You are what you create…

You-Are-What-You-CreateThere is a sushi restaurant in the OSU campus area here in Columbus that allows patrons to essentially custom-design their own sushi.    (For those who are curious, it’s called Fusian.)  You pick the wrap, the fillings, and even the sauces.  You then pay for and eat your creation.

On the way out, I noticed the sign at the left.  For the employees and patrons of the shop, it’s a clever way to say “you are what you eat” and, since what you eat there is something you get to create, if you are what you eat then you are also what you create.  I would imagine most patrons walk out of there feeling good when they see that message, convinced that their custom-created sushi, made of fresh ingredients, has made them healthier.  Nothing wrong with that.

As a writer who has written several novels that are not publishable (and I don’t think I’m being hard on myself here), the message struck me on two levels.

The first level was a kind of sadness.  My inner critic popped up and said to me, “No novels on the proverbial store shelves yet, eh?  You haven’t really ‘created’ then, have you?  If you are what you create, then you’re nothing, big guy…”  While I don’t totally buy what he’s trying to sell me, he knows I’m disappointed that for all the hours I’ve put in, my writing’s just not there yet.  My characters are flat, the plots lack escalating conflict, and my descriptions could certainly improve.

But that’s as far as I’ll agree with him.  I’m not published as a novelist, but I’ve been published in magazines and journals.  So I have created, and it’s been good enough for publication.  In time, I’ll work out the problems in my fiction and produce something I’m happy with – if not proud of. 

The quote hit me on another level, too.  In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon talks about how artists need to explore the work of other artists, the topics that interest them in life, etc.  These things find their way into our subconscious and (for want of a better description) fill up a “creative gas tank” inside us.  We want to be sure we fill that tank up with good stuff – stuff that makes us happy, gets us excited, or fills us with awe.  When we finally sit down to create, our “tank” will be filled with lots of great fuel to work with.

I’ve tried to fill my tank with good writing advice from the likes of Dean Wesley Smith, Mike Stackpole, the late Aaron Allston, Joe Konrath, and Joe Straczynski.  I’m trying to inspire my creative side with the writing from great TV shows like Dexter, memoirs like Jackson Galaxy’s Cat Daddy, thought-provoking ideas like those in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.  I’ve even started to engage other parts of my brain by trying my hand at drawing, painting, and sculpting.  I may even try to learn to play the guitar at some point.  I’m trying to give my creative tank a lot of good material to work with.

If you find yourself blocked creatively, it might be time to sit back and asking if you’re taking in enough creative stimulation to fill up your inspiration tank.  If not, get to it!

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Godspeed, Aaron Allston…

aaron-allstonIt is with sadness that I learned of the death of best-selling author Aaron Allston on February 27, 2014.  Aaron was an accomplished game designer and author.  He’s known for having written a number of Star Wars novels, and several original novels.

I first met Aaron at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus some years ago.  I had some time between games and decided to sit in on a writing seminar, hoping to pick up some pointers.  This became the first of many times I sat down to learn from him.

Aaron taught me (and a roomful of others) how to analyze our story plots for weaknesses by making sure each scene in our story did something to advance it.  He showed us how, when our fiction works properly, it’s a vicarious experience for our readers.  He taught us about writing good descriptions, setting the right mood in our stories, and much more. I considered Aaron a mentor.  I doubt he would agree, as we only exchanged perhaps five emails and spoke perhaps a couple of times at conventions. 

When I am discouraged about the quality of my work, I’m reminded of a story he told in one of his writing seminars.  If you set out to be a carpenter, having never done it before, and you tried to build a chest of drawers, there is a good chance that the finished product would look nothing like the image you had in your mind.  In fact, it would probably fall down the first time you tried to put a pair of socks in it.  But that’s OK.  You’ll build another, and it will be a little better.  The next will be better still.  Eventually, you’ll reach a level of craft in your woodworking that you’re able to start adding little flourishes, like carved accents and legs.  So it is with writing.  Your first novels are likely to be terrible.  Later, they’ll get better.  Someday, as your skill grows, you’ll be writing books you never thought you could.  Despite Aaron’s good advice and teaching, I think I’m still in that “terrible” range… but I am seeing improvement.

An mistakenly-addressed email wound up with me becoming an advance reader for Aaron’s book Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide.  In it, Aaron traces the development of a theoretical novel about a man who becomes a monster that preys on his own family.  Reading the book is like sitting on Aaron’s shoulder as he worked, and being able to look inside his mind and see what he’s thinking, what he’s doing, and why.  If you’ve ever wondered what that might be like, get that book.  I had been looking forward to being an advance reader for other books he’d write.  More than that, I’d hoped one day to offer him the chance to read something of mine.  Alas, those dreams die with him.

