FiYoShiMo starts TOMORROW

Welcome to the end of November. NaNoWriMo wraps up, and rather than stick the file off in some virtual corner to collect dust, I’d like to suggest that you and your MS join me for #FiYoShiMo.

That’s Fix Your Shit Month. I first talked about it here. I want to give you a clearer roadmap.

It’s thirty consecutive days of blogposts, starting with the basics of storytelling, ending with post-writing and revision process. Every day there will be a explanation of a storycraft element or two as well as exercises for the particular day.

The full 30-day breakdown looks like this:

The Basics
———-
December 1 DAY 1: Beats
December 2 DAY 2: Direct/Indirect Beats
December 3 DAY 3: Tone and Mood
December 4 DAY 4: Genre
December 5 DAY 5: Theme

Character Stuff
————
December 6 DAY 6: Character Motivations
December 7 DAY 7: Character Philosophies
December 8 DAY 8: Character Skills
December 9 DAY 9: Character Weakness
December 10 DAY 10: Character Goals
December 11 DAY 11: Protagonists / Antagonists
December 12 DAY 12: Secondary Characters

Plot Stuff
————
December 13 DAY 13: Plot Intersection
December 14 DAY 14: Plot Negligence
December 15 DAY 15: Plot Sustinence
December 16 DAY 16: Plot Padding
December 17 DAY 17: Plot Interruption
December 18 DAY 18: Plot and Time
December 19 DAY 19: Plot Crutches

World Building
————–
December 20 DAY 20: World Building Basic Tools, Part 1
December 21 DAY 21: World Building Basic Tools, Part 2
December 22 DAY 22: World Building and Plot
December 23 DAY 23: World Building and Characters
December 24 DAY 24: World Building and Tone

Post-Writing & Revision
———————-
December 26 DAY 26: What’s next?
December 27 DAY 27: Packaging Options
December 28 DAY 28: Pitching and Queries Part 1
December 29 DAY 29: Pitching and Queries Part 2
December 30 DAY 30: Help for People Who Write
December 31 DAY 31: FiYoShiMo Wrap-Up

Yes, I’m taking Christmas Day off.

I hope you’re ready. I hope I’m ready. We start tomorrow, at 9 am EST. See you then.

A Roadmap Of An Outline

Well, it’s Sunday night as I write this, so you know what that means – yes my fantasy football team completely went out and sucked. So rather than mourn the inability of grown men to satisfactorily run up and down a field or catch a ball, let’s talk about something really exciting.

Outlines.

No, seriously, we can make them exciting again. But first, we need to cover the not-exciting basics. Which means I get to talk about my relationship to outlines.

I hate them. I hate them the way I hate peas. I hate them the way I hate snow. I hate their stupid preoccupation with order and structure. I hate their completely dull way of sucking all the joy out of my art.

Ever since high school, where my English teacher embarrassed me publicly for not writing one to meet her standards, I have battled outlines both in the practical sense (they take too damned long) and the cerebral (if I have to use one, does that mean I’m not as smart as I think I am, that I just can’t whip up an idea from the top of my head). It’s an ongoing war, and many publishers have routed me on the battlefield for my guerrilla approach. It may be too cavalier, too arrogant, too disorganized, too needing someone else to give me structure.

No, I don’t know why I’m still not making friends with outlines.

But, know your enemy … I think the Wu-Tang Clan taught me that. So let’s meet our foe.

Our first encounters with outlines are probably academic ones. In fact, the majority of outlines you’ll write (assuming there’s not a template for you, but more on that later). The academic outline has Roman numerals, capital letters, and then subdivisions under it. Like this:

ACADEMICOUTLINE

I swear I’m going to work on my anger issues.

This builds a staircase of ideas, breaking things down to smaller and smaller units of idea, and keeps it all orderly via indentation. It’s not a bad system, but it can be rigid, and it’s easy to lock in and end up lost if you have to jettison some parts of it later.

The other significant shortcoming in this system is the lack of clear segue between Roman numerals. In all other cases, the letters and subdivisors share a connection, as they’re all facets of the larger idea. But if we’ve stepped on and down this hierarchy for several divisors, and then we jump back up to the next Roman numeral, might that be a little confusing, especially if you revisit the outline after a few days away from it?

Enter the columnar outline. This method doesn’t rely on indentation as a structure giver, it just has lots of small chunks kept under one umbrella idea.

2015-11-22 18.27.03

This is the outline for today’s blogpost.

If this method seems familiar to you, it’s also how we write to-do lists or grocery lists, or if you’re me, practically any thought I need to keep straight beyond binging Netflix or scouring the internet for British televisions shows involving science fiction and people with accents.

If there’s a downside to it, it’s the presumption that all the information on it has equal value. In our example, it’s about making sure all the outline types have equal importance to the topic (they do), but if this were my listing of things I want to do before going to bed, I’d juggle the order around so that my usual evening phone calls and emails to people take precedence over things like making art notes for Noir World, or figuring out a Spotify playlist.

Additionally, there’s the idea that the elements fall in order of priority. Again, for the photo above, they do, but if I put up my to-do list for tomorrow, the coaching sessions with clients, therapy, and paying the cable bill have much more immediate priority to me than making sure I put away the socks I washed today, even if I put socks higher on the list because I was thinking about it while writing.

The structure is pretty baked into the academic and columnar outlines. Let’s look at one that isn’t so linear.

