03 Mar

Advice to Academy Award Winners: Trust Your Art

As I watched the Academy Awards last week, I was struck by how little the winners trusted their works of art. The ceremony was peppered with political statements for one cause or another. (Don’t misread: I have sympathies for these causes, but not for taking over the ceremony to smash us over the head with the cause.) There were pleas for women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and disability rights. Really? Their work of art, the film that was being recognized, had already said what needed to be said in poignant, touching, and life-changing ways. Why didn’t they trust their art?

In the 1970s, children’s book publishers put out a lot of “problem novels,” which addressed social issues. The backlash against them was huge and still has echoes today in how easily some manuscripts are rejected. Since then, though, we’ve learned how to include our passions in our stories in ways that shine as art. We don’t stick it in our reader’s faces.

Bringing a Cause to Life

Morality. If you’re passionate about a cause, though, what should you do? First set up a moral dilemma around the cause because that will allow you to explore multiple perspectives. Moral dilemmas force characters to make a choice, which allows your readers to feel the weight of the issues and either agree or disagree with the character’s choices. You almost have to include someone making wrong choices–usually as the villain.

S&B COVER3-CS.inddEmotions. For example, in my book, Saucy and Bubba: A Hansel and Gretel Tale, Saucy runs away from an alcoholic step-mother. She must decide whether to live with an aunt or go home to live with her father and the step-mother. It’s a moral choice, but also an emotional choice, complicated by the question of where will her little brother go.


Sometimes you have to help yourself before you can help someone else, but if you mark your trail, you can always find your way home. That’s what the spunky main character of Darcy Pattison’s Saucy and Bubba learns in this modern day Hansel and Gretel tale. Saucy is a real character dealing with real stuff—hard stuff that doesn’t have easy answers, not in real life and not in fairy tales, either. This is a really compelling and ultimately hopeful story. Highly recommended.
— Debby Dahl Edwardson, National Book Award finalist
and author of My Name is Not Easy


Plurality. We live in a pluralistic culture; that is, many different cultures co-exist peacefully, and our work should respect that variety of cultures. Your ideas must compete in the marketplace of ideas and as time passes, certain ideas will gain popularity and others will fade. Yes, there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong; I believe in some absolutes (Thou shalt not kill!). But some things DO depend. As you write, recognize the variety of ideas possible and work to include characters who bring those ideas to enrich the story you are telling.

Trust your art. In the end, I choose to trust my art. Growing up, I had an alcoholic step-father; today, about 11 million children live with a caregiver who is an alcoholic. I could rant; instead, let me tell you a story. Read a sample chapter or listen to the audio of Chapter 1 of Saucy and Bubba.

23 Feb

A Big Storytelling DON’T: Messing with Timelines

Writers should respect timelines.

TimeWords


Ten years ago, I taught writing at a university and the world-wide-web was just coming online and theories of hypertext fiction were bouncing around. One popular theme of these stories was that the timeline didn’t matter. Imagine a central event and going out from that, like spokes in a wheel were the other story events. The theories said that non-linear stories were possible; translated, that means a story’s timeline didn’t matter.

Since then, we’ve seen stories that mess with the timeline with varying degrees of success. For example, Paul Fleischman’s book, Whirligig, explores the results of an action. In doing that, some sections jump 25 years into the future, while others explore the results of actions closer in time to it happening. The story has a reason to mess with the timeline and does so effectively.

But most of the time, writers should respect timelines. We live linear lives; we can’t skip ahead a year and then skip back. The act of reading is a linear act: we start at one point and read forward. Sure, some of you read the ending last. But even then, you go to five pages before the end and read forward. Humans are hard-wired to understand time lines, and when you mess with the timeline of a story you risk reader confusion.

On a micro-level, I think this is especially important. Let’s say that you have three events that happen in this order: A, B, and C. Event A happens first, Event B is second, and Event C is third.

