Beginning with the End of the Story in Mind

E. L. Doctorow compared writing to driving. You know where your destination is, but you can only see as far as your headlights. At first I thought this promoted flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing. But I don’t really think it is. I think it is true we can’t always see how things are going to come together as we are writing, entirely. However, there should be (has to be) a destination. Perhaps, you will find a shortcut, or you will take the scenic route. Perhaps you will near the destination and realize that you ought to stop somewhere else.

But you’ve got to know where you are headed. Effective businesses have a mission statement, a primary goal. Effective people have goals for their lives. A good book has to have a goal too.

Knowing where you are headed is key before you set out to tackle anything you write. Perhaps you’ve got to write a little to figure it out, or do some writing exercises or brainstorming. Sometimes you’ve just got to sit back and think about it. In fact, I would argue that one of the most important parts of the writing process is simply thinking about the story, sorting things out in your head a bit before you set out on the journey.

You could just start writing, just like I could just start driving down the road and seeing where I end up. But most likely I would waste a lot of miles and gas. What a shame to write half a book and realize you’ve got to go back and totally re-start the story, because the direction has changed! Believe me, I have been there. It is tough to throw something out you’ve worked hard on. I could have saved hours upon hours if I had thought things through more before writing.

Don’t neglect the planning time. Spend some time with it, have fun with it, embrace it. Think about what your characters are like and what the story-world is like. Jot down a chapter if you need to. But figure out what the real story is, and figure out what the goal, the endpoint, of the story is. You will discover all kinds of things along the way, but if there is no destination, it will be wandering and rambling.

Begin with the end and then move forward. Every scene you write will be more effective the first time around, and you will assuredly reach the destination faster.

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“Literary” versus Fiction that Sells

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I hate it when “literary” folks bash popularized works of fiction and the writers of popular fiction.

What is popular fiction? I would call it fiction that sells. There are works that are deemed literary that might fall in to that category. Cormac McCarthy sells a lot of books, for instance. But mostly it is genre stuff: King and Crichton and Clancy novels, courtroom thrillers, books about boy wizards, books about psychotic married couples and so forth.

I read a post by James Scott Bell, the awesome writing coach, about this lingering snobbery toward popular writing by the literary snobs. The snobs hate how much we like King and Rowling and Koontz. They think its a sign that people are dumbing down the literary world and ruining the publishing industry. They think it is ruining the art and turning it into entrepreneurship.

But since when was writing not entrepreneurial? Writers have always had to promote themselves, whether to a publisher or a newspaper or an agent or whatever. What writer has ever not wanted readers or to be paid? The starving artist who just sits around and creates experimental work for himself is a rare thing — romanticized far more than it is realistic, or even all that artsy —  and making work for yourself doesn’t mean it is better than work created for other people.

For that matter, who says it can’t go both ways anyway? As if creating works people will like cannot also mean creating art for yourself?

When asked why he chose to write horror, Stephen King remarked, “Who said I had a choice?”

When I was studying writing and literature at college, I met a snob or two. In one critique group, while everyone else was writing essays exploring their mostly mundane personal lives, I was writing action scenes for stories about teens with supernatural powers. In a previous critique group, my stories were considered the best in the class, and suddenly students were talking my stuff down. Ultimately, it came down to the “literary” thing.

Now I still learned a lot from the class, but nevertheless, it rubbed me the wrong way then, and it still does.

I love the sort of stories I write. They are the sort of stories I love to read too. Sure, I read some literary stuff at times, but sci-fi and fantasy are what I love. And when people talk that sort of writing down, it rubs me the wrong way.

Just because something is popular does not decrease its merit. Just because a book isn’t a slow-paced character study does not mean it does not have something to say about humanity. Just because a story is entertaining does not mean it is no longer art.

In fact, I would prefer to find that place where the stories I love to write are also entertaining to an audience who loves to read them, and if I can not starve along the way, I tell you what, I am all for it.

Choosing a Genre—Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story Part 7

Great post here!…. I would add to YA that no-matter what genre of YA you write (horror or sci-fi or thriller or whatever) there is typically a very strong love interest element. You can try to cut it, but it is extremely rare, if present at all. Otherwise I would agree they tend to follow the basic structure of their adult counterparts.

Oh and YA tends to run a bit shorter than adult books depending on the genre. There are always exceptions, but anything longer than 90-100,000 words (even for fantasy), and you will have a hard time publishing it as a debut author. Thrillers and romances will probably run closer to 60,000.