Aaron was more than just a good teacher.  He was an author who practiced the things he taught.  His novel Doc Sidhe came alive in my mind’s eye in a way few books do.  I could visualize the crossing of universes, the strange cities and vehicles on the other side, and the strange magic and technology.  I will need to re-read that book a few times, because I know he’s left a few more lessons inside for me.  I will do my best to learn them.

If you’re out there somewhere, Aaron, I want you to know that I appreciate all you’ve done for me.  I hope someday to write a book that makes you proud.  Godspeed, sir, and I hope the journey ahead for you is the best one ever. 

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A.P.E. by Guy Kawasaki

Back in the late 80′s and early 90′s, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Apple and Macintosh bigot.  If Apple made the product, I was convinced that it had to be better than anything else out there.  Guy Kawasaki was Apple’s “Chief Evangelist” responsible for spreading the word about Apple’s products, so he was someone I grew to like and respect.  Although I’m no longer the Apple bigot I was in those days (I primarily use Windows and Android, though I do own an iPad), I still think Guy is pretty cool and still listen to what he has to say.  When I learned that he had put out a book on self-publishing, I had to read it.

A.P.E. stands for “Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur” and represents what any self-published author should consider himself or herself to be.  As the author, you’re responsible for writing and revising the book.  As the publisher, you’ve got to concern yourself with hiring good editors, acquiring cover art, and designing the book’s interior.  As the Entrepreneur, it’s your job to make sure that you earn a profit from all your hard work. With Guy’s help, that should be a lot easier.

The book covers almost everything you’d need to know to publish any kind of book.  It talks about whether you should even bother to write the book in the first place.  How do you finance the book?  How do you get it?  How should you write it?  How do you avoid making the finished product look amateurish?  How do you sell and market the book when you’re finished?  How do you format the book for publication?  How do you decide on a price?  It even talks about the tools you should use to produce the book.  (Not surprisingly, Guy recommends an Apple MacBook Air.  He also recommends Microsoft Word, Dropbox, Evernote, and Adobe InDesign.)

A section on how to format the text for the widest possible compatibility across eBook readers, starting at Microsoft Word and ending with Adobe InDesign is extremely useful.  He also covers how to convert the file for each eBook service, and how to upload it to them.

The book provides links throughout the text to many useful resources, including recommended writing/editing/publishing books, crowd funding sources, sites where you can find contractors to help, where to get a good cover, etc.  Some of these are affiliate links, providing another way you can monetize an eBook.

The final section talks about how this book itself was created.  They used MacBook Airs and iMacs with Microsoft Word to write it, with Dropbox to maintain backups and share versions of the book.  Adobe InDesign CS6 was used to design and produce the Kindle, ePub, and print-ready PDF files.  They hired an independent artist to do the cover.  Editing was crowdsourced to Google+ and Facebook.  A professional copyeditor took care of the final editing.  To promote it, they relied on blog reviews, NetGalley (a service that emails bloggers and journalists), asked readers for Amazon reviews, used social media, hired a PR firm, did press interviews, held a few live online events, and set up a Google+ community.

I’ve been studying eBook publishing for a few years now.  I’ve had the opportunity to learn from several authors who have made a living at self-publishing from back in the earliest days of eBook (before the Kindle).  They have taught me a great deal, but I learned more from reading Guy Kawasaki’s book than I’ve learned from all of them, to date, combined.

If you’re thinking about self-publishing a book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc., the $9.99 you pay for this book will be money well-spent.  You’ll get good tips about every step of the process from writing through to promoting and publishing.  I strongly recommend it!

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Lester Dent’s Formula–The 2013 Version

I’ve had the good fortune to correspond with and watch video lectures from successful author Dean Wesley Smith.  Smith makes the suggestion that aspiring novelists and short story writers should look at the “Lester Dent Master Plot Formula” as a good starting point.  To be clear, he wasn’t suggesting that you should write formulaic or fill-in-the-blanks stories.  If he was, I’d have ignored the advice.

I’ve looked over some of my oldest stories, and while I know we writers are our own worst critics, I am usually good about stepping outside myself to evaluate my work – especially the older stuff.  While I am happy with bits and pieces of stories I’ve written, I’m objective enough (I think) to recognize that some of them aren’t truly “stories” in the sense that the main character doesn’t face much of a challenge in reaching his goal and doesn’t necessarily grow or change as a result of the events in the story.  I see this as a weakness that I need to address if I’m ever to write a publishable short story or novel.

Smith suggests that, to help you internalize a good basic story structure, you begin by rewriting Dent’s 1950’s era advice in more modern language.  Dent’s piece is primarily aimed at western and crime novel short story writers of his era.  I’m adapting it to something more modern, and to hopefully be less genre-dependent.  With that in mind, I present Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula – The 2013 Version…

Master Plot Formula – 2013 Edition

What follows is a basic formula or “master plot” for short stories of approximately 6,000 words.  It can be adapted to science-fiction, adventure, detective, western, and most other genres.  It gives some rough guidelines on the story points that should be covered in the story, at approximately each thousand words.  Every story, and every author, is different.  If your story works for you as it is, and it doesn’t necessarily hit every point here, or hit it at exactly the right word count, that’s fine.  This is intended to provide a general guide to follow, not to force or hinder the story you’re trying to tell.  “Do what works for you and your story” is the only real rule.

