Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Time to Write 1 - Minutes, energy, and tasks

Some people feel they can only write when they have large, dedicated blocks of time. There are occasions when I need that, too. When I go into the deep analysis of the plot, for instance, I often need to work intensely and any interruptions can force me to do a lot of rework. I can usually anticipate these ahead of time and get them onto the calendar.

But there are lots of writing jobs that can be done without much dedicated time. I found this when I did what most productivity experts advocate -- I kept track of how I used the hours I have.

I formed my baseline by tracking my activities over one week. Ultimately, this reached beyond the typical productivity view of finding free hours and wasted hours because I noted my energy levels. I identified which tasks seemed to best match my rhythms.

I'm a morning person, and virtually all my hardest work, including work that requires the most imagination, needs to get done before 1 PM. I also noted that my energy is better if I enforce a "walk around" break every 40 to 50 minutes. I need to get the blood moving and to loosen my muscles.

In the afternoon, I tend to do more rewriting and work that involves logic or directed work (such as filling out forms for story planning and character development). This is also a good time to do business activities for me -- although I do tend to check anything involving money at a time when my brain is fresher.

The biggest bonus I got from paying attention to how I work came with my discovery of interstitial work. Back when my calendar would fill up with meetings, I began to keep a list of essential activities I could break away from easily or even complete in five or 10 minutes. Since then, whenever I'm kept waiting or an activity ends early, I go to my list, grab the next thing, and get to work on it.

I have also made good use of activities that allow split attention. I almost always listen to a book that's relevant to my work as I walk the treadmill or make dinner.

Similarly, I've come to respect what I call my "Zen" times. When I am doing physical activities like raking leaves or I'm in the shower, ideas will pop into my head or characters will begin talking to me. One best-selling author told me she always kept a wax pen in her shower stall for exactly this reason.

Finally, there's what I call commercial breaks. When I'm watching a ball game on TV, I keep a list of simple questions nearby or index cards of scenes. I grab these and scribble out answers or experiment with new orders whenever commercials come on.

So, here's my "how to":
  • Track and analyze how you spend your time in terms of the intensity of activities, the opportunities for specific levels of work, and your own cycles of energy.
  • Classify your writing activities in ways that will encourage you to make the most of the opportunities you've identified.
  • Be prepared. Have the materials to do your work at hand when opportunities present themselves.
Next time, I'll list some specific writing tasks and when, from my experience, they make the most sense.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 7 - High contrast

I try to let my stories off the leash in the drafting stage. It's one of the reasons why I work hard to banish my internal editor and get the words down quickly. But my natural tendencies do not go toward exploring extreme differences. Luckily, I have found that it's relatively easy to deliberately explore contrasts when I do my revisions. Why does this make a difference?

Think of a target. You'll imagine concentric circles of white and black (or possibly the color red). If you make the circles white and pale yellow or green and blue, the image is less riveting and finding the bull's-eye becomes more of a problem.

All other things being equal, a duet between a man and a woman is more compelling than between two men or two women. A friendship between a tall person and a short person (Mutt and Jeff) attracts more attention than a pair with comparable heights. Part of the art of cooking is combining distinctly different flavors. Each of these is compelling because we're built to notice and engage with contrasts.

So one way to add interest to your story is to emphasize differences. Let's explore five ways that you can enhance contrast and draw your readers and audiences in.

Physical diversity – Gender, size, ethnicity, dress, grooming, deformity, and beauty are just some of the immediate and accessible aspects of characters that can be presented to readers and audiences. The diversity of the crew on the Starship Enterprise was immediately apparent to viewers (and, to some, shocking in its day).

Defy expectations — If the appearances of characters don't line up with people's preconceived notions (the more), this creates surprises that make people want to know more. In Legally Blonde, the main character goes against the "dumb blonde" convention by being highly intelligent. In Crocodile Dundee, the outback adventurer outsmarts the city slickers.

Personalities – The classic here is the Odd Couple, which pits a slob against the neatnik when they are forced to live together. But there are plenty of other cases where people who plan are matched with those who improvise or straight arrows are matched with crooks. The variations in perspectives, values, and approaches to problem solving can be mined in ways that illuminate and amplify theme. This is especially true when the differences are pushed to the limits. One way to explore this is to create characters who are exact opposites based on personality testing, such as Myers-Briggs.

