Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Unexpected in Fiction 1 - The uses of surprise

Most popular fiction depends upon balancing the expected and the unexpected. A successful murder mystery works because it both plants clues that make the revelation at the end fair (expected) and redirects our attention so that the solution surprises us (unexpected).

Other than the charm of the writer's voice and the quality of the prose, what captures and holds readers is the delight of being surprised. Let's look at the different kinds of surprise that might occur in fiction and how they can be used.

Sometimes authors opt to shock readers. Things that suddenly appear — a man with a gun at the door – or go further than convention allows – impolite language, sex and violence beyond what's usual for a genre, the grotesque — can startle and disturb readers. These are the equivalent of shouting, "Boo!" or walking naked into school board meeting. Hard not to react to, but cheap and sensational without some level of context and justification.

This is not to say that it is wrong to startle readers. Shock is part of the emotional palette and can be used to change the rhythm of a piece or to open readers up to new ideas. In addition, a lot of humor depends upon shock.

Revelations go beyond identifying murderers. The twists and turns throughout novels dependend on revealing bits of information that both answer questions and raise new ones. It's frequently valuable to save the biggest revelation for the end of the story (or close to the end), but a novel that is continuously straight-ahead and full of expected developments is liable to be boring.

Lesser known facts can add to the fun of the story. Sometimes, these are details that fill out and change perspectives on what "everybody knows." Sometimes, they are reasonable explanations that subvert conventional wisdom. Or they can be as simple as "truth is stranger than fiction." One of the joys of Doctorow's Ragtime is the presence of historical figures who actually did some of the things that show up in the novel and who met each other in real life. This can be analogous to finding a puzzle piece that fits into a picture, completing it in a satisfying way.

There can be surprises as well that change the meaning of everything that went before. A familiar example is the appearance of the mostly buried Statue of Liberty at the end of the original "Planet of the Apes" movie. (This brought groans to SF fans, but it amazed most theatergoers at the time.)

At a deeper level, the true character of someone might be revealed in a story or an unsettling truth about life might be put forward after the writer has set us up to be vulnerable to it. James Joyce's epiphanies are good examples of these.

In popular fiction, there's nothing wrong with cheap thrills. They are the stock in trade of spectacles and magic shows. A good writer can use these directly to entertain or to lead readers to new understandings. But, with larger and more subtle intentions, a writer can deepen the appreciation readers have of what life has to offer.

How do you create the most effective and powerful surprises in your writing? That's something I'll explore in my next entry in this series.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Write Who You Are 6 - High(er) art

As part of the previous post in my Write Who You Are series, I opened up the topic of intent. Specifically, I introduced my own non-Academy thoughts on what might be considered High Art.

I did this not as a way to exclude people or topics, but to inspire and raise questions. Even if you believe the thirty-second television commercial is today's Cathédrale de Chartres or the value of art is completely subjective, you may find what I bring up here provokes a response that suggests new directions for your work. I make no claims that this is authoritative, but I've found it helpful for me.

So here, from the base up, are the details:

Convey facts and lessons. Because no lab bench was available to me, I started my career as a biochemist by writing up processes for every product my company produced. These had to be simple, clear, and complete. I paid special attention to any cues (such as color changes) along the way that might let people know they were successful. Since some mistakes could be costly (millions of dollars) or life threatening, I had to get it all right. In addition, these works made it possible for this start-up to cash in at a later date.

That's challenging, honorable work, but pretty basic. A higher level in this category is material to supplement education. My courseware usually includes examples, exercises, and indications of the practical value and social values of the information.

Mastery requires deep understanding of the readers and what they are bringing in terms of skills and knowledge. It's important to know why people might read the materials and to pay off their expectations. Motivating them to reach further is a plus. Clarity trumps style and subtlety.

Entertain. I like roller-coaster rides, desserts, and fun. I resist my Puritan heritage and accept the validity of amusement and good times. Though I'm always suspicious of charm and charisma, they both have value in drawing people in, distracting them from sorrow and tedium, and even making the rough journey to enlightenment more palatable. Is it sweet, savory, sexy, and/or playful? Bring it on. I'm also inclined toward and respect the sensuality of language. I read poems out loud because they feel good in my mouth.

In the same area is surprise, a trick of time, expectations, and revelations. It's the key to thrilling readers.

Mastery here requires a knowledge of structure, timing, telling details, recognizing the quirky, and raising questions. Be sensitive to what journalists look for -- the unusual, the useful, the dangerous, the endearing, and the salacious -- is important. Charm and X-factors can supercharge the entertainment value, but I'm not sure if they can be mastered or if you need to be born with them.

Immerse the reader. When marks on a page put someone into another reality, they can have experiences that are deep, authentic, and valuable. These literary simulations, which I covered in detail in my Lost in the Story series, bring people out of the narrow worlds they live in. When a writer is at his or her best, the story will involve readers with just enough details to invite them to complete the worlds with their own imaginations.

Mastery is mostly based on creating emotional engagement, but sensory details and verisimilitude are important components.

Provide insights. I love aha experiences. For me, these have come via experiments, calculations, conversations, and being present as life rolls on. They've also come in reading. James Joyce consciously framed his stories to provide epiphanies -- not the surprises at the end of O. Henry stories, but revelations that were deeper. Sharing, in a way that is earned by the story, something that shapes the meaning of life, is a high calling. It can change individuals on a personal level and help move societies toward sensitivity, justice, and awareness.

Mastery comes primarily from creating rich characters readers can empathize with and challenging situations. Authentic insights in real life come out of struggles and require facing contradictions. The same is true in fiction.

Offer fresh perspectives. One of the wonders of fiction comes down to a simple offer -- Come along with me and live in someone else's head. Stories allow us to think strange thoughts, participate in unfamiliar decision-making, and experience the world in ways that are foreign to us. If you went through your average day within the body of another gender, or as someone with a disability you've never had, or viewing everything through the eyes of someone who has different values or ethnicity, you'd never see things the same way.

Good fiction does this. In my lifetime, doors have opened that have allowed me to share the points of view of people who were hidden during my parents' times. Diversity does matter, as much for those who read as those whose stories still need to be told.

Mastery here may mean finding what you alone have to offer and, even if risky and painful, presenting it with care and authenticity. But don't be afraid of appropriating other cultures. When done with honesty and respect, this only expands perspectives.

Provoke. This one is obvious. Raise questions. Get past assumptions. Disrupt. Take on conventional wisdom. Challenge the status quo. Speak truth to power. Disturb the comfortable.

