The Marriage of Facts and Emotions

This post started as a series of complaints and muttered grousings made to a sleeping dog over the course of the last week. It later coalesced as what was going to be an audio post I just sort of fired off, and now, after pacing the first floor of the house, it’s a blog post.

When you spend time reading manuscripts and manuscript excerpts, be they for submissions or for contests or just for critique, you see a lot of the same mistake made again and again. Even if the specific words are different and the topics covered are different, the same mistake crops up.

And this is where we make sort of a record scratch noise and have a little sidebar.

Look, I know that this post is about to go out to a lot of people who haven’t really read much of this blog, and while I am thankful for your reading it, I would be completely unhappy with myself if I didn’t disclaim that I am not in the business of rectal smoke or being a cuddly kind resource that flounces around and doesn’t address the art and craft of writing with practicality and an edge to it, because my job and passion isn’t to be your friend. It’s not to make you all warm and fuzzy when you’re clearly treading water. It’s to make you better. Because I want you to be the best you can be, and if you’re about to say, “You can be nice about it” I’ll nod and still tell you that if your shit sucks you can and should fix it and if you’re clutching your pearls and feeling attacked just wait until you get beset with years of rejections and no feedback because you stepped out of your echo chamber unprepared. My job is to help you get better. So let’s get you better. No illusions, not a lot of hand-holding. This is art. This is craft. Here, we work for our successes. You want to masturbate over the dream, head elsewhere. 

Okay, back to the post.

So many openings make a critical error in their openings. No matter the genre. No matter the POV. The text lays there sort of flat like old soda, and doesn’t interest people. It’s boring. It doesn’t grab people. No matter how many carriage returns you use. No matter how many swears you use. It’s limp. It’s old spaghetti. It’s not going to make someone read more.

That error is the imbalance between fact and emotion.

Fact, for our discussion here, is any statement that provides information to the reader that they either didn’t have or need to have because some other fact benefits from it. This can be anything from a setting description to saying what kind of boot a lady wears. It’s all about telling the reader something they need to know going forward. And we assume these facts are always true, unless something in the presentation tells us otherwise.

Emotion, for this discussion, is any statement that evokes or educes a feeling from the reader. It’s describing how someone feels sad when the other lady kicks the bucket. It’s describing how the clouds inspire hope. It’s everything from the flowery to the straight -up assignment of feelings to a character.

Fact without emotion is dry. It would be like reading a few pages of dictionary. It’s informational, yes, but does it really make someone want to turn the page to the next columns of S-words? Information alone is not engaging, and it is not the thing that makes people turn pages, give a shit, buy books, leave reviews, or say nice things in tweets.

We are led and driven by emotion. Emotion, when you partner it with fact, gives a context and a reaction. It’s that reaction we’re looking for. Here’s an example.

It kept raining all night. Gary snarled when it thundered.  Gary hated the rain.

Those are 3 facts. It establishes several pictures in your head, and it doesn’t matter if Gary is a dog, a grizzled detective on a stakeout, or the king of horseshit cliche magical creatures, because it’s not until we get to the word “hated” that we have a context for the images in our head.

We want context. Context helps provide depth and engagement with the reader or audience. Context isn’t going to just appear because you provided a paragraph of facts about what two people did in a room, it’s going to show up when you take the facts and add some kind of character development to them. Evocative language (verbs, nouns, adjectives, whatevers) is your key to building context.

You want to avoid any situation where you can be asked, “What do you want me to do with this info?” or “Why should I care?” as they’re both signs that there’s a lack of context through which the reader can clarify or connect to or want to connect more to the basal picture you’ve put in their heads.

We’ve previously established that characters need to feel human so that we can connect with them and without them giving some kind of emotional reaction to the world around them, those characters might as well be the colored cut-outs we used to make on popsicle sticks in art class – flat, not terribly precise, limited – story tools.

This is not a call where every fact needs an emotional element following shortly thereafter like a kid brother who just won’t leave you alone when all you want to do is stare at the girls on the bleachers down at the park.

You can have groups of facts get shepherded by an emotion (like my dog and the toys she wants to have near the couch versus those she brings to a spot under the desk) when related or necessary as in the description of your dystopia all getting the label “oppressive” either overtly in text or implied by other word choices you’ve made.

Now, yes, your reader will supply some emotions because they’re human beings with experiences and naturally they want to correlate their emotions with their imagination that you’ve been fueling and prompting by giving them images for the movie screen in their head. But you’re not just letting them assign any old emotion to your story, right? You’re trying to take them down a particular path, and to do that you want them to experience and think about certain emotions more than others, right?

So your persecuted lovers in a medieval kingdom shouldn’t feel like a casual comedy when you’re trying to make people feel bad when Gwen nearly gets her head taken off by the axe before Bill confesses being the wizard before the evil Duke.

So your fish-out-of-water has an appropriate sense of wonder when they, the abused orphan of prophecy gets the cliche acceptance into a cliche brand new world that will forever cliche dazzle them as they cliche proceed over many stories with cliche villains and cliche tools that allow them to cliche deal with the cliche prophecy in a cliche way so that they learn a cliche lesson.

To associate emotion with fact, you need to be clear on what emotion you’re intended, and how you’re going to use sentence structure to deploy it. If you want X emotion to be felt as a result of reading Y paragraph, what words do the emotional creating and propagating?

Here’s a delightfully merciless exercise.

  1. Go double-space and print out your first page, or the page of the MS you’re the most proud of, no matter where it is in the story. And grab one highlighter and one pen (or two different colored pens, but I’m going highlighter/pen combo here).
  2. Choose either the highlighter or pen. If you’re using the highlighter, mark all the facts. If you’re using the pen, circle the facts. Yes you can mark a whole sentence if you want, but try to focus on whatever you think the facts are.
  3.  Now pick up the other thing you didn’t use in Step 2 (for me, this is where I get the highlighter because I just used the pen) Again, if you’re highlighting now, mark all the parts of the text that convey emotion. Or if this is the pen, circle them.
  4. In the margin, at the end of every paragraph, I’d like you to write down the number of facts in that paragraph. If this number seems very high, consider what you’re trying to do deploying info piece after info piece.
  5. In the margin, at the bottom of the page, I’d like you to write down the number of total emotions conveyed on this page.

Now because I sense that some of you are going to say, “I don’t get it.” Here’s an example page. EMOTIONFACT

Notice how the emotional stuff helps build voice and the factual stuff frames what I want you to picture in your head. And if I didn’t have the emotional stuff, you’d have a very boring recitation of A to B to C to D events, without many points for reader connection.

Voice is important. Facts are important. But you have to partner the two together for the whole page to lead us forward to the next page.

One of the major reasons why queries and manuscripts get rejected is because the mix of fact to emotion is skewed as to either bore the reader or under-detail the pictures intended to keep us reading.

To close here, let me point out that when I say emotion I’m talking about 2 types.

First, the emotions of the characters that help establish the voice and tone of the piece. And second, the emotion intended to be brought out of the reader.

By showing the character having an emotion (or even just emotions in general, a whole lot of stories start with boring people not feeling anything yet able to fully explain what they do as if telling me that they’re a tired worker is an emotional incentive to invest in a person for 300+ pages), and then be able to reference that emotion by coming back to that scene (think of a movie soundtrack where every time a theme comes back into play we feel a thing) or a shade of that scene, you reinforce the emotion in-character without bludgeoning the reader by always saying that Ronald is sad.

A lot of people pause here to say, “What about pacing?” What about it? If you’re early on (first page or pages), it’s obvious that you haven’t built pacing yet and that you’re building it there, so we know that you’ll hit 60 miles an hour after you accelerate up from zero. Also, good detail that paints a picture in the mind and reinforces voice does not slow down, it escalates it. Because the picture in mind will be clearer and the inertia will sweep me along like an avalanche.

Instead of a second sidebar, let’s rock a little wrap-up.

Hey creative. How are you? Ready to get up and give this a try? I know, there’s a lot here. But I want you to do me a favor – just think on this as you write:

I’m in charge of putting a movie in the reader’s head. So I need to control what the person sees, how clearly they see it, how they feel when they see it, and how they understand why I’m showing it to them. This book is my film. I need characters and emotions and arcs and decisions and risks and goals, not buzzwords and GIFs and excuses and fear. I’m going to make this movie on paper, and then share it with people because it’s awesome and it makes me happy to do so. None of the shit that the barnyard chickens cluck about matters, it’s just me and this movie and my want to get it out. 

You can do this. Even if you think you can’t right now, even if you tell me a whole host of reasons why all these other things need to be a certain or how other people need to act in a certain way or whatever fluffy cloud of shit you dredge up, you can do this if you keep at it. One word after the other, one idea moving into the next. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be yours. 

