Monday, October 30, 2006

The Mines of Moria

This last week has been a busy one with not much happening on the writing front. We'll be moving into a house about a mile down the road at the end of the year and the packing has begun. Packing is a lot like trudging through the Mines of Moria. There's more to do than you first suspect, any time you stick your hand back into a dark space it might get bitten, and it takes so much time that the camera resolves into some long shots and then three days pass without you realizing it.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Strange Behavior

As I mentioned before, I'm reading Ironhand's Daughter by the late David Gemmel. He's done something odd in the last quarter of the book and I'm waiting to see how it pans out. The heroine, her sidekick, and the reincarnated ghost of her father are making a side trip to recover some important Crown from an alien world through a magical gateway. So far this trip has taken up twenty or thirty pages and it's almost a completely separate storyline, with its own characters and situations. I can't see what the importance of doing this is. She needs the Crown in order to bring one of the highland factions into her army but that's not a good enough reason for a writer to send a story off in a totally different direction. When I get to the end I'll see how Gemmell ties it all together but for now it's just a little odd.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The New 7 Wonders of the World

I always thought the old list was a little outdated.
Here is a new site of a bunch of historians and
'experts' that are trying to develop a new list.

The New 7 Wonders

Go Stonehenge!!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

To Illustrate

I watched a movie on AMC last night (or actually, I watched a lot of commercials with a movie sprinkled in between) called 'The Last Samurai' with Tom Cruise. He plays an American Civil War veteran who gets hired by the new Japanese Imperial Army to train and modernize their troops. The new government is trying to modernize and is outlawing samurai. The samurai don't take kindly to this and rebel. The story is about Tom getting captured in battle and slowly getting to know and respect his enemy before changing sides. It's a very good movie and you should watch it because it perfectly illustrates the topics of the last few days here.

Act One (part one)- Setup, orphan hero and other characters are introduced, hero captured in battle that is plot point 1.

Act Two (part two)- Reaction, wanderer hero lives among the samurai and observes their ways, pinch 1 happens with a wooden sword fight between hero and samurai warrior. The midpoint is revelation that chief samurai has been captured and will be executed. Hero changes sides and starts taking steps to free him.

Act Two (part three)- Proaction, warrior hero kills government assassins and becomes samurai himself in pinch 2. Frees samurai chief, some minor characters die, in plot point 2. Now we see that the antagonistic force has actually been the modernizing Prime Minister who is trying to destroy the ancient ways of the Japanese people.

Act Three (part four)- Resolution, martyr hero and samurai chief lead the last of the samurai into battle against the regiments of the Imperial Army who now have cannon and automatic weapons. The samurai make a good showing but they get shot up and only Tom Cruise survives. He gives the chief samurai's sword to the Emperor, who finally gets a backbone and fires the Prime Minister. Bushido, the way of the warrior, wins out in the end.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Stop Talking and Kill Sauron

Now for Act Three. Act Three starts with the warrior
hero, who has been getting more proactive towards
accomplishing his goal, becoming the martyr. He has
gone through whatever transformation he needs to,
using info learned in the last Act, to drive towards a
resolution and defeat the antagonistic force thus
getting what he needs. But first, more on how Act Two

Plot Point #2 ends the second act and announces the
beginning of the third. Vogler terms this as the
hero's death and rebirth, in figurative terms. Frodo
tangles with Shelob and doesn't fare well. Sammy
saves the day and the hero now knows that everything
may have to be sacrificed to dunk the stupid ring.
Aragorn reveals himself as the King of Everything and
admits that he must march on the Black Gate in order
to save humanity.

Another thing that has to happen right before we get
to Plot Point #2 is a lull. This is the darkest hour
where all seems lost. Ringwraiths ride unchallenged
across the battlefield. Not only is Frodo dead but
the orcs of Cirith Ungol (or is it Minas Morgul?) are
going to eat him. This is usually the event that
triggers the hero's transformation. Very often a
major sidekick or perhaps the mentor will die here.

So Act Three (or the fourth part) opens with a
transformed hero who has new power and is ready to
give everything. In Love Actually, this takes
place when Hugh Grant starts knocking on doors looking
for his love interest. In Notting Hill this
takes place when Hugh Grant starts driving through the
streets looking for his love interest. This part is
called, not surprisingly, the resolution.