Your Story Concept

Developing your story is easier if you are familiar with other stories in its genre.  You will want to read as much as you can in that genre, as this will help you identify common story elements and over-used plot points.  When you develop your own story, you want to ask yourself questions like:

  • Are there certain settings that other authors haven’t used?  Can I make those work in my story?
  • What are the common antagonists like in other stories?  How can I set mine apart from the others?
  • For stories involving crimes, puzzles, or murders, how can I come up with an unfamiliar movie, method, or unexpected murderer?
  • What internal challenge is my character coping with throughout the story?  How can I use that to make solving the external challenges more difficult (e.g., the character having a fear of heights while investigating the murder of a tightrope walker)?

Ideally, your story will include something unique for two or more of the above story elements.  If typical stories in your genre are set in Paris in the 1850’s, if you make yours work in Germany in the 1940’s, you may have something more marketable.  If typical stories in the genre are set in upper-class country clubs, can you set yours in a Texas honky-tonk bar and make it work?

The Master Plot Formula, in 1500-word Chunks

The following is a breakdown of a 6,000-word short story into 1500-word chunks.  As you write or review your story, you should compare the story’s progress to these guidelines.  If there are story points that don’t apply to your tale, or you’re hitting most but not all of them, etc., that doesn’t mean you need to change your story.  Remember:  These are guidelines and suggestions, not set-in-stone rules.  If your story works, don’t change it.  If your story isn’t working, look here for advice on what may be wrong with it.

The First 1500 Words

The first quarter of your story should introduce the main characters and hint at (if not start) the primary conflict or challenge of the story.  If possible and appropriate to the tale you’re telling, this part of the story should hit the following points:

  • As soon as possible, introduce the main character and introduce (or hint at) the challenges that the character will face for the rest of the story.
  • Show the main character becoming aware of the challenge and making an effort to deal with it.
  • Introduce all the other important characters as soon as possible, linking them to the challenge in some way.
  • Show the main character dealing with some kind of significant challenge by the end of this quarter of the story.

Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:

  • Is there an element of suspense, mystery, tension, danger, or excitement here?
  • Is there a physical, emotional, or other threat to the main character in play?
  • Is the sequence of events here logical and reasonable?  (For example, if the character could walk away, why doesn’t he/she?)

The Second 1500 Words

The second quarter of the story should resemble the following:

  • The character attempts to struggle with the main story challenge.
  • Each struggle should get more difficult or dangerous.
  • End with a surprising revelation or story point (e.g., the bad guy escapes from a room with no apparent exit)

Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:

  • Is there suspense, mystery, tension, danger, and/or excitement here?
  • Is the suspense growing as the story develops?
  • Is the hero being backed into a corner, facing a seemingly insurmountable problem, etc?
  • Is the sequence of events here logical and reasonable?  (For example, if the character could walk away, why doesn’t he/she?)

There should be at least one minor surprise during this section of the story.  This invites the reader to continue reading to see how the thing turns out.  If the surprise is misleading or intriguing, so much the better.

The Third 1500 Words

In the third quarter of the story, things look grim for the main character.  The difficulties continue to mount.  Just when the main character appears to have solved the story problem, something happens.  Perhaps the story problem isn’t the real challenge, or perhaps a well-conceived strategy fails for an unexpected but logical reason.  In this section, we expect:

  • Much more trouble falls on the main character than at any previous point in the story
  • The main character appears to have found a final solution to the problem
  • The main character attempts to execute the plan, but fails miserably

Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:

  • Is there still suspense, mystery, tension, danger, and/or excitement in play?
  • Does the main story challenge now appear much more insurmountable?
  • Is there hero being backed into a corner in some way, such that overcoming the story challenge is the only way out?
  • Does all this happen in a logical and reasonable way?  (There is no way the character could back out or act differently.)
  • Is the action swift, vivid, and “tight” (using the minimum number of words necessary)?
  • Can the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what’s going on?
  • Does every word in this section count?

The Last 1500 Words

In this last section, the main character should see the challenge as something that cannot be overcome.  It should seem as difficult, imposing, frightening, or impossible as it can be.  This section should:

  • Add more challenges to the main character’s predicament
  • Put the main character in a seemingly inescapable predicament
  • Show the hero using skill, learning, or strength (physical or emotional) developed during the story to extricate himself or herself from the inescapable predicament
  • End with a big surprise, if possible, such as the villain turning out to be an unexpected person, a much sought after reward being something other than was expected, etc.
  • A satisfying conclusion, where the main character acknowledges growth, overcomes a personal demon, or otherwise leaves the reader with a warm feeling

Questions to ask yourself about this part of the story:

  • Has the excitement continued up to the end?
  • Did the challenge continue up to the end?
  • Have all the mysteries been solved (unless you’re leading up to a sequel)?
  • Has everything in the story happened logically, and as a natural progression of the events that happened before?
  • Is the reader left with a warm feeling?
  • Was it the main character who overcame the challenge, or someone/something else?  (The main character should nearly always be the one to overcome the challenge, even at the cost of his/her life.)

