Saturday, June 29

11 Tips On How To Become A Better Writer

For the past few months I've been enjoying Chuck Wendig's posts about writing, and they just keep getting better!

11 Ways To Become A Better Writer

1. Write.

Have you written today? If not, stop reading this and go write something. Seriously. Go.

Chuck Wendig writes:
"Stop talking about writing. Stop reading about writing. Stop dreaming about writing. Stop doing things that don’t qualify as writing. The thing that defines a writer is that the writer writes."

2. Do what works for you.

Writers talk a lot about what works for them, and that's great, but it's important to remember that just because something works (or doesn't work) for someone else doesn't mean it will (/won't) work for you.

The only way you'll know what works for you is to write. CW writes:
I don’t have answers. Neil Gaiman doesn’t have answers. Jane Austen didn’t have them. Nobody has answers. We have ideas. Suggestions. Possibilities. The only writer who has answers about your writing is you. Advice is just advice. ... You are your own Muse.
That said, Neil Gaiman gave one of the best pieces of writing advice I've read, one that has helped me enormously. The following is from Neil Gaiman's Pep Talk for NaNoWriMo participants.
The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”

I was shocked. “You mean I’ve done this before?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Not really.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients.”

I didn’t even get to feel unique in my despair.

So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.

One word after another.
That's the key. Write one word after the other.

I know, it sounds absurd, like telling a person they need to breathe to stay alive, but the next time you're stuck, try to remember that even brilliant writers like Neil Gaiman get stuck too. All you need to do is write one word after another. Don't think about the whole novel, or about what you've written, just think about the next word. Write that word, then write another one, and so on.

3. Good grammar matters.

4. Your first stories will likely suck.

I know my first stories sucked. Nothing happened in them. I'd never heard of character arcs.

In my early stories I got hung up all the time, I'd wander off onto a storytelling ledge and wonder why I couldn't write the second half. Gah! I really wish there'd been more information in those days about how to create dramatic tension/narrative drive, or even moderately interesting characters.

Jim Butcher's advice on Tags and Traits was a revelation to me.

Also, though, it takes time. And practice. And I don't think the practice ever really stops. We continue to learn, to grow.

5. Ignore the naysayers

There's always, always, going to be someone--probably a lot of someones--who put you down, who tell you that you can't do it, who say that either you're not talented or that people aren't reading the kind of stories you're writing, or that no one is buying books anymore, or ... the list is endless. 

Ignore them.

6. Learn to say "yes" more than you say "no"

This one is all Chuck Wendig. I have friends like this, people who not only say "Yes" but "Hell yes!" to just about anything they're asked, whether it is to do an interview, or to judge a contest, or comment on a novel.

And I think it's great advise.

But it's advice I haven't been able to take. I've had to say "no" a lot, no to reading and commenting on novels, no to doing reviews, no to being on panels. Why? Because I'm zealously guarding my writing time.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not anti-social. I would love to read every novel sent to me and give it a review, but I can't do that and maintain my writing schedule. And what do writers do? They write.

Writing comes first. Writing always comes first.

7. Don't make excuses.

Chuck Wendig writes: If you’re not writing, that’s your fault. It’s not anybody else’s.

It's a hard truth.

I want to stress, though, that of course life events will affect one's writing. Tragic events happen. My father died last year and that had a profound effect on me both as a person and a writer. I didn't write for at least two months after his death.

On the other hand, if a few weeks go by and you're always giving reasons for why you couldn't write, perhaps think about where writing is in terms of your priorities. There's nothing wrong with not writing. In fact, if writing is something you constantly want to avoid and is creating all sorts of stress, perhaps you need to put that dream aside for now and go on to other things.

8. Figure out what you love about stories.

Chuck Wendig writes:
Realize what you love about stories, and bring that love to bear on the page. Let the audience in on that love. Your love should be viral, like cat videos or the norovirus.

I think points 7 and 8 are related. If someone loves writing they'll come up with excuses to avoid doing other things to scavenge more time to write.

9. Quit chasing your voice.

Chuck Wendig writes:
You will never find your voice. It isn’t a car and you aren’t a dog chasing it. It’s not a pearl in an oyster or an elk in the forest. Your voice is who you are. The way you think. The way you speak when you’re not thinking about how you speak. You are your voice. If anything it’s like a lost key. It’ll turn up just when you stop hunting for it.
Great advice! I think this--finding your voice--is one thing writing blog posts can help with.