A resolution must resolve things. If you have a big
novel, there will be a lot of things to resolve. This
part takes up about a quarter of your length. The
important thing to remember here is that all the cards
are on the table. Everything is revealed, except in a
mystery, and no new information or characters are
uncovered. As far as plot devices go, the hero has
all the means to achieve the goal. Sauron is toast.
The Death Star is headed to the scrap yard. Somebody
is finally going to realize they love Hugh Grant.
Whatever questions you brought up to make the story
interesting, they get answered now. Good guy wins.
Bad guy loses. Lights come up and you think, "Holy
cow, did I drop a lot of popcorn."

Now, a good resolution will still leave a reader
wondering how this is all going to happen. Everyone
knows the hero will succeed in the end. Unlike real
life, fiction has a climax and an ending. But we're
not sure who's going to survive with him. You should
have plenty of sidekicks around to kill off at this
point. Most importantly, the hero needs to be the
architect of his own victory. Even if the cavalry, or
perhaps the Rohirrim, rides over the hill to save them
all it is still the hero who kept it together long
enough to beat the bad guy.

Like any structure description for writing a story,
this can be wiggled around a bit. However, you move
off of it at your peril. There is a reason this
structure describes so many memorable and commercially
successful stories. There is a reason it has been
around since Homer. It has all the beats that
resonate with a Western audience. It is comfortable
to watch. Therefore it is satisfying, allows us our
catharsis, and fills up our need to be entertained.
All stories can benefit from a structural analysis
using this form.

This sure turned out to be a long series of posts.
I've got to review them now and make sure I didn't
forget anything. I took another look at a novel I
tried to finish a couple years ago and I'm noticing
that there are several places where I didn't follow
the structure. Sure enough, those were all the places
where I felt bogged down and directionless.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Act Two

To continue with architecture, Act Two is where things heat up. It is the meat of the story and it should take up about half of your length. This act is typically split into two parts and that creates a nice four part structure. (Why they don't just call it four acts is beyond me. Probably Shakespere is to blame.) Don't confuse acts with parts, it's easy to do, especially if I interchange them. The second part takes place when the hero has become a wanderer. He or she is gathering information and trying to find out just what the antagonistic force is all about. Vogler would call this the Tests and Trials portion of the journey where Allies and a Mentor figure are met. In westerns you have to have a campfire scene here. In romances you probably have the boy loses girl part here.

There is one specific scene that needs to happen in this part. Brooks calls this Pinch #1. You have to pinch your readers to remind them what the danger is and what's at stake. This is best done in a very blatant way, most likely after a particular test or trial is failed. You could also have one of you allies show up and save the hero. For Vogler this would be the Approach to the Inmost Cave. Beware, here there be monsters.

At the midway point of Act Two, which is also the mid point of the novel, you have a major revelation of information that completely changes the course of the story. Before that, your wandering hero was searching for clues. After it, your hero has the info he or she needs and is ready to become a warrior. They have stopped reacting to events and they start being proactive. Now they take the fight to the antagonistic force. Vogler places this as the Supreme Ordeal. In Star Wars this is the time spent on the Death Star and the midpoint is the revelation that R2 has the plans necessary to destroy it. From that point on, we're no longer just flying to Alderaan, we're trying to save the galaxy.

The proactive time after the midpoint also should include Pinch #2. Once again the hero and the reader need to be reminded in a pointed way that there is a real possibility of failure. The antagonistic force shows up again but this time we have new knowledge and the stakes have been raised. The antagonist is now more dangerous than ever before.

All this leads to Plot Point #2 and the end of Act Two. Act Three is the resolution and I'll discuss that later.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Making Sense of Story Architecture

OK, let's see if I can sum up Larry Brooks' explanation on story architecture in a way that makes sense. The architecture generally follows the heroic journey that was 'discovered' by Joseph Campbell and then reapplied by Christopher Vogler. First, a story has to have a hero and that hero has to need something, go through trials to get it, and go through an internal change that ends up being the design that gets him what he needs. Brooks has the hero going through four phases; orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr.

As an orphan, the hero is disconnected from everything that's about to happen. Then a pivotal event occurs that launches the direction of the story. After that event, the hero wanders in search of information and has to learn how to get what he wants. Then the hero transforms into a warrior who starts taking steps to get him to his goal. After another pivitol moment, the hero is willing to give up everything necessary and become a martyr. This applies to almost all stories from romances to thrillers.

A very popular form of storytelling is the three act structure. This fits very well with the heroic stages above. Act One is about a quarter of the whole work and it is the setup for what we all need to know in order to enjoy the story. Introduce characters, set a hook (usually with foreshadowing), show the hero's needs and situation, etc. This does not mean no action. This just means that a story is building and the hero is mostly unaware of it. But the structure here is about pacing, whereas Vogler uses the structure for plot. The two are different.