It’s crucial that the author clearly know the event order; however, the storyteller often writes the events out of order. Here’s some strategies that I see.

Event C is the most interesting. In an attempt to keep the reader’s interest, authors sometimes cut straight to C but then circle back to pick up A and B. The question here is why come back to A and B? Why not just make this a big scene cut and leap ahead to C?

Events A, B, and C are episodic and there’s no cause-effect relationship. Here the events have no relationship except perhaps the time of day or season of the year. In this case, I wonder why these events belong in the same story. Episodic stories do work, but they are hard to hang together without the cause-effect relationship. Perhaps, you really need A caused D, which caused F. Maybe that story would be a more satisfying read.

A, B, and C are presented in order, but the relationship is vague. In this case, the writer needs better transitions that make the relationships clear. Sometimes, the transitions will short and sometimes prolonged. However, you can’t leave these out or the reader is lost.

In a current WIP, I found myself getting things out of order even within a paragraph. Jake falls into the water and in an attempt to keep hypothermia at bay, others offer an odd collection of clothing for him to wear. He changes inside a school bus.

My first draft had him putting on clothes from a variety of people, and then getting on the bus to—well to change clothes. That didn’t work! Instead, he had to climb up the bus steps, someone hands him clothes, one piece doesn’t fit and he trades it for another, and so on.

Did it make sense out of order? Sorta. But it’s much easier to understand when I took the time to straighten out the time order. Time words are your friends: use them to help keep things straight. Whether it’s on a micro or macro level, respect the timeline of your story—unless you have a really good reason to tell things out of order, don’t do it!

16 Feb

5 Amazingly Simple Ways to Transform Quiet Scenes into Exciting Scenes

Today, I worked on a difficult scene. It wasn’t a big action-packed scene; those are easy. Instead, it was a transition scene that moved the story along a week and had the potential to lose the reader with it’s lack of tension.

Donald Maass, in his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, repeats this signature mantra, “Tension on every page.”
He points out three types of scenes that can be a trap for the lazy writer: Tea time or any time people eat together; transporting characters from one spot to another; and dialogue. Maass recommends that you cut these scenes:

The most controversial part of my Writing the Blockbuster Novel workshop pis this exercise, in which I direct authors to cut scenes set in kitchens or living rooms or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths, particularly in a novel’s first fifty pages. Participants look dismayed when they hear this directive, and in writer’s chat rooms on the Web it is debated in tones of alarm. No one wants to cut such material.

Unless you give these scenes careful attention, they can wind up as BORING!

Strategies for Dealing with Low Tension Scenes

5 Amazingly Simple Ways to Transform Quiet Scenes into Exciting Scenes

In working through my scene, I focused on a couple strategies for approaching such Bore-Traps.

The moment before. What happened right before this scene? Characters don’t go into a scene neutral. Sometimes, just thinking about the moment before will help you get a handle on what tensions or conflicts could be built into the scene. For example, if Jillian and Dad step out of the car at a used-car dealership and talk to a salesman about the 2012 Toyota Camry, it could be boring: How much is it? Do you finance? Want to take a test drive?

If, however, you take a moment to explore the moment before, you might find some interesting points of tension:
Our salesman, William, has just learned that his brother was in a motorcycle wreck and while he lived, William is now obsessing about car safety. Jillian has been trying to convince her Dad to get her a new car and is angry that he’s stopping at the used car shop, while Dad is worried because Mom just told him she’s filing for divorce and Dad doesn’t know how he can afford to buy Jillian any kind of car, what with the upcoming lawyer bills. Try writing that scene again, after all of THAT!

Character’s attitudes going into a scene. Similar, but slightly different is an emphasis on character attitudes going into a discussion. For William, we could choose from several attitudes: obsessing over safety, anxious to get done and get to the hospital so he speeds through everything, angry with brother because William just convince his wife to get a motorcycle and his blockhead brother just messed up that deal. Jillian could be pleading, sarcastic, grateful, or even indifferent. Dad could be generous, angry, stingy, resentful and more. Decide on the character’s attitudes, making sure that they are coming into the discussion at tangents.

