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Monday, January 14, 2019

Taking Risks as Part of the Creative Lifestyle




Months ago, I did something scary that I didn't originally tell many people about. I quit my job to pursue my own writing and freelance editing full-time. Even though it was something planned for months, I felt uneasy when the moment arrived. Despite having prepared, saved money (I've worked extra the last year), and knowing it was the right decision for me to make, I still felt a somewhat irrational illness about it. When I got home, I hopped on Facebook only to read another writer I know preparing to do the same thing and quit her job as a teacher. She said she was both excited and terrified.

I got to thinking how these two emotions seem to be regular company for the writer--and frankly, probably any creative.

In reality, creatives have to deal with a lot of risks. Here are some to consider:

- When you start writing, you may fear that you won't be able to complete a story or meet a goal. What if you get writer's block? What if you are cliche? What if you are horrible? You may fear personal failure. But you keep writing--after all, isn't that what you want to do?

- When you finish a story, you may fear that it's not good enough, doesn't measure up, that no one will want to read it, that people will hate it. You may fear that it was a waste of time, and that you could have done something more productive with your time. You take those risks simply by creating and sharing the manuscript.

- When you send it out for feedback, you have to take the risk of having to endure criticism that at least some part of you doesn't want to hear. In some cases, you might be told that your fears were right--this is not a great story. You used too many cliches. And worst of all, it's boring.

- When you revise and edit a manuscript, you might fear you won't be able to fix the problems and make it better. It might feel impossible. You may wonder if you are making the wrong choices. But you take those risks.

- When you send it out to agents or editors, you again take risks. Will anyone want to represent or publish it? What if I put in all this work, and energy, and stress, and worry in and nothing happens?

- It gets published, but what if "no one reads it"? What if it doesn't get marketed right? What if someone online, maybe a "social justice warrior" tears it down, hurting sells before it has the chance to take off?

- What if (more like when) it gets stolen and put up online everywhere for free, and you lose sales, hurting your career?

- What if you can't write another book as good as your first? Let alone better? What if you can't do it again?

As creatives, we deal with a whole slew of fears--some legitimate and some perceived, but all powerful.

We have to risk feeling afraid, and we have to risk what we fear time and time again.

Being a writer and a creative is all about risks of one sort or another.

I think this is one reason why writers can sometimes seem rather emotional about their work and career. One second they are on top of the world, and the next they think they are being crushed by it never to surface.



When we hear "risks" we usually think of someone chopping and coloring their hair into something wild, embarking on a big and scary financial venture, moving to another country, or skydiving. But most risks are far less obvious. The majority probably happen within ourselves.

A couple of months ago, I heard an author describe her writing journey as humiliating. I think all of us have probably felt like we have had eggs on our faces, felt like we were imposters, even failures, at some point in time. Trust me, you are not alone.

All of these thoughts and feelings are completely normal.

Last year, I went to a panel were an artist talked about what actors (apparently) call the "yabba yabba." He explained that the yabba yabba is that voice in your head that tells you those fears and doubts and warns you of risks. The yabba yabba is not inherently a bad thing. It keeps us alive and safe. If I think of driving off a cliff, the yabba yabba is going to tell me I really shouldn't do that. Without the yabba yabba, we'd all be dead.

Some people get upset and even angry with that voice. They may reprimand it. But it is not inherently bad. Rather than have a war with it, simply acknowledge it, and move on--take that risk.

The yabba yabba is afraid of risks, because they aren't safe. But that doesn't mean they are wrong.

Write that novel. Send it to that agent. As Jim Carrey famously said in a commencement speech, "Risk being seen in all your glory."

It's scary to do that, but it's okay to do that.

And it's 100% okay to feel scared--but do it anyway.

I once heard someone say that if your dreams don't scare you, they aren't big enough. So sally up with your buddies Excitement and Terror and take those risks.

Living the creative lifestyle can seem like the best and worst idea you've ever had. But if you never take those risks, you never have a chance of getting those amazing rewards. As the maxim goes, "You miss every shot you don't take."

Do you want to know what's more scary than taking those risks?

Living a life of unfulfilled dreams.


Monday, January 7, 2019

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Write What You Know"



You've probably heard the writing rule, "Write what you know," but in the world of fiction, that advice can seem questionable, especially if you work in the speculative realm. No one alive has ever met a dragon, but there are load of books that have them. On the other hand, if you write about Latter-day Saints attending churches filled with crosses, those familiar with the religion will be shaking their heads.

So where do we draw the line? And what does it mean? And when can we write what we don't know?

What's the Rule?

Write what you know.


Why it's a Rule

My church example above is problematic because that religion doesn't use crosses. So the person who wrote it doesn't know what they are talking about. Here is another example from the book Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern:

"Mush, mush!" Nooknook shouted, as he threw bits of meat to make his dogs bound across the ice floe.

That's not how dog sledding works.

One of the most obvious (and quickest) problems that arise from this is that it messes up believability. We are instantly taken out of the story because we know that's not how dog sledding works.

Having done ballet, including pointe shoes, I find myself cringing a lot in movies when they incorporate it. For those that don't know, wearing pointe shoes requires very specific technique and you also need the shoes to fit in the exact right way (you should have a professional fit your foot), which is one reason why you have to sew the ribbons and elastic on yourself. If you haven't developed the right muscles, haven't learned the accurate technique, or you wear shoes that don't quite fit, you can develop serious health issues. It's hard to get to the threshold where you can even use pointe shoes, but being able to continue to use them can be even harder.

So when I see Gwen Stacy zip down from the trees and land on hers hard like this:


I cringe inside.

Look at how damaging that alignment is! Ouchie.

(Even worse is when movies show a character skipping the ballet slippers and going straight for the pointe shoes. *facepalm*)

But there are more problems than just believability issues.

If it's a reoccurring thing in entertainment, negative and inaccurate stereotypes can emerge. Also, if audiences see inaccurate information enough times, they begin to believe it as truth.

