Moon Alligators

I think that sometimes the writing craft can start to take itself too seriously. We can get so wrapped up in scene structure and character complexity and viewpoint rules that it’s possible to lose our nerve, our verve, and our sense of fun.

After all, the imagination is like a child. Nurture it and set it free, and it will laugh, skip, and play. Hem it in and restrict it with too many rules, and it will sulk.

That isn’t to say that we should set aside what we know about structure and craft. But we should never let those elements chain us down until writing is a dreary, tedious chore.

When the storyline is bogging down … when my creativity seems stilted and static … I know it’s time for a plot twist, the less predictable the better.

In such emergencies, I can’t worry about what’s already been laboriously set up to happen in the story. I need to bring something in from left field. My writing teacher Jack Bickham called this tactic an “alligator” because it would be dangerous to the hero, arrive unexpectedly in the story, and be capable of doing anything.

Last week, I read a zany fantasy novel by Jim C. Hines called LIBRIOMANCER. Halfway through the book, the protagonist Isaac suddenly finds himself on the moon where he proceeds to fight robotic automatons in conditions of zero gravity and kicked-up moon dust.

In a million years, I wouldn’t have expected a fantasy novel to suddenly land me on the moon. (In the words of that Dish satellite commercial: “How’re we breathin’?”)

Hines doesn’t care how his protagonist is breathing. I’m still not entirely sure how Isaac even got up there or how he got back, except that magic was used.

Going to the moon was an alligator. It was unexpected. It woke me up. The protagonist was so jazzed to find himself on the moon that he made me happy to be there, too. The event didn’t make a lot of logical sense and it could have been cut without affecting the story. However, I’m so glad no dour editorial instinct slashed it to the trash bin. It’s charming.

Long ago, when I was writing the first novel that I would actually sell to a publisher, I got stuck about halfway through. I was befuddled and tired. I couldn’t think of what should happen next. I knew I wasn’t ready to push the characters into the climax. What to do?

That’s when I learned to cut loose with the “what if” game.

The only requirement for the “what if” game is that you should go for the most outrageous, crazy, wild thing you can think of.

Never mind how it will work or connect. Let yourself go with anything that strikes a chord with you.

In effect, give yourself permission to throw a pie in the protagonist’s kisser.

Hines let his protagonist walk on the moon. Then he found a way to make it fit.

In my first novel, A LOVE SO WILD, I put a dead rat in the heroine’s picnic basket. Why? Where did that come from? Dunno! But it made her scream, livened up a blah scene, and gave her a reason to fling herself, weeping, into the hero’s manly arms.

Even better, by bringing in an alligator, I found my flagging interest in the story revived. My energy level improved. My imagination went back to work. Yes, it was a challenge to plant a plausible explanation for the rat, but that’s what revision is for. Meanwhile, I wrote onward with renewed zest.

So when you’re stuck, try reaching for a moon alligator. Don’t censor yourself. Just have the courage to play.

You’ll write all the better for it.

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Making Luck

Do you believe in destiny?

Fate?

Luck?

Do you believe that opportunity comes only once?

Do you feel that some writers are incredibly lucky, achieving all the fame and glory while the rest are doomed to mediocre results or perhaps no publication at all?

Do you believe in yourself and your writing talent?

Do you intend to keep working and trying until you’re published?

Recently, one of my students–presently writing the first draft of his first novel–announced that he knows a career in writing isn’t going to happen for him.

And I felt that sharp, fleeting squeeze of intense irritation coupled with sadness.

He has just sealed his future. He has made a decision that will guarantee that he’ll never be a published novelist. In only his first attempt, he has given up.

Does he have talent? Yes!

So why is he tossing in the towel?

I can’t say. The answer probably lies within his dreams and aspirations. Undoubtedly he’s finding it difficult to learn–much less master–writing craft. He’s perhaps unwilling to put in the work and practice that learning a skill requires. Because it’s always harder than anyone expects.

And maybe, although he loves fiction, maybe the passion for writing has burned out. It does happen.