 

Happy creating.

The Intersection of Knowledge and Skill

The bag of onions was only $1.99. Which doesn’t make sense to me, because there are like 19 onions in it, each about the size of a tennis ball. But it’s 9:15 on a Sunday morning, and there’s a three pound chuck roast needing onions and au jus, so I go to the store.

It’s empty, the sort of empty that should only exist in movies and video games where there’s going to be something terrible happening once I get just a bit more inside the building. Maybe evil cannibals, maybe zombies, maybe ravenous nomadic clowns. But there’s nothing bad that happens. I come away from the store with a single bag of goods – the onions fumbling around the bottom of the bag.

It’s 9:38 when I started writing this post. With luck, it’ll go up later today, before I go to bed. I really don’t want to delay it to Tuesday, I’m worried that the freshness of the ideas will have faded, and it’ll be some stale sludge of ideas, like old coffee you’ve forgotten to purge from the machine.

On mornings like this, I am aware of just how much of life can be described as a series of intersections. There’s an irony here apparent to anyone who’s ever been in a car with me — I get lost incredibly easily, even on streets I drive regularly — so for me to talk about the meeting of two asphalt ribbons it’s amusing.

Intersections like the lives of two people meeting. Or a job in a field you’ve got a degree in. Or the moment where you realize you actually put together a piece of furniture and didn’t have any pieces left over. Two concepts, two items, two people, crossing paths. There’s a reason why we consider crossroads to be an important part of life, because at crossroads (intersections) we become aware of a choice to make – do I do this, and possibly change course, or do I skip the change, skip the potential good or bad that might happen, and keep doing as before? (Let’s skip the quantum discussion that interacting with the potential opportunity for change is in itself a change that will have effects on action, it’s a rabbit hole for another time.)

The intersection we’re going to cover today is where Knowledge meets Skill. Today, we’re going to get self-assessy, and we’re going to use me as the example, but I want you to do this for yourself on yourself. As a creative, being able to figure out what you’re doing, where you going, and whether you’re getting there or not (and I don’t mean in that plagued-by-self-doubt-so-assume-you’re-not-and-won’t-ever way)

We need to start with definitions. Can we agree that Knowledge is the sum total of information about a subject through study and observation? We know how to pour a drink into a glass, we know the capital city of where we live, we know that no one likes getting bad news in a text message.

Knowledge is a consequence of being alive. We learn as babies that our actions cause reactions (cry and get fed), and we continue add to our knowledge pools until we cease living (eight packs of cigarettes a day and a bad case of syphilis will do you in). Despite many people’s efforts and protests, there’s no way to skip gaining knowledge. I make a distinction here between knowledge and “learning”, because learning is the method by which we gain knowledge, and “learning” becomes synonymous with “school.” For some people (myself included) the structured education of K-12 and university was not the best way for me to increase what I knew, but since I was still alive, I was still gaining information. I worked jobs, I wrote, I was an unpaid intern, I put myself in situations (smart and otherwise) where I’d come out with more knowledge than when I went in.

So that’s one half of our intersection. We have knowledge. If we were to make a list of what we’re knowledgeable about, it would be pretty sizable, once we got past the worry that other people may judge us for how we perceive ourselves or what goes on our list. Here’s my list:

Knowledge I Have

————-

Writing

Speaking

Cooking

Motivate people

Internet piracy

Video games

RPGs

Publishing

Marketing

Film noir

Rex Stout

Movie critique

Screenplays

Tv writing

Detective stories

Sobriety and addiction

Writing critique

Editing

Social Media

Cartoons

Pop culture

That’s a whole lot of stuff, in no particular order, and in no way is that list complete. But I stand by what I’ve written there. No, it wasn’t easy. I had to really wrestle with some of the ideas there – were they worth mentioning? are people going to think I’m a jerk for saying I know that stuff?

The hard part was getting to a place where I was okay writing it down (which is why I’m writing this part of the past at 12:10pm having started almost 3 hours ago). It took work, I had to talk it over with people. I had to pace around the kitchen and talk myself into and out of writing it. But I got to a point where I was okay going forward, so there it is.

Make your own list. It does not have to be complete, it does not have to be ranked or prioritized. Just list stuff. There are no wrong answers.

Skill is the other half here. We can define skill as knowledge used properly. That “properly” isn’t a subjective opinion, it’s more about relevant purpose. You wouldn’t use your knowledge of cooking when you’re raking leaves. There’s a time and a place to apply a particular knowledge to a particular situation. It’s that kind of properly.

Unapplied knowledge isn’t wasted, there is no wasted knowledge. No one other than you can compel or encourage you to do something with the stuff you know. Not your spouse, your friend, your boss, not some guy on the Internet. It’s my hope that everyone will find a way to apply what they know in a tactical and practical way to make themselves better happier productive creatives. What that application looks like, ideally, is completely individual. No two people are going to demonstrate skill the same, even with knowledge and skill (somehow) being 100% equal. And that’s the important part here – how you show off your skill(s) doesn’t have to and shouldn’t have to look like someone else’s. Yes, multiple can do the same thing (write books, make food, etc) but their individual compositions aren’t the same. That’s to be celebrated and encouraged. More authors. More creatives. More ideas. Different ideas. Ideas that conflict with each other. Ideas that provoke. Ideas that prompt actions. Bring all the distinct people to this party, bring all the skills and their demonstrations to bear. We’re all made better when we can contribute to our best abilities.

Listing the skills I feel most passionate about, I get this:

Skills

——–

Writing

Editing

Public speaking

Developing and encouraging writers

Writing critique

Watching TV

Using Social Media

 

What does your list look like? Yes, the list of knowledges should be longer than the list of skills, because you’re always going to know way more than you can act on.

Making these two paths intersect is where we find creativity at its most fertile. It’s where what you know meets what you can do about what you know. And it’s at that intersection you’ll find things like this blog, or a person’s YouTube channel, or a series of one-person plays about inventing random items or whatever a person is fired up enough about to share with other people.

Now, yes, I’m sure some of you reading this are saying, “But John, I’m not really excited about anything I’m knowledgeable about.” And to that I say, what’s something that you’d love to know more about it, and can you dedicate some part of your time to learning about that thing? Maybe you’re secretly into Taylor Swift songs, so you spend some time watching the videos and singing along. Maybe you’re fascinated by soap making, so you start talking to soap people. And even if that immersion doesn’t inspire you to at least try and apply the knowledge, I’m going to ask you one more question – what are you afraid of? If your attempt fails, then you’re right back to this spot, the same spot you’re in before you started. Fine, you want to grouse about time and money, okay, but if you’re letting money be the arbiter of whether or not you pursue a thing I’ll point out that email newsletters and YouTube videos are free. I can’t stop you from making excuses. I can’t stop you from finding ways not to do anything. Speaking personally, I’m great at finding ways to avoid doing stuff. But since I didn’t want that to be a thing I share with other people, it didn’t go on the above lists.

There’s such ability to discover and grow at this intersection, and you have to do it when you’re there. Trying to capitalize on Knowledge A by using Skill Q is like trying to learn how to swim while sitting in an airplane at 35,000 feet. You need to be in the place, you need to be in that intersection, in order to make use of it.

Here’s the genius of this intersection – even if you don’t have that much skill, if you stick around and keep gaining knowledge and then applying that knowledge, you’ll get more skill. And if you think you have a good amount of skill but want more knowledge, stick around and you’ll gain more knowledge. That’s the point of the intersection – you’ll get plenty of access to both things.

So make your lists. Make yourself a little roadmap of where you are and where you want to be. Get encouraged, and get active. Don’t let the doubt and the possible responses be the gatekeepers on what you want to do, it’s not up to other people to determine how you feel satisfied.

I’ll see you later this week when we’ll expand on this idea.

 

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – What Characters Think

It’s Wednesday. Better caffeinate, hydrate, and other -ate, because I don’t know how else we’re going to get through this week. Is it just me, or are these early summer days sloth-crawling along?

In sifting through the inbox looking for a juicy question, I found several questions asking about how to handle expressing to the audience what a character is thinking. Questions like this:

* How do I show what a character is thinking in the third-person when they’re not the POV character?
* Do I italicize every thought the character has in first person?
* How do I show and not tell what a character is thinking?
* How much do I tell the reader what the character is thinking if I want it to be a surprise to the reader later?
* How do you format character thinking from the rest of the exposition?

There’s about a dozen total questions including those above, so I’m going to break them into chunks and do some today and have the rest on Friday. This way, you don’t have to sit through what could have very easily been 8000 words about the nature of thought and how to express it.