Conclusion

The Lester Dent Master Plot Formula is very much in line with every other story structure I’ve ever seen.  Introduce the hero and the big challenge, show the hero recognizing and facing the challenge, show the hero learning that the challenge is much bigger than originally anticipated, and back the hero into a corner with no choice but to overcome the challenge.  When things look their most grim, the hero overcomes an inner demon, learns something new, or develops some solution that shows growth – then overcomes the challenge. 

As long as the writer isn’t slavishly following this story design, Lester Dent’s advice is sound.  It offers a basic structure that should support a variety of stories that, while sharing very high-level similarities, are as unique as their authors.

Next, I need to begin writing some short stories that embody this formula, to help make good story structure second nature for me.

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Building a Story in Scenes

I’ve been writing for a few years now, but I’m still perfecting my writing process.  I learned recently that using pen and paper helps me brainstorm faster and more completely.  I’ve also learned that although I can write a story organically, it is much harder and slower than if I develop a rough outline and break the story down into individual scenes before I start writing.  Since it may help others, I want to share that part of my process.

What is a Scene?

A scene is a set of characters, in a given location, doing the same thing, over a continuous period of time.  If the characters, location, activity, or timeframe change, it may (but does not have to) constitute a new scene. 

For example:  Joe and Jane are washing dishes after dinner.  They discuss a murder that occurred in the neighborhood.  Jane leaves, telling Joe that she is going to water the begonias.  Joe continues washing the dishes.  He remembers their vacation to Fort Lauderdale last year and how amazing Jane looked in her bikini.

Is this one or two scenes? 

We could split the scene into two at the point where Jane leaves, since the cast of characters changed.  This could make sense if we think we might drop the bikini memory later, or if we are thinking it might make sense to have it occur at a different point in the story.

On the other hand, since the dish washing activity continued and the point of view never left Joe, we could decide it’s still the same scene.  We might also decide it’s important to keep the murder discussion and bikini memory together, especially if we want to depict Joe as the killer and use the bikini memory as a way to show his lack of genuine concern about the murder.

In other words, the writer gets to decide whether it’s appropriate to break this into two scenes, or keep it as one.  Ultimately, as bestselling author Aaron Allston always says, the only rule is “Do what works for the story.”

Using Scenes to Build the Story

After I’ve brainstormed the plot, next I envision the individual scenes needed to tell the story.  I’ll open the Scrivener software and create individual scene cards, which looks something like this:

image

In the example above, I have scenes like “Harkness is briefed” and “Harkness reviews file”.  On the right-hand side of the screenshot you see virtual index cards created for each scene.  I’ll add, remove, and rearrange these scenes until I’m happy. 

All I’ve written to this point is a brief description of each scene, but I have a good picture of the entire story I’m about to write.  The key for me is to write scene notes that are “detailed enough” so that I know what I’m trying to accomplish, but not so detailed that looking at the notes makes me feel like the scene is already written (which can make writing that scene feel redundant).

Writing the Scenes

My scene notes may be very detailed:  “Tom and Fred borrow Charlie’s prized Corvette.  They go a little crazy outside of town, and drive really fast down a twisty road.  In the process, a hub cap comes off the car and rolls into the swamp.  They know they can’t take it back to Charlie like this, and since he’s got custom hub caps, they can’t just buy a replacement.  They need to find the lost one.”  Writing a scene from these notes should be very easy.

In other cases, my notes are vague:  “Tom and Fred search for the hub cap.”  I might choose to write this scene organically (i.e., “seat-of-the-pants style”) or wait until I’ve brainstormed it more fully. 

Breaking a story down into scenes delivers many benefits:

  • Breaking a story down into small scenes makes it easy to employ the pomodoro technique.
  • If you only have a few minutes to write at a session, knowing the individual scenes you need to write makes it easy to find one you can create in the time available.  This is a big help when writing isn’t your day job! 
  • As you mark individual scenes “written”, it’s easy to see the progress you’re making toward completing the whole story.  That can be very motivating.
  • Since you know all the scenes you need to write, you can write them in any order that appeals to you without worrying that you’ll miss one.
  • Adding, removing, and reordering scenes to improve the story is much easier when the story is broken down into scenes from the start.

You may want to try this approach (whether or not you use Scrivener).  I found it a great way to quickly complete NaNoWriMo, and improve the plotting and structure in all of my stories.