An awesome resource for YA and middle-grade writing is Mary Kole’s book “Writing Irresistible Kidlit.” http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Irresistible-Kidlit-Ultimate-Crafting/dp/1599635763

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.42.33 AMUnderstanding structure helps us write cleaner and faster. Whether we plan every detail ahead of time or just intuitively have the architecture in our head, structure makes the difference between a workable first draft and a nightmare beyond salvage.

I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. 

If we don’t pick or we get too weird, we will confuse agents and readers because there is no clear idea of where this sucker should be shelved. It will also make plotting more than problematic.

Fifteen years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to…

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George R.R. Martin on Outlining Before You Write (or Not)

It is Friday, and so it is time for a quote from a famous writer.

There are people on both sides of the outlining approach to writing. George R.R. Martin describes it this way:

I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail… the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another.

In another interview he clarifies which way he tends toward:

I hate outlines. I have a broad sense of where the story is going; I know the end, I know the end of the principal characters, and I know the major turning points and events from the books, the climaxes for each book, but I don’t necessarily know each twist and turn along the way. That’s something I discover in the course of writing and that’s what makes writing enjoyable. I think if I outlined comprehensively and stuck to the outline the actual writing would be boring.

Ultimately, there is no right way for this. Figure out what works for you. There are great and successful writers from both camps. However, I think Martin hits it on the head, that there is no one way without the other, but merely tendencies toward one or the other.

There are many who might think themselves purists, or fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants writers, or organic writers, or whatever. These writers tend to demonize outlining, and often planning, period. I used to side a lot more with that camp.

Writing this way is fun and exploratory, I suppose. It also churned out a really rambling and crappy first draft. I started developing more plot points that I was writing toward, because I realized things needed more focus, and the writing got better. Lately I have been studying plot and structure and the things that are known to be present in good fiction. The things that make good plot points, and ways to make my writing tighter.

I don’t know if I will ever be an all out outliner. I think I would tend to agree with Martin that to do this entirely would take the fun out of the writing. However, especially as a writer in progress, I think really thinking through and *gasp* planning out those plot points and major events, and maybe even some ways of getting there can be really beneficial. No matter what, you will probably discover many things, regardless of the plan. But good plots have structure.

Don’t just jump in and hope for the best, though. Most great works happen with a lot of planning, a lot of hard work, and, yes, discoveries along the way. But most likely you won’t have one without the other.

Why “A Wrinkle in Time” was merely OKAY (a review of a classic)

Now I know that this is a classic, and classics are classics for a reason, I suppose, and can sometimes be held above reproach. I am not one of those people. There are classics I love and classics I hate.

If you have stumbled upon this review and believe classics to be above reproach, then perhaps you should read no further, for you may indeed be angered a little, but perhaps not too much, so read on if you dare.

My official rating is: 3 stars (it was okay).

 

I am not sure how I ended up going through childhood without reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, up until this point. I read a lot of books. I have read fourteen this year, thus far, and yet A Wrinkle in Time took me about three months to push through. It is a short book, with rather large print. I read the first half of it in a few days, and then struggled to hold interest enough to keep reading, and then set it aside for some time, then I’d read a chapter and set it aside again.

Now I would like to clarify that this is certainly my style of book. I love children’s books. I love fantasy. I love science fiction. And I even share Ms. L’Engle’s Christian beliefs, which are fairly heavily present in the book. So my distaste stands squarely on the story itself.

I loved the ideas behind the book. Time travel is great. Tesseracts are supremely interesting. As well as supernatural beings like Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. I am all for it.

I think that the book was probably so beloved because it was smart. It depicted a scientist family and a girl who liked math. The other reason was that it had a female protagonist, Meg, who defied the social constructs of gender for her time.

But literature has changed, and I think that there are a lot more children’s books like this nowadays, though perhaps not as replete with science. But let’s talk about gender. There are lots of strong female protagonists today who actually show that Meg wasn’t nearly as strong as she might have been, in fact. Meg is strong, but in many ways she doesn’t want to be. She wants Calvin to hold her hand through everything, and she wants her father to be the one to fix everything that has gone wrong. Perhaps I am wrong in this. But we do not see this neediness in the characters of Calvin or Charles Wallace. They are much braver.

