Hey guys, since we don’t have a post today, I am taking a poll:
How many will come to ConCarolinas?
And how many want to do our annual MW lunch on Saturday?
Show of hands??? Cause I need to make a reservation if you guys want to do lunch!
Hey guys, since we don’t have a post today, I am taking a poll:
How many will come to ConCarolinas?
Show of hands??? Cause I need to make a reservation if you guys want to do lunch!
[Warning: This post touches on an emotional political issue in order to illustrate a point. I do NOT want the comments on this post to devolve into political debate. This is ultimately a post about writing and character work. Please refrain from commenting on the political stuff beyond how it relates to character work. Comments that are polemical or divisive, whether or not they agree with my personal political views, will be deleted. Thank you. We now return to our regularly scheduled Monday post...]
There is a moment late in the second Thieftaker book, Thieves’ Quarry (due out July 2 from Tor), in which my protagonist, Ethan Kaille, explains to another character all that has happened in the previous days and how the magic wielded by the “bad guy” contributed to a series of attacks and deaths. When he is finished, he and the character in question have the following exchange:
Immediately after I wrote this passage, I sat back in my desk chair and came close to deleting the whole thing. Why? Because the argument Ethan makes in that moment, is the classic argument used by the National Rifle Association to combat gun control measures that I support. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Ethan is basically saying the same thing about his magic. More, by implication he is saying that people like me who support gun control, would be the same people calling for his execution simply because he’s “a witch.” That was a very hard pill for me to swallow.
For a number of reasons, I wound up keeping the passage. The lines work; the conversation is well-written, it flows nicely. But most to the point, it is exactly what Ethan would say. And while this might mean that were he alive today, he and I would be on opposite sides of the gun debate, so be it. Ethan is his own person.
And that, of course, is the most important part of this post.
Who are our characters? The assumption made by so many readers is that our characters are us in some way. Actually, it’s not just readers. Some time back I asked a writer friend (Kate Elliott) to read a manuscript that I had written in first person POV. She enjoyed the book and particularly liked the voice. “It drew me in so much,” she later told me, “that I found myself thinking ‘Wow, does David really believe these things?’ I had to remind myself that I was reading a character’s thoughts and not yours.” It was a high compliment, but it also made the point that even those of us who do this for a living sometimes forget that there is distance between the author and the people s/he writes about.
Now, I am not saying that authors have nothing in common with their characters, nor do I deny that for some very fine authors, their characters truly are reflections of themselves. I will also admit that in a few respects, Ethan and I are very much alike. He responds emotionally much the way I would to certain events or statements. But we are not clones. How could we be? He is a man of the 18th century. He is an ex-convict, an ex-military man. He has been through the living hell of prison and forced labor. He has no family, few friends. And he puts his life at risk on a near daily basis. None of those things is true of me. If we were too much alike, it would mean that my character work was deeply flawed.
As I have said before, I am often asked if I model any of my characters after people I know. I don’t, and the reason is this: whenever I have tried in the past to create a character based on a “real” person, I have found that my character work suffers. I start to feel constricted in what I can do with that character because I know that s/he is supposed to be like “X.” For me, the most gratifying part of creating a character is that moment when s/he comes alive and starts to do things that I neither anticipated nor necessarily wanted. That moment, which I have called “the quickening,” is magical. It tells me that my character is, on some level, a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person. The problem with creating characters based on “real” people is the inherent assumption that characters AREN’T real. They are. They have to be. Or else their story will fall flat.
So, who are our characters? The answer sounds like the worst kind of syllogism, but it’s really not. They are themselves. They are people with histories and beliefs. They are people with a lifetime of experiences; they have lived through triumphs and failures, moments of elation and darkest grief. They are flawed and scarred, but also resourceful and strong. They are products of their time in history, their cultures and societies whether real or imagined. Really, unless they have somehow lived the same lives we have, they can’t be like us. They should not react to every situation as we would. They should not believe all the things we do. It makes no sense that they would. Each character is his or her own person, which is exactly why other people want to read about them.