10. Make the reader feel, make them think.

Chuck Wendig writes:
The best two things your story can do is to stir my emotions and to challenge my assumptions. Make me feel something (rage! lust! love! grief!). Make me think something (what is the nature of evil? what is the enemy of empathy? ...).

11.  The Secret

CW writes:
The secret to writing is so simple it tickles: Write as much as you can. As fast as you can. Finish ... Hit your deadlines. Try very hard not to suck. That’s it.  That’s my secret.
 That's it. That's every successful author's recipe for success: hard work and good luck.

Chuck Wendig's article deserves to be read from start to finish (contains adult language -->): 50 Rantypants Snidbits Of Random Writing & Storytelling Advice.

Do you have a tidbit of storytelling and writing wisdom? If so, please share! 

Photo credit: "Lisboa #2" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, June 27

Writing: A Buisness Plan

Writing: A Buisness Plan

My apologies for not posting much this week. One reason for my absence is I'm on vacation and have been busy doing cheesy tourist things.

It's been great!

The other reason I haven't blogged as much lately isn't new, I've been writing more and have been finding that all my stories take about four times longer to complete than I think they will.

A couple of people have asked me what I've been up to, so I thought I'd turn my answer into a blog post.

My Plan For Writerly Success

That's right, I have a plan! It's similar to Robert Heinlein's. Here it is:

a) Write.

Writers write
Writers often have a daily goal--they want to write X number of words--but I find I work better if I have a weekly goal. I write short, so my rewriting mostly consists of filling in scenes. That means I'll write a variable amount each day but a (more or less) consistent amount each week.

Also, rather than concentrate on the number of words I write a day I concentrate on the number of words I publish a month.

Write in many genres
Some writers have written in many genres and they know, not only what they like to write, but what they are best at writing.

I'm not one of those people, not yet, so I've set out to write a few stories in each major genre. At least, each major genre I like to either read or watch. Surprisingly, I've found writing horror stories rather fun.

Write stories of different lengths
I've been writing stories of all lengths: flash fiction, short stories, novellas and novels.

I know that there has been a lot of talk about what size story is the most lucrative--short story, novella or novel--and I think the verdict is in: the novel. (Though I tend to think that if several novellas, if they were in a series, were bundled together, that could sell just as well.)

Still, since I'm exploring a number of genres, it's much more sensible for me to write short stories than novels!

b) Finish what I write.

It is good advice to finish what you start but I think it's better to lay a story aside than force an artificial finish if you're stuck.

The best writers in the world have gotten stuck in the middle of a story. You know what this is like, right? You have a great idea for a story, you're writing gangbusters and then, after a certain point, nothing. It's like staring off the end of the world.

I've had stories like that--not many, but a few--and rather than forcing a finish, I put them aside. It has taken me years to finish some of those stories but, now, I'm picking them back up and completing them. And it feels fantastic!

So, yes, finish what you write but don't force it. Don't fear putting a story aside but, after you've consigned it to it's shoe box, do shift your focus and write something else.

One of the benefits of either doing an outline or writing the first draft sparely and quickly is that one knows, in broad strokes, what happens. It doesn't matter if there are gaps, you can go back and fill those in later.

But everyone's different. That's what I've been finding works for me.

c) Determine which stories are the most popular with readers

Here's my criteria for what's popular: downloads. Not reviews.

Focus on readers, not writers
I'm interested in which stories are popular with readers, not writers. Yes, I love knowing what my friends and acquaintances think of my work, but many writers read like editors. That is, their literary taste is more like the average editor than the average reader. That's fine if one is submitting to editors or agents but not if one is putting ones work directly in front of readers.

d) No matter what, keep writing and publishing and learning.

Never give up, no matter what
You will fail occasionally. As Seth Godin says, if you don't fail occasionally, you're not trying. The key is not to give up. After all, the only way to get better is to continue putting yourself out there, continue getting feedback.

Comedians and risking failure

I love reading articles by comedians. Writers have it easy, we can work out our new material in the privacy of our offices. Comedians have it tough, they work out their new material in front of strangers and routinely get either ignored or heckled. But they keep doing it, they keep building up material.