Impossible tasks – Imagine if the protagonist in Rocky had been the latest Olympic gold medal winning heavyweight boxer. Would the movie have been as interesting? Instead, he's a failed boxer who has lost his spot at the gym and makes his living as a leg breaker, someone sent to intimidate people who owe money. Luke Skywalker is not yet a Jedi. He's a farm boy. And he has to take on the Empire. While you have to stay within the bounds of believability (Apollo Creed does not take on a 12-year-old girl), giving the external goal of the story to an unlikely person creates curiosity and, because we want to root for underdogs, empathy.

Knowledge – Irony also provides an interesting contrast. It can make readers and audiences deliciously uncomfortable when they know more than the characters do. In a horror story, audiences worry when a character decides to go down the hallway or enter a room where the monster, serial killer, or demon is waiting. Hitchcock famously spoke about how excruciating a scene becomes when characters have an everyday chat in the presence of a ticking time bomb.

Usually, writers have the good sense to include conflict and tension in most scenes. They make sure dialogue is distinct enough so that a listener or reader, without cues, would know who is speaking. But, many stories squander opportunities to enhance differences. Either planning or in revision, looking closely for opportunities to increase contrast in characters, situations, objectives, settings, expectations, social norms, values, and more can raise better questions and create deeper emotional experiences.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 6 - Fear and blasphemy

My intent is not to deliver you into temptation. I am not trying to break up your marriage or scandalize your congregation or attract the attention of analysts at the Department of Homeland Security. I'm all about stories. The best stories. The stories that challenge. The stories that are memorable.

So... what are you afraid of?

I mean this literally. (What you are looking for are opportunities to take risks with your drafts, so take notes, make lists.) Let's take my favorite route to surprising answers, a climb up Maslow's pyramid (or hierarchy).
By FireflySixtySeven - Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow's paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0

Starting from the bottom, what deaths are you most afraid of? Begin with the most likely ones. Heart disease, automobile accidents, cancer, Alzheimers, etc. ? Then, are there unlikely deaths that give you nightmares? Are there causes of death or moments/places of death that would mortify you?

You might want to imagine disabilities or diseases, as well. When I was a kid, there seemed to be a television genre for this -- disease of the week. I don't think the interest has gone away. What makes you squirm will make your characters squirm and engage readers.

Constant threats to safety can raise anxiety levels. I've been mugged a couple of times, so I avoid hidden spaces and shadowy alleys. I am keenly aware when traveling in some countries of the dangers of food poisoning, even in the best hotels (eat only if sealed or sizzling). What have been the worst threats to your safety? Getting separated from your parents? Riding in a car when a drunk was behind the wheel? Where would you never go? What would you never do? If something you imagine gives you chills, add it to your list.

Start easy, remembering embarrassments. Probing your social anxieties, from public speaking to secret traumas. Then move on. What could you do that would break the bonds of love? Or what could happen that would separate you from people you care for? Think in personal terms, exploring your real relationships and push to levels beyond forgiveness. I hope none of the worst things have happened to you, but if they did, they are there to be mined. And, if they didn't, your empathy has forced you to experience the horrors others have shared. These are key to strong stories, too.

From the time of Greek drama, the idea of bringing the most honored low has made good theater. Think of what you are most esteemed for or what you most value about yourself. Now imagine losing those things completely, a fall from grace. Punishment for hubris. Try the same thing for someone who is your model, your hero, or your heroine.

Feel free to explore the loss of self-actualization, if you wish. In all probability, people whom Maslow would have considered self-actualized have suffered in this way, and it might lead to good stories. However, since Maslow believed that less than one percent of humans achieve self-actualization, you might have difficulty getting readers to identify with the consequences of such a failure.

This is your fears list. All of these fears can catch fire in a good story, and you should try submitting your characters to these tortures, especially those that disturb you the most. Don't worry. Your characters will forgive you. And you don't have to include these in any drafts that others will read.

Now climb the pyramid again. This time, think of what might appeal to you -- but not just anything. Think about what attracts you that is unacceptable to others, weird, or even taboo. If it's something you'd never dare to do, even better. Make a list of these.