VISUALOUTLINE

Bonus: I didn’t capitalize or punctuate this idea

This is a visual outline, also called a mind map or mind web or a spatial mapping. This method works really well for visual thinkers (if that’s you, go check out a program called Scapple), but for people like me who don’t process things like they’re CGI elements in Minority Report or an Iron Man movie, this leaves me feeling confused.

With a focus on connections, a visual outline can seem like a great compensation for the janky segues (or lack thereof) in the academic outline model. Here, it’s all segue – how do the ideas connect?

But, when you fail to capitalize or punctuate, it’s tough to immediately get a sense of starting or ending points. Or how to move from connection to connection in a way that I can explain to other people. I mean, I get it, but that’s because I wrote it … hold onto that idea, we’ll come back to that later.

So let’s take this in a different direction. Here’s the method I’m a huge fan of, but that’s because it’s not structured thanks to fancy word processing.

There’s this model of outlining called structured storyboarding. It helps you picture the scene as though it’s paused in your mind, then you Socraticly dissect it and help build it. Like in those movies where people move fast, so everything slows down around them, and they can make adjustments to things.

quicksilver-steals-hat

Like this.

I love this model, because it gets a writer not just thinking about what happens in the moment they’re writing, but also how to describe that moment with some manner of detachment, so they can later apply that same writing to pitches or queries or just plain old talking about what they’re doing.

To do it, you start breaking down the scenes and chapters of what you’re writing into small moments, called beats. We’re gonna talk about beats early on next month in #FiYoShiMo, so for now, let’s say that beats are the foundational element in your story. All the actions, all the stuff people do or think or all the stuff that happens, those are beats. And this method has you writing them down.

There’s a bit of structure here, but it’s designed to get the you thinking. You can check out the nice PDF I made all about it, right here: JOHNBEATBREAKDOWN.

In this beat/slice model, you package your thoughts as more complete constructs than just as items next to letters or numerals, and in a chrononarrative order (meaning: the order they happen in the story) rather than just a vertical columnar to cross off as you write.

You might find many similarities between this method and my preferred note card method, for good reason – they work well together.  So use them. Bring structure to your chaos. You can do this. It’s helpful. Yes, it takes time, but it’s time well spent if it makes writing happen with less difficulty, right?

The negative strike on this method is that it requires time to do, and it asks you to be objective and descriptive about what you’re writing. That might not come easily to you sometimes, but I can stress how critical that skill is when it comes time to query or discuss your work with interested people. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole that you need a lot of research or a lot of prep, since both can become a stall or procrastination, and ultimately an excuse to keep you from writing.

It doesn’t matter which (if any) outline method you use. One is not superior to all of them (we’re talking outlines, not Rings or Highlanders).

I confess to enjoying writing out the beats into chapters or larger chunks of text (called slices, as in slices of pie, because old slang is totally how writing and old Hollywood described anything). It lets me straddle that line between wholly creative and illustrative enough that I’m letting someone see how the story-sausage gets made, without risking my ego that if I show people how this gets done, I somehow lose my value to them.

We’re all tribal primates, organizing information and showing it off informs everything we do from painting on cave walls to sexting to enduring political debates to game playing.

It’s not that stories die in the face of structure like they’re plunging face first into an electrified fence of limitation, but that given structure story can flourish, like the plant you have to tie to a stick so it can support its own weight while it bears fruit.

So find good structure for yourself. And then use it to kick ass.

Do you have a preferred method of outlining? How do you map out the ideas? What works for you? What doesn’t? I’d love to hear from you, either below in the comments and/or on Twitter or Google+.

On Wednesday, we’re going to talk Jessica Jones’ opening five minutes. Bring a legal pad. See you then.

Happy writing.

4 Things To Look Out For

I edit things. I help authors make stories. I help authors make them better. I see a lot of manuscripts at a lot of stages in their life, and when I see mistakes, they tend to be pretty universal, regardless of genre or manuscript length.

Today I’ve collected four mistakes, offered examples, and have some ideas on how to solve them.

I. Skipping on the fundamental genre elements so that you can “stand out” or “write a book people talk about.”

Examples: A hero’s journey with no mentor; a western without either romance or a sense of scope and connection to the land; a dystopia with no sense of loss; a mystery without a clear crime

There are practical requirements based on the genre and type of story you’re telling. First-person means you’ll use “I” when talking as the narrator, in an action story, there’s always a moment where the hero is at the villain’s clutches. You can’t get away from these, because they’re central to the story’s development.

Not having these components will make your story feel “off” to a reader. It might be okay to read, it might be complete, but it won’t feel satisfying, it won’t engage or “click” with the audience. Yes, sure, people will talk about the book, but not in a positive hey-check-this-out way, more like an avoid-this-book-unless-you’re-trapped-in-the-wilderness-and-need-to-start-a-fire-or-need-to-wipe-and-you-can’t-find-pinecones way.

Novelty, uniqueness, distinguishing your story from others is important. And not just because agents, publishers, and editors tell you that it is, or that it correlates to sales. It’s important that your story be in its best shape if for no other reason than people are going to read it, and they deserve your best work, regardless of whether or not they’ve paid for a book or you’re emailing your friend something you scribbled down.

Omitting critical elements in a story and then wondering why the story doesn’t work is like trying to make ice and omitting the water. It’s not functional ice without the water. It’s not a functional story if you take out the building blocks.

As for what those building blocks are, they’re numerous, probably too numerous for a thousand years of blogging. You likely know them from whatever media you enjoy, you might not know their technical names, but you know the scenes where they really work – and the ones where they don’t. Technical names aren’t important, really. I mean, they’re helpful when we talk broadly about story construction, but it’s far more important that you can break your own story down into its constituent beats regardless of their label, since labels can be applied later.

