Out of My Head 5: Story and Plot

  1. Story

A character in a setting with a problem, attempting multiple cycles of risk and failure (the narrative flow), before achieving a resolution.

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.  It’s the fear of loss.  If the hero doesn’t face literal death, then there must be the threat of death or a symbolic death.

What your characters are afraid of is a choice.  You choose to be afraid.  Or not.  FEAR.  False Evidence that Appears Real, or Fuck Everything And Run.  We have no control over the things that happen to us, but we do choose how we deal with them.  We decide what the consequences are going to be.  So too with our characters.

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.

All the separate arts of the story should reveal a much larger picture that explains everything in the end.

 

  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 ditch, 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.

That said, plotting is a tool not universally employed by the writing community.  There are detractors, authors who prefer to pursue their craft by the seat of their pants.

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.  Example: mine is nonlinear.  There is only the way that works for you.

Remember the Five W’s, Plus an H

  • Who – the character
  • What – the problem
  • When and Where – the setting
  • Why – the purpose; the reason your character needs to solve the problem
  • How – the plot

 

  1. Backstory

What’s the point?  Your backstory exists to serve the story proper.

If story is character + setting + problem, how your character solves the problem is shaped by his backstory.  Plot rises from what your characters want and need.  Your backstory informs the characters in how they go about getting what they need, but it’s not a principal focus.

Backstory is context.  It exists to inform and give meaning to the plot.  Equal parts worldbuilding, characterization, and hindsight.  If you ignore your backstory, your character’s actions won’t feel true.

Characters in short fiction have no less backstory than do characters in novels.  You just can’t use it all.  You as the author have to be okay with that.

Backstory can–and most likely should–be cut when irrelevant to the plot.

 

  1. Endings

How many of you have a story and no idea how to end it?

If a story is about your character’s resolution of a problem, the ending can only go in one of two ways.  He succeeds, or he fails.  That’s it.  Everything else is a ripple or consequence of those two states.

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

The setting will inform the solution.

Knowing how your story ends in advance will help streamline your narrative flow and reduce word count, particularly in short fiction.

Ask yourself: What do you want your ending to accomplish?

The hero must end the story different than what he was when he began it.  The hero archetype represents the ego’s search for wholeness.  It’s the process of becoming a more complete human being.  The transformation of the character is the reason you’re telling the story.

If you don’t know what your ending will be, how do you know when you’ve arrived?

 

 

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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 Nuts and Bolts 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

Identify characters right away.

Get to the conflict as quickly as possible.

Use language that fits the setting.  An earthy setting needs earthy language.  A sophisticated setting needs sophisticated language.  Semantic discord happens when words and imagery don’t fit together in a natural fashion.

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

 

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 in a more layered plot, 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.  Show not only what happens but also how it feels.  A successful paragraph will evoke action, emotion, and the physical senses.

Every moment of action is an opportunity to add another line of description (just don’t overdo it).  When you’ve said everything you have to say about that specific moment, end the paragraph and start the next.

Try to capture four main thoughts per paragraph:

  • Set the scene
  • Show what’s happening
  • Color the setting and action with some description
  • Advance the plot to the next paragraph (the theme sentence).

Theme – what your story is really about.

Example:  What’s Gone with the Wind really about?  The death of a way of life and the struggle to build a new one, not just for Scarlett but an entire nation.

Ask yourself: What am I saying?  What effect do I want to produce?  Why am I writing this?

 

Style

Style is the way the story is told.

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.  Effectiveness vs elegance.  Decide which is best suited for the story you want to tell.

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.  A writer’s job is to be invisible.  Focus on clarity.

Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip–thick paragraphs of prose that have too many words in them, or writing that’s overwrought and obvious.  Author Elmore Leonard calls this “perpetrating hoopedoodle.”

Accuracy is the most effective style of all.

 

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.

Plot Device – an element introduced into the story solely to advance or resolve the plot.  It should flow naturally from the setting or characters.  Examples: Casablanca’s letters of transit; the Death Star plans; anything Indiana Jones is looking for.

Dilemma – two different emotions in conflict with each other.

Climax – the story’s psychological turning point.

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.

Out of My Head 3: Talent and Craft

Let’s say for the sake of discussion that creativity is to talent as craft is to technique.  One is a subset of the other, each one-half of the writing experience.