Here we go …

For characters in first-person
First-person has the most direct exposure to thoughts, because those thoughts become part of the narration of the story. “I couldn’t let her pull the trigger” is the same as “Bill didn’t let Hannah pull the trigger” in third person. The nice thing about first person is that you can go directly to the thoughts via verb choice, like I “think/thought”, and thanks to other tools of first-person the narration requires that those thoughts be woven together so that we see and experience the “complete” story through the character’s ideas, actions, beliefs, and emotions.

For characters in third-person
This is where the waters can get muddy when people misunderstand show versus tell, and/or when they want to try and tell the “complete” story (not in that E True Hollywood Story way, but in that I’m-going-to-give-you-ever-bit-of-info-so-that-you-can-“get it”-way).

Here’s the thing, a “complete” story doesn’t mean there are no spaces where the reader can’t, doesn’t, or hasn’t filled in some gaps on their own using whatever imagination they may have. A complete story is the story that’s got all its necessary moving parts installed and working as smoothly as an Imperial battle station blowing up a planet of people with intermittent British accents.

The most common way the distinction between action and thinking is through italics. I’m not sure where we learned this, I can’t find a unified theory that says one book was its genesis, but I have read plenty of manuscripts by all different authors all over the world who use italics as a way to indicate what is or isn’t a thought.

And that’s not bad. It’s not wrong. Anything can be done well if done consistently and in moderation (see the -ates we started off this blogpost with), it comes down to setting your own system up and doing it that same way throughout the book.

Or does it?

Because yes, I’m always going to tell the author to be internally consistent, but there’s a level past token consistency that we need to address as we close this blogpost – and that level is part of psychic distance.

Psychic distance, if you’ve never heard me talk about it before, is how close the reader is to the characters and the actions they’re reading. You treat the text as though it were a film camera, and the story as though it were a movie. Are you zoomed in, reading description and seeing well-defined objects, or are you pulled way out, so that you get a sense of the scope of worldbuilding or as a setup to what comes next?

When you italicize, because you’re changing the nature of the text, you’re creating distance between reader and story. It might be a teensy little amount of it, less than millionths of a space between thought atoms, but it’s still a space. It’s still a division. We’re going to break this down in more detail on Friday, but I’m going to wrap today with a pretty straightforward idea:

You can use italicized thoughts and thought-tags (thought, wondered. etc) to create distance between the owner of the thought, what the thought is, and what its context is:

I can’t believe it, he thought, it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

You can eliminate the thought-tag to go even closer to the thought owner and thought context.

I can’t believe it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

You can skip the italics AND the tags, so that the thought is indistinguishable from exposition.

I can’t believe it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

The more you call out the fact that someone’s having a thought, and the more you call out what that thought is, you’re making the reader more and more a detached observer, like they’re seeing the story from eight rows back or from the bleachers.

We’re going to talk the nuance and development of this stuff in Part 2. See you Friday. Happy writing.

Paragraph Building Blocks, Part 2

Good morning, welcome to Friday, let’s get down to business.

Earlier this week, I began to answer some questions about paragraphs. Today, that discussion continues.

Looking at our list of questions:

a) What defines a paragraph?
b) How long should a paragraph be?
c) Should some paragraphs automatically be of a certain length because of where they are in the story?
d) How many paragraphs should there be in a chapter?
e) How many beats per paragraph?
f) When writing, should [the writer] be thinking about the bigger picture of story construction (as in I just wrote 4k, so that’s a chapter), or is it more important to get the story out whole then divide into chapters as an after-thought?

We’re halfway through, and I want to throw in a bonus question:

g) How do paragraphs affect dialogue?

i. How many paragraphs should there be in a chapter?
We need to define “chapter” I think, if we’re going to be able to answer this question. A chapter is a collection of scenes wherein some amount of plot and/or character development happens. What that “amount” is (and yes, that amount can be zero, though it really shouldn’t be) depends completely on the size of the development over the course of the whole manuscript, as well as how you want to present it.

If, for instance, you have a really short progression, something you can break into three steps, then each step would likely make sense as a chapter. But if these three steps require a lot of moving parts or there’s some complex imagery (I’m imagining a lady walking to her closet, picking a shirt, and wearing the shirt, but between the walking and picking there are some extensive thoughts about all the kinds of influencers on her choice), then you might have a chapter that isn’t the progression, but the build-up to progression.

That might be unclear. So let’s think about pizza. We can slice it into thirds. But if we need to feed more people, we can slice those thirds down the middle and get six slices. The act of subdivision is an option for extending (and slowing) progression so that you can give it more weight and emphasis. BUT (and this is a large one, like your mom’s) padding out the chapter count can also be a great way to bloat your manuscript and lose the readers when there’s too much padding and the pace slows to a crawl (again, like your mom).

Which is why a chapter has as many paragraphs as it needs. Because the chapter, and in turn the paragraphs, are delivering plot and/or character development.

ii. How many beats in a paragraph?
A beat, for those people who may not have checked out FiYoShiMo, or who might not know, is the smallest unit of storytelling information, and it’s when something happens, is felt, or is discovered.

A beat fits into a sentence, and yes, a beat can have multiple actions in it, so long as they’re all related to the same moment (like a guy who sees his friend get shot, screams, picks up his buddy’s gun, then shoots the aliens while tears stream down his face).

Since we can put a beat in a sentence, and a paragraph is made of sentence(s), then we should be able to put multiple beats in a paragraph, right?

Nope.

Here’s why.

A beat is a snapshot of activity. It’s a moment in the story, it’s events or ideas that we visualize as we read, and we need those moments to be clear and distinct so that we can picture them, then add them to what we already have. These jigsaw puzzle pieces have to fit together to show us the whole picture, but each piece has its own curves and nubs and spaces. You could pull a beat out and have it stand on its own as a vignette, though I don’t know why, outside of marketing.

When you cram lots of beats back-to-back, even when they’re related, they’re not distinct. They lump together and congeal into a larger whole that might lack the definition and clarity of the individual pieces (like how you add eggs, flour, sugar, and water together to make a dough but once the blending happens it just becomes … dough). Keep your beats per paragraph to a low minimum of one, maybe two.

Of course there are edge cases and I’m sure someone on the internet will go to great lengths to prove me wrong.

iii. When writing, should [the writer] be thinking about the bigger picture of story construction (as in I just wrote 4k, so that’s a chapter), or is it more important to get the story out whole then divide into chapters as an after-thought?
When we’re drafting a story, it can be really tempting to take a day’s chunk of writing, especially when it’s large, and call it a chapter. That’s part of what this question is asking – is there an auto-cutoff for chapters based on wordcount? The other parts have to do with breaking the story into that progression I mentioned about then figuring out the chapters in advance or just writing the whole thing then slicing it up.

The answer has some different parts, all moving together. Chapters don’t have a set length, and when you’re thinking about writing the MS, the number of chapters isn’t a factor. Whether or not you think about what development happens in each chapter does matter though.

For instance, I tell clients to map out their development by chapter, because I want each chapter to have the beat(s) relative to how the story is playing out.

Like this:

1 – John wakes up, gets set up to start his day
2 – John reads the news, has breakfast, gets discouraged at the state of the world
3 – John puts his butt in the chair, clears his head, and starts writing

I could have easily condensed that into 1 chapter of “John starts his day and then gets to work”, but I can spread the whole concept out over multiple chapters and give the components some depth. In this example, the “gets discouraged at the state of the world” might have been only a sentence or two if this were in one chapter, but it can be the whole load-bearing pillar of its own chapter this way.

That said, you can divvy up the chapters after the fact, so long as you place the breaks in reasonably expected times – before or after major developments, mid-action moments so you create tension, spots where you shift from following one character to another, etc. It’s just not something I’m a fan of.

BONUS QUESTION TIME.

iv. How do paragraphs affect dialogue?
For a long time, there was an unspoken prohibition on dialogue being long and paragraph heavy, because people don’t speak in giant paragraphs. Even the most well-crafted political soundbite is a sentence or two. One of the reasons we call a Bond villain speech cliche is because it can be so cumbersome to work your way through the text and think that there’s supposed to be an actual human doing the speaking.

Paragraphs in dialogue aren’t verboten. No one will come kick you out of the writer clubhouse when they read your MS and find out that Marcelle spent a page and a half telling Julian where he can stick his infidelity and passive aggressive comments that her sister Lucia is hotter.

But a paragraph, even as a ramble, has to still sound like a person could say it. That’s the big rule for dialogue. No, I don’t care if the “person” saying the lines is a half-alien cyborg, the reader is presumably a human, and humanistic speech patterns make sense to us.