Your story needs those foundational pieces, no matter how boring you think it may be to write a scene where people patch up their differences or ride off to gear up before shooting the badguy in the face at noon.

II. Far too many pronouns

Example: Madison looked at the sandwich on Dakota’s plate. She was hungry, and she knew it. While she was chewing, she thought she looked dangerous. With a sly motion, she slid a knife to her lap, ready for a fight.

Okay, that’s some lousy melodrama. Do you have any idea which character I’m talking about whenever you see a “she” or the “her”? I wrote it, and I barely could tell.

Too many pronouns isn’t increasing your casual relationship to your reader, it’s confusing. It’s really confusing. And a confused reader will try to keep up, but if they can’t sort out what the hell you’re saying, they’re going to go elsewhere.

The fix is both simple and hard. Instead of laying down a buckshot of pronouns, name-check a character here and there, especially when characters of the same gender are interacting. Yes, you can find some other ways to describe the character(s) – call out their physical traits, for instance – but if you only do that as your pronoun-alternative, you’re just making “blonde” or “the short one” substitute for “her”.

The tougher fix, the fix I tell clients to make, is write new sentences. Different sized sentences. Fragments. Big long sentences with clauses like kraken arms. It can be hard have that feel okay as a writer, so often we fall into patterns, especially when we get deeper into a manuscript. But it’s important for moving the reader’s eye down the page, giving them more words and ideas to engage with, and painting the clearest word picture possible. So, practice.

III. Mass produced, cookie cutter writing, heavy on the patterns

Examples: Looking at the number of sentences that have three to five words, then a comma, then three to five more words; how often “and then” appears in text; all the paragraphs are four lines long

Part of my job is pattern recognition. Patterns tell me a lot about a writer. I can often see how they were taught to write, what their attitude is as a writer, how they feel about what they’re putting down, how they feel about the reader, or even what they’re trying to avoid saying. We all have patterns. We favor some words more than others. Or certain sentence styles over others. These markers are fingerprints and illustrate critical elements that editing or even coaching can work on.

For many writers, this isn’t an issue. These indicators don’t stick out like sore thumbs and don’t dominate the story being told. Sure, if you scrutinize anything long enough you’ll find a pattern (for instance, how many sentences have I started with a single word followed by a comma?), but there is very clearly a tipping point where story becomes secondary to how the story is being told, because the constructive scaffolding is dominating the creative landscape.

The fix is to read more. See how other writers use the language. Do they let sentences run long, nearly to some imaginary breaking point, before paying them off? Are the sentences little staccato gunshots that punch their way onto your brain’s canvas? Do they let commas act like hinges in sentences? Do they love starting paragraphs with a word? Are many of their paragraphs seven lines long (I’ll wait here, you go count in this blogpost)?

Manipulation of language, using it for full effect, to the best of your talent, is going to connect you to readers far more than you think. Oh, it’s totally easy to churn out everything in four line chunks, but after reading that for pages, do you think a reader won’t glaze over, no matter what the words are?

IV. Thinking readability is a huge damned deal way bigger than it really is

Examples: Having some knowledge about what reading level the average consumer has and adjusting up or down to suit them; assuming that since the NYT bestseller list written at a certain reading level, that in order to get on it, you have to write at that level.

Readability or reading level was for many years a huge red flag for writers and English teachers. Even today, news outlets trot out charts and quick stories about how smart we are as a society, and maybe they do so with a sigh or with a chuckle.

Obviously I’m not saying your first grader is going to really enjoy the hell out of the New England Journal of Medicine article about accelerated foot fungus, nor is the college professor going to all swoony for Hop on Pop, but those are the extremes. And I’m not talking extremes. I’m talking the middle ground, where people hunker down in these unproductive trenches and hamstring themselves into apoplexy over whether or not they’re going to be understood.

Guess what? If your writing is evocative, engaging, and draws parallels to your readers’ experiences, you’re going to be understood.

When we talk readability, this conversation often comes to a crossroads – do I dumb down or stretch up?

Dumbing down is when you simplify your language. People think this makes them more relatable and genial, but do any of us like being patronized or belittled? Because that’s what people are doing with the simple and slow sentence structure that reads like it’s a pat on the head. Yes, you’re reaching a very wide audience, but so does screaming at a kindergarten class. Treat your readers with more respect, treat yourself with more respect, and if your word choice sends someone to a dictionary or the internet to look up a word, that’s NOT a bad thing to be avoided.

Stretching up goes the other way. Rather than writing something simple, every word (or as many as possible) get the thesaurus treatment so the manuscript (and by extension the writer) seem smarter.

Is it important for you to appear smart, dear writer? Is that why you’re telling the story you’re telling? Is appearing smart going to earn you that validation you’ve been hunting? Will you feel better if someone calls you smart? (Okay, you’re smart, now what?)

The tricky part here is that instead of patting your audience on the head, you run the risk of making them feel stupid. One or two words per manuscript that they need to look up is alright, but do scene after scene and you’re just showing off. And is that why you’re writing, to show off?

Tell your story your way. Don’t do the readers’ thinking for them, don’t assume them stupid or smarter than you, just focus on telling your story your way.

Keep writing. See you later this week.

The Folly of Sameness

Good … well it will be Monday when you’re reading this, though I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon while my fantasy football team prepares to lock up its hold on last place. And rather than lament how injuries decimate my team and now my bench players, let’s talk a little writing.