Small moments of tension. This may seem obvious, but what I mean by this is to look for things or situations within the scene that could go wrong. For example, in my current story, the kids are in a cafeteria, and when the boy opens his coke, the carbonation explodes all over. It’s a small thing, a common thing. But it’s conflict. What is present in your situation/scene that could spill over with some small conflict?

Foreshadow something that is coming – look forward. Another reason the coke explosion worked for me is that the story involves volcanoes! It’s a minor foreshadowing of what’s coming. Look ahead in your story to see if you can provide even a minor foreshadowing.

Refer back to something – look backward. Don’t just look forward. Also look back to previous chapters and try to echo something. Can you echo it with some kind of progression? Make it faster, higher, bigger, etc? And plan another time to use that element and make it the fastest, biggest, highest, etc.?

My scene, which started as a bore, is much tighter and has more tension. It’s a collection of small moments of tension that adds up to an important transition scene that keeps the reader turning the pages.

10 Feb

Author v. Them: When to Revise for Critiquers

I am scared to work on my WIP story right now.
Why?
Because someone I respect read the story and said that it’s working well, but I think I need to make one change–a pretty big one–to make it even stronger. But Critiquer said it was great, as is. If I mess with it, will it – well, mess it up? Or will messing with it make it stronger like I suspect?

The Role of Critiques: Clearing up Confusion

This leaves me with a major question about the role of critiques. Basically, I get critiques to check how well I’m communicating. I don’t get critiques to see if my writing is any good (see this post on the good/bad question)

Good feedback includes a reader pointing out where they are confuse or where they lost interest.

Confusion, in early drafts, is often because my vision for the story isn’t solidified, which results in inconsistent portrayal of a character, or contradictory information.

“On page 11, you said Martha was mad, but when she meets Horace in page 15, she runs up and hugs him. Which is it? Mad or glad to see him?

Often, I want to say, “Both.”
But that doesn’t work, does it? If she is livid on page 11, she’d better show that fury on page 15. Else, why have her so mad on page 11?

Another inconsistency that escapes me in early drafts is points of fact or logic. In my WIP, the villain will use a drone to deliver something remotely. My idea about drones was that they are sort of airplane shaped, but the reviewer quickly sent me to YouTube to discover that they are more helicopter-like, but instead of one big blade on top, they have multiple rotating blades on top. Or at least, one current popular model looks like that. I could, of course, invent my own drone design for this story, but why? That would take valuable time away from the creation of characters and plot. My story isn’t ABOUT drones, so it’s not worth the effort. Instead, I’ll look at videos of several different models and synthesize something more factual than the current description.
Revise

The Role of Critiques: Reader Reaction

Again, I don’t care if you call my story good or bad. But I do want to know where a typical reader loses interest. WHERE is the key question. Not WHY? As the author, I should be able to pinpoint the why. I just need to know WHERE. When you tell me where you lose interest, I’ll look and go through a mental list of things that could be happening: the prose is awful, nothing is happening, the characters are boring, etc.

I can revise to keep your attention by using better prose, pumping up the action, writing more active character descriptions, putting more at risk in the main character’s life and so on.

The Trap of Critiques

The biggest problem for me today, though, is the trap of critiques; or perhaps to sat it differently, the problem is that someone said my story is Good. Good is the enemy of Best, goes the old proverb. But it’s good. Someone–a reader I respect–said it’s good. Do I trust that, or do I listen to the itch in my storyteller’s sense that I need to tweak this one spot, which will improve pacing later, and create BETTER?

I’m scared of messing it up badly. Of course, I can keep a copy of BEFORE; but the revision will take a lot of small changes and it will be hard to get back to the original. Will I take a chance or not? And if I make these changes, but then realize that it didn’t turn out for the best, will I be willing to do the work to undo everything? Commit or not? Today, I’m scared to work.