When Ethan spoke those lines that bothered me so much, he forced me to confront a startling and troubling reality. It wasn’t just that Ethan isn’t like me. I’ve known that all along, and I’ve gone to great lengths to make him his own person. What bothered me was the possibility that, were we to meet, he and I might not get along. And that was just weird.
How about you? In what ways to you differ from your protagonist? Can you point to things that s/he has said or done that you know you would have handled differently? Does it ever bother you to find you and your characters are so different (or, perhaps, so similar)?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
A couple of weeks ago, I told you about my basic take on synopses — what they are, what they aren’t, how they should appear, in either physical or pixel form. I promised to devote a post to how, exactly, to write one, including step-by-step directions. Here we go…
Let’s begin with one key fact: Your synopsis isn’t about the plot of your story. (I’ll give you a moment to scoff in disbelief, to roll your eyes, to tell me that I have no idea what I’m talking about.)
Your synopsis is about the character arcs contained within your story. Your goal, in writing your synopsis, is to tell about your main characters (usually two, possibly more if you have a really complicated, 250K or more epic on your hands). You are *only* going to tell plot details when you have no other way to describe what happens to your characters, how they change, mature, grow, etc.
Let’s look at how it works, paragraph-by-paragraph.
Paragraph 1: The Hook. Tell me about your book in the most abstract way possible. I want to know the high concept. The elevator pitch. The back-of-book copy. The key to this paragraph is TONE. Your hook can be dreamy and romantic, or it can be action-packed. It can be workmanlike or otherworldly. Just make sure it represents your novel.
Paragraph 2: Characters. Introduce each character, defining his/her role in the store. (Again, you’re ideally presenting two characters, but I can live with three. You’ll have to really sell me on needing more for a standard, 65K – 100K novel.) Each character introduction should include the character’s name, his/her motivation, his/her conflict, and his/her goals. Note that you do not need to provide any physical description of your characters at all (unless that description is vitally central to name, motivation, conflict or goal.) The key to this paragraph (duh!) is CHARACTER.
Paragraph 3: Plot. You’ll repeat this paragraph a few times (but only a few times.) Start each paragraph with a nice transition (“Meanwhile…” “Alas…” “On another planet…”). Add a sentence describing an action taken by your character. Add a sentence describing a reaction. End with a sentence that summarizes the effect of the action and reaction on your character. Of the three full sentences in each paragraph the most important one, by far, is the last. Action -> Reaction -> Effect. The key to this paragraph is DEVELOPMENT.
Paragraph 3s are the heart of your synopsis. They’re the most difficult part of the entire project. Many writers fall into a variety of traps when they write paragraph 3s, including:
Paragraph 4: Conclusion. Wrap up your synopsis with a satisfying sentence (or maybe even two) that wraps around specifically to your first paragraph. Tell us the EFFECT of resolving the hook cast out in Paragraph 1.
Once you’ve written your synopses, you’ll want to polish them. Again. Again. One more time. Make sure that absolutely every word is essential (Hint: Use action verbs and specific adjectives.) Be certain that every word you’ve used is easily comprehensible. (This is a particular challenge with speculative fiction, because we rely so much on worldbuilding, purposely creating a world that might not be comprehensible to ordinary people.) Run a grammar check. Run a spell check. If you’re submitting your synopsis electronically, save it at 100% view (otherwise, your reader will have to read it in GIANT text or teeny text, which might make them feel very immature or very, very old.)
So. Sounds easy, huh?
Roll out your questions here. And next week, I’ll share a synopsis that I wrote recently — it’s far from perfect, so it provides a great jumping off point for discussion.