Mastery demands you take chances and not be coy about it. Also, that you examine yourself for blind spots, prejudices, and unquestioned beliefs. Learn the tricks of being memorable and hard to ignore.

Break through. Reimagine your art. In the service of providing something truly new and essential, dare to innovate.
 It's fun to explore these in isolation and see how the best writers accomplish these aims. Of course, it's exciting to read works that are able to do all of these well at once. We call these masterpieces.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Write Who You Are 5 - Eight paths

As you work to create stories only you can tell and to make them as good as they can be, it's worth considering different approaches to excellence. While I don't claim this is a complete list, here are eight paths you might take as you write who you are:

Pay attention — Any ideas you have need to be expressed in terms of the world around you, even if your work is fantasy. The closer you observe nature, people, and social structures, the better able you will be to ground your work in a reality that encourages people to share your fictional world.

Follow your heart — There is a mathematics to storytelling, and it can be helpful in revision, especially in finding missing pieces. However, since people read fiction for an emotional experience, it's invaluable for you to pay attention to what moves you and connects you with truths that go beyond facts, logic, and order. Trust your gut and follow your intuition to its limits.

Explore — Treasure your curiosity, both in terms of what life presents you and in new ways to express your vision. Don't be afraid to move into areas that are unfamiliar, strange, and even offputting. Always welcome the possibility of surprise.

Take risks — It's good to remember that you never have to show anyone a single paragraph you've written. You can write a chapter in blank verse or a love scene that would make your friends blush. You can write down the ramblings of a vicious murderer or share delicate feelings and experiences that are too close to speak aloud, even in a whisper. Once you've captured these, it may be that you'll find only a few that you'll dare to make part of your manuscript, but those you do choose to share are likely to be precious.

Do the hard thing – Whenever you have a choice between a point of view that feels uncomfortable and one that doesn't, between a character's extreme action and their reasonable response, between a theme that embarrasses you and one that is likely to bring acclaim, select the former and not the latter. You can always go back and redo your work to bring it into line with the establishment, but it's unlikely you'll be able to work in the other direction. So stretch yourself, always, to do work that disturbs you.

Have courage — This can be difficult if you are not a daring person. We all want to be accepted and many of us want to be rewarded. Few people are happy with disdain and disapproval. Take a chance once in a while. Fail and learn from the failure. If you never have anyone hate the work you do, you're unlikely to find anyone who's transformed by it.

Seek mastery — Keep learning about your craft. Take courses and talk to colleagues and find mentors. Most of all, study work that is outside your interests and that represents the best that can be done.

Now, all of this is good but insufficient. It's critical that, once you recognize a technique or an approach that pushes you to do your work at the highest level that you make the effort to be the best you can be. Do exercises. Write samples. Get feedback for your work. Always be trying to go beyond "good enough" in one aspect of your writing.

Aim higher — While any work that is masterfully done is a delight, it's good to strive to have real impact with your writing. It has gone out of vogue to distinguish between high art and low art. In part, because of the abuse of experts, who traditionally have used their definitions to exclude approaches that made them uncomfortable and people who they thought didn't deserve recognition. There is a long history of intolerance for diversity that has twisted concepts of what should be respected. However, I'd like to suggest that there are differences in artistic ventures worth keeping in mind.

My personal pyramid, going from bottom to top, begins with conveying facts and lessons. Next is entertaining work, with all of its charms. Up at the next level would be worked that immerses you in the experience. Above that, stories that present, in an elegant way, insights and epiphanies. Fresh perspectives often offer even more. And near the top would be those tales that raise questions and provoke people to challenge, explore, and rethink the status quo. Somewhere in here, perhaps at the highest level, would be breakthrough work that reimagines how storytelling might change us and our society.

Be kind to yourself — This isn't one of the eight paths, but I feel compelled to add it because much of what I've included among these approaches can be demanding both in work and in sacrifice. You're not required to be a hero all the time. Stumbling and giving in and taking things easy are all part of the human experience and acceptable. No good comes from insisting on perfection all the time.

I hope some of this is helpful as you take on the challenge of writing who you are. Next time, I'll explore the "aim higher" pyramid in more detail.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Write Who You Are 4 - Selecting projects

Once you have a better understanding of what you care about, it's good to work toward having this insight drive which projects you choose to take on. You want to move toward High Authenticity Writing as soon as practical.

This does not mean immediately dropping everything you're doing to analyze your options and refocus your efforts. You probably have a Work In Progress (or a best candidate for a WIP). Keep at that so that your good habits as a writer continue. Also, it would not be a good idea to immediately stop work on any projects which you are obliged to finish, especially if a contract is in place.

Even if you have nothing in progress and no obligations, be sure to keep writing. Choose a small project like a short story to work on and complete as you do the work necessary to planning which works you need to write. But, put a date on the calendar, which will be the start date for your "write to you are" efforts.

Begin by brainstorming a list of 3 to 5 opportunities that seem to make sense. (You can start with a longer list, but whittle it down so the ranking is not too onerous.) Then you can begin to evaluate these.

What are your criteria for selecting projects? Ultimately you get to decide. But here are some suggestions:
  • Passion probably will be important as you review your options. Use the other lessons in this series and/or your gut to determine how these rank as far as which is the most important one for you to tell. 
  • Evaluate each in terms of how fresh it feels and how it will provoke you to explore new ideas and connections. Give extra weighting to anything that makes you a little bit uncomfortable.
  • Since you are looking for a new direction be careful about choosing one-off projects that, although enticing, are less likely to set you on the right path
  • Think about the time commitment implied by each choice. Don't set yourself up for a project that will take you nine years to complete when there's another on the list that might be nearly as valid and doable in a year or less. 
  • For many people, financial outlay should also be a consideration. Sometimes dedication to the art requires sacrifice, but don't martyr yourself if you don't have to. Starvation makes it more difficult to have fun. And you should be having some fun.
  • I'm a big believer in deadlines. Whatever you put your hand to, see if you can determine a completion date. If you have the discipline, this can develop into a full-fledged plan, with lots of commitments on your calendar. But there's nothing wrong with looking toward finishing your project in time for submission to a writing program or a contest. In fact, many people I know who have had success use contests as a spur to complete their manuscripts.

If you are not fully committed or you are still figuring out what matters most to you, you may want to ease yourself into High Authenticity Writing. I suggest the first one you choose the one where you expect to have a good experience. Get started with as many positive vibes as you can.