As far as the story itself goes, it was pretty all over the place. The first hundred pages or so are pretty straight forward. Who, Which, and Whatsit show up, reveal that the tesseract is real, and that Mr. Murry is captured in another universe. Meg and her little brother must go save him. Then a random boy from school, Calvin, sort of stumbles into the story. It is supposed to be fate, but feels contrived. Furthermore Calvin doesn’t bring much to the story. He doesn’t have a real reason for going through the tesseract himself. He doesn’t have a goal like Meg and Charles Wallace.

The three children go tesser to another world to pause and observe something called the Black Thing which stretches over all worlds, symbolizing evil or sin. Now it was here where I was led astray. This, to me, was building up the Black Thing as the main antagonist (and perhaps it is across all the stories). Instead, the Black Thing is never fully explained and just sort of looms over the story, without really adding or detracting from it all that much. When it does it feels rather contrived. It also took away from the real antagonist, in my opinion, the IT on the trio’s next destination, via tessering, the planet Camazotz, where Mr. Murry has been captured.

On Camazotz, everyone is very alike and industriousness seems to be the highest virtue. The planet is said to be covered by the Black Thing, unlike Earth which is only partially covered, and combated by Jesus and Buddha as well various artists and philosophers. The planet is controlled by IT, a brain which controls everyone on the plane, including Mr. Murry. Charles Wallace becomes controlled by the brain, which to me went against his nature. Mr. Murry is rescued, and then Meg must return and rescue Charles Wallace. The one thing IT does not have is love, and so Meg’s love for her brother wins out over IT’s control over Charles Wallace’s mind. The Murry’s plus Calvin go back to Earth.

The End.

 

We never really find out why Mr. Murry was there in the first place. Apparently, he simply ended up there while experimenting with tessering, and was imprisoned for refusing to succumb to the group-mind controlled by IT.

In many ways, I think the book suffers from trying to cover so many things in such a short time. The Black Thing, which covers Camazotz, which is controlled by IT, who controls the Man with Red Eyes, who is the Prime Coordinator of the planet and controls the people. In my opinion, it all got rather convoluted. Too many characters who don’t contribute enough to the story, as well as vague explanations of the bigger themes such as the Black Thing which didn’t fully play out in the story. In addition to what I’ve already said about Meg and Calvin’s characters.

Perhaps what let me down the most was that the story had the materials for something I thought could have been much better. Or perhaps I simply should have read it in the sixties in order to better appreciate it.


In summary: Great ideas, lackluster execution, and rather flat characters.

3 STARS

Creating a Story with Inherent Conflict and Memorable Settings (Worldbuilding — Part 3)

In my last worldbuilding post, I used the example of a gallows in the town square, and talked about how pointed details can accomplish much more in establishing the setting of your story than pages of gratuitous details.

Not only does that gallows set a tone quickly, but it is a function in the story world itself that screams conflict. Too many stories ramble on, and we are not sure what the characters want, and the conflict is not all that clear or gripping. Your story world itself ought to be reeking with conflict.

This does not mean we all have to write dystopias with gallows in the town square. It doesn’t mean we use weather either: it was a dark and stormy night, etc. It could be any setting element.

Think the Fault in Our Stars. In the opening, we have a bunch of kids meeting for cancer-patient awareness. That is a situational setting that immediately gives us conflict. A girl meets a cute, charming boy at such a meeting, and we already know something bad will happen. Cancer means conflict.

It can be relational or familial. In Alice Hoffman’s novel The Story Sisters, we open with three sisters in Central Park, in conflict over what to do about a mistreated carriage-horse, to leave it in mistreatment or steal it in order to rescue it. Two of the sisters are divided, and one is caught in between her two elder sisters. The eldest and the youngest do steal the horse, ignoring the warnings of the middle sister. Everything goes wrong. The youngest breaks both her arms. And we have a setting of sisterly conflict that goes on and on throughout the story. If the setting had been their living room, it would have been a lot more trivial conflict. Fighting over what game to play.

This inherent conflict can be accomplished in so many ways. It can be a setting of two warring families like Romeo and Juliet. It can be a small mining town where the government is trying to shut things down to be more eco-friendly. Don’t settle, write conflict right into the setting.

Just think if J.K. Rowling hadn’t implemented the House system at Hogwarts, and Harry just had a rivalry with another rather mean-spirited student. Instead, Harry and Malfoy become part of an age-old rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and they have many official school activities that help fuel this rivalry: Quidditch and the House Cup. Conflict is written into the system of the school.

What sort of conflict is there built in to the setting of your novel? Not sure?