Diana Pharaoh Francis
What do you do when you read a book (or start reading it) that everyone on the planet seems to like and get and you don’t?* Stop reading is the obvious answer, but I’m a writer, and I can’t stand the idea of giving up on a book. I also hate thinking that I’m not getting the book somehow. That I’m at fault, because if everyone else is falling in love with the book, why can’t I? It’s also a writerly quirk where I want to dissect the way a book works. I don’t dissect books that I like because I enjoy them and because it’s easy to see what works (for me, that is). It’s really tough to figure out how a book works if you don’t like it. Especially that hard-to-define something that captures the heart and imagination of a reader. That something that we all want to make happen in our books. (could I repeat the word book any more in that paragraph? And I’m not even going to edit it because I’m so danged tired. It’s the end of the semester, doncha know).
Today I wrote a line I really liked. Just one out of a whole bunch. Really didn’t like the rest of what I wrote at all. Wow. I like one whole line. Maybe tomorrow I’ll like an entire paragraph! Okay, self-mockery aside, let’s talk about why I didn’t like my writing. For one thing, the characters feel a little cardboardy to me. I’m working on that. The other thing is the scene seems to be poking along. It’s an opening scene for this work, which means it has to have strong tension. Even if it’s a slow scene, it needs that tension to make a reader turn pages. I don’t think I have it, nor do I have character connection. The question is, what am I going to do to find them?
Well, first, I’m going to finish the scene. Like it or not, I need to get it out . It’s not just to be able to revise it, but I need to explore the characters and the situation. I will discover much more if I try writing it than if I just sit around staring into the air and thinking it through. Or walking around and thinking it through. Or doing dishes, gardening, cleaning toilets . . . You get the idea. I do a lot of good work just staring into the air, but right now only words will show me the way.
I will therefore write and get more acquainted with my characters whom are already showing signs of not being who I thought they were. There’s a possible romance brewing and I expected these two to be in a state of permanent dislike with one another, and for good reason. I don’t want romance, at least not between these two. I’m doing my best to steer away from it. Trouble is, they seem to be steering toward it. Which goes to tell me that I don’t know them well enough. It doesn’t help that I set this book in a place I’ve never been (though have researched), and in a part of American culture than I’m not that familiar with. In other words, research is my friend and savior. Still, because I’m not that well acquainted with the place and the culture, I’m having to think things through more carefully instead of working more off instinct. I have not yet internalized enough.
The second thing I have to try to do is analyze my own work the way I would a novel that I don’t like. If it isn’t working, why not? Only in this case, I won’t have the reassurance that it works for other people. I have to assume if it doesn’t work for me, then it won’t work for my readers. I have to love my work in order for the words to sing and right now, I’m feeling like I’ve written a really discordant version of Kum Ba Yah (or however you want to spell it–there are lots of ways). Remember William Hung from American Idol fame? (Or infamy). Like that. Or worse.
What was the line I liked? Well, it isn’t even that great, but I do like it for the way it captures the character. Even if it’s kind of clunky: “One thing she’d learned in her life was proper manners, and it was harder than she liked to overcome the habit.”
*Twilight is one of those for me, but there are a fair number of others that I just don’t get.
How do you deal with a scene that isn’t working right? How do you analyze a book you don’t like?
I cannot bear the Magic Baby. You know the Magic Baby, right? It’s when a character in a book (or a movie, or a television show) suddenly becomes pregnant, often without benefit of any sort of bow-chicka-wow-wow beforehand. The resulting baby usually grows up within a few hours or days, displaying extraordinary mental or physical powers, and occasionally both. Sometimes the Baby turns evil, and sometimes good, but no matter which way her mind swings, she still annoys me. Yet she shows up time and time again, because whether I like her or not, the Magic Baby fulfills certain narrative needs and pleases many readers.
The Magic Baby is a fiction trope, a commonly used (sometimes overused) theme or device. A trope is not quite the same as a cliché, which seems to imply a lack of original thought. Most of the time we talk about tropes that have been done so often we’re utterly sick of them, but it occurred to me that there are some tropes that draw me in as sure as sugar water will draw a bee. So today I’m listing the five tropes that are guaranteed to get my attention.