Here are two articles I can recommend. The first is a 2012 interview Esquire did with Bill Murray.  At one point Bill Murray says:
"You gotta commit. ... You're goin' out there with just a whisper of an idea. The fear will make you clench up. That's the fear of dying. When you start and the first few lines don't grab and people are going like, "What's this? I'm not laughing and I'm not interested," then you just put your arms out like this and open way up and that allows your stuff to go out. Otherwise it's just stuck inside you."
It's important for writers to open up to failure as well. Of course we don't have to write in front of a live audience, we can write in the privacy of our office and publish it on a smaller site or hand it out to beta readers. The important thing is that we don't stop trying when we fall on our face.

The other article is by Paton Oswalt: A Closed Letter To Myself About Thievery, Heckling And Rape Jokes. PO's overall goal in the article is to talk about whether there are any subjects that are out of bounds, whether there are kinds of jokes that should never be told. It's a wonderful, thoughtful, article. Why I'm mentioning it here, though, is because he talks about what it was like for him as a young comedian, what it takes to make it in that business. Worth the read.

Okay! That's it for me today. Back to writing. I'll talk to you again tomorrow. :-)

Photo credit: "exposed" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, June 24

How To Create Memorable Characters: Be Merciless

How To Create Memorable Characters: Be Merciless

When Bad Things Need To Happen To Good Characters

The following advice comes from Rick Mofina, a former journalist whose "crime thrillers have been published in 21 countries."
Always launch your story with a conflict confronting your protagonist. It should be a problem that mounts. For example, a lost wallet leads to identity theft, which leads to mistaken identity and something far worse. The conflict you give your hero could threaten their way of life, their community, or someone they love. (Seven deadly writing tips)

Truth Hurts But Writers Must Not Flinch

Some of the best advice on what it means not to flinch was given by Robert Wiersema at the Surrey International Writer's Conference a couple of years ago: SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Two: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema.


You have, at most, two pages to grab a reader. You have to grab them in the first scene, in the first sentence. How do you do this? You create a question in the readers mind. The reader must answer the question to understand the sentence. This is like foreshadowing, but it is less obvious. A hook is implicit foreshadowing.


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


Frustrate your character. Which newspaper headline would grab your attention: "Man on the run" or "Man captured"?

- Have reversals. Characters should be frustrated at most turns. Here's the trick: the plot should be inevitable but not predictable. The plot should not be the same thing you and your readers have seen dozens of times. How do you avoid this?

THE KEY: The reader should always know slightly more than the character. Let the reader know an event is coming before the character does.

- In order to create suspense, the readers' expectations must be both met and undermined. What we are talking about here is shameless manipulation. You are telling people lies in order to get the response you want.
I constantly have to remind myself not to flinch. I want my characters lives to be effortlessly wonderful but that wouldn't make for an interesting story.

Photo credit.

Wednesday, June 19

The Four Act Structure For Story Writing

The Four Act Structure For Story Writing

I've been both reading horror and reading about horror, about how to write it.

As I said yesterday, the structure of a horror story feels different, though perhaps not substantially different, from that given in the monomyth.

(For more on normal story structure, see Writing And The Monomyth, Writing And The Monomyth, Part Two, Writing And The Monomyth, Part Three and Story Structure.)

+Steve Devonport was kind enough to point me to this article, The 4-Act Story Diamond, by Belzecue. In it the author makes an excellent case that it is much easier to write stories with four acts rather than three. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, take a peek at my blog on story structure.)

Whatever your opinion about the appropriate number of acts, I do think the four act structure could be useful when writing a horror story, a point made especially well by Belzecue's story diagram.

The Four Act Structure

Here's how Belzecue describes the four act structure:


The hero's Ordinary World.

This is the realm that the hero knows -- he knows the terrain and how to live in it. But here is just your average Joe Public, although he displays hero potential.


The Netherworld.

This is the realm the novice hero must pass through to reach the Kingdom of Evil. This territory is unknown, frightening and wonderful. Here, the hero is swept along on an inexorable tide that leads to ...

REALM 3 The Kingdom of Evil.

Here the forces of evil are the masters. This is their home turf, where they are strongest. The hero is gonna have to be very clever to avoid capture.


Back to the Netherworld.