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Creating a Fictional Monster

When I was very young, I often stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch monster movies.  I loved most of them.  Anything with Vincent Price, Lon Chaney, or Bela Lugosi was likely to draw me in.  I watched Dr. Frankenstein tinker with corpses until his monster came to life.  I saw the Mummy rise from its tomb and see revenge on those who had disturbed his rest.  Lugosi’s Dracula was superb.  Theses were movies that relied more on good writing and acting than special effects.  I have always marveled at writers who can bring a monster to live in their work.  It’s not easy to create a monster that arouses fear without crossing over the line into cliché or comedy. 

How do you do that?  The key is to thoroughly get to know your monster by asking questions like these:

  • What does the monster look like?  Is it covered in scales, fur, or skin?  What color are its eyes?  Does it have fangs?
  • How does it smell?
  • What does it sound like when it moves?  When it sees its prey?  When it’s been injured?
  • Does it have extraordinary or occult powers? 
  • Does it operate alone or in a pack?
  • Will the monster display any type of emotion? 
  • Is it capable of reason or complex thought?
  • Will it attack large groups of people, or does it prefer to pick off loners?
  • How far will it go to get what it wants?  Will it risk its own life?
  • How much physical strength does it have?
  • What are its strengths?
  • What are its weaknesses?  Is there some common substance that is poison to the monster?
  • What does it feed on?  How does it behave when it’s well-fed versus starving?
  • Can it fly, swim, jump, or climb?  What limits, if any, are placed on these activities (and why)?
  • How fast does it move?
  • Are there things it is afraid of, like sunlight, rain, fire, or religious symbols?
  • How large (or small) is the monster?  What advantages does its size give it over its victims?  What disadvantages arise from the monster’s size?
  • What would the monster do if injured?  Would it intensify its attacks?  Would it go away to lick it wounds and come back when it’s stronger?  Would it change its tactics?
  • Can the monster command or enlist other beings (e.g., spiders) to do its bidding?  How does it do so, and what limits are there on the ability (e.g., it’s limited to the number of spiders nearby)?
  • If you’re using a classical monster type, such as a vampire, werewolf, or mummy, have you researched that monster type thoroughly?  You may find that going back to the earliest references of the monster in fiction that its characteristics are more (or perhaps less) scary than in more modern incarnations.
  • How was the monster created?
  • Can the monster reproduce?  If so, how is this done?  Does reproduction require some special resource (e.g., in the case of the gremlins in the movie of the same name, water was needed).
  • Does the monster have the ability to change shape?  What shapes can (and can’t) it assume?  What is the cost on the creature (if any) of changing its shape?  Before it assumes a given shape, does it have to do something special (e.g., see the thing it wants to change into, or touch it, or even eat it)?
  • Is the monster’s health or ability affected by environmental characteristics?  For example, does it get stronger under a full moon, or can it harness lightning to heal itself or attack its prey?
  • If you’re using a classic (and thus somewhat cliched) monster type, how will your characters vanquish it?  Can you make this happen in a new and unexpected way (e.g., take out a vampire with a sun lamp instead of actual sunlight)?
  • If this monster began as a human (e.g., a vampire or werewolf), is there something the characters can do to return it to human form?  Is this something the monster itself desires, or is actively trying to pursue?
  • Does the monster feel any remorse for what it’s doing?
  • Is the monster protecting something?  If so, what?
  • Are the monster’s tactics predictable (e.g., it relies on its superior numbers to overwhelm an enemy like a swarm of insects, and it’s not very smart)?  Can it improvise or change things up?  When would it do that?
  • How intelligent is the monster?  Is it fairly mindless, like a zombie?  Is it about as smart as an ape?  Is it human-level smart?  Is it smarter than we are?
  • Can it use tools or set traps?  How does it do this, and what kinds of traps does it use?
  • How long would it normally live?  How old is it now?
  • What happens when it dies?  Does it simply fall over dead?  Does it burn away into a pile of ash?  Does it explode and cover everyone nearby in its infected slime?
  • Can it reincarnate after it’s dead (e.g., if you pull the stake out of a vampire’s heart, can it regenerate)?
  • Can it repair or heal itself in an unusual way, such as fashioning replacement body parts out of nearby materials, or absorbing the DNA and tissues of living creatures to replace or enhance parts of itself?
  • How does the monster kill its prey?  Does it slaughter them instantly and feed on the remains?  Does it immobilize them and torture them for a while?  Does it swallow them alive and digest them slowly?
  • Will characters be able to tell when the monster is nearby (e.g., they hear a certain sound or smell something specific)? 
  • What’s the monster’s motivation?  Is it collecting the souls of the living for its evil master?  Is it simply hungry and stalking the characters for food?  Did the characters threaten its young, or disturb its hibernation?  What circumstances would cause the monster to stop stalking the characters on its own?  (For instance, if they’d just stop eating the mushrooms it feeds its young, it would leave them alone.)

