What is a short short story?

Karalee’s Post #126

My fellow 5’ers have stated in their blogs that they think that writing 5 short stories in 5 months may be as or more difficult than a novel. To put things in word perspective, I came across this table in Wikipedia:

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In fiction
Classification Word count
Novel over 40,000 words
Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words
Short story under 7,500 words

Word count – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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So in effect if I write say, 7,000 words for each short story it would be 35,000 words. That’s close to a short novel, but about 30% of the length of a typical novel.
I’ve found that it’s common for many short story contests to set the word count somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 words. If I did this then I would write somewhere between 15,000 to 25,000 words.
Then there’s the short short story. What in the heck is that?
short short story
Apparently a short short story is under 1,500 words. Not an easy task.
Writing a short story or a short short story sounds like it should be a whole lot, I mean a WHOLE lot easier and certainly faster than writing a complete novel.
And, truth told, in the end (pun intended) it is, in my opinion.
Certain challenges are the same. There needs to be a beginning, middle and an end. There needs to be a story to tell, some conflict, some changes, and an ending to make it all work and make sense. What makes a short story easier and faster to write is the confines that the length of the story dictates. The “shortness” doesn’t allow a whole lot of character development with growth and changes. Heck, it doesn’t allow a whole lot of characters period. There aren’t enough words to give many to a sub-plot or to introduce more than one or two conflicts. Long descriptions take too many precious words that are needed to keep the story moving.
What a short story does command are strong characters, conflict up front, concise descriptions and quick flow of story.
In a short story the end comes quick. Make sure the story ends in time too. That’s the hard part.
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5/5/5 challenge this week:

Short story word count:   Story 1 –  still at 1000 words. Maybe I will have to do a couple short short stories…

Candy eaten:  All I can say is that it’s a bad idea to buy Halloween candy before the aforesaid event.

Gratitude for:  Connecting with my daughter that lives across town with her husband. I always appreciate when she calls for a check-in chat. With social media these days, it is refreshing to hear her voice.

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Perspective Photos:
mist in park
bee on flower
Happy writing!

Emotional weather

 

weather

Silk’s Post #140 — So, you’re writing a scene and there are a million things you have to remember to work into it somehow. The setting of the scene. Your point-of-view character’s “want”. Who the other characters are that he/she is interacting with, and what they want. The scene’s emotional hook. The plotting. The pacing. The conflict and suspense that’s supposed to be present on every page. And maybe you’re calculating how you can slip in some backstory without putting your author’s foot in your mouth.

Now, for really experienced writers – and, I imagine, for prodigies – all this is probably instinctive, like riding a bicycle. But for the rest of us, it’s like trying to remember all the individual component actions we need to coordinate to get rolling and have a successful ride. Hold on to the handlebars. Balance. Pump the pedals. Look ahead. Don’t go too fast. Don’t go too slow. Don’t turn too suddenly. Steer. Watch out for cars, dogs, potholes, loose gravel.

Like me, I’m sure the last thing you’re looking for is another thing you have to remember. However, recent events in the world have made me think about another component of storytelling that links “setting” to all the other elements in a very meaningful way.

It’s emotional context.

I don’t mean the specific emotions of your POV character, or even your whole cast of characters. I mean the emotional environment that is inherently part of the setting. The storyworld is made up of more than just physical landscapes, plot-related events, cultural attributes, eras and places. There are emotional dimensions to all these things that create an atmosphere in which the action takes place.

I would call it emotional weather. While it may be a subset of a broader, more persistent emotional climate (think, for instance, of the general mood in a place experiencing prolonged warfare, or economic distress, or their opposites), emotional weather is more volatile, difficult to predict, and local. And while it may be stormy in one part of the storyworld, or among one group of its inhabitants, it may be sunny in another.

Does this sound like a recipe for one of a writer’s most desired dishes: conflict? I think so.