1) The haunted insane asylum
Yep, set a story in or around an abandoned insane asylum, and I’ll read it on the basis of the setting alone. There’s already something strange and terrifying about mental illness anyway, so setting a story in a functioning psychiatric hospital grants a dark atmosphere right off the bat. Considering the “treatments” patients received once upon a time are more similar to fairy-tale tortures than actual medicine, it seems to follow that ghosts would be flocking around the halls of the hospitals whether there are living patients around or not. If you like this trope, you should read The Hollow City by Dan Wells or Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. Some movies that take on the trope well are House on Haunted Hill, 12 Monkeys, and Session 9. (And even though only a portion of the movie is set in an asylum, Silence of the Lambs has what is probably the creepiest high-security area I’ve ever seen on film.)
2) Catholic mysticism
The ritual of traditional Catholicism appeals to me for many reasons. I’m high-church Episcopalian, and the incense and bowing and chants increase my spiritual feelings tenfold. Stories about demon possession, stigmata and religious secrets push all my happiest buttons (except for The Da Vinci Code – I’m still mad about that one. Buy me a drink at a con sometime and I’ll go on for days about that.) Even though priests have gotten themselves a bit of a bad rep these days, I can’t help being enchanted by stories like The Devil You Know by Mike Carey and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M Miller Jr. Great movies in this vein are The Exorcist, Stigmata and Constantine.
I don’t want anyone to steal from me, and I certainly don’t plan to rob anyone else, but there is nothing that pleases me more than a well-planned, perfectly executed heist. There’s something romantic about the con artist, almost like a modern-day pirate. He uses his victim’s greed against him, leaving us, the audience, cheering for the thief to succeed. So it’s as if the con man is conning his mark and the author is conning us at the same time. Fortunately we lose nothing but time and we’re able to enjoy an exciting romp along the way. Two of the better heist tales in fantasy are The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch and Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. There are lots and lots of movies, but I’m fond of Ocean’s Eleven (old and new versions), The Italian Job (again, both versions) and Snatch.
At the moment I’m reading a book called Spillover, about the diseases that transfer from animals to humans. It’s a great book, especially because I find epidemics terribly intriguing. Viruses are lethal and fast, and completely free of feelings about what they do to their victims. I have a dreadful habit of sharing the tidbits of information I learn about diseases with friends and coworkers (one of my buddies at the library still looks at me a little funny since the day I explained the differences between the three kinds of plague that all got lumped under the umbrella of Black Death.) Sickness is a weird and alien antagonist, and I can’t help being interested. If you’re looking for some fiction featuring nasty little viruses, try Stephen King’s The Stand, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton.
I grew up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and even though I was a suburban white kid, I still came in contact with kids whose grandfathers were bokors, and could create a spell called a root that would cause the person targeted much suffering. Whether you believe in it or not, most people in the Lowcountry respect and steer clear when they see veve signs or trees decorated in certain ways. I’ve always thought there was something deep and archetypal about the practice and belief of voodoo, so I love running into stories that present it properly. Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides is a great example, as is The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis and Voodoo Dreams by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
So share with me…what tropes keep you coming back every single time?
I’ve been thinking a lot about structure recently and more specifically about outlining. This is not something I’m used to doing — I’ve never been much of an outliner, but over the past several months I’ve been forced to become one. For me, outlining is the first step to drafting a synopsis and I had several synopses to write in order to send various projects out on proposal.
In the past, whenever I’ve had to outline something I’ve turned to my favorite structure guru, Michael Hague. He uses a classic three-act structure and a fairly straightforward set of stages and turning points that a story moves through. Late last year, an author friend turned me on to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat which lays out 16 plot beats at the heart of any story and I’ve found his approach to be super helpful as well (plus it meshes well with Hague’s; I’ve talked about them both here).