Have you ever read a story where some of the characters are hard to distinguish? And I don’t mean like they’re all dudes or they’re all Gloop-gloop aliens, I mean where character A isn’t different enough to have you (as a reader) tell them apart from character B.

This happens a lot. It sucks a lot. Let’s talk about how to fix it.

There are a lot of reasons as to why writers do this. I’m going to highlight a few, and give fixes. These aren’t in order of priority, they’re just what I’ve seen lately.

  1. Each character is talented, and all at the same things. An example? You’re writing about a squad of soldiers and while they all have separate roles (the gunner, the sniper, the grenadier, the leader, etc), they all move easily through the actions of each role. Yes, you can make a really technical point that soldiers receive a lot of common training, but I refute that with the idea that even with common training, are they all going to be as good as the sniper? The danger is that if all characters are equal in skill (and that skill is specific and better than average), then if you’re having multiple characters all do the same things, why have multiple characters?

    Part of distinguishing characters is by diversifying their proficiency as well as their skills. Sure, a bunch of soldiers can shoot guns at the badguys, but who does it better? Who does it worst? What, if any, is the scale between characters? (Hint: Consider building a scale on a skill-by-skill basis)

  2. Each character is narrowly defined by their skillset, and when same-skilled characters end up in the same scene, it slows story pacing and the beats don’t land easily. I call this the CBS problem. You know those episodes of CSI:Wherever where one established character visits the new show, and we get a few scenes introducing the actors? There’s always the gruff guy, the funny guy, the nerdy one, the techie, the serious one, etc etc, right? And invariably for sweeps week when groups have to merge and all the nerdy ones get together and all the funny ones try to out-quip each other? Dullsville.

    Ask: there’s more to this character than just what they do, right? They’re not just here to perform a plot-advancing action, right? (Quick, go to Hacker Lady so she can jargon for a few seconds then we can go blow something up) You might think, “John, how is that a problem?” Because, reader, when you have people task-defined, and then have multiple people at the skill position (there’s the football analogy of “how many left tackles do you need on your roster?”), why have the redundancy?

  3. The twin beat. Twins are tricky things in stories. They have some pretty standard flavors:
    a) The Odd Couple, where you give them opposing traits (tough guy vs kind one, neat vs messy, etc)
    b) Unified, where they’re at their best when working together, often due to cooperative or sympathetic abilities
    c) Magic-Sparkle, where they share something rare and special, like magic or telepathy, expressly because they’re twins
    d) Comedy, where the twinness is only relevant normally as a joke, but when plot demands it, it becomes super important.

    Twins like Fred and George Weasley skew towards Comedy, whereas Tomax and Xamot from GI Joe slant towards Magic-Sparkle or Unified (they often overlap). We’ll talk cliches and dull beats some other time, today I’m challenging why the twins needs to be there. Can they be merged into one character? Would anyone miss them? Would it be radical to divide the characters significantly?

I see a lot of manuscripts bloated by having extra characters that overlap in terms of everything short of small description. The issue there is that in order to distinguish them you have to keep referencing them by those descriptive elements when you’re not able to name-check. How many times are we going to describe Tom as a “gentlemanly blonde”?

Challenge yourself to keep your cast lean, it will help you keep the story moving smoother.

Let’s talk more this week. Happy writing.

Thoughts on Metatopia, part 2 & The Conflict Engine

Two blog posts for the price of one, you lucky reader you.

First, I want to conclude my thoughts on Metatopia. I’m not really happy with Monday’s post, but it’s easier here to go forward than go back.

The big takeaway for me was that I’m more okay with not-knowing things, though I’m still navigating the idea that rather than just not knowing a few things (like graphic design and layout), there are times when it feels like I don’t know anything. My inbox now is fat with a combination of praise, criticism, and suggestions that seem to be both actual suggestions as well as insinuations that what I’m doing isn’t helpful or that I’m doing “it” (whatever it is) wrong. So, mixed bag.

I think next year I want to run a panel on “How to be a good panel attendee”, because my panels this year were packed with GREAT attendees, from the people who asked wonderful questions, to the people who did a lot of nodding and asked only one question while furiously taking notes. I got lucky this year, there was only one panel where I felt completely lost. I don’t think it was done maliciously, I don’t think the “make John feel inadequate” was intentional, and it was likely due to exhaustion and nerves as much as the fact that I had less to contribute than others. I’ll get over it.

The hardest part for me isn’t even the activities I’m doing. It’s the physicality involved in doing all the things. I get tired (yes I know everyone gets tired, but very few people get tired enough to fall asleep just by sitting down, you know what I mean?) I see my friends so rarely, and I feel bad that I can’t spend more time on my feet with them. The FOMO (fear of missing out) is strong, and I don’t always have the willpower to remind myself that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m doing my best. But that’s a tough salve for the creeping paranoia that because I’m not out and about that I won’t get hired, or that secretly many people hate me and they’re just waiting for me to keel over. Maybe that thought is just from today’s exhaustion, I’m dictating this part of the post before taking a hot bath. I’m very worn out.

——————————————

Now, let’s talk storycraft. I had a conversation earlier with a client, and it got me thinking about a fundamental story mechanic and its relevant axis.

A story mechanic is a fundamental part of storytelling (like plot or characters), that you can’t omit without adversely affecting the MS in a significant way. Today I want to talk about conflict. It’s important. Like really important. Without conflict there’s not a lot of interesting material in your story for your reader to engage.