All this may seem obvious as you’re reading it. But like a well-practiced bike rider, we don’t always think consciously about things that have become second nature to us. We all experience not only our own personal emotions that relate directly to our lives, but also participate in – and are affected by – the mass emotions of larger groups of people, people we don’t even know.

In the past couple of weeks, events have brought my awareness of this phenomenon up from my subconscious to my conscious mind. Think about the recent emotional weather experienced by these groups of people, and how it is likely affecting their perspective on the world, and yours …

  • Masses of Syrian refugees trying to gain safe haven in Europe.
  • 24 million people watching the televised Republican debates.
  • Tens of thousands watching Pope Francis’s addresses and homilies in person, and millions watching on television.
  • 60,000 attending the Global Citizen concert in Central Park in New York City, and millions more watching electronically.
  • 2 million Muslim pilgrims at the Hajj where hundreds were tragically crushed.

I defy anyone to experience any of these things directly – or even to observe them second-hand – and not react to them emotionally. Even if the experience isn’t deeply life-changing (which depends on how immediately and directly one is affected), it still can shift one’s perspective and attitude and beliefs. And in our era of mass communications, these “local” events are now experienced globally.

I think emotional weather shapes attitudes and actions more than we realize. And that makes it relevant to storytelling. It can infuse different groups of people with anger, bliss, intolerance, generosity, fear, hope, mistrust, trust, despair, joy. These feelings may be transient for some, but for others they may evolve into a permanent world view, especially if they seem to confirm pre-existing beliefs.

A key point is that people don’t have to directly experience the events or conditions that create emotional weather to be affected by it. Today, emotions can easily go viral.

So what does all this mean for a writer? I believe that when a story has deeper emotional context – when the writer builds emotional weather into the storyworld, as well as the personal emotions of the characters that are directly related to the plot – the book will be richer and more authentic.

Not only that, it will offer more opportunities to create conflict and tension. After all, conflict and tension are not just rational responses to stimuli. They’re inherently emotional. They may begin in the head, but they grow in the heart.

And that’s what storytelling is all about.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

New pages written:  6 (that’s all?)

Word count: 6,916

Rewrites:  None

Blog posts written:  1

Research done:  6 hours

Other progress:  5writers blog renovation – wrote new and revised background pages, updated photos, other tech fixes.

Best new thing: Thanks, Pope Francis, for stepping into the lion’s den, shining a light in dark places, and making everyone with a heart want to be a better person. You rock. (And I’m not even Catholic.)

Even a simple change can add complications

Karalee’s Post #69

I’m away in Mexico for the next two weeks and my hubby brought it to my attention that it will be the first two weeks that we will be on our own without children for over twenty-four years. We both love travelling and have our itinerary quite full, but it is also a good thing that we both love to read which means we are never bored or in the need to “have to make conversation.”

This will also be the first time that I’m travelling with an armful of eBooks too, downloaded on the mini i-pad I got for Christmas. Yes, I’ve entered the new age, but not with complete trust. A friend I went on a trek to Nepal with a couple of years ago had all of her reading material on her Kindle that crashed and she had nothing to fall back on. There will definitely be a couple of real paper books in my suitcase just in case.

Of course this week I need to make sure that everything will be taken care of: the house, my two dogs, and my university-going son that still lives at home and needs to be fed (and help look after the house and dogs).

My organizing was falling into place to the point of having those dull bits that Silk referred to this week until I took my youngest dog to the vet to have a tooth pulled. A minor thing, a tiny front tooth that was crowded and already loose. Heck, I was thinking of saving a bundle and getting the pliers out and giving it a good yank myself.

Then the vet called and asked if I’d had other dental work done somewhere else since my dog had a broken back tooth and some missing teeth. I said ‘no’ and she recommended an Xray that revealed a tooth that hadn’t grown in and was becoming abscessed.

So instead of one tiny tooth that would have been easy peasy, my dog had three teeth pulled and a whole bunch of stitches, which complicates the follow-up home care.