Or perhaps he lost faith in himself and is too young to understand as yet that everyone must endure trial by fire in any creative endeavor. The bigger our aspirations, the bigger the challenges we must overcome in reaching them. Nothing is easy. Nothing is going to be a shortcut. Just ask couples seeking to adopt babies. Or athletes striving for an Olympic gold medal. Or individuals trying to become actors in Hollywood. Or those studying and working hard to become doctors.

Why should writers be exempt from the sweat, doubts, fears, self-discipline, and effort that others go through in achieving their ambitions?

Writers have to train and train hard in order to bring our stories successfully to readers.

In the last five weeks, I’ve received similar messages in several fortune cookies: “Keep trying and you will succeed.” “What you most long for will come to pass this year.” “Persistence will pay off.”

Okay, yeah, I know it sounds a little too woo-woo to pin my hopes on that. We all know that fortune cookies contain affirmations that can apply to anyone. Still, at certain times in our lives we need those affirmations. We need anything that will give us heart, pick us up, and keep us going.

Here’s a Russian proverb that I also consider to be very inspirational: “Pray to God, but continue rowing to shore.”

So I dream, but I continue working as hard as I can to keep my writing skills sharp and my stories the best they can be at any given time.

As a career novelist, I firmly believe that writers make their own luck. Opportunities are plentiful, but unless we’re prepared for them we can’t seize them when they cross our path. Accordingly, I think it’s a waste of time to bemoan the missed chances. When we pass up an opportunity, it’s because we weren’t ready to take advantage of it. So the solution is to do all we can to prepare ourselves for the next one–or the right one–that comes along.

You may have realized all this long ago, but I’m a slow learner. It took me many years to stop berating myself because I rejected a lucrative publishing opportunity early in my career. For years I wasted energy regretting how I’d passed up a chance to make a lot of money.

Finally I came to understand that I’d rejected the deal because it wasn’t right for me. My instincts understood that I would have been a misfit in that genre, and probably I wouldn’t have written successful stories.

Instead, luck came to me in other ways–in other book deals. And I’ve learned that persistence makes all the difference. You needn’t surrender just because you can’t figure out how to complete your first draft. You needn’t stop marketing your manuscript just because you’re rejected once, twice, or multiple times. You must move forward–even if at times you feel like you’re crawling through a cave blindfolded–and you must follow the passion of your heart.

The publishing world is not a kind or friendly place. It’s tough, harsh, and at times barricaded behind a battery of no, no, no, no coming at you like bullets. If they shoot you down, okay. But it’s entirely up to you whether you stay down or you rise to try again.

I can’t control whether an editor makes me an offer or rejects my manuscript. But I do control my effort, my writing craft, and my level of determination. It’s up to me to stand ready to not only seize the chance when it comes by but to also recognize when it’s the right one for me.

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Beware the Cavalry!

ATTENTION! This post contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks grew bored with staring at each other and the mountain scenery around them. They decided to tell stories. Then they decided to write stories. That was so much fun they decided to perform stories on the stage, (inventing stone theater seating and acoustics along the way.)

They were clever, those Greeks. Thanks to a guy called Aristotle, rules of writing guided the slightly less-clever writers that followed. (You know, rules such as “Anything that doesn’t advance the story should be cut.” And that means you, too, Euripides!)

They figured out that the hero should take on forces of antagonism and wade into deeper and deeper trouble, but the ancient writers were a bit shaky on how to get said hero out of said corner. So they invented deus ex machina, aka the god machine.

You know about that, don’t you? A statue of Zeus was wheeled out on a little wooden cart. (Can’t you hear that primitive axle creaking as it bumped across the stage?) And Zeus dispensed poetic justice.

Big hit!

Audiences loved it. Everyone got what he deserved. The damsel was saved. The hero was rewarded. The villain took one of Zeus’s thunderbolts and fell in a puff of smoke. Ah, yes, the dawning of special effects.