It’s a typical day for an author.

09 Feb

Pacing: Space out the Tense Moments

Tension on every page is the mantra for fiction writers. But what if your tension is spread unevenly throughout the story? That may be fine, because stories need a natural rhythm, an ebb and flow of action, thoughts, dialogue and reflection (inner dialogue). Some scenes may be crammed with small actions, while others pace steadily through the setting. Sometimes, though, I find that I’ve packed a scene with too many MAJOR revelations or actions, creating a top-heavy scene; that scene is usually matched by another scene that lacks enough tension.

My current WIP was in that position this week. One scene had two major confrontations. So, I decided to see if I could lift one Major Complication and put it elsewhere. The actual text, a revelation that someone was searching for the main character, took about 20 lines of text. Not so bad to move elsewhere, I thought.

But every part of a story is intertwined with every other part.
Puzzle
Timeline. First, there’s timeline issues. EventA happens before EventB. The RevelationEvent was originally the EventA, but I moved it to an EventC position, which meant that I had to go back and clean up the time line. There could be no mention of the RevelationEvent before Event B, of course. This is tedious work. You have to reread chapters thinking about what a reader should know at this point in the story, and make sure there’s no hint of the RevelationEvent that will spoil the surprise. Of course, I can hint at it; that’s called foreshadowing. Foreshadowing’s role, though, is to make the reader slap his/her forehead and say, “Duh! That’s exactly what should happen. Why didn’t I see it coming?” The reader should still be surprised, but the surprise is believable. Cleaning up the timeline is hard work, and if you slip up with even one half-sentence, you’ll be nailed on it by some alert reader.

Fitting it in. Unfortunately, you can’t just pick up the 20 lines and insert them where Event C occurs. Much of it may be salvaged verbatim, but much of it needs to be worded differently at the new place of the story. Keep the core of it, the meaning, but be willing to rewrite to make it seamless. The goal is to make it seem that the story was originally written this way.

As a revision exercise, I required my freshman composition students to write eight different openings for their essay. Often, the third or fifth or eighth opening was dynamite, and the writer chose to start his/her essay with it. Too often, though, it was stuck on the front and had no relationship to the rest of the story. I modified the assignment: students still wrote the eight openings. But then, in class to make sure they did it, they had to start writing the essay again from that starting point and keep writing for a timed period. I made sure the writing time was long enough to carry them into the body of the essay. That resulted in strong openings that were integrated into the whole essay. That’s what you want here, too.

One caution: keep a copy of the original version, because you may not like moving the event to a new place. In Scrivener, take a snapshot. In word processors, make a backup copy or a versioned copy; or use track changes to make the preliminary changes and then decide if you want to make them permanent.

The strategy of moving events is easy on the imagination. I don’t have to think up new events or complications; instead, I just need to use what I’ve already written in a stronger way.

08 Feb

I Want a Dog by Darcy Pattison

Today launches two new books for me.

9781629440118-ColorPF-alt.indd 9781629440323-Case.indd

How the Stories Started. For years, I’ve taught writing. I teach everything from kindergarteners to advanced novelist, gifted-and-talented kids to reluctant writers. I’ve developed techniques for helping people write stronger and they usually involve either revising or prewriting. In schools, it’s hard to get kids to revise; they see it as torture to copy out a perfectly good essay again. Too often, it’s an exercise in handwriting instead of real revision. So, I started flipping the process and putting more emphasis on prewriting. A rich prewriting environment gives a student a better chance at a good first draft (which is often the only draft). A single prewriting activity isn’t enough; instead, you want a rich environment with multiple ways of thinking, discussing and drafting about a topic.

