[Most Recent Entries]
Below are the 17 most recent journal entries recorded in
|Wednesday, December 7th, 2011|
|Stuff I Been Doin'
Okay, for the folks who want to know, here's what I'm up to lately. :)
Over the past four months, I've been busy working several different things. First, I've been getting in some quality LARP time on weekends at least once a month. Hooah! It's really cool to not work weekends!
Oh, and some writing too:
First, our LARP organization is putting together a second rules set, one which hopefully will effectively transcend the stickiest problems of the current system. Chapters will be able to run whichever they like, but our hope is to create a system that is so nifty that you can't NOT want to play it. That's been a HUGE amount of work, and is going to be more, but we're getting to the point now where I'm impatient to have it finished because I wanna go PLAY it! It will be some serious fun.
I've done a trilogy of short stories with linked characters in which Bigfoot is Dresden's client. They take place spread out over the length of the series so far. The Bigfoot stories were about 40 percent of a novel in total page length. Then I sat down and wrote out the foundation for two more series: the first was a Black Company-inspired fantasy series which would be a prelude trilogy to my epic epic fantasy epic. The second is a steampunk fantasy series, with lots of airships, crystals, goggles, manners, and Hornblowerism. The steampunk stuff seems to be ringing the beta readers' bells, so I think that will be the next project I go to town on.
But that will probably have to wait. I have at least one more short story to get in before the year is up. It's for the "Dangerous Women" anthology, and I'm leaning toward writing it from Molly's point of view, in the time between Ghost Story and Cold Days. Come the new year, I'll start Cold Days. With any luck, there will be snow on the ground when it happens, and I can write the first few chapters with the only light in the room being reflected from the snow outside. That would be perfect. :)
Someone have a word with the people who schedule the weather, will you? :D
I'm just about done writing short stories. I've got two more next year and maybe one more novelette for the second short story anthology, and then I'm done with them. I need to focus on writing, you know, novels. :)
|Thursday, November 3rd, 2011|
|The Most Important Thing an Aspiring Author Needs to Know
The Most Important Thing an Aspiring Author Needs to Know
I've been giving a lot of advice on technique in this journal, an introduction to the craft and science aspects of writing a solid story. Now I'm going to briefly venture off into new territory. I thought I'd start by telling you the most important thing you need to know if you want to be a professional author: TANFL.
There Ain't No Free Lunch.
Nothing worth doing is easy. Nothing worth having comes free. That's as true in life as it is in your prospective writing career, but I think it's important enough that it needs to be said.
Writing is a LOT of work. Breaking into the industry is a torment worthy of the fifth or sixth circle of Hell. Face that. Expect it. Deal with it. It's going to be difficult.
It's difficult from the get go: you've got to work your tail off and give yourself carpal tunnel just to make it to the front of the rope-line outside Club Author. There's no guarantee that you'll ever get in. There probably aren't going to be very many people who are actively supporting your efforts. You'll probably have more than one person say or do something that crushes your heart like an empty Coke can. You'll probably, at some point, want to quit rather than keep facing that uncertainty
In fact, the vast majority of aspiring authors (somewhere over 99 percent) self-terminate their dream. They quit. Think about this for a minute, because it's important:
THEY KILL THEIR OWN DREAM.
And a lot of you who read this are going to do it too. Doesn't mean you're a bad person. It's just human nature. It takes a lot of motivation to make yourself keep going when it feels like no one wants to read your stuff, no one will ever want to read your stuff, and you've wasted your time creating all this stuff. That feeling of hopelessness is part of the process. Practically everyone gets it at one time or another. Most can't handle it.
But here's the secret:
YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD WHO CAN KILL YOUR DREAM. *NO ONE* can make you quit. *NO ONE* can take your dream away.
No one but you.
If you want it, you have to get it. You. An author can't help you. An editor can't help you. An agent can't help you. If you want to climb that hill, the only way to do it is to make yourself do it, one foot in front of another, one word after another. It will probably be the greatest challenge most of you have ever faced.
And here's the kicker: THAT IS A VERY GOOD THING.
If you stay the course and break in, you are going to acquire a ton of absolutely necessary skills. You have to learn to motivate yourself to write even when you don't feel like it: Discipline. You're going to have to learn the ropes of the business, and how to work with an editor: Professionalism. You're going to face what might be years of adversity, facing a monumentally difficult task and you're going to overcome it: Confidence. You're going to do it with very little active support, and when you look back at this time in the future, you're going to know that it was something YOU did all by yourself: Strength.
Breaking into the business is a daunting challenge. But you aren't going to BEAT that challenge. You're going to transcend it. The very nature of the adversity is going to give you the strength and skill you need to overcome and succeed.
You want in? Here's what you do:
1) Make up your mind that you are going to protect your own dream. If you've got its back, your dream is invincible.
2) Cultivate patience. Prepare for the long haul. Building your skills to a professional level can take years. So can building your professional character.
3) Put your Butt In the Chair and start writing. Period. No excuses. There is no substitute for BIC time. It's part of the price you pay.
4) When you get done with a word, write another word.
5) Repeat steps 4 and 5 until your dream comes true.
Secret number 2-- THE PAIN IS WORTH IT. If it had taken me TWENTY years instead of nine, IT STILL WOULD BE WORTH IT.
Cause here's what you get: ding.
When it's all done and you're holding your first novel in your hand, you're going to look back at your breaking-in period and wonder what all the drama was about. All the things that wrenched you inside out during the torment will suddenly seem small and unimportant. Know why? Because much like Scott Pilgrim, you have leveled up. Ding.
You're going to look back at that time with pride, having overcome seemingly impossible odds against succeeding. You're going to look at upcoming challenges as if they were a bottle of champagne to be savored and then gleefully smashed.
The true reward of breaking into the industry against all the odds isn't money. It isn't fame. It it isn't respect.
It's confidence. It's satisfaction. It's well-deserved pride. Suddenly, the other challenges in your life are going to dwindle as well, because you know you'll be able to handle them.
Ding, baby. Ding.
|Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008|
|Putting It All Together
How to Get Your Story Started
Organizing This Frickin' Mess
by Jim Butcher
So you've got a great idea for a story. You've got some good characters, some
good plot, maybe a great scene or two in mind. You're ready to plunge in!
If only you could figure out WHERE to plunge in.
Be wise and listen to me, young padawan writer: get a few things organized
first. It'll save you enormous headaches in the long run. I'm going to share
what I do before I start a novel with you guys. Hopefully, that'll give you
one idea of how to lay your groundwork.
This isn't the only way to do it, God knows. This isn't meant to be a "Thou
Shalt Do This" kind of article. But this is how *I* do it, and it seems to
work out most of the time.
Page One--The Basics
The first thing you need is your STORY QUESTION. See the article earlier in
this journal. Get your story question and write it down.
I haven't done a full article on them yet, but I *have* done an article on
characters. Write down your protagonist, his tags and traits, and how you
intend to introduce him.
Ditto, but for the main opposition. He's a character too, so all the same
Page Two--Story Arc(h) or PLOT
I'm never sure how to spell that.
Get a BIG piece of paper. Draw a big curving arch on it. At the LEFT side of
the arch, write a brief phrase about the opening scene. At the RIGHT side,
write a brief phrase describing the climax of the book. That's your pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow.
At the TOP of the arch, write down your BIG MIDDLE, or whatever event it is
that starts the dominoes to falling.
Then make a bunch of tick marks along the way and fill in any scenes that you
have in mind that you know you want to do. Once you've done that, add in some
more tick marks in between, and add in phrases describing scenes that lead
your character from one established tick mark to the next, in a logical
Pages Three to Whatever--SUBPLOTS
Do Story Arches for all of your subplots. Make sure you know where they
begin, end, and what event causes them to be resolved.
MORE PAGES--CHARACTER PROFILES
You need to profile EVERY significant character on his own sheet, just like
you did your Protagonist and Antagonist. I like to go through creating
character profiles as I create the story arches, creating each one as needed
for the story, or attaching established characters to the main arch or to
OUTLINE SCENES AND SEQUELS
RIGHT THEN. Now you've got a good skeleton. In fact, you've already created
a number of Scenes and Sequels without even knowing it.
Each of your tick marks and phrases should describe either a story event (a
SCENE) or a logical point that leads you to the next story event (a SEQUEL).
Starting from the beginning, outline your first SCENE on its own page, as
described in the article on SCENES. Then outline the SEQUEL that follows.
(A lot of writers put these on index cards and lay them out in a line in order
to work out which events go where. That works, but it takes up a LOT of floor
space, and if you have dogs or children, they tend to break your plot.)
Repeat until CLIMAX.
Sketch out the CLIMAX, as described in the article on CLIMAXES.
You now have a packet of pages that gives you a solid foundation to begin
from, as well as handy reference material to check when you forget what color
your character's eyes are in chapter 20. You've created signposts to help
guide you along the way, to boot.
Yeah, it really is that simple. But it damned sure ain't easy. Still, you've
got a good point to begin, and a path laid out for you to guide the way.
As you continue writing books, the process is going to change to suit you--that's what it's supposed to do. You'll eventually come to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and how to plan ahead for problems you've run into before. But for now, that's not a bad way to get going.
So write already. :)
|Sunday, April 6th, 2008|
|Monday, November 19th, 2007|
Caveat, on this article as on all the others: This is not the whole sum of wisdom on writing craft, forever and ever amen. This is intended to be a place for aspiring writers to /start/, a little bit of foundation with which you can begin to develop your own style. If you work with this stuff here, it can be an immense aid to you in developing your skills to a professional level. I know it's true because this is exactly the stuff that I learned, and it worked out all right for me. It's a pretty good beginning.
I've talked a little about beginnings and middles. What's left? Oh, right, right. Here we go.
Stories are like sex: the buildup and the ride can be fantastic, but if there isn't a climax before the end, you might come away from the experience feeling a little frustrated.
So, let's talk about a story climax. What is a climax? Why is is important? How do you build a good one? And will the reader still respect you in the morning?
WHAT IS A CLIMAX?
A story climax is, in structure terms the ANSWER to the STORY QUESTION that we talked about earlier.
There, see how tidy that is? Simple! Again, not EASY, but simple!
For example, the overall Story Question of Lord of the Rings:
When Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring of Power from his Uncle Bilbo, HE SETS OUT TO DESTROY IT before its evil can wreak havoc upon Middle Earth. BUT WILL HE SUCCEED when the Dark Lord Sauron and every scary evil thing on the planet set forth to take the ring and use it to turn the entire world into the bad parts of New Jersey?
And the story climax of the Lord of the Rings:
See? ANYBODY could have written Lord of the Rings!
Well. Okay. Maybe it's not THAT easy. But it is SIMPLE to write a good story climax when you bear in mind that ultimately, the story climax is, on its most basic level, the answer to a question. Will the Rebels overthrow the Empire? Will the hero win the heart of the girl he loves? THAT is where you begin. It is therefore kind of important that, before you begin writing said story climax, that you know the answer to that question.
WHY IS A STORY CLIMAX IMPORTANT?
As I understand it, catharsis is some sort of toxin which humanity has never been able to remove from paperback book ink. It builds up in human fingers as they keep flipping pages, and if they get all the way to the end of the story and DON'T get a sufficiently satisfying climax, the catharsis toxins can drive them into a psychotic state, and bad things happen. The surgeon general has stated that catharsis is--
Oh. Oh, hang on. I just Googled it.
Apparently, catharsis is actually only a regional threat. I guess it's only in the ink in Greece and around the Aegean... oh. Oh. It isn't a toxin and . . . I thought my wife was being /serious/ about that. I mean, she never smiled or /anything/.
Gosh, is my face red.
(Thank you folks, I'll be here all week.)