As a writer, you probably know what I'm talking about. You know those movies that are "about" writers? Where the character has a moment of inspiration and then stays up all night and completes a novel by morning? It's a joke, right? But because that's how the process has been conveyed so much, the average person thinks that's how it works and is completely clueless as to what actually goes into it and what it takes (same with pointe shoes).

I still remember watching La La Land and laughing internally as the protagonist spends the entire movie struggling to be an actress but then magically becomes an amazing screenwriter/playwright after writing two stories (one when she was a child). Please. Even when they try to show how difficult the arts is, they show the writing part of it wrong.

Anyway . . .

My writer examples are rather harmless, but these things can have real world, real serious consequences. Such as when someone started slipping off the edge of the Grand Canyon, so their loved one reached out for them and they both ended up dying. Folks, real life is not like the hanging-on-the-ledge-by-one-hand movie trope. Also, mines don't really go off after you step off them--if you wanted to kill someone, why would you invent it like that? You'd have it go off asap.

Then there are the stereotypes, which is a whole other thing. Some of you might be familiar with the popular Disney ride, Splash Mountain. Fewer of you may know that the movie it's based on, Song of the South, is actually banned because of racism. Lots of people who've seen it will argue all day that the movie has nothing negative about blacks in it. But the point isn't that it doesn't have blatantly negative depictions of blacks, the point is that it perpetuates damaging stereotypes and ideas about blacks.

See, back in the day, blacks were often depicted as being happy to be slaves, in order to encourage society to keep them as slaves--which in some ways is actually more dangerous than being blatantly racist, because the average person watching the entertainment is blind to it. Whether or not you agree that Song of the South should remain banned, the reason it was banned, is because it taps into and perpetuates that damaging stereotype. This is also why every Halloween there is controversy over someone painting their face black--because back in the day, people in power intentionally did that when intentionally portraying blacks in negative or damaging ways, subtlety keeping them in a culture and societal state of less power (and in a way that would seem harmless). This is also why there are arguments regularly about who has the right or ability to portray minorities, period.


If this is a new idea to you, or you are bit skeptical, let's go back to the writing example. How many people have you interacted with that expect you to whip out a book in a week, and if it takes you months or years, they become skeptical of how you spend your time, or if you are "actually" working? Probably a lot of us have had an interaction like that of some sort (seriously, no wonder there are so many closet writers! Because writers don't want to deal over and over again with all the misunderstandings). Even as a writer, you may be faced with perpetuating myths and misinformation that have been so ingrained into our culture and society that people do not even know to even question them as possibly being false.

This is one of the crazy powers of storytelling.

So.

I guess I had a lot to say about that. But the point is, when you write what you don't know, not only do you damage the audience's suspension of disbelief, but if the audience doesn't know, you can intentionally or unintentionally create or perpetuate false ideas as truth, which can be harmful to individuals or even a culture or society.

I mean, imagine everyone grabbing pointe shoes and dancing around on concrete.

Aaack, let's not! It's too cringe worthy.

Does this all sound like a burden?

Let's talk about what the advice actually means.


What it Actually Means and How it Applies

"Sound bite" advice can always be dangerous when it's applied to everything. Very, very few things in life can apply to everything.

Let me give an example.

I hate the adage, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Because there are so many exceptions to this, depending on how you interpret it.

However, in the right context it can be absolutely true. But as human beings, we don't want to reiterate the whole context and setup and everything else every single time we use an adage. It's monotonous and long winded. And it looses its punch. We like when phrases sum an idea up and communicate it quickly. "No pain, no gain." --obviously this doesn't apply to everything in life, but it's shorthand advice for a particular situation. Problems come if we take it out of that context/situation and assume it applies to everything. Sometimes, we hear an adage so much, that the context is lost over time, so we assume it's absolute--that it's intended to always be true on all accounts. (Dangerous.)

But really, adages are meant to serve as a written/verbal symbol for a thought process. We don't want to go on a long winded speech about courage, liberty, and purity every time we incorporate American ideas, so we display the flag as shorthand. Same with adages.

"Write what you know," probably originally had a whole thought process, but it's been used as shorthand advice for so long, that a lot of us don't know what it actually means or what it applies to anymore. (And this happens a lot with writing advice.)

But I like how Stern rewords it in Making Shapely Fiction. He notes it might be better to think of this advice in the negatives:

Don't write what you don't know.

If you don't know about dog sledding, and you are going to write, "Nooknook threw bits of meat to make his dogs bound across the ice floe," we have a problem.



Don't write what you don't know.

Great.

But it's still vague, right? I mean, does any of us actually know definitively what real aliens are like, assuming they exist? No.

What the advice is really saying is:

Don't write something wrong that you (or society) can know to write right.

Don't write something wrong when you or society has the capacity to know what's accurate.

Obviously, for a lot of things, this is taken care of through research. I can research dog sledding. You can interview someone who has done pointe shoes.

Heck people, we have the internet these days! Research is easier than ever (though it takes a level of discernment with your sources).

However, some of this section overlaps and is bleeding into the next section, so I'm going to move onto that.


When to Break the "Rule"

The most obvious, and the one I touched on in the last section, is speculative fiction.

Speculative Fiction


None of us know about aliens, so in that case, we have to imagine them. We get to make it up.

Have you or has anyone you've known met a dragon? Of course not. In order to write a dragon, you will have to write about what you "don't know." Sure, you can research all you want about "dragons," and if you want to, that will fill in a lot of blanks. But since they don't exist, it's all myth anyway. And even if you do use what's historically available, you will have to make up some part of it.

Same with science fiction. Even with things we know, like all we know about dinosaurs, Jurassic Park still had to imagine and make up what we don't know about dinosaurs to fill in the blanks. How they moved, how they sounded.

Remember my modified version of the rule:

Don't write something wrong that you (or society) can know to write right.

Is there really a wrong way to write your own made up magic system? In most cases, no.