Maybe it was the three teeth that made me think of the ‘The Three Little Pigs’ and how they needed to build a stronger house to keep out the hungry wolf. Sometimes it takes a slightly different look at life to make me understand that a simple change in one character’s situation effects what other characters do in a story, and that it doesn’t have to be high action shoot ’em up stuff to add tension and conflict and make a character suffer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now the difference between one and three teeth being pulled effects both my dog and myself. My dog’s routine is disrupted for ten days as she needs pain medication, a soft food diet, and no toys to play with or bite on. For her, no toys is real suffering!

For me there is added stress to ensure that my neighbor knows what to do for the first four days when my son is out of town at an ultimate Frisbee tournament in the US, that my son knows what to do when he comes home, and that my daughter is the go-to person if complications arise. Now I also need to buy medication and a different dog food and scout the house for the gazillion stuffed toys my dog loves to play with. Plus, there is the worry factor when I’m gone.

Of course, if this were a scenario in a book it would be the set-up for something more dramatic such as my dog becoming seriously ill, or the vet implanting something in my dog for a secret research project, etc, etc.

For me this is a reminder that to add conflict and make a character suffer, even a simple change can be effective and alter the course of action. I don’t always have to bring out the guns so-to-speak, and being more subtle can be more effective at the right times.

I will be back the first week in April.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surprises heighten emotions

Karalee’s Post #67

My 5Writer friends have been discussing the need to have and the difficulty of creating surprises, conflicts, and suspense in their writing. Even the joy of reading for reading sake seems like a lost pleasure in today’s generation, taken over by social media, video games, movies and TV.

So is all the time and effort worth it to keep writing stories that we fear the new generation has no interest in reading anyway?

Well I must confess that I have spent most of my reading hours in the last couple of months viewing Downton Abbey (now into its fourth season) and House of Cards (in its second season). Before now I hadn’t watched either and I wanted to understand what my friends were talking about.

Beyond a doubt I’m enjoying both series, and although the plot-lines are very different I keep watching them for the same reasons: the characters and the element of surprise and suspense.

downton abbeyI find that Downton Abbey is more predictable in its plot-line, but I’m still entertained due to the  the awesome setting in the abbey as well as the characters and their interactions and changes.

 

 

house of cardsAs for House of Cards, the element of surprise has me intrigued. The protagonist Francis Underwood (an antihero) is devious and malicious yet shows that he cares for his wife enough that he isn’t totally unlikable (although he is becoming more unlikable as the series continues). By the time Francis murdered Peter Russo, a Democrat running for Governor of Pennsylvania, I was expecting it, but when Francis pushed the reporter Zoe Barnes in front of an oncoming commuter train, I was completely blown away.

At first I couldn’t believe it. Why would the scriptwriters kill the person that I related to the most in the series? I LIKED Zoe. She had balls to stand up to Francis (now VP of the Unites States) and I was rooting for her to take him down!

To dissect this turn-of-events, it isn’t the fact that Francis murdered Zoe that bothered me, it’s the fact that Zoe is dead. Out of the series. Gone. Kaput.

zoe in house of cardsNow what? I was depending on Zoe to do great things in the series. She was bright, cute and gutsy. How could the scriptwriters get rid of her?

I found my feelings of disbelief, disappointment- and yes- anger, quite intriguing. Then, before watching the next episode I put my writer’s hat back on and asked myself: What has killing Zoe achieved?

  • total surprise, which caused my above emotional responses.
  • curiosity. Now what? Someone has to take Zoe’s place and go after the antihero Francis Underwood. Francis can’t literally get away with murder and ultimately become the president of the US!
  • Zoe’s replacement will also be in danger, so suspense is still high and I want to keep watching to see what happens.

Now with Zoe being literally killed off, it made me think about the characters I’m developing in my next story. I had NEVER thought about getting rid of one of my main characters that I’m literally telling my story through. It’s like killing the detective in a mystery.

But why not? It is absolutely a way to bring a new main character on stage to keep the story going. It may not be what I choose to do, but on the other hand it has opened my eyes to seeing other possibilities.