Remember earlier, how we talked about ways to hook your readers and get them emotionally involved in the story? Well, if we've done that right, then when you reach story's end, they are INVESTED in its outcome. They want to SEE what happens, preferably as vividly as they possibly can. By the time you've reached the end of a story, a good writer has got their readers on the edge of their seats, at 3:30 in the morning, and the pages are tearing every time they turn because the reader is so excited.
You've made an implicit promise by getting your reader so bound up in the story. You've /got/ to deliver on it, or that reader is going to freaking /hate/ you for doing that to them. They are gonna go away from that ride all hot and bothered and frustrated as hell. That's what catharsis is: the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer's skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room.
EVERYTHING YOU DID IN YOUR BOOK LEADS UP TO THIS. Deliver on the climax or die as a working writer. Simple as that.
HOW DO YOU BUILD A CLIMAX?
The same way you do everything else. You start at its beginning. A climax officially begins where the Great Swampy Middle ends. To use an overly-simple metaphor, the Beginning of your story dumps the dominoes of your story out of your box onto the table. The Great Swampy Middle sets all the dominoes up into a neat pattern.
And the climax knocks them down.
Guess which is the most fun. :) For the writer, as well as for the reader. There's nothing quite as nice as flicking over that first metaphorical domino after several months worth of setting them up, let me tell you. :)
The Great Swampy Middle ends at the first of the story events that starts the dominos to toppling. In Dead Beat, for example, when Harry and Butters find the little keychain drive inside Bony Tony with the GPS coordinates in it, it sets off a chain of reactions that lead Dresden forward to the final confrontation. That little drive is the last domino to get set up and the first one to topple, and start the cascade.
The actual climax itself, the absolutely peak of it, though, is what I generally refer to as the Showdown or the Throwdown or the Beatdown, depending on my mood and testosterone levels at the moment. The most dramatic point is the actual confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist, where they are directly contending with one another, and where both of them know that the story question is about to be answered.
For THAT confrontation, there several structural components that you can use to organize it that will be really helpful, much like the components used in a Sequel, like we talked about before:
ISOLATION: At the end of the day, your protagonist stands alone. That's why that character is the protagonist. Oh sure, there can be other people around, but the one who really COUNTS is your protagonist. The more alone he is, the higher the tension levels are going to be, and the more satisfying the climax is going to be for the reader. Ellen Ripley lands on LV-426 with a whole squad of marines and various others. After the first confrontation with the Aliens, only eight others are left. During the second confrontation, THOSE companions are whittled away, one by one, until Ripley is left to enter the lair of the alien queen--a nuclear reactor about to blow up, no less--ENTIRELY alone. Now THAT is tension and isolation.
CONFRONTATION: Your lone protagonist, determined to follow things through to the end, confronts the antagonist. Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
DARK MOMENT: The confrontation Does Not Go Well. The odds are stacked against your protagonist, or the situation swings out of his control, or he just plain gets outclassed. Everything looks like it is in genuine jeopardy of going to hell. It looks certain that the answer to the story question is going to be one that the reader is NOT going to like. In the recent Narnia movie, that moment was at the death of Aslan. The Great Lion is gone, the White Witch has made fashion accessories out of his mane, the bad,guys have them outnumbered and outgunned, and there's just no way to win the fight that's coming the next day--but the folk of Narnia need Peter to lead them. Which brings us directly to:
CHOICE: It always comes back to choice. The climax of the story is the acid test, the crucible, where the rubber meets the road and where the schisse hits the fan. Your protagonist has to CHOOSE whether or not to stay true to his purpose or to let himself be swayed by fear, by temptation, by weariness, or by anything else. In that Dark Moment, he has to make the call that ultimately reveals who your protagonist really is, deep down. And the choice has GOT to be
a BAD one. If it's an easy choice, there isn't any drama to it--no tension, no release for the reader.
"Use the Force, Luke," urges ghost-Kenobi's voice. "Let go, Luke!" Luke visibly makes a choice, turning off his targeting computer, putting his faith in the Force to make the shot that the whole galaxy is literally riding on, the way a Jedi should. He's alone, with the baddest guy in the movie hot on his tail, and even his friends are telling him he's nuts. "His computer's off. Luke, you've switched off your targeting computer! What's wrong?" "Nothing!"
says Luke. "I'm all right!" Not ONLY is he about to get blown out of the air by Vader, but he might miss the shot, too. Luke is about to do something INSANE. He's about to sacrifice his life to take a literal shot in the dark.
Which segues right into...
DRAMATIC REVERSAL: The intrinsic nature of the story or of the protagonist's character influences or causes the events of the confrontation to be changed in an unexpected way, causing an outcome that is in harmony with the principles of poetic justice. Luke is an idealistic young kid, brave to a fault, dedicated to a fault, and because of that he has made a choice that is Going To Ruin Everything. But that very idealism and courage have also touched the heart of a jaded smuggler, who, instead of running to protect his own life, has returned to throw in his lot with the rebels, and who has entered the battle at the absolutely critical moment of truth.
(A quick word on Choice and Reversal. Not all heroes MAKE the self-sacrificial choice. Sometimes, the hero falters and makes the awful choice, to save his own skin or indulge his own darker nature. In that situation, the reversal is still there doing exactly the same thing--only this time, the justice that gets handed out is BAD for the protagonist. There's a name for that kind of story: tragedy. See King Lear. See also Hamlet, Othello, etc, etc, etc.
This outline works for both tragic and happy/heroic endings. Those aren't the only ways to end stories, by any means. But they are popular ways to end stories, and they are fairly simple ways to end stories, and this article is aimed at beginners and aspiring writers. Trust me on this one. If you're new, just go for a happy ending or a tragic ending. Work on bittersweet open-ended thought provoking montage endings after you've practiced on some of the simpler ones.
And, to be frank, if you're wanting to write professionally, work your happy ending skills. Real life is full of the other kind. There probably are some, but I can't think of many full-time tragedy writers.)
Finally, we get to...
RESOLUTION: Time to hand out the medals, kiss the girl, go to the wedding, put the star on the Christmas tree, raise the curtain on the rock concert, attend the funeral, or otherwise demonstrate that with the conclusion of the story, some kind of balance has been restored. The catharsis is complete, the tension eased, and the reader can catch their breath now.
My advice to you on resolutions: Keep it short. Once you've gotten through the Showdown, write as sparingly as possible to get to the end, and don't draw anything out any more than you absolutely must. You've already kept your poor reader up until 3:30, your heartless bastard. Let them get some sleep before they have to rush off to their shift in two hours!
Then you get to type the most satisfying words in any book you'll ever write:
T H E
E N D
And there you have it! Story climaxes!
Was it good for you? :)
|Friday, December 29th, 2006|
For those who don't know it, I've stumbled into podcasting now. Well, technically, FRED has gotten into podcasting and I sort of stumbled along after him. The Butcher Block (Fred named it, not me) is going to be a quasi-regular podcast about my books and so on. The first one is all about the TV show, and addresses several fan concerns that have been raised as publicity and details for the show have been released to the public.
Check it out! :)http://butcherblock.libsyn.com
And no, we're not talking about book 2. We're talking about the original meaning of the word sequel--the part that comes after, the next in the sequence. In the scenes of a book, you're getting all your plot-pursuing and action-taking and choice-making done.
Now you get to the hard part.
Getting your reader to give a flying frack about it.
To do that, you've got to win them over to your character's point of view. You've got to establish some kind of basic emotional connection, an empathy for your character. It needn't be deep seated agreement with everything the character says and does--but they DO need to be able to UNDERSTAND what your character is thinking and feeling, and to understand WHY they are doing whatever (probably outrageous) thing you've got them doing.
That gets done in sequels.
Pay attention. This is another one of those simple, difficult things.
Sequels are what happens as an aftermath to a scene. They do several specific things:
1) Allow a character to react emotionally to a scene's outcome.
2) Allow a character to review facts and work through the logical options of his situation.
3) They allow a character to ponder probable outcomes to various choices.
4) They allow a character to make a CHOICE--IE, to set themselves a new GOAL for the next SCENE.
Do you see how neat that is? Do you see how simply that works out?
2) Sequel--Damn it! Think about it! That's so crazy it just might work!--New Goal!
3) Next Scene!
Repeat until end of book.
See what I mean? Simple. And you can write a book EXACTLY that way. Scene-sequel-scene-sequel-scene-sequel all the way to your story climax. In fact, if you are a newbie, I RECOMMEND you write your book that way. You can always chop and cut the extra scenes (or sequels) out later, and you will have a solid bedrock structure for getting your book done. We'll talk a little about balancing them in a minute.
First, let's outline exactly what happens in a sequel--and WHY the basic outline I'm gonna show you works.
Here's the basic structure to a sequel. It's another little worksheet you can fill out when you're thinking about it ahead of time:
1) EMOTIONAL REACTION:
2) REVIEW, LOGIC, & REASON:
And it MUST happen in THAT ORDER. Why you ask me? Because we're all human beings, and THAT is the order in which we respond, psychologically, to events that happen around us. Especially to big nasty events that bring out a lot of emotion.
Most of you have probably been in a car accident of some kind, and that's the model I'm gonna use. Even if it was only a little accident and no one got hurt, everybody reacts in pretty much the same way. Imagine it with me, if you will. You're driving and all of a sudden, SQUEEEEEERRRCRUUUNCH! Car accident. What happens next?
You react emotionally, on instinct. Maybe you sit there stunned and startled for a second. Maybe you feel a moment of horror (if it was your fault), or else seething outrage (if it wasn't). Maybe you yell and curse, or throw up on yourself, or break out into hysterical laughter. There are a whole lot of viable human emotional responses to that kind of stimulus--but the first ones on the scene are ALWAYS the most basic, instinctive, emotional reactions.
Next, your brain kicks in. (This takes a variable amount of time, depending on the person.) Your brain tells you things and you pay attention to it. Maybe it says "this accident was your fault, and if they catch you, you'll go to jail. Run!" Maybe it says, "Check to see if anyone is hurt! Call the police! Exchange insurance information!" Maybe it says, "Call so-and-so to help," or "Oh my God, I'm bleeding," or "Please God let me have my proof of insurance in the glove compartment." You think about things like how the accident happened, and what you could have done to avoid it, what's necessary to accomplish immediately--and then you get to think
about where you're suddenly not going to be.
(During your review, logic, and reasoning process, it is very human to realize or rediscover facts that bring on an echo of your emotional response, or which otherwise inspire an entirely new line of emotional response. If you realize that the guy who just slammed into your car ran a stop sign to do it, for example, it might inspire a radically different set of emotions than a moment before, when you thought neither one of you had a clear right of way.)
You can get as upset as you want, for as long as you want, but sooner or later you're going to have gone over all the facts of what happened a minute ago, and you'll start thinking about what happens NEXT. You anticipate the immediate future, based upon what you know and what your current options are. Maybe you've got a buddy who can pick you up and get you to work, and you'll only be a few minutes late. Or maybe you don't, and you've just lost your job. Maybe
you're going to have to find a phone to call an ambulance because someone is hurt. There are a lot of things that could be pretty obviously a part of your immediate future, based on your current circumstances.
And once those things have rolled through your mind, you've got to decide what you're doing next. Maybe you're just trading insurance information and getting back on the road. Maybe you're hiding the body. The point is, you've got a choice to make, and that choice is going to determine your next action.
You've just had a sequel, a broad, archetypical human reaction to a sudden situation that goes radically out of your control.
YOUR CHARACTERS DO THE SAME THING.
At the conclusion of a scene, they've just had something go out of THEIR control. You know how I know this? Because you didn't answer YES to your scene question. Something went wrong, because you are a smart writer, and that's how you did the scene. Now your characters go through the same set of reactions:
1) An immediate emotional response.
2) A review of what happened, applying logic and reason to the events and why they turned out that way, and of what options are open to them.
3) Anticipation of what might follow the pursuit of those options. (Highly important, this one. Never underestimate the effects of anticipation on a reader.)
