Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Key Ingredients of Your Story

I know a lot of new writers have trouble weaving a story, or should I say weaving a plot? Most of us can tell a good story -- I have myself and I've read some in my critique group, but what about devising a good plot? The February 2011 issue of "Writer's Digest" had a good article about this called "Story Trumps Structure" by Steven James.

In the article, James gives us five key ingredients to a plot, very similar to the chess game analogy I wrote about in a previous posting. A look at his list tells us that a good plot is more than merely person, place, and things. It's change, what he calls "transformation." And really, how many of us are happy with a story in which the protagonist is the same person we met at the beginning of the story? How popular would Star Wars have been if Luke returned to Tattoine to farm, or Ben Hur if Judah had gone back to just being a wealthy aristocrat, or vengeful anti-Roman? I don't know about you, but I would have felt like it was a waste of my time.

Here are the five essential ingredients according to James:

1) Orientation -- What is the protagonist's life like now? Is it normal for him or is it abnormal? If the former, then we need to see the character experience upheaval and change, if the latter, then we need to see him go through upheaval, or bring the upheaval to a close and see that character settle into a normal life. I've heard that our readers should meet our protagonist in his or her natural habitat in the first chapter. In my techno-thriller, we meet Max teaching an advanced physics course, the only place he feels actualized and complete.

2) Crisis -- What is the precipitating event that thrusts our character forward? In my story, Max learns about the death of his professor and about a mystery surrounding that death.

3) Escalation -- What does the protagonist do to resolve the problem? There should be conflicts within the bigger conflict - two steps forward, one step backward. At this time, maybe your protagonist's weaknesses should come to the fore? Mine is terrified of open stairs, so I plan to work that into the story somehow -- can he overcome this fear to resolve the conflict (i.e. can he master the force or learn about the ways of Jesus) or will he return home (to Tattoine, or as a zealot) in defeat?

4) Discovery -- The climax of the story. The answer is realized, but not just the issue at hand, but the protagonist should learn something about himself or herself. Luke learned about the force and realized there was more to life than Tattoine; Ben Hur realized that peace and forgiveness was just as much an option as hate and revenge (God, I love that movie!). In my story, Max solves the murder but also learns that life is more than his science.

5) Change -- The final scene should show the transformation. Luke burning the corpse of his father and seeing Yoda, Annikan, and Obi-Wan reunited; Ben Hur telling Esther of his experience at the cross ("As he died, I could feel the sword being lifted from my hand") and is reunited with his now leprosy-free mother and sister.

So again, good advice when weaving your tale. Does your story include these essential ingredients? If not, why don't you add a pinch of escalation, or a dash of transformation?

Happy Writing!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday ROW80 Check In (11.27.11)

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Mine has been smaller than usual the past few years, but still my favorite holiday...food, family, and of course, football -- especially my Dallas Cowboys who delivered an exciting win Thursday.

Now, on to my update. I've not done too bad. Next time I do ROW80 (and I will be back) I will create more manageable and focused goals. Having said that, by participating in ROW80, I feel like I've been devoting more of my time to writing. I'm starting to build a platform for my Customer Service book and have finished the fourth chapter of my techno-thriller and ready to start the next.

I've read more - both about writing and fiction. Honestly, I'm not much of a fiction reader but since I write fiction I thought I should read more of it and I'm glad I have. If anything, it gives me a benchmark upon which to judge my own writing, and I don't think I fair too poorly.

Here then, is an update on my goals:

1) Read three writing magazines each month: I've read one so far, and will read a few more. I have read a few on-line articles and a few out of my Writer's Market.

2) Participate in Three Writer's Digest On-Line Seminars: I attended a local writer's workshop so I will count that toward this goal, but I haven't done anything else.

3) Write One Short Story or Article Each Month: Been busy working on my novel, so that hasn't left much time for writing short stories. I do have a few ideas though.

4) One Submission/Query a Day: I haven't sent out any queries this week but I have a few outstanding to publications that don't want simultaneous submissions (is that the same as simultaneous queries?)

5) Three Blog Entries/Week for This Blog and My Customer Service Blog: I think I've been keeping up on my blogs. See also Zen of Customer Service.

6) Sign Up For a Spring Semester Class: Nothing yet, but I need to get looking.

7) Customer Service / Techno-Thriller Book: As per the note above, I've been working on both of these. As for customer service, I am thinking about reaching out to a well-known customer service professional I've worked with in the past and seeing if she might even want to co-author the book. She has the platform and name that I don't.

