Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Story Clinic 1 - Where does it hurt?

The first step in diagnosing a story problem is to look for the most obvious problems. Presuming you have your story at hand (having read Story Clinic 0), the starting point is exploring the three common reasons why stories fail.

(NOTE: There are always exceptions. And breaking "rules" is okay. But, presumably, you are writing commercial fiction and you suspect something is wrong. That's what these reasons are here for.)

1) You don't know the story. If you can't easily answer all these questions, get to work understanding the tale you want to tell.
  • Who's the protagonist? 
  • What does he/she want/need?
  • What are the stakes?
  • What are the obstacles?
  • What does success look like?
  • What is the story question?
If it's difficult for you to answer these questions, you might want to work on crafting a good logline. It isn't easy. I've, at times, had to work back and forth with students, drafting and redrafting as many as eight times. (John Marlow provides help in doing this. Recommended.) Make it sharp. Make it specific. Make it unique to your story. And don't get cute. This is not a teaser, aimed at getting people to read your story. It's a tool that will guide you in making sure you have a story and it's not cluttered with unnecessary detours.

2) You started in the wrong place. Once upon a time, readers were patient. They'd give writers as much time as they wanted to establish the story world, and the background of the protagonist. Often, interest was carried by beautiful prose, usually written in third person omniscient. Forget about that. We have attention-deficit readers who need to be grabbed by the lapels and yanked along through the story.
  • Do you have a hook in the first paragraph (or, better, in the title)? 
  • Is the protagonist (or an engaging character) introduced on the first page?
  • Did you avoid the dreaded prologue?
  • Do you have any big blocks of narration in the first ten pages?
  • Is there a compelling problem or question (even if it is not the story question) introduced within the first two pages?
Here's a good rule of thumb for getting the beginning right. Skip to where things get interesting, and delete any preceding pages. Already, you are ahead of most writers. (Nine out of ten contest entries I read don't get the story going until about page 20.)

Remove all the description, narration, and backstory in the first 30-50 pages, and reread imagining yourself as a reader who is oriented, knowing the characters and the world. Does it work? If so, add back as little as is absolutely necessary for a reader who does need some orientation.

The slow start seems to be common for two reasons. The first is, a lot of drafting in the beginning is the author clearing his or her throat. What is this story and what does it sound like? You need those pages, but the reader does not.

The other reason for slow starts is a mistrust of the reader. They won't understand. They'll be lost. They need to know this. Mostly, this is nonsense. Take a look at contemporary books you love. Where do they take off? How much do they challenge readers? I remember when I started a Young Adult novel and wondered about expecting too much of the readers. I read the beginnings of ten successful novels. None of them led readers by the hand.

3) The story logic is a wreck. According to the South Park guys, for a good story, there is clear causation between beats.  That is, scenes are connected by "therefore" or "but." (You can skip to 3:40) This is minimal, and it's amazing how many missing and unnecessary scenes are revealed using this simple analysis. The one caution is longer works, with subplots and B stories, will need to be recognized, with separate analyses for each story line.

For more detailed investigation of story logic, I recommend looking at Jeffrey Kitchen's "Writing Backwards" approach.

There is a fourth common reason why stories fail -- a weak or lousy ending. There are lots of ways to go wrong here. Rather than go into details here, if you suspect this is your problem, take a look at three posts I did on endings.

You can have a story with none of these problems that still is a 90-pound weakling. Help is on the way. Next week's Story Clinic blog will look at taking an anemic story and making it stronger. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Story Clinic 0 - Are you ready to tell a tale?

If you write enough, you know the feeling. Your latest manuscript has something missing. Maybe something essential. But you don't exactly know what. (Or you may know but hope you're wrong.)

Whether it's a five-thousand-word short or a one-hundred-thousand word novel, the feeling can be discouraging. And it can be hard to figure out what your next move is. To help, I'm beginning my story clinic series, with diagnostics, exercises, and suggestions on solutions. As I outlined this series of posts, I realized something was missing. Just as a journey begins before a single step (with key decisions, planning, packing, etc.), some explanation, assessment, and action must precede this clinic.

