Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Upcoming Online Classes

Please excuse the interruption in content. Since I have several courses coming up soon, I thought I'd list them all in one post.


How to Write Fast (Savvy Authors)
Crank up the efficiency and get that novel, short story, article or script DONE.
Through exercises, evaluations, tips and technologies, you can learn to write faster. Discover how to break through blocks, get ideas, develop plots, draft and polish in less time without losing quality.

Writing Flash Fiction (Southern Tier Authors of Romance)

Don’t have time to write a novel? Well, fewer people have time to read one. That’s why flash fiction is hot, with over 300 paying markets looking for well-formed stories of 1000 words or less. Learn how to write, market and sell these tiny tales.


Write Who You Are (Yosemite Romance Writers)
The most valuable thing you have to offer as a writer is yourself —your knowledge, insights, perspectives, and experiences. By mining what you alone have to offer, you’ll fulfill your potential and connect deeply with your readers.

In this course, students will learn out to:
  • identify and assess what they uniquely have to offer readers,
  • put a focus on the issues that matter most to them and conveying the emotional truths that make these matter to others,
  • select projects that fit their voices, skills, and interests so they can connect more effectively with readers.


Lost in the Story-A Workshop on Reader Immersion (Northeast Ohio Chapter of Romance Writers of America)

We all know what it’s like when we enter a story so thoroughly we forget the world around us. Getting readers totally engaged is a huge part of success for fiction writers. In this class, you’ll work with the instructor to master the four essential elements of story immersion: creating a good foundation (meaning avoiding mistakes that can distract), sensory details (in the right measure), emotion (especially concern for the protagonist), and verisimilitude. As you continue, you’ll learn to architect your story with hooks, surprises, turns, pacing, and a satisfying ending.
The class will conclude with voice, style, and ways to charm the reader.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Recognizing and Crafting Small Story Moments That Matter

Most storytellers know about the big moments are are expected by readers. The climax. The black moment. The inciting incident. And, if you write in a genre, you know about common tropes and how, say, a romance writer looks forward to the “meet cute” and the “first kiss” (or its equivalent).

For those who plot, these moments are mapped out early on. And that makes perfect sense. Why write a story where you’ll grasp for a big moment and come up short? (Unless, of course, you are a daredevil pantser.) Articles, chapters, and whole books may be dedicated to taking on big moments, but smaller moments are often what sticks in a reader’s memory. So, with this post, I’ll review a few worth keeping in mind.

The Crack - What happens when a noble character makes a compromise? Apparently for the greater good, but really for a selfish reason? A high school student neglects a lifelong friend when there’s a spot open in the popular crowd. A banker makes an unsupported loan to someone who may be able to provide a personal favor later on. A boss hires the cuter, less qualified person for the job.

The character may have a great rationalization, but this moment sets up a shift in values that won’t end well. A careful reader notices such a moment and becomes intrigued — as long as the writer gives this small moment the same attention as a big one.

The Soft Heart - I love it when villains have moments of empathy. They step away from cardboard outlines, become more real, and grab my psyche with an unanswered “what if?”

The Revelation - “[Luke,] I am your father.” That one can’t be missed. (Just misquoted.) But lots of seemingly smaller revelations can become memorable. In Gone With the Wind, the conversation between Scarlett and her father is indelible for me. “That’s it. We must ask Mrs. O’Hara.” At that point, she knows he’s gone mad and will be no help to her.

Feet of Clay - Atticus Finch, unsullied hero, right? But if he were perfect, To Kill a Mockingbird would not have a story. He does not take proper care of his children, and this is clear when he goes to tell the bad news to Tom’s widow. He brings his son Jem along, and the boy is terrified by a drunk, homicidal Mr. Ewell. Maybe Atticus isn’t the perfect single parent. Maybe that’s why both his kids are put in mortal danger later on.

These are just a few small moments the best writers use to deepen stories and make them unforgettable. You can find your own by listings stories you love and thinking about the scenes that have become important to you — as reference points for your life, as ones you look forward to re-experiencing, or as ones you tell others about (often word-for-word). It’s worthwhile looking to see why they are vivid. How stakes rise in those scenes. How the actions and decisions and shifts in perspective bring characters to life.

With close inspection, you can appreciate them more and discover new ways to make your own work more memorable.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dilemmas Drive Stories - The power of tough choices

In the Old Testament, God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son. That’s a heck of a dilemma. Abandon a god with whom you have a loving relationship or murder your son. Personally, intolerable. But story gold.