8) Read Three Craft Books: I skimmed through "The Art of Compelling Fiction." A lot of good information. I am going to have to go back and read it in more detail, but I have other books I should read.

9) Read More Fiction: I finished "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown. Not bad, and as I've mentioned before I see a lot of similarities between his work and mine, so I was able to harvest some good technique ideas from him, mainly to limit the number of main characters, keep the action moving, and shift POV (although I think he did it a bit too much -- often in the same chapter between people involved in the same conversation!). What's next? I don't know. I'm in the mood for some classic sci-fi.

10) Read More Blogs/Emails: I've actually done pretty well and have learned a lot about networking, building a platform, and developing my story.

This week: Read more short stories, continue to work on techno-thriller, build customer service platform, and network via social media more (I've been pretty absent from Twitter save an occasional rant about politics). I will also start another craft book - either "Scene and Structure" or "Story Engineering" - or both.

Hope your own ROW80 is coming along!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wednesday ROW80 Check In (11.16.11)

Oops! Looks like I skipped a week. I have been busy writing, but a lot of paid writing. Never a bad thing, except that I edited a dissertation and my client had trouble converting the file from OpenOffice to Word2010. I've heard horror stories about Word2010, but I think most of it was on her end. She did end up fixing the problem and was able to send her dissertation off to her committee. She was happy with the work I did. I've also been busy with the chess club and scouts, leaving very little time for ROW80. HAVING SAID THAT, I have still been making progress. Among the highlights of my last two weeks:

- I wrote another chapter of my techno-thriller and it is coming along rather nicely. My goal is to have it done by the Missouri Writer's Guild Conference in April so I can pitch it to agents. It's been called a "page turner" by members of my crit group, so I'm excited about it. I did decide to write out one of the characters though - the sultry Russian spy who tempts our poor pawn into betraying his friends. I liked the first scene she was in but didn't know what to do with her after that, so I've reworked the betrayal scene using another character. I love writing. It's so dynamic.

- I'm still reading "The Lost Symbol" and am picking up some good techniques (if that can be said about a Dan Brown novel).

- I've posted to my blogs a few times and have been researching / developing a seminar for my customer service ideas. An agent told me my idea was good, but that I needed a bigger platform. I am going to email a few contacts of mine for advice and maybe even suggest a co-authoring endeavor. One of them is a woman who has influenced my own customer service ideas and someone I respect a great deal, even though she's a Braves fan.

On another note, I received a positive response to my query about an article I wrote on a Catholic Saint. I won't go into details, but the magazine has a readership of 1.5 million. They requested the full article, which I sent off right away. Crossing fingers!

So that's it for now. Trying to read more blogs...just so much out there. Oh, I did read an EL Doctorow short story about a man who hid from his family for a year - in the garage attic! Very interesting. I can see where my writing is similar to his...ordinary man living an ordinary life is exposed to an extraordinary situation.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Monet and the Art of Writing

I had the pleasure the other day of attending the St. Louis Art Museum's special exhibit on Monet's water lilies. In particular, a three-panel piece (Agapanthus) he did, the three pieces of which ended up in different museums and were united in this exhibition for the first time in over thirty years. Artistically, it was quite impressive, and almost chilling, and if you're in St. Louis over the winter, be sure to check it out. Click the picture below for more details.

While artistically impressive (I've always enjoyed the art of the Impressionists, and in particular Renoir) I couldn't help but be struck by the similarity of Monet's painting process to that of writing. You see, the exhibit not only displays the artwork, but takes one through the history of the work, step-by-step:

- Monet's garden in France.
- Monet's "studies"
- The final work
- An analysis of the work itself.

Let's start with his garden in France (Giverny). We are shown pictures of Monet's garden, then and now, and told about how much he loved horticulture (something I did not know--I just thought he painted all the lilies because he was bored). I was struck by something often heard in writing circles, that we should write what we know, and what we love. This is true of writing, and of Monet.

We were also shown samples of his "studies." I had heard this term before but never knew what it meant. Apparently, they are bits and pieces of a larger painting that an artist completes so he can bring them into his studio and use to complete the master work. To me, this relates to a writer writing different scenes, dialogs, plotting the story, or even developing character sketches. All bits and pieces of the larger whole that are brought together to complete the final product.

The final work was spectacular. I think I had seen it together back in 1980, but on many trips to the art museum over the years, I've seen the center panel, housed in St. Louis, many times. The other two are kept in Kansas City and Cleveland. It was great to see them together - like a good trilogy.