This is your blasphemy list. Again, try to work these into your stories. Then, as a test, imagine your distress if your kids or your lover(s) or your boss or your spouse's friends or government agents were to read these scenes. Out loud, in front of you. Imagine reading such scenes in different cultures or different times. Would any of them lead people into temptation? Break a marriage? Lead to shunning or exile? Put you in jail? Get you burned at the stake?

Good. Now you can write something that's off the leash. Perhaps something you'll need to dial back for safety's sake. Or destroy. That's success. That's testing your limits. That's finding options to write stories that break new ground and challenge the culture.

Too dark? Find the healing. Find the way home. Find the reconciliation. Find the happy ending. Take the trip from damnation to ecstasy. It will be unlike anything else. Never settle for the journey from discomfort to calm.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Stories off the Leash 5 - Making the most of bad choices

While it's easy to lose your audience by having your character make a stupid choice, there are lots of ways protagonists can make bad decisions in ways that draw readers in. All of these take some thought, consideration, and planning, so you might as well make them pay off for you as a writer. In other words, don't skimp on disaster.

This may seem obvious, but many writers identify with their characters. They don't want them to suffer, and they let them off the hook. It is a hard thing to become the torturer of a hero or heroine you love. Do it anyway. As Nick Lowe said, "You've Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind."

Other writers don't do the work. They don't dare to imagine how bad things can get. Take a chance. Sort through each level of Maslow's Hierarchy and imagine a single choice or an unfortunate combination of choices depriving your character of essential needs, including life itself. You don't have to (and often shouldn't) hit your hero or heroine with the most extreme consequences, but it doesn't cost anything to consider them.

Whatever the results of a bad decision, they must make the protagonist's failure more likely. Ideally, they will raise the stakes as well. If you lose the race, you won't just be humiliated. You'll lose your job. Ore maybe your life.

Rejecting the idea of bad things seems to be wired into a lot of people, so the consequences of bad choices must be undeniable. Make what happens to the hero or heroine clear and unmistakable. This is one case where it is good to be repetitive. Subtlety will only work against you because it will diminish the impact or even make readers resentful if, later on, they illusion of everything being okay is shattered.

Similar to this is the requirement to make the disaster irreversible. Yes, a broken leg can heal, but not before the big game. And it's best if the leg is simply amputated. Whatever happens after the disaster, the protagonist can never be the same again.

Do make sure the consequences are out-sized. Consequences that follow reasonably from a decision tend to be predictable, moderate... and less interesting. Always make sure they feel unfair. If possible, include a nasty surprise.

Once you have settled on dreadful consequences, don't hesitate to turn the screw. It always feels worse if it is a surprise. I'm not a fan of complete surprises, though they can work and be reasonable. Usually, some hint beforehand keeps the reader from feeling manipulated. Or you can have karma catch up with the hero. That's when he or she gets away repeatedly with an action that should have consequences (say, teasing a lion or posting cartoons that mock a powerful villain). Then there is an overreaction. Bang.

You can also increase the pain by having the disaster happen because of trust. When a protagonist does something, even though it feels a little risky, because a friend or lover offers assurances or encouragement, and then horrible results are suffered because of the trusted person's betrayal, it can be agonizing.

Often, the hurt is worst of all when innocents and/or loved ones suffer the consequences. This heaps guilt and shame on the protagonist, which can trump physical pain and make something like a limp or a disfigurement a lifelong reminder of failure.

In his terrific book Story, Robert McKee asks writers to explore damnation. There is no middle ground in the best fiction. It is about pushing the story to its limits. So seek damnation.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Stories off the Leash 4 - Bad choices make good stories

Where would horror movies be if people never went outside to investigate a noise or walked down that dark alley or opened that door? We all make mistakes in real life. Sometimes ridiculous, thoughtless ones and sometimes ones that "seemed like a good idea at the time." Many of these become tales we retell, and some reveal us in ways no descriptions ever could.

When I read manuscripts, it's unusual for me to find stories where bad choices by protagonists propel the stories forward effectively. Either the result is the plot turning on stupidity or the drama is robbed as the mistake is minimized, leading to tepid consequences. But, when a character makes an understandable decision that wreaks havoc... wow.