Start thinking about it.

Your setting is not just the place and time and situation where your story takes place. It can be an endless source of conflict.

Don’t be afraid to set scenes in more memorable settings either. Have a lot of scenes occurring in living rooms and kitchens? Take us somewhere more interesting, where things can happen, and maybe where there can be an emaciated carriage-horse to quarrel over, or even a war.

Have lovers who are going to have a fight on their date? Set it in a restaurant? Typical. Not very interesting. How about on a sailboat caught in a storm instead?

I am not saying you can’t have scenes in living rooms or restaurants. But don’t be afraid to let your creativity flow either. Interesting characters generally don’t sit around; they go places where action can take place, and where there will be conflict.

That’s the whole point, isn’t it? To shake up a character’s world with conflict and get them out of their comfort zone and into the world where there are stories waiting to happen.

Why Writers Write

Probably the best way to learn how to write better is by listening to writers, or reading stories they wrote. So I’ve decided to start a new weekly post with writing advice from other writers who have things mostly figured out. At any rate, a lot of people read their work.

Here is the first:

It is the deepest desire of every writer, the one we never admit or even dare to speak of: to write a book we can leave as a legacy. And although it is sometimes easy to forget, wanting to be a writer is not about reviews or advances or how many copies are printed or sold. It is much simpler than that, and much more passionate. If you do it right, and if they publish it, you may actually leave something behind that can last forever.

ALICE HOFFMAN

It can be really easy to get caught up with what I would call “lesser lovers,” when it comes to writing. Those desires to be published or to hit the New York Times bestseller list or get rave reviews, they are not bad desires in any respect and can spur us to be better writers. But ultimately, I agree with Alice Hoffman. Even more deeply, the reason we pour our souls into these words and keep taking rejection and risking the despair that the work may be for nothing, is this: we hope to write something great, something people will love to read, something that will last for years and years and impact readers for generations.

Don’t settle for the lesser love as you set out to write. Don’t forget the other reasons entirely, but always remember why you are writing, deep down. The reason you are even afraid to admit. Write with regards to the lesser desires. But let that deepest desire guide your writing more than anything else. And someday, maybe next year, maybe in twenty years, you will write that magnum opus, that lasting work.

Write to that end.

A World in the Details — (Worldbuilding Part Two — Making Your Details Matter)

In yesterday’s post, we talked about how one of the biggest writing mistakes is often found in the setting, often most noticeably evident with a lot of info-dumping at the beginning of the novel, describing what the setting is like, how the world works, setting a tone through colorful prose.

These are great and necessary things when done properly. But too much will likely bog down your readers. And that is the last thing you want, especially at the beginning when you ought to be hooking your readers.

The first key is to build your world through action. The second key is to use sharp, pointed descriptions and details to establish your setting.

Small Details That Hold the World

I heard someone say once that the smallest places can contain the world. He was talking about how the smallest setting can say something universal.

I would say that the smallest details can say everything about the world you are creating. Pointed details can build more world than pages of description. Make your descriptions matter.

Every story has a setting and it needs to be detailed. But just because you have details does not mean they are adding anything to the story.

We probably don’t need to know the exact layout of your protagonist’s kitchen, along with all the contents on the counter, or what he is having for breakfast. We don’t need to know how many windows are in the bedroom, unless of course there is an intruder coming through one and the protagonist is escaping out the other. We don’t need to know the names of every street your MC is walking down. You get the idea.

cartoon6142When first trying to discover a setting, writers have a tendency to splurge on random, un-important details. I remember in my first novel I had a character who woke up and then I described everything in her room, and then went into a bunch of boring details about her getting ready for the day. It was just plain awful!

Details do not necessarily build a world. They have got to mean something.

For instance, let us say we are writing a dystopia. A gallows in the downtown sector of a major city tells a lot more about what sort of dystopic setting we (the readers) are entering into, as opposed to a page-long ramble about the government structure and penile system as the MC walks past the police station. A gallows in a modern setting is jarring, and says, Whoa! This is another world.

Leave a body hanging from the gallows, and it says even more.

Let the body belong to a child, and… you get the idea.

The gallows is not all we need to know. And maybe at some point we will need to know more about how the system works. Since every system must have rules, of course. But even then, let action drive it. Show us a character being subjected to the system.

Be intentional about the details you provide. That way when you make a point to describe something, the reader knows it is important. Otherwise, the gallows is just another random item in a long list of forgettable details. Make the details matter.