Writers have been using dilemmas since the very beginning. In general, it’s about having to choose between to horrible, irreversible alternatives. Sophie’s Choice includes a powerful example. She must decide who will live, her son or her daughter.

Extreme choices reveal character, both in terms of how the choice is arrived at and in terms of the aftermath, how the person deals with its consequences — especially psychologically.

Abraham chooses God, confirming his faith. He is stopped from sacrificing his son and, through his son, becomes the patriarch of a great nation. Sophie sees her daughter taken away to her death and is traumatized. She becomes an alcoholic and kills herself.

As a writer, giving characters dilemmas forces dramatic story choices because it evokes emotions — in you and your readers.Explorations that would otherwise become impossible become necessary. (That is, unless you fudge it by some device like time travel. That trope is called upon in Harry Potter and isn’t a complete failure because the mechanism is foreshadowed effectively. In Superman, where the hero gets both choices by making the world spin backward, all the drama and joy of the movie is sucked away.)

To create a dilemma, it is essential to know who the character is and what he or she values deeply. (The biggest writing failure is making the dilemma too trivial. Some writers have a difficult time making things tough for their characters.)

The dilemma should be between two bad options, not two good. I had a friend who had to choose between attending Johns Hopkins Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania’s med school. It caused her some stress, but was not the stuff of great drama.

While the main character may lack some knowledge, it’s best if the choice is not driven by the character being TSTL (too stupid to live).

The choice must be clear. There can’t be a third option or a compromise choice. It might be necessary to consult with other people to identify and close down creative opportunities.

The choice must be irreversible. This may take some thought. Many times, I’ve worked with writers who thought choices could not be reversed. But readers are very good as sniffing out ways they can be. A dilemma must put the character into a new world and make the old world inaccessible. Ideally, that new world will come with some surprises. Unintended consequences are a good thing in stories.

When the character makes the choice, it must be “in character.” While before the choice is made the readers must doubt which way the character will go, afterward it’s best to see the choice made as being inevitable. (This is very difficult to pull off, and works best if plants that point to the decision, such as an earlier decision, come earlier in the story. Another good way to make it work is by buttressing the decision after the fact. For instance, a friend saying something like “I knew you’d make the right choice” can make it easier for the reader to believe the decision.)

Ideally, the choice should do more than change the fortunes of the character. It should be tied to his or her flaws and change them as people, too.

Sometimes a dilemma only emerges after a series of small choices lead the character into a corner. Think of stories where a less than alert or willing to compromise character takes the bait and ends up beholden to a villain.

There are what I call dilemma plus stories. In most cases, these include a choice that seems awful, but has a logical bonus that makes a happy ending possible. But it is also possible to make things go very bad.

What is a dilemma for a character may not be a dilemma for readers. Irony may be in play, either because the reader has superior knowledge or, more interesting, because the reader’s values clash with those of the character.

The potential for dilemmas in a story may not be obvious. It's worth looking more closely at the important choices your characters make to see if they can be constrained in ways that force dilemmas. This takes some courage because, ultimately, it will take you, as a writer, into uncomfortable territory. But it will pay off in terms of reader engagement and deeper insights.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Character Virtues Become Vices - Extremes, contexts, and differing values

When I was in my 20s, someone accused me of being so broad-minded that I was flat headed. I was reminded of this as I attended a workshop with Donald Maass, based on his book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. He went through a series of positive traits that, when taken too far, became questionable. One that struck me in particular was a protagonist who would go from being helpful to interfering with others recklessly.

These progressions seemed natural to me, and perhaps provide alternative solutions to advice I've given about giving main characters important flaws. So I decided to explore it further.

    •    What happens when a confident protagonist becomes egotistical or narcissistic?
    •    What about a carrying character who becomes indulgent or spoils someone he or she loves?
    •    When does a trusting person become so naïve it threatens the welfare of those around him or her?

I was reminded of a man who spoke at my church about tithing. He had made this a priority for himself and his family, to the point where, despite he and his wife having jobs, the family often became dependent upon social services. His generosity had, to my mind, gone so far he put his children at risk. It's an interesting thing to think about of virtue that would be admired in a monk becoming a threat to offspring.

I know many people whose humility made them self-effacing to the point where they did not fully share their gifts and talents with society. Perhaps this is another case where what is good for the individual can get so big that society loses.

    •    Can a protector become a bully?
    •    At what point does a courageous person become foolhardy?
    •    What stops a man with an iron will from treating others with disdain?