HOWEVER

Weirdly enough, sometimes even the fantastic can go wrong. That's because even the imaginary needs to be believable within the realm of the story and within the audience's suspension of disbelief. (For more on problems with believability, see this post). For one, your magic system probably needs to follow the rules you established in the beginning of the story. If fantasy or science fiction doesn't follow the established rules, there is (probably) a problem.


Personal Experiences

Because I already talked a bit about what the rule is actually supposed to mean, I almost feel like I don't need this section, but I'm adding it because people get stuck on it.

Sometimes we think "knowing" means we have to have experienced it. Obviously experiencing something firsthand is super helpful when writing, but it's not a requirement. Just because I've never owned a sugar glider doesn't mean I can't write what it would be like to own one, if I do the proper research. Just because you are a man doesn't mean you can never write from a heroine's viewpoint. Learn what you can, then draw from your own intellect, imagination, or experience to fill in the blanks. (Notice I didn't say "make up the blanks," I said "fill in the blanks.")

I'm not a murderer. In most ways, I don't really know what it would be like to actually be one. I know some things because I love watching the creepy I.D. channel on tv. But I have been very angry before, and I have imagined what it might be like to be a murderer (if only through television and fiction), so I could use that to fill in the blanks.

When we confuse "knowing" with "experiencing" we can really paralyze ourselves as writers. For most of us, it's impossible to experience everything everyone in our cast of characters has experienced. If you want to cripple under powerful bouts of imposter syndrome, this is a fantastic way to accomplish that.

One way to help make something you haven't experienced still feel authentic is to make it very human. Another helpful way is to ask how that experience would play out for that specific person in that specific setup. So, maybe you are a man writing about a woman walking home in the dark. How is walking home in the dark different for a woman than a man? Well, a woman is going to be more cautious and suspicious of others. Personally, I'd have my hand on my pepper spray. So you brainstorm that, then slide some choice details of that experience in. They key is you slide in some--don't overdo it. Some people draw attention to their lack of experience by overcompensating.

The Information is Known, but Inaccessible

There are still some things you can not know, even if other people exist that do know. Secret experiments. Government cover-ups. The latest technology in weaponry. Even if you manage to get some information from someone, you may not be able to get all of THE information.

Like the last section, build off what you do know, and then fill in the blanks. In some cases, it's okay to be vague (though it depends on the situation). For example, maybe you have a character fixing an advanced piece of equipment that is real, but you don't have access to information on how its components actually work. So write a little vaguely about him fixing it. The average audience member isn't going to care or notice, unless it's something already established as very important to the story. It's okay to bluff a little. After all, as writers, we are making stuff up. Remember, it still needs to be believable in the realm of the story.


Intentionally Writing What You Know is Wrong

In some cases, it might be worth really breaking the rule by intentionally writing what you know, wrong.

An Exchange is Worth the Cost

Remember my complaints about Gwen being on pointe shoes? Guess what? Even though I cringed initially, who really cares? It was a fun and cool character design. Maybe portraying pointe shoes wrong was actually worth the exchange of a cool character design. Spider-man is my favorite superhero, so a Spider-woman who does ballet and is in a rock band? Um, okay, that's really cool and fun.


Despite all my complaining above, after my initial response, I actually kind of loved the pointe shoes. I've never seen them used for a superhero costume. Also, let's not forget she's freaking Spider-woman, so she can flipping get beat up, mess up her body, and break her bones and still survive. Sure, we probably don't want girls running home and trying to do acrobats and land on pointe shoes they've never worn before, just like we don't want them to run through traffic in New York to get away from police. But at the end of the day, I'm willing to forgive any inaccurate portrayals in exchange for a cool character design (also the fact she's super-human does really help).

You might run into similar moments. Sometimes intentionally doing something wrong is worth the cost.

It Serves the Story

Similarly, you may want to intentionally write something wrong when it serves the story. HOWEVER, this is not to be confused with ruining the suspension of disbelief (believability). It's possible to write something wrong without making the audience roll their eyes.

As a lot of you probably know, I'm a huge fan of Interstellar, and it was interesting watching the behind-the-scenes clips for the movie and hearing Christopher Nolan talk about the things he portrayed wrong, intentionally. I mean, it feels like we aren't allowed to do that right? But he did.

One thing he did in particular was put a whole cornfield on fire. When he said he was going to do this, people told him that Cooper's cornfield wouldn't actually burn. It's too green. Nolan said he was going to do it anyway.

Other than maybe a percentage of farmers in the audience, did anyone really care? No. It was a minor change that served the plot. Those who knew better would probably make note of it, but as for actually ruining the suspension of disbelief . . . ? I doubt it. You're going to tell me that having a green cornfield catch on fire is going to ruin your movie experience? If you are that guy, you need to loosen up and have some fun. "It's a movie!"--as they say.

It Serves the Audience

Sometimes the audience will actually enjoy the story and benefit more if you portray something inaccurately.

Also in Interstellar, there are a few lines of dialogue where the science is slightly wrong--intentionally. At one part, the characters talk about sling-shotting their spacecraft via gravitational pull. In order to do what they were talking about, you would need to slingshot around a little black hole. One problem: there was already a black hole in the story, and mentioning another one, in passing, was just going to confuse the audience. It wasn't important enough to slow down and explain that there were two and differentiate them, so instead, they said something else (I think it was a pulsar) to keep the story flowing.

A harmless little white lie.

That served the audience.


Note: You probably almost never want to portray minorities wrong--unless the point is that it is wrong, and therefore ridiculous for it. Any controversial topic should also probably not be portrayed inaccurately either. Use your brain.



Room for Forgiveness

After everything I said in the beginning of this about the importance of portraying things correctly, I also want to note that we are all probably going to get something wrong at some point. I mean, we're only human. Even writers can't know everything. ;)

It's better to make some mistakes or write a few minor things wrong than to not write at all.

I mean, if a writer gets something wrong, but the rest of the story is great, I'm going to forgive the error. I'd rather have a good story.

Also, don't forget that it's a story.

