Friday Exercise – 3 Changes, 3 Complications

Write down three major life changes – stuff like moving, losing a job, getting a divorce, etc.  Whatever three come to mind for you.  Now write down three complications to successfully making these three transitions – can’t get a buyer for the house, no jobs available in the character’s field, ex gets stalky.

Now start an outline for a book, because this will be too much plot to fit into a short story, most likely.  And going along with the three things theme, you could work in a list of actions your character takes to try to fix each of your complications, a list of three supports that help your character, a list of the reasons why the first three things came to be, a list of the outcomes for each of the three initial problems.

Personally, I’m already off on a mental tangent about how the house is haunted and that’s why no one will buy it, and the character’s old job field was a miserable drain on his energy and in his efforts to sell the house he does a bunch of remodeling on it and makes it gorgeous and becomes a professional home renovator and loves it, and decides to keep his now-beautiful house, and his stalky ex-wife gets attacked by the ghosts when she sneaks in through the basement one night and…see, this exercise will totally give you ideas!  So go do it.

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Friday Exercise – To Do List

What’s on your character’s To Do List?  It already says something about them that they make a To Do List, whether it’s a sign of how busy they are, how obsessive compulsive they are, how meticulous and organized they are, or maybe that it’s a habit formed against their nature because of, say, a work environment.  And then there are the items themselves.  What does this list say about your character’s life, their interests, and their necessities?  It’s one thing if your list consists of “grocery, post office, dentist,” and quite another if it’s “my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wife to murder, and Gilder to frame for it.”  (Anybody who doesn’t know that reference, I’m sorry for you because you have missed out on the best movie of all time.)

Monstrous Considerations

Yes, I forgot to post on Monday.  Entirely forgot to post!!  It was my birthday, is my excuse.  But!  I did get inspiration for a post on Monday night and then was very confused when it was Tuesday the next day and I realized I had missed the correct posting day.

I’m generally behind the curve on movies, and the new King Kong directed by Peter Jackson is no exception – I saw it for the first time on Monday.  While I have a rather mixed-opinion Official View about the movie as a whole, when it came to Kong himself, I was wholeheartedly thrilled.  Five years old again and King Kong is my hero, the best thing in the world, a miracle on screen.  As a kid, I would likely have taken a bullet to save Kong (in spite of the fact that such a sacrifice would probably not have helped the situation) if that gives you any idea how firmly rooted in my childhood psyche the gigantic gorilla really was.

I’m a sucker for monster movies in general, especially the old ones, and the “monsters” like Kong – who simply are what they are, doing what they do naturally, pure, natural, intelligent, and destroyed essentially because of their inconvenience to humans (because they don’t fit into our world) – are the ones I fall the hardest for.  There’s an innocence to such monster archetypes, an incomprehension in the face of betrayal and manipulation and dishonesty, that makes us pull for them.  Particularly in the case of King Kong, since it wasn’t even his fault he ended up in New York.  He was minding his own business, being awesome and fighting dinosaurs, until the stupid Americans showed up and decided to make money off him.

Anyway, the point for writers here is a lesson in sympathy and vulnerability.  Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster…they’re all big (Frankenstein’s monster far less so than the first two, but he’s really just a smaller scale of the same archetype), powerful, capable of sweeping destruction, have bad tempers, and aren’t easy to take down.  You’d think that would add up to their being the “bad guy”, but viewers pull for them instead.  There’s something about the fact that anything so big and strong can still be hurt, can still be betrayed, can still die, and not even comprehend why everyone is out to destroy them, that makes them lovable (or at least sympathetic).  In King Kong’s case and in Frankenstein’s monster’s case in particular, it’s heart wrenching to see them taken down, confused and angry, because they had bonded with humans, had shown intelligence and the capability to reason and love and appreciate the world around them.

Maybe you don’t write in a genre where monsters are a feasible character type, but any of this can be applied just as easily to a regular ol’ human character – if someone has a lot of power, whether it’s physical strength or political clout, people will inevitably want to cut them down to size, and if your strong character isn’t pure evil (which would be lazy writing) that will garner them some sympathy, even if (and maybe more so because) they make mistakes.  A character with a terrible temper can be tragic in their ability to strike fear into people they don’t want to drive away.  Unquestioning and misplaced trust or innocence of deception can make for an extra-poignant vulnerability in an otherwise intense, dominant character you’d never expect to get hurt.

And I would still be King Kong’s real friend, because he deserves one.

Friday Exercise – Special Occasion

There’s an occasion or event of some kind – a holiday, a city-wide celebration, a party, etc.  Write an interaction between at least one character who’s excited about it and at least one character who’s dreading it.  No matter what they say aloud to one another about it, what are the real reasons they feel the way they do?  What’s under the surface for these people?  What associations do they each have with this occasion?

Good News, Bad News

I’m going to cheat again this Wednesday, and put up a writing prompt instead of a “proper” post:

Hit a character (or set of characters) with good news and bad news on the same day, but not about the same thing (i.e., not “The good news is, you don’t have tuberculosis.  The bad news is, you have emphysema.”)  How do the emotional reactions mix within the characters?  How do the characters interact with one another?  Who looks on the bright side, and who only sees the negative?  Who does your character go to first with either item of news?  Does he/she tell only the good news, and keep the bad to himself/herself, or vice versa?