But still, both of those approaches were a little too detailed for me. They’re perfect to guide revisions once I’ve finished a rough draft and want to make sure the story works, but it’s too much when I’m first starting out. I find myself too caught up in the weeds of a story and missing out on the big picture.
Enter my friend Jennifer Lynn Barnes. I was discussing a problem with my plot with her recently and she whipped out a piece of paper and showed me her approach which she adapted from Alexandra Sokoloff‘s “Screenwriting Tips for Authors.” It’s brilliant. And since I’ve learned it, I’ve showed it to several other authors who have used it to map out their own plots.
Jen also uses a three act structure which she breaks down into four sections (she separates the second act into two parts). Each section has a midpoint and an endpoint and each of those points should be a “Holy &*#%$!” moment — some kind of game changer that drives the plot in a new direction. This creates a series of mini-arcs between each point — action that connects the dots.
Here’s a sketch of the overall structure (and whenever I’m trying to plot something, I just draw this out on a blank sheet of paper and start filling it in) (also, click the image or here for a larger version):
Essentially, you begin your book with an establishing character shot — this gives the reader the “before” that they can then compare to the “after” at the end of the book. This leads to the midpoint of Act 1 which is where things get complicated — this is the first twist/revelation, the first thing that disrupts the character’s ordinary world. The character’s reaction to that twist drives toward the endpoint of Act 1 which is some sort of event/revelation/etc that launches the main problem of the book.
The thing to keep in mind is that while movies tend to have a rigid structure (which is why you’ll see Hague and Snyder listing specific page numbers where each beat must take place), books are much more fluid. I’d always approached the three act structure thinking that each of those four columns above needed to be roughly equivalent. Jen pointed out to me that that didn’t have to be the case. The first act can actually be super short if you want or need it to be.
What I like about this approach to Act 1 is that according to Hague, the the initial problem in a story can never carry the weight of the entire plot — it will peter out too soon. But at the same time, you want stuff to happen or else the story is boring. Thus, you basically need an initial problem that then leads to the inciting incident. I’d always had a bit of trouble figuring that out and I think this structure addresses that: the initial incident is where things get complicated, and the endpoint is the inciting incident that launches the plot (what I like to think of as the “but for point” — but for Thelma and Louise deciding to go on a road trip, the entire movie wouldn’t have happened).
In Act 2, Part 1 you have two twists/major revelations and the second is basically the midpoint of your story. This is where the stakes are raised and things get personal. This is also the “point of no return;” up until this point your characters could have changed their minds and returned to their normal lives. After this point, that’s no longer an option. There is no going back.
The key here is making it personal and this was a huge revelation to me. As Jen and I were walking through the plot of my latest book, I kept coming up with ideas for this beat and Jen kept saying, “You need to make it more personal.” This is where things need to hit close to home and by making it super personal, you’re automatically raising the stakes.
In Act 2, Part 2, you have another twist/revelation which then leads to the endpoint, or the “dark night of the soul.” This is the “all is lost” point and if someone’s going to die in your book, this is where it happens. Blake Snyder refers to this as the “whiff of death” — even in a romantic comedy you’ll see this (a shot of dead flowers on the character’s desk, a goldfish dying, news of a relative passing away, etc).
And again, just as in the midpoint, here you should really push to make this as deeply personal as possible. Take everything you can away from the character — abandon them and make it look like resolution is impossible. Don’t hold back!
This then leads to the climax at the midpoint of Act 3 which is where evil is defeated, the hero conquers all, the home team wins the game, etc etc. The timing of this point was also a huge revelation to me. I’d always pushed my climaxes to the end of the third act and I’ve realized that doing so created a lot of lag. The “dark night of the soul” is supposed to be such a huge crisis point and putting too much time between that and the climax always felt like it was throwing off the pacing.