If you’re asking what that looks like on the page, here you go:

She looked out her window to watch her beloved city burn.
      “Everyone knows that out of all the Good Humor desserts on a stick, the Strawberry Shortcake is clearly the best because strawberry and the strange freeze-dried cake crumbly bits that sheath it in deliciousness.
     “Good Humor, has for years produced quality desserts on sticks, rich with nostalgia and taste alike, because what the world needs now is not our arguing on this, our veranda, but true love and cooperation before Emperor Trump’s cyborg racist troopers kick down our door because our gardener is slightly too swarthy according to National Color Gradient Chart 16.
     “So, here, do you want the damned ice cream or not?”

Start each paragraph with an opening quotation mark, and only close the quotations when you get to the end of the last paragraph.

If you’re gonna sneak tags in there, then punctuate just like you would if the dialogue and tag were on its own line.

See you guys next week. Enjoy your weekend. Happy writing.

Paragraph Building Blocks, Part 1

Did you enjoy Monday’s Batman v Superman rewrite? Ready for more words on blog action? I hope so because we’re taking Inbox Wednesday and stretching it out over the next few blogposts (also I’m trying for shorter posts, because some of you said that 3k per post was kinda tough to read), because there’s a whole mass of questions all about the same sort of thing. So for the six people who have roughly asked all the same stuff, here are the questions getting answered over the next few posts:

a) What defines a paragraph?
b) How long should a paragraph be?
c) Should some paragraphs automatically be of a certain length because of where they are in the story?
d) How many paragraphs should there be in a chapter?
e) How many beats per paragraph?
f) When writing, should [the writer] be thinking about the bigger picture of story construction (as in I just wrote 4k, so that’s a chapter), or is it more important to get the story out whole then divide into chapters as an after-thought?

Today, we’re doing the first 3, and we’ll do the back 3 on Friday.

i. What defines a paragraph?
This is a construction question. We learn in school that a paragraph is about a single idea and has at least one sentence in it, and while that definition works when we’re talking second graders making first forays into story, it doesn’t cover the idea that a single word as a paragraph can be impactful for the story (like Rosebud in Citizen Kane). This means we need a new definition to suit our needs.

A paragraph is a delivery system for an idea, and the sentence(s) in that paragraph develop pieces of the idea. Now maybe that’s one-word paragraph (Rosebud), maybe it’s multiple sentences describing how Harry lives in a cupboard, maybe that’s a giant block of text as a suicidal Dane figures out what he must do.

This leads us straight to question 2 pretty nicely:

ii. How long should a paragraph be?
It should be as long as it needs to be to develop the idea with whatever details, nuance, connective tissue, facets or shading necessary. Sometimes that’s going to be short, sometimes not. But the length is going to be secondary, and even overlooked, if the details in it are more of a red flag. Too many details, both in number (do you really need some many adjectives to convey that the table is set for dinner?) and digression (do we really need to know so much about the table when the point of the moment is that people are going to sit and talk?) fatten and ultimately bloat a paragraph, reducing its readability and slowing down the reader’s eye – which is not a great idea.

No, this is a not where I say swing that pendulum the other way and write particularly lean and spartan (unless that’s what you like, but you’re not forced to write that way. You’re free to build paragraphs as long as you need, provided they get the idea across.

But what do I mean when I say “idea”? Let’s look at a scene, because a scene is composed of many ideas all cooperating. If we have a dinner scene, we’re going to have some basic ideas – the table, the room, the people sitting, what they’re eating and talking about. Each of those are ideas under the umbrella idea of “dinner scene”, but I wouldn’t expect to see all that information in one paragraph, unless it was less important or just something to get through before you get to the really interesting stuff you want me to focus on.

These constituent pieces warrant their own paragraphs, because if you’re laying a foundation, if we’re building towards something as part of beat structure, then the details in those paragraphs helps me as a reader to picture things.

iii. Should some paragraphs automatically be of a certain length because of where they are in the story?
Positioning, whether we’re talking about opening chapter or climax or resolution or the ninth paragraph of the seventh chapter, has more to do about the pacing and story momentum than manuscript geography. If the short punchy single sentence paragraph helps convey the idea in chapter 4, awesome. If chapter 9 really calls for slower and more descriptive text, great. Whatever you write has to serve the story, so while you can make a case that an intense fight scene benefits from a lot of short sentences and fragments, that’s not an inflexible maxim.

Remember, the goal is to tell the best story through the breadth of tools and creativity. Paragraph structure is one of those tools, but don’t lock in to too narrow a mindset about them.

See you guys on Friday for more. Happy writing.

Character Dead-Ends

Good morning, welcome to Friday. The weekend is looking pretty awesome, so let’s start it with a discussion of characters, because okay that’s a terrible segue, but it’ll all be okay because you don’t check this blog out for my recommendations on drinks (PS anything with rum was my jam) you’re here for the breakdown of story elements.

Off we go. Buckle in.

Earlier this week, we talked plots, and now we’re going to look at character. To me, there’s nothing more integral to the story, no matter the plot or genre, than the characters, because we follow them, and ideally, care about them.

We’ve talked a lot about character building, about how they need a philosophy, about how they need to exist larger than the plot, and one day we’re gonna talk about how characters need to setup their own success, but right now we’re gonna look at characters who go all sad trombone flaccid and seem to blend into the background just when the action they’re supposed to be doing is sometimes the biggest part of the story.

Characters need a reason to do stuff. And they have at least one reason, which we’ll call plot-reason. Plot-reason is the “because the plot says so” answer to the “why is the character doing that” question. Plot-reason matters most within the sphere of the plot (it’s really gonna suck for Boise Idaho if Boise Idaho is reduced to ash thanks to a neutrino dragon from the alternate dimension), and provides a limited reason for the characters to take action (if they’re a Boise resident, they don’t want to be dragon snacks).

A writer will buttress the plot-reason with a really shallow personal agenda, or often a romantic subplot that develops because of plot-reason (like the anti-dragon warrior falls in love with the mayor of Boise while trying to save her AND Boise, but we’re led to see that because she’s the top-billed actress in this movie, we’re supposed to believe the leading man is just going to love her … because plot-reasons).

Doing that makes two things very clear: the writer thinks a thin coating of character development is “good enough”, and that a subplot’s job is to be the plot’s sidekick. Neither of those things are true, because of the character(s) involved.

Character development is what we’re expecting to experience over the course of the story. No, not all development is positive, I mean we can watch the psychopath get more psychopathic and feel satisfied because the character stayed on target like an X-Wing pilot. Development just means a change so that we know the actions that prompted that change matter. You know how you talk to someone and they tell you they want to see real change in your behavior, and if you go right back to do the thing that prompted the conversation in the first place, you’re basically showing them that you aren’t capable of change? Yeah, it’s like that.

Likewise, if you use a subplot to support the primary plot, you’re saying the subplot itself isn’t worth developing outside the main plot, which is kinda like calling it parasitic or vestigial. Subplot is its own plot, separate and profound. It’s not the main plot, because the main plot is just where the writer is putting attention.

Characters intersect with the plot, they’re not always and only working in parallel. The plot is ONE THING that helps develop them, and it might be a BIG ONE THING but it is still just one thing. That fact that it’s where this stack of pages and words is wrapped is (and I believe should be) secondary.

A character isn’t going to feel realized if they’re just around to do plot-reasons. A character that you’re devoting story and page-space to isn’t a character you should be able to easily unplug and replace like it’s a weird off-brand USB device that you can never seem to eject normally. And yes, you want them to feel realized, especially if you’re going to take these characters and this world to series or at least a sequel.

So what’s beyond plot-reason? Personal reason. This is usually where that romantic subplot shows up, because romance is personal, and that’s good enough right? NO. Giant flaming neon NO. It’s not about good enough. If it were all about good enough, I’d still be considering a career as a pharmacy technician or convenience store clerk. We can all do better than good enough when it comes to our characters.

How do we do better? We ask a child’s favorite question: “Why” Why is the character doing whatever they’re doing? If it’s because plot, find a better reason.Find a bigger reason, find a reason that resonates with a core value of the character and really do more than just explore it on some superficial level, like “he’s a cop so its his job to do the right thing.”

Because the superficial is obvious and it has the footprints of so many people who have walked that ground before. Go deeper. Dig into the story-earth. Maybe there’s a character backstory (that you’re going to do better than share with the reader than via flashback or dream sequence, right?)

The personal reasons not just tie to this current plot, but also possible future plots (what’s up series writers), so long as each future plot seed is distinct within the logic of the world and story you’re telling. What I mean is this: If you’re telling the story of a space gigolo looking for love across the galaxy, it would make sense for the character to have a running theme of not finding meaningful love on the regular. It would not however make sense that this space gigolo is always embroiled in galactic space politics, even if his preferred clientele are space congresspeople. (Sort of like how the latter Die Hard movies have John McClane happening to the them, rather than McClane being the receiver of the movie). It’s important because when the character is bigger than the plot, you lose the element of risk for that character. Risk for a character gives them challenge, and feeds into the risk they’re also facing thanks to the plot.

