Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Have Fun Plotting, Again - Fixes and furthermores

I have, at times, plotted every scene before writing the first line of a story. I've also jumped in with no preparation and crashed through from beginning to end as a total pantser. In both cases, I've found that stories tend to shape themselves. And when, after letting the manuscript cool down for 4-6 weeks, I read through what I have, I always find delight and despair.

Some scenes jump out, alive and surprising while others are painful and tedious. It's easy to focus too much on what is not working and lose enthusiasm for the story. It can be hard to find the fun.

One thing you can do is go back to review the reasons you're writing the story. This often re-energizes me, even as I fret about plot holes and characters who do more talking than acting. A more direct approach is to clear away the worst debris and find the treasures.

In the first draft, I often have scenes that, in my estimation, doom the manuscript. These monopolize my attention, activate the grumpy editor in my head, and block the fun. If this happens for you, too, I recommend you take this steps:
  1. Choose the five worst offenders. Which scenes are the most hopeless and distressing? (It's okay to choose fewer than five, but not more. Don't encourage the grumpy editor.)
  2. Write down what would be the most important Fix for each. The scenes may need lots of rewriting before they can be brought to an acceptable level, and it's okay to list work that needs to be done. But, at this stage, keep things simple by finding one revision -- cutting narration, adding a hook at the end, re-sequencing, etc. -- that will make a big improvement.
  3. Make your five Fixes. Do this in no more than five writing sessions. That's as much as the grumpy editor needs right now. If you can do them all in one session, even better. Be sure to consider cutting the whole scene from the manuscript. That's always a fast revision.
Now that the major obstacles to fun are taken care of (and don't worry, those scenes will get more work later, at a more appropriate time), you are free to enjoy plotting. Here's my process:
  1. Identify favorites scenes (as many as you want, but at least five). Which scene creates the most emotion? Which scene is the story in miniature? Which scene introduces a quirky character you love? Which scene would you love to read out loud to a friend? Which one is excruciating for the hero?
  2. Explore the Furthermores. I like this best. For each of your favorite scenes, consider how you might add details, begin them earlier, or end them later. See if you can make them bigger, by heightening conflict raising stakes, or changing the setting. Consider new scenes with the characters you fell in love with or parallel scenes that are more consequential or exaggerated in some way. Look at returns -- return to a person, return to a place, return to a theme.
  3. Write the Furthermores. Extend or create at least five scenes. Write whatever delights you and don't worry about what may be needed to fit these into the larger work. For now, just have a good time.
If, upon your first draft read through, the grumpy editor has not appeared (or is weak), feel free to jump to the Furthermores right away. Don't worry about the macro view of your manuscript, analyzing for story logic or essential beats or tropes. Leave that until later. Right now, you are reentering your story world, building enthusiasm, and creating more material to work with.

Story holes are in the space in between Furthermores and the macro view. If it feels like fun to fill one, go ahead and write the scene. Otherwise, just note that it's needed and, if options occur to you, write them down in full sentences.

What happens after you've had your fun? There's still a lot of work to do and not all of it will be easy. And you'll need to bring in the grumpy editor from time to time. But provided you have defined tasks and a sensible process, you should have the momentum to really finish the story and make it into a page-turner. I'll provide some suggestions on how to approach this with my next post.


Tell a story in 1000 words. My online course, Writing Flash Fiction, begins Monday, April 4. http://lowcountryrwa.com/workshops/all-workshops/

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Five Situations - Tests of character

As a kid, I was charmed by Stephen Vincent Benét's short story, The Curfew Tolls. It's a gentle alternate history tale the features an epic historical figure who does not achieve greatness because he is born decades too early. The conceit is circumstances are critical to revealing the qualities of a hero or heroine.

I loved this story and the idea of putting characters in different situations that challenge them. (I probably am more interested than most since my father liked to explore this notion. He told me it was a key idea in his masters thesis.) It has provoked me, at times to drop my characters into scenes that have nothing to do with the work in progress, just to see what would happen. Sometimes, it amounts to cruelty. (Good thing your characters can't sue you.) Sometimes, it helps me see them in new ways that become essential to enhancing my novels. And, I'll admit, there are times when versions of these stories become short stories where characters get a second life.

For you, if you are a novelist, screenwriter, or playwright, it may provide a way to explore characters and get to know them in important ways. So I'll offer five situations that you can use to test your heroes, villains, and sidekicks.

Life or death. Put your character at extreme physical risk. I like to dump them into real instances where (rightly or wrongly) I feared for my life, but it's okay to imagine something that is vivid. You may even grab a scene from a war movie or a science fiction thriller, but don't try to sell what results. That's called fan fiction and can cause copyright problems.