And not just because they are interesting or horrific, but because they affect your protagonist, or tell us something about your protagonist.

In Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, the protagonist is anorexic. She perceives everything she eats in terms of calories. And so detailing what she eats is very important to her character.

Perhaps your MC is eating TV dinners because he is in the middle of a divorce. The details tells us something important about the character.

The littlest, pointed details can say a whole lot about your character or your world. But if it’s not adding anything, beyond a list, then cut it. Just cut it.

Tomorrow we will talk about building a world with inherent conflict.

Worldbuilding Through Action (A World in the Details — Part One)

Perhaps one of the greatest rookie mistakes in writing is found in the setting. Not because the setting is no good, but because beginning writers tend to info-dump their setting into paragraph upon paragraph of details, all in the first couple chapters when you are supposed to be hooking the reader.

Setting is one of the most important aspects of your novel, and I believe it is one of the most poorly done aspects. Not due to content, but due to poor execution.

So I am going to spend a few days talking about worldbuilding more effectively.

 

Info-dumping

Info-dumping may be especially apparent, and tempting, in fantasy and science fiction, as the worlds are different from our own, but it is a tendency in any sort of fiction.

infodumpsWe want to figure all these little things out as the writer, and that is okay. We need to know how the world of our novels works. And so do the readers, but readers don’t need pages of details outlining infrastructure and government systems and so forth. They will almost assuredly get bogged down, bored, and will probably not read further.

Your novel needs a resonating setting that is nearly as gripping and complex as your characters. And you need to know how to paint that world strategically as you seek to draw in your readers.

 

Reveal the World Through Action

When I set out to write my first novel ever, I had some ideas about the setting, but mostly I was starting out with a few vague ideas and trying to figure out the details. I just started writing, and what came out was a couple of pages of detailed setting, before zooming in the “camera” on my protagonist, who was sitting around, and thinking about her troubles. In other words I had a really boring, but really descriptive first chapter that contained lots of information but no plot movement. I, the writer, discovered a lot, but the reader would have been bored.

Resist that urge to info-dump. Rather than spend pages of description at the outset, unfold your setting through your protagonist’s eyes during scenes of action. It’s okay to slow down every now and then and give the reader information, but don’t ramble, and don’t throw too much at the beginning. Just give us enough to spark our interest.

Inception-3-inception-2010-26665678-1920-1080

One of my favorite examples is the film Inception. It is a pretty crazy and complex film, and Christopher Nolan could have began the film before his characters enter the dream sequence and explained how the system of mind-heisting worked. But instead, he progressively reveals it through action. Show, don’t tell, you know.

We find out that the action is a dream, through action and dialogue, and then action tells us that the characters are in a dream within a dream, and so on. It is not until we are thirty minutes into the film that Nolan pauses to explain how the characters are able to hack into dreams. And even then, Nolan does it by introducing the method to a new character.

6f5Not convinced? How about George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones? Here we are given a grandiose and very detailed world. And yet, it slowly unfolds. He doesn’t begin with details about the history of Westeros, and details upon details about the relationships between Targaryens and Starks and Lannisters and so forth. He doesn’t tell us about the tension between Starks and Lannisters. This is revealed when Lannisters come to the Starks’ home in Winterfell. And more and more is revealed as the action of the story unfolds.

We don’t need to fully understand things to keep reading. In fact, wanting to know and understand more, may be the very thing that keeps us reading. Give us a character and a great inciting incident, and let the world unfold along with the story.


Tune back in tomorrow for Part Two and we’ll talk about using fewer but more effective details to enrich your storyworld.

Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story 3—Opposition

I am going to just keep re-posting these, because they have got some great advice!

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 10.59.42 AM

Ah, structure. We are discussing the fundamentals of story. No skeleton and our story is a puddle of primordial adverb ooze. In Part One, we talked about the micro scale of fiction the scene and the sequel, cause and effect. In Part Two, we panned out for the BIG picture, Aristotelian Three-Act Structure.

Today? We talk about the essential ingredient for ALL fiction. Just like carbon is the ONE key ingredient for all LIFE, conflict is the key ingredient for ALL stories. No conflict? No story.

If you want to self-publish or indie publish, I would assume most of you want to be successfully published, regardless the format or distributor. To be considered “successfully published” we have to sell a lot of books. To sell a lot of books, we must connect with readers. That is what this series is about. Structure is how readers connect to stories. The…

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