that January day in 1953. In fact, he would have been hard put to remember it by the time he graduated from grammar school. And his mother and father never knew about the fall at all.

They were skating on a cleared patch of Runaround Pond in Durham. The bigger boys were playing hockey with old taped sticks and using a couple of potato baskets for goals. The little kids were just farting around the way little kids have done since time immemorial--their ankles bowing comically in and out, their breath puffing in the frosty twenty-degree air. At one corner of the cleared ice two rubber tires burned sootily, and a few parents sat nearby, watching their children. The age of the snowmobile was still distant and winter fun still consisted of exercising your body rather than a gasoline engine.

Johnny had walked down from his house, just over the Pownal line, with his skates hung over his shoulder. At six, he was a pretty fair skater. Not good enough to join in the big kids' hockey games yet, but able to skate rings around most of the other first graders, who were always pinwheeling their arms for balance or sprawling on their butts.
I usually don't use extensive quotations but since we're examining Stephen King's writing it helps to have the text before us.

First paragraph

In the first paragraph Stephen King starts introducing what I'm going to call "The Threat". I'll talk more about this in another post, but I'm fairly sure that some version of The Threat appears in most of his stories. In The Dead Zone we learn of a 'bad fall'. That we're hearing about this in the first paragraph and that King spends the entire paragraph on it tells us this is something important.

So what is paragraph two about? That's right! The fall.

Stephen King doesn't tell us in the first paragraph that the fall is a terrible thing but, well, it's a bad fall and, besides, when are falls ever a good thing? King does a lot of work in this first paragraph. We hear about The Threat right away, first thing, and we know who The Threat endangers: John Smith.

Second paragraph

Another thing I've found in most of Stephen King's stories is vulnerability. There is a threat and he introduces us to characters who are vulnerable. In It the paper boat was vulnerable to the water it sailed on just as the little child was vulnerable to the conditions the storm left in its wake.

In the second paragraph of TDZ King starts to build up our picture of the child John Smith once was by telling us about his world. Look at his language:

- bigger boys
- little kids
- old taped sticks
- potato baskets for goals
- their [the little kids] ankles bowing comically in and out

The language is nostalgic. "Remember when we were kids?" he is saying. Even myself--I never skated on pond ice and rarely skated in a rink and never, ever, took part in a game of hockey--I can picture this. I wish I had been there.

King's language is vivid. Evocative. I've seen the scene he's painting/creating. It's true that I never did any of those things but I'd seen kids out on the ice, even wished I was one of them. So I guess one reason it's easy for me to identify with this nostalgic vision of yesteryear is that I'd like this to be true/real. I'd have liked my childhood to have been like this.

Third paragraph

Now we're tying things together. The first thing I'd like you to notice is the first word of this sentence. Stephen King is no longer talking/writing about "John Smith" he's writing about "Johnny".

Also notice there has been a considerable amount of movement. The first paragraph--the feeling, the mood--was detached. Almost distant. Then we got all sticky and nostalgic about 'the way it was' and now SK is showing us the protagonist again, but we're not seeing John Smith, we're seeing Johnny. We're seeing the protagonist when he was an innocent child before anything bad happened to him, the child living in this lovely nostalgic world.

The second and third paragraphs show the child, and the child's world, before The Fall. (Now that I've written the words, I realize again how powerful imagery can be.)

- Johnny is a "pretty fair skater". He's "able to skate rings around most of the other first graders."

Recall that one of Michael Hauge's 5 points was to make your character good at something. And not just anything, something--a skill--that is valued in the character's world. If your character is a football player and he's great at chess it's not going to help!

Also, notice that Stephen King maintains--perhaps even steps up--building his evocative, nostalgic, image of childhood. King writes that the other first graders "were always pinwheeling their arms for balance or sprawling on their butts". Now THAT I remember! I remember ice rinks and being bundled up in layers of winter clothes until I looked like the original Michelin Man--and I had about the same mobility! At least the falls didn't hurt as much.

What Does This All Mean?

I'd like to stress that what I've done here, the analysis I've made of Stephen King's work, isn't meant to be in any way authoritative. If you agree with something I've said and you think it may make your writing stronger then that's wonderful! Use it. But if you don't, or if you see something completely different, then go with that.

I do think reading great writing, writing that moves you, and then attempting to analyze what it was about the writing that created that effect in yourself, can help a writer become better at her craft. Perhaps in the final analysis it's the only thing that can.

But everyone, every single person, is different. What I find emotionally compelling might not seem so to you, what turns me into the proverbial puddle of tears may leave you cold.

That's why it's important for each of us to read what works for us, as well as what doesn't, and then examine each story to see why the one gripped us emotionally and the other didn't.

#   #   #

Who is your favorite writer? What is it about their prose that hooks you? That produces that can't-put-it-down quality which drags you, willing or not, through the book?

Other articles you might like:

- The Magic Of Stephen King: How To Write Compelling Characters & Great Openings
- How To Sell Books Without Using Amazon KDP Select
- Edward Robinson And How To Sell Books Using Amazon KDP Select

Photo credit: "Stephen King" by robbophotos under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.