Conflict isn’t just physically fighting. Conflict is a difference between multiple possibilities that oppose each other. It’s Us versus Them (we’ll talk about that one later in November) or smooth versus chunky, or great taste, less filling. Those are binary conflicts, and they’ll comprise the majority of the conflicts a character faces.

Everything from doing what’s right to not doing it, to showing mercy or vengeance can be mapped in an either-or fashion. It’s not wrong or bad to frame things that way, it can help make for really clear decisions. The problem is that not everything can be split down the middle, and it doesn’t account for mitigating factors or nuance. Not everything is so polarized, nor should it be.

Along with this binary decision making process, there’s a corresponding binary axis, which is a fancy way of saying “which is affected more by this decision: the person or the world around the person?” That’s what we look at when we talk about goals from conflict within characters.

An external goal is between the person and the world. We see this most often as the goal the character has in the real world – to complete their quest, to go somewhere, to prove something to someone, all that jazz.. The external goal is what the rest of the world sees the character trying to achieve, and the goal often has to do with the character finding their place among the rest of the world.

Contrast that with the internal goal, which is what’s going on in the character’s head. The internal goal is the what the character pursues to bring them to a state of improved emotional or psychological balance.A character who wants to reconcile their taboo pursuits with their stuffed shirt dayjob, or the knight’s thirst for vengeance while she tirelessly stalks across the land stabbing fools … these are the internal goals. We don’t see a person’s internal efforts, they go on in the mind, and they get expressed as actions we undertake, so the outside world is left to infer what they’re thinking based on what they’re doing. Because the world can guess at motives, they can be wrong, and if they’re wrong, then they can react in ways that cause (you guessed it) more conflict.

Pitting the external conflict against the internal conflict puts a character in a state where they have to change, because that unbalanced state will tear them apart while simultaneously paralyzing them. If this is unclear at all, let’s end this post with some examples:

A guy who needs to get promoted at work (external) so that he can show his wife/partner that he’s not a loser and worthy of their love (internal).
A woman who has to abandon her career focus (external) to discover what love’s all about (internal).

Now let’s reverse the order, just to show you what that looks like.

An anxious kid who wants to be accepted (internal) has to ask the most popular other kid to the school dance because of a playground dare (external).
A mother grapples with her grief (internal) as she murders the men who hurt her daughter (external).

When you set one conflict against each other, when you put them at odds with one another, or even when you make one progress into the other, you’re creating the idea that the character needs to take action (read: do stuff) in order to accomplish at least one of those goals. Action yields momentum, which leads to more action, like a snowball downhill.

The interesting bit, the part I encourage you to ponder, is what happens when failure crops up in the course of taking those actions. How do the characters react? Who or what did the failing? Does a setback mean full-stop on the efforts? Does the character redouble their efforts?

And that’s before we even talk about the idea if the failure was incited by another character’s reactions …

(this all leads into Friday’s blogpost) Happy writing.

Thoughts on Metatopia, part 2 & The Conflict Engine

Two blog posts for the price of one, you lucky reader you.

First, I want to conclude my thoughts on Metatopia. I’m not really happy with Monday’s post, but it’s easier here to go forward than go back.

The big takeaway for me was that I’m more okay with not-knowing things, though I’m still navigating the idea that rather than just not knowing a few things (like graphic design and layout), there are times when it feels like I don’t know anything. My inbox now is fat with a combination of praise, criticism, and suggestions that seem to be both actual suggestions as well as insinuations that what I’m doing isn’t helpful or that I’m doing “it” (whatever it is) wrong. So, mixed bag.

I think next year I want to run a panel on “How to be a good panel attendee”, because my panels this year were packed with GREAT attendees, from the people who asked wonderful questions, to the people who did a lot of nodding and asked only one question while furiously taking notes. I got lucky this year, there was only one panel where I felt completely lost. I don’t think it was done maliciously, I don’t think the “make John feel inadequate” was intentional, and it was likely due to exhaustion and nerves as much as the fact that I had less to contribute than others. I’ll get over it.

The hardest part for me isn’t even the activities I’m doing. It’s the physicality involved in doing all the things. I get tired (yes I know everyone gets tired, but very few people get tired enough to fall asleep just by sitting down, you know what I mean?) I see my friends so rarely, and I feel bad that I can’t spend more time on my feet with them. The FOMO (fear of missing out) is strong, and I don’t always have the willpower to remind myself that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m doing my best. But that’s a tough salve for the creeping paranoia that because I’m not out and about that I won’t get hired, or that secretly many people hate me and they’re just waiting for me to keel over. Maybe that thought is just from today’s exhaustion, I’m dictating this part of the post before taking a hot bath. I’m very worn out.

——————————————

Now, let’s talk storycraft. I had a conversation earlier with a client, and it got me thinking about a fundamental story mechanic and its relevant axis.

A story mechanic is a fundamental part of storytelling (like plot or characters), that you can’t omit without adversely affecting the MS in a significant way. Today I want to talk about conflict. It’s important. Like really important. Without conflict there’s not a lot of interesting material in your story for your reader to engage.

Conflict isn’t just physically fighting. Conflict is a difference between multiple possibilities that oppose each other. It’s Us versus Them (we’ll talk about that one later in November) or smooth versus chunky, or great taste, less filling. Those are binary conflicts, and they’ll comprise the majority of the conflicts a character faces.