And it’s these other possibilities that not only keep writers writing, it also pulls in readers (or even starts people reading) and gets producers excited about turning our books into movies.

No, I don’t believe that readers are a dying breed, but they do expect a good story with unexpected twists and turns in order to devote their time to reading the book or even watching it in movie form.

Have surprises you’ve experienced through someone else’s storytelling enriched your own writing? 

The thrill of outlining – part 3

Karalee’s Post #65

outlining courseMy outlining course through Writer’s Digest University finished this week and I am well on the way to having a story I’m excited to spend the next few months writing. I I still want to do more characterization, especially of my antagonist. I also want to up the stakes in a few places for both my antagonist and protagonist and add them into my outline.

The outlining course began with my basic story idea, then moved to a premise sentence that introduced my story situation, the protagonist and antagonist, and the major objective. This process automatically encouraged my brainstorming process, all those ‘what if’s’ that I love (and I think most writers do) that push my creative spirit in any and all directions, some of which are outlandish, crazy, weird, and that might just work if this and that happens….. During this creative time, this course encouraged me to also try to think about my theme as well as character motives and conflicts. Looking back, this was something I hadn’t concentrated on as much before, and it was very helpful in coming up with bigger moments  with more at stake than I may have otherwise done. (Part 1)

Part 2 was exploring one’s characters and settings. All major characters need to be explored in depth. Whether you make a formal outline or not, writers need to know their characters as though they are “real” family, friends, or enemies. We need to know why they do what they do. This means, what has happened in their lives to make them think and act the way they do? This process is extensive and time consuming, but also a great time saver when it comes to writing scenes. For me,knowing my characters also adds to the pleasure of being “in my character’s head” while I am writing.

Settings must also seem real and knowing and feeling a country or a city takes more understanding than an office, kitchen or bedroom. Helga’s last post explores this topic well.

So what is left for Part 3?

outline endThis is where you take all the brainstorming ideas, the characters and settings and story lines, and organize them into possible scenes while still jotting down other ideas that may come to mind as you do this. I think of this like sorting “dots” into the picture that will come to light once they are all connected. This is the Extended Outline and depending on your writing style, it may be quite extensive to include ideas that both work or don’t seem to, or merely simple one-liners as a reminder for when you write the scene later.

At this point all your brainstorming ideas are recorded in whatever detail works for you. Most of us don’t want to trash any ideas as there could be gold to be mined later if we are stuck, but it may be quite onerous to wade through everything during your story writing. To help streamline the process, it is helpful to sort through everything at this point (especially since it is fresh) to make an Abbreviated Outline that is easy to follow as you write your scenes.

For me, this outlining process has been very helpful and definitely worth my time and effort. I am starting out eager to write my story with a much better feel for my story and theme, my characters and settings, and their conflicts and growth.

I don’t feel that my creative forces have been stifled at all since I’m keeping an open mind to the probability that some characters may try and take over and others may come on stage that haven’t shown themselves yet. I will let them do what they feel they need to, but since I have a good idea of where my story needs to go, if characters go too far in an unworkable directions, not too much time and effort will be given to them.

Happy writing!

Group dynamics

Karalee’s Post #64

This Friday our group is coming together loaded with ideas and outlines and ready to brainstorm. Coffee will flow almost as fast as our mouths, and lunch provided by Helga (thank-you!!!) will be quick so we can continue with our meeting.

It’s no small feat to get five people together to review five entire outlines of each one of our books, or at least a multitude of thoughts about a book idea in some organized fashion. We haven’t seen each other since last fall either, so we have some catch-up chatting time to fit in too. 

In effect in all probability the timer will have to come out again.

We’re not a group of down-to-the-last-second and you’re cut off kiddo, and then on to the next writer, but we are respectful of each other and are cognizant of everyone having their equal time on stage.

And what a stage it will be. It’s like being invited to a large party where you only know four people yet you anticipate being introduced to all the others and feel compelled to remember their names.