On the one hand, it can be incredibly important how we portray things in storytelling, on the other, it's important to also remember it's a story. It's not real life. And sure, that character can hang off a ledge by one hand and be fine, and that soldier can step on a land mine and not have it go off until after he takes his foot off. Sometimes we go so far one direction, that we can forget that it's a work of fiction and not necessarily a perfect nor accurate representation of real life. Or in other words, "It's just a movie!" (or book.)

Now go forth and write!


Monday, December 31, 2018

Where Do You Draw "The Line"? Considering Empathy




I've tried to write and rewrite this post so many times, and I've finally come to the conclusion that the best approach is a simplistic approach. I have literally cut paragraphs and paragraphs of ideas and tangents from what you see now. (Maybe I'll use those for other articles.) And this was meant to go up for Christmas Eve, but I was too busy enjoying the holiday. And it may not be a post for everyone reading. In fact, for that reason I almost didn't post it all, but then I thought it might be helpful to someone out there.

But today I want to talk about a subject that every once in a while, I see writers stress over.

Which is, where do you draw "the line" in writing?

Do you write that swear word? Do you not write that swear word?

Do you have that character have an addiction? Not have an addiction?

In the past, I have done multiple posts that speak to such things, on how and when or whether to use them, such as this post on profanity, and this other one about why we need stories about dark things

I'm tempted to dive deeper into this topic, but since I've had so much trouble writing this post, I promised I'd keep it simple.

Look, it's impossible to write a good story with perfect people.

And if you did, not only would it be boring, but there would be no growth. In fact, there would probably be no value. Because what is there to learn and gain?

Like many writers, I have sometimes wondered where to draw "the line." In the writing world, it can quickly become clear that the answer is not always obvious. For one, the same content can be rendered in completely different ways, with different messages and tones, different levels of "graphic-ness."

Where do you draw the line?

I'm afraid I can't give you an exact answer because an important factor, in addition to your audience and genre, is you. What are you comfortable with? What are you too uncomfortable to write? What is your purpose for including said content? (Or maybe you feel you have no limits.)

However, I want to share a realization I had a few of months ago that might be helpful (and again, it's simplified).

Years ago, I read a study that showed that those who read are more empathetic than others.

Isn't that wonderful?



Are there many other qualities that embody love better? I'd argue there are few.

One of the most beautiful things about written stories is that they are the only medium where you can not only put yourself into someone else's body, but you can slip on and perceive their mind.

It is the only medium where the audience can actually become someone else physically and cognitively--an experience that is completely impossible by all accounts in this life.

But there is perhaps one person who has lived who had this ability (and this is where I might lose some of my readers reading this, but just give it a chance, even if you disagree). I personally believe it was real, but even if you believe it was fictitious, I hope you can still find it in your heart to appreciate the concept and story.

This was Jesus Christ.

Jesus spent much of His life serving and helping others. Not only were His deeds amazing, but His teachings were positively revolutionary. Love your enemies? What? Are you sure?

However, the epitome of Christ's life was about His death.

The atonement.

Where He took on all of humankind's sins and ailments, leading Him to bleed from "every pore."



Now I can't speak for all other christian religions, but in the one I'm part of, we believe that not only was this done for our salvation, but another reason was so that Christ would know how to succor us perfectly.

Through Christ's life, and especially through the atonement, He was a master of empathy. Even if you do not believe Him to be the Son of God, He was an amazing person. Even if you do not believe He was a real man, the story is an amazing story that teaches many wonderful principles to live by.

An important and vital aspect in the concept of Christ's atonement, is that He took on everyone's sins and hardships. He experienced everyone's.

I do not believe that Christ got to one person and thought, "Wow, George is a drug addict, I better skip him," or "Tisha is a black who suffered prejudice, I think I'd rather not," or "Jennifer suffered trials as a closet lesbian, I don't want to experience what that was like, skip."

No.

He experienced it all.

Every. Thing.

He did not sift through the content.

He lived it.

So not only is developing empathy a wonderful thing, I'd argue it's positively god-like.

Now that's not to say you should not have any personal limits or lines. After all, I'm not Jesus, and I have my own limitations. Nor am I prophesied of saving all mankind by taking on all their sins and ailments (shocking, I know).

But we do a disservice to ourselves and the world by not reading or writing certain realms of the human experience. And ignorance is a danger. One of the greatest commandments is to love. And it's much easier to do that when you can vicariously experience what others experience. Some of my favorite stories have hugely flawed characters--and I loved them. And I learned so much from them.

Not only that, but I believe one of the reasons we are here is to gain human experience. After all, I could easily hang out in Heaven and read the scriptures all day without having to deal with the troubles of this fallen world. We don't need to be on earth to read the word of God.

So next time you are stressing out about "Should I?" or "Shouldn't I?" I just want you to remember this. That someone who people consider a God willingly had that mortal experience. Then if you want, you can go look at all the technicalities and treatments and use your own judgement to make a decision.

But I would argue that to be empathetic is to be godly.




. . . . and if that post wasn't for you, you can wait for my next one  :)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Creating Mini Character Arcs Within a Scene




Last week I talked about structuring scenes, with a focus on plot. Most scenes should be structured like a mini story:

Hook
Setup
Rising Action
Climax
Denouement

But another element of story that should be in your scene just as it is in the overall novel is how your character changes, or in other words, the character arc.

In a single scene, the character arc may or may not relate to the overall character arc.

But there (usually) needs to be an arc of some kind. Psychologically, the character needs to be in some kind of motion.

For a scene, think of it as a mini character arc.  How your character starts the scene psychologically and then how he or she ends the scene, psychologically. They should be different.

Let's go back to my examples from last time. I had a scene where a character falls in love. Another where two characters discover who the murderer is via discussion. And finally, I referred to a real scene in a story--Newt going into his suitcase for the first time on screen.

In each of these, you could say the mini character arc is quite simple, since each character ends in a new state or has new information (which relates to the purpose or goal of the scene).