Everything I’ve learned about teaching writing an opinion essay to kids is instilled in these two books in just 500 words (Dog) and 750 words (Cat). Cousins discuss the type of dog/cat they want for their family. They use about ten criteria (and another 5-6 criteria are suggested in the back matter) to decide what breed of dog/cat is best. Then, they write an opinion essay. And because all writing should have a real world effect and be successful, they get the dog/cat of their dreams.

Characters. I knew that I wanted to write something helpful to teachers about writing essay; however, first and foremost (as always) I wanted to write a fun STORY. The relationship between cousins Dennis and Mellie was important to develop. Each has a different family life, so their priorities on a pet differed drastically. Creating interesting characters helped ground the information in a story.

Research. Do you research topics for a fictional story? It was crucial for these two stories that I had the facts right about the dogs and cats. The American Kennel Club (AKC) regularly publishes information on the most popular breeds of dogs for a particular year. I used the latest data from 2013 and decided to feature the top 20 breeds of dogs: in order of popularity – Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Beagles, Bulldogs, Yorkshire Terriers, Boxers, Poodles, Rottweilers, Dachshunds, French Bulldogs, Doberman Pinschers, German Shorthaired Pointers, Siberian Huskies, Shih Tzu, Great Danes, Miniature Schnauzers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Pomeranians, Australian Shepherds.

Then, it was a juggling act to slot each breed into a criteria for deciding for/against a breed. I used the Animal Planet’s Dog Breed Selector Tool as a beginning point, and filled in with research on each breed. Many dogs are friendly; some dogs are better at being a guard dog than others. Each criteria needed a matched pair, one dog included by the criteria and one breed excluded by the criteria. It was impossible to satisfy every breed enthusiast, but the AKC went through the manuscript and approved the way the breeds were described.


10BreedPoster500x500x150


For the Cat Lovers. I was pleased with the story and sent it around to a couple editors. One was very interested, but eventually rejected the story, saying, “A dog story just isn’t for me. I’m just a cat lover.” That weekend, I wrote the companion book, I WANT A CAT: My Opinion Essay. It went through a similar process using the Animal Planet Cat Breed Selector Tool, and generous input from Joan Miller, Chair of the Cat Fancier’s Association Outreach & Education efforts.

The CFA statistics say these are the top 20 cat breeds, in order of popularity: Persian, Exotic, Maine Coon Cat. Ragdoll, British Shorthair, Abyssinian, American Shorthair, Sphynx, Siamese, Devon Rex, Norwegian Forest Cat, Oriental, Scottish Fold, Cornish Rex, Birman, Burmese, Tonkinese, Siberian, Russian Blue, Egyptian Mau

I was unfamiliar with some of the breeds, so Miller’s input was invaluable–thanks, Joan!

Illustrator: Ewa O’Neill

These are debut picture books by European illustrator, Ewa O’Neill. She’s got an eye for color and design! A dog-lover, she studied the twenty dog breeds and twenty cat breeds to create active, interesting collection of pets.

Free on Kindle for 5 Days

Amazon allows certain promotional events and I’m happy to say that I WANT A DOG: My Opinion Essay will be a free Kindle book from February 8-12. Get it during these five days and spread the word to your friends.

Free on KOBO and Apple: I WANT A DOG and I WANT A CAT will be free for your iPad or Kobo reader on February 13-17. Check the iBookstore and KoboStore then. Sorry, a Nook version is not available. You can also find ebook copies at MimsHouse.com – Dog and MimsHouse.com – Cat.
Both books are available in paperback and hardcover.

Coming Fall, 2015: My Crazy Dog: My Narrative Essay

02 Feb

Is My Story Good or Bad? Wrong Question

Last year, I did a simple survey on the list and asked writers, “What is your biggest challenge for 2015?”

The answer blew me away. You want to know, “Is my picture book/novel/short story/piece of writing any good?”
GoodORBad
This was expressed in many different ways, of course, but at the core, you want to know what makes one piece of writing good and one piece of writing bad. Is it just a matter of opinion?