4) Your character makes up his mind and decides what to do next. IE, he makes a CHOICE.
Now, it's possible to SKIP some of these steps, or to abbreviate some of them so severely that you all but skip them. But you CAN'T CHANGE THE ORDER.
Emotion, Reason, Anticipation, Choice. That reaction is typical to people, regardless of their sex, age, or background. It's psychologically hardwired into us--so take advantage of it. By having your character react in this very typically human way, you establish an immediate sense of empathy with the reader. If you do it right, you get the reader nodding along with that character going "Damn right, that's what I'd do." Or better yet, you get them opening their mouth in horror as they read, seeing the character's thought process, hating every step of where it's going while it remains undeniably understandable and genuine to the way people behave.
Sequels, frankly, are what really make or break books. How you choose to show your reader your character's reactions determines everything about the reader's response to the events of the story.
Worse, sequels are very fluid, very flexible things to apply. You can do all kinds of tricks with them. Some sequels are all internal monologue. Some are conversations carried out with a character's best friend (or his all-in-black-id). Sometimes a sequel LOOKS like a scene, in the trappings anyway, but what's actually important is the character's internal reaction.
(Search your feelings, Luke. You know it to be true. *I* am your father. *NOOOOOO*. Yeah, that lightsabre fight looks like a scene, but at that point it isn't. It's a sequel.)
This is where, frankly, I think writers have the greatest fluidity, the most chance to apply their creative talents--which means, of course, we also have the best chance of screwing things up here. You can approach sequels from an almost unlimited number of directions. There are no limits to how you can lay out a sequel, except for your own imagination. Just remember:
Get those in there, in the right order, and you'll be fine.
Let's talk, for a moment, about how you want to weight the various parts of the sequel, based upon your genre, what you want to accomplish, etc. The sequel is where you can put a spin on almost any story to make it more suited to a given genre. Each of the genres has its own bias towards a given part of a sequel.
Romance, for example, is VERY heavy on Emotion and only slightly less on Anticipation. Mystery and SF lean very heavily on the Reason portion of the sequel. Action novels go light on everything but Choice, and give you just enough sequel to get you through to the next scene. Horror loves to linger on Anticipation. Think about it for a while,and you'll start to see what I mean.
So, if you're writing a romance, you'll want to place extra emphasis on your character's Emotional reaction and on his Anticipation of what could come next.
Mystery writers had better be able to produce clear lines of logic in the Reasoning portion of their character's reaction. If you need the reader to be cozy with a character, put extra emphasis on that character's sequels. If it isn't necessary for another character, go light on the sequels, or skip them entirely.
If that wasn't enough, Sequel-to-Scene ratio is the single largest factor for controlling pace. Sequels have a unanimous tendancy to slow the pace of your story, while scenes have the opposite effect. If you've ever read a book and felt like it blurred by too fast and never seemed to touch on anything long enough, go back and look at it. You WILL find that the book's scenes took up a great deal more space than its sequels. If you've read a book that you thought was too slow, too cerebral, or that wandered back and forth while droning on and on, go back and look at it. You WILL find that sequels took up a hell of a lot more page space than scenes.
It's a balancing act, and how you stack up scene-to-sequel is going to depend on several factors, including your genre and your audience. Romance, for example, is really nothing BUT sequels with occasional scenes to make them stick together. Romance wallows in sequels, because that's what it's ABOUT--emotions, feelings.
If you write an action book, those emotional passages--not so much. You'll want to spend more time and effort on the scenes, and make sure that the sequels don't start to outweigh them. If you're writing for a more cerebral, mature audience, they have a much higher desire/tolerance for sequels than if you write for, for example, young adults. The older audience might well be more interested in the thought and emotion behind the plot, while the younger audience might want you to stop moaning and dithering and get straight to the point. You control that pace by balancing sequels with scenes.
Sequels also determine what I've always called the "warmth" of your novel. When people talk about a "warm viewpoint" what they really mean is that you're throwing in a lot of emotional reaction. Oftentimes, warm viewpoint novels (like the Dresden Files) toss in micro-sequels as a part of scenes. Any time you see Harry talking to someone, wanting to tear his hair out, forcing himself to control his temper and get back to the task at hand, you've just ridden through a micro-sequel with him.
"Cool" viewpoint novels, like the more classic hardboiled PI novel, downplay their protagonist's Emotional reactions--often skipping them entirely during a scene, and showing them only indirectly during sequels. They tend to emphasize the Reason side of things.
My God, there are so many things you can do with this stuff. Brainy, intelligent characters go heavy on reason--and then you cheat by going light on Anticipation, and keeping his Choice half-veiled from the reader, so that when he actually acts in the next scene he looks a lot smarter and more resourceful than he might have if you went step by step through the whole thing. ("Of course! He animated the T-Rex! Brilliant!") Characters who are balancing their loyalties up to some critical moment can get the whole sequel laid out, extra heavy on Anticipation, and then you deny the reader any info on the Choice until they're actually in action.
Get it? SEQUELS ARE WHERE YOU APPLY THE COLOR TO YOUR STORY. It's the best point at which to manipulate your readers' emotions. I've been working within this craft structure for ten years, and I feel like I'm only barely beginning to get a handle on it. Seriously. You've got to give this some thought.
Knowledge of how sequels effect your book's impact on the reader is damned handy in rewrites, too. If a character is coming off too flighty, all you have to do is add in a bit more Reason to their sequels. Character too dry and boring? Add in more Emotion to /his/ sequels. Someone comments that your character's motivations aren't clear? Go give their sequels a tune-up, and make sure his Emotion-Reason-Anticipation-Choice is in the correct order and consistant.
When you do it right, the reader knows exactly what is going through your character's head, and why. The /reader/ starts being the one anticipating along with your character, and when that happens, you pwn them. It creates forward momentum for the next scene, and it helps the reader /want/ to read it.
This basic structure for sequels is pretty much the ENTIRE secret of my success. I do it like this in every freaking book I write. I know it works because check it out. People like my books. They like them for some of the special effects, sure, and for some of the story ideas sometimes--but mostly it's because they find themselves caring about what happens to the characters, and that happens in sequels.
People don't love Harry for kicking down the monster's front door. They love him because he's terrified out of his mind, he knows he's putting himself in danger by doing it, he's probably letting himself in for a world of hurt even if he is successful, but he chooses to do it anyway.
Emotion. Reason. Anticipation. Choice.
Special effects and swashbuckling are just the light show.
The heart of your character--and your reader--is in the sequel.
|Thursday, December 28th, 2006|
Scenes are important. Scenes are where all the plot in your book happens. Any time your character is actively pursuing his goal (as opposed to a character who is pausing to reflect or react emotionally to the events of the story) he is engaged in a SCENE.
The basic structure of a scene is simple. Your POINT OF VIEW character sets out in pursuit of a SPECIFIC GOAL. Someone else (usually, but not always, the antagonist) actively, knowingly tries to stop him. There is a CONFLICT. The reader is left to wonder whether or not the POV character will succeed (which can also be thought of as the SCENE QUESTION). The result of the conflict is *always* a SETBACK of one kind or another (also thought of as the SCENE ANSWER)--at least, until you get to the end of the book.
Let me break that into a simple format. This is the one I use every time I write a scene. I fill it out, like a freaking class worksheet (which at one time it was):
POINT OF VIEW CHARACTER:
CONFLICT (SCENE QUESTION):
SETBACK (SCENE ANSWER):
We'll look at each of them, one at a time.
POINT OF VIEW CHARACTER
Sometimes, this is easy--for instance, when you're writing a first-person viewpoint novel, like the Dresden Files. The point of view character is always the same person.
Other times, though, you've got more lattitude (IE, a better chance to screw up). You've got multiple point of view characters in your book, and often more than one of them is participating in the scene. (Romance writers, especially, run into this issue a lot.) If you pick the wrong viewpoint character, you'll cheat yourself out of making your scene as interesting and appealing as it could be. Picking the optimal viewpoint character is VITAL.
Fortunately, there's a simple rule of thumb for people getting started. ALWAYS pick the person with the MOST AT STAKE, emotionally, in the scene. If you do that, you help build in additional tension, you get to show more emotion (aka, create greater empathy in the reader), and you help ensure that the conflict is real, that it matters.
You can break this rule--just like you can break all of these rules--once you know what you're doing. But until you are CERTAIN that you understand why this works, how it works, and what you can accomplish by NOT following the rule . . . don't. Please, until you've worked enough to get it yourself, just take my word for it that this rule of thumb is frickin' critical, and you will do well by yourself to stick with it.
Once you've got your point of view character, the next thing you need is a GOAL for them to pursue. This needs to be an ACTIVE, SPECIFIC goal, not just something vague. Instead of your character setting out to "do something to save the day" he needs to have a goal more like, "go pound Joe Blow for information that might let me save the day." Instead of "make the girl like me" his goal needs to be something more like "take the girl out for a wonderful night on the town with lots of attention to detail and customized surprises for her."
(That's the great part about writing action scenes. You get really clear, simple goals like "Get out of the room alive.")
Your goal doesn't always have to be life-shatteringly important. It can be as simple as "I want breakfast." The most important thing about it is that it must be clear, apparently attainable, specific, and important to your viewpoint character.
Ah, conflict. The heart of every story. If you screw up absolutely everything else about a scene but GET THE CONFLICT RIGHT, you're gonna be way closer to getting published than most people ever manage.
Conflict is what happens when someone, for some reason, up and decides that your character needs to fail in his goal, or else is pursuing a goal which, if met, will prevent your viewpoint character from reaching his goal.
CONFLICT IS ALL ABOUT CHARACTERS. IT HAPPENS BETWEEN CHARACTERS. Conflict is NOT "there's a forest fire!" or "it's really cold outside!" Those things can be used as dramatic elements, don't get me wrong--but they aren't CONFLICT. They are referred to as "adversity" and they are inherently second-class citizens when it comes to establishing interesting scenes.
(Most often, they serve best as a supporting role. It's one thing to be in a knife fight with your most hated enemy. It's quite another to be in a knife fight with your most hated enemy in the middle of a forest fire.)
CONFLICT, ideally, is two characters going head-to-head (on whatever level is appropriate--social knife-fighting can make reading every bit as interesting as literal knife-fighting), while both of them try to achieve conflicting goals.
All this really means is that you need an antagonist with the same specific, attainable goal, the same kinds of emotional stakes, as your protagonist. Once you've got the right kind of set up, the scene almost writes itself.
(Notice that I say "antagonist" and not "villain." It doesn't have to be a villain. It can be a concerned friend, trying to talk your character out of doing something. It can be a misguided heroic-type, who just happens to be acting against your protagonist, like Murphy was in the first couple of Dresden books. It can be an admirable and even likeable foe, like Marshal Sam Gerard in The Fugitive. The choices are vast. The important thing, though, is that he's working against your viewpoint character.)
And, done right, the conflict poses an implied SCENE QUESTION. Will your character succeed? Or even better, WHICH character is going to succeed?
The SETBACK is the result of the CONFLICT. Your character set out to accomplish a certain goal--AND HE DOESN'T GET IT.
Eh, you say? What what?
He doesn't get it. Come on, if it was that simple--Goal, attained! Goal, attained!--it really wouldn't be a terribly interesting story. Think . . . oh, the early Superman cartoons. A dozen problems would start happening--bad guys, natural disasters, what have you. Then Supes would show up and, one by one, smash/burn/freeze/throw/beat up the problems, mostly with very little apparent effort.
THAT GETS BORING FAST.
(In fact, I often don't even like to use the word "setback" to describe the results of the scene. I like referring to it as the DISASTER. But I'm melodramatic, that way.)