Not in love --> Love
Not knowing the murderer --> Knowing the murderer
Not knowing which animals got loose --> to knowing which got loose

However, not being something is sometimes not enough. It's often not very tangible. As you work with scenes, often the state the character starts the scene comes from a previous scene, after all, in a story, we are dealing over and over again with cause and effect. So in a previous scene, Newt realizes some of his magical beasts got out, therefore, he needs more knowledge in order to catch them--which beasts got out? Between him realizing that, to him actually going in his case to count them, there are a several other scenes, which also contribute to the state he starts in. For one, he has to figure out how to heal Jacob, and that's quite important (especially for the rest of the scene).



I've talked about this on my blog before, but when brainstorming and starting a scene, it's helpful to ask these two questions:

What is being brought to the scene?

and

How can I take advantage of that?


This can relate to the mini arc. What emotions, attitudes, worldviews, and behaviors is the character bringing to the scene? How will the purpose, goals, and conflicts of the scene affect that? How will they change by the end of the scene?

In my love and murder examples, I'd probably sit down and think about my character and what they bring to the scene. Maybe my heroine thinks the guy she's about to fall for is a showoff. Perhaps he has a reputation she doesn't like. And if I'm going off what I said last time, to make matters worse, it's forbidden to love him.

In my murder example, the protagonist might start the scene already thinking he knows who the murderer is. Or maybe he's at least convinced he's narrowed it down to three people. Maybe his own biases and arrogance have clouded his thinking.

As the scene's plot (or mini plot) progresses, the heroine falls in love. The hero realizes during the course of the discussion that he was wrong. Whatever it is, they end the scene in a different state.

Again, this may or may not relate to the overall character arc.

Let's say that the overall arc in our murder novel deals with the protagonist realizing and overcoming his own biases and arrogance. Then the example I just gave deals directly with that.

Let's say that the love example happens in a story where love isn't actually the main conflict or focus. Instead, the story is mainly about a young girl following her dreams to be an actress, and her overall character arc is about moving from being insecure and looking to everyone else for validation to being secure and finding validation within.



Whatever the case, the mini arc relates to the main character of that scene.

But there are also characters that may arc.

For example, in the scene of Newt taking Jacob into his suitcase, Jacob has his own mini arc. How he starts the scene is different from how he ends it. He moves from ignorance to knowledge.

In some scenes, all the characters may arc. In others, only the "main character" of the scene may arc.

In rare cases, maybe not even that. In a few specific scenes, the point is to show that a character doesn't change. In my murder example, perhaps the character is still convinced, even after the discussion, that he is right--he is still so blinded by his own biases and arrogance (even if the audience may not be). Some characters, particularly those with extreme characteristics, may refuse to change.

https://twitter.com/i/moments/853063281061187584For example, in the musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton is a hard worker to a fault--he's a workaholic. In the number (aptly named) "Non-Stop," Burr, Eliza, George Washington, and even nameless characters, speak to or touch on the idea of him needing to slow down--but he never does. The point of the song is to illustrate how he never slows down. And ultimately the only way to get him to change is to have him wreck havoc upon himself.

However, it should be noted that even though Hamilton doesn't change internally in that song, he still changes as a character externally, climbing career ladder after career ladder. So even if your character doesn't change internally in a scene, they almost always need to change externally at least.

 As I said at the beginning of this article, they almost always need to be in some kind of motion. To what extent and in what way, may be dictated by the point of the scene, or if not, it may be something you need to come up with if only for within that scene.

As with all the other points of a scene I've made so far, remember that you are working on a small scale. It's completely possible for a mini character arc to take up only a few sentences in some scenes.

So dear writers, how do you like to approach character motion in a scene? Let us know in the comments. ^_^

In the future I'll be talking more about how the character's state and the mini plot of a scene work together, defining more points of each.

Also, don't forget that you have until the 19th (Wednesday) to enter our advent calendar for writers! All of the gifts have been revealed, and you can still enter for the chance to win each one, including mine.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Structuring Satisfying Scenes




Last week I was going through some old scenes and reading through them rather quickly but still tweaking them here and there to be more effective. While some I thought were good, they didn't have the same zing to them, and I realized it was because they didn't fully follow a satisfying structure.

You can find a lot of articles about structuring scenes, and I won't have room to cover everything here (though maybe over time I can get them all on my site), but I wanted to start with same basics that can be helpful to everyone.

When we talk about overall story structure and strip everything away to the bare, bare bones, it should follow Freytag's Pyramid.



This was posted online a while ago, and I saw someone commenting and laughing how it was out of date and that for the modern audience, Freytag's Pyramid isn't going to work. This is like saying that because we now have hip-hop, dance doesn't work. But hip-hop is dance. All satisfying story structures embody Freytag's Pyramid even if they add more elements. 7-Point Plot Structure, the Hero's Journey, whatever. All of them follow Freytag's Pyramid because it's the most basic unit of story structure. Just as hip-hop adds more specificity, but is still dance.

And when you start working with scenes, you'll notice that most successful scenes also follow this structure, on a small scale. Like everything, there are exceptions. But as you actually genuinely work at writing a satisfying novel, you may realize that we use this simple structure everywhere--plotting, character arcs, dialogue exchanges, sometimes even within a paragraph. Never underestimate the power of the basics. As Leonardo da Vinci once stated, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

With that in mind, let's talk about how satisfying scene structure actually mimics overall story structure, which may include elements that are often added to Freytag's Pyramid.

Preliminary

Before worrying about scene structure, it's helpful to identify a few key elements of the scene.

Purpose - What is the purpose of the scene? It should be moving the story forward in some way. This might be obvious, like having the protagonist confront the antagonist, but other times it might be a little less obvious, like introducing the audience to a rule in a magic system, revealing a character trait, or stating a theme. But the point is that the scene has a purpose and it's not superfluous. Ask yourself, what is the audience getting out of this scene?