When you know the monster well enough, you’ll know how to make its appearances especially frightening, and ensure that it inspires terror in both the reader and the characters.  You’ll also be able to construct believable situations in which the characters encounter the monster and confront it (successfully, or not). 

Some other things to think about when writing a monster story:

  • Injecting a monster into a normal, everyday situation can be very frightening.  A monster that’s attracted to cell phones when they ring will probably scare people more than one that’s attracted to first-born daughters. As they read your story, and perhaps for a while afterward, that everyday thing will frighten them just a little.
  • The monster’s victims shouldn’t be just cardboard figures it destroys.  Develop the characters a bit and give the reader a chance to feel something for them before the monster gets them.  Their deaths will have a bigger impact.
  • Monsters that exploit childhood fears in some way, like being separated from loved ones, being afraid of the dark, etc., can effectively frighten adults, too.
  • Cemeteries, boarded-up buildings, and places like this have become somewhat cliched places to find monsters.  Consider how you can avoid the cliché by having your monster appear somewhere unusual (like the locker room at a health club) and by turning the cliché on its head (such as having the characters go through a spooky old house and come out of it without seeing anything scary).
  • The monster should have a good reason for doing what it does.  “It’s a monster” isn’t a good reason.  “Its young hatch inside trees, and the humans are cutting down its forest” is a much better one.
  • Where can you inject humor into the story, as a way for readers to catch their breath?  Maybe the monster collects a trinket from each victim and wears it.
  • A good model for plotting the horror story is:  Problem = Solution + Bigger Problem.  In other words, each time the characters get away from the monster or have a victory, they learn there is a bigger problem awaiting them.  In other words, you continually raise the stakes.

A typical monster story structure will look something like this (adjust as needed for your story):

  • The reader gets a glimpse of the monster.  The characters may not be aware of the monster just yet, but the reader sees it lurking in the shadows, licking its lips, preparing to strike.
  • The character gets a look at the monster.  This may be a literal look, as in the character seeing the monster coming after her.  It might also be an indirect look, such as the mangled body of one of the monster’s victims.
  • The character realizes the monster must be stopped.  Perhaps the character is trapped in a building with the monster, or the monster is threatening her way of life, or it’s killed someone she loves.  At this point, the character sees no other alternative than to defeat the monster.
  • The character gathers information about the monster, and possible weapons to stop it.  If the character actually encounters the monster at this point, she won’t defeat it, but she may learn something interesting about it.  (“Hey, it ran off when the sun came up…”)
  • After some number of unsuccessful attempts to defeat the monster, the character realizes what she needs to do, and how to defeat the monster.  She makes a final attempt that succeeds.
  • The character, having defeated the monster, reflects on what’s happened and what she’s learned.  She may or may not make some kind of statement about how she can be sure that monster never comes back.

I hope you found this post of value.  If so, please leave a comment or share the link with others.

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Adding Complexity to a Story

The July/August 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest carries an article by author James Scott Bell entitled “Vitamin C For Your Thriller” (on page 24).  Building on the “C” theme, the article talks about complex characterizations, confrontation (the main conflict in the story), careening (twists and shocks), coronary (heart-touching), and communication (what’s the “real message” in your story that you want readers to take away from it?).  Part of the complex characterizations section really resonated with me.

Bell suggested creating a grid listing the characters in your story along both axes.  In each box of the grid, you add possible relationships, secrets, and areas of conflict between the two characters whose names line up there.  For example:

Character

Fred

Dave

Jane

Fred

X

Dave is jealous of Fred for getting the promotion he wanted at work

Jane knows that Fred’s wife is having an affair

Dave

Fred considers Dave a good friend, but is tired of covering up for his mistakes at the office

X

Jane saw Dave drinking in the office, and watched Fred throw out the bottle when Dave wasn’t looking.

Jane

Fred thinks Jane is a bit nosy and kind of a gossip, which is something he hates

Dave secretly thinks Jane is very attractive, but hasn’t trusted her since he saw her take money from the petty cash box and slip it into her purse.

X

Brainstorming all of these points of connection and conflict between the characters could improve the complexity and depth of the relationships depicted in the story.  For example, if Dave tried to make Fred look bad so that management will demote him, Fred might admit that he’s been covering up for Dave.  Jane could back Fred’s story up, since she’s seen him throw out Dave’s bottle. 

Or, if we wanted to start an affair between Jane and Fred, the fact that Jane knows Fred’s wife is fooling around is a secret she might slip to Dave. Dave could use that to get back at Fred in retaliation for the promotion he thinks he deserved.  By concealing her knowledge of Fred’s wife’s affair, Jane could engineer situations to be with Fred and console him, improving her chances to catch him “on the rebound”.  Of course, if Fred finds out that Jane knew about the affair and didn’t tell him, he might want nothing more to do with her.