Pulling the climax up to the middle of the third act keeps the pacing tight and the story racing toward the end. The bottom of the third act is therefore the denouement where the reader gets the reward of seeing the changed hero; we get the “after” snapshot to compare against the “before.”
Jen’s approach to the final beat is to create one last game-changer. My understanding is that this basically leaves the reader with an idea of what might happen next (it also leaves open the possibility of a sequel). For example, let’s say you have a book about a woman who is the target of a serial killer and narrowly escapes death while helping to bring the killer down. The final beat might be her joining the FBI — it sends her off in a new direction and as the reader, we can imagine what her life will be like moving forward. We know what direction the course of the book has set her on even though we’ve reached the last page.
What I love about this structure is that it’s more stripped down and basic — there’s less I have to pinpoint which gives me a measure of flexibility. When Jen was showing it to me, she asked what plot points I already knew had to happen and then she filled those in. Almost always, even at the most beginning stages, you’re going to know some of the “must have” beats. If it’s a murder mystery you know one of the likely beats is discovering the body and another beat is discovering the murderer. If it’s a romantic comedy, one of the beats is likely going to be the meet cute and another is something that breaks up the characters.
Once those known points are filled in, you’ll find that you often only have 2-3 additional plot points to figure out and those should come easier since you know what needs to happen before and after each one. Furthermore, you know that each action segment needs to connect each beat to the next and often you’ll see that once you have all the beats in place, what the action needs to be becomes clear.
After Jen taught me this approach to outlining, I took my chart and converted it to a broad-strokes outline. I then used that as a basis for my synopsis. Not long after, I sold that project. And since then, I’ve sat down with at least a dozen authors and we’ve used this chart as a blueprint for plotting out their current or future projects. It’s been a big game changer in my approach to writing and I hope that you find it useful as well!
John G. Hartness
I want to talk a little today about jealousy, and surrounding yourself with people that are better than you at your chosen profession, avocation, whatever. Some of this comes from seeing that Jim Butcher has been added to the guest list at Dragon*Con, and I’m super-excited about hopefully getting the chance to meet the guy who inspired a lot of The Black Knight Chronicles, and heavily influenced my writing style. I’m also a little nervous, because not just is Butcher responsible for a large chunk of the urban fantasy genre, but he’s also responsible for putting a lot of the snark that I love into the format as well.
Obviously I’m a fan of Butcher’s work, not just The DresdenFiles, but the Codex Alera stuff as well. And I’m also jealous as hell of his talent. You see, Butcher can do something that I have a very difficult time doing – write in a totally different voice. That was the first thing that blew me away when I started reading the Codex Alera books – the voice was completely, 100% different from The Dresden Files. It’s almost like two different people wrote the series. I, on the other hand, have a distinctive voice, which got me into trouble a couple of times in high school when I tried to sell term papers to the larger (and wealthier) students in my class.
I felt something similar when I first read Patrick Rothfuss. Reading the first paragraph of The Name of the Wind, I felt like a kid who’d taken two guitar lessons and then sat front row at a Clapton concert. It was almost enough to make me burn my laptop. But aluminum-bodied Macs are more durable than you’d think, and fortunately for me I came to my senses before anything was lost. Even talking to other writers about Rothfuss, one was heard to remark “It’s a good thing he writes slow, or none of the rest of us would ever sell a book.”
Those are a just a couple of people whose talent I’m jealous of, and I use that generally-inadvisable emotion to spur me on to write better, to work harder, and to eventually make some novice writer jealous of my badassdom. I’m not holding my breath, but i do turn my jealousy into something productive, and I try to spin it into something useful. I’m also jealous of anyone with any shred of musical talent, as my wife, who is forced to listen to me sing along with the contestants on The Voice, can attest is something I’m completely devoid of.
I might have to give a dollar to anyone who can untangle that sentence, but I’m leaving it up there for the sheer joy of driving the grammar nuts crazy.
So here’s my question to you – who are you jealous of, and to what positive direction do you spin your jealousy?
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