In any case, the character doesn't attain his full goal, his total completion, until the END OF THE STORY. If he gets it early on, hey, why keep reading? The best stories keep the reader on edge (IE, not entirely satisfied) until the story's climax, at which point all questions are resolved, all goals met, and we can all go have a cigarette or something.
There are a number of ways you can end a scene--or phrased another way, there are a number of ANSWERS to the SCENE QUESTION. Let's go over them, beginning with the least desirable, from the standpoint of a writer trying to keep a reader glued to the story:
ANSWER 1: YES. Already told you, this one is a no-no. It's the simplest, leaves you with the least drama and the fewest options. It's predictable, almost inherently comes with less conflict, and gives you the worst odds of keeping a reader's attention.
("Trapped in the pit of starving, diseased wolverines, our hero struggles to get free! He leaps to safety unscathed, and continues his journey!" See what I mean? Bor-ing.)
ANSWER 2: YES . . . BUT. This one is a lot better. In this scenario, your hero accomplishes his scene goal all right--but there's a complication of some kind, and one that might have consequences down the line. Generally, the more dire and/or disastrous the potential consequence, the better.
("Trapped in the pit of starving, diseased wolverines, our hero struggles to get free! He leaps up to climb to safety, the wolverines raging and foaming beneath him--but just as he reaches the edge of the pit, and freedom, he is savagely bitten on the leg! He is free! But it is only a matter of time before Mad Wolverine Syndrome reduces him to a snarling, foaming monster!" See there? Way more interesting than getting away without a mark to show for it.)
ANSWER 3: NO! Another solid scene resolution, from the writing standpoint. The hero sets out to attain his goal, but is flatly denied. Maybe he gets shut down by the antagonist. Maybe he makes a mistake and blows it completely. Either way, he gives it his best shot and is slapped down. Now he'll have to back off, re-evaluate the situation, and try something else. Use this scene answer with some caution, because it can have the effect of bringing your story to a halt. Too many of them can become frustrating for the reader, and can make your character look foolish and/or impotent, thus reducing reader empathy and the tension of your overall story.
("Trapped in the pit of starving, diseased wolverines, our hero struggles to get free! He leaps up to climb to safety, but the crumbling edge of the pit gives way, dropping him back down among the foaming monsters! He reaches for his communicator and shouts, "Red! I may have a problem here!" See? This can be a good way of getting other characters involved, dropping in some more character interaction, what have you--but you're still stuck in the pit of wolverines. Unless you are writing "Wolverine Pits of Madison County" or something, you don't want to stay stuck in the wolverine pit forever, so use your NO answers carefully.)
ANSWER 4: NO! AND FURTHERMORE! My personal favorite scene answer. Not only does your hero NOT attain his goal, but he manages to make matters even WORSE along the way. It's best if the worsening of the situation is your protagonist's fault, because that's just FUN, but it doesn't necessarily have to be.
THIS answer is really the one that gives you the most interesting scenes, provides the meat for the most interesting and endearing sequels, and is generally the Big Gun you pull out when your plot is slowing down. Warning: it does force you, as the writer, to get a little creative, because it multiplies the problems your hero has to solve. But hey. If you weren't at least a little creative, you wouldn't be here.
("Trapped in the pit of starving, diseased wolverines, our hero struggles to get free! He leaps up to climb to safety, seizing onto the trailing end of a vine! But the vine gives way, sending our hero sprawling back down among the slavering beasts! He stares at them in horror, and only THEN realizes that the "vine" he seized was no such thing! He is now holding the tail of a thirty-foot long Peruvian Acid Cobra--and the incredibly deadly serpent is NOT happy to have been suddenly seized in the middle of its siesta. It opens its deadly jaws and lunges for our hero's throat!" Mmmmm. Now that's good fallout.)
Granted, these examples are pulp fictiony, but they're meant to serve as broad illustrations. In one way or another, every scene in every story where a character is pursuing a goal will fall into one of those four outcomes.
And you've done it! You've written a good scene!
Simple, right? It is. But it isn't EASY. Try it out, and PRACTICE it. Shockingly, you get better with practice. These days, I don't even really consciously think in terms of goal/conflict/setback. Those things are a part of my thinking process, and they've become transparent to me, now. I just think about the scene, forming it with a solid skeleton from the get-go, and it allows me to focus more active effort on other aspects of the writing--pace, character, mood, setting, description. Occasionally, I'll even have time to spare for making the language pretty. But if I didn't have that solid skeleton there, that other stuff wouldn't much matter. You've GOT to have the craft elements solid before you can start adding in artistry.
POINT OF VIEW
And that's all there is to writing a really good scene.
Of course, books aren't 100 percent full of scenes. Characters have to stop to bind up their diseased wounds, be diagnosed with Mad Wolverine Syndrome, to worry about their impending doom and steal kisses from sympathetic nurse-heroines. Where's the conflict in that? How does that fit into your scene paradigm, Jim?
It doesn't, of course.
That's a sequel. We'll talk about those next.
I have learned a couple of things here.
1) You guys are way too kind. I mean, I was mostly posting those reviews because . . . well, they were just MEAN. I mean, for every one of those reviews, I've gotten three or four who were just as down on the books, but who laid out their reasoning for it in a calm, reasoned manner. I don't mind that kind of critique. It doesn't send me into raptures of delight or anything, but it doesn't faze me, either. That kind of thing can really be very useful. Hell, I'm all about talking to my readers, finding out what they liked and didn't like, working on ways to keep on improving my material. Rational critics who raise viable points to illustrate weaknesses in my technique are frickin' invaluable.
But then there are other reviews, like those I posted, which go the extra mile to be malicious. They add in the little slaps and insults which don't seem to have any purpose except to make the critic look clever at the author's expense.
And that's not fair.
I read this stuff and it stings. And it makes me angry. But I can't really respond to it because 1) it wouldn't really be professional and 2) most of them are anonymous or unreachable anyway and 3) even if I did respond, I think the odds that they would see it are kind of low.
But this stuff has been building up over a number of years--increasingly as my career has seen some success, I think. And at some point, it just got to be too much. At some point, I read one more mean-spirited, petty, vicious, spiteful little harangue of stuff I've poured my life into, and I had to say SOMETHING. I had to let it out somewhere.
So, here's where I got it out of my system. I can throw it down on a table in front of other people, like some horrible, rotting carcass and scream, "SEE!? LOOK AT THIS CRAP PEOPLE THROW AT ME! IT'S STUPID AND MEAN AND IT ISN'T FAIR!"
Now I can bury it.
2) Holy CRAP there are a lot of people reading this blog thing. I had no idea. And it's been six MONTHS since I've posted any writing craft stuff. I didn't really realize how many people were interested.
Coming up: SCENES.
|Tuesday, December 26th, 2006|
I read the first three of these books on a reccomendation from a bookseller. He said they had been very popular among the younger crowd. I had just read the His Dark Materials trilogy on his word and it left me with such a profound satisfaction at the end that I was open and eager to suggestion. Silly me.
The Dresden Files novels are some of the most devisive, contrived stories I have ever read. It was like torture reading these books and by the third one I was so fascinated by how bad they were that I could not put it down. I could not wait to see how much this book would be like every worst sci-fi book I have ever thrown away in disgust. I will keep this stack of ridiculousness in my bathroom stack for years to keep discerning readers from stinking up the place for too long.
I couldn't get through my first Dresden novel. I made it about 120 pages and realized it wasn't worth continuing. How anyone can enjoy reading about this buffoon is beyond me. The humor is on the level of the Police Academy movies (and not the first one, the only good one) and the plot unfolds at a snail's pace. Butcher should be forced to read Raymond Carver so he can learn how a detective novel should be written. I gave the novel an extra star because the idea of porno vampires is titillating. Too bad Butcher couldn't match the quality of his prose with originality of the premise.
"Predictable, Superficial and Rather Boring, September 3, 2006"
I love a good mystery and enjoy a paranormal slant in a book. What drew me to Butcher's book was a recommendation he made on a Laurel Hamilton (Anita Blake) novel and I had high hopes that it would be a good relaxing romp. Sadly, I was rather disappointed.
The main character is Harry Dresden who for all intensive purposes plays Gumshoe specializing in the occult. Often a consultant to the local PD, he is drawn into a murder case which involves the use of Black Magic.
The book reads well but regretably, there is nothing new here. The plot is predictable, the characters shallow, little interpersonal development and as for a mystery...you'll know who did it before you're a third through the book.
"Candy and Stupid Candy"
Everyone of the dresden files books are based on the "stupid person" premise. Harry Dresden is a stupid person. When confronted with a choice where one involves reason and other people or doing something stupid, Dresden chooses to be stupid. This choice is made without exception. Butcher uses pendantic predictable and utterly banal structure throughout his books.
Where the writing trods along the language follows with little variation and interest. Butcher cannot seem to make up his mind about profanity using it in clumsy and odd ways. Quaint swear words are used judiciously.
Butcher's only way to move the plot forward is to have his character do something dumb and then fight his way out of it. Butcher also announces major plot points with no subtlety or nuance.
These books are a colossal waste of time.
Yes, I read them. I read a lot of books.
If you don't have a lot of time, stay away from this turgid series. It just isn't that good.
"It hurt to read"
The main character and story were intensely painful to follow, as the intention of the plot was to give the Mary Sue, or in this case Harry Sue, a backdrop to show how down and out he is, yet still emensely powerful. Most of what serves as back drop are obvious rips off other more popular book and tv series, which I wouldn't mind if the rips had been halfway decent ones.
I had to force myself to read the entire book, mostly because so many people had given it such high reviews, I kept thinking it had to get better, and there had to be something really good coming up that would make all the "ow!" "wince much!" moments worth the agony. Only there wasn't.
I thought it might just be me, so I flipped the book at a friend of mine, asked him to read some and tell me if he liked it. Maybe it was because I'm a girl that I found Harry to be a jerk. But it isn't a gender thing, as my guy friend pretty much said, "I can't stand this guy." And couldn't get more than a few pages in before he utterly refused to read any more.
I'll give the writer cred for following through and getting a full manuscript together, and getting it and the sequels published. Apparently some people like it, but I wonder if it's because it's good work, or because they all know each other on the same mailing list and want to boost another list member as much as they can.
I found it very irritating on more levels than I have the time and energy to go into, but the high points are that there isn't even an attempt at realistic portrayals of a policewoman (see major supporting character), women in general actually, and the story's movement depends mostly on out of the blue coincidences with no plot support, and a magic system that is senseless and dopey, as well there is also an overly smug feel of Harry Sue self indulgence to the over all work.
The writer is a great guy, well spoken, and I have only great respect for him as a person. Seen him on the mailing lists, and really enjoy his posts. I just can't stand his books. Other people seem to like it though, so my suggestion is to read a few chapters before actually buying the book. If you like it, great. If you don't, the precaution will save you cash you can spend on other books.
"Would Someone PLEASE teach this writer how to do research?"
Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series has always, to me, been remarkable for two things: (1) a wonderfully sympathetic, compelling main character, (2) a writer amazingly sloppy in his research. Over time you'd think the second element would get better. It hasn't.
I noted in my review of the first Harry Dresden novel, Storm Front, that Butcher was weak on his knowledge of guns. I've made my living writing articles for gun magazines since 1992. When you're a specialist in the area of guns, reading some popular fiction can be absolute torture. Not that I expect a novelist to know the actual bore diameter of the .44 Magnum (it's .429" in case you were wondering) but if the main character carries a gun, as does Harry Dresden, surely it's not too much to expect SOME basic knowledge of same on the writer's part. Apparently it can be. Thus in Dead Beat we're treated to this sentence as Harry holds an opponent at gunpoint: "I pointed it at him and thumbed back the trigger."
Jesus wept. This is the second time in the series Butcher's had a character thumb cock a revolver's trigger. I would've thought, after the first time, someone would have clued him in. I guess not. Okay, here it is, Jim (I'll try not to get too technical): the little thingy you pull on to fire the gun is called a trigger. The little thingy you pull back to thumb cock the gun is called a hammer. The sentence should read, "I pointed it at him and thumbed back the hammer."