Fast forward to the modern era and twentieth-century movie-making: at least in the early days of film, deus ex machina was still in use. Zeus had been put out to Olympian pasture, but lots of substitutes took his place. The white-hatted sheriff could burst into a saloon just in time to save our hero from being killed by a gang of outlaws in black Stetsons. Pauline could be saved from peril–whether an oncoming train or a giant buzz-saw–by her hero. The G-men could arrive in the nick of time to save the hero from Putty Nose and his gang. Et cetera. All characters had to do was hang on long enough for help to arrive.

One of the most popular genres in film became the Western. What’s not to love? Lots of action, whooping, shooting, and galloping horses. Even my Scottish terrier likes to watch that sort of excitement on television. (He’s bored, however, whenever John Wayne gets soft-voiced and kisses Maureen O’Hara.) In the early westerns, the cavalry was going to come if you could just wait for them.

Supreme among the early western films is a black-and-white masterpiece from 1939 called STAGECOACH, directed by John Ford. It made John Wayne a star. It also presented in-depth character studies of the cast members, something most westerns of that era didn’t bother with. The third act of the film involves a long chase scene of the stagecoach hurtling across the desert badlands, with screaming Apaches in pursuit. There are stunts a-plenty–astonishing for their day and notable now because they created the imitators that followed. You have the daring leap off the stagecoach onto the backs of the galloping horses. You have the bullets slowly running out until there’s only one left in the Colt of the last able-bodied male passenger. A bullet that he’s saving for the young lady saying her prayers, so she won’t be taken captive. And then, a bugle sounds and here comes the cavalry. They vanquish Geronimo’s warriors and save the day.

If we watch this classic film today, it’s easy to be caught up in the story until the finish. Then we tilt our head to one side and feel confused. Deus ex machina doesn’t quite work for us anymore. We’re left thinking, who sent the text message so the cavalry knew to arrive in this square mile of Arizona?

Try watching the Errol Flynn movie, ROBIN HOOD. It builds up to a rousing battle scene in Prince John’s castle. Robin and his merry men are fighting with all they have, but they’re hopelessly outnumbered.

Hark! A trumpet sounds, and suddenly here’s King Richard the Lionhearted and his army galloping over the drawbridge to save the day. He’s escaped captivity in Austria and returned from Europe at the very moment Robin most needs him. Woe to Prince John and his fellow traitors. Hurrah for Robin! Boo to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Make way for lovely Maid Marian!

As a child, watching justice return to ye olde England, I was happy with this outcome. As an adult, I watch happily until the end and then I sigh, thinking of how it’s grown a bit hokey there. A bit too convenient and contrived. A bit too coincidental for belief.

Modern audiences have become used to seeing the protagonist save herself just seconds before the FBI agents arrive to rescue her. We want our heroes to be more daring, more capable, and more successful. If the cavalry shows up, it’s only because our hero sent for them.

Are you thinking, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know this writing principle already. What’s the point?

The point is that every time I tell myself that by now surely every aspiring writer out there knows the cavalry can’t come anymore, I see it in use. Only this afternoon, I found myself correcting yet another student manuscript where the protagonist is rescued from danger multiple times during the story.

No! No! No!

The protagonist must find the solution. The protagonist must locate the means of escape and have the daring to try it. The protagonist must not fold his hands and sit tamely in place, hoping a dear friend whom he’s never met until this moment in story time will show up to save his neck from the guillotine.

That, my friends, is weak plotting. Check every danger point in your story for the cavalry and send them back to their fort at once.

Beware!

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Direct Opposition–Part V

Lastly, in this series on oppositional conflict, we come to the character type I call the opponent.

This individual serves a story as someone who is not an antagonist, not an enemy, not a villain. This character may be someone who loves the protagonist very much and who wants only the best for the protagonist. Trouble is, the opponent and the protagonist don’t agree on what that should be.

Direct conflict between a protagonist and an opponent works well for scenes where the story antagonist (or villain) isn’t present. Also, the opponent can provide conflict within a subplot and creates an opportunity for the writer to add complexity to the plot.