I'll discuss making the most out of bad choices next week. For now, let's look first at advancement of the plot by stupidity. Here, the protagonist knows (or should know) the decision is bad and goes ahead and does something that can't turn out well. This is frustrating because we want to identify with the hero and root for him or her. How (except in some comedies) can you root for a dolt? How can you feel bad when trouble follows and it's completely predictable? (And if it is completely predictable, where's the fun?)?

But we do have good examples of protagonists who make bad decisions where the story is not harmed.
  • When there's no time to deliberate. We understand bad decisions that are made in a split second. The reasons why astronauts repeat so many scenarios in training is because it's so difficult to make the best choice in the moment.
  • When we find there's special knowledge. Shrimpy David took on beefy Goliath, but he had a trick up his sleeve -- a secret weapon slingshot.
  • When there's irony. In this case, we know that the killer is behind the door the heroine is about to go through or the bomb is under the seat the protagonist picks, but she or he doesn't. And it's excruciating.
  • When there's betrayal. We can all sympathize with a protagonist who makes a decision based on bad information or advice from a trusted friend or because friends get him or her impaired (say at a drinking party) and don't look out for him or her.
  • When alternatives are exhausted. High Noon provides a great example of this. Will Kane tries everything to deal with the gunfighters headed his way. He can't get help and he can't leave town (without sacrifices his honor). He's just stuck.
  • When it leads to unintended consequences. Sometimes small acts lead to major results. People may get away with distracted driving hundreds of times before deadly consequences result.
  • When the situation is completely new to the protagonist or significantly changed.You might lose the sympathy of the audience if the protagonist is texting while driving. But what if he or she gets a sneezing fit?
  • When the choice is between to equally horrible outcomes (dilemma). This is a classic for drama. Superman must choose between saving Lois Lane or stopping a bomb from going off. Something bad will happen.
Stakes add an important dimension when considering protagonists' choices. High stakes can drive bad decisions and create better stories. I'll cover that as part of the next entry in this series.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 3 - Worlds on edge

Interesting things happen at the fringes. A yeast cell takes water and sugar and trace amounts of other molecules from its environment and sends out alcohol and carbon dioxide. A border town trades with other communities, and that extends to more than goods. Music, ideas, customs, behaviors, and recipes are rejected, transformed, and accepted by people with different cultures, and then passed on to their larger societies.

Writer James Alan MacPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow, understood the dramatic value of interfaces, consciously seeking out the conflicts and compromises of the edge. His ideas caught my imagination early in my career, prompting me to focus on where science and technology meet business, law, politics, nature, global challenges, and our daily lives.

Contrasts, struggles, and transformation belong at the heart of what you write, even if your focus is on small town romances. The differences between lovers, including the endless curiosity between sexes in traditional romances, forces endless adjustments and adaptations. We relate to stories where characters are simultaneously attracted and repelled, pulled together by circumstances and driven apart by the unacceptable.

Odd couple stories do this. So do stories of circumstance, where people are forced together. The stakes for diverse groups can be survival, as with The Poseidon Adventure or many Star Trek shows, where the right answer only emerges when a logical Vulcan and an intuitive human must find a middle path.

How do you find your edge?
  • Look for interesting differences, where neither is completely "right." Pull both ways so the values of each side get a fair shake.
  • Make it personal. Even a story of a fight to the death between aliens and humans needs to include individuals we can relate to who face challenges and impossible choices. And, if you can make it personal to you so you feel as if you are taking risks as you write the story, even better.
  • Make it external. Often writers who have found the opportunity to examine a rich story at the boundaries will get intellectual about it, turning a good tale into an essay. Enough with the reflection. No more talking. See what would happen if you presented the story as a silent movie without title cards.
  • Make it fresh. The reason I like science and technology in my stories is new concept emerge daily, and I can explore and share these. Other writers bring little known cultures and subcultures to the fore in their stories, including inside views of professions. One of the joys of Six Feet Under was how it detailed the funeral industry's interactions with people in extreme situations.
  • Make it eternal. Edge stories are engaging because they provide lots of details. That's the way to draft them. But once the draft is done, take the time to find the theme. If you dealt honestly with your material, it will be there. Then go back and use the details and trim the excess to illuminate your statement on the human condition.
  • Don't propagandize. Theme is not the same as message.
Working at the edge requires research. If you happen upon lesser known interface, you need to dig deeply and get it right. If you are privy to a cultural border town, you need to take yourself outside of it so you can see what you are inevitably missing and share with those outside your situation. If your world is as familiar as a 60s family sitcom, you need to uncover the strange and unexpected.