What really struck me was the final part of the exhibit, which showed how the painting was changed - by Monet - several times over the course of several years. Curators have taken very small samples from the painting and analyzed them, showing layers upon layers of paint. One can also see quite a difference between the studies and the actual painting. In fact, Monet had originally painted a particular flower in the lower left corner of the painting, only to go back later and paint it out! He did this throughout the painting.

What does this tell us about writing? Revision, revision, revision. Monet constantly revised this masterpiece, which by all intents and purposes was probably pretty darned good to begin with. The result was a masterpiece.

It also points out that our finished work may not be exactly what we pictured to begin with. I know writers who are "set" in their plot and storyline and don't allow themselves to go with the flow. They are frustrated with the process and often give up on their stories. My advice? Let your characters live their own lives.

This happened in one of my first short stories, The Artifact. In this story, our protagonist finds a device that let's him travel back in time. He goes back to try and save his wife, but fails. My original intent was for him to keep the device so he can travel back to visit her. Instead, in his anguish, he tosses it into the river and moves on with his life. Problem solved. If I had not allowed my character to live his own life, my story would have had a much different, and less significant, ending.

So next time you want to revise, go for it, and think of Monet working in his studio on the masterpiece pictured below. I don't know about you, but I think it turned out just fine.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wednesday ROW80 Check In (11.02.11)

First of all, thanks for all the comment and great feedback! It's been another busy week, but since my #1 writing client slashed their budget for freelance writers, I've been scrambling around looking for other ways to pay the bills, part of which has been taking on more chess classes (I teach chess during after-school programs for the local chess club), so I've not had as much time to devote to ROW80, but I have been writing. In fact, this morning I have an appt with a research clinic to see if I qualify for a hair loss treatment study. No kidding.

Before updating my goals I wanted to address a few comments:

Ryan King mentioned how the color coding reminded him of project status sheets. BINGO. That's where I drew my inspiration.

KH LeMoyne mentioned something about grouping related tasks together and I've found this to be true, too. Most of the blogs I read, query letters sent (and those take more time than I thought especially if you want to do them right!), and writing are done the same day and unfortunately, I don't find much time to read except at bedtime, when I'm already tired.

Tia Bach asked about organization. I am ADD so what I do is break up my day into mini-tasks and make sure I hit all of them equally. I actually list different areas (income, home projects, scouts, writing, etc) and tally when I've completely an actual task under that area or goal. I include rest (DVR catch up mostly) and hobbies to make sure I find time for them as well. After I complete a task or mini-goal I do a little chore around the house.

Thanks for all the other comments, especially Robin McCormack for mentioning my Zen of Customer Service blog (I have more posts ready, just have to find time to write them!) and Kerry Meacham who I am beginning to believe is a figment of my imagination. Will we see you back at the critique group after the Titans season maybe?

Here then is an update on my goals:

1) Read three writing magazines each month: I've read one so far this month and am in the middle of another. YELLOW.

2) Participate in Three Writer's Digest On-Line Seminars: I attended a local writer's workshop so I will count that toward this goal. The workshop was on incorporating our demons into our writing to make our writing come alive more. It was good and helped me get inside the mind of "the other," but I was thinking it was going to be about making our characters more human. My protagonists seem to be above reproach. I need to change that. YELLOW.

3) Write One Short Story or Article Each Month: The workshop generated some ideas and I am anxious to work on them. YELLOW.

4) One Submission/Query a Day: I only sent out one query this week, related to my proposed article for Parents magazine. YELLOW.

5) Three Blog Entries/Week for This Blog and My Customer Service Blog: I haven't kept up on this as much as I should have. I'll have to do more entries this week. I have a few sketched out. See also Zen of Customer Service. YELLOW.

6) Sign Up For a Spring Semester Class: Nothing yet. YELLOW.

7) Customer Service / Techno-Thriller Book: Wrote a few more pages of my techno-thriller and sketched out a few more chapters. Looking good so far and it is being well-received by my critique group. It's funny that the sections I wrote recently get less criticism than those I wrote a year or so ago. It's encouraging since I believe it reflects my growth as a writer. YELLOW.

8) Read Three Craft Books: Reading The Art of Compelling Fiction. Good so far, but very detailed, making it a slow read. GREEN.

9) Read More Fiction: Reading "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown since his work is similar to what I'm trying to write. I also read a short story by Raymond Carver and can see how his writing is similar to mine - or should I say mine is similar to his? GREEN.

10) Read More Blogs/Emails: Haven't done as much of this as I would have liked, but I will try to get caught up this week. YELLOW.

That's it for now! Something else I'd like to do is send out more twitter/blogger love. Feel free to follow me (tweets should be showing up in the side bar) and I'll follow you back!