Craft is objective.  It’s the external process; rules that can be taught.  It’s scholarly old men over the course of centuries deciding how grammar, punctuation, and story structure work.  Creativity is the internal process; it’s subjective, and comes from a different place altogether.  It’s the art that informs and gives meaning to craft.

Writing then is the act of maintaining the balance between craft and creativity.

I don’t put a lot of stock in talent for its own sake.  You have what you have; either you’re born with it or you’re not.  Talent can be squandered, ignored, thrown away.  Quoting author Steven Barnes: “Attitude, not Aptitude, is the best indicator of future Altitude.”

Relying on talent isn’t enough.  It’s a dead end.  You can’t control talent, but you can control craft.  You need the ability to learn craft, and become good at it.  A perfectly fine story can be written using nothing but technique.  Many authors do.  I don’t recommend it, but that’s just me.  That’s my blue pill.

Creativity is the part of ourselves that wants to play.  Can it be taught?  I honestly don’t know.  Creativity can be nurtured, most definitely; stimulated, encouraged to grow.  The spark is already there, in all of us.  Our child-selves utilized it every day.

Our make-believe worlds were not “make-believe” at all.  They were real.  But then what happens?  We either hold on to our creativity, nurture it, allow it to broaden and mature, or we lose it.  Even worse, we forget it was ever there.

All we really need to do is remember.

Strange New Worlds

Hokey smokes, lots of stuff past and future coming down the pike.  Panels and teaching opportunities, which I surely enjoy.

MisCon 30: Missoula, MT

  • May 28 6:00pm – Exploit Your Inner Fears
  • May 29 12:00pm – Fiction Slam Reading
  • May 29 1:00pm – Not Your Average Short Story Panel
  • May 29 5:00pm – Depicting Emotions in Fiction
  • May 29 6:00pm – Fair Coin
  • May 30 11:00am – Writing Part-Time

Write in the Harbor 2016: Tacoma Community College; Gig Harbor, WA

  • Nov 5 9:30am – The Hero’s Journey
  • Nov 5 11:30am – Science Fiction: Worldbuilding
  • Nov 5 3:00pm – Writing Short Fiction

OryCon 38: Portland, OR

  • Nov 18-20  Programming schedule pending to be determined

Out of My Head 2: The Basics

In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.

Don’t waste time and effort trying to be the writer-artiste, hiding behind a carefully crafted pseudonym, persona, or avatar.  Don’t covet celebrity before it’s deserved.  You have to earn that.  Use your precious energy to write.  It’s never too late to be who you really are.

Teachers say “write what you know”.  I don’t really believe that’s true, particularly not in genre fiction.  No one knows what an AI will do when it’s plugged in for the first time.  No one knows about FTL spacecraft, or wormholes to other galaxies, or elves, or dragons, or magic in urban settings, or plucky young heroines in YA dystopias.  But we write about them anyway.  We’re drawn to the things that appeal to us, the ones that nourish our spirit.  So write them.  Don’t get lost in what you know.  Focus on what makes you happy.  Write what you love.

The trick is to learn from real writers.

Approach with caution the Creative Writing professor who’s never published any fiction herself.  The buddy who’s full of great ideas and characters and plot twists but has never done anything with them.  The Best Friend Forever who’s loved everything you have ever written and can’t wait for you to write more.  Or the guy who covets the writer’s lifestyle without having earned it.  You know him.  He hangs out with writers, attends writer events, even fawns his way onto panels so that he can talk to you about writing.  But he hasn’t paid his dues.  He hasn’t sold anything of his own.  These people can’t help you.  None of them can help you.  You have to let all of that go if you want to move forward.

Needing a degree in order to write is bullshit.  Needing an advanced degree in order to write is fucking bullshit.

You can’t learn how to write by reading a book about it, or by listening to someone talk.  (When’s the last time anyone learned to swim without actually getting in the water?)  You can only learn by doing.

Writing is a privilege, not an entitlement.

 

Goal Structuring

To become a success in anything, you have to have goals.  You have to know what you want, stated as clearly and honestly as possible.

If you feel you aren’t achieving your goals as a writer, examine your behavior.  How are you organizing your time?  If you want to be published, are you writing consistently?  Sending those stories out?  It doesn’t matter what your goals are, only that you understand them and do something about it.

