Gathering No Moss

Lots of goings-on this month.  Random, and yet not.

I’ve moved nineteen times in my adult life.  It’s one of the curses of being born with insatiable wanderlust, I suppose.  Nineteen changes of address in eleven different cities, five counties, two states.  Packing, cleaning, movers who don’t show up, mountains of boxes to stumble over.  And books–may I point out–are goddamn heavy!  So we just done it again.  Twenty times now, and no longer counting.  Packed up the cat and moved to Des Moines, half an hour south of Seattle.  And in Washington, the “s” in Des Moines is sounded.  Just the second one though, not the first.  Des Moinez, with an emphasis on the z.  I have no idea why.

My proposal for a fiction writing practicum has been approved by Tacoma Community College’s continuing education program.  (Much closer to Des Moines than our old place in Lake Forest Park.  That’s a win for the commute!)  We will be offering the class in the spring quarter and again this summer, potentially at the Gig Harbor too.  I will be teaching as well as writing the curriculum based on the “Out of My Head” posts here.  Go Titans.

“Cold Ink” sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies this week, the seventh of my Clockwork Millennials cycle to be published.  This one has lived in my head for a long time–like, a really long time.  Thirty-plus years maybe.  The narrative trappings and plot points varied over the years but the story itself–the core of it–and the girl at its center, always remained the same.  I’m glad to finally send her out into the world.

I’ve been listening to the Pippin soundtrack lately.  I always wanted to play Pippin.  I still feel like him (there’s that pesky wanderlust again) but the reality of the calendar says I’m just seven years shy of his grandmother’s age.  No idea how that happened.  Plenty of time for reflection later, though.  I just moved and have to unpack all these goddamn heavy books.

And Then This Happened…

Publisher:  “I think what you’ve got in that dream sequence is awesome.  Love it.  But as a rule I don’t like dream sequences.”

Me:  “Okay…?”

Publisher:  “So I want you to keep everything that’s in the dream, but rewrite it so that it’s not a dream.”

Me:  “But the dream is prophetic.  None of it actually happens.  Not at this stage of the story, at least.”

Publisher:  “Yeah yeah yeah.  You’ll figure it out.  Awesome, though.  Love it.”

Me:  (muttering) “Great googly moogly…”

 

 

Out of My Head 6: The Rhythm of Fiction

Three elements to keep in mind with regard to narrative flow: story rhythm separates plot from random strings of events; there must be equal parts action and reaction (yang and yin); there must be movement, either internal or external.  The hero must change.

  1. Story Structure is rigid (the traditional pyramid):
  • First crisis
  • Exposition
  • Second crisis
  • Transition (optional)
  • Third crisis
  • Undercutting (optional)
  • Climax
  • Result
  • Close
  1. Story Rhythm is always in motion, diagramed as a continuously expanding series of loops:
  • Goal
  • Action
  • Disaster
  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

The decision leads naturally to the next goal, followed by action, disaster, reaction, and so on.  The loops get bigger with each repetition as jeopardy escalates to the story’s climax.  This is the try/fail cycle.

ACTION (Yang): goal, action, disaster

REACTION (Yin): reaction, dilemma, decision

Story structure is the skeleton that supports rhythm’s muscles.

The number of times you repeat the try/fail cycle is a principle determinant of story length.

Out of My Head 5: Story and Plot

  1. Story

A character in a setting with a problem, attempting multiple solutions with increasing levels of risk and failure, before achieving a resolution.

The character is the demonstration of the problem.  He is the expression of the problem.

The bigger the problem, the bigger the character has to be to solve it.  How he deals with the problem reveals who he really is.  What you do is who you are.

Whoever your attention stays focused on, that’s who the story is about.  The hero doesn’t just solve a physical problem, he’s also caught in an ethical dilemma created by his role in the situation.

Stories are journeys–not only through physical landscapes but emotional realms as well.  They’re metaphors for life, the expression of truths by means of symbolic representation.  As such, they’re hypertrue.

At the heart of every story is a confrontation with death.  The death of the body, the death of a relationship, the death of a dream or goal.  If the hero doesn’t face literal death, then there must be the threat of death or a symbolic death.

All the separate parts of the story should reveal a much larger picture that explains everything.

Every scene must serve a specific purpose.  Every scene should propel the story forward.  If it doesn’t move the characters closer to the resolution of the problem (or if it’s simply not interesting), cut it.

The nature of the ending is expressed in the nature of the beginning.

 

 

  1. Plot

Plot is the narrative that drives the resolution of the story.  It rises from what your characters want and need.

If STORY is dropping your character into a shithole, PLOT is watching him try to climb out.

Finding plot for character-driven stories.  Ask yourself “What’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?”  Then do it.  How he overcomes the obstacle or challenge is the story’s plot.