And no, name tags won’t help.

Some of the guests will be nasty people that you can spot a mile away and others that are so sneaky you think they are okay, but you have no idea what their motives are so you don’t really trust them. Others will be genuinely nice and some not-so-nice, but you put up with them because you like their friends or family. Then there are the strong-willed people that want to be in the spotlight and take over the show and you feel compelled to stand up to them and fight for your own space.

Now those ones need to have a timer on them too.

If we had a whole weekend wouldn’t it be fun to let our characters loose to mingle and see what story they come up with? We could add stress and conflict by not providing coffee, not allowing them to sleep, playing the music loud, burning the popcorn, throwing in a few weapons, turning the heat up high and locking the doors.

Of course we would call in the cops when chaos breaks out.

What fun we could have!

Happy writing!

The thrill of outlining – part 2

Karalee’s Post #62

I haven’t told my fellow 5Writers often enough that they are an inspiration to me, that they help me keep my life in perspective as they share their perspectives, and how important our group’s encouragement and sharing of information is a powerful source of positive energy that helps to keep me on my writing journey.

So, thank-you fellow 5Writers!

This blog came to be because over a year ago our group came to the conclusion that monthly critique meetings weren’t servicing our goals the way we had intended. Submitting 7500 words each was still a significant amount of critiquing for everyone, but was jerky progress at best in completing our individual novels in good time. For that reason we decided to challenge ourselves to work toward larger goals and come together as a group less frequently. Our blog was born as a surrogate meeting place and a way to share with our followers how our group works together.

All I can say is thank goodness for social media. As writers we hear that it is so important to be connected nowadays in order to market ourselves, but I feel it is also a very important medium to allow individual groups to stay connected. Writing doesn’t have to be a lonely occupation.

At present our goal is to come together this month and share our outlines for our next manuscript. To that end, I will continue my blog on that topic.

Outlining Part 2. The Middle.

outlining middlePart 1 addressed the overall story premise and jotting down four or five big moments in the plot line. If you really don’t write anything down you can keep all the information in your head instead, although I still consider this as a form of outlining as well. Actually, it’s a great exercise for the brain too and can possibly deter Alzheimer’s, but my brain doesn’t hold information for me like that.

I need to record things in order to remember details that must be consistent throughout my story. Brainstorming ideas can come from all directions and connect my characters and settings in ways that I hadn’t considered before and I easily forget the paths if I don’t write them down and I’d rather not miss the opportunity to make a good story great.

I also need reminders in front of me regarding key factors in the story that help keep me focused. As my story develops what I will tack to my wall is:

  • my story premise
  • protagonist and antagonist motives and desires (often what a character wants to do but can’t at this moment)
  • goal of the story
  • conflicts – major and minor
  • theme

More than likely when you are thinking about your story premise and big moments you will also  be thinking about what type of characters will play out the action.

This brings us to the next part of outlining.

The Middle

Characterization

This section is also super creative. You get to conjure up your characters using your own life experiences as well as drawing from a plethora of references available. These range from watching movies & documentaries, news stories, books on character development, applying enneagrams or personality or psychological profiles, researching history and cultures, taking relevant courses, visit your settings and experience them, people watching, and talking to strangers, teachers, and colleagues, etc.

At the same time you develop your characters, the settings they grew up in, moved away to, and live in now will also be coming to light as they are part of what makes up your characters too. 

While you start to understand who your characters are and note down your ideas (or log them in your brain), your story line is also burbling away as you envision what your characters are doing or need to do. Scenes start to emerge more clearly, filling in holes between your major big moments.

Some of these big moments might also shift and change, which is the beauty of thinking through your story before wasting huge chunks of time writing something that doesn’t work.

For me, drawing a big bubble map at this point helps me with my timeline and who is where doing what to whom. You may use a notebook split into sections, a writing software or a simple word document. Pictures are helpful as well both for settings and characters.