You can push your limits later and reach toward higher ambitions later on. First, get your feet set. There will also be practical considerations, like working in a genre (science fiction, romance, thriller) and format (short story, novel, script) that you have experience and perhaps a track record in. A shorter work means less of a commitment. You don't want to spend the next year working in a genre you have experience in but which is not the best for you.

So, 1) don't stop writing, 2) consider setting aside some time (not your writing time) to determine short-term criteria to ease yourself into High Authenticity Writing, and 3) mark the date on the calendar to determine your long-term criteria and to rank and select your next project or two.

Have as your goal making your writing process a richer and more fulfilling experience.  Chances are, if you do this and you complete and submit your works, the truth and value of your efforts will show through and will provide what only you have to offer to readers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Write Who You Are 3 - What you care about

The stories you were born to tell are essential to you. They are intertwined with how you see the world, what you value, experiences that have changed you, and the connections you have with others. They touch on your principles and your sense of justice, but also on your obsessions and what you find irresistible.

Do you know what you care about? Not all writers do.

It's easier to look at your favorite creative people and see what they care about. Take a minute and list five films you love or TV shows you can't miss or novels that you've reread. If, for any of these, the writers or directors have a body of work you're familiar with, you probably can identify what they care about.

Martin Scorsese is, among other things, focused on loyalty (and betrayal), violence, and religion. Woody Allen is obsessed with the meaning of existence, communication (and miscommunication), and sex. George R. R. Martin is fascinated by power, duty, language, and pride.

You can probably add to the above easily, both expanding on my thumbnails and delineating the passions of the artists who form your personal pantheon. By doing that, you'll find some of the things you care about most. Certainly, we are attracted to works that are far from our own interests -- most writers are insatiably curious -- but a high percentage of the novels you read and the movies and television shows you watch reflect your own delights, concerns, and questions.

If you look at the people you surround yourself with, you probably can list what they care about -- a skill of yours that's evident if they appreciate your recommendations, advice, and gifts. Again, if you write down these obsessions, chances are some of what you record will resonate with you. Some of it will tell you what matters to you and provide direction on what you're meant to write.

It's good to continue to explore what you care about most. Diaries, your past writing, the answers you give people with problems, embarrassing moments, memories you revisit, and risky actions can all provide clues. Some will be enchanting and some will be disturbing, but all of them will be irreplaceable treasures for you as a writer.

Here are a few caveats: Not everything you find compelling will lead to your best work. Don't try to use dreams directly for stories because they rarely can be given the context they need to appeal to others. Grudges and grievances tend to be petty, reducing the scope of your themes (though they can be good fodder for comedy). Fresh wounds and infatuations seem like the real thing, but they are usually too new to have been processed by your artistic sensibilities. Take notes for later.

Looking for more? Try these:
  • Who were your childhood heroes?
  • What are your favorite sayings?
  • What's the biggest mistake you ever made?
  • What's the hardest choice you ever faced (or one you hope never to face)?
  • Did someone ever deeply disappoint you or betray you?
  • What would be the worst thing to lose (possession, relationship, talent, memory)?
For any of these that resonate, see if you can write about 200 words exploring the details and why it is meaningful to you. Think in terms of family, community, justice, vulnerability, and right and wrong. Pay attention to your emotions.

You may find some stories, and that's good. But the most important things you can discover, by approaching yourself sideways, are the themes that matter most to you, the very ones that are obvious in the work of your favorite creators. Once you have these, you'll be in possession of essential keys to telling the stories that offer the most to you and your readers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

300 Productivity Posts - Celebration and FAQ for ambitious writers

Welcome to the (more or less) 300th How To Write Fast post. I still haven't run out of things to say. In fact, in addition to weekly posts, I'm deep into a book on writing productivity that will be out in the spring. 

In the meantime, now's a good time to celebrate. (I'm taking a break from the Write Who You Are Series. It will continue next week) I can't think of a better way to share the moment than to answer the top questions I get in my classes.

What's the best thing I can do to improve my productivity?
The most effective positive action I've seen with students is to 1) Set a timer 2) Type words that push your work in progress forward from the time it starts to the time it finishes.

No rewriting, no researching, and as little pondering as possible. The goal of drafting is to capture a complete work with a beginning, middle, and end. It isn't to capture a final work, polished and perfect.

What's the commitment? I've cut it to the bone, and for most people the minimum is about 20 minutes a day, five days a week. This provides the habits and continuity that are essential to storytelling. It is extremely helpful if sometime during the day before, you write down a prep sentence for the work. Then you'll know each time you sit down what you're going to write.

What's wrong with rewriting as I go along?
There is nothing morally wrong with writing any way you like, and what works for you works for you. Also, please note: With the exception of people who hire me as a coach, you will not have me standing behind you and groaning as you loop back to previous paragraphs or chapters to "just get them right."

With that said, looping is the most common practice I see getting in the way of completing stories. It is the stumbling block that keeps people who write every day from getting past the first few chapters of a novel or from having the productivity they want.

The reason for this appears to be that revising comes from a different part of the brain than drafting. So switching back and forth saps energy. It also leads to discouragement as progress is slowed and the editor in your head is always stepping up to the lectern to criticize and berate you.

If you are a happy looper or you've determined it's the only way to write a quality manuscript, who am I to disagree? But if you loop and are unhappy with your productivity, take steps to break the habit.

Why do I have to stick with my Work In Progress (WIP)?
I get it. People who write regularly get new ideas all the time. Some of them, invariably, seem better that what's happening in the WIP. And it feels good to do something else when the WIP work gets difficult or every sentence feels stale and weak.

The problem is that forsaking your commitment to the WIP and chasing the next shiny thing is too easy and rarely helps you gets you where you want to go. If you doubt this, check with your fellow writers who do this and ask them how many have dozens of unfinished works around or worse, how often they dither about which work to take on.

It is perfectly okay to explore a new concept. It is fine to get notes down on a dream that felt like the next O. Henry Prize winner. You can cheat a little on you WIP and still get it finished. The trick is making sure that five days a week for twenty minutes on each of those day, you are faithful to the WIP, moving it forward to completion.

How do I choose the right project?
This depends on where you are as a writer, what commitments you have, what you hope to learn, where your passions lie, and what your career goals are. Any or all of these can drive your priorities and which manuscript becomes your next WIP. My recommendation is that you explore these and other factors and explicitly write out your criteria for choosing a project. You may then (if you are as geeky as I am), develop a way to score potential projects and order them according to the results. If all this sounds like too much, just list potential projects and go with the one for which you have the most passion. Trust your heart. Make the commitment. Move forward. Get it finished.