When I taught freshman composition, this was a constant problem, as well. An essay turned into one teacher might receive an A, while the second teacher gave it a C; giving grades is one way to answer the good/bad question. Research showed that the solution was simple: teachers needed to meet and discuss criteria for grading. Once they’d gone through a couple essays together, they were more likely to grade consistently.

Why the problems? What does make good writing? The answer isn’t about grammar, and only incidentally about the content of the piece. Instead, you must look at the fuzzy concerns of audience, purpose, genre conventions,

AUDIENCE

Who are you writing for? Do you take the time to search images till you find a person who is your ideal audience? Writing for a middle grade student is very different than writing for a middle-aged history professor.

Again, let me demonstrate this with an example I gave to my freshman comp students. Let’s say that an 18-year-old boy has a car wreck. Now, he must tell three people about that wreck: the policeman, his mom, and his best friend. You can easily imagine each conversation. The tone—apologetic to bravado—changes with the audience. Details creep into some accounts (To Best Friend: Mary was tickling me) and are deleted from others (To Mom and Cop: I was under control of the vehicle at all times).

Which account of the car wreck would be considered “good” and which is “bad”? Is one more truthful than the other; i.e. can you apply the criteria of truthfulness to determine good/bad? You’ll agree that tone, voice, content, style and more depend on the audience.

PURPOSE

When you write a novel, do you want your reader to weep or to guffaw? The purpose of any piece of writing should—in a sane world—determine its effectiveness. Did it accomplish what you set out to accomplish?

In other words, can we use effectiveness of communication as one measure of good/bad?

GENRE CONVENTIONS

Think with me of what you expect from a mystery novel. There’s a murderer, a detective and a dead body (victim). Beyond that, though, one common convention in a mystery is to TELL the answer to the mystery. The detective arranges for all the suspects to be present at the same time, and then explains how s/he cleverly solved the problem. When confronted, the murderer tries to run away. That sort of scene would rarely happen in other genres.

Each genre has its own conventions of characters, events, plot points, settings, and so on. If you break or bend those conventions, you risk angering your readers, who will exclaim loudly, “This is a horrible mystery.”

Is it good writing or bad writing? Wrong question.
Is it a good mystery (according to the genre conventions of today)?


Is My Picture Book Manuscript Any Good?

Do you need to know if your picture book manuscript fits genre conventions? Darcy Pattison and Leslie Helakoski will be teaching PB&J: Picture Books and All that Jazz, April 23-26, 2015 at the Highlight’s Foundation, Honesdale, PA. Learn more about the workshop.

If you can’t see this video, click here.


DOES THE STORY PLEASE YOU?

Aside from issues of audience, purpose, and genre, there’s one that looms large in my mind. Does the story please you, the author? Are you happy with what you’ve done? It’s very hard to step back from your work and evaluate it. Your worries about what others think consumes you, and you can’t separate THEIR opinion from YOUR opinion.

I recently re-read my latest novel, LONGING FOR NORMAL, and at a certain point, it made me cry. A friend read it recently, too, and I asked her, “Did you cry at XXX scene?” No, she didn’t. But when I re-read that scene, I always cry. Is it a good scene? It touches me emotionally in a deep way; but it doesn’t affect my friend the same way. Is it good? Or bad?

Do you start to see that the question is the wrong one? Or that there are really two questions here:

1. Did I write the story I wanted to write?
2. How will others respond to that story?

And the terminology that you use should NOT be good/bad.
Instead, try these criteria: useful, effective, matches genre expectations, pleases me.

Then, you need to ask a final question: Do I want this to be published?
If so, you forget the good/bad question and find a publisher whose purposes, audiences and genre fits what you’ve written. And send it in. Period.