Plotting (or outlining) – the mapping out of specific story points before the text is written.  Establishing narrative guideposts in advance.  Plotting need not be rigid or a crutch.  Be flexible.  Let the story flow where it will in unexpected directions, then recalibrate accordingly.

An outline breaks the story down structurally.  A synopsis summarizes the story in a compressed narrative.

The process is highly idiosyncratic.  There is no right way to outline (mine is nonlinear). Tere is only the way that works for you.

Plotting is a tool not universally accepted in the writing community.  There are detractors, authors who prefer to pursue their craft by the seat of their pants:

Excerpted from Stephen King’s book On Writing (Scribner, New York, 2000)

  • “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless… and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation are not compatible… Stories pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow… Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.”

Stephen King is, of course, Stephen King, but I’m calling shenanigans on that one, dude…

 

 

  1. Emotional Resonance (the B-Plot)

Readers connect most strongly to emotion, which arises naturally out of the character’s interaction with and reaction to their setting and problem.

There must be a core of strong and genuine feelings at the heart of every story.  Without it, the narrative is just a travelogue.

Good fiction works on the emotional level first and foremost.  Badly written fiction can succeed because of emotional appeal.  Brilliantly wrought prose can fail because of a lack of emotion.

 

 

Orycon 38

I’ll be attending Orycon this coming Saturday and Sunday, November 19-20, with five panels and a reading.  (Friday will be spent roaming the streets of Portland looking for a protest to join, if the Trumpkins don’t outlaw them first.)  Here is my schedule:

Saturday Nov 19

1:00pm – Backstory: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right

3:00pm – Short Stories, Novelettes, Novellas, and the Markets Who Love Them (moderator)

5:30pm – Reading: “Through the Looking Glass, Darkly”

8:00pm – Star Trek: Reboot (moderator)

Sunday Nov 20

10:00am – Endings: Cuddling with the Reader (moderator)

12:00pm – Revision: Path to Better Writing or Way to Never Finish?

 

 

Out of My Head 4: The Technique of Writing

The storyteller only needs to answer three questions: What’s happening?  Who’s it happening to?  Why should we care?

  • What’s happening is the plot
  • Who it’s happening to is the character
  • Why we should care is the emotional heart of the story, the most important part

Writing is making decisions.  Every moment of every story, every chapter, every paragraph, is a decision.

Identify characters right away.

Get to the conflict as quickly as possible.

Use words that fit the setting.  Earthy setting = earthy words.  Sophisticated setting = sophisticated words.  Semantic discord happens when words and imagery don’t fit together.

 

Style

Style is the way the story is told.

Effectiveness vs elegance.  Clarity requires that most of your sentences be simple and straightforward.  But storytelling also begs for vivid imagery and character, and it requires a distinctive voice to evoke that imagery.

Language should always be clear.

Don’t choose frills over substance.  Don’t be pretentious.  When you focus on the language instead of the meaning, you’re putting your attention in the wrong place.  Focus on clarity.  Accuracy is the most effective style of all.

 

Voice

Three types, which interact in varying degrees and capacities:

Voice-of-the-Story: subject, setting, and genre imply a specific resonance; high fantasy, Westerns, crime drama, hard SF.

Voice-of-Point-of-View: first person or third?  If first person, who is narrating? Past tense or present?  All of this implies tone.

Voice-of-the-Author: the subconscious word and style choices we make as writers; our tells, our fingerprints.  The distinctive quality that makes you you, arising out of talent, craft, and life experience.

 

Dialogue

Effective dialogue needs descriptive action interspersed throughout.  This gives detail and context.  If dialogue is the best way to reveal a character, the second best way is the description that accompanies dialogue.  This includes the use of silence, as demonstrated through pause, beat, or hesitation.

Steer clear of verbs other than “said” to carry dialogue.  The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer not being invisible.  Be straightforward and simple.  A word like said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, or lied.

Avoid adverbs to modify the verb “said”.  The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.  (As notoriously found in the Tom Swift series, where writers went to great lengths to avoid repeating the unmodified “said”… he pointed out sharply.)

Characters living in the past need to speak like they’re living in the past.  Contemporary turns of phrase will shatter the fourth wall and pull readers out of the story.

Use accents and regional dialects sparingly.  Once you start to spell dialogue phonetically and load the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.  (Think early Star Trek novels, where Chekov and Scotty were written like the actors sounded onscreen.  Their lines were all but impossible to decipher.)

Write dialogue first whenever possible, before describing action or scenery.  Most of what your reader needs to know can be conveyed through the spoken word, keeping description and stage direction to a minimum.

Historically, the art form with the purest representation of dialogue has been the theatre.  Motion and scope are far more limited on the stage than in any other form.  All you have is language.  Shakespeare never included stage direction in his work, relying almost exclusively on dialogue to carry the story.  (As opposed to Neil Simon who over-staged every action and movement, no matter how small.  Don’t do this.)