How do I have fun with my writing?
Sadly, this is not really a frequently asked question. Perhaps the Puritans have left their mark on too many of the writers I meet (and it's not a coincidence that they are concerned about productivity). Yet, it belongs here. Your enthusiasm, your engagement, and the endorphins released as you get into the flow of your writing are not inconsequential to your productivity. Writing can be frustrating, emotionally painful, and tedious at times. But if writing is drudgery most of the time, you're not doing it right. You need to step back and rediscover the joy.

Why did you want to write to begin with? What have been your best experiences? What inspires you? And, perhaps most importantly, what are you afraid of? Because, if you have come to dread sitting down and bringing character to life, chances are you've created unreasonable expectations or you're afraid of being judged or of failing.

Try these:
  • Think of the scene you most want to write in your WIP. Write your prep sentence, and then write that scene tomorrow. 
  • Write something related to your WIP that you'll never use directly in your finished version -- an interview with a character, a description of the coolest place in your world, a complete scene written in the style of you favorite writer.
  • Do your writing in a different way -- with music if that not typical or in longhand or in comic sans font.
  • Write a scene from the point of view of an intriguing character whom you've never given a voice.
  • Create a storyboard for one of your pivotal scenes.
In other words, take the pressure off. Shake things up and do something that "doesn't count." Make amusing yourself a project.

Okay. That's five questions and answers. I'm happy to answer your specific question in comments.

Next week, I'll write the 301st blog post, continuing the Write Who You Are series.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Write Who You Are 2 - Emotional truths

If you feel it and express it honestly, others will feel it. If your emotions deep, you will move people deeply.

Honest emotions - Try this. Put a smile on you face that feels like a real smile. Do this even if you don't feel happy at the moment. Hold onto that smile, close your eyes, and count to twenty.

Done? Chances are you're feeling happy. On one level, this is real, but I tend to side with the Greeks who believed feeling happy when the realities don't warrant it is like feeling healthy when we have undiagnosed cancer. To find your emotional truths in a world where external forces -- false communities (Vonnegut's Granfalloons), pharmaceuticals, and propaganda (including advertisements) -- shape how we feel, we need to look more closely.

Begin with your own stories, those that prompt emotions.  In Susan Shapiro's article, "Make Me Worry You're Not Okay," she suggests you write three pages on your most humiliating secret. Not a bad start. (Remember, this is to uncover emotion for your story, so you don't have to share these pages.) You also might take a look at the suggestions I provided to get to know your character better. Instead of exploring the character, you might explore yourself. Not enough? Here's another article with 650 prompts. Or consider this advice on writing the personal essay.

Prompts to elicit and reveal emotion don't need to be limited to asking questions or writing essays. Family pictures and videos, letters from lovers, and visits to places that were pivotal in your life can do the job, too. It may be possible to use art (music, movies, poetry) to reach inside, too, but be careful. Some of the emotions might qualify as external forces, with all their limits. 

Deeper emotions -- As you work to stir up emotions, not all your feelings will be equal. Beware of irritation, amusement, annoyance, contentment, and any emotions that would not motivate action that involves real risk. If it gets you out of your chair and the stakes are high, it's good for fiction that reveals who you (and your characters) are. That's the work that will set you apart as an artist while getting readers to identify with your stories and characters. There is one strong emotion to treat with caution -- anger. Anger tends to be real, but not true. It is often a mask for other strong emotions like shame, grief, or fear.

Once you have identified and felt an authentic, deep emotion, the trick is expressing it well within a story. It may seem easiest if you are conveying, with a slight disguise, the actual situation in your story. But expecting success by reporting "what really happened" in your story runs into a tangle of problems from the truth being strange (and not easily believed) to lacking context (like a dream, with the resonance in your head being strong, but not available to others).

Most often, my approach is similar to a method actor's. I work with the (carefully selected) story at hand, where character, story structure, and situation are set up deliberately. Then I figure out the emotional essence of the scene, refresh my emotions with a chosen life experience, and draft the scene quickly, making the emotional journey as I do. For other ideas on emotions and storytelling, look at my post, Five Keys to Bigger Emotions.

Emotions propel readers and audiences. Getting to emotion can even work when you're writing something that is not your story. But what you write when you combine emotional truths with the tales you were meant to tell can reach the highest levels of art and entertainment. Which stories are the ones you were born to tell? It depends on what you care about. That's the subject of the next post in this series, which I'll make available in two weeks. Next week, I'll be celebrating the 300th How To Write Fast post. I hope you'll join me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Write Who You Are 1 - Your truths

The most valuable thing you have to offer as a writer is yourself. Not in terms of ego. But in terms of sharing your knowledge, insights, perspectives, and experiences. While this is obviously true for memoir and some other nonfiction, it's essential for fiction. No matter how crazy and distant from facts your story is, if it is excellent, it contains truths that are expressed in unique ways.

Now, there's nothing wrong with writing stories that are not distinct to who you are. Everyone begins writing by imitating – consciously or unconsciously – the works of others. And it's okay to do work on assignment, to explore stories with prompts, to take on a high concept that isn't in your sweet spot, or otherwise see what will happen with an interesting idea. Developing your craft, playing around with notions that come your way, and paying bills are all valid activities. Even taking a folk story or an entertaining scenario and giving it an audience-pleasing twist has its place.

But, if you want to fulfill your vocation as a writer and, I suspect, give yourself the best chance of success, mining the value of who you are is the advice I'd give. The payoff for you and your audience will be details that could have come from no one else and a kind of deep resonance that only comes from authenticity. So let's look at the essential elements:

Have you heard of the idea of a platform? Deep knowledge is usually put down as one of the required items for people who write nonfiction, but it can be just as valuable for fiction writers. The expertise you have – through education or having lived in specific cultures, geographies, or organizations (such as military) – automatically adds interest to your work. I think this is obvious when what you know is unusual, say from having grown up in an Amish community. But don't underestimate your knowledge of what you might consider mundane.

Even something as common as being raised in the suburbs can become special -- even outré --
through careful observation. Look closely and find what others haven't. Sometimes this requires research, even when all the fact seem obvious. Keep at it until you have specifics that are n some way surprising.

Much of your knowledge comes from experiences, but experiences offer more than facts. Your life is filled with stories of learning. These come from looking for answers to questions, getting surprised by life, dealing with adversity, and finding ways to relate to people were different from you. Experiences arrive as half formed, even fully formed, stories, with the contextual information, sequence, and, for lack of a better word, rhythms that automatically provide something enhanced and worth sharing. The one caution on using experiences in storytelling is not to adhere too closely to what actually happened. Stories have their own realities that may be damaged by sticking to the facts.