The Hook

The Hook is a lie.  Let’s just get that out in the open right now.  Everybody talks about how you need to have your literary Hook, the thing that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to find out more, as soon as possible in your story or novel.  This is true.

The lie is an indirect one – a lie by omission, a lie by understatement.  Because you don’t need one Hook, you need lots of hooks.  You need a trail of breadcrumbs.  You need Reese’s Pieces leading through the forest.  You don’t get to have one big hook at the beginning and then you can meander however you want to and trust that readers will stick with you just based on one thing that was briefly mentioned all the way back at the beginning of the story.  The truth is, readers rarely take it on faith that you’re going to be interesting.  These days, there are plenty of people who assume just the opposite, in fact:  book = boring.  Jeez, it’s not even in Hi Def, and there’s no surround sound.

A story needs some sense of direction, of forward movement, and a sense of mystery, and I don’t mean the genre, in this instance.  An excerpt of my deskside dictionary’s definition of “mystery”: 

(1.) something unexplained, unknown, or kept secret (2.) any thing or event that remains so secret or obscure as to excite curiosity … mystery is applied to something beyond human knowledge or understanding, or it merely refers to any unexplained or seemingly inexplicable matter.

Now, until your plot plays out, there will obviously be stuff that’s “unknown” to the reader, whether it’s kept secret or not, and the key component in the whole definition, in terms of what I’m talking about in this entry, is the phrase excite curiosity.  You want your reader to wonder about things, to feel like a little kid again, asking, “And then what happened?” over and over, until the very end, and maybe even after they’re done reading your book.

Drop hints.  Foreshadow.  Give the reader subtext and clues that the characters miss sometimes.  Throw in setbacks.  Raise doubts.  Bring up questions that will need answering.  Give a glimpse of something bigger on the horizon, but only give enough to make your reader want more.  Build anticipation.  And make the payoff worth the wait.

A hobby of mine is looking through books and magazines on architecture, interior design, and landscaping.  One of the things I read in a landscaping magazine really struck me, and has always stuck with me as a visual metaphor for what we strive for in writing.  In garden design, this landscape architect was saying, one tries to simultaneously provide a view and obscure the view.  While each “area” should look interesting, you want people to be drawn on, through your design, and the way to do that is to show only part of what lies beyond.  Using arches, gateways, trellising (is that a word?), turns in hedges, etc., a designer will open up a glimpse, but not reveal the full effect of the next space in the garden.  It builds a sense of intrigue, makes people want to fill in the rest of the information.  And I thought, “A design hook.  Foreshadowing with hedges!”

I don’t remember what magazine the article was in, or who the designer was, unfortunately, but I think of it often when I’m working on a plot, and particularly when I’m revising.  What am I giving a glimpse of here?  Is that enough to make someone want to take the next few steps down the path?  Am I giving them too much, too soon?  I’d better save something really good for when they get to that part of the story, because they’ll need a big WOW! after that much build-up.

And there you have it.  The truth about narrative hooks!  You must have lots of them, all through the story, right up to the end.

Friday Exercise – The Tool of Music

I’ve probably mentioned on this blog before that what music I listen to can really color the tone of what I’m working on – and so while I’m actively writing, I pick my music very carefully, or don’t listen to any at all.  It gets to be sort of Pavlovian, too – a certain song or type of music will become associated with what I’m working on, and anytime I hear it, I’m in Writer Mode all of a sudden, ready to dig straight in.

I like picking out “soundtracks” – Hey, this song would be perfect for that scene where so-and-so happens, if they ever make a movie of my book!  And sometimes I’ll get an idea for a scene from listening to a song and daydreaming – I’ll start to picture action or dialogue that fits somehow with the music, or some emotion will well up in the piece that makes me realize some new level of what one of my characters might feel at a given point in the story.

For me, music is a great brainstorming tool at any point in my writing process, from the initial spark of, “Ooh, I have an idea for a story!” to “OMG!!!  I KNOW HOW IT ENDS!!!!!!”

So this week’s exercise is this:  Listen to a song/piece that takes you someplace, through emotion or connotation or whatever, and explore it.  Daydream or free write, whatever works best for you.  What could it mean to one of your characters?  If there are lyrics, would they become ironic in association with your imagined scene, or no?  Does the emotion of the music reflect a particular character’s attitude, or the story as a whole?  Are there multiple layers of feeling expressed – upbeat tempo but lots of minor to the melody?  Where there’s dissonance and resolution, what does that speak to in the story – again, is that how one character feels in the scene, or is that a clash between characters?  Maybe this works best for musicians – I play guitar, myself – but I would think it would work for any writer who likes music!

Existential Terror and Self-Editing

Rewrites.  Yeah, I know I said Wednesdays were going to be about marketing, and lately they keep not being, but the first step to marketing something is to have something that agents and publishers will want to represent.  So…rewrites.