Act One ends with a scene or two that make up Plot Point One. This should be roughly one quarter of the way into the story. It is the first time that the adversary, be it a person, a disease, or a storm, is put front and center so there can be no mistaking that the direction of the story is changing. The hero is usually presented with a choice to make. This is what Vogler describes as entering the Special World. In Star Wars, Plot Point One is the death of Luke's Aunt and Uncle. And I bet it happens at 26 minutes into the movie.

I'm running out of lunch hour. We'll move on to the rest later.

Monday, October 09, 2006

How to Write Fantasy

This article is hilarious. It's right up there with the Evil Overlord's Plot Generator.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Day The Second

Today was very eventful. Morning session with Jennie Shortridge who discussed what to do in the first ten pages. Her talk was called the Ten Page Promise and her basic point was to hook the reader early. If you start with a lot of description and backstory you'll likely lose your reader before he or she gets to the hook. What really struck me as interesting was the questions coming from the audience. They had the most basic formatting and grammar questions. It was one of those moments where you sit back and realize that you do know a thing or two after all.

The next two sessions were separated by a long lunch where I had to go meet with a potential landlord and walk through a house we're probably going to rent. Both sessions were taught by Larry Brooks and were absolutely excellent. They made the whole weekend. His explanation of story architecture was one of the clearest I've heard, and like I just said, I know a thing or two about storytelling. If you get a chance to go to one of his longer seminars I would highly suggest it. He gave us the sixteen hour version crammed into about two hours.

What some people don't like, most notably the self proclaimed left-brained writer who walked out on him, is outlining and organizing their story. They want to just let it flow and see where their characters take them. This is wonderful but will often lead down paths that don't make for good novels. This is why we have to write so many drafts before we get it publishable. Notice I didn't say, 'get it right.' 'Right' is a subjective thing that can change from person to person but 'publishable' is pretty well established by the industry. (Like it or not.)

He got his ideas on stroy architecture from writing screenplays. Almost all good movies have very similar pacing. A hook in the first five minutes, a pivotal plot point at 22 to 26 minutes, a major event that changes the direction of the movie at the midway, and then another plot point at the 3/4 mark that announces the beginning of the resolution. There's a great deal more to it than this because the main character is also going through their transformation at the same time. If I think I can present the ideas in a more logical fashion, I just might. It's much easier to grasp when you can draw out a timeline.

The point is that this is a time tested structure that matches the way a person emotionally responds to a story. It also synchs up with another popular structure, the Hero's Journey. More on this later, kids need to go to bed now.

And There Was Morning and Evening, The First Day

The first day at WOTS has gone well. I got to see Ray Rhamey again briefly in the halls as he was going in to start his Flash Editing seminar. My thanks again to him for helping me out on a sticky portion of the story I recently sold. I had just come out of a humor writing presentation put on by Bill Stainton. He's actually quite the local celebrity; he was a writer and performer for a Seattle TV comedy show back in the 80's and 90's called 'Almost Live!' Personally he was hilarious but his presentation pointed out that humor writing is pretty much like other kinds of writing in that it all centers around conflict. In writing fiction, humor begins with 'what goes wrong' and takes off from there. Another thing he brought to our attention is that a comedic piece of writing (and for that matter, most sketch comedy) has something at the very end called a callback. It is a line that brings up the funniest part of the piece and uses it again to tie things up nice and neatly. All in all, a good hour and fifteen minutes.

The last class of the day was on Theme. Eric Penz gave a good presentation where he asked the question 'why write' and listed the answers; they all pointed to a need to say something important. That something is your theme. If you didn't have something to say you'd pick some easier hobby. As Jim Macdonald has often said, keep theme simple. This was the theme of the presentation as well.

After that it was home for cheeseburgers and kids who should have done more to pick up the downstairs room. Tomorrow: Day Two.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Some Clever Stuff

Two things of interest from this morning that I wanted to share, one is mine and one is someone else's. (I've got more time here during lunch than I thought, I missed the keynote speaker due to an errand that ran long.)

We were asked to write an opening line or book blurb that would hook a reader. Someone in class came up with this one that got the best reaction from the group (and I'm paraphrasing badly):

"When Jane found a body in the ditch she knew it would be difficult for her. The police were skeptical, her parents were ashamed, and her church group shunned her. The only one who took her seriously was the killer who knew exactly where she lived."

That's pretty good.