During all of this exciting and creative thinking and exploring time, you may be asking yourself where to start your opening chapter. I know this is always a huge issue for me when I start a new manuscript. The inciting incident must be established, but it doesn’t have to be at the starting gate. A key event must also happen that pushes your protagonist onto a path of no return. Before this course I wasn’t aware of the two as separate entities as they had worked together for me.

  • The inciting event is something that happens that “changes the world” in your story.
  • the key event brings the protagonist through to the “new world.”
  • the two can be the same event or separate. For example, if they are separate, the inciting event could be a major fire that destroys a neighborhood while the key event could be what brings your protagonist on scene, such as the discovery of an underground bunker full of stolen paintings. And of course, the antagonist will become involved as well through the stolen paintings in some way.

Your mind will keep throwing out ideas from all directions so I recommend to keep noting them down to be sorted at a later time.

Now back to characterization.

Your character’s history is really what has made him/her the person he/she is today. This means you need to know your character’s life over and above the details of DOB, physical characteristics, and where her/she was born and lived.

The rest is what is called backstory and is what makes your characters do interesting things for interesting reasons. It is through backstory that you discover your characters’ motivations, desires, internal conflicts, etc.

Backstory includes:

  • family, friends, colleagues, lovers – and how they have influenced your characters. What major incidents happened in your characters’ lives in childhood and onwards (good to note at milestone times) that shaped their motivations, desires, fears, strengths, weaknesses, etc.
  • time in history – present, past, future (understand the setting)
  • cultural influences. For example, understanding the culture is a good jumping point to go against the norm in a believable way and add conflict.
  • present profession and jobs leading up to what the characters do now
  • hobbies/interests
  • travel experiences
  • life-altering experiences – sickness, traumas, abuses, extreme weather events, but also acts of kindness, etc. too

The overall purpose of backstory is:

  • to weave in connection points in order for your reader to relate to your characters in some way either positively or negatively. It allows readers to understand where your character is coming from (motives, desires, fears, strengths) when he/she takes action, whether the action is as expected or unexpected. Here the cliche “show don’t tell” is helpful and information often can be given through dialogue rather than through narrative dumping. (this has been a hard lesson for me to learn.)
  • a source of inner conflict in your story
  • understand your characters arcs and how they can change in a believable way in your story

outline novel bookIn her book Outlining you Novel Map Your Way to Success, KM Weiland suggests a couple of ways to develop your characters:

  1. Start at the inciting event and work backwards to answer why your protagonist and antagonist would be affected and why will they do what they do in your story?
  2. Interview your character and ask oodles of questions such as those given in her book and her free online book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Her website is helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/resourses/free-e-book.

Have fun developing interesting and memorable characters.

Happy outlining!

Hills, Heart, Head and Hunger

Karalee’s Post #53

Karalee's triathlon in June 2013

Karalee’s triathlon in June 2013

It’s my hill running day today and my lady friends take a longer route with less hills while I stick to a shorter route and repeat a hill section to lessen the distance and the pounding on my lower back. For sure I get a good workout, but it also means that I have time to think and do personal mental work instead of listening or talking to my friends as I huff and puff.

Generally speaking I am an optimistic person, why else would I happily pursue a writing career that has such lopsided odds of success? But like many of us, I have a tendency to get stuck in negative loops at times. Actually I’ve had more than my share in this department. Lately, in order to counteract the childhood stuff I have been dealing with over the past year, I’ve been working on changing my automatic negative patterns and concentrating on positive thoughts throughout my day .

It is helping in a huge way.

For me, actively altering my thought process has been life changing. Today I was concentrating on opening my heart more and allowing myself to feel vulnerable. You may not think this is a positive thought pattern, rather it seems potentially more hurtful than beneficial, and the fear of being vulnerable would stop many people from even trying to embrace the feeling. But to truly trust and love someone with your inner self and to feel love in return, I believe it is necessary.

Who doesn’t want to love and be loved?

Of course my mind turned to how I could use these challenges in developing the characters in my novels, both in good ways and in dysfunctional ways. 