We won't even get into the fact that thumb cocking a revolver when holding someone at gunpoint is incredibly stupid since it makes the piece entirely too prone to accidental discharge under stress, thus leading to shooting to death someone you didn't intend to. It's the mark of an unsafe, untrained bozo. I realize that for a writer who doesn't even know what the parts on a gun are called that's a bit esoteric. Jim, take a gun class, go shooting, read a book, TALK to someone who actually owns a gun. SOMETHING.
So I gritted my teeth and read on. Then I hit this little gem: referring to the White Council, Harry says, "But they're so paranoid that next to them, Joe McCarthy looks like a friendly puppy." At which point, seven books into the series, I quit reading, not just this book, but the Harry Dresden novels forevermore. Has Jim Butcher ever heard the words "Venona Project"? You really should have, if you're going to have an opinion on Joseph McCarthy. Finally declassified in 1995, it's the government code name given to decryption of Soviet secret messages to agents within the US government. The contents of the Venona Project prove that Joseph McCarthy wasn't paranoid, he KNEW beyond a shadow of a doubt the US government was riddled with Soviet agents.
Imagine for a moment you're alive in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Just a few years before, your country finished participating in a world war against a military machine led by genocidal madmen. Then in the aftermath you realize one of your former allies is worse than your world war opponents ever dreamed of; they are in the process of murdering - literally - hundreds of millions of people. (That's no exaggeration; the estimated death toll from the Soviet Communist regime, of those killed in wars of conquest, sent to death camps, dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night never to be seen again, and so forth is 200 million human souls. This may well be a conservative estimate.) It seems a month doesn't go by without word of another country being invaded and crushed by the Soviets. This same government has sworn the United States' destruction. Imagine you are shown incontrovertible proof that many in your own government, all the way up to the president's closest friends and advisors, are spies in the employ of the Soviets. Please understand, believing this was truly the case is not a matter of politics, not a matter of conservative or liberal. It's a documented fact.
Let's add to the equation that you are a United States senator. You're one of the few people on earth who might actually be able to do something about this situation. What do you do? Well, if you're most people you do nothing, because you'd probably be scared to death. If you're Joseph McCarthy, you sacrifice your career, your health, eventually your very life to blow the whistle. You succeed in saving your country though the stress of doing it kills you. You're a martyr, an honest to God, real-life, true blue hero. All so that, decades later, some fantasy writer too lazy to do his research can take cheap shots at you in one of his books.
I've been reading the Harry Dresden series for years. I was never quite able to make up my mind about it. The books varied in quality from bad (Fool Moon) to really quite good (Summer Knight). So I bided my time and kept reading, waiting for the one book that would tip me over into either fully committing to the series or dropping it. With Dead Beat I've made my decision. I'm through with this series. This level of ignorance on display just isn't very fun.
"Lazy and Unsatisfying"
Unlike the previous books, this one is very much part of a serial rather than a series. I know that the there has always been an underlying story, but the other books have also contained a storyline that concludes, on top of the overall theme. This one doesn't even identify the villain. It's also becoming a bit crowded with various supernatural entities from all types of mythologies getting a mention; and is becoming slightly silly in its scope. No mummies yet, but I think that's just an oversight. The biggest failure though, is the lack of wit on Dresden's part when overcoming opponents. Instead of outsmarting more powerful enemies he either just manages to summon up a bit more power or a superior ally of his pops up and saves the day. Lazy. Bit like Star Trek Next Generation and its reliance on techo gibberish to finish an episode. You know, when Geordie says, with five minutes to go, if we just adjust the navigational array to emit a pulsed tachyon beam to disrupt their subspace field....etc. Lazy, lazy, lazy. Less magic, more intelligence would be nice. It's certainly a good time filler but I don't hold out much hope for the next book as the plot is just over the top and out of control now. Oh well, the first six were very good and seven was okay. I'll have to try his other series, perhaps it shows a little more restraint.
"Would Have Been Better If..."
1) If the author's own philosphies wasn't seeped throughout the entire novel.
2) If the author did some more actual research and stopped putting so much stock on black and white concepts such as Winter being 'good' and Summer as being 'evil.'
3) Actually spent some time studying mythology and other religions other than the book he reads day and night which limits his knowledge in a very big way.
4) Last but certianly not least made the characters more likable. I couldn't STAND Charity a so holier than though character that she made me grit my teath in annoyance. I also found Murphy and even the main character rather annoying. It's funny that the author states that Harry Dresdan is not a Christian but everything he does seeps Christianity. I find this extremely annoying and why is it that the whole "Holier than thou," mentality that the book obviously preaches. Why not actually make demons good and angels evil? What's wrong with making Harry more interesting instead of so rightious all the time? Also shouldn't have Michael been killed off since the first book he was in?
I'd finished reading Book 1 of this series and excitedly ordered the sequel. ...It's hard to do a sequel that honors the original yet stands on its own. I was disappointed that Butcher kept repeating stuff from the first book as if he'd done a simple cut and paste, slightly reworded. I did like that he spanned out and tried to encompass a new plot and main villain, but the witty humor that made the first story so loveable was lost in the second story. Dresden's keeping Murphy in the dark about the Council winds up dunking her in the middle of an IA investigation, which I felt was too much too soon. It forces Dresden's hand, which I believe should've been left for a few more adventures... I'll treasure Storm Front, but I doubt I'll look any further into the series....
As a werewolf fan, I had to give the Harry Dresden series one more chance and picked up the second book. Not as hard to push through as book one, but in the end I was not satisfied with the read.
I'll give it two stars for the interesting take on werewolf types, but that's about it. The content had me grinding my teeth as FBI agents and Police acted so outrageously unrealistic the suspension of disbelief couldn't hold.
In one part, the plucky female police detective has hostile words with a female FBI agent, and the FBI agent draws a gun on the police detective, at a busy crime scene no less. Ooookay.... right. Then, the plucky, but stubborn police detective only reaction to the whole event is act tough and tell our hero Harry that she can take care of herself. This scene alone killed the story for me.
I enjoyed minute parts scattered through the book, but it's like picking the chocolate sprinkles out of an otherwised soured dessert.
In the past 25+ years of buying and reading all sorts of genre, I have only left two books unfinished: this was the second. I made it to page 296 before putting it down in dusgust. The storyline is disorganized, the characters are either cliche or witless, and the plot-movers are ill-disguised with little reason for their happenstance. The storyline has a boy with an unknown mysterious past, a wannabe spy who's supposed to have incredible talent but makes mistake after common-sense mistake, a spymaster who has switched sides in an upcoming rebellion, and a patina of Roman Empire with all the purported backstabbing that entity had. The characters are pitiful. On the 'bad' guys, you have the following: The expert and cynical spymaster who thinks the change of rebellion cannot be stopped so he switches sides (a character development that would have been better played out over half the book, rather than in just the first chapter). The unbeatable swordsman, who has little passion except for his kinky affair with a 'witch', but kills because he's so good at it. The 'High Lord' leading the rebellion, who has lots of power but wants to be 'First Lord' just because he wants more power. On the 'good' side, you have the following: the boy with no parents who has a mysterious past, can't think much beyond the moment, and is just starting to turn his mind to mush over girls. The godfather figure of his uncle, who is supposed to be experienced, learned, and somewhat wise but who makes mistake after mistake and acts indecisively. The 'loyal' spy who's supposed to be a hot-shot rookie with loads of talent, but who can't take a step without being two steps behind the 'bad' guys. The only way the plot moves is through improbable results of stupid actions. Too many occur in the first 296 pages alone to list. Let's just say that too frequently does 'fate' step in to keep the characters alive after stupidity struck, and too frequently 'fate' conveniently (blatantly) steps in to make a situation even more stupidly convoluted just so that same 'fate' can later untangle it all. In other words, it's not the action or reasoning of the characters that cause things to happen (or not to happen), it pretty much happens just to be happening. I like Butcher's Dresden series, they're not great but they're okay - readable and enjoyable. I thought this would be written well enough to invest in....it's not. Don't waste the money on it if you have any wish for a read better than that intended for young teenagers.
I and my wife have fully enjoyed Butchers's Dresden Files series. Since I rate them as some of the best books I have read I thought this series would also be as good. I was wrong. I couldn't get past the first 2 chapters of either of the two books in this series. Mr. Butcher, please stick to what your good at and continue with the Dresdan series. You can't be a Tolkein, so just be a Butcher.
"What a Letdown"
All I can say is that I was truly dissapointed in this book. I have read fantasy/Sci-fi nearly all of my life and this was a waste of $8.00 and change. The Author seems to write like this is his first novel and he is trying really hard to throw every possible situation and character definition into 500 pages of dribble. The main character, if you want to call him that since the book is so choppy, is well built I suppose. But it also follows the same pat design of so many other GOOD novels by GOOD authors (ex: Eddings and Feist). I am not comparing those two authors to Butcher since that would be like comparing a kindergarten play to Broadway. It is even so embarassing that one of Butcher's place names is the same as Eddings in the Belgariad. I suggest to save your money and time by not purchasing this book.
Some days it's sort of hard to get motivated.
|Tuesday, July 11th, 2006|
|The Great Swampy Middle
THE GREAT SWAMPY MIDDLE
Every writer runs into this, generally in every single book. The middle. It lurks between the beginning of your book and the exciting conclusion, and its mission in life is to Atreyu you right down into the yucky, mucky mire in order to prevent you from ever actually finishing.
The Great Swampy Middle (or GSM) knows no fear, no mercy, no regret. It doesn't come after you. It darned well knows that you're going to come to it. It knows that you're going to be charging along, sending up the spinning plates, ripping out the strong character introductions, planting cool bits into your story for the future, and generally feeling high on life. And just then, as you get all that fun opening-story stuff done, it pounces. And suddenly, you're staring at a blank word processor screen trying to figure out how to get your story through the next paragraph.
And it laughs at you. It laughs and dances on the ashes of your enthusiasm. It knows full well that you are going to be its bitch from now until you somehow finish the book or else give up in despair and slit your wrists with the edge of one of those index cards you're using to try to figure out the rest of the plot. It rejoices and dances around a primal bonfire, howling its glee at the uncaring stars.
The smug bastard.
Okay. Maybe I'm anthropomorphosizing it a little. But not by much.
The middle of books is HARD, especially for beginning writers. Why? Because the middle of a book gives you the most flexibility in terms of telling your story. The beginnings and ends of stories share many similar demands, craftwise, but the MIDDLE is where your personal style has room to play. IE, there are a berjillion-and-one different things you can do in the middle of a story, and since you're a beginning writer, about a berjillion of them are probably the wrong things to do.
It's like a swamp. There are apparent paths all around you--but sometimes the ground that looks solid actually sucks you under and paralyzes you and strangles you. Sometimes the water that looks deep and unpleasant is actually shallow and safe. Sometimes apparent paths aren't paths at all--they just wander all over and wind up at a dead end. Sometimes the safe-looking waters are teeming with alligators and poisonous snakes just below the surface.
Man. The middle of a book is /dangerous/.
It's when an author starts getting lost that the book's middle becomes the Great Swampy Middle. Once you've taken a wrong turn in the GSM, you've got to be smart about which way you move, because if you just keep wandering around, you (and by "you" I mean "your story") is just going to keep bumbling around in circles and never get out of the GSM.
Those of you who have written this much of a book already know exactly what I'm talking about. You hit that point where you're not sure what to do next--when small details and points of logic start tripping you up. Where your story begins to veer off from your outline, and feel fairly confident that it's never, EVER going to veer back. You aren't sure where things went wrong, exactly. Characters and situations start popping out of your fingers as if of their own volition. They're often fun, even intriguing, but they're really a form of denial, you poor deluded, benighted sap. You're lost. You just don't want to admit it to anyone, least of all yourself.