Lastly, characters can’t stop being themselves when the plot is over. Okay, fine, if you kill the character off and don’t have any supernatural elements in your story, the character isn’t themselves anymore, but barring a catastrophic face-first meeting with a flamethrower and paper shredder, a character can live past the plot. Ideally, they do this having been changed by the plot in more than just big picture ways (yeah, if you blow up Boise it’s gonna be hard to live there, but also the trauma of having Boise blown up should persist). It’s the little ways change can be shown that give the writer the most space to show off their craft.

Just because the plot is over doesn’t mean the character’s life is.

Stop making dead-ends by connecting the character to deeper feelings and plans and goals than just what the plot needs. Not easy, but worth it.

See you guys Monday. Happy writing.

 

 

InboxWednesday – Plots To Nowhere

Hey everyone, welcome to Wednesday. Hope you’re doing well. Let’s go jump into the inbox and see what’s up. Today’s question occurs 15 times in the inbox in various shapes and sizes, so I’m hoping this answer can serve as a proxy for all them.

My MS got rejected for a weak plot, I don’t know how to fix it, what do I do?

To start, we’re going to need to invent a plot. Let’s go with two, and we’ll make them dissimilar.

Our protagonist is a person with a past, and they’re trying to do everything they can to avoid trouble, but they get sucked into a giant-scale battle for the fate of all mankind with Galactic Overlord and douchenozzle Dale.

AND

Our protagonist is a quiet, hardworking cubicle drone who is routinely taken advantage of for a variety of reasons, until one day when they’ve just had enough of co-worker Dale’s douchenozzlery.

I want to start off with a quick set up that plot is one of the three critical pieces of story structure (the other two being character and world), and it’s one of the most diverse parts of storytelling, because anything with a conflict can be a plot.

And we can take a step back to say that “conflict” is another word for “challenge”, since the actions of a plot do represent a challenge to the characters’ status quo. Whether that’s a galactic dictator or an office jerk, there’s something or someone that prevents the main character from achieving their goal, even if their goal is just to keep hanging out and having Cheetos.

When we talk challenge, we have to talk scale of the challenge, because disproportionate scale is a manuscript killer. A disproportionate scale is one where either the problem or the character it’s affecting is way too great or too small but not played for laughs – think about a kindergarten class trying to stop Godzilla, or Superman trying to keep a fly off his potato salad. So when we create a plot, you need to frame that scale relative to the world you’re building.

This is where I talk about world, and I don’t mean just the single literal planet. The world of a story is the stage it’s set on, whether that’s the office building or a galaxy or the local high school where dreamy Dylan is aloof and all Brenda wants him to do is share his feelings. The scale of the problem has to fit within the world, and it has to fit in the world as well as being significant to the characters who are going to be doing something about it.

So in our intergalactic Dale story, our world is actually several worlds, and our heroine is a captain on a ship. We’ll give her a crew for good measure and throw her smack into the middle of the battle between Dale’s forces and the scrappy revolutionaries, because if I call them rebels, I’m sure Mickey Mouse will show up to my office and break my legs or something.

In our cubicle coming of age story, we’ll make our heroine a data entry technician, and Dale can be the brownnoser who sits on the other side of the cubicle partition, the guy who always takes credit for everyone else’s hard work. The world is just the office, and maybe a local lunch spot so we can keep the story fluid, but we’re not going to fly across country or maybe even to the next county in order to make this heroine get her shit in gear and give Dale a beatdown.

Working with all that, we have the basis for story. We’ve got crude bozzettos we can fill in with other characters and some details where applicable so that we’re not just telling the A to B progression.

Which brings us to the other plot assassin: linear progression.

In simplest terms, linear progression is the simplicity and speed a character takes actions that resolve the plot. For instance, if our plot is to get across the room, then we have progress from our chair to walking across the room and getting to the other side. This is a short progression. Granted, it’s a really simple example, and we don’t need to fatten it with something like an earthquake or hostage negotiation unless the story is really supposed to be about those things.

Let’s look at both our Dale examples. We know that in the end the respective Dale is out of commission. The specifics don’t matter for this discussion, though we can assume they’re relative to their respective worlds. Office Dale isn’t likely to get disintegrated by a quantum rifle, and Intergalactic Dale isn’t going to lose his hold on the galaxy thank to his Powerpoint presentation being swapped for animated GIFs of clown porn. (Again, we’re not playing this for laughs, since comedy would allow us the stretch the seriousness of the plots.)

So long as we know the end results, we can reverse engineer the plot by asking, “How did that happen?” until we reach the starting point in Chapter 1. Like this:

Office Dale is fired, heroine is promoted
How did that happen?
Heroine swaps thumb drives with Dale when he isn’t looking
How did that happen? 
Heroine’s best friend gives Dale her number.
How did that happen?
Heroine and best friend conspire after nearly getting fired.

Etc etc.

In this way, we’re making a kind of outline from back to front, where all we need to do is keep in mind that whatever the plot, however we choose to answer these questions, we have to show the heroine as having changed from however she was at the beginning of the story. It doesn’t even need to be positive change, it can be negative – say she gets all vindictive, or our space captain loses her faith trying to do what she thinks is best. You don’t need to stretch either of those elements out into support structure for every beat unless you’re trying so show office culture to be inherently selfish, or space faith to be corrupt.

Wait, let me slow that down. It’s a big deal.

To show a character has changed, you have to take something you established at the beginning (a fear, a doubt, a talent, a skill, a lack of skill, something about the character) and demonstrate that because of the plot, that thing isn’t the way it used to be at the end of the story. A hopeful character being broken down, or a bitter character gaining faith are the obvious and extreme examples.

But it doesn’t need to be so extreme in order to be workable, it just needs to be believable, and the reader will believe whatever the context of the character and the world can support.

In our office story, so long as the heroine is shown to be quiet and not assertive, and that she doesn’t develop mutant powers in order to stop Dale from being a jiggling bag of crotch weasels, there’s plenty of credible ways to show she’s assertive, the most common being a scene where she stands up during the Johnson account presentation and delivers the performance of her career.

For our space tale, if our captain is not a fan of the no-win scenario, and a Vulcan isn’t handy to be killed off in the third act, then she’s going to have to come to terms with some kind of loss that may put her on a redemptive arc later in subsequent stories. Maybe she’s stripped of her command and has to become one of the pirates she always hated.

How long does that take? Don’t know. There’s no specific answer to give you, because there is no magic number. But I can tell you that if you collapse the progression, if you shorten it, the audience isn’t going to believe it’s a viable arc. It becomes too convenient, as if the character just walked over to the closet and found the box labeled “plot fixer.”

Stretch it too far, and you’ll lose the momentum and reader focus. I see this a lot in science fiction and fantasy, where the quest to go put the magic doo-dad in the special place (sounds super dirty, you’re welcome) gets spread out over all these planets and with these side characters that contribute really tiny value to the story, but they’re great evidence that the writer loves to show off how many different words they can puke and masturbate into existence.

Again, this isn’t the screaming of one editor that you don’t need to keep the pendulum either on anorexia or obesity, but hey, there’s a whole realm of story between all or nothing that you should totally go check out and mine and live in and do something with. (for the record THIS IS THE SCREAMING OF ONE EDITOR SO THAT YOU KEEP WRITING AND STOP GOING TO HUGE EXTREMES IN ORDER TO GET THE RECOGNITION THAT YOU CAN ABSOLUTELY GET WITHOUT THE TREND-CHASING OR SOCIO-POLITICAL SOAPBOXING)

Plot weakness is about the choices you make, because it’s not enough to just choose the specific words but also the idea you’re trying to develop via those words. Remember – Writing is the act of making decisions.

The value a plot point contributes doesn’t have to be equal sized, but we’re telling a story, not working on the brunoise of an onion. Be willing to challenge not just how complex the plot is (because complexity does not guarantee quality any more than bombastic line delivery guarantees acting, I’m looking at you later years Pacino) and take that further to challenge the specific contributions of each plot point and plot participant.

Oh, and if you have an office or intergalactic Dale in your life, don’t you dare let them stop you from creating.

See you on Friday. Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Social Media

Holy mother of chicken fingers, Wednesday crept up on us pretty quick there. Next thing you know, it’ll be Friday and I’ll get a tweet from someone about to get turnt up for the weekend. (The first time I heard that phrase, I thought someone said turnips, and pictured someone having a really good weekend playing Stardew Valley.)

But we’re not there yet, creatives. So until then, let’s do what we do on Wednesdays and grab a question from my inbox. Remember, you can ask me any question you want, because even the ones that don’t go on the blog get answered.

Let’s do this.