Only now the hero knows the rules and expectations of this realm. He'll need this knowledge to help him evade the pursuit by the Bad Guys.


- Each act is the reflection of it's opposite. Realm 1 is the opposite of Realm 3, just as Realm 2 is the flipside of Realm 4. Where in Act One the hero feels relatively safe, secure, and in control, in Act Three he faces mortal danger, uncertainty, discomfort, etc.

- In Act Four, the flight, the helpers of Act Two reverse to become hinderers (revealed to be agents of evil all along), the hinderers of Act Two reverse to become helpers (swapping sides to join the forces of good).

- The development of the hero shows a similar opposition between Act 1 & 3 and Act 2 & 4. In Act One the hero is a powerless orphan; in Act Three he has become a powerful warrior. In Act Two he is a wanderer in the Netherworld, acting on his own behalf and being pulled or lead toward the domain of evil; by Act Four the hero has become a Martyr working for society, leading the way instead of following. (The 4-Act Paradigm)

Three Acts: Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, then get him down

Instead of getting your hero up a tree (first act), throwing rocks at him (creating conflict in the second act) and getting him down (third act) Belzecue suggests that it would be more interesting to whip out a chainsaw in the third act and start cutting the tree down!

And he's probably right. We want to ramp up the conflict, the tension. Belzecue writes:
I swear, if I hear once more that line about "Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, then get him down"... It's a god-awful illustration of the three-act structure and an even worse representation of storytelling. ....

So what on earth does that pithy gem describe, really? I get that the 'up a tree' part stands for Act One: the inciting incident, the trigger, the destabilisation of the hero's world, jeopardy. And I get that the 'rocks' represent Act Two and conflict. It's not mentioned but it's a given that the rocks get larger and meaner with each throw, to create rising conflict.

... then get him down... ?? Is it just me or is that just a teensy bit anti-climactic? As a third act that simply will not do. Not around here.

Having exhausted our supply of rocks, it's time to get serious about making tree-guy suffer. Remember that chainsaw you stole from the set of Evil Dead: Army of Darkness? (Yes, I know about that; No, I never told The Chin, but I think he suspects.) Go get it. Because the writer's job is not to get the hero out of the tree. Your job is to make your protagonists suffer to the point where they have only one way out, where only one thing can transform the suffering into a solution: change.

I'm talking earthquake-fault-line-sized change. I'm talking about straddling the abyss with one foot on either side as it groans and cracks and widens beneath your hero, forcing a decision to go left or right, zig or zag, one way or the other, or do nothing and perish. At that moment, for the hero, standing still is no longer an option.

Change. (The 4-Act Story Diamond, Emphasis mine)
Great articles, and if you haven't already, take a look at his story diagrams here (old one) and here (new one).


Photo credit: "a mongrel rougue" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, June 18

How To Write A Horror Story

How to Write a Horror Story

This morning I was writing a horror story and I realized that the structure of a classic horror story is different than the typical hero's journey. 

In this post I ask, and attempt to answer, two questions:

1) What exactly is the structure of a horror story?
2) What is the purpose of a horror story? What is it supposed to accomplish? How will we know whether we've succeeded or failed?

Let's take this in parts.

The Purpose of a Horror Story

What is a good horror story supposed to do? What is its function? That's easy! It's supposed to terrify, or at least deeply disturb. If you're not horrified by the end, then the story could be great and wonderful, but it's not a horror story.

The Structure Of A Horror Story

What are the parts of a horror story?

This is something I'm sure I'll continue to think about over the years, but here's what I've come up with so far. As you can see, I'm adapting Christopher Vogler's take on Joseph Campell's work (see The Hero With A Thousand Faces).

The initial situation/The ordinary world

There are a few parts here.

a. The hero does something normal.

The hero/protagonist is active. 

Perhaps the hero goes on a date, perhaps they meet friends, perhaps they go on a road trip. This is a great place to introduce your characters. Foreshadow the dangers to come.

For example: A mother plays a game of hide-and-seek with her children. (This example is, in part, based on this.)

b. There's a problem

Something goes wrong.

For example: The mother can't find her children. The college students on the road trip get lost. In The Cabin In The Woods the GPS breaks.