News flash: the reader is going to get that, and it's going to kill their fun. Readers are not stupid. They have a surprising amount of insight, even if they don't always consciously work out why something seems to be wrong with the story. Many readers, God bless every one of them, will plow ahead through the swamp, trusting you to get your act together eventually.
But most won't have that kind of patience. You'll lose them.
But I say unto you, fear not. For though the GSM be all around you, there are ways to escape its fearsome grasp. I'll share my own favorite methods with you, and go over several other techniques and tips, and finish off with the WMD (Weapon of Middle Destruction) which can snickersnack that GSM monster back into the slivy toves with 100 percent reliability.
Here we go:
The problem with GSMs is that most writers don't have a very good idea of exactly where they want to go. I mean sure, they want to get "to the other side of the swamp," but that's sort of like saying "I want to get to the other side of the continent." It's a good plan, as stated, but it lacks clarity, specificity, definition. Instead of saying "the other side of the continent" it might be more helpful to say something like "I'm taking I-70 out through the midwest to Denver, then hopping on Highway Suchandsuch southwest through the Rockies before taking Route Whatever across California to the Pacific."
Same thing applies in the story. If you have a good idea of your next landmark, waypoint, stepping stone, what have you, it's a lot easier not to fall off the path and get sucked down into the mud. SO. One way to help yourself do that is to create something to help you keep on track--a structure specifically designed to keep the pace of your book strong throughout the middle. My favorite such construct is called THE BIG MIDDLE.
THE BIG MIDDLE:
Here's the nutshell concept: Plan a great big freaking event for the end of the middle. You want it to be a big dramatic confrontation of whatever kind is appropriate to your genre. The fallout from your big bad Big Middle event should be what boots the book down the homestretch to reach the story's climax. Really lay out the fireworks. Hit the reader with everything you can. PLAN THE BIG MIDDLE EVENT. Then, as you work through the middle, WORK TO BUILD UP TO IT. Drop in the little hints, establish the proper props and motivations and such. Make sure that everything you do in the middle of the book is helping you build up to the BIG MIDDLE.
(I've used the Big Middle concept in EVERY book I've ever published. It works. It ain't broke. It ain't the only way to do the middle, either, but it's one way.)
Example: The Dresden Files, Dead Beat. The Big Middle event in this book is the zombie attack on Harry's apartment. Corpsetaker and Grevane show up in the same place, at the same time, and kick off a full blown Necrobattle. There are zombies and ghosts, tons of magic, Harry's wards frying everything in sight, Butters gets captured, Harry and Thomas have to save him, plenty of special effects and a narrow escape.
(That's the drama part.)
In the course of the Big Middle, Harry gets information he needs to continue his pursuit, the bad guys blow out the city's power, Butters picks up a new mantra about courage, and we segue into the next day, with Halloween and the Darkhallow charging down from the horizon.
(that's the set things in motion part)
Big Middle is a good counter to the GSM. It helps you stay focused and gets you through the chapters more smoothly.
Some authors get through the GSM by creating a whole little storyline of its own and plopping it down smack in the middle. Normally, it's intertwined with the main story in some fashion, but the focus of the characters shifts onto a new track, one that is wholly contained in the middle. It is, essentially, a smaller story, which interfaces with the overall story well enough to expose cool character stuff that is relevant to the main plot, that kind of thing.
Example: The Two Towers. For the non-Frodo non-Sam characters, the main goal (destroy the Ring and defeat Sauron) changes (to catch the orcs and rescue Merry and Pippin, save Rohan from getting suckerpunched into the great beyond). They haven't given up on the Ring or whacking Sauron--but they've been diverted into a smaller story which still carries emotional weight. They'll get back to antiMordor insurgency soon, you know. But for the time being, we're learning more about their characters, establishing some of the best character interaction in the whole of the story.
A watered down version of Mini-Arc, a new subplot is just that--a subplot that suddenly develops and has to be dealt with, without actually becoming a big overwhelming part of the story on its own. The new subplot begins and ends in the middle, and generally introduces you to some cool characters or threats native to that subplot.
Example: Trash Compactors and Tractor Beams. Luke's main goal (save the princess and defeat the Empire!) gets altered (don't get squashed flat! Escape! Come in, Threepio, where could he be!?). It doesn't change the overall goal--but it DOES take the story into a new direction, and you get the cool periscope-tentacle monster, a new setting, and a really suspenseful impending doom scene. Kenobi gets an even tamer version of the same thing, because his presence would make rescuing the princess way too easy. He gets sent off on the tractor beam sabotage mission. Again, a small subplot bound to the main goal, but NOT the main goal, and it creates tension by separating him from the others, letting him smell Darth's BO coming steadily closer, and showing us cool Jedi tricks that only seem to work on Stormtroopers.
A new character tromps out onto the stage in a more flamboyent or memorable fashion than most supporting characters would do. They aren't on stage long, but they serve an important role in forwarding the story, and they entertain the hell out of the audience while they do it.
Example: The Incredibles, Edna Mode. Edna shows up to make Bob a new suit, make the whole family new suits, and to tip Helen off to the fact that Mister Incredible is off on Fantasy Island with Storm's bolemia-stricken baby sister. Edna is a freaking riot, but her total time on stage is a bare fraction of the main cast, and she's there to keep the plot moving quickly.
There. THAT hatful of techniques should be able to help anybody sinking into the quicksand. Be aware that using this stuff is simple--but not EASY. It takes practice. Play with it and see what works best for you, but PRACTICE.
Which leads me up nicely to segue into the ultimate Vorpal Sword for slaying the GSM:
Here, let me repeat that.
One more time, only louder.
The ultimate way to get out of the GSM is to keep on plowing ahead. Sooner or later, you're bound to pop out the other side or else stumble onto a discernable path.
Note, I say that this is the ultimate way. It isn't the fast way. It isn't the smart way. But, by God, if you sit down, grit your teeth and WRITE WRITE WRITE, ONWARD ONWARD ONWARD, you're bound to get out eventually. You'll do ten times the work and probably need to cut and slash your story with a whale flenser before you move on to the next draft, but it WILL get you unstuck and out, sooner or later.
Okay, I think I'm about metaphored out. So, one more, and then I'll shut up.
Finding your way through the middle of your novel is like finding any other path. You're best off if you NEVER GET OFF IT. Solid outlines are the best way to stay on it, but they aren't an easy way, either. That's just as well. Devloping some skills you'll need to find your way when accidents happen and you get off track is important and useful.
These techniques above are tools, stuff you can use to help stay focused on the proper path (IE, your PLOT) so that you don't veer off on accident, slow the pace of your story and kill the interest of your audience. If you get off track, employing one of the tools (or about a million others I've forgotten about, never heard of, or can't quite remember just now) can help you get your story back on track, charging for that big finish. They're best used in the planning stages of a book, as preventatives, but you can use them after the fact with just as much success.
The Great Swampy Middle doesn't love you. It wants you to never write a book, ever. The GSM wants you to give up and go home.
So take my advice and take a few tools with you--mine or someone else's, you won't hurt my feelings. If the GSM so much as looks at you crosseyed, go upside its head with them.
That'll learn the smug bastard.
|Thursday, February 10th, 2005|
So your story is all about conflict, right? And you can't have conflict without, well, people. Maybe your people look like sentient renaissance mice, or maybe they look like talking cats, but there are going to be beings running around your story with a bunch of conflicting desires. Those are your characters.
Sticking with the purely craft-oriented standpoint, we'll start with a basic question: what makes a good character?
FIRST AND FOREMOST, FICTION WRITERS, YOUR CHARACTERS MUST BE INTERESTING.
I mean, come on. Who is going to want to read about boring people? I can do that in the newspaper, or in any history class. Increasingly, as our society moves into the MTV-Information-broadband-instant-gratif
ication age, reader tolerance for the dull and the plain is going to go down.
Bottom line: without interesting characters, your book is already dead. You can write something that flies in the face of this if you like, and people the story town of Plainsville with John Smiths, and who knows, maybe you'll create an immortal piece of literary art. But for poor slobs like me whose sons are suddenly wearing larger shoes than them, and who are looking with mild panic at the costs of a college degree, there are a couple of basic principles to think about which could really help you in all kinds of ways.
Which leads us to the next logical question: What is (or what makes) an interesting character?
While no one thing can really stake a sole claim, several things consistently make a team contribution:
o Exotic position.
We'll look at them one at a time.
This can be almost any kind of exaggerated feature, be it physical, mental or emotional. Virtually every character in popular fiction is an exaggerated figure of one kind or another. Mister Monk is not merely fussy and unstable, he is fussy and unstable to an insane degree. Jack O'Neill is not merely wiseass and cavalier, but suicidally so. Sydney Bristow is not merely a spy, she's a CIA SuperSpyGrrl who can look like anyone and outshoot, outfight and generally outdo every other spy in the business. Paul Bunyan is not just tall, he's sixty-three axe-handles high. Pamela Anderson is . . . say no more.
The purposes of exaggerating characters are twofold:
FIRST, it's inherently interesting. Reading a sentence about Joe Average walking down the street is not nearly as interesting as reading a sentence about Joe Two-Meters walking down the street and banging his head on swinging shop signs as he goes.
SECOND, it's a device to create an acute mental awareness of your character for the reader. Remember that the goal of this kind of story-craft is to create that virtual world inside your reader's head. The reader is glad to help you along with that. I mean, readers will provide a lot of the background sets and extras and so on if you give them a chance--but one way to make it easier for them to get into the story is to create a clear impression of a character on them, so that they always have a clear image in their head of who that character is. Exaggeration helps with that--it gives the reader something unusual and memorable to associate with any given character.
(More tips and techniques on how to do even more with this will follow under Verisimilitude.)
2. EXOTIC POSITION
While this is in actuality just another facet of exaggeration, there are enough differences to make it worth its own heading. Locating your character in an unusual location or situation is another way to help create immediate interest. A sentence about a thirty-five year old man sitting in an office is fairly simple and very boring. But it becomes something else entirely when it's the OVAL office and the youngest president in the history of the nation has just been advised that a nuclear terrorist is loose in DC. A sentence about a young woman sitting in a chair is far more blah than a sentence about the first female shuttle commander maneuvering in her EVA frame in high orbit.
(Naturally there's the inversion of this, too, where you take a very unusual character and put him in an utterly mundane position, like Mister Incredible working in Insurance Cubicle Purgatory.)
Whether it is a social, geographic, intellectual or moral position, choosing something unusual enough to be memorable and interesting will provide you with a significant advantage in grabbing reader interest.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately. By establishing your character firmly, you'll make the whole process of virtual-story-world-creation move more quickly and easily. There are multiple techniques for planning a strong introduction, but I'm only going to hit on the strongest one: CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION.
A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is.
Lethal Weapon 2 starts off in the front seat of a stationwagon during a police chase, with Mel Gibson howling in excitement and pounding on the ceiling while Danny Glover fumbles for the siren, tries to talk on the radio, and tries to convince Mel that they don't really need to be doing this. It strongly establishes both characters as cops. It demonstrates Mel's love of wild action, Danny's cautious approach to his work, and the relationship dynamic between the two. (I liked it so much that I borrowed shamelessly from it to start off Grave Peril.)
Every Bond Pic that opens on the "opening mission" template does the same thing: it shows you Bond being a heroic spy and engaging in lots of danger and action.
Your character is a frustrated high school nerd? Then have him come on stage late for his school bus, which promptly drives away even though the driver obviously saw him coming. (IE, Spider-Man.) Your character is a titanic lumberjack? Then start him off towering over the north woods and felling fifty trees with each swing of his axe.
Make the introduction count. This is something you can't afford to screw up.
(Which is a university word that means "they act believeably." It's easier for me to type V-factor.)