If we didn't have a mystery novel in the works, which I don't, we could come up with an opening line following the dialogue, "Where were you last night?" I offered this tidbit and it seemed to go over well:

"Rachel hid the knife in front of her and did not turn around. He was not close enough to kill with one strike and the kids might wake up any minute."

I then patted myself on the back.

WOTS Going On

It's lunch break on the first day of Write on the Sound. The first seminar I attended was pretty good. It was taught by Pat Rushford and called Writing Mysteries to Die For. She pointed out all the things that make mysteries what they are. Many of the same elements can be used in whatever you write; for me with fantasy it's pretty well parallel.

The most beneficial thing she helped us with was a two sentence formula for summarizing a novel. This is needed for query letters to editors and agents and always seems to be troublesome. Essentially you need to ignore 75% of your novel and get to the point. Too many people, me included, think you need to explain a lot or no one will understand what your plot is. The trick is to forget the plot and focus on five things: Situation, Character, Objective, Opponent, Disaster. This also is similar to Donald Maass' advice for queries: Setting, protagonist, problem.

It was interesting to try to write two sentences that encapsulate the novel I have percolating right now, Broken, which is the rest of the tale that is started with my short story 'Protector'. Here it is:

"With Kingdoms and factions pushing towards war, Jacob Trueman must keep the Kingdom's Daughter alive. When a ancient evil reveals itself and brings devastation to the Kingdom's borders, Jacob must fight enemies seen and unseen to protect his charge."

That's actually a shortened version of what I first wrote. I could probably take a few more words out as well. But that's the point of the exercise. The summary here is not the complete story and says nothing about the journey Jacob makes after fleeing from the good guys after being falsely accused, etc. etc. etc.

I'll have more time to blog later but things are off to a good start here.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Richard Curtis Makes Predictions

This article is pretty interesting. As POD expands, it will become incumbent upon writers to promote their own work through a variety of means. Like maybe, building up an audience with a blog or website...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Why Debate is a Good Thing

I often get into debates over silly things like
movies, books, or torture. I suppose I could avoid
these situations if I really wanted to but I don't.
They make me a better writer. I shall pontificate.

Debate is an exchange of ideas with the intention of
persuasion. It is not a simple conversation; there is
a presumption that right and wrong will figure into
the final assessment. There will be a winner and a
loser. (Unless you're arguing about abortion, then
there will be only losers.) Therefore, you must bring
your A game. You have to clearly state your position
and define how it differs with your opponent. Then
you have to support your position with facts and
reason while attacking the enemy's (sorry,
'opponent's') facts and reason.

Some people can do this well and some cannot. I've
found that when people start getting emotional about
an issue the debate portion of the evening is usually
over. Typically this is when I start talking about
football. This might also be because I have the
amazing gift of taking someone else's facts and
reasoning and making it say what I want instead of
what they want. (Why? Because sometimes I can't
dazzle 'em with brilliance.)

So how does this relate to writing? Fiction is much
like a debate. You are lying and trying to make it
sound convincing. Unless you're writing a sweeping
historical romance you only have a certain amount of
time to make your point and hook your reader. As a
writer, you should train yourself to quickly sort out
what is relevant, what is fluff, and how you can
quickly present it. Debate will help you with this.

It's also fun at parties.

Writing: Start Early

I had the pleasure of helping son #2 write a quick story this morning. His homeschool workbook had several words to study and 'envy' was one of them. He was asked to write a pargraph long story about that. After I explained what the word meant in terms he could understand he came up with something like this: "The early bird got the worm. The late bird hated that. He stole the worm. The early bird got it back and then shared it with the late bird."

Let's examine this. For structure, we do have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For plot, we have characters, crisis, and resolution. For theme, we have envy and redemption. Dialogue is a little thin. Scene and setting could also use some work.

I'd say he's halfway to a Hugo.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Movie Night Theatre

At my house we have something called Movie Night Theatre. This grammatically odd nomenclature was derived from somewhere that I've lost track of but that's not important. Tonight we moved the living room table out of the way, turned the lights out, made popcorn and cookies, and temporarily suspended the No Eating Outside of the Kitchen rule to watch the movie Holes. I have to say this was a good movie for writers. First, it has all the clever plot points that make for an instant classic. The quirky characters all have great stories to tell and they are so well done that you don't mind how implausible all the intersecting arcs are. Second, it has a large backstory that is told in flashback but out of sequence. That in and of itself was very interesting to watch. The scenes came up as they became important to the present day story and in my view they came up at just the right time. Everything came together for a happy ending. Go find this movie at Blockbuster and rent it. You'll thank me later.