At some point in the first act the theme or moral might be stated. For instance, in The Cabin In The Woods, 8.5 minutes into the movie Marty says, "Society needs to crumble, we're all just too chickenshit to let it."

c. Warning

Something happens that would give a reasonable person second thoughts about the wisdom of going forward.

For instance, when college students pull up at a gas station looking for gas and directions they are berated then given directions by someone wearing worn overalls and in dire need of dental work. (A marvelous twist is put on this trope by Tucker and Dale Versus Evil.)

Break into act two: the protagonist makes a choice

It seems to me that the break into act two occurs when the protagonist willfully ignores the warning. And that's the key word, it must be an act of will, the hero must choose to ignore the warning. At least, ordinarily. I'm sure there are horror movies that violate this rule. 

Ordinarily, act two begins when the hero accepts the quest. I guess one way of looking at this is to say that, in a horror story, by ignoring the warning, the hero tacitly accepts the quest.

Initial problem is either solved or changed

Almost immediately upon entering act two the problem changes.

This is another difference from the normal story structure. Usually the problem changes, then the hero accepts the quest.  It seems that in a horror often the hero ignores the warning and then either fulfills their initial goal or the initial goal changes.

For example, in The Cabin, the college students ignore the (implicit) warning and then complete their initial goal of finding the cabin. The cabin, and the area around the cabin, is the Special World of the adventure. At this point they begin exploring the cabin and try to figure out what kind of a place it is.

Other examples: The mother realizes that her kids are missing. Her goal is no longer to find where they're hiding. She knows they're gone. Now her goal is to find out who took her kids and get them back.

Fake solution

Often there is a fake solution. Something happens, an event, and the protagonist feels either that the problem has been solved, or that someone else more skilled/competent is there to handle the crisis.

For example, the mother can't find her children so she calls the police. A suspiciously short time later a police officer arrives, someone she knows, someone who can take care of everything.

Fake villain

Often when there's a fake solution, the protagonist--perhaps with the help of the real villain--begins to suspect one of her friends/allies. The fake threat is contained and the protagonist relaxes. Not long afterward, the real killer reveals himself/herself. Often they reveal themselves by slipping up in some way, for instance revealing information they shouldn't have had, or that only the killer could have had.


Protagonist and antagonist/villain fight. Usually the protagonist will win, but in a horror that often doesn't happen, not only does the protagonist lose, but their fate is worse than we ever could have imagined.

Don't forget to include a few red shirts which die in horrible, grizzly, so-gross-you-can't-watch ways.

10 Steps To Writing A Horror Screenplay

There are many ways of structuring a horror story.

In Henrik Holmberg's excellent blog post, Horror Movie Scripts - 10 Steps To Writing A Horror Screenplay, he approaches things a bit differently and gives 10 stages. He writes:
A horror movie has certain rules. If you break too many the audience will be disappointed.

This is a very short, no fluff, blueprint of how to write a horror script.
  1. The Hook. Start with a bang. Step right into a suspense scene. ("Scream" opens with a terrifying sequence with Drew Barrymore on the phone with a killer)

  2. The Flaw. Introduce your hero. Give him a flaw. Before you can put your hero in jeopardy we must care for him. We must want our hero to succeed. So make him human. (In "Signs" Mel Gibson plays a priest who has lost his faith after his wife died)

  3. The Fear. A variant of The Flaw. The hero has a fear. Maybe a fear of heights, or claustrophobia. (In "Jaws" Roy Scheider has a fear of water. At the end he has to conquer his fear by going out onto the ocean to kill the shark)

  4. No Escape. Have your hero at an isolated location where he can't escape the horror. (Like the hotel in "The Shining")

  5. Foreplay. Tease the audience. Make them jump at scenes that appear scary -- but turn out to be completely normal. (Like the cat jumping out of the closet) Give them some more foreplay before bringing in the real monster.

  6. Evil Attacks. A couple of times during the middle of the script show how evil the monster can be -- as it attacks its victims.

  7. Investigation. The hero investigates, and finds out the truth behind the horror.

  8. Showdown. The final confrontation. The hero has to face both his fear and the monster. The hero uses his brain, rather than muscles, to outsmart the monster. (At the end of "The Village" the blind girl tricks the monster to fall into the hole in the ground)

  9. Aftermath. Everything's back to the way it was from the beginning -- but the hero has changed for the better or for the worse. (At the end of "Signs" Mel Gibson puts on his clerical collar again -- he got his faith back)

  10. Evil Lurks. We see evidence that the monster may return the future..(Almost all "Friday The 13'th"-movies end with Jason showing signs of returning for another sequel)
Here's another helpful article on the structure of a horror story: An introduction to horror films.