V-factor is the second most important element in creating interesting characters. The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn't behave in a consistant and believeable manner. (*kaffkaff*JAR-JAR*kaffkaff*)
When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story. This is a task that will take a little bit of time, as your reader follows your character around and sees what is in his world.
The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character's: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believeable, appropriate course of action in response.
The lion's share of this work gets done in the process of writing SEQUELS. (Not like Rocky II. It's a writing-craft term.)
(SEQUELS are an indispensable portion of your story and will have their own article later.)
But forethought and preparation will play a role in this process, too. Here's another cool craft-tool for you guys to use: TAGS and TRAITS
TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you're putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you'll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character.
For example; Thomas Raith's tag words are pale, beautiful, dark hair, grey eyes. I use them when I introduce him for the first time in each book, and then whenever he shows up on stage again, I remind the reader of who he is by using one or more of those words.
This is a really subtle psychological device, and it is far more powerful than it first seems. It's invaluable for both you as the writer, and for the construction of the virtual story for the reader.
TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. Harry's traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader's benefit, so that it's easy to imagine Harry when the story pace is really rolling.
Similarly, Bob the Skull's traits are the skull, its eyelights, his intelligence, his role as a lab assistant, his obsession with sex and his wiseass dialog. It works for the same reason.
Seriously. Before you introduce another character, write some tags and traits down. You'll be surprised how much easier it makes your job.
If you can manage to create a vivid character in a reader's mind, then establish him as someone believable, you have a real shot at the Holy Grail of character design. If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It's what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.
Like V-Factor, empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader's emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.
Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.
|Wednesday, September 29th, 2004|
Writing a structurally sound story is simple.
But it isn't easy.
"Huh?" you say. "What do you mean, simple not easy?"
A *lot* of things are really simple. Hauling an engine block out of your car is simple--but it sure as hell isn't easy. There's a lot of work to be done, and you have to go about it the right way or the simple task can go all to hell in a hurry. Building a solid story as an aspiring writer is the same way. What I can hand you here is not going to look very complicated--but for newbie novelists, it's going to be difficult to handle. At least it was for me.
The story skeleton is a description of the main plot of your book, broken down into its simplest elements. It's two sentences long. Neither sentence is particularly long. Your plot needs to fit into that framework, or it's going to be too complicated for the average newbie writer to handle well.
"Impossible," I said to myself when Debbie told us that in class. "There's no way you can break down a story as epic as mine into two sentences. You can't possibly do that." As it turned out, I could. If I hadn't been able to do it, it would have been way too much story for me.
The story skeleton (also called a story question) consists of a simple format:
*WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*?
For instance, look at Storm Front. (Yes, I'll use my own books as examples, because I'm just that way. ;) Also, I'm more familiar with them than I am with almost any other writer.) Storm Front's story question:
When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department?
See! It's oh-so-simple! Almost to the point of looking ridiculous--and I have no doubt that some of the people reading this article will think that it *is* ridiculous. They're wrong. :) This is a fundamental description of the core conflict in your tale--and stories are all about conflict.
Not only that, but by getting your story broken down into its basic elements, you'll help yourself focus on the most important portion of the novel and avoid dumping lots of extra words into it. Always write a story as lean as you possibly can (and still be happy with it). Every scene and every sequel should be planned to move your story forward--and you should have the purpose of the scene in mind as you write it.
You want to write your story like a racehorse, not an elephant. It is SO much easier to flesh out a story that's too lean than it is to trim down a story that's too bulky.
This doesn't mean that you don't plan a book with subplots. Even newbie writers like I was can usually handle a couple of them, and with enough planning usually more. But the main plot is the skeleton that everything else builds upon. Before you get rolling on your next novel, make yourself a little form and fill it out. I know, I know, it seems corny as hell.
But trust me. It will help you in the long run.
|Thursday, September 23rd, 2004|
|Conflict, Logical Response, Point of View
Conflict, Logical Response and Point of View
This article addresses three basic concepts for a structured approach to writing. While this one won't be specific enough to actually apply as yet, it's important to understand the basic ideas on which a structured approach is founded before we go tinkering with nuts and bolts.
Conflict--It's Not the Best Way. It's the Only Way.
First things first. This is the absolute core truth of telling a story, and is as important to your writing as the laws of physics are to the real universe:
Stories are about conflict.
One more time, because something this important bears repeating.
STORIES ARE ABOUT CONFLICT!
If I wasn't in ASCII, I'd say it three times, the last time in giant animated 3-d letters that were on fire. That's just how important it is. Alas, I'll just have to settle for saying it twice.
Conflict is the single most important facet of writing fiction. Conflict should exist in one form or another in every scene. In a previous article I said that stories are about following a character in pursuit of a goal, and who is opposed by someone with an opposite or conflicting goal. That's the overall shape of a story.
But that format of Goal-Conflict is also the basic model for any scene. ALL of your characters need to have a goal. If they don't have a goal, then what the hell are they doing wandering aimlessly around on stage? Not only that, but you've also got to have someone who is trying to ruin your character's day by one means or another. No one wants to read about Odysseus leaving the sack of Troy, sailing home in moderate weather and settling down to focus on that urban renewal project he's been putting off.
Conflict exists in infinite forms, and need not (necessarily) involve explosions or blood. A mobster kicking down the door and spraying bullets is one kind of conflict, sure. But a well-intentioned relative determined to sway your character from his goal is, too. So is a boss who refuses to give your character the day off to pick up his sick kid from school.
We'll get into specifics on conflict when we talk scene structure. For now, just remember that stories are about conflict, and that they best way to create conflict is to give your characters goals and strong motivation to pursue them.
(Oh, a quick word about crippling information you might need to unlearn. Literature departments are real big on describing the "forms of conflict." Don't try to deny it. Some of you know them, and you know it. Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself. Let me give you a piece of advice. The only one of any value to anyone who wants to learn to write commercial fiction is the first one. Man versus nature stories and man versus himself stories can work, but the writer has to work a lot harder to make it happen. You're going to be more than busy enough without making your life more difficult across the board.)
Dammit, Jim, I'm A Writer, Not A Logistician
Another foundation stone of clear writing is a careful observence of logical response.
Remember, one of your goals in telling a story is to make it come alive in your readers' minds. To do that, it's important that you present things in a clear and understandable fashion. You have to create clear mental pictures of characters, objects and places for your reader.
(We'll get more into that when we talk about characters, later on.)
While it isn't too terribly hard to create vivid character-images, it is MUCH more difficult to create those same mental pictures of actions. Nothing takes your reader out of virtual headspace faster than reading a sentence and description of action, then blinking and thinking, "What?" Once your reader is stopping to go back and puzzle through confusing language, you've lost the game.
The best way to keep that flow going is to understand logical-response, or what my teacher called "Stimulus-Response Transactions." (Which sounds fancy, but they're working in a university there, and if you don't use lots of sixteen penny words you don't get any R-E-S-P-E-C-T from the other faculty.)
It breaks down into something really simple, though. Something happens to your character (stimulus). Your character reacts to it (response). Your character takes an action (stimulus). Something happens (response).
You don't start mucking around with the order. It's confusing. You don't have the response occur before the stimulus. For example:
"His fist lashed out at me [stimulus]. My jaw exploded in a flash of pain [response-stimulus], and it drove me to the ground [response]."
See? There's a logical order to it, stimulus-response, stimulus-response. That's what "stimulus-response transaction" means. Stimulus comes first, and for every stimulus you have one response.
If you screw up the order, the same action-description gets a lot harder to understand:
"I was driven to the ground when a flash of pain exploded in my jaw as his fist lashed out at me."
Strictly speaking there's not any kind of grammar-based felony going on here, but the sentence is clunky, and the reader has to mentally juggle it to get it all in the right order. It isn't really DIFFICULT for them to juggle it around, but it does take a little extra effort to sort it into a logical order.
That effort might seem trivial, but remember that the reader is gonna go through hundreds or thousands of your sentences in fairly short order. As a result, that kind of minor error could have two effects. First, it could result in a mental speedbump in your story that jolts the reader right out of their storyspace. Second, those many trivial shuffles will accumulate. It isn't something that most readers are going to actually, specifically notice in your work--they're just going to know that it isn't as much fun to read as they would like it to be
"But but but," someone is surely saying by now, "Spielberg uses just the opposite thing all the time! He'll go through separate close-ups of eighty six people staring at a dinosaur before the viewer ever gets to see the dinosaur that stimulated them to stare!
Yes, well, Steve has an advantage. HE ISN'T USING THE WRITTEN WORD. You are. The reversal of stimulus-response in a movie doesn't confuse anyone because they don't have to read words and turn it into a movie in their head. The movie is already THERE. Those shots in Jurassic Park work because they create suspense instead of confusion, precisely BECAUSE the viewer knows that the response they're seeing must have a stimulus, and they're wondering what it could be.
Besides. You aren't Spielberg. You're an aspiring writer who wants to learn the craft. So if you want things to go smoothly for the reader and give you every advantage you can get, observe stimulus-response transactions religiously.
It All Depends On Your Point of View
Literally. In a very real sense, the success or failure of your story depends on it. Strong, entertaining, believable characters are what make or break a story, and a prime component for creating that kind of character is the effective use of point of view.
What makes it so important, you may ask? (Someone go ahead and ask, or I'm gonna look pretty silly up here.) Good, I'm glad you asked that. To answer the question, let's go back to our goal as a storyteller--specifically, to create a story so compelling that it takes on a life of its own in the reader's mind. We want to create storyspace.
In order for the reader to have that kind of experience, they need a vehicle to do it in--or put another way, we use point of view as a means of inserting the reader into the story. We write from the point of view of our characters in order to vicariously plug the reader in to the emotions, experiences, thoughts and actions of a viewpoint character. Some genres are heavier into this aspect of telling the story than others, but it is not at all unfair to say that we use point of view to allow the reader to experience the story through one of our characters' eyes (and ears, and mind, and possibly several other organs).
Get it now? The reader is going to experience your story world through the thoughts, perceptions, emotions and actions of your viewpoint character or characters. Do you see how freaking important it is that you select the best characters to use? The perspective of the character viewing the story has a profound effect on how it comes across to your readers.
Try to imagine watching Star Trek from the viewpoint of Nurse Chapel. I'm not saying it would be a lame show, but it sure as hell wouldn't be the Star Trek we know. Chapel was a decent character, but she wasn't exactly hips-deep in most of the events on the Enterprise. The Lord of the Rings would be a rather different story told from the viewpoint of Bill Ferny. I don't even want to consider what Star Wars would look like through the eyes of Jabba the Hut . . . well. Except maybe for Leia getting fit for that slavegirl outfit . . .
Anyway, the point being that it's absolutely critical that you select the best characters for use as point-of-view (oh for goodness' sake, I'm going to commit acronym and just call it POV) characters. And how do you do that, you may ask?
(Quick, someone ask bef--) Yes, I'm glad you asked that.
First, you decide what kind of point of view you want to use.
Once more, you may be burdened with an education in literature that can get in the way of writing. I'm sure any lit people out there can rattle off half a dozen different kinds of point of view that can be used in a story. I'll break them down into the most familiar:
First Person--Written from the interior perspective of one character. "I went to the store and bought cookies. I ate them." The Dresden Files are first person POV.
Second Person--Written as if being described to the reader as their own actions. "You went to the store and bought cookies. You ate them."
Third Person--Written from an exterior perspective to one or more characters. "He went to the store and bought cookies. He choked on them and died."
Omniscient Viewpoint--Told from the perspective of an outside, all-knowing observer. "He went to the store, never knowing that the cookies were the instrument of the Grim Reaper. If only he'd purchased milk to go with them, he might have made it. But he didn't, and so sealed his fate with sweet, corrupt chocolately goodness."