Can someone absorb with curiosity damage others in seeking answers? Certainly there were people who worked on the atomic bomb who concluded their session with knowing had led to a turn in history that put humanity in jeopardy.

I've been fascinated for a long time – and not in a good way – by the idea that a true friend will take your call in the middle of the night and go out to bury a body, no questions asked. To me, this is loyalty taken to extremes. To others, the value of friendship trumps other values. The concept of omertà – the Mafia code of honor – does not allow for ratting on a family member, no matter what crimes have been committed. My values differ.

An empathetic person can become a busybody. A funny person can become bitingly satirical and verbally abusive. A respectful person can become a toady.

Some virtues can, when amplified or twisted, can become bad in any context. Some reflect differences in values as they are transformed (corrosive to individual morality or relationships or society or humanity or future generations). Some people become possessed by their virtues and go out of control, acting without thought, deliberation, judgment, or prudence.

Is the road to hell really paved with good intentions? For writers, virtues and good intentions can be pushed to create stories when sharper conflicts and more interesting character arcs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Working With Your Story Ideas - Connect, nurture, shape, and grow

Developing ideas is a natural step after discovery and collection (the topics of last week's post). I previewed this a bit when I mentioned "maybe withs." It's time to dig into this a little more beginning with making a fuzzy distinction between random ideas and those that seem to along with identified projects. Why a fuzzy distinction? Because, while your brain is noticing and selecting facts, insights, images, relationships, and other story fodder, its initial classifications should always be suspect. While an idea might seem to, at first blush, fit with other ideas or be matched to specific projects as it’s collected, your muse may have something — much better – in mind. This is why I recommended adding question marks as he took notes.

When your idea already has a home and you want to work with it, the easiest of idea development is fitting it into what you already have going among your story notes (e.g., efforts on your Work In Progress). But, while it's tempting to put the ideas to work immediately, many ideas will be improved if you take them to extremes. For descriptions, this may mean making them more eccentric and specific. For something that a hero or heroine might put at risk, raise the stakes if you can. Make obstacles you identify more tortuous and major protagonists less capable of meeting them (or raising the price for doing so).

You can also consider applying ideas in places they "don't belong." Be mischievous with mismatches. It's common, for instance, to adapt a great line by a villain so that it can be used by the hero or heroine. You can make a different character face and obstacle or have a surprising characteristic. For one of my stories, I took a talent that interested me and first gave it to a woman, then a middle-aged man, and finally to an adolescent boy. It only became fully alive with the last choice.

What about the fresh ideas? For these, I like to ask questions. Obviously, I look for extremes and for other ideas with which they might be matched. But I also ask how they might fit in with the zeitgeist (and sometimes that means looking at the Google Trends listings). I see if there is something within the idea that suggests conflict, especially a moral conflict. If it naturally creates a true dilemma – where both choices lead to horrible consequences – I know I really have something.

I play with ideas in different geographic settings, in different eras, and in different subcultures (such as military). I explore the possibility of using the idea in different genres. I especially work to discover the unexpected. Sometimes this means brainstorming. I love to create lists of 20 possibilities off of an idea and see which ones are the most surprising.

Two things I've added to idea development in recent years have been especially fruitful. One was to bounce ideas off of things I'm obsessed with. By definition, anything that connects in such a deep way that it causes a compulsive dedication of time and resources is an obsession. Knowing what these are (for me) makes it easier for me to put more work into using an idea, once it's attached to one of my obsessions.

The other thing I've added is examination against themes that recur in my work. I have plenty of stories completed at this point in my career, not to mind for values, situations, and questions that are important to me. As with obsessions (but at a grander scale) storytelling themes naturally drive effective and sometimes inspired use of ideas that have been discovered and collected. If you haven't written on the stories to identify themes that matter to you from your work, lists 10 or 20 of your absolute favorite stories and see if you can identify their themes… And if there are themes that show up often.

These are some hints on how to develop ideas. It's in no way exhaustive. I fill pages with questions to ask and ways to push around and connect captured ideas. I've also written blog posts (Writers, Try This at Home 8 - Developing your story ideas and A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic 2 -- The story essay shortcut) that fit into this general area that you might find useful. But analysis, pattern matching, questions, and systems will never quite do everything in terms of idea development. For one thing, the choices you make along the way will have to do with your intuition and instincts. And, there may be a little bit of magic that shows up from time to time, if you let it.