Meanwhile I kept running, my feet pounding more than caressing the path through the rain forest near the University of British Columbia as I sucked in lungfuls of air ripe with the smell of trampled leaves and forest dampness. The temperature was perfect, 8 Celsius, and it kept my peri-menopausal body from overheating as I climbed hill #4. 

I could feel my heart pounding and I was breathing heavily as I pushed up the incline.

Hill.

Heart.

Health.

The words set up a rhythm in my mind that matched the cadence of my feet and I thought about the four pillars of health: physical, emotional, psychological and nutritional. I love word games and my mind started to spit out ‘H’ words to represent these pillars.

‘Hills, Heart, Head and Hunger’ quickly became a mantra in time with my footsteps and of course I began to wonder how I could use the four H’s in my writing. 

Writers want their protagonists and antagonists, and maybe the aunts, uncles, children, dogs and anyone else wandering through the story to suffer in some way. This is necessary in order to have conflict and for characters to grow and change, and the reader to connect with them. It gives our stories greater depth.

And to suffer, our characters’ lives can’t be in balance.

One or more of the four pillars, or the four H’s must fall or be tilted. So writers out there, I urge you to muck with your character’s health in some way. Give them a physical difficulty, a psychological defect, emotional traumas, or starve or poison them. Make their lives miserable and see how they rise to the challenge so your readers can root for them, or boo and hiss at them.

Make your readers care one way or the other.

Happy writing.

Someone smarter than me

don0027t-leave-me---final-cover

Joe’s Post #49 — As much as I love my CHEWASS system, I wanted to pass along something I read in Writer’s Digest. It’s from one of my fav writer guru’s, James Scott Bell. He has a much bigger brain than me.

The whole article is here. The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them). It’s awesome. But let me look at his 5 points for a moment.

1) Happy People in Happy Land – One of my earliest realizations. Was Harry Potter happy in Potterland? Nope. Was Katniss? Nuh-uh. Even Frodo, living in an idyllic little hobbit town wanted more, wanted adventure. So, all my stories – all my characters- always begin with something bad happening. Something that will change their world.

2) A World Without Fear – Another great suggestion. He talks about the fear of death, but I think fears drive us as much as hope sometimes. I love confronting my characters with their fears, smashing their hopes, threatening their lives or those that they hold dear.

3) Marshmallow Dialogue – So easy to spot in other people’s writing. So hard to spot in your own. Best advice, read it aloud. It’s embarrassing sometimes, but very useful.

4) Predictability – Ah ha. Another Bell gem. I started using this one on my rewrite right away. It’s such great advice. How can you make a scene just a little bit unpredictable? How can you challenge the reader to really, really read your story (without, you know, being all confusing and stuff?)

thCA7NKPBW5) Lost Love – Oh this is a good one. He talks about yearning. “We yearn because we feel a lack, a need, a hole in our souls. So yearning is about connection.” Brilliant. So, thought I as I drank my forth glass of wine, what do my characters yearn for? Not their ‘want’, their goal, their driving force. What, deep down, do they need in life? That made me think a lot more about my characters and the more I thought on it, the better my characters became. Try it out on your characters and see what happens.

I guess the point of this blog was that even during the rewrite stage, even after writing one or two novels, I can still learn something. I can still do better. I can still add something more to my writing to make it sing.

Why do we torture our heroes?

Happy Canada Day! Now that the 5 writers have reported on our big critique adventure on Whistler Mountain, we thought we’d use the summer to blog about some of the things we learned, observed or discussed in a collaborative way. The idea is to open each week with a topic of interest (a provocative one is always fun), and then each of the 5 writers will in turn add their thoughts about it … or maybe take it in some new direction. We’ll see! We also welcome readers’ thoughts in the comments section, so jump in anytime. Since it is vacation season, after all, we hope readers will forgive us if some of us play hooky occasionally over the summer. And now, on to our first topic …

perils-of-pauline

Silk’s Post #42 — We all got the memo. You get your hero up a tree. You throw rocks at him. And then you get him down.