Never settle for the obvious.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 2 - Crunch time

Time flows differently in a story, and you can use the freedom from real clocks and calendars to set your story free.

Most obviously, you can manipulate time and the reader experience by the use of flashbacks and flashforewards and parallel storytelling and fracturing. Many stories raise question that, if the story were told chronologically, would already be answered -- but withholding information is part of the fun of stories, leading to emotional payoffs as surely as putting a joke's punchline at the end. Secrets always add to fun.

On the opposite side, reordering important reveals, such as the death of the main character in Sunset Boulevard, expectations are set (so the audience does not expect a happy ending) and dread is increased.

A third reason for this kind of time is to assure rising conflict. The logic of a story may not take the protagonist along the path of worse and worse complications, but manipulating the order of scenes (and the protagonist's awareness of what has happened) can up the tension and avoid dramatic plateauing. Oedipus has murdered his father and married his mother long before he realizes his mistakes, long before they transform his story.

These composition choices don't match real time, but, unless the writer messes up, all of these approaches are apparent to readers. In fact, they usually are called out specifically by starting new chapters or, at least, sectioning with added white space.

There are less obvious choices. Compression (where we don't see every moment of a scene) happens in film so often, we probably don't notice it. (Those who first saw movies did notice.) It can be used in novels and short stories, too. Actions described are limited to those that are essential without destroying flow. Summation is used to present scenes that are needed for logic but don't have enough interesting going on to offer moment-to-moment.

Obsession represents another use of time. Real people are regularly distracted by and drawn away from their pursuits of even critical goals. We all need to deal with eating, sleeping, phone calls, headaches, itches, and wandering minds. These are limited in stories to the point of what would be syndromes or diseases for any of us. Protagonists, on the other hand, are monomaniacal about their goals. If they were real, we'd lock them up.

One way obsessions are hidden is through timeboxing. We all understand deadlines, and the ticking clocks in stories feel right for us and automatically add tension that both increases our enjoyment and keeps us from looking too closely at the artifice.

Everything can't have a deadline, or course. That can become tedious or exhausting. Usually, the big event has a deadline. Rocky has both a deadline for the beginning of the fight (when training ends) and the fight itself (with the limited number of rounds). There may be deadlines for some of the tasks that must be accomplished to succeed, but probably not all.

Deadlines for tasks can be flexible or end in failure, provided alternative task that make it possible to stay on the road to success are hinted at. The final deadline almost always must be firm, or readers will feel cheated. Villains can have deadlines, and these can turn out to be flexible if it messes up the protagonist. Supporting characters can have deadlines for subplots or that make the protagonist more miserable.

Irreversibility is another subtle use of time. The idea that a choice made provides no way for the protagonist to go back and resume his or her original life is essential to story drama. Time branches, and the road not taken can never be taken. Decisions matter. They have consequences. And the one-way nature of time enforces this.

Finally, there is subjective time. We feel this in our own lives, when things seem to speed up (often during a crisis) or slow down (when life gets dull). Controlling the expression of this in stories is one of the writer's most important jobs. Getting it right is intrinsically linked to pacing (something I covered in the Fast Reads series).

Time is stories is a mixture of emulating time in our own lives and choosing techniques we can master to manipulate tension, surprise, and emotion within a story. The many approaches are your toolbox as a writer to make your stories more engaging. It's good to experiment with using these tools so you can create the effects you want. One caution is to be careful about using them in ham-handed fashions that take readers out of stories. Pay attention when you notice in your reading that other writers have not succeeded. These are great lessons. (And, since readers change, you can often find what would be failures today in "classic" novels from earlier eras.)

When the use of time does not feel authentic, it's like seeing the wires used for improbable leaps in Hollywood action scenes. Get good at this. Readers are more and more likely to spot techniques with time, so special attention (often during revision) needs to be paid to hiding you tracks.