The elements of your life, especially those that involve struggle and change, provide insights – those special flashes of wisdom and truth that come with deliberation and analysis. In fiction, these may be delivered to readers in a single line of dialogue or in the denouement that answers the story question. I think insights are among the most valuable assets of a storyteller, and they are often revealed to the writer in the telling. In fact, the theme of the story may not come into clear focus until a full draft is done, and sometimes even later.

I have some more thoughts on writing stories only you can tell in terms of sharing emotions (and emotional truth), focusing on what you care about, celebrating the individual, and selecting projects based on care, devotion, and meeting challenges. I'll cover those in future posts, but I end here with the idea of perspective.

Is all too easy to share conventional points of view. This is obvious when it comes to social issues, where the right answers or the opposing answers embedded in our cultures are familiar to us. Here's a hint: if it is familiar to all of us, it doesn't need to be shared.

Instead, look for the perspectives you have that are not same as others. Dare to imagine that these points of view, which you may worry about sharing because they are unconventional or don't seem to matter, are among your treasures. Brené Brown says, "We're afraid our truth isn't enough." Yet, if you think about writers (and mentors and teachers) who have mattered the most to you and why, chances are you'll find that it is their truths that make them stand out.

These truths shape our lives. These truths cause us to seek out specific authors and read everything they've written. These truths open up worlds. So, while it's okay to create stories that don't reach to the limits, see if you can discover your own truths and find ways to share them.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Quick Tips for NaNoWriMo Success -- 50,000 words in 30 days

Put on a pot of strong coffee, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is back. Last year, over 350,000 people participated officially, with the goal of writing 50,000 words on one novel in the month of November.

I've provided guidance in the past, and you're welcome to look back at the details. Last year, I joined a group and hit a peak in November productivity, completing a 65,000-word novel for which I was recently offered a contract. Along the way, I provided advice to my team members, five of whom also completed their stories. With that experience behind me, let me offer some essential lessons:
  • If you don't have an outline, set aside time to make one. Have no less than 30 scenes specified with full sentences (preferably something close to prep sentences). Each one of these will give you something to review before going to sleep (so your subconscious mind gets to work on the ideas). They will ensure you have something to write about each day. It's okay to change some of these and add to the list. I added 10 scenes and reworked half of them. But this is your insurance policy.
  • Front-load your writing, if you can. Take advantage of your initial enthusiasm (and maybe that cache of frozen dinners) to overachieve. In the course of a month, things almost always come up: work deadlines, sick children, surprise visits from old friends, and tickets to ballgames. For Americans, Thanksgiving can gobble up days. You'll stress less if you have words in reserve. If you can notch 2,000 words per day for the first 15 days, you'll have the equivalent of 8 "vacation" days to draw from. Similarly, try to get some work done early in the day. For me, that usually means all of the work is done right after I wake up, but some people are night-time writers. If that's you, scribble down a few sentences before your session officially begins. That will reduce your workload and get you going.
  • Share your progress. It helps to be in contact with other writers. For some, it provides encouragement. For others, it's a goad. (I enjoyed doing sprints, where team members and I wrote during the same hour and reported back on our word counts.) You can share with other people in your household, too. That can help them know their extra chores are paying off. Just don't supply them with your draft pages.
  • Write messy and don't edit. For most people, the main point of NaNoWriMo is to get into the habit of turning off the internal critic and getting words onto the page. No one is reading this work. You can (and should) edit it later. If this is tough for you, you might try dictating -- which makes rewriting along the way almost impossible.
  • Use a timer. It's a great way to focus your work and make distractions less alluring.
  • Don't do research during your drafting time. It can eat hours and it encourages procrastination. Get close enough on the ideas. Perfection isn't necessary. If you have a specific word you can't recall, type in "bagel," and clean up the bagels in your rewriting sessions.
  • Write what you want to write. Don't worry about writing your outline in order. If a scene appeals to you, go for it. One thing I found was that, as I did this, more "in between" scenes came to mind, expanding my choices for the next day. Also, feel free to write the parts of scenes that appeal to you. Indulge in over-describing the setting. Race through a conversation writing nothing but dialogue. Write a section in poetry, if that appeals to you. Have some fun.
Okay. That should get you started. Get to work! And, if you get stuck, post a comment. I'll offer a suggestion. Have a good NaNoWriMo!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Time to Write 5 - Get excited!

There will always be times when writing is as appealing as scrubbing tiles in a public shower stall. But most of the time, it should be fun. And the joy with which you approach your work can help you make the most of the time you set aside to write. So, as you review your match of tasks and opportunities, add one element to your preparation -- motivation.

Punishments and rewards can work provide motivation (though the former isn't fun for most of us). While I know successful, old-school writers who are more stick than carrot, I don't recommend that route. One rough patch can make the whole idea of being a writer repellent. Who needs that?

Promises of treats, if the payoffs are gauged correctly, can kick-start activity. Just stay away from payoffs that can become unhealthy or addictive. Plenty of talented writers have been lost to alcoholism and drugs. Desserts can be a problem for some people. And I myself lost at least one novel to a video-gaming habit.

Nature and art offer lots of opportunities for positive rewards. So, instead of satisfying an appetite, consider buying a new plant for your garden or getting a massage or picking up a ticket to a concert.

Perhaps closer to a good way to motivate yourself is imagining achieving your goals. Classically, get rich quick books encourage readers to dream of piles of money. By analogy, you might envision yourself opening your newly  published book or sitting in an audience, thrilled as the "written by" credit flashes across the screen in the theater. More modestly you can look forward to developing your characters to the point where they talk to you, or you can just recall the pleasant feeling of creating a well-turned phrase.

Rather than go the extrinsic route with negative/positive reinforcement, consider intrinsic choices.

The best of these is recognizing which processes you enjoy. Most people would put periods of composition when the muse takes over -- words pouring out that seem (at the moment) to be perfect -- at the top of their lists. I know writers who see editing a manuscript so the word total drops by thousands as a game that's challenging and engaging. I love interviewing my characters. The muse can't be summoned, only welcomed, but the other activities here are all ones that can be scheduled into your writing time. They can be guaranteed fun.

When you have good writing sessions, make a note to yourself. You may find that you can pepper your calendar with these activities or redirect yourself to them when you have dry spells.

In fact, it's not a bad idea to find a way to track your experiences. It can help you understand yourself as a writer. If you find that you have too many down days, in addition to scheduling in some fun, you can shake things up with something new. Most of the time, I write by typing or dictating, but about once a month, when I find those are uncomfortable (or a cause for dread), I shift to a notebook and a pencil. Usually, I get immediate relief. 