 

Story Form

  • Long Novel – 150,000 words and up
  • Mid-Sized Novel – 75,000 to 150,000 words
  • Short Novel – 40,000 to 75,000 words
  • Novella – 17,500 to 40,000 words
  • Novelette – 7,500 to 17,500 words
  • Short story – less than 7,500 words
  • Flash – 1,000 words or less.

Short Story – a singleness of event and decision.

Novella – events build one atop another, often with progressing value systems; a single principal character is featured more often than not.

Novel – the central player is the society in which the story takes place; one or more principal characters within that society carry intertwining plots.

 

Components

The first line can either set the stage or hook you into the character.  (And those that hook you almost always follow with a bit of scenery.)  It should be surprising enough to tease you into reading the second line and the third and the rest.  Let your line have some mystery to it, and the reader will keep going to find out why.

The last line should imply that the story will continue, and should hopefully leave you wondering what will happen next.

Short sentences provide clarity and a crisp readable style, very useful for writing action and short fiction.  Long and involved sentences create a flowing sense of motion, but use caution: long sentences can become labored and overwrought.

A paragraph is a complete moment.  Every sentence in the paragraph is a part of that moment.  Tell not only what happens but also what it feels like.  A successful paragraph will evoke action, emotion, and the physical senses.  When you’ve said everything you have to say about that specific moment, end the paragraph and start the next.

 

The Rhythm of Fiction

Three elements to keep in mind with regard to narrative flow: story rhythm separates plot from random strings of events; there must be equal parts action and reaction (yang and yin); there must be movement, either internal or external.  The hero must change

  1. Story Structure is rigid (the traditional pyramid):
  • First crisis
  • Exposition
  • Second crisis
  • Transition (optional)
  • Third crisis
  • Undercutting (optional)
  • Climax
  • Result
  • Close
  1. Story Rhythm is always in motion, diagramed as a continuously expanding series of loops:
  • Goal
  • Action
  • Disaster
  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

The decision leads naturally to the next goal, followed by action, disaster, reaction, and so on.  The loops get bigger with each repetition as jeopardy escalates to the story’s climax.

ACTION (Yang): goal, action, disaster

REACTION (Yin): reaction, dilemma, decision

Story structure is the skeleton that supports rhythm’s muscles.

 

Three Axes-of-Story in Genre Fiction

First axis-of-story: story elements.  A character in a setting with a problem, who makes multiple attempts to solve that problem with increasing stakes for failure, before coming to a resolution.

  • Character
  • Setting
  • Problem
  • Try/Fail Cycles
  • Resolution

Second axis-of-story: craft techniques.  Voice, point-of-view, structure, style–all the narrative and technical choices that a writer makes to build a story.

  • Voice
  • Style
  • Point-of-view
  • Structure
  • Person/Tense
  • Punctuation
  • Paragraphing

Third axis-of-story: genre devices.  These are the things that make a genre story what it is, rather than mainstream fiction.

 

Behind the Scenes

Authority – the writer’s ability to convince the reader he knows what he’s talking about.  Don’t undermine your own authority by losing the reader.

Research – a shotgun blast, not a well-targeted bullet.  Winging something of value with a single pellet is a success.

Dilemma – two different emotions in conflict with each other.

Climax – the story’s psychological turning point.

Second Artist Effect – the first artist sees a landscape and paints what he’s seen.  The second artist see’s the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of the real landscape.  He’s not creating anything new, nor uniquely his own.  (Think of the countless replications of Lord of the Rings, or any Young Adult dystopia.)

Plot Device – an element introduced into the story solely to advance or resolve the plot.  It should flow naturally from the setting or characters.

MacGuffin – a plot device that motivates the characters into action or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise.

Word Echoes – the same word repeated in close proximity.  It draws attention to itself and distracts the reader.  However, there is a point at which the contortions to avoid the echo become more artificial than the echo itself.

 

 

Fairwood Writers

I’m very pleased to have been invited to join Fairwood Writers (though not without considerable self-promotion on my part.  A guy’s gotta pitch.)  They’re a critique group with a long and proud history, not the least of which is organizing Norwescon’s Writers’ Workshop every year.  Many notable authors past and present have been members and I’m fortunate to be in their company.  Good, good people.

For my audition I had to submit a new piece for review (which ultimately became “Through the Looking-Glass, Darkly”), a rewrite of that piece to show that I can utilize constructive criticism, and the beginning of a second new piece, all within a 4-week period.  Lots of stress and work, but very much worth it in the end.

My writing output has always been erratic (or shall we say nonlinear), and that’s putting it nicely.  It takes me forever to complete something new.  Fairwood will challenge and hold me accountable to improve my output, as well as point out when my narrative is less than good.  That’s exactly what I need.  The second audition piece mentioned above is now a finished work called “Cold Ink”, word count 14,500 – twice as long as it would have been without Fairwood’s critical input.  Follow-through, baby, and a commitment to get it done.