Bombing Through It


Back in the nineties, before social networking or even blogs had been invented, I belonged to a chat list for published writers.  You carried on a slow conversation with like-minded people by sending e-mails to a central server, which then sent them out to all members of the list.  Tom Clancy, another list member, used to give a piece of advice to writers who were stuck at various stages of the writing process: “Just write the damned book.”

I think of that advice whenever potential clients ask me to read over the first few chapters of their work in progress, to make sure they’re “on the right track.”  They don’t seem to realize that there is no track.  When you write your first draft, you lay the tracks as you go.  As you follow your story, you may find out that a minor character moves to the center of the action, or that a plot twist you’ve been building toward for a hundred pages just won’t work.  Or your story may simply transform into something else as you write it.  In its original draft, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was magical realism, with Simon having genuine mystical visions and sacrificing himself willingly at the end.

The process is a little different if you work from a detailed outline, but not much.  True, you do have an idea of where you’re going when you actually begin writing.  But some of the creativity and surprise – the getting to know the story and characters – that other writers experience with the first draft, you get with the outline.  And no matter how detailed your outline might be, you should still treat it more as a guide than a rulebook.  The actual process of getting the story down on paper has a unique intimacy and particularity.  Stories are organic.  You’ve got to let them grow as you write, even if you’ve already built a trellis.

Still, the problem those clients are looking to me to solve is real — a lot of writers get lost in the middle of their first draft.  One reason may be a lack of confidence and drive.  I find it’s usually second novels that I’m asked to keep on track.  Many writers enter the field because they’re burning to tell a particular story.  But after the first novel is done and they launch into the second one, they often lack the passion for the story that got them through the first novel.  After The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan began and abandoned seven different second novels — at one point breaking out in hives — before writing The Kitchen God’s Wife.

You can also trip up on your first draft by focusing on the mechanics of writing – like the beginning writer who recently complained on the Writer Unboxed Facebook site that, whenever she read a how-to-write book, she felt like she was going about it wrong.  It’s easy to get so obsessed with the technical details – how you’re managing your micro-tension, if you’re giving your readers enough physical description to imagine the scene, whether your antagonist is sufficiently balanced or your dialogue is pithy enough – that you can’t find your story.  You’re like the centipede who was asked which leg she lifted first when she walked – and never walked again.

On the other hand, not having a firm enough grasp of the basic skills of storytelling can also run a first draft into the ground.  If your descriptions are inept, then your locations will never take on reality.  Flaws in your management of point of view can keep your characters from coming to life.  So what you’re writing may feel flabby, impotent, just plain wrong, which makes it hard to keep going.

So how do you thread the needle between being aware of the mechanics of writing and ignoring them enough to focus on your characters? [Read more…]


What Do Your Readers Know and When Do They Know It?


As any good operative can tell you, information is power.  Whether you’re dropping bombshells on your readers, teasing them with hints and suggestions, or letting them know ahead of time that disaster is approaching, you control their reactions by how and when you dole out the facts.  So how do you best wield the power of information?  What do you tell your readers, and when, and why?

It depends on whether you’re getting your tension primarily from your plot or your characters.  If you’re naturally drawn to creating tension from events – if you love building a story around plot twists that shock your readers – then you want to hold things back until the big moment.   But this is trickier than it sounds.

For one thing, unless you’re deliberately using an unreliable narrator, none of your viewpoint characters can know the key facts before you spring your plot twist.  There was a time when the narrators of mysteries could tease readers with hidden knowledge.  In The Door (1930) Mary Roberts Reinhart’s narrator regularly says things like, “It was then on Sunday afternoon that there occurred another of those apparently small matters on which later such grave events were to depend.”  Today that approach to building tension seems unbearably quaint (as does her sentence construction).

But if your viewpoint characters are aware of the pertinent facts and you don’t reveal them, your readers are going to feel cheated.  After all, if your readers are inside the heads of characters who know stuff, why didn’t they learn it as well? [Read more…]


Tying Character Types to Plot, Suspense, and Emotion


Our guest today is Jeanne Cavelos, creator of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization devoted to helping developing writers of fantastic fiction improve their work.

A writer, editor, scientist, and teacher, Jeanne began her professional life as an astrophysicist, working in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, but her love of love of science fiction led her to earn her MFA in creative writing. She moved into a career in publishing, becoming a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she created and launched the Abyss imprint of innovative horror and the Cutting Edge imprint of noir literary fiction. She also ran the science fiction/fantasy publishing program and edited a wide range of fiction and nonfiction; in her eight years in New York publishing, she edited numerous award-winning and best-selling authors and gained a reputation for discovering and nurturing new writers. Jeanne won the World Fantasy Award for her editing.

I am constantly trying to learn more about writing, both to improve my own work and to make myself a better teacher and mentor to other writers. I was very excited last spring when I came across the writing book mentioned in my article.  The more I think about the character types discussed in the book, the more insights I have about how these types can be used to strengthen stories.  I haven’t seen these ideas about how to link plot, character, and emotion discussed anywhere before, so I thought they might be helpful to your readers.

She left New York to find a balance that would allow her to do her own writing and work in a more in-depth way with writers. She has had seven books published; her last novel Invoking Darkness, the third volume in her best-selling trilogy The Passing Of The Techno-Mages (Del Rey), set in the Babylon 5 universe. The Sci-Fi Channel called the trilogy “A revelation for Babylon 5 fans. . . . Not ‘television episodic’ in look and feel. They are truly novels in their own right.” Her book The Science Of Star Wars (St. Martin’s) was chosen by the New York Public Library for its recommended reading list. The Science Of The X-Files (Berkley) was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. Jeanne has published short fiction and nonfiction in magazines and anthologies, and she is currently writing a near-future science thriller about genetic manipulation, titled Fatal Spiral.