The more you build good habits and include cues (like rituals) that tell your brain to get to work, the less you'll need to do something deliberate to bring the fun back. But having approaches ready when you feel restive or can't get to work can help you to get the most out of the time you open up for writing. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Time to Write 4 - Get rid of distractions

Is the time you set aside really for writing? Or is it for brewing coffee or making shopping lists or (ahem) surfing the Web in the guise of "research"?

Once you have recognized and set aside time to write, matched your tasks to the opportunities, and made sure you have your tools at hand, you face two more obstacles -- distractions and interruptions. Beginning the job can be one of the toughest challenges because people (especially creative people) are so good at generating good reasons to do other things. Much in their lives becomes urgent:
  • I need to check my email one more time. 
  • I work better with coffee.
  • I'm a little hungry.
  • I have to make this list of chores before I forget.
  • I have a great idea for a new story.
  • I need to reorganize my files.
  • I wonder how many blog visits I have today.
It's funny how none of this was important before the opportunity for writing or the scheduled writing time arrived.

Interruptions can get in the way, too. Phone calls. Kids, dogs, and spouses with needs. UPS deliveries.

Once in a while, getting distracted and interrupted is no big deal. Tornado warnings, calls from Stephen Spielberg, and arterial bleeds take priority over upping your word count. But if you chronically sacrifice writing time, you're hurting your career.

The first step is understanding the threat. I recommend tracking distractions and interruptions for two weeks. Record what they are and how much time they take away from you. This will help you to understand how big your problem is (adding to your motivation) and will get you started on finding solutions. And what kind of solutions exist?

I have one browser for my mail and social media. I close it when I have writing scheduled or when an opportunity shows up. This is not enough for one writer of my acquaintance who actually rents a room with no connections (including wifi) for her dedicated time. Some people shut off wifi. Some use applications to keep Internet distractions at bay.

Eating and drinking can be scheduled in advance or delayed. For some people, they may even be rewards. If non-writing work pops into your head at inopportune times, put it off or give yourself three minutes (and no more) to record it. If necessary, give it its own creative time slot. New stories can be worked first as long as you never break you promise to bring your work in progress closer to completion. Reorganizing files, sharpening pencils, touching social media in any way, emptying your dishwasher are all strictly forbidden (unless you are working in zen mode).

Phones take messages. People and pets need to be managed. Like death, UPS deliveries come to us all. I don't have any help for you on those. But you do not get to open the boxes until you are finished with your writing. Are we clear?

Fear is probably the main reason why we embrace distractions and interruptions. The same demon in your head that tells you your writing sucks is the one that tells you not to write at all. I keep mine away with appointments to write (which are sacred), writing fast, and building enthusiasm. Ritual and habits can help too. I try to have fun with my writing every day, and I look to other writers for encouragement and support. Fear doesn't have much of a chance in the face of lots of positive thinking.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Time to Write 3 - Be ready with your toolkit

This series wouldn't be complete without a mention of the tools that enable productivity. Sometimes this is as basic as having a pencil at hand when a great idea comes to mind during commercial break times. At others, it can be as complex as having color-coded Post-it notes set out and ready to be added to a three-panel display board during dedicated plotting time.

I've already connected tasks to different kinds of available time, so I won't make all the links here. Instead, I'll mention tools I use (which may not be the ones you would use) for tasks from beginning to end. You may want to map these to the times yourself.

Overall - My guide for writing and revision is a process diary -- a bound notebook with handwritten with details on tasks and the order in which I've found it best to perform them. This includes reference links, modifications (dated), and color-coded tabbing (so I can easily move to, say the revision section). My computer is a mainstay. Research is usually done with Web searches and using dedicated databases.

Information is captured using word processing programs, Scrivener, and three-corner text files (rtf). Text-to-speech is used to review and revise my manuscripts and to allow me to listen to articles as I do other work.

More and more lately, I find color has entered my creative world. I find myself creating, developing, highlighting, and sorting concepts using a rainbow of gel pens and Post-it notes.

Generating and exploring ideas - I rarely walk around without a pen or pencil and an index card or small pad of Post-it notes. Nothing bothers me more that having an idea escape. One author I interviewed keeps a wax pencil in her shower so she can capture ideas there. I have master a concatenation memory trick to do the same, taking care to get to a means of writing the ideas down as soon as I can.

One key part of my process is laying out a piece of flip chart paper on the kitchen table for a download of everything rattling around in my head. The concepts usually organize themselves into ad hoc categories, and, before long, I generally find myself doing mind mapping.

I also have a number of forms I regularly use to develop and clarify story ideas. (I'm a big believer in having a strong logline before beginning any work.) More often than not I "pants" a story rather than doing an outline before writing, but eventually, I develop clear beats and dig into plot ideas using forms, and the plotting board work referred to above. Something similar is true as I systematically work to know my characters. These forms usually end up in a binder, or a folder, with tabs for easy access.

Drafting - My main tool here is a timer. It is like a starting gun for me, and I keep moving forward during the assigned time (usually 40-50 minutes). The timer also tells me to stop and take a break so I stretch. (It's too easy for me to get completely lost in the work.) I alternate between typing and dictating -- to protect my body from repetitive stress.

Revision -- A calendar comes first. If possible, I mark a day six weeks in the future to begin rewriting.  My starting point on the work is always using a printer to create a hard copy. I can make basic notes on it using two or three colored pens. I listen to the whole story using text to speech. I use numerous forms to analyze what I have drafted. Scrivener shows its value as I move around sections, open up "to-do" scenes, add comments, and mark some parts as likely to be removed. (These last will end up in a discard file, not thrown away.) As I approach the finer analysis, spell check, grammar check, and Autocrit come into play. Many of the revision tasks are repeated, as necessary.

Review and submission -- Here, I send email to beta readers, editors, and agents, sometimes with files attached (in formats readers support). I may find markets using search engines -- including Duotrope (which I can also use to document submissions.) I may pitch using Twitter and blog posts.

Etc. -- The rest is essential, but it is business-oriented. Obviously, provisions must be made for keeping records on receipts and expenses and other accounting-related data. A calendar should be used to plan and schedule work, education, and meetings. In this day and age, I could do a whole series of articles on promotion, including planning, creation of memes, use of social media, and more.

I'll add two more things. First, don't undervalue the power of a library card. Spending time in a space dedicated to knowledge, with research experts available, provides advantages that the Internet cannot. It will save you money and time and change your perspective.