Stop those pestering questions about good/bad. Send it in. You’ll soon find out if it will fly in the marketplace you’ve chosen. If it doesn’t, go back and ask the right questions again: useful, effective, matches genre expectations, pleases me? If you’re sure you’re on target, send it out again. And again and again. Repeat until you find the right market for your work!

26 Jan

Outrage: A Negative Emotion that Works In Your Novel

As 2014 events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York City over race relations, I watched with a storyteller’s eye. That’s not to make light of the events–which have sparked massive debates and outrage. Rather, I put on my writer’s glasses and tried to evaluate the news reports AS A WRITER.

Conflict on Every Page: What Kind of Conflict?

Many writing teachers drum it into their students heads: conflict on every page.

What they mean is that something has to happen on every page that makes the situation worse for the characters. Storytelling is about the problems of life, not the happy moments. Happiness is only possible when thrown into relief by contrast with the bad stuff.

This can easily go wrong: after a writing class where conflict was encouraged, one writer added “conflict” by having a wild creature attack a main character; but in the next scene, the character easily escapes and nothing was different. That’s adding in conflict just for the sake of conflict and that’s off-target. Instead, conflict should be integral to the story and make the characters’ lives different in some way.

contagiousRecently, I found insight into this from a surprising source. In his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger says that things go viral easier when people are met with moments of high arousal. That sounded suspiciously like “conflict on every page.” Berger backs up his claims with various psychological studies (you should read his book for details). The high arousal moments included positive emotions: excitement, awe, inspirations, humor. But they also included negative emotions: anger, disgust, anxiety, and especially outrage.

In his book, Berger gives examples of Outrage, including one about mothers who carry babies in a special sling. In 2008, the practice was celebrated with the inaugural International Babywearing Week. McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the company who makes Motrin pain medication wanted to support the event. According to Berger, they figured that carrying babies in a sling was great for the mother-child relationship; however, they also thought that it would cause strain on mother’s backs and they would need pain-relief. The advertisement they created, however, caused outrage!

The advertisement implied that mothers wore babies as “a fashion statement,” and it implied that babywearing looked “crazy.”

Outrage swept through the mommy-bloggers. And of course, OUTRAGE brings us back to Ferguson and the problems of racial relations in the U.S. Outrage–as a storytelling element–has been evident in almost every report I saw on the incident.

It’s not redundant to say this: the events in Ferguson were outrageous; the outrage at the events made the news stories successful. So successful that I later heard a radio interview with protestors in Hong Kong who were asked about relations with the police there in Hong Kong. The protestor answered that the relations were just as strained as those between police and citizens in Ferguson. In other words, the outrage–the negative emotional response to events–has been so strong that it has been reported worldwide and has become a symbol of difficult police reactions. That’s the power of outrage in storytelling.

In your story, can you find a place to add outrage? If you can, your story will be stronger.

19 Jan

Scenes: The Skeleton of a Novel

You’re a human being: you can stand up, sit down, or do a somersault. That’s because you have a skeleton that gives your soft tissue a structure.
skeleton copy

Likewise, it’s important to give your novel a structure that will hold all the soft murmurings about characters, places and events. It begins with understanding the structure of a scene. First, let’s answer the question: do you have to write in scenes? No. There’s a continuum from those who write strictly in scenes to those who don’t. However, for beginning to intermediate writers, you’ll see more improvement in your writing if you move closer to the strictly writing in scenes end of that continuum. Early in a career, writers need discipline to add structure that may come more easily with experience.

External Action. A scene is a unit or section of a story that hangs together because of the action or event. Scenes are not internal, but external. Something must physically happen.

Something Changes. Something important must happen in a scene; after the scene is over, the situation must be different for the character’s lives. The definition of “important” and “different,” of course, will change with the genre, but still, we recognize that something important has created a difference.

Goal Oriented. The strongest scenes begin with a character wanting something and encountering difficulties in achieving his/her goal. The goal can change or develop over the course of a story, but it must be there.