Jeanne loves working with developing writers, which led her to create the Odyssey Writing Workshop, the only major workshop of its kind run by an editor. Jeanne designed the workshop to combine an advanced curriculum that allows writers to improve their craft with detailed, in-depth feedback on their work. In 2010, she launched Odyssey Online Classes; Jeanne oversees the courses offered and teaches one online course per year. She is also an English lecturer at Saint Anselm College where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing.

Of her post today, Jeanne says, “I am constantly trying to learn more about writing, both to improve my own work and to make myself a better teacher and mentor to other writers.  I was very excited last spring when I came across the writing book mentioned in my article.  The more I think about the character types discussed in the book, the more insights I have about how these types can be used to strengthen stories.  I haven’t seen these ideas about how to link plot, character, and emotion discussed anywhere before, so I thought they might be helpful to your readers.”

Connect with Jeanne and the Odyssey Writing Workshop on Odyssey’s website and blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. For more information about Odyssey, check out this youtube video.

Tying Character Types to Plot, Suspense, and Emotion 

Create a protagonist. Add an antagonist. Toss in a sidekick or minion, or if you’re writing a novel, perhaps a whole array of characters. But then what do you do with them? How do you incorporate each character into the story so he has a powerful impact on plot, raises intense suspense, and generates strong emotions?

One very useful tool to help you maximize the impact of each character on the story is to consider each character’s type. The book The Dramatic Writer’s Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories by Will Dunne introduces different character types, such as the close powerful ally, the close weak ally, the distant powerful ally, the distant weak ally, the close powerful adversary, the distant powerful adversary, the close weak adversary, and the distant weak adversary. While Dunne identifies other fascinating types, we’ll focus on these in this article.

At first, these categories may seem fairly obvious. But as I thought about them, I realized how much power they could bring to a story if one considers what type of character would best serve the story at a particular point. For example, if your protagonist starts out weak, like Harry Potter, then a close powerful adversary should quickly destroy him, if your story is to be believable. Instead, Harry needs a close weak adversary that he has at least a chance of beating, such as Draco Malfoy, so we feel suspense and concern. If Harry has nearby allies, then they should be close weak allies. [Read more…]


Everything I Need to Know About Plot, I Learned From Buffy

photo by Jaina

A couple of weeks ago, a client told me one of his beta readers had said his book read like a comic book.  I asked why that was a bad thing.

Granted, you don’t want your characters to be shallow caricatures or your plot to be mechanical or contrived, which is what many people mean by “reads like a comic book.”  But all of this client’s characters were fully rounded and plausibly human.  Even the psychopath who hunted people down in the woods had his vulnerable moments.  And while his plot had problems, contrivance wasn’t one of them.  I suspect his beta reader was complaining about the fact that his manuscript was an exciting adventure story.

Years ago, I stopped reading New Yorker fiction because I lost patience with beautifully written stories in which nothing much happens.  For the sake of this article (oh, the sacrifices I make.), I picked up a recent issue to try again.

Joseph O’Neill’s “The Referees” tells the story of Rob, who has just returned to New York and is trying to get two character references so he can move into a co-op.  We meet a lot of Rob’s former friends and get a good idea of who he is and what kind of life he’s led.  He has a clear and engaging voice, and it’s hard not to like him despite his drawbacks.  The story makes good use of some advanced techniques, like present-tense narration and a highly unreliable narrator.  It also says some intriguing things about how we judge one another and ourselves.  But by the end of the story Rob still has only one reference, which he wrote himself, and we don’t know if he gets the apartment or not.  Maybe he’s changed by the experience.  Maybe he’s not.

In short, nothing happens.  It does it quite beautifully, but . . .

I understand why some people might love quality characterization and beautiful writing so much that they’re willing to read a story for these pleasures alone.  But most readers need something more to keep them going.  They want to hope that something good – or fear that something bad – will happen to characters they care about.  They want to watch those characters take action to change their fates. They want to be surprised.

They want plot.

This hunger for plot is, I think, one reason comics and YA fiction, and the movies based on them, are so popular.  The best practitioners of these arts know and value the power of story, and one of the best of these is Joss Whedon.  He’s the force behind the current revival of the Marvel Universe (The Avengers, the Agents of Shield), but the work I know him for best is the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. [Read more…]


A Matter of Time

Terri Oda
Flickr Creative Commons: Terri Oda

Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end:  then stop.”

It was good advice when Lewis Carol gave it in Alice in Wonderland, and it still is. When your story follows a straight timeline, it’s a lot easier to show how one event flows into the next. This makes it simpler to show your characters’ growth and ramp your plot tension up toward your climax.  It’s the way things unfold in the real world, and it’s usually the best way to tell your story.

But not always.

Not long ago, WU member Rebecca Vance posed a plotting problem on the WU Facebook page.   Her protagonist, Sierra, a modern-day medium, needs to solve a murder that took place in a small mining town in Nevada in the 1870s in order to help the ghost of Rusty, the victim.  At the same time Rusty, who had been a madam at one of the town’s brothels, helps Sierra overcome the damage of witnessing her own parents’ murder when she was a child.

It wouldn’t be hard to use Sierra’s memories and occasional brief flashbacks to show her parents’ murder.  The details of the killing are less important than how it affects her.  But to make the nineteenth-century mystery work as a mystery, Rebecca has to bring the characters and settings of the 1870s to life.  You can’t really do that through secondhand description or snippets of flashbacks.  The best choice is chapter-long extended scenes set in a past century.

So how do you build tension steadily with a plot that jumps back and forth in time?  The trick is to pay attention to what your readers know and what they want to know.  [Read more…]