Michael A. Stackpole describes something very similar in an article on characterization techniques that appears in his The Secrets writing newsletter (Volume 1, Issue 23).  He calls this “Interaction Dynamics” and tells us:

Characters do not operate in a vacuum… once you begin to see how they will function, you have to then compare and contrast them to other folks in that world and other characters in your story.  In essence this is a playtest of how the characters will function inside their world.

You are looking for affinities and oppositions.  Who is this character’s natural ally?  Who is her enemy?  Is she willing to compromise on some point of pride to make thins work with this person? What behavior by someone else would turn her against him, or endear her to him?  How will she react if an enemy spares her life or saves it? 

…None of us have a relationship with one person that is unaffected by our relationships with everyone else.  We just don’t operate in isolation like that – or if we do, there is some serious pathology that needs to be dealt with.

…Between and among the major characters… there should be a lot of energy and strength, whether they get along, as passionately in love, or hate each other’s guts.

What all this boils down to is that our characters aren’t robots, they’re people.  They don’t necessarily like (let alone love) everyone else in the story.  They may not trust some of the other characters.  They may, even subconsciously, want another to fail.  All of these “connections” can be used in your story where and when they make sense.

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The Pilot G Tec C–A Great Pen!

As I may have mentioned recently, I’ve found that writing story notes and ideas by hand with pen and paper is helping me get more into the creative flow.  Two things make that process better.  One is a large, college-ruled spiral-bound notebook.  The other is a great pen.

The Pilot Hi Tec C and its nearly-identical-twin the Pilot G Tec C are, for me, great pens.  Their 0.4mm tip is fine enough to write thin lines, which is must if your printing is as small as mine.  But unlike many needle point pens, these don’t scratch the page as you write.  The gel ink makes for smooth writing, much smoother than most other pens.  And the fact that they’re relatively cheap (around $2 each) means that I’m happy to carry them around with me without worrying they’ll be lost or stolen.

They’re comfortable to hold, and not bad looking.  I’ve heard some say that they look rather “cheap” or “low-end” for a pen that writes so well. I personally see that as a plus.  If they looked high-end, others might want to swipe them.  If they look like a cheap generic brand pen, no one will suspect how awesome they really are. 

So far, of the many pens I’ve tried, this is my favorite.  Best of all, Amazon Prime customers can get them shipped free to their door.

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Inspirations

My writing has been inspired by many people over the years.  In senior year of high school, I had two English teachers who were influential. One encouraged me to write creatively and helped me to see that I could do it.  The other did her best to interest me in classic English literature, though through no fault of her own I still find most of it unpleasant to read.  Our school librarian let me read my way through our science-fiction section and encouraged me to write poetry.

In the school library, I first found Alfred Bester’s The Computer Connection.  The book imagines that people who have mentally and spiritually accepted that they were dead, but who then didn’t die, would live forever.  Somehow this would stop the normal aging and disease processes.  But the mind-blowing part for a high school kid living in a southern Ohio town was that someone included Jesus, the religious figure, as a main character.  And this version of Jesus was no paragon of virtue.  I remember reading this at the time and thinking “How was Bester allowed to write this?  How did anyone have the nerve to publish it?”  (And bear in mind, I’m not an especially religious person.  I just couldn’t comprehend such a book being made.)  It was a very mind-expanding experience.

A year or so later, I found Warren Norwood’s series The Windhover Tapes.  This series of books follows a “contract diplomat” named Gerard Manley as he travels the universe creating diplomatic relationships with alien races.  He encounters ghosts, and learns how ghosts are created.  He has dreams in which he is in love with an alien woman, and believes them to be memories, but can only recall tiny fragments of them.  He begins over time to piece together what happened, and learns that his memories of those days were erased by his employers.  A later book in the series tells the story of those years, and you feel sorry for the character and all that he lost with those memories.  It was probably this series of books that really made me want to be a writer.  I wanted to invent a universe like this, and write such a rich, complex story.

Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat series drew me in next.  They’re fun books to read, packed with puns, parodies, and action.  The main character, a career criminal with an inflated ego, uses his criminal talents to take down more-dangerous criminals who pose a threat to lives and nations.  It would probably lend itself well to graphic novels.  I hope someday to write a book that’s this much fun to read.

The BBC series Blake’s 7 was another that resonated with me and inspired me.  Here was a group of criminals out to overthrow a corrupt government.  True, it had special effects that often cheesy, but the writing and acting made up for it.  It could be dramatic, shocking, and hilarious at times.  Sadly, it’s never been released on DVD here.  Paul Darrow’s Kerr Avon, Michael Keating’s Vila Restal, and Peter Tuddenham’s Orac are iconic characters.

The next time a writer’s work really captured my attention was J. Michael (Joe) Straczynski’s Babylon 5 television series.  At a time when I’d become disenchanted with Star Trek because its writers had decided that Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future wasn’t realistic, Babylon 5 stepped up to show me that science-fiction could be good again.  Not just good, but great.  Here were characters who grew and changed over the length of the series.  Individual episodes contributing to a larger story arc.  The special effects were amazing, for the time, and hold up well today. 