John, I’m a 57-year-old man writing his first novel. My two kids are in college, my wife works full-time. I am financially stable, and I thought writing would be a good thing to do. My question is: what’s the point of social media? What good does it do me, when I’m not a teenager or not really good at it, and what platforms should I use for what purpose? My schedule in the evenings and weekends is open, so time is not a problem, but how do I best use these apps? – J.

J. (you asked not to use your real name, no sweat), thanks so much for your question. Congrats on taking the dive into writing. What you’re asking is big and good and it’s got some moving parts, so let’s do this in pieces.

These are my opinions, other people may disagree, and that’s totally alright. I want you to first know that you need social media. NEED it, like critical in the modern day NEED, because the traditional publishers aren’t going to dump buckets of money at your door to do the marketing for you. You know your book, and you know who you are way better than they ever will, so there’s freedom to being your own marketing machine. You can develop a system that’s custom  to you, and because it’s playing to your strengths, you’ll use it with less difficulty.

What I’ll do is breakdown each platform with a definition, an example where I can, and the pros and cons. Then I’ll use my social media as a case study. J., follow me on this, this is gonna be a lot of words, but you can do this, it’s just one step at a time, it’s not overwhelming unless you let it be. Don’t quit on this, let’s rock and roll.

Can I give you two ground rules? These are important. Write this on a post-it note. Carve them into the foreheads of your enemies:

1. Social media IS NOT just sales link spam. There’s a reason it’s called “social” media – being a person who does X (in your case, writes books) is the honey to the sales spam vinegar when you’re building a group of people you interact with.

2. Practice using it. Regular use, even if you’re just goofing around with filters or hashtags or puns or whatever will help you get better when you do have something important, like links to a blog post or a fundraising page or a promo for an event you’re attending.

Primary Platforms
What I call a “primary platform” is the social media where you’re the most comfortable. Maybe you’ll develop more than one of these, and that’s awesome. A primary platform is where you can reach a certain number of people, and you’ll know you can reach them without having to do anything that you haven’t already done before.

Secondary Platforms
A secondary platform is social media that’s new to you. You’ve never used it before, or you barely use it, and if you gave it more time, and did a little research, you could get better at it, but you’re maybe okay with it being more on the perimeter of your social media stuff.

I’m going to spot you one free primary platform – email. You’ve written emails before. It’s pretty comfortable. And along with the ability to write emails, you’ve got a list of people to sends email to, so that’s a prepped audience. I know what you’re thinking, “John I can’t email these people that I’m writing a book.” And I’ll go ahead and ask you what about being creative is so bad that these people would run from you like your a clown on fire handing out mayonnaise and guacamole? It’s okay to let the world know you’re creative.

With me so far? Let’s look at specific platforms then. Each platform is going to take some time, especially when you’re just learning how to use it. No, you don’t have to be perfect at it, there is no perfect at it, but you’re going to need to take seconds/minutes to write things occasionally. Even if/when they’re wholly unrelated to the specifics of the book you’re writing.

Facebook
For me, professionally, Facebook isn’t my best option. It’s great when I want to tell people about work like we’re sitting on the porch with drinks and I’m just chatting about the day, or I want rant a little about video games or my weird neighbors, but I have a hard time turning that into sales. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do it, I know plenty of people who make that happen, but I know just as many people who keep the sales off Facebook, and use it more as a social pool for communication – one more way they can be a person first and a selling entity second.

The Pros: Everyone’s on it. Okay, not my mom, not that one guy I know who believes in chemtrails, lizard people, and nanochips inside vaccines that will one day activate and subjugate us, but like, loads of other people. Whether you just have an account for yourself, or you get a Page together where you specifically interact with an audience because of something you do or a way you identify (an author, a publisher, a whatever-er), you can communicate with other humans. It’s pretty easy to use, you just type in a box at the top of the page, you click Post, and boom, done.

The Cons: There’s a lot of people on it, and they’re going to talk about everything from politics to babies to work complaints to strange anime references to screeds about how they deserve preferential treatment to questions about robot apocalypses. That signal-to-noise ratio can be tough to parse through, and something as earnest and interesting as your “Hey I started writing a book” can totally get blown out of the water by your friend Sharon going on a rant about how the brown people are ruining this country and how we need to feel guilty about something that happened three hundred years ago that started our alleged national dumpster fire rolling down a hill.

Twitter
Twitter is my jam. I love Twitter. Each tweet is 140 characters, and that includes spaces. Yeah I know, there’s talk about expanding that, but even if they did, I’d keep it to 140. The concision Twitter has trained me to develop is critical when I’m speaking and editing – words are potent, and having to pick and choose how I describe something means I put a premium on clarity over flashy vocabulary.

The Pros: You can find a lot of like-minded people on it. I follow a heap of writers, creatives, editors, agents and people whose opinions and ideas interest and encourage me. Also, because of its fluid nature, I can jump into conversations or start my own pretty easily.

The Cons: It can feel like you’re shouting into the Grand Canyon while standing in London fog. You may have no idea that your words are reaching anyone, and especially at the beginning, it can be discouraging. But every once in a while, you may get surprised about who reads what you’re saying, who replies, or who shares what you say with their heap of people. (I have had a few “Oh shit, that person knows what I write!?” moments in the last year, they’re awesome).

If you do go with Twitter, and need a person to start with, start with me

Google+ (Google Plus, G+)
I have to admit J., I fell out of love with Google+. We grew apart because we both changed – G+ changed its layout, I found my groove with Twitter and other platforms. But Google+ is a viable longer form platform that you can use and build circles of people with. These communities share interest (you can build a writing circle), and there are large and active groups of people doing the same stuff you do, but as with any large mass of people, check that signal to noise ratio and don’t let the negative people poison your progress.

The Pros: It doesn’t have the glut of extraneous content the way Facebook does. It isn’t capped at 140 characters the way Twitter is. You can say a lot on a topic, you can read a lot about a topic, and you can get eyes on what you say. It sounds ideal, right? But …

The Cons: In a world where you’ve got other, more visual social media popping up, where there’s more immediacy and speed and interest, G+ can become an afterthought. Even with this blog, G+ is just one more place where I put posts, and occasionally chime in to specific groups, but otherwise, my attention is elsewhere.

Snapchat
This is a new one for me, as in I really started getting serious about it less than a week ago. This is the first of three platforms I’m going to talk about where you can use stills, video, and audio to get a concise message across. I’m hugely in love with the concept, and it’s easy to use once you check out how other people are using it.

The Pros: Again, concision is valuable. Short video can be personal and effective. Captions and filters can help put together an idea and package it for the current moment.

The Cons: A lot of snapchat is aimed at fashion or celebrity, and a lot of snapchat (at least when you google people you should follow on snapchat) skews younger than you or I, J. But don’t let that throw you off, because you don’t have to interact with that userbase if you don’t want to. It’s not the most intuitive interface, so you might have to fumble a bit early on to get a handle on it, but the good news is that the snaps you do send out only last 24 hours, and so there’s no great lasting shame in the snap of the inside of your pocket while you went to the grocery store, as happened to me earlier this week.

Instagram
There’s an intimacy possible in the visuals we present to the world. They’re a glimpse into our lives that goes beyond “buy my thing”, and I think the sharing of you-see-what=I-see is super important if you want show that what you do is not mysticism or impossible, and that you’re grateful for life. Instagram is tons of photos, it’s primarily visual, and it’s a great tool for showing (literally) more than telling.

The Pros: The peek behind the curtain is interesting. It’s honest, or at least it should be. It’s got a great interface, you can knock it out with a few clicks on your phone. Getting comfortable with hashtags (think of them as indexing tools) will make your production that much easier.

The Cons: If you’re like me, you suck at taking photos you’d call interesting. This is in part due to a lack of practice, and also due to a pressure I feel from the signal-to-noise discussion that Instagram is “supposed to be” all pictures of lunches and random bragging selfies of people better looking than me doing things I can neither afford nor have the means to do.

Periscope
Here now we’re at the fringe of my expertise. Periscope is a video broadcasting tool, that allows you to stream video to an audience. It’s not something I’ve really gotten my hands dirty with yet, but I’m going to be changing that over the course of this week.

The Pros: Streaming video! Live broadcasts! That’s huge. Gone are the static walls of text (said the guy writing the blogpost), and interactivity is at a premium. This is a big deal if you have something to say and want to get it out with immediacy and emotion. But …

The Cons: Building an audience to check out the broadcast takes time, as it does for any of these platforms. Also, given the projected nature of this content, you’ll need something to say or show – a lot of “Uhh” and “Um” won’t hold an audience’s attention. No, I’m not talking production values, I mean pure content. Figuring out what your content is goes a long way to helping steer it out of your head and to other people.