Balance goals with the real world.  I have a day job.  That’s 8, 9, 10 hours a day that require my focus.  I’m married; my wife and I together share the responsibility to nurture and grow that relationship.  I have two sons; they’re adults now but for the longest time they weren’t.  And I own a home; it’s my job to keep it in good repair, take out the trash, make sure the lawn is mowed.  Where my writing time comes from is the same bucket that I use for television, reading, movies, Internet, and social media.  Everything has a trade-off.  This is mine.

What goal are you working on right now?  What story are you writing?  Did you finish it?  If not, what stopped you?  What resources do you need to get back on track?

 

I Want…

A question that’s not really asked in Creative Writing class is what kind of writer do you want to be?  (We’re not talking about genre.)  There are essentially five kinds of writer in today’s world, each with a trajectory and set of requirements that are very different from the others.  So ask yourself–what do I really want?  I want to be a…

  • Writer
  • Published writer
  • Published writer who gets paid
  • Published writer who gets paid money
  • Published writer who gets paid a professional wage

Each path is tied uniquely to its goal.  They are not easily interchangeable.  The path to becoming a Published Writer will not lead you to a Published Writer Who Gets Paid Money.  The markets are very, very different.  Choose your goals wisely and with careful thought.

 

Rituals of Productivity

Everyone’s got them.  “I can only write at night.  I need a mug of herbal tea with me at all times.  Only the most up to date software for my laptop, please.”  All of which is fine.  The point is not to be dependent on your rituals or tools.  It becomes an easy excuse not to write if you don’t have them at the ready.  Learn to do without.  Minimalism is a good thing.

When I was in England several years back I visited Charles Dickens’ house.  It’s a museum now, still furnished as when he lived there.  What impressed me the most was his desk.  It’s not really a desk at all; it’s a small table the size and shape of a dinner tray, with long spindly legs mounted on tiny wheels.  Dickens would roll it from room to room when he wrote, wherever the mood struck him and the light was best.  He didn’t need a grand, impressive piece of furniture that bellowed “I Am a Writer!” when he worked.  He just needed to work.

 

Overcoming Obstacles

Never surrender.  Failure is when you don’t get back up again.

Criticism of your work is not a personal attack.

Lack of control is self-imposed.

Don’t start anything unless you have a profound commitment to finish it.  If you don’t, how will you know if your story is any good?  You can’t revise it, can’t market it, can’t sell it.  The discipline of being a writer isn’t having ideas, it’s following them through to the end.

Conquer fear – “I’m afraid I can’t get what’s in my head onto the page.”  Recognize FEAR for what it is–a learning tool, one more step along the many paths to wisdom.  Which path you take is up to you.

  • Positive response: False Evidence that Appears Real
  • Negative response: Fuck Everything and Run

Writer’s Block – I’ve seen articles listing up to a dozen or so different types of writer’s block, describing each in detail to help you assign your symptoms to the correct category.  That’s much too complicated.  You need that energy to fix the problem at hand.  Here’s the simple definition: writer’s block is a confusion of the flow and edit states.  The writer will edit up front as he goes, with each sentence, and the flow is stymied.  Flow and edit are processed differently in the human brain, as are belief and doubt.  Just get the words on paper.  Less than marvelous is okay.  You can make them pretty later.

Every word you type will help you.

 

Extracting Outcomes

Don’t post your finished story online, no matter how much you want to.  Not on your website, not on your blog.  Not if you want to sell it.  Why would a publisher pay you for a story that you’ve already offered up to the world for free?

A publisher isn’t going to buy your book if he doesn’t think it will make him any money.  It’s not about good.  It’s about the money.

There is no such thing as “professional quality”.  There’s a whole lot of garbage out there that was produced professionally.  The only criterion that determines if your work is professional is whether or not you’re paid a professional wage.  That’s it.

 

Not-So-Random Observations

Quit looking for the magic, and do the work.

The most honest validation you will ever receive for your work is a paycheck.

Blow your pipes out.  Get rid of the media stuff built up inside.  You’ll never find your own voice otherwise.

Don’t self-critique while writing.

Treat writing like the profession it is.  Build a portfolio.  Amass finished work.  No one wants to see incomplete material.  What is your reputation at any given moment?  Be the good guy.  Learn to meet deadlines.  Work ethic is just as important as talent.  Put yourself out there.  Market your work.  If you don’t believe in yourself, who will?

“I write for the fans.”  This is bullshit.  It’s pandering.  Don’t pimp out your inner child.  Write for you.

Writing is not important by itself.  It’s only important if it makes a difference.  So make a difference.