Goal - The main character (of the scene) should have a goal of some kind, something he or she wants. As a beginning writer, it can be easy to want to skimp out on this, but it's very effective in writing a good scene and practically a necessity. It may be something immediately obvious and direct, like defeating the antagonist. Other times it might be more personal or even indirect, like Bilbo Baggins wanting to be left alone in his Hobbit hole--that may not be the main purpose of the scene, but it's there. This is why "purpose" and "goal" are two different categories.

Let me give you another example. The opening of Harry Potter has the purpose of teasing the audience about the Wizarding World and Harry himself from a Muggle perspective. But the viewpoint character, Vernon Dursley has the goal of having a normal day via dismissing all of the peculiar things happening around him

Conflict - What kind of conflicts or potential conflicts (a.k.a. tension) will be present in this scene? Is it the physical wrestle between the protagonist and antagonist? Is it Vernon Dursley being bombarded time and time again with peculiar happenings and people? And him being afraid to call his wife and ask about the Potters? Is it Bilbo having to deal with people wanting to socialize?

Sometimes, all these things line up in scenes, especially toward the end of the novel.

For example,

Purpose: Protagonist defeats antagonist in a sword fight
Goal: Protagonist wants to defeat antagonist in a sword fight.
Conflict: Protagonist and antagonist want to defeat each other in a sword fight

Seems simple right?

But in other scenes, it might be more indirect or sometimes not seem to match at all.

Here is one from a scene in the first Fantastic Beasts movie.

Purpose: Introduce the audience to Newt's magical case and all the beasts/elements inside, while appealing to wonder.
Goal: While Newt does heal Jacob and care for his animals, his main goal is to see which animals are missing, so he can figure out how to find them (notice that healing Jacob allows him to have Jacob tell him about places in New York and that feeding the animals allows him to see who is missing.)
Conflicts: I'm going to argue that the main conflicts center on Jacob being a Muggle--first Newt has to figure out how to heal him when Muggle biology is a little different, then Jacob doesn't know how to interact with the creatures, and finally, he almost messes with the Obscurus and Newt has to stop him.


Ideally, most scenes have more than one purpose, more than one goal, and more than one conflict. In fact, it's practically a necessity.

So in my last example, another purpose of the scene is to foreshadow and introduce the Obscurus. Newt also reveals his goal to release the Thunderbird. And he doesn't want Jacob to be obliviated. He touches on other conflicts--Frank being trafficked, the Niffler always getting out, the last breeding pair of Graphorns. There are mini-goals that I already mentioned, healing Jacob and feeding the animals. And mini-conflicts, an Occamy tries to bite Jacob, and Pickett won't get off Newt's hand.

You'll notice that even if the main purpose, goal, and conflict don't line up directly, they will naturally overlap during the scene itself in some way because they are elements that have to be present and therefore have to be interwoven to be satisfying. In order to fulfill the purpose of the last example, Newt has to go in his case, which means he needs to have a need/goal for doing that, and to show off the animals in interesting ways, there needs to be conflict for balance.

So they overlap, but they aren't directly the same thing, unlike, say the final sword fight between hero and villain.

And this is where I think some beginning writers have a problem--they don't have to all be the same thing. And in many stories, in the beginning scenes, they won't be.

Structure

Remember Freytag's Pyramid? Great. Most satisfying scenes follow that same structure, but on a smaller scale. I don't care if your scene is about a character falling in love with another, a conversation about what the antagonist is up to, or a train ride to school. If it's going to be effective, it most likely needs the setup, rising action, and climax. I should have mentioned above that some say the denouement (falling action) is optional--I strongly argue that in stories, they should almost always be included for validation, but in scenes, I think that can vary a little more, somewhat.

I'm going to add one more element. The hook. And instead of "exposition," I'm going to call it "setup." So here are the basic parts of a satisfying scene.

Hook - Grab the audience's attention in some way. This doesn't need to be clickbait, people. Hooks work on promises--they give the audience something to anticipate. Often this is something to hope for or to dread. But sometimes it's just the promise of more information--the hook communicates to the audience that they need(want) more information.

In my Fantastic Beasts example, I'm going to argue the hook is Newt and then Jacob disappearing magically into the suitcase. Since we know he keeps creatures in that case, we anticipate seeing them.



Setup - Author David Farland calls this part "grounding." We need to ground the audience. Where are we? When are we? And who is present? Give us an idea. How much you need of this may depend on the prior scene(s). In the very first scene of a book, we usually need more grounding (and setup in the large-scale sense, which is one reason why openings are so hard).

The camera shows Newt in the case in the first room with Jacob. Great, they both turned up in the same place. Then later we follow them out and get a glimpse of this case having animal habitats.


Rising Action - Once readers are invested and know where we are, it's time to build rising action. What it is depends on the preliminary elements: the purpose, goal, and conflicts.

If the main purpose is for one character to fall for another, we might cook up sexual tension. If the purpose is to figure out who the murderer is via a conversation between two heroes, the heroes may start talking about conflicts and clues, stakes and goals, and suspects. In Newt's suitcase, the rising action is checking the animals--which appeals to the purpose and goal and incorporates conflict.

Like the middle of a story, the rising action of the scene escalates. This is why it's called rising action. This is what happens in our Newt example. Newt doesn't have too much trouble curing Jacob, then he goes to the Thunderbird, where he has to he warn Jacob that Frank doesn't like strangers. When he tries to let go of Pickett, it's more difficult than the other two things. He shows Jacob the Occamies, but one nearly bites off Jacob's finger. Eventually this escalates to Newt having to stop the most dangerous outcome of all, Jacob messing with the Obscurus.

Alternative to conflicts and tension, you can see the purpose of the scene itself escalate. First we briefly glimpse the Swooping Evil, then interact with Frank, then visit three Graphorns, then four bowtruckles, four Occamies (would be five, but one is missing, but Jacob and Newt both hold one), then a montage of a whole bunch of different animals with Newt and Jacob interacting with them.


(See what I mean about Freytag's Pyramid being used everywhere?)