This writing adage about the three-act structure did have an origin, but tracking it down is not so easy. According to Barry Popik on his very cool blog, The Big Apple:

“It has been cited in print since at least 1897 and has been credited to French writers of farce. George Abbott (1887-1995), who wrote the books for the Broadway musicals Damn Yankees and Fiorello!, often used the saying, crediting it to the American playwright Augustus Thomas (1857-1934). Thomas credits French playwrights in his 1916 book.”

All I know for sure is that when I googled this well-worn novel/script/screenplay bromide, I decided to stop trying to find its genesis when I got to the 25th page of citations.

No matter. It’s received wisdom that has stood the test of time. Why?

If you’ve ever read a book on writing or sat through a workshop at a writers conference, you will be familiar with the constant exhortation to create conflict and tension on every page by giving your protagonist troubles. And then more troubles. In other words, getting him up a tree then throwing rocks at him.

Good advice, as far as it goes. But I think it’s smart to remember that this adage is shorthand for a much more nuanced principle of drama. Blind adherence to the dictum can result in “Perils of Pauline” melodrama, or produce a protagonist so hopelessly beleaguered that the hero comes across as a hapless victim.

There are three big problems with a hapless victim as protagonist.

Problem #1: Repetitive Agonizing
Over-tortured, victimized characters tend to express their constant frustration. After all, the author has to give these poor sods something to say, and when a character with a life-threatening disease, whose true love recently dumped him just after his dog was run over by a car, falls off a cliff and into a gigantic waterfall after being chased by evil aliens … well, let’s just assume the first words out of his mouth after he hits the water will not be, “Wow! What a beautiful waterfall.” How many readers want to spend a whole book with a constantly anguished or angry protagonist? We all want someone to root for, not just feel sorry for.

Problem #2: Boredom
Being in a pickle is not inherently exciting. Giving a protagonist a ton of problems to worry about and suffer from does not automatically create conflict and tension. A guy sitting in solitary confinement in a prison cell has big trouble, but watching him pace the floor and mark the days off on the wall is not interesting. Or even tense (for the reader, at least). Why? He can’t solve his problem. All he can do is be miserable. And misery without conflict, action or interaction is kinda boring. (In case Papillon comes to mind as an exception, that was Henri Charriere’s memoir and, arguably, the exciting parts were the escapes, not the scenes where he spit out his rotting teeth in a filthy cell.)

Problem #3: Miraculous Victory
“The Perils of Pauline” told classic damsel-in-distress stories. Sending in some outside force to rescue the protagonist is one way to get him, or her, down from the tree. But if you’re not (intentionally) writing melodrama, you have to figure out a way to have your hero find his own way down from the tree. If you’ve beset your protagonist with continuously mounting (and unsolved) troubles through the whole book – your character is going to have to morph from hapless victim to unstoppable Superman in the last act to get out of the mess by himself. (Okay, Papillon is certainly a breathtaking example of this … but if it hadn’t been an autobiography, who would have believed it?)

So, what does the “up a tree” dictum really tell us to do? This is something we discussed at length in Whistler, and my own personal epiphany was about the purpose of giving your protagonist troubles. It’s not to make him a miserable, complaining victim. It’s to give him something heroic to do. To put him in action. Only by the protagonist’s reaction to his troubles can we get to know what he’s made of.

Ding … the lightbulb went on for me. Give your hero problems he actually can do something about. Then let him show his stuff. Do we really care about a hero who sits up in that tree kvetching and waiting for miracle? No, we want him to be visibly overcoming his fear of heights, planning his escape, throwing apples at the baying dogs below, weaving a rope out of twigs or something … anything! The tougher the problem, the bigger the hero. But if the protagonist is not well matched with the problems to be solved, the writer may have to cheat and resort to miracles or magic, and that could actually diminish the hero.

That’s my take. What’s yours?