For those who are serious about a career, a pencil (or colored pens) and a big page of flip chart paper may help clarify what you want and the advantages and disadvantages of the many options a connected world presents. Big Five or self publishing? The next hot thing or the story of your heart? Short stories or screenplays? A five-year plan? Picturing your personal happily ever after? Education needed? Tasks? All of it can be captured, classified, connected and ordered. (A big whiteboard may work better for some people.)

This article is about tools, but people in different roles can make a difference it terms of brainstorming, beta reading, editing, encouraging, supporting, analyzing choices, mentoring, sharing expertise, and more. Do you keep track of contacts? Do you offer thanks, provide help, and keep in touch? Do you have business cards to offer? Do you shove a business card you receive into a drawer or does it become a treasure -- in personal and business terms.

If you gather the right people around you, you'll learn more, find shortcuts, challenge yourself to do better, uncover opportunities, and find the community you need to humanize your writing endeavors. I haven't found any tools that can do all these things.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Time to Write 2 - The task for the time

In the last post, I described five different kinds of time. Dedicated time, interstitial time, split attention times, Zen time, and commercial breaks. Each of these vary in terms of quantity, intensity, and possible distractions. They also, depending on your natural rhythms and energy, may fall during periods of the day when they offer you different possibilities.

With the caveat that the following examples are related to how I work and not how you work, here are some tasks to consider for different times of day:

Almost any writing activity benefits from big blocks (15 minutes or more) of dedicated time, but I found it essential to some tasks. For me, drafting is intense, usually making every minute count as a timer runs down. I also need time set aside, with no distractions, when I am preparing to write a deeply emotional scene.

Plotting works better when I can pace, mumble to myself, and scribble down the essence of each turning point in full sentences without being concerned about interruptions. Once a draft is finished, I print it out and use the text-to-speech function on my computer to listen to the manuscript from beginning to end. I need to do that in his few sessions as possible so I can get a sense of the story as a whole. And, for many of the other parts of the revision process, the level of attention required does not permit me to take advantage of small bits of time or work as I'm involved with other activities.

Dedicated time is also important to me whenever I need to take a fresh look at my goals and motivation for writing. This requires deep thinking and careful consideration of where I am in my career and where I want to go. I include in this time used to evaluate and decide upon which projects I'll commit myself to.

There are lots of opportunities for taking advantage of interstitial time. For instance, many of the ideas I come up with result from following my curiosity or allowing myself to respond to prompts, such as pictures and poetry. Development work – especially making lists of possibilities, answering questions I posed myself, or filling out forms that can help me explore characters and themes — can be done effectively in short bursts of time that come up serendipitously. Some of the mechanical work of revision (correcting grammar, ferreting out extra words, and correcting spelling) can also be done during these times. What I have critiques and short notes from readers that I can absorb quickly, I can use these opportunities as well.

When I watch television, especially ballgames, I use commercial breaks to sort through notes I jotted down — observations, questions to myself, bits of dialogue, titles, and so forth. I also can answer simple story questions, especially those that require less than intense research. Some of forms and lists that can be attacked during interstitial times can also be worked on during commercial breaks. I may also come up with war improve preparation sentences to set up my work for the next day. It's also possible for me to highlight text, either from work I've done earlier or from criticism or comments I've received.

What I have an activity that is low intensity, such as making dinner for walking on my treadmill, I can listen to articles, novels, and nonfiction books that are relevant to my work in progress. Sometimes I also take advantage of this time to refresh myself on a manuscript on revising. I've never use this time for listening the first time through, but it works for keeping myself focused on the story that is written as opposed to what I imagine.

Finally there are those Zen periods, when I'm not consciously working on my manuscript at all. It is during these times when the solution to a story problem is apt to pop into my head or I'm likely to hear the voices of my characters – speaking lines from the story, complaining to me, or making suggestions.

All this has to do with how I work, which is likely to be somewhat different from the way you work. In fact, my and approaches aren't set in concrete, and I don't always write in the ways described above.

One more point: make sure you have the tools you need at hand that fit the time in the task. There's nothing more frustrating than having an opportunity and being stopped by something as trivial as not having a pencil nearby.

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.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 1 - Characters in jeopardy

"When you're in combat, you're not fighting for your honor or a ribbon or even your country. You're fighting for the guy next to you. You're fighting for your buddy."

A retired marine told me this when I was in college. It's relevant to your writing if you think about it in terms of the stakes you create in your story. Certainly a macro view -- moving from a neighborhood at risk to a city at risk to a nation, planet, or galaxy -- can raise the stakes. It may even add to reader engagement, especially in a visual medium like the movies. But it can become abstract and distancing, too. To me, the death of Obi-Wan in Star Wars is more upsetting than the destruction of Alderaan. I know Obi-Wan, but my strongest connection to Alderaan is an indirect one, Princess Leia's reaction.

Good stories raise the stakes throughout. Great stories raise the personal stakes throughout because we experience stories through individual characters, not crowds. (Looking at this concept from the opposite direction, when a villain wipes out innocents, even in a movie, the experience becomes more visceral and important if the death of one individual is given attention.)

Raising the stakes is about the potential for bad things to happen. The emotional score goes up as you do the following:
  • Make it real. At some point, show that something really bad can actually happen. This makes readers/audience members worry.
  • Make it individual. When there's one character we care about at risk in means more than a busload. Unless it's a busload of kids.
  • Make it personal. Put the protagonist at risk or, better yet, his/her loved ones.
  • Make it public. When bad things happen publicly, there is potential for humiliation. And it's impossible to pretend it didn't happen.
  • Make it irreversible. If the bad thing that happens is easily fixed or the protagonist can do something that makes it feel as if the bad thing never happened, that lessens the stakes. If the harm cannot be fixed (like when the hero in Misery loses his foot), the reader can't imagine the harm away.
  • Make it unfair. Damage that comes to people who in no way deserve it hits a lot harder.
  • Add dilemma. When the protagonist faces two bad things and gets to choose which one, it's excruciating.
  • Make it a choice. A classic choice for a protagonist is between stopping an evil by committing an evil or doing nothing and allowing something horrible to happen. Honor or horror?
In addition to the above, it's worth exploring the potential for bad things up and down Maslow's Hierarcy of Needs. Survival is always engaging. As are threats to close relationships. And you can play these off each other.

Of course, stakes are all in the future. Within the story, some of these bad things must actually happen. And the bad things that happen need to put the screws to the protagonist and create change and growth. They shouldn't be bad just for the sake of being bad.