Everything from doing what’s right to not doing it, to showing mercy or vengeance can be mapped in an either-or fashion. It’s not wrong or bad to frame things that way, it can help make for really clear decisions. The problem is that not everything can be split down the middle, and it doesn’t account for mitigating factors or nuance. Not everything is so polarized, nor should it be.

Along with this binary decision making process, there’s a corresponding binary axis, which is a fancy way of saying “which is affected more by this decision: the person or the world around the person?” That’s what we look at when we talk about goals from conflict within characters.

An external goal is between the person and the world. We see this most often as the goal the character has in the real world – to complete their quest, to go somewhere, to prove something to someone, all that jazz.. The external goal is what the rest of the world sees the character trying to achieve, and the goal often has to do with the character finding their place among the rest of the world.

Contrast that with the internal goal, which is what’s going on in the character’s head. The internal goal is the what the character pursues to bring them to a state of improved emotional or psychological balance.A character who wants to reconcile their taboo pursuits with their stuffed shirt dayjob, or the knight’s thirst for vengeance while she tirelessly stalks across the land stabbing fools … these are the internal goals. We don’t see a person’s internal efforts, they go on in the mind, and they get expressed as actions we undertake, so the outside world is left to infer what they’re thinking based on what they’re doing. Because the world can guess at motives, they can be wrong, and if they’re wrong, then they can react in ways that cause (you guessed it) more conflict.

Pitting the external conflict against the internal conflict puts a character in a state where they have to change, because that unbalanced state will tear them apart while simultaneously paralyzing them. If this is unclear at all, let’s end this post with some examples:

A guy who needs to get promoted at work (external) so that he can show his wife/partner that he’s not a loser and worthy of their love (internal).
A woman who has to abandon her career focus (external) to discover what love’s all about (internal).

Now let’s reverse the order, just to show you what that looks like.

An anxious kid who wants to be accepted (internal) has to ask the most popular other kid to the school dance because of a playground dare (external).
A mother grapples with her grief (internal) as she murders the men who hurt her daughter (external).

When you set one conflict against each other, when you put them at odds with one another, or even when you make one progress into the other, you’re creating the idea that the character needs to take action (read: do stuff) in order to accomplish at least one of those goals. Action yields momentum, which leads to more action, like a snowball downhill.

The interesting bit, the part I encourage you to ponder, is what happens when failure crops up in the course of taking those actions. How do the characters react? Who or what did the failing? Does a setback mean full-stop on the efforts? Does the character redouble their efforts?

And that’s before we even talk about the idea if the failure was incited by another character’s reactions …

(this all leads into Friday’s blogpost) Happy writing.

My Thoughts on Metatopia 2015

I’m writing, that is to say dictating, these thoughts starting about four hours after my last panel of Metatopia 2015. The experience is still very fresh and watercolor in my mind, and I have a wealth of things to say. I don’t know where to begin chronologically, so I will begin with what sticks out most thinking about it right now.

I am mortal. I mean this not only because it’s barely 7pm on Sunday as this sentence unfurls and my body is pretty convinced I’ve just spent a week running a continuous marathon with an elephant strapped to me, but because any notion that I knew a lot about a lot of things is now completely gone. It’s vaporized (ooh, maybe that will help me breathe …), leaving this combined feeling of shame and excitement. It’s shame over the fact that I don’t know a lot, and other people can so fluidly and expressively capture turns of phrase, metaphors, and definitions about all manner of things while I’m just sitting there working with words and an understanding of how they get arranged so that people like them. It’s very much a feeling of not-good-enough-when-in-their-company. But that’s also the source of excitement: I don’t know these things, so I get a chance to learn them, and I love to learn things. I have no official logo. I have tens of thousands of generic business cards and three (I found them in my backpack) of the higher quality ones left. I have no Adobe InDesign. I can barely spell GREP. I don’t outline the way other people do. I can teach a variety of construction methods for adventures yet am intimidated to admit my preference for the more conceptual over the linear, even if it’s the scarier option for writers and publishers. My understanding of graphic design at times feels like fumbling to stay within the lines while painting by numbers.

I don’t know everything, and there are loads of things I can learn, and that last paragraph is just the technical stuff. This doesn’t even cover things like humility, patience, appreciative listening, and the value of more silence.

Yes, I pushed myself physically, which isn’t always the smartest thing to do when you’re dealing with health issues. I know I’m going to be dragging my ass around for a few days. Yes, there will be many naps between bouts of editing and reading. Yes, there will be early bedtimes and consistent meals. I don’t think yet I taxed myself so severely I’ll never recover, but I do know I did a lot in three days, and I take pride in that.

My best topics of discussion happen when I stop trying to be a panelist and start being a person in a conversation. It’s a strange thing to sit behind a table (doubly so when that table is elevated even in a small room), then speak about topics bigger than what kind of ice cream I like or my preference in bathrobes. Yes, I can be the center of attention and I can still put eyes on me and hold them there while I talk about marketing strategy or pitches or editorial concepts, but this was the first year I really shared the majority of my panels with people.

And it was good to sit and listen. I’m a fan of so many games and designers and developers and do-ers that it’s a pleasure to sit there and listen to them talk about things that seem like alchemy and sorcery or just plain foreign to me.

Is there a downside? Yes. There’s still that pull to talk, to be seen, to be heard, to feel not like some invisible child, even though in a lot of conversations I can realistically contribute little more than snark or profanity. I’m learning to deal, learning to be okay with not having stuff to say every moment. Not easy, but I bet it’s a useful skill.

I give good panel. Can I pick a favorite panel? No. They all stand out to me for one reason or another. The questions were insightful. The conversations went deep into rabbit holes. Burritos are delicious. Meeting new people is always amazing.