It’s like pulling out your own teeth – it’s painful, frustrating, and messy, you’re not sure if it’s really a good idea, and it seems like the process will never end.  Unlike pulling out your own teeth, though, rewriting generally produces good results.

It’s interesting to examine the evolution of a story after you’ve had some time away from it to gain perspective.  Sometimes it’s funny to see how things ended up coming together, sometimes it’s frustrating that you ended up working in the wrong direction for a while and now you have to correct your mistake.  I try to think of rewrites the way I think of personal regrets – the things I like about who I am now would not exist if I hadn’t had the experiences I’ve had or made the mistakes I’ve made…nor would my book have come to this point of potential if I hadn’t gone down a few wrong turns here and there with it, finding a few surprise solutions along the way.

I don’t think there are many writers who don’t have a pang or two when they realize drastic changes are needed to a manuscript they’re mostly very happy with.  It’s hard to really believe that something you’re mostly very happy with could need so much work.  For me, it’s initially disheartening, then I’m irritated with myself for not writing it “right” in the first place, and then there’s a phase of infantile whining about not wanting to do the hard work of fixing it.  I suppose it’s a sort of grieving process for the words that will be lost in the process.  After all, we work hard to put those words down in the first place, and hone them to some semblance of perfection in the next few drafts, and yanking them apart feels like letting chaos spill into our carefully crafted manuscript and risking complete destruction of the story.  Of course we’re resistant to major changes to our novels!  All these delicate threads woven together, and SNIP, and now they’re all loose, and what if they never connect right again????!  Existential terror!

So how do you stop freaking out and rewrite with gusto and unabashed ruthlessness toward your own words?  First, you have to have three things in place beforehand:

  1. Separate copies of every draft of your book.  You do NOT want to alter your previous documents for a new major rewrite.  You’ll cut stuff and then realize you need it, make changes and then realize you need to refer to information that’s no longer there, and generally confuse yourself.  Also, you won’t be able to go back to the previous version and start over if your rewrites go terribly awry, which can happen.  Having the old draft is both a comfort and a practicality.
  2. A notebook and various ways of color coding stuff.  Trust me.  Or, if you work at the computer exclusively, a file for notes to yourself in a program with highlighting and text color capabilities.
  3. Coffee.

The point at which I shift from existential terror to excitement about rewrites is when I can really see how the story can be better.  I don’t have to have all the answers, just a clear view of what’s holding it back and some ideas about how to help it shine.  I think it’s vital, too, going into big changes, to have a clear sense of what you want the book to be, especially what you originally wanted, above all, for this book, right from the beginning, that made you want to write it.  In fact, I even wrote myself a note before I started the second draft of The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, reminding myself what the heart and soul of the book was to me.  Many things have changed about the book…characters have come, gone, changed, etc.  Events have been cut, added, altered, moved around.  Tone has been tweaked.  Setting and concept have shifted or explained differently.  But the story is still what I wanted it to be all along – a crazy adventure with an un-self-pitying and funny protagonist determined to come back from the dead.

And it helps to see that, and know that no matter whether I cut or condense or reorganize, I can still keep the heart of the book in place, and that anything I change is just freeing the book up to be closer and closer to its full potential.  That is when I start to be excited about rewrites.

Oh, and I wrote this entry a while back about staying organized and maintaining structure during major rewrites.  This method has helped me more than I can express in words.

Plot and Fundamental Human Needs

Characters have always been the easiest part of writing for me – they’re usually the first component of any story to occur to me, often the first to flesh out into something three-dimensional in my mind, and the primary source of conflict in most of my work stems from the characters and/or their own inner conflict(s).

However, I don’t like to limit too many of my plots (especially anything longer than a short story) to being purely character-driven.  It’s always harder for me to come up with external conflict I like that’s big enough for a book plot, so I use tools to brainstorm that kind of stuff.  One thing I turn to a lot is psychology/sociology.  Which sounds like it would lead straight back to internal stuff (which it does, sometimes).  But it gets me thinking about the external pressures people face, how different people react to the same circumstances in totally different ways, and how those varying reactions can become another external conflict in the story.

One thing I use to brainstorm is looking over basic human needs.  The precise wording, number, and definition varies from theory to theory, but it’s all pretty much the same stuff, just broken down differently.  There’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the basic needs like sustenance and safety have to be fulfilled before the “higher” needs even matter to a given individual – which is an interesting point, in story terms.

There’s also a Wikipedia article on fundamental human needs with a nice little table with specific goals, actions, qualities, etc. related to each category of needs.  It defines fundamental needs as:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

How do you make a plot out of fundamental human needs?  Well, as usual with writing, be sadistic to your characters.  Take some of these things away from them, or at least threaten to.  Or make them choose between two.  Or set two characters with two different problems with need fulfilment at odds with each other.  Or explore a community with an unfilfilled fundamental need, and how individuals’ reactions to the issue affect one another, making things worse for the others or better for the others.

To me, the best book plots often don’t have “bad guys” per se, just people who want different things, going about getting what they want in different ways, pulling at each other or pushing each other away, each one internally conflicted and each one affected by the events around them, as well.