Let me give you some advice my own teacher gave me: write in First Person, or Third Person. Omniscient viewpoint has been out of style for maybe a century. Second person is best reserved for Choose Your Own Adventure books. First and Third person are the most common and easy-to-read viewpoints, and no editor will ever take you seriously if you wade into the publishing fray trying to sell anything else.
So, next thing's next. How do you decide? First or Third? Let's take a look at their pros and cons.
First person strengths: An immediate immersion into storyspace through the most personally identifiable language. In the Dresden Files, the text might read "I went here" or "I did that," in reference to Harry's activities--but on some level in the reader's head, the reader is experiencing those things vicariously. The language is subversive, and is possibly better suited to creating that kind of storyspace than any other viewpoint. Bickham called first-person viewpoint "perfect viewpoint" for that exact reason. It's also the easiest viewpoint to learn to write in because, check it out--it's how we experience life.
First Person Weaknesses: The major problems with First Person viewpoint lie in the difficulties it creates for story structure. Since you are locked into one viewpoint, your story has to happen around your viewpoint character all the time. You can't show the reader anything that the viewpoint character doesn't see, and that can become an annoying obstacle, particularly when various characters with conflicting goals are all pursuing them at once.
The only way around these problems is to be scrupulous about keeping track of what characters are doing when they're "off stage." But that still leaves you with figuring out ways to convey the plot-necessary things they do to your reader. Typically, this is where you get villains who will drone on in an endless summary of what the hero didn't see, or when characters will otherwise break into a travelogue. It takes planning and creativity to get around the limitations of first-person viewpoint, but it has the side effect of forcing you to make your character extremely proactive and nosy, poking into everyone's business--which is probably why the mystery genre is best known for first-person viewpoint stories.
Third Person Strengths: Third person viewpoint is the compliment to First Person, in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Third person viewpoint allows you to introduce more than one POV character, which frees up a whole universe of new options to you as a writer. Since you can hop around to whatever characters you please, (though usually POV characters are of a fairly limited number) you can play all kinds of wonderful head games with the reader which result in the reader knowing things that the characters don't--that's when you get people screaming at the book, "NO YOU IDIOT DON'T YOU KNOW THAT'S A VAMPIRE?" and similar sentiments, because the reader's been handed more pieces than any one viewpoint character.
Third Person Weaknesses: Because you have so many more options with third person, you have at least as many more ways you can screw things up. Most problematic in a third person viewpoints are problems with displaying enough emotional depth in characters (compared to first person, anyway), and the risk that a larger cast of characters will grow increasingly more difficult for the reader to keep track of. (*kaffkaff*JORDAN*kaffkaff*) When you head into a third person story, you have to be sure to be extra careful about establishing characters and their goals, in order to help the reader keep the various POVs straight in his head. Often writers also have trouble keeping the current viewpoint clear to the reader--and some of them even jump back and forth to various viewpoints within the same scene, chapter, or page, a guaranteed mental speedbump for the reader as he tries to puzzle out whose head the story is in right now.
To make matters even more complicated, writing in first or third person also seems to be heavily influenced by the temprament and skills of the writer in question. Some people couldn't write third person to save their life. I wrote SEVEN BOOKS in the third person and they were universally lame. When I finally took Debbie's advice and wrote my first novel in the first person, I produced Storm Front. I was better suited for first person writing, clearly. Since then, I've continued to grind my teeth and practice third person, and I think I'm finally getting somewhere, but it was a struggle for me. Other writers take to writing third person like baby ducks to water. The freaks.
Okay, broken down to the simplest thoughts I can:
First person offers the novice writer an intuitive advantage in writing a strong, emotional central character. It creates a few problems for your plot, but nothing that can't be gotten around. It's best suited to a story focused upon a single central character, and as such is most often found in mysteries and thrillers, with occasional appearances in fantasy/sf.
Third person is far more flexible and offers you a wider range of options, dramatically speaking, but it's also considerably more difficult to learn to handle well--but if you learn to do it, you can really go to town, creatively speaking. Third person is found in every genre, but is particularly prominant in romance, on account of most of the romances like to present the story from the perspective of the two principal characters at the very least.
So pick what kind of viewpoint you want to use based on the kind of story you want to tell and on your own personal gifts and preferences.
Now. All you need to do is pick WHICH characters get to become POV characters. And how do I do that, you might ask?
For first person it's easy. You pick the guy who keeps telling the reader "I, me, I me." But when writing third person, the sheer flexibility of the choices available to you can make it tough to pick who will be the POV character in any given scene.
But there is a simple rule of thumb to help you decide that. Viewpoints belong to the characters who are the most deeply, emotionally involved in whatever is at stake in the scene. When you're wondering which character should have the viewpoint in any given scene, all you have to do is to pick the character who has the most to lose. THAT person is the one who is going to have the strongest goal, and his pursuit of the goal will be fertile ground for the best conflict.
It is late and I have probably forgot a bit here and there, but if so I'll be back to blow hot air all over until my ego is sure it has had its say. :) Next article, I'll prattle on about laying out a plot skeleton before you start pounding on the keys.
(Above material copyright Jim Butcher 2004)
|Tuesday, September 21st, 2004|
What Is This Craft You Speak Of?
To talk about writing a story, first you have to ask, "What IS writing?"
Writing, in its most essential sense, is an artificial means for getting thoughts and images which reside in YOUR brain over to the guy holding your book in the most effective and accurate fashion possible, so that the reader will successfully translate your thoughts into HIS brain. The written word uses symbols to describe sights, sounds, and situations, in order to let the reader create the story inside his own imagination as he reads.
Writing is the original virtual reality.
If all goes well, the imaginary world you help the reader create in his head becomes as believable, exciting, and interesting as the real world.
But that means you need to make everything go well. In order to do THAT, you apply story craft.
Story? What story?
To talk about story craft, first you have to answer the question, "What is a story?"
Simply put, a story is a narrative description of a character (the protagonist/hero) struggling to attain an important goal. In general, the protagonist is opposed by another character (the antagonist/villain).
The protagonist sets out to achieve his goal and faces problems and opposition to his intentions along the way. His risk of loss increases as the narrative proceeds, and casts an element of doubt over whether or not the protagonist will attain his goal. Then, in a final confrontation of some sort (the climax), the protagonist either succeeds or fails, based upon his own choices and actions. We'll talk more about protagonists and antagonists and climaxes and conflict as we go along.
Story craft, writing technique, story structure. They're all different names that mean the same thing (at least for the purposes of these articles). They describe the practice of methodically approaching the writing of any given story with a definite, specific goal, and a plan for making that narrative engaging and entertaining as possible.
Get to the Story Craft Already!
Story craft describes the practice of using every possible element at your disposal to write a good story. It means that you have a plan for the book--you know where you want it to go, and why. It means that you understand something about how human psychology ticks, and you use it to your advantage. It means that every piece of the story has a definite purpose, and that it furthers your story in the most engaging way possible.
Simply put, story craft is nothing more and nothing less than manipulating the emotions of your reader.
Sounds cynical and mercenary, don't it?
It isn't. And it is.
Stop and think about it for a minute. You've all read books. You've all paid money for them in the expectation of being entertained. The books written well enough to make you burst out laughing, break down in tears, tremble with fear, snarl with anger or smolder with desire are probably the ones you like the most. They're also the ones you are happiest to pay for and most enjoy talking about. As a reader, you want to be entertained.
You WANT the author to manipulate you.
Authors are the other side of the coin. From an artistic perspective, you have an obligation to manipulate the reader to the best of your ability--that's what makes a good story. From a mercenary standpoint, successful manipulation is also what gains the most readers and makes the most money through increased sales.
Long story short: The story craft I'll be describing here is a toolbox. Inside it are time-proven techniques for exploiting human psychology in your favor. Learn to use the tools.
Just remember to wear your safety glasses and try not to accidentally chop off any of your fingers.
(Above material Copyright Jim Butcher, 2004)
I suppose the first thing to do is to talk about what these articles are, and aren't, and why I'm writing them.
What I'm doing here is laying out what I know about writing a genre fiction novel. Frankly, the principles here could be used to write any decent story, but they are geared specifically to help train an aspiring writer to produce a solid effort that an editor will recognize as a solid effort worth the gamble of publishing.
Some of these methods and techniques may seem stiff, wooden, unyielding, boring and stifling to work with. A lot of people may look at them and reject them with much to say about "magic formulas" and "studying under a writing mystic" and various similar comments. I've seen (and written) a whole bunch of them in my time learning to write. There is always, always, always someone who will complain that some of these techniques are inflexible and boring and that they are incompatible with creativity.
To that person I say; stop being a petulant baby. Writing a decent story is as much craft as art, and while some might be born enormously gifted at art, the craft part of the writing only gets learned one way: practice. Otherwise known as "work." Professional musicians don't just suddenly pick up an instrument for the first time, walk into a recording studio, and start to cut a CD. They practice. They start off playing scales and practicing chords, move up to "House of the Rising Sun" or "The Sloop John B.," and some Christmas carols, and then, after a lot of effort, they finally get up to speed and start playing music that people might actually want to pay for.
Aspiring writers, as a whole, tend to want to skip directly from playing scales to the getting paid part. Most of them (myself included) never considered the fact that it might take a considerable length of time and an even larger amount of effort to get from A to Z.
These articles are intended to show you the craft techniques that will help you write reliably interesting, coherent and well-paced stories, and solid characters people want to read about. Learn to use these techniques, and you'll manage B through Y with the minimum amount of frustration. That's their first purpose.
The second reason to employ these techniques is that they give you a solid foundation for writing stories even when you are under hideous time-pressures or feeling utterly uninspired, artistically speaking. Writing craft is the heart and soul of the mercenary component of being a genre fiction writer. It gives you what you need to take care of business.
(I can tell you from first-hand experience that THEY WORK. I cannot begin to imagine what I would have done under my most recent set of deadlines if I hadn't had the tools I needed to write a solid story as quickly as possible.)
Keep in mind that learning these techniques only gives you a solid place to begin. Once you've got them down, you'll begin to understand a lot more about WHY they work. Once you see that, you'll know when you can alter or disregard them entirely, and still have a great story. Every rule has its exceptions.
Oh, I should also mention what these articles are NOT. They are NOT my creation. I learned virtually everything I know about writing craft from Debbie Chester, herself a best-selling author with better than 40 published novels to her credit. She teaches in the Professional Writing department at the University of Oklahoma's School of Journalism, where she learned it from her teacher, Jack Bickham. Bickham has written several well-regarded books on writing craft, and still publishes the occasional novel himself. These people know what they are talking about.
I don't know as much as them. But on the other hand, I'm a lot closer to that aspiring author-me, temporally speaking, than they are, so it might be fair to say that I'm in a better position to pass this information clearly to the newbie writers. I'll do my best to teach you what they taught me, only simplified and clarified for the newbie author.
Oh, one other thing these articles are NOT. They are NOT the One True Path to Writing. They're essentially MY path. They're a pretty darned GOOD path, even if it's a little longer than I had expected. Maybe you'll hate this path so much that you run off and find a shortcut that gets you there in a tenth of the time. On the other hand, maybe you'll slip on a crumbling ledge and be devoured by dyspeptic crocodiles. Who knows?
All I can say for sure is that if you are willing to work for it, THIS path will get you there.
(Above material copyright Jim Butcher 2004)
|Thoughts on Writing
I'm mostly going to use this livejournal to share what I know about writing with any interested parties. My approach to writing fiction is grounded in the notion that a methodical, structured use of learned story craft skills gives a writer an excellent basis on which to approach writing fiction.
This is the stuff I still use myself, and I've gotten about twenty three point two six four kajillion emails asking questions about writing and writing technique.
Hence, this livejournal.
Comments and discussion are welcome, though my participation will be sporadic.
I hope you enjoy the articles here, and that they either help you in your own writing efforts or give you a good laugh. ;)