Anchor
Another new one for me, it’s an audio platform where you record short notes and receive other short notes or responses in return (they’re called waves, because nautical theme). I have barely tried this once, and haven’t even set myself up yet, but that’ll change over this week too.

The Pros: If you’re like me, you tend to have a logjam of thoughts that sear your mind and need to be let out, and quick bursts of audio are great for me when I’m feeling particularly laden with urgent purpose. And because you don’t have to see me, I don’t have to feel as awful about being one of the not-pretty people as I do what I do (note: this discomfort comes up for me on Snapchat something fierce) I need to play around with this more.

The Cons: If you’re like me, as you talk, you gesture. You work in the visual space in front of you, making air quotes and hand-based diagrams. They don’t always translate to audio, because despite allegedly having moves like Jagger, you can’t hear my hands make the “so this is like this and that’s like that” gesture.

Pinterest
Pinterest is a repository for static content (like blogposts), where you can collate information about a particular topic. You can have a board (a group) of pins (links) about whatever topic you want, although I have to say they’re a little draconian about butts, curves and intimacies.

The Pros: If you’ve got a lot of blog content to give out, if you want a lot of content to read, Pinterest can be a gold mine. With one of the big two browsers (Chrome, Firefox), you can get an extension to allow you to pin stuff through a simple right-click context menu, and it is an easy way to have a lot of resources at hand.

The Cons: It can be a swallower of your time. There’s so much stuff out there, and so much of it more signal than noise that you can blow a day pinning material one thing after another, stepping away from that writing that needs to happen because “just one more Pin” turns into “three hours later” pretty quick.

Blogging
I was on the fence about calling blogging a form of social media, because social media is becoming more and more conversational and concise, and blogging can range in length and frequency of use. But blogging has a communal aspect, so it’s social media for our discussion.

The Pros: You can say what you want, how you want, as often as you want. Your blog can be a home base for what you’re doing, giving you an unfettered and uninterrupted space to paint your internet real estate how you like.

The Cons: Audience growth is slow, and you can get discouraged by staring at views and thinking you’ll never get past ten or thirty or whatever. You can, you will, you just need to consistently put out good ideas in clear ways. Good content gets read, so make stuff that expresses clearly what you want to say and how you feel.

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So let’s use me as a case study. Out of the nine social media platforms I just talked about, I’ve got accounts on all nine, but I would call Twitter and this blog my primary platforms. I’m more comfortable here and at 140 characters professionally than anywhere else. Facebook sees daily use, but that’s more personal or anecdotal. I talk about what I do, but I don’t really do what I do with the people on Facebook. It feels weird to me, like I’m asking my family if they want to help me out, and I suppose that idea will need to change, but right now, I like this divide between pro-John and off-hours-John.

Snapchat has been my new vector for socializing, and my small as all get out following is clients, friends, a few celebrities who don’t get annoying, and professionals I learn from. My goal there is to get better at using the service, and I’m not going to do that without giving it a go myself. If you want to find me on Snapchat, I’m at johnwritesstuff.

Instagram and I don’t really know what to do with each other. It’s there, I am following some interesting people, but I don’t post much, mainly because I don’t know what to post. I don’t work visually, so I struggle to put up anything other than various doughnuts or foods I’ve eaten, which perpetuate that social pressure and make me feel bad, so then I use it less, and onward and onward that cycles. But I’ve got a youtube video queued up to watch after I write this post, so maybe I’ll learn some new stuff.

Pinterest is my recipe and idea hole. It doesn’t seem very conversational, but it’s a great education tool for me. Want to learn about business strategies,  enchiladas, candle-making, and old movie posters? I can do that all in one fell swoop.

The remaining platforms are on my “To check out” list, and I said on Twitter the other day that I wanted to try Periscope later this week, I’m thinking Friday. Hmmm.

On the whole, I divide part of my workday into check the various feeds, but not all at once. I’m on twitter throughout the day, I check Facebook in the morning and while I eat lunch, I snapchat now when an idea hits. I blog three times a week. I pinterest or read pinterest usually after work, because some of that relaxes me.

Because time is the most precious business commodity, I’m picky about allocating it. Were I new and starting out, I’d pick one or two platforms and get comfortable. I’d give myself a wide deadline of like 3 months with daily experimentation to see how it fits for me. If a platform didn’t work out, I wouldn’t go back. You don’t need to have all of them going in order to market your work successfully, and you certainly don’t want a pile of responsibilities that take you away from the writing when they’re supposed to be supporting it. So, J., you do what works for you, and if that’s one thing, awesome, if it’s eight or more (because there are more platforms I didn’t cover), awesome too.

I believe you (and anyone regardless of age or gender or genre or whatever) can learn to use this stuff and connect with other people both professionally and personally. It might not be instantaneous, but it can be done.

Hope that answers your question J.

I’ll see you guys on Friday for more blog times. Have a great middle of your week, don’t let the jerks get you down.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Spines and Queries

Good morning. Thanks for coming. Dive in, the inbox is fine.

As we do every Wednesday, I snag an email from the pile and answer it. Today’s email is actually a comment left on Monday’s blog post. This is from Greg, who is awesome:

The entire time I read this I was thinking of how this relates to making the query letter concise. Maybe you could relate or connect this to synopsis and query letters. I know it would at least help me and maybe grease someone else’s skids.

So let’s talk spines, queries, and concision. And to do that, I’m probably not going to be concise.

As we said Monday, a spine is a stack of beats with an emotional connective cord, and when you can be objective about it, you’ve got some query content. Being objective about the spine works with the idea that the query isn’t a synopsis, so it’s not that you need to recap the spine, but instead present it from a distance.

The query is going to be distant from the story to some degree, because it’s not written by a character, not written in-world, it’s not a manuscript excerpt. In order to make the manuscript attractive, it has to be distant, so that we can be drawn in and read it.

Let’s do an example.  We’ll create a story with four beats first

Tom is a struggling shoe salesman.
Tom makes his own shoes, and is mocked for it everywhere he goes.
Tom prototypes a shoe so awesome that NASA buys it.
Tom makes buttloads of space money.

To turn these beats into query ammo, we’ve got to find the best stretch of words within each of them, and either use them directly, talk about them using other words, or a combination of the two. So let’s highlight some words within the beats, and number them:

Tom is a struggling shoe salesman. (1)
Tom makes his own shoes, and is mocked for it everywhere he goes. (2)
Tom prototypes a shoe so awesome that NASA buys it. (3)
Tom makes buttloads of space money. (4)

Yes, astute reader, I wrote four backloaded beat explanations. It’s easier to explain this way, but I want to point out that you don’t always have to write backloaded sentences in order to talk about something.

Using these highlighted phrases, we can write a query, or at least part of one. Let’s just focus for now on these phrases as part of one paragraph in the query.

The shoe struggle is real (1). Tom faces mockery and derision as a laughingstock in the cutthroat world of shoes (2). It’s only when he develops the Q-4 hypershoe that people start to take notice, but even when NASA comes calling (3), can Tom stand up to a changed lifestyle (4)?

It’s not the prettiest query paragraph, but it works for our example. Each of the four beats got rewritten so that they read smoothly, and I presented them linearly so that the paragraph came together quickly (because it’s an example). In your own queries, you don’t have to do any of those things, and shouldn’t always – let the ideas develop and connect with as natural a feel as possible so that you avoid the “Oh and one more thing” feeling.

I picked four there because it’s an example, but if you have more (and you likely do) you’re going to have to prioritize the better beats to query with, and that means taking your spine out of order. Here’s a longer example:

Mandy  has terrible luck with finding a job and sticking to it
Her last job, bank teller, ended when her branch was robbed for the third time.
Convinced she’s cursed, she finds a psychic  who can “help her.”
The help she receives comes in the form of a magic ability to alter other people’s luck.
Mandy tests this power out, with some comic results.
She uses it to set up a date with a person way out of her league but uses the power to keep things going.
Mandy starts to worry though that the person only loves her due to this power.
She returns to the psychic to remove the power.
When she goes back to the psychic’s storefront, she finds her new relationship trying to kill the psychic and steal the magic for themselves.
A fight breaks out.
Mandy uses her power to keep herself safe, but can’t mount any offense.
Mandy uses her experience from her job as a bank teller to lock her now-ex in the vault.
They escape, swearing vengeance.
Mandy goes on a quest to gain the skills she’ll need to stop him, and keep down a job.

You can’t fit all those beats into the same query. One of the advantages to mapping out a story’s spine is the ability to use the pieces to write multiple and different queries. Looking at the list, I could write this with almost a rom-com serial tone, where Mandy just can’t get her shit together despite her likely minority best friend starts every sentence with “Girl,” and the gay friend is catty and often sleeping around.