I will probably part 2 this, so stay tuned.

Plot 201: Series, Serials, and Serialization

Good morning. Welcome to the last installment of Plot 201, where today we’re talking about series and serialization. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series and enjoyed it in audio, I know I’ve certainly liked recording it.

I’m out at Metatopia for the rest of the week, so I’ll see you guys Monday with more bloggity goodness.
Happy writing.

FiYoShiMo Day 2 – Push-pull, direct and indirect beats

Welcome back. Let’s keep fixing our shit in FiYoShiMo day 2. We’re still looking at beats, and yesterday we talked about some of the beat categories that we use to push and pull the audience along through the journey of our story. I think before we talk more beats, I need to describe what I mean by “push and pull”, since you’re going to see a lot of that phrase this month.

Push-pull isn’t originally a story concept. It started as a communication strategy, something that people do when selling or presenting to an audience (or potential consumer). It was later co-opted by the completely scummy pickup artist movement, and by the time I learned about it, it was thick with near-rapey stigma.

At it’s heart, push-pull is the idea that you lead the listener forward and deeper into what you’re talking about by creating moments of interest and separation. Since they’re talking to you, you assume they’re interested and already invested, and then you encourage more investment of their interest by adding details that keep them interested. That’s the pull. The push (and where this distinguishes itself from its past) comes NOT from pushing people away to rope-a-dope them in later, but instead from pushing out information that may be of interest maybe immediately and maybe later, but the listener won’t know unless they follow along the whole way through.

Let’s use an example. You’re you, and you’ve just done something awesome. Doesn’t matter what it is, but let’s say it was something big, something you didn’t think you could do, and you’re in a celebratory mood … let’s say you’ve just done your first NaNoWriMo, and you feel you’ve accomplished something. You’re talking to your friend, who in this example isn’t a writer. They read books, sure, they’re not a troglodyte, but they’re not a writer. So, you start talking to your friend about what the novel is about. They might not “get” the parts where you talk about craft, they might glaze over the sentences where you laugh about your dependent clauses being co-dependent clauses (no, you’re not the first person to make that joke) … but that’s the push. You’re putting out that information which might interest them later, but it’s not directly related to the parts that do interest them, which is the pull, and for our example, it’s the parts of the plot that your listening friends wants to read.

You can’t tell the whole story without both the push out and pull in of information. Why? Because you can’t account for everyone’s likes and dislikes and interests. So you broadcast the whole story, and trust people to pick the parts they like. (Bonus points if you see the parallel here to how you deal with critics.) If you skimp on the push, you’re suggesting you can predict what your audience wants, or you’re deciding for them what will interest them, because they’re not capable of deciding for themselves. If you skimp on the pull, you’re not providing spots for the audience to invest, and you’re suggesting you don’t think yourself worthy of your audience or that your story isn’t good enough to be cared about. And that’s bullshit. In our example, this person you’re talking to is your friend, and they do care, otherwise you would just go find another friend-human who would.

Take advantage of every opportunity to push and pull with your audience. This is your connection to them, and like any relationship, you want that connection to be as stable as it can be, even if it’s fluid. Don’t walk on eggshells thinking that if you start going off in some story direction, you’re going to make people hurl the book across the room and they’ll swear off reading things forever. Sorry, you’re just not that powerful. They might not like the book, they might not read any more of your stuff, but you’re not going to send them running to watch vapid half-hour comedies about nerds or fat husbands with shrew wives. The audience comes the book to take the ride, and you’re going to give them a hell of one. You’re not minding baby ducks, you don’t need to hover over them to make sure none get lost. Trust them to make their own decisions about how they invest their time and energy, and don’t restrict yourself by trying to predict how they’re going to respond – there’s one of you, and how many of them? Chasing down all their responses is a quick road to madness and writer frustration.

I’d love to be able to tell you that push-pull can be mastered after one novel. Or one year. Or ten. Like so many other writing tools in our toolbox, mastery is an ever-fluid process. Don’t hunt it down. Go for fluency. Go for comfortable using it, that you could use it well enough to get by and have it be helpful, sort of like how people view Microsoft Excel or social media – you don’t need to be the number one go-to guru, you just need to know which end is up.

We’ll revisit push-pull a lot this month, it’ll come up when we talk about things like character traits or plot resolution. It’ll be seen in exposition and narration. Like your friend’s mom, it gets around.

You can see the impact of push-pull on the beats we’re going to talk about today. Yesterday we outlined action, investigation and emotional beats. Now we’re going add some depth to beats. Let’s see how we can torque beats to give them some extra weight, sticking power, and impact.

There are two ways to approach any beat. So, to follow along, I want you to get some of what you wrote. You can use the stuff from yesterday if you want, or you can find new stuff. Doesn’t matter, so long as you can pick out some beats. I’ll wait right here for you.

All set? Armed with words? Onward then.

Pick a beat. If you haven’t already, identify it. Don’t worry about the consequence yet, we’ll get there in a few paragraphs. For now, just label the beat. As an example, I’ll do an action beat:

A woman robs a liquor store. She draws a gun on the cashier and tells him to fill a pillowcase with money. The cashier complies, but moves too slow for the woman’s liking, so she shoots him in the chest. She leaves as the cashier bleeds all over the instant lottery tickets behind him.