Humiliation. You can start with a look at your own life, but don't stop there. What embarrasses you might not embarrass your character, so keep that in mind with this one. Essentially, humiliation is about being victimized by having a vulnerability or fault revealed publicly. This one might make you squirm as you write it. Good.

Last chance at love. Here the character must choose to reveal his or her heart, and it must represent accepting a difficult change, facing a fear, or opening up to life-altering risk. And it must be the last opportunity to do so. I like imagining grand gestures, but a romantic comedy run to catch a departing love can work, too. And sometimes, it's just an answer to a question or a declaration. Whatever you choose, see if you can crank up the stakes in some way. Declaring love in public, especially in a hostile atmosphere beats a private admission.

Temptation. For many characters, this is weighing getting what they want most against sacrificing integrity in an essential way. For characters without clear moral structures, it may be letting go of something foundational to self image. In the best of stories, this is what happens at the climax, with the character showing growth by choosing integrity over what he or she desires above all else. In Casablanca, Rich chooses striking a blow against the Nazis over his love for Ilsa.

Dilemma. Give your character an irrevocable choice between two damning options. Superheroes face these all the time. Defuse the bomb in the hospital or rescue your friend from the rampaging robot. Save yourself or deliver the plans that can disable the world-destroying weapon. Making it personal is an essential element, and you can double down on that. Sophie's Choice provides a good model. 

For each of these, it's important to enter fully into the situation. Don't just come up with a one-sentence answer. I try to invest forty minutes in drafting a pivotal scene that takes full advantage of the implications of each situation. The prose does not need to be wonderful. The point is to confront the possibilities with imagination and honesty.

Afterward, do a post mortem and see what you've learned about your character and how that knowledge might enhance your real story. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Humor Writing - Finding the absurd truth

It is thought that the funniest writers are angry. Anger is a good strong emotion that can push stories and scenes beyond polite boundaries. Often humor is not fair, gentle, or generous.

We writhe when a comic protagonist suffers unjustly -- so writers need to cheat them. We protest when the hero or heroine faces harsh, demeaning circumstances -- so the context, often a maniacal social system, must crush him or her. We cringe when the character's mentor sets him or her up for failure or the well-meaning sidekick makes a bad situation worse. (Later, the bad situations will probably turn in a surprising direction, and part of the laughter will come from relief.)
 Of course, any of these sufferings and bad breaks could be applied to drama as well. As with all fiction, humor is driven by conflict. Battles draw us in and keep us engaged. Anything that comes easily is boring. But, in my opinion, anger is only one emotion that can fuel comedy.

Why do we laugh at cat videos? Why do people make them? Is there a secret animus against cats? I think it is more because there is affection for cats than anger against them. Any cat lover will tell you how he or she marvels at the grace and dignity cats show most of the time. And yet, the most popular cat videos are at odds with the noble sense of "catness," showing vulnerability... I suspect that's why they are funny. Along with a baseline affection for felines. 

What sets humor apart is an off-center point of view. Though we cheer on the comic protagonist, we often don't see him or her as our equal. This superior position is one way to provide enough distance to turn tears into laughter.

How do you make a comic protagonist inferior? Establish a personal quality that is ridiculous. Taking one of the Seven Deadly Sins and making it a bad fit for the character almost always works. An unattractive character who is vain, an angry character who is powerless, or a greedy character who does not have the knack for making money provides a good starting point for humor. Often, because the need is so great, the character will go to extremes -- including humiliation -- to hold onto a delusion or get what he or she wants.

The delusion can be tied to positive traits, too. Many great comedic characters are insanely optimistic and determined. Some are naive and unable to turn away anyone asking for help, no matter how they've been abused. Here, it is often a weakness in one social survival skill that makes the behaviors funny. (In fact, this seems to be the basis for most of the humor in The Big Bang Theory.)

Another rule of comedy is no one really gets hurt. For black humor, this rule is bent and even in straight comedy, there may be a dark moment that has pathos. But too much pain can make it too real and immediate. Again, distance gives us permission to laugh at misfortune, and violating that guideline by getting too close can be treacherous. While "too stupid to live" is a disaster in drama, it can be an asset in comedy, where no one dies.

Comedy is not of one type. A good comedy will go beyond characters, tasks, and situations to include high wit and gross-outs. These are spices to sharpen the humor (and some people like more spice than others).