Climax - This is the high point, where the purpose, conflict, and/or goal reach their max for the scene. This is the moment the character falls in love in our prior example. This is the line in the conversation where the heroes realize which of the suspects is the murderer. For Newt, I actually included the climaxes in the last example to illustrate. For the conflict, the climax is when Jacob is near the Obscurus. For the purpose, the climax is when we get that montage of loads of fantastic beasts. What about the goal? It's when Newt finishes counting the beasts at the Erumpent pen. You'll notice that this climax is much more subtle. That's okay. In some scenes the character's goal may not even climax, because it changes or remains unfulfilled or gets obstructed. You don't need everything to climax, but there should usually be some form of climax.



Denouement (Falling Action) - On occasions, some scenes will not have a denouement. But I think we sometimes misunderstand falling actions. They don't necessarily tie everything up if there is more to the story. This is the same thing with series books. The denouement may tie up the main elements of the novel, but it also keeps us looking forward to what happens next, in other words, it has a promise, a.k.a. hook, that gets us to anticipate, usually through hope or dread, what might come next.

In my hook section, I said the hook for Newt was him going into his case. Some of you might have realized that was actually the end (denouement) of the prior scene. It doesn't have to be structured like that. You can have hooks at both the end of one scene and the beginning of another--in fact, you usually should. But my point is that there should usually be some kind of hook to get us to want to keep reading.

Often naturally, in a scene, the denouement will get us to look ahead. Great, our heroine fell in love--but guess what? We know from the setup that this is a forbidden love, so now what's she gonna do? Our heroes figured out who the murderer is, great, so now how are they going to catch him? Newt knows which creatures are missing, so now how is he going to recover those?

In the overall story, the denouement may validate what happened to the reader. This may or may not happen in a scene. In our love example, we may have a few lines that validate that yes, our heroine did just fall for that guy. Or yes, that suspect has to be the murderer, because look at how this now all fits (and the heroes will be talking about that).

The falling action finishes the scene. In some cases, it may be cut to end on a cliffhanger. Just don't forget that just because you have a denouement doesn't mean you can't have the audience anticipating what happens next. Some beginning writers think you can only achieve that by axing the falling action. If you do that every time, it can get annoying, and make the story feel "gap"-ish as you never "finish" one scene before starting another.



Note - Scenes are much briefer than an overall story. Depending on the scene, these may take paragraphs or they may be as short as half a sentence. For example, you may have the hook and the setup in the same sentence. But whatever the case, they typically follow the same proportions. The rising action takes up the bulk of the scene, while the hook will be the shortest.

There are really so many ways to talk about how a scene works and other approaches, but this is a good one to start on. If any of this is paralyzing to you, relax. If you are an outliner, you can use this to help you outline scenes. If you are a discovery writer, go ahead and discover the scene, then if you are stuck or feel like it's lacking, go through these like checkpoints. This is meant to work for you, not for you to work for it.

I want to go on, but this post is getting rather long, so next week I'll be back to talk about how the character moves psychologically through the scene.


Giveaway - I'm giving away a first chapter edit for our advent calendar for writers! The great thing is, if you are already subscribed to my blog or follow me on social media, all you need to do is click a couple of times to enter. You can enter here.

Check out all the other gifts so far here. You can still enter to win them, too!


Monday, December 3, 2018

Discovery Writing: 2 Tripwires and a Pitfall




As probably a lot of you know, I'm a big outliner. I've talked about this before. I'm not a 100% outliner--I definitely like to leave room for discovery writing, but if I try to discovery write more than half, maybe more than a quarter, I end up writing crap (sadly). And I think it ends up taking more work to fix.

If you are just joining us and have no idea what I'm talking about, let me explain real quick.

Discovery writing is when you start writing your story and "discover" where it goes. (Sometimes people who discovery write are called "pantsers.")

Outlining is what it sounds like. You outline the story before writing it. (Sometimes people who outline are called "plotters.")

Most writers are a hybrid of both, but may lean one direction.

Lately I've really been wanting to do a post on discovery writing. But. I'm not really a discovery writer. Luckily, author Rachel Taylor is! And I asked her to give us her insight on the process. (Thanks, Rachel!)

***

A couple years ago, I read a writing craft book that made me so mad I had serious thoughts of book burning (metaphorically only as I was reading on my phone). The author taught some helpful writing techniques but interspersed were endless jabs at Pantsers (the prior name of Discovery Writers, ditched because it has some unsavory secondary implications). Here’s just one of his comments about us: “It pours out of their head and basically spills all over the place. Two words: a mess. And it often gets even worse from there...”

I wanted to wrap my hands around Dear Author’s neck and give him a giant, head-whacking shake. Being a Plotter vs being a Discovery Writer (which term I will use going forward), has nothing to do with skills, ability, or messes. It has everything to do with how a writer connects with creativity. I connect by fighting things out on the page. That’s where my best ideas come from. Trust me. I’ve tried to plot. I once forced myself to write an entire book based off an outline, and you know what? It was the most boring thing I’ve ever written, and no amount of rewriting or editing saved it from being shoved under the dusty back corner of my bed.

Best case scenario when I try to plot is that I get a couple of chapters in and my contemporary teenage protag suddenly swishes her skirts, dabs a poison on her lips, and says fiddle-dee-dee to her best friend from the Andromeda Galaxy and my carefully devised plot-sheet also ends up under the bed.

I have no choice but to fight things out on the page. And it’s not just me. This is what we Discovery Writers do. Which means we have a whole set of both tripwires and pitfalls that can be (but not always are) unique to us.


Tripwire Number One: The Blank Page Syndrome

This is me staring at an entirely white screen, a frown on my face, a headache forming as I once again wish that I was a Plotter who always knew what needs to be written next. It happens. It happens a lot.

The goal then is to have a plan for when it happens.