I could write this with a supernatural or urban fantasy bend, making the magic truly spectacular and extraordinary, playing up the outside-the-norm and framing her partner as a monster.

Because I have multiple directions, the queries can look radically different. And that’s to my advantage. The problem though, is that however I frame the query, that’s going to be the lens through which the MS is read. And if I overhype Mandy’s inability to get work and the magic takes a backseat in the MS, it’s going to make the urban fantasy feel sort of rushed or tacked on.

There’s a balance between the content of the MS and the upsell you use in the query. You’ll find your balance through trial and error, but I can point out that sticking close to your spine, and understanding the emotional cord (throughline) will help you direct the query both to the most receptive audience as well as the best version of itself.

A query is a blend of fact and feeling, and to sell both, work on word choice. State the beat outright or describe it where needed, and don’t lock yourself down to a strict … well, anything. There isn’t a “best single query” template, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to experiment on both an in-sentence and on-the-page level.

The story’s spine provides ammunition for the query, as well as being a kind of spine for the query too. You’ve got these ideas, these emotions, to get across, and a limited space to do that in. Yes, that’s not easy. But it is doable, so go work on it. Build a spine, identify beats you can put into a query that support an emotional throughline relevant to genre and submission and keep writing.

See you on Friday for what apparently will be the 400th blogpost. I feel like we should have a cake or something.

Happy writing.

 

InboxWednesday – Voice Development

Really, it’s Wednesday already? Wow. What happened to Tuesday? Wasn’t I just telling people about having a good Monday? This week is rocketing past.

Here we are again, ready for another blogpost. As we do on Wednesdays we head into the Scrooge McDuck money vault that is my inbox and pick one of the questions asked by you, the people reading my words in this little nook on the internet. And before we go onto the question today, I just want to say thank you – it really means a lot to me that you read this, and it means a lot to me that you keep coming back post after post. Thanks.

Today’s question comes from Erin, who’s writing her first fantasy novel. She asks: “John, I follow a lot of blogs, and many editors and agents talk about the importance of voice. They don’t really say what voice is, they just say that it’s important, as if I’m supposed to know what they mean. No one asks what they mean, and I feel like if I ask, people will think I’m stupid. So, what do they mean? What voice are they talking about? Is it important?

Erin, I’m sorry that the culture on some blogs leaves you feeling like you can’t ask a question without other people calling you stupid. You’re not stupid. And chances are other people have the question too, and they’re just as afraid of being called stupid as you are. So everyone’s waiting for someone else to go first. With that, with that silence, the author assumes everyone knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t stop to define it, and this whole cycle moves from writing topic to writing topic and way too many people are left discouraged and confused. It’s one of the parts of blogging about writing that really irritates me, so let me start off by defining voice.

There are a few types of voice, and they’re all different, but all under the umbrella of “voice” (The way this was taught to me was to think of bread. There are loads of different types of bread – pumpernickel, rye, sourdough – but they’re all breads). It’s a shame people aren’t more clear about which one they mean. I know I’m guilty of it, so I’ll do my best to be as clear as possible.

Narrative voice is how the narrator sounds, and this is a key element in first-person writing, since the exposition comes filtered through one character’s experience and thought. (The technical term is narration-as-thought, if you ever want to sound nerdy while sipping a pinot noir with someone wearing a jacket with elbow patches) A strong narrative voice requires a clear view of the character’s attitude and philosophy, as well as an understanding that first-person is not omnipresent or omniscient, and because of those limitations, you’re only seeing one particular side to a story, with everything expressed to us by a single channel.

One of the first questions I get asked about narrative voice is “what do I do if I’m writing in third person?” Well, there the narrator is invisible, and you don’t want to reveal there to be some disembodied being telling you the story, you just want the facts and ideas presented with omniscience. In that case, narrative voice becomes narrative-as-exposition (man, you are going to impress a lot of people if you go to douchey wine parties), so a clear third-person narrative voice is strong exposition. Strong exposition comes from sentence construction and decision making as to what’s actually in scene, collapsing the barrier between the reader’s imagined presence in the moment and the fact that they’re reading squiggles and symbols on a piece of paper.

You can build a strong narrative voice by working on your decision making skills. If you’re in first person, keep the character in mind. (Note: If you’re looking to build strong characters, check out the FiYoShiMo section on characters.) Put us over their shoulder and lens everything you can through the character’s interests, goals, plans, fears, and thoughts.

In third person, make clear decisions and good word choices. If you mean to say that there’s a rusty pitchfork stuck in Mrs Dickinson’s chest, then there sure as hell was a tragic peasant accident. There’s room for paralysis due to overthinking here, which is another way of saying people can start doubting whether what they’ve got on paper is good enough, so get all your thoughts down on paper and make sure they’re at least clear before you start derailing yourself into “good enough.” (Hint: It’s good enough.)

Authorial voice is how you (the person writing whatever you’re writing) build sentences, employ writing techniques (like frontloading and backloading), and apply grammar and punctuation, so that your work, regardless of genre or series, has a signature unique to you. Maybe you use a lot of metaphors. Maybe you love long radial sentences. Maybe you like every sixth sentence to be a pair of clauses hinged with a comma. Strong authorial voice is not necessarily mastery of sentence structure, so much as it is a decisive broadcast of your style. The voice comes through regardless of whether the text is expositive, narrative, or dialogue. Strong authorial voice is engaging and comforting to some degree, because a reader develops expectations and familiarity.

Building authorial voice is about first having some level of comfort with what you’re doing. For some people that’s going to include a few internal conversations that it’s okay to be a writer, it’s okay to spend time doing writing, and as we’ve talked about previously, it’s okay to tell people that you’re a writer. For other people it’s going to be a permission slip that you can keep with you so that you know the Word Police aren’t three seconds away from kicking down your door and taking away your keyboard. For some people, it’s going to be relief that it’s okay to enjoy doing this activity for themselves on some level, rather than always being the parent on duty or the partner on call. Without that comfort, creativity is sludge in old pipes and you’ll never reach that level of production and enjoyment you talk about wanting.

Once you give yourself permission, authorial voice is built with discipline. Consistent effort applied regularly. Writing frequently. Adding to word counts. More doing and less saying you’re going to do things. Word after word, sentence after sentence. Put your butt in the chair and make the words happen. Marathons are measured in miles, but are won a stride at a time.

You’re not going to master your voice during a first draft. It will take several drafts and likely several books to get truly comfortable and nuanced within your voice, and I encourage you to try out lots of different approaches in writing. More dialogue, less narration, more description, fewer similes, bigger hyperbole … figure out where you sound the most like you while telling the story you want to tell, and then build a sustainable environment by reading in and out of genre, build a support network, stop letting fear of other people dictate whether you’re a good or bad person for making stuff, etc etc.

It’s hard. It sounds hard. It can be frustrating that you’re not “getting it fast enough.” There isn’t a “fast enough.” This is not a drag strip, this is Le Mans. But you can get a handle on your voice and use it well. It just means you actually have to write.

Character voice is how a character sounds or acts or thinks, ideally distinct from other characters due to not just manner of speaking, but also word choice, and content. If you have a character from the backwoods, they’ll sound differently than the upper crust European barony. Character voice is making each character specific and their own. And it’s not just about what they say, it’s also how they act or react to whatever goes on around them. Strong character voice makes character A wholly different and distinguishable from characters B and C.

Developing character voice comes out of really knowing your characters, and really being able to say clearly what makes one character different than another. That might mean something intrinsic like beliefs or fears, or something developed like speaking patterns or vocabulary, but you should be able to distinguish one character from another beyond name and physical description. Removing any one character from a story (assuming they’re not some bit player in the background) should leave an impact on the story you’re telling, and character voice is what’s absent once the character is 86’d.

So why are all these voices important? Because in their own way, they demonstrate the skill of the writer, which in a bigger picture means sales and audience building. I’ve always found it a bit of a pressure-stretch to say that your word choice on page 2, paragraph 4 of your second draft is going to directly influence your sales, and that it can easily freeze people up in anxiety, but there is a point to be made between how clearly and passionately you get your ideas out into the world and how people can therefore enjoy them by handing you money.

We enjoy a strong narrative voice because the story moves along and holds our interest.

We enjoy a strong authorial voice because we like each story and series and the styles therein.

We enjoy a strong character voice because we can project and imagine these adventures and these people having them.

Erin, this all boils down to write more. Write more words. Write more often. Your voice(s) will get developed through consistent disciplined effort. They’re important but not so critical you need to hyperthink your ideas to perfection before you put them on the page. You can be imperfectly perfect and successful and happy on your own terms. Truly.

Just keep writing.

I’ll see you guys at the end of the week. Have a great middle of your week, and happy writing.