My clinic is for commercial fiction. That is, if you have something experimental, avant garde, or intended for academic audiences, these post might cause more harm than good. I respect your courage and I'm cheering you on from the sidelines, but I can't help much.

My clinic is for people with complete stories. If your draft is not finished and you don't really know what you have, save these posts for later. Or see if they tell you something about a story you read that almost worked.

My clinic is not for complete beginners. There's lots of good information for you in classes, books, and even some of my previous posts. I encourage you to explore these and to advance your craft and your experience as a writer. If you can't write a logline, master that. If you don't know the tropes of the genre that interests you, learn them. If your writer's voice is uncertain, keep at it until you can read your work aloud (at least to yourself) with confidence. Keep writing and don't forget to find the fun along the way.

Still with me? Good. By now, you've guessed that you need to have a story that needs work at hand for next week. I'd recommend you carve out some time (probably an hour or two each week) to take full advantage of the upcoming posts. My presumption is you, as an experienced writer, already have the discipline to do this.

Courage will come in handy, too.  Most good stories recall embarrassing and painful memories and take the author into uncomfortable places. While joy and other positive emotions should be part of the writer's (and reader's) experience through characters, it is the tough parts that ensure the happy endings are earned.

I also presume you have the tenacity to stick with the work until it's done. Even as newer stories tempt you. Story Clinic isn't a place for promiscuity.

Next week, I'll provide a diagnostic test that will help you identify where you need to begin you efforts in fixing your story. The answers may be tough, so I encourage you to take time now to write down reasons why you love your story and why it deserves the time and effort it will take to make it all that it promises to be.

Write these reasons in full sentences. Post them near where you write. They'll serve two purposes: First, they'll encourage you to stick with the work and not lose hope when problems become more visible. Second, they'll remind you what is working, including what needs to survive revision. The magic of your story might be at odds with expectations and might seem to be part of the problem. The best stuff often breaks the rules, so be prepared to hold onto your treasures through the whole process.

My BIGGER STORIES workshop begins online May 2.
Fire up your readers with twists, turns, shock, and awe. Learn how to demand more from your characters and to create endings that buzz. Don’t hold back. Find out how to take you stories from good to great.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Protagonists Without Limits - Making your characters extreme

"All good heroes are insane." This was a surprising statement from one of my Clarion Workshop teachers, Algis Budrys. After his lecture, I asked him what he meant, and he explained that, in real life, anyone as obsessed with a goal as any of the heroes who captured us with their stories would be odd and disturbing to be around. Real people think about more things and are more aware of their environments. We detour from our goals to make sure we get sleep, meals, and a coat if it's cold.

Brief references to the minutiae of life can add verisimilitude to a story, but any writer getting to close to realism will drive readers away. We want our quirky, crazy protagonists, even when they just seem normal.

Why? Jack Bickham provided an explanation when he said we need to exaggerate our characters so they appear clearly through the medium of the printed word. I think it's a little like the bigger than life acting required in the theater, where tone and expression needs to reach the cheap seats.

In a wondeful BBC article, about the heroines of the Brontë sisters, Samantha Ellis provides on observation from Virginia Woolf. Woolf "thought that Charlotte Brontë was one of those writers powered by 'some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passions.'"

I like two things about this: The bias toward action and the insane ardor. For commercial fiction especially, these seem to be essential to getting readers engaged in the story. But it's not easily accomplished. Many writers are naturally true-to-life and moderate -- and that isn't helpful. (Nonfiction writers are particularly restrained because of their training.) To my surprise, even making one, specific change, like giving a deadly sin level flaw to the protagonist, is painful for most writers. I have to remind them of their favorite stories and make it clear that those protagonists they love most really do have major flaws.