My personal plan is simple. Walk away from the computer and go fold some laundry. (I have four kids; there is always laundry. On the rare occasion there isn’t, doing the dishes, cooking something, mowing the lawn, washing the car, and grooming animals also work.) I take with me a notepad of some sort with the last line I committed to the computer written across the top. As I fold/cook/clean/fix, my mind wanders and inevitably ends up on that notebook. (I see this all as boring-the-right-side-of-my-brain-into-action.) Ideas flare up as I work: Pictures. Voices. Motions. Maybe an entire paragraph of words. I race back to my desk and get it all down. Sometimes I’ll manage an entire scene. Sometimes just a few words, but always something comes. Then when I get stuck again, I return to folding laundry. (My house/life/animals get super clean when I’m struggling with a story.)

Now you don’t have to follow my plan for being stuck, but feel free to try if it helps. If you happen to be a Discovery Writer who already knows how to spark your creativity, let us know in the comments as there isn’t one right way to beat the blank page. The important thing is to have a plan ready when the blank page syndrome strikes.

The second tripwire works the same way.

Tripwire Number Two: The "I Wrote Myself Into a Corner" Syndrome

I’ve conquered my blank pages (and fired my housekeeper in the process). I’m at the 75% mark of the book. The protag is facing a Mt. Everest of a challenge (in skirts, with her alien best friend at her side). The love interest is being skewered (emotionally if not physically). All hope is lost. There’s no way out. They are all going to die (but in pretty clothes).

Err… Now what? This is supposed to be an HEA book after all.…

Being cornered is also something Discovery Writers just have to plan for. It happens to me every book, sometimes repeatedly, generally at the turning points and the climax of the story.

What I do is take my trusty notebook and write out exactly what the corner looks like. Where is the story stuck and unfixable? Why can’t my protag resolve the situation (or just plain old get out of it)? Then below this, I number 1-100. Or (when I’m feeling nonlinear) I write the problem dead center of the page and turn the whole thing into a brain map of bubbles and clouds.

I walk away from the computer (more laundry) and force myself to come up with 100 possible solutions regardless of how ridiculous or unrealistic they are. And they get crazy. And stupid. And so, so embarrassing that I’m not even going to give you any examples.

The goal is to get all the crazy answers out. Then once they are gone, my brain has no choice but to come up with something better.

The physical action of writing it all down via pen and paper is super important too. I see myself as freeing up the same part of my brain that insists I have to be a Discovery Writer in the first place. And it totally works. Good ideas do show up, usually after I’ve listed out 80 bad ones.

But that leads us to the one giant Pitfall that I’ve seen Discovery Writers fall into and sometimes never recover from.


Pitfall: "I’m a Discovery Writer, I Don’t Have to Worry About Story Structure" Syndrome

There are writers who never take a writing class, never attend a conference, never use a beta reader, who still go on to publish. It happens (I HATE that it happens. SO unfair), but the majority of us won’t ever do that. Yes, story structure is so ingrained in our culture and our mindsets that whether we understand it or not we will use it. But that’s not good enough. Story structure (whether you look at it from the perspective of Scene/Sequel, Hero’s Journey, Three-Act-Play (or better yet all three hand-in-hand)) needs to be the best-friend of Plotters and Discovery Writers alike.

Plotters do have an advantage in pre-planning their books around proper structure that Discovery Writer don’t, but there are things Discovery Writers can do to overcome this. The first, of course, is making sure we understand structure in the first place. If you don’t, drop everything and go learn it (I mean after you finish reading this article…) I recommend starting with books and classes written for screenwriters. They do a much better job of explaining story structure than craft books for novelists.

Then after the fun/torture of the first draft is done, Discovery Writers can back up and make sure all structure elements are in the right places, happening to the right people.  We can edit our way to good structure.

Sounds simple. And maybe even a bit obvious. But I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had with writers who don’t bother to do this and take a "I’m a Discovery Writer, I trust it will all just work out" attitude. Again, for a lucky few, it probably does. For most of us, we need every advantage we can get. Proper story structure makes storytelling more effective and creates a more intuitive connection for readers.

Now, what I do is take it all a step further. In the corner of my office, I keep a giant white board with the three-act play drawn out in vinyl. I fill in the story with sticky notes as I go. This allows me to be hyper aware of my structure as I write, and I find the labels on structure give me ideas for story as I move forward. (Plus seeing my novel unfold visually is just hugely rewarding to me.)

So, there it is. Two tripwires that I fall over regularly and a pitfall I avoid. I wouldn’t be surprised though if other Discovery Writers have additional stumbling blocks in their way. If you do, please give them a share in the comments and explain how you beat them. Because while our stories do just spill out of us, that doesn’t make them a mess and it certainly doesn’t make them irredeemable. It just means our processes, our connection to creativity, and our related challenges are a little bit different.


Rachel Taylor is a YA Fantasy author repped by Rachel Brooks of BookEnds Lit.  She can be found at www.racheltaylorwrites.com.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

Writing Advent Calendar! Giveaways Dec. 1st - 19th

What's better than holidays?
What's better than presents?
What's better than writing?

Holidays, presents, AND writing.




Super Awesome Advent Calendar for Writers







This time of year, there’s always a lot going on and stress can creep in as we rush to prepare for the upcoming holiday. So, to help focus on the good things and celebrate this terrific writing community we’re all part of, I’ve teamed up with Becca & Angela at Writers Helping Writers to bring you an Advent Calendar for Writers. Not only will I be giving away a prize, but some of my favorite writing tip authors are too! 

Our calendar works just like those delightful chocolate-filled kinds, only instead of a nibble of sweetness you get a chance to win some AMAZING prizes that can help you on your writing journey.

These prizes are exceptional, and while I can’t spill the beans on upcoming draws (why ruin the fun?) I can tell you that in total they are valued at over $2000!  

So when you’re online this month, drop by this post because Angela & Becca will be updating it every day between December 1st to the 14th with a link to a new giveaway in the Advent Calendar. If you miss a day or two, don’t worry—all draws will remain open until the 19th of December. Who knows, maybe you’ll win yourself something special for this holiday season!


Happy Holidays!