But the base of comedy is characters with contrasts and delusions, goals that don't match the challenges to their achievements, and systems that work at cross purposes to reasonable human aspirations -- in short, the absurdity of life, fully true, but presented in a safe way to us. And these absurdities can be funny if they don't touch us too deeply and if the consequences are never as cruel as those we experience in the real world. Comedy allows us to thumb our noses at the gods.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Writer's Freedom - Don't get sucked in

Writing should be fun. Yes, there will always be explorations of painful subjects and routine work associated with the job. But if a writing career doesn't bring joy, amusement, aha! experiences, excitement, and delight, why do it?

And yet, I see so many writers bind themselves to forms and tropes and beat sheets and page counts. I see them twist themselves to fit market "demands" or imagined editorial preferences. I have to talk them down when they panic about genre taboos or when they see articles that discuss changes to the publishing business.

The writer -- and not the editor or agent or publicist or crit group -- is the world builder.

There are no "shoulds" that matter more than what the story itself demands.

And the only draft that matters is the last one.

I'm not talking about finger paint freedom. Art usually is more than chaotic ramblings and self expression. To strive to communicate more clearly, to find balance, and to choose to fit the constrainted form of a haiku is honorable and valid. Discipline can free you to explore, create a conversation with the past, and bring elegance to your work. Any choices made can bring focus and relieve the writer the confusion of too many options.

This is not a plea to be an "artist" untainted by the marketplace either. Early in my career, I was offered a job that was completely devoid of fun, writing a request for proposal document. I only had to write the narration, but the research was tedious. And the required prose style was crazy-making, full of passive voice and devoid of wit. But the payment was good -- in current dollars $10,000 for about ten hours work. It was a good deal and paid a lot of bills. I had no regrets because this was just a job, not in any way MY writing. It didn't even have my name on it.

It is completely understandable and proper to take jobs that involve writing to pay bills. It might even be okay to do a job (script rewrite, novelization) to advance your career. But such work needs to be understood by you for what it is. It can't get in the way of the writing you call your own. Most of all, it can't be allowed to infect or take over the writing you call your own.

If you have a three-book contract to write a series that you have little attachment to and that is more torture than fun, what the heck are you up to? Stop it. If you must complete the work, try to infuse some spirit into it. Or do it after you do something for yourself first. And, once you have fulfilled your obligations, don't do that to yourself anymore. A career like that will take you away from the work you should be doing and kill your spirit. 

Sadder than contract slaves are writers who lurch from genre to genre and fashion to fashion in attempts to produce publishable work. No one is compelling them to work on projects that don't delight them. They are lost in imagined game playing, seeking prizes that will forever be beyond reach and missing the whole point of storytelling. If you are one of these people, mark a date on the calendar and promise yourself that on that date you will push aside your compromised manuscripts and get to work on one that is written just for yourself. Make sure that, in your life, you do that at least once. You deserve it, and you'll probably find a way to make writing with joy part of your life.

Do make good choices. Do know your craft. Feel free to make money writing as long as it doesn't take over. But also understand that you have freedom. You have the chance to experience everything that writing offers. You have permission to soar.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Writing with a Partner - 5 collaboration tips

Creating stories with someone can be one of the best experiences for a writer or one of the worst.  In the past, I provided some prerequisites and some practical considerations. This time, I'd like to offer a few suggestions on how to make the day to day effort go smoothly.

Brainstorm with each other. Ever wonder why humor writing is done so often in teams? One reason is because each person needs an audience to know if his/her jokes are working. All storytelling benefits from a sense of audience. But beyond that, teammates with the right chemistry will egg each other on to stuff that is bigger and wilder than either would be able to come up with alone.

Pitch to each other. One of the best ways to understand the merits of ideas, premises, and concepts it to try to sell them. I prefer doing this with as few words as possible, and then having the other person react and ask questions (beginning with clarifying questions).

Help each other out. Whether it is research or a nagging question or a choice in a story's direction, the writing partner should be the first person to provide new options, find answers, and help to clarify concerns. This needs to be done in an ego-less way. In other words, respect the instincts of the other person and don't jump in with your own version of what should be in the story. Save that approach for something other than a help session.

Cheer each other on. When the work is being composed, your default response to a partner's offerings should be positive, not negative. Enthusiasm, not disappointment. Trust that the seeds of something wonderful are in the shabbiest of drafts. There will be times to be realistic. Most of them come during the revision process.

Appreciate the person you are working with. Be polite always. Be generous. Take time for your partner and, if nothing else, mark off partner celebration days on your calendar. No one can bring to your work what this person can.

I love collaborating. The talents and perspectives of other writers delight me. And the right collaboration is less lonely than working alone. That's nice for a change.