Conflict. If your character wants something (Goal), and they have instant gratification (Result), that’s not a scene. Every Goal must meet with obstacles that prevent the character from achieving the goal. This is the basic promise of all fiction, that life will encounter problems that won’t be solved till the last page.

Beyond these requirement, strong scenes add a deeper structure. It’s not required, for those who only write loosely in scenes, but it helps.

Scenes can be divided into three or four sections: beginning, middle, turning point or pivot, ending.

Beginning: This sets up the situation, setting, characters and the goal.
Middle: Conflict piles on conflict as the goal gets farther and farther away.
Turning point/Pivot: Something happens to spin the story in a different direction. Scenes without a pivot are possible, but scenes WITH a pivot are more interesting.
Ending: What has changed?

Good Will Hunting: Bar Scene Analyzed

A good way to see the structure of a scene is to watch the “Bar Scene” from the movie, Good Will Hunting. If you can’t see this video, click here.

Beginning: Will and his friends enter the bar, choose a table, order a beer.
Goal: These “Southies” want to experience a Harvard Bar and maybe pick up a girl.

Middle: Chuckie goes over to check out a girl. But a Harvard man steps in to put him down.

Pivot point: Will takes over the conversation with his superior intellect.

Ending: Will meets the love interest. The conversation with the Harvard man is a win/lose: Will wins because he manages to make his point that a college education isn’t everything; however, listen carefully to the deeper conversation about class distinctions and you’ll see that Will still faces challenges.

For more on scenes, I always recommend Sandra Scofield’s excellent book, The Scene Primer. Or see my series, 30 Days to a Stronger Series.

12 Jan

Openings: 5 Ways They Go Wrong

Openings are incredibly important. This was brought back to me recently as I was judging a contest. Those manuscripts that kept my interest for three pages were rare. Usually, they lost me by the middle of page two!

Am I harsh? I don’t think so.

Grab the Reader with Your Opening Lines

STOP

Noah Lukeman has it right in his book, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. This is a book I ask those attending my Novel Revision retreats to read before they attend. Lukeman’s premise is that an editor will decide if they want your book or not based on the first five pages of your manuscript. After judging this contest, I agree. Sometimes, you can even make a judgment based on the first paragraph.

That first paragraph? You want to grab the reader by the throat and never let go!

Here are five things that made me stop reading

  • Nothing happened. The whole first chapter could be cut, because no major action occurred. Ask yourself: what happened in this chapter? Is there any conflict here?
  • The voice was flat. Monotone and uninteresting. Read it aloud: Does the text demand that you use an interesting variation of pitches, tones, stops, starts, etc?
  • Inconsistencies. If I found myself thinking, “No, that couldn’t happen. Not that way,” then the story was in trouble. Consider: does the story logic work?
  • Backstory. Please don’t put backstory in the first chapter. Give us an active scene with the character in motion and wanting something. It doesn’t have to be the major goal of the book, but the character needs to want something and it should be something that leads into the main conflict. Ask yourself: Do I really need to explain the backstory here, or can I wait until page 100? Yes! Page 100! Move that stuff out of the first act entirely!
  • The point-of-view jumps out at me. Too many of the mss had first-person point-of-views that just jumped out at me and made me cringe. In other words, the voice wasn’t distinctive enough for first person. This is a personal opinion–FWIW–but I think too many people are trying to write a first-person narrative. The default should be third-person unless there is a compelling reason for first. It’s not just a bias against first-person, but rather, that the story would be better served from third in many cases.

    There were some first-person stories where I didn’t even realize it because the story caught me. When it works, it work well. When it fails, the story might could be salvaged by a switch to third. Consider: Is there a compelling reason for the first-person point-of-view? Could this ONLY be told from first? Try–OK, just try–writing the first chapter from third and give it to an independent, unbiased reader (like you can find that!) and ask which version they like better (don’t tell them what the difference is). I bet that third will win in the majority of cases.

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