I was so impressed by Joe’s work that I read his Complete Book of Scriptwriting.  It was neat to see that he practiced in the show what he preached in the book.  The book taught me a lot about characterization, and about Hollywood.  It convinced me that I’d never be happy there, something I think surprised Joe when I told him at a convention some time later.

Joe credits Harlan Ellison as one of his influences.  After reading some of Ellison’s work, I understand why.  He’s published an amazing number of works during his career, and the ones I’ve read have always impressed me.  His recent book Brain Movies sits on my shelf next to several volumes by Straczynski.

Only once did I ever attempt to write a novel, and I abandoned it pretty early on.  It was only after I attended a writing seminar given by Michael A. Stackpole at a tabletop gaming convention that I really tried to do it.  Stackpole spends many hours at these conventions each year, teaching would-be novelists the tricks of the trade.  I’ve listened to his seminars on characterization, plotting, self-editing, creating series fiction, and various other topics.  His material is always good, and I always walk away with something new.  Mike’s fiction is even better than his seminars.  The worlds are always well-developed, the characters three-dimensional, and the twists and turns plentiful.  His level of craft and skill is far above many more well known authors.

Novelist Aaron Allston has been another influence on me.  Aaron’s writing seminars are also very helpful.  His novel Doc Sidhe was one of the few to really come alive visually in my mind.  Even now, many months after reading the book, I can clearly picture many parts of the story.  His short stories are excellent, too.  Aaron even allowed me to be an advanced reader for his book Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide.  I strongly recommend that book if you’re thinking of writing a novel.  It will walk you through the process from “vague idea” to finished outline in a way no other writing book I’ve read can do.

Someone who would probably be surprised to find herself on this list is Janine K. Spendlove.  Janine is a fellow student of Aaron Allston and Michael A. Stackpole, who went on to publish her own series of books and contribute to short story collections alongside them.  Her example has given me the confidence to believe that I can do this.  I can write and publish a good novel.

My most recent inspiration has been J.A. (Joe) Konrath.  As a fledgling author, I’ve found his blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing very interesting and inspiring.  His Jack Daniels series of books are great reads, infused with a lot of humor and originality.  I definitely recommend them.  When I grow up (as a writer), I’d like to be even half as successful as Joe Konrath.  What’s great about him is that he isn’t hesitant to share what he knows or tell you what has worked (or not) for him.  Kudos to you, Joe.

My sincerest thanks to all those mentioned in this article.  Your work has inspired me.  You’ve all taught me a lot, and I do appreciate it.  I count myself fortunate to have met many of you personally.

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Automatic Writing Experiment

The phrase “automatic writing” can have a number of meanings.  In the case of this post, I’m talking about entering a hypnotic trance in which you ask a question of your subconscious and let it answer by writing the answer down on a piece of paper for you.  The theory behind this is that your mind actually has access to more knowledge than you realize, and has sometimes figured out the solution to problems you haven’t consciously solved yet.  There is actually some scientific basis behind this.

In my case, the question I sought to answer was how I can solve a long-standing problem in my writing:  “How can I solve the lack of conflict in my writing?”  For some time now, I’ve realized that I haven’t done a good job challenging my characters and providing them with meaningful problems to overcome.  As a result, much of what I’ve written has been terribly boring… even to me, the writer.

At the end of the trance, my subconscious had written down the following items:

  • Be sadistic. Take joy in the character’s pain.  In other words, even if you love your character, you must be willing and able to throw the nastiest, most challenging obstacles you can in his or her face.  You must take delight in giving them a problem so hard that you’re not even sure you can solve it.
  • Switch roles.  Often, when I’m writing a story I tend to put myself in the point-of-view character’s shoes.  Being in that position, it’s hard to throw obstacles at the character while (in a sense) being that character.  I need to slip out of the character’s head, and into the head of the “sadistic torturer” above.
  • Ask how it can be even worse.  It’s not just enough for the character’s problems to be bad.  You need to figure out how to make them as bad as you can, to challenge them.
  • Theme inspires problems.  For a story idea I’m working on, a theme behind the story is that society can very easily turn on a hero if there’s something to be gained by doing it (e.g., money).  Knowing that theme in advance, I can imagine a bunch of problems this character might have to overcome.
  • What’s his weakness?  In other words, the conflicts a character is faced with should relate directly to some weakness in that character.  Is she afraid of heights?  Make it necessary for her to climb to the top of a tall tree to solve her problem.

I suspect for me the biggest problems are being inside the character’s head while trying to devise problems for him/her, and being afraid of giving a character a challenge so tough that I (the author) can’t figure out a way for him/her to solve it.  Perhaps the solution is to combine all of this while trying to suspend my fear that I’ll create a problem so tough that the character and I won’t be able to overcome it.  I will need to test this theory out.

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