If you want to take emotions to a higher level, consider blending stakes in a way that is  uncomfortable, provocative, or ironic.

In Gone With the Wind, there's a scene where Scarlett is looking for a doctor for Melanie.  When the camera pulls back, her urgent need is put into a bigger perspective, as the screen fills with the wounded and the dying. Does Scarlett's lack of perspective make her seem less compassionate? Or more human? Or both?

In Casablanca, Rick reduces Ilsa to tears when he says, "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." He has put their love in perspective (and aside) for the sake of a higher cause.

This is how you go from effective... to memorable.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 5 - Special tricks

The main tools for creating fast reads are clarity, emotional engagement, and raising questions. In this series, I've suggested some the dos and don'ts of backstory, dialogue, characters, and action for those who want to write page-turning stories.

Before I leave this topic, I'd like to present a few tricks for breaking things up and, sometimes, adding a little spice. These should not be overdone or they can wreck the continuity and even give a reader a comfortable place to put down the book. But, when a story that is otherwise working feels like it is slowing, these tricks can pick up the pace.

White space. The appearance on the page makes a difference. In our attention deficit society, when a paragraph fills a page, readers are likely to feel overwhelmed and move onto a video game or a TV show. Even when, formally, your paragraphs make sense, it is a good idea to scan your manuscript for long sections without much white space and break up the paragraphs.

Short scenes and chapters. Providing you are taking care to raise questions and propel readers forward, consider using shorter scenes from time to time and chapters that have fewer scenes. This can be especially valuable near the end of a novel where the reader may be feeling fatigued. Overall, with pages literally turning more quickly, it will feel as if the story is speeding up and the work of reading is all downhill. Just don't violate the sense of immersion or provide easy stopping points.

Artifacts. One of the joys of Dune is the use of quotes, essays, prayers, and other artifacts throughout (especially at the beginnings of chapters). These provide a different voice and hint at a bigger, unexplored world. Tolkien uses poetry and songs. Other authors use letters and even snatches of film scripts.

These add variety if you don't use them in a haphazard manner. I follow two rules of thumb when they are included in one of my manuscripts. The first is that they must not just be placeholders. If they don't add to the story and increase my interest in it, they get removed and replaced. The second is they need to come at about the same rate. Having a bunch of artifacts at the beginning of a story and not at the end, or vice versa, knocks things out of balance.

There's more you can do the create fast reads. You can take advantage of a distinctive voice (your own or a characters) that charms the reader. Or use the traditional tools, hooks and cliffhangers. And, of course, a rich premise that pays off in anticipated and surprising ways can keep readers engaged.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 4 - Action scenes that add zip

When it comes to action scenes, how can you miss? What could be more page-turning than a chase or fighting a fire or piloting a spacecraft through a meteor storm? Most action scenes, by their nature, have specific, tangible goals. Often these are connected with basic character needs we can identify with, whether it be surviving an attack by a bear or winning the basketball game for your school.

In addition, action is visual. We can see it happening. And a good action scene actually makes our brains think we are participants to the point where our muscles respond to a hero throwing (or taking) a punch.

Sadly, many writers still mess this up. The visceral action gets swamped out by a variety of problems including:
  • Point of view changes. We can really only participate as one character in an action scene, so even a subtle shift to what someone else is experiencing takes away from the reading. Action scenes (and let’s include love scenes) require deep point of view.
  • Too much description or reflection. Every sentence that does not convey the action risks taking the reader out of the scene. Yes. A sentence here or there during the action sequence can help to ground it and provide reminders of the emotional stakes. But too much of this destroys the physical response to what is being presented.
  • Lack of identification. This is the problem with MANY amateur works. They start out with action before we have any idea who the character is or what the stakes are. It happens a lot at the beginnings of manuscripts can also can confuse and bore readers further into the book. Why? Because we want to be fully involved in cheering for the hero and feeling the joy of success and the heartbreak of failure. It's harder to care for strangers.
  • Too much or too little moment-to-moment. In the first draft, it is often valuable to record every detail of an action scene. Writers need to fully imagine what is going on in the story. But readers don't need to be presented with everything. Leave the interesting things. Hang onto the minimum of the rest that is needed to avoid being confusion. Get rid of the rest.
  • Lack of purpose. While a good set piece can be excused (occasionally), the best scenes need to have an arc. They need to move the story forward, and readers need to know how the story will be changed by a success or failure. Action just for actions sake is cheap and gratuitous — sort of like pornography. 
  • Not playing fair. I just read a fight scene where the hero grabbed a chain and used it against the villain. Huh? Where did that chain come from? Sometimes the writer is so eager to get to the action he or she forgets to describe the setting. And when important details show up later, it's a cheat. Special skill and powers, essential knowledge, and weaknesses also need to be set up ahead of time. (It can be acceptable to have surprises that make things tougher for your hero, like having a villain pull a gun.) Give the reader the chance to be a full participant.
The scenes that read fastest are those we are immersed in, both in terms of our senses and in terms of our emotions. They are free of any distractions -- no unfair surprises or excess verbiage. 

That's what not to do. So what do you, as a writer do
  • Make sure the purpose of the scene and the challenges (including beats) are clear. This may require setting things up ahead of time, before the action begins. 
  • While some reflection cues are valuable, we should actually be able to guess what the point of view character is thinking at any time during the scene. So make description and reflection barebones
  • Cut anything that is not needed. 
  • Stay in the present, making sure things happen in real time and are understood as they happen. And edit this down as well so that not every decision and action is described. 
  • Use compression. A producer once explained this to me. If an athlete is preparing for a game, it isn’t necessary to show him putting all his gear on in real time. Pulling the jersey out of his locker, and then cutting to him tying his shoe, conveys all that’s needed.
  • Choose the RIGHT action. Consider extreme responses. Don’t make it reasonable if you don’t have to. An action scene is not a task, it’s a challenge. 
  • Begin as late as possible, end as early as possible.
  • Make it desperate.
  • Include (fair) surprises.
  • Payoff (emotion, values, clues) what you’ve set up, but don’t be afraid to make things harder on your character, even if he has prepared fully.
  • Set the scene and put the action in an interesting location. It should stress the main character, have meaning, and be intriguing.
One more thing to consider is dialogue. While dialogue usually speeds a read, it slows things down in action scenes. I often will imagine how the whole scene would play out as part of a silent movie. It forces a discipline that trims the action down to the essentials and allows it to proceed with limited use of dialogue (and reflection). Once I have that, I work to make sure that whatever characters say is quotable.