(what? I swear the next beat will be cheerier, quit looking at me like that)

That’s an action beat with an expected consequence. It’s got several moving parts that we know about:
i. We know she’s got a gun, and that it works.
ii. We know she makes an overt demand for money.
iii. We know the cashier complies.
iv. We get a sense of the robber’s impatience.
v. We see the end result of the bullet entering the cashier.

Here’s what isn’t mentioned:
a) We don’t know why she’s robbing the store.
b) We don’t know if the cashier actually is moving slow or not.
c) We don’t know what the cashier is feeling or thinking as the blood leaves their body.
d) We don’t know what the cashier is thinking while the robbery is happening.
e) We don’t know any of what happens next.

Now maybe in that beat, we like some parts more than others. For me, I like the moment she pulls the gun. I like her impatience. I like the gunshot moment. Maybe you like the blood. Maybe you like the cashier putting money in a pillowcase. We don’t have to like the same things, let alone for the same reasons. Those things we like pull us in.

The stuff we don’t like, the stuff that’s necessary for the beat to develop but it just isn’t making us as excited as the other stuff, that’s the push. We need the whole beat, and in order to get the whole thing, we need those parts that don’t jazz us up. We wade through the not-so-cool to get to the cool stuff. Was it really so torturous? In our example, it’s a chunk of sentence.

So that’s an action beat. It’s also a direct action beat. A direct beat is a beat with some kind of consequence that immediately connects to and furthers the plot. Let’s say that our action beat example is the opening scene for our story, and our story is some crime fiction about a lady robber making her way in the city. Even if this is a flashback to her lowest moment, even if this isn’t an opening to the story, so long as this ties to plot, it’s a direct beat.

Direct beats form the spine for a story. Everything in the story from beginning to end is going to get framed by those direct beats. They’re both a boundary and a foundation, they’re the results of the decisions you’ve made in writing (Remember – Rule #1: Writing is the act of making decisions.) If you’re still not sure what direct beats look like, they’re also the things we tell each other when we summarize things we’ve read or watched:

Girl gets selected for membership in dystopic youth Thunderdome
She impresses people by being the most special
She fakes her way into a romance, then falls in love with her co-competitor
She spins this love into a plan of action to topple a government, somehow Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up in one of his final roles.

There, I gave you (my slightly biased) direct beats for The Hunger Games films.

Now, summarize for me your NaNo novel. Go ahead. Give me as much detail as you want, take your time. This isn’t a pitch, I just want you to summarize what happens. How does it start? And then what happens? And after that?

You probably told me a lot of direct beats. Yes, you paraphrased, but you’re still giving direct beats.

Now let’s flip the coin over. If there’s a direct beat, what’s an indirect beat. An indirect beat is something that happens as a reaction to a direct beat, but isn’t a direct beat itself. This gets a little tricky for people, since we’re not only talking reactions. Reactions can be direct beats – our example robber shoots the gun, the cashier bleeding is a reaction and direct beat that advances the plot, especially if we kill the cashier off. So now we have to zoom out a little. Let’s look at the scene we’re breaking down in order:

1. The woman makes a decision to and then acquires the gun.
2. She robs the liquor store and kills the cashier
3. The police begin to track her down after talking to the cashier’s family

That’s the flow of the story. Maybe you’ve got them on notecards or an outline. There are indirect beats throughout those 3 scenes. Does this woman argue with anyone about the decision to get the gun? Is the cashier’s family grieving? Are they angry? Those are all reactions to the direct beats, but they themselves don’t become direct beats until acted upon.

If she does argue with someone, say a girlfriend, if that girlfriend moves out, and because the girlfriend moves out our female robber descends into further crime, then we’re talking direct beat. But just moving out with no “and then” attached? Indirect.  Same with the grieving family. It’s all indirect until the parents of the cashier decide to seek their own justice.

An indirect beat doesn’t forward the plot, it enriches the story by adding emotional weight, or emphasis on character decisions or actions. It’s the realization you like Hamilton, and you’re worried that if you confess the number of times you listen to the whole soundtrack during a workday, you’ll be shunned from the writer/editor colony.

Indirect beats inform future plot. It helps shape the “why” things are happening, leaving the “how” for direct beats later. If you look at the notecard trick linked above, those additional vertical layers we built, those all frame out as indirect beats.

Yes, the potential of the indirect beat is that it could be made direct. It’s all about potential, a unit of stored energy you can tap or not, and it’s fine either way. You don’t have to turn all the indirect beats into direct ones, and you don’t need to have corresponding indirect beats for each direct one. Going one step further, you aren’t limited to a one-to-one ratio. Who’s to say that the dead cashier doesn’t have both grieving parents AND a secret lover? Who’s to say the robbery wasn’t the best thing to happen to our lady because now she gains street cred as an unintended benefit of her efforts, even if the guilt sends her spiraling into addictions or insomnia?

This is all part of the construction of story. Look at your scenes. You’ve found the direct beats already. Do you see the indirect ones? Are any there? Could you find space to add some? Do you have too few, meaning you’re not letting things go unsaid, which means you’re not letting the reader fill in any blanks, which means they’re not really investing in the story (because you aren’t giving them space to)? Do you have too many? Are you cheating yourself by letting the reader fill in too many gaps?

That last part there, that balance, that’s the tricky bit. There’s no formula, it’s done via a lot of feel and drafting and revision. So, practice. Rewrite the scene where you think you can do a better job with direct and indirect beats. Share it. Share it on Twitter. In an email. To your friends. To me. To whomever. Just go practice.

Tomorrow on FiYoShiMo, we’re going to talk tone. You’ll need your opening chapter handy.

See you then.