In addition to looking at your own favorites with an eye toward big flaws and obsessions, here are three things to try to make your heroes and heroines crazy:
  1. Write a scene that would get him or her arrested. A murder is not out of the question. Motivate it and write it with complete sincerity. You don't need to put it into your work in progress (unless it fits). But use its tone and feeling to create a scene that elevates your writing. Usually, this means dialing the action back, but don't get overly cautious.
  2. Look at the scenes you have written and see if moderation can be removed. Don't be afraid to make their thoughts extreme and unfair. Dare to make your hero or heroine unlikable. Above all, be unreasonable. Once you've done this exercise past your comfort point, you can retreat a bit, but keep as much of injustice, mischief, and unfairness as you can stand.
  3. Give your protagonist something horrible to react to. Think of five crushing blows. Write them down. Make each one worse. Then give your character the power to react without restraint.
There are other things you can do, such as experiment with each of the seven deadly sins. Putting that nice little flower shop girl into the role of dominatrix might be just what you (and she) need. But whatever you do, don't let yourself off the hook. If you haven't made yourself squirm, you're not done.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Write Now - Fighting procrastination

Butt in chair. It may be the most difficult writing challenge. Most writers I know who have a hard time getting work done every day can't quite get themselves to begin. Often, this starts even before facing the sometimes dreaded empty page. Stepping away from the mundane for dedicated writing time can stop some people.

The irony is that the very people who have trouble starting are usually the people who, once in gear, fill pages and enjoy doing so. For whatever reason (perfectionism? fear? distractions?), they can't make that small jump from where they are to where they will belong.

As I one-time chemist, I tend to think of this in terms of having the potential energy for a reaction. This is usually illustrated by a little hill that needs to be climbed. Catalysts are materials that lower that hill for chemical reactions, so I'll offer a few ideas that might make catalyze your efforts.

Leave things ready. Writing a sentence about what the next day's work will be probably provides the biggest help, but let's get even more fundamental. Before you leave your computer, close browsers and other distractions and open the file for your Work in Progress. When you turn on your computer, you want this file, and only this file, to be what you see. One exception - you can have a timer cued up for a fifteen-minute or more countdown.

If you write longhand, adapt this idea. Have your notebook open and waiting at the breakfast table or next to the coffee pot. Have a kitchen timer at the ready, too.

Some people break off writing in the middle of a scene or sentence. This is a great trick for some writers and an abomination for others. I've done it with success, but follow your own muse.

Make an appointment. Put the time you will write onto your calendar, and, if possible, set an alarm. Make it as big a commitment as a doctor's appointment and as unavoidable as taking a kid to soccer practice.

Build a word cache. Come up with a dozen or more provocative words and write them onto individual Post-Its. Before you go to bed, choose one and stick it where you have to see it. (The refrigerator door is likely to be a good choice.) When you see it, force yourself to type (or write) it into your Work in Progress. This will get something onto the page. Then try to write a relevant sentence.

You can also build a cache of sentences that are related to your Work in Progress and might engage you. I'm not sure they work as well on Post-Its, but it's fun to get the day started by cutting and pasting one into a manuscript.

Answer a question. Instead of starting with words or sentences, think ahead of time about what you want to know. This can be as big as asking what the theme of your story is (my actual question for work today!), but usually it's better to have a simpler, more tangible question. I get the biggest payoffs from questions that create images in my head. Asking what a heroine is wearing, what a castle wall looks like, or what a villain is carrying in his backpack creates a clear visual that puts you into the story.

Again, make sure one of these questions is in front of you and unavoidable.

Within all of these, I haven't mentioned demands put on you from other people. We live as part of families, businesses, and societies. That's good news because we write for and about people in relationships. But their demands can push writing down the list of priorities.

Sometimes life does indeed get in the way, and I have great sympathy for writers who care for people with undeniable needs like children and elderly parents. Almost all of us, however, can carve out some sacred time for ourselves. In mentoring and teaching, I have not yet found anyone who could not regularly find 15 minutes a day, five days a week. (And, yes, there are exceptional weeks of illness, death, and disaster, but these pass or become the new normal -- with opportunities for writing emerging with time.)

You are not greedy if you give yourself the gift of writing time. You have the talent. You have the desire. And you deserve it.