What are you waiting for? Go forth and write a hair-raising, blood-curdling, horror story that would terrify Freddy Krueger.

Have you ever written a horror story? If you have any tips/tricks please share!

Photo credit: "Solitude standing..." by josef.stuefer under Creative Commons attribution 2.0.

Monday, June 17

How To Survive And Thrive As An Indie Writer

How To Survive And Thrive As An Indie Writer
This post was finished then my word processor ate it! Yes, I know, I know, it's my fault for not saving. In any case, what follows is a shortened version.

Here's how to survive and thrive as an indie writer: Write good books, make sure they've been copyedited--either by a professional or a fellow writer--and publish.

I've just read two excellent posts on how to survive and thrive as an indie writer.

1. Kris Rusch: The Business Rusch: The Stages of An Indie Writer.

2. Hugh Howey: What do Self-Published Authors Need?

I'd like to add my own piece of advice: Read as many indie success stories as you can and examine what they did.

I'm not suggesting you do exactly what anyone else has done--Amanda Hocking once lived off of Red Bull and sweet-tarts for a week while she wrote Switched--but it shows you that the one thing they all had in common is that a) they published and b) they didn't give up in the face of criticism.

Here are a few stories I was inspired by:

Amanda Hocking: An epic tale of how it all happened.

Karen McQuestion: The Self-Publishing Bestseller On 'How I Did It'.

Joe Konrath: Independence; How To Sell Ebooks.

Hugh Howey: Hugh Howey: Self-publishing is the future — and great for writers; Author Hugh Howey gets richer by giving away his work;

The main thing is to do it! Don't edit your work forever. Put it out there and let readers give you feedback. I often publish stories on Smashwords first; I've found the feedback from readers there is excellent.

Whatever you do, all the best!

Photo credit: "cat daddy" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, June 13

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp And The Narrative Structure Of Folk Tales

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp And The Narrative Structure Of Russian Folk Tales
Today I'd like to talk about the underlying structure of stories; specifically, folk tales.

I've been meaning to write a blog post about this for some time, but Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp identifies--as Shawn Spencer of Psych fame would say: wait for it--31 plot points.

That's a lot of plot points!

Still, it's valuable information. So I'm going to take this in chunks. I'll start today with the first plot point and then pick the topic up again in a few days until I get through all 31.

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp's Morphology Of The Folktale

0. Introduce the hero

This isn't one of Propp's steps but, as the author of Vladimir Propp's Morphology Of The Folktale writes:

A folktale usually begins with some sort of initial situation. The members of a family are enumerated, or else the future hero is introduced (i.e., a soldier) in some manner; either his name is revealed or his status is indicated. 
By the way, what follows draws heavily on the above article. All I'm doing here is laying out Propp's points with a bit of commentary.

 1. ABSENCE. One of the members of a family is absent from home.

This can come in many forms:

a. Absence. Someone, often a parent or hero him/herself leaves

Here are a few possibilities:
- The person absent is a parent or caregiver
- A ruler (prince, king, etc.)
- Merchant or business person who goes off on to ply his/her trade
- Hero goes to work
- Hero goes exploring (into the deep, dark, forest; into a bad part of the city; into a diary/journal that isn't his/hers)
-  Soldier goes to war
- Hero's parents leave (one way they may leave is through death)
- Children walk over to neighbors/go fishing/explore an old mine
- Children go for a walk in the forbidden forest (the bad side of town) to pick berries (to see a movie)

b. Interdiction. Hero is told not to do something

- "Take care of your brother, do not venture forth from the courtyard."
- If someone you don't recognize comes to the door, don't talk to them. (Or, more simply, 'Don't talk to strangers.')
- King/merchant/father: stay in the tower and do not leave.
- Do not pick the apples in the neighbor's yard/Do not get your ball if it lands in the neighbor's yard.
- Do not open the chest.
- Do not kiss the girl/boy.

However, rather than being told not to do something, the hero may be given a command:

- Bring your father/mother his/her lunch as he/she works in the fields.
- Take your brother/sister with you when you go fishing/to the amusement park/out to the movies with your friends.

c. The possibility of misfortune

The possibility of misfortune is what is nascent in (a) and (b), above. Combining the two we have:
- The merchant has a tree that produces golden apples but the moment he or his offspring injure another tree it will die. The merchant tells his son/daughter to stay out of the woods, fearing they will inadvertently injure a tree. One day when he is out of town ... You know the rest.

Generally, this seems to be the formula for this first of the 31 points: If you X then your prosperity will end, but you're not allowed to tell anyone why. For instance, the merchant with the tree that bears golden fruit would not tell his children why they couldn't go into the woods.

Well! That's the first of Propp's 31 points and we've just gotten started.

Photo credit: "Surfin in the Sun" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, June 12

3 Ways To Fan Your Creative Fire

C.S. Lakin writes:
It’s not easy to translate concepts that feel like hot sparks of brilliance into words that actually ignite a reader’s soul .... Those of us who know how special that feeling is—when the passion of our story emerges in a seeming explosion of inspired beauty—want to be able to “get to that place” as often as we can. But is there a way to do that?
The answer is yes! And C.S. Lakin helps guide the way:

How to fan your creative fire:

1. Change the scenery.

"Nature can spark passion. Immersing yourself in beautiful surroundings might help your creativity.

"And maybe it’s not beauty and sublimity you need. Perhaps for you, sitting in a crowded cafe in a foreign land does wonders for sparking ideas—the fresh change of scenery an inspiration. The point being—getting out of your rut and routine can sometimes be the antidote for mundane writing and uninspired thinking."

2. Write at a different time, perhaps early in the morning

"You may feel you only write well or can concentrate early in the morning. Try setting the alarm and getting up a few hours earlier. Take a shower to shake off your sleepiness and then in the quiet before dawn, try writing that scene you have planned to tackle. If you can’t write at night because you’re just too tired, try taking a walk to invigorate yourself (or some other type of exercise) and then sit down after dark and try writing. You may surprise yourself. Sometimes by attempting to write at a time you normally don’t can fire up your little gray cells."

3. Read before you write

"Some writers, like my favorite mystery writer Elizabeth George, spend a half hour or so reading a great book before beginning to write for the day. Reading really well-written books, whether novels or nonfiction, can inspire and spur some on to passionate writing."
You could always try a combination of ways! Take an early morning walk to your favorite coffee house, perhaps buying a cinnamon bun on the way, one fresh out of the oven. After you've ordered your favorite beverage, read for a bit before you write.

I think these tips by C.S. Lakin are marvelous. I already read before I write, but I like to read books that are similar to what I'm writing. For instance, something in the same genre written from the same point of view.

How do you keep your creative fires burning?

Photo credit: "Ode to Birds" by Zach Dischner by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, June 11

Musing About Movies

Musing About Movies

This is a writing blog, not a movie blog, but I've always wondered why some movies--movies with the same stars in them--do well and some don't. For instance, Old School and Wedding Crashers cleaned up at the boxoffice but The Internship is struggling to compete.

Movies are just stories told with images and sound while books are stories told solely through language. At some level, a story's a story. All things being equal, we'd like to sell our stories, our books, as widely as possible, so understanding what readers/viewers like couldn't hurt.

If that's possible.

Google: Can Predict Box Office With 94% Accuracy

The finding that Google can predict box office with 94% accuracy indicates to me that, most of the time, the decision whether to see a movie is made solely based on marketing rather than word of mouth. That is, it's made before anyone sees the movie.

I wouldn't be surprised if it is similar in the book world. Readers want a book in a certain genre, or by a certain author, or one that's like another book.

I've been using Box Office Mojo to track movie stats; how much a movie was made for, how much it grossed, and so on. It looks like The Internship, the latest movie by comedy duo Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, is going to be lucky to break even.


Is it the subject matter? Was the subject matter of Vaughn's earlier movies, Old School and Wedding Crashers more primal? These earlier movies were about life transitions, marriage, death. But, in a way, so is The Internship. The movie explores the lives of two guys displaced by technology, two guys who are struggling to succeed in a rapidly changing world that deems them obsolete.

Well, when I put it like that, the movie seems a bit depressing! (grin)

What do you think is the biggest determinant of whether someone will see a movie or read a book?

Photo credit: "București #23" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, June 10

The Power Trio: A Trope

The Power Trio: A Trope

Let's talk tropes.

Years ago I began a story based around the structure of one of my favorite Star Trek episodes, but I got stuck. Toward the end of the story, what my characters needed to do was different than what the characters had done in the episode; I needed a slightly different structure but got stumped.


A couple of weeks ago I picked up the story again and everything came together, everything except for the most important bit: the ending.

I didn't know what to do so I surfed over to and read about Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Let me just say: Wow! I'm probably not going to use all the information I found in my story, but I'll use some of it.

One thing I love about studying tropes is being able to give a certain situation, one that recurs often, a name. Anyway, I thought the following was just plain fun (as well as useful) so I wanted to share.

The Power Trio

We've all read and watched countless instances of this trope but before I get to examples lets talk about psychology. Specifically ...

Freudian Trio
Among a Power Trio of the "two Foils + balance" variety, one of the most common subtropes has the three characters have psychological positions based on the Freudian idea of the Id, the Ego and the Superego.

Freud defined the human psyche as consisting of three parts: the Id, which represented emotional and instinctual desires; the Superego, which represented the logical and intellectual reasoning (or rules and social conventions, which is how Freud actually used the term); and the Ego, which reconciled the Id and Superego. Likewise, the Freudian Trio consists of three characters: one who acts emotionally and instinctively, one who acts with cold, passionless logic and one who reconciles the two conflicting ideals. (Freudian Trio)

The Kirk 

Rounding out the archetypal Freudian Trio with The Spock and The McCoy, The Kirk must balance these opposing personalities while being able to take their advice and choose between them (or literally, choose "between them") without being overcome either by emotion or dispassionate logic, representing what in Freudian psychology is called the ego.

Usually, The Kirk is The Captain or a similar leader who needs to be practical rather than emotional or distant. It's not impossible for a show to have The McCoy or The Spock as the leader, but they'll have to be far more ideologically flexible than they would otherwise. (The Kirk)

The Third Option

In any situation Spock and McCoy are pretty much guaranteed to be at loggerheads. McCoy looks at the world through his feelings, his emotions, while Spock is dispassionately logical. Or at least that's the setup.

Often this problem is solved by choosing a Third Option:
In most Power Trio scenarios, when The Spock advocates one course of action and The McCoy insists upon the other, The Kirk will be particularly fond of using this method as a solution to the problem of the week. This is also the best way to deal with a Xanatos Gambit. A true Magnificent Bastard will have anticipated that, though. (Take A Third Option)

Kirk Summation

A Kirk Summation is ...
A speech made by the hero to the villain just before the climactic fight in which he points out exactly why what the villain is doing is wrong, and begs him to forswear his ways.

This rarely works but he had to try: that's what makes him the hero. (Kirk Summation)
If the Kirk Summation doesn't cause the Big Bad to give up in a fit of despair, the Villain might give the hero a Breaking Speech.

Breaking Speech

This is often achieved by a kind of "The Reason You Suck" Speech, telling the other character how pathetic they are or perhaps how guilty of something terrible, perhaps Not So Different from someone unpalatable, but there are other ways of breaking someone down by talking. You could for example instead deconstruct the world, other characters, or their relationship with the victim. The important part is that they can't deny your words, at least not in the heat of the moment, and you gain a psychological advantage over them. Uncomfortable truths (or at least half-truths) and logical arguments are effective for making claims hard to deny, but hitting emotional weak spots is also important and can work even if your statements are not truly reasonable. (Break Them By Talking)
Here is an example from

"You look like you're going to spend your life having one epiphany after another, always thinking you've finally figured out what's holding you back, and how you can finally be productive and creative and turn your life around. But nothing will ever change. That cycle of mediocrity isn't due to some obstacle. It's who you are. The thing standing in the way of your dreams... is that the person having them is you."
— xkcd, "Pickup Artist"

Harsh. Great speech though. You might also want to take a look at The Reason You Suck speech.

If you're stumped and you're looking for ideas, is a fabulous resource.

What is the trope you most often come across in your reading/viewing?

Photo credit: "Batman Extreme" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.