For example, Perry Protagonist has had a rough day in court. His opening argument has been shot down by Daniel Defender, and Perry comes home smarting from humiliation and the determination to do better tomorrow. His wife is worried about him and his stress level. She urges him to relax and forget about the trial for a few hours. She doesn’t want him sitting up all night reading depositions and fretting. Perry is impatient with her. He knows this is the case that can boost his career aims and impress his boss. He’s determined that the defendant won’t get away with his crime. When Perry’s wife argues with him, he speaks pretty sharply to her, making her angry. Their verbal fight escalates into marital issues, and Perry is left sleeping on the couch that night.

His wife is not his enemy. She loves him, but she doesn’t agree that he should neglect his family just to achieve his career goals.

Both Perry and wife are motivated. They care about each other, but they are in the kind of direct, clear disagreement that will advance the story. As Perry becomes increasingly desperate and consumed by his case, he will alienate his family and jeopardize his health. This raises the stakes for him personally.

It adds complexity to the story by adding more dimension to Perry. It will also make readers wonder if Perry will go too far just to achieve victory. Or if he will destroy his marriage–even himself–in his pursuit of justice.

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Direct Opposition–Part IV

Firstly, please accept my apologies for the delay in publishing this post. Since I was going to be very busy during the past two-three weeks, I thought I had this scheduled with WordPress for automatic posting. Apparently a glitch occurred, and the post never appeared.

All I can say is … OOPS.

When it comes to generating direct opposition for your story’s protagonist, the source of that conflict will come from an antagonist.

I use the antagonist label for characters who stand between the protagonist and his goal, who actively oppose and seek to thwart the protagonist, but who are not necessarily wicked or evil.

I view an antagonist as someone who has strong, justifiable motivation for opposing the protagonist and is willing to work hard to see the protagonist defeated.

Now, in my previous post, I flunked Wilbur Writer and got rid of him. So now, Antonia Author comes forth with her premise:

Perry Protagonist is an ambitious, hardworking, idealistic attorney in his first job for the local prosecutor’s office. He’s assigned a case where he must prosecute a man for murder. He’s examined the evidence and talked to the police investigators. He believes the defendant is guilty.

Perry’s up against an astute, cagey, experienced defense attorney named Daniel Defender. Daniel believes his client is innocent of the charges although he knows circumstantial evidence points to guilt.

Both lawyers have strong motivations for winning the case. The trial is taking place in a state that will execute the defendant if he’s found guilty. So a man’s life is at stake. Perry will do all he can to bring the defendant to justice in hopes of giving the murder victim’s family closure and a measure of peace. Daniel will use every trick and strategy he’s got to save his defendant from a wrong conviction and death.

Perry and Daniel may dislike each other. They may hate each other. Or they may respect each other professionally and belong to the same church and community organizations. But when they’re in court, they are in conflict and they are antagonists. It’s a win or lose situation, and neither man intends to be defeated.

This kind of direct, strongly motivated conflict will keep readers turning pages. Daniel may remain an ethical, determined individual or he may become a villain, depending on his choices and actions in the story. Either way, he will bring conflict to the story, scene after scene.

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Direct Opposition–Part III

Continuing my series on conflict created by various types of villains, here’s the list I’ve been discussing:

Concealed villains
Visible villains
Enemies
Antagonists
Opponents

I’m ready now to look at the category I call enemies.

It’s certainly possible for your story protagonist to have an enemy. This implies a past history between the two individuals, one that fuels their motivations for opposing each other. Or the enemy may be an opponent in warfare, from the other side.

But in this post, I want to discuss enemies in plural form, as in … not personal enemies, not Snoopy versus the Red Baron, but in terms of the protagonist coping with several villains, one after the other.

The hapless–rather hopeless–Wilbur Writer, still enthusiastically blundering along, has formed the less-than-brilliant intention of generating conflict for his novel by pitting Peter Protagonist against an entire series of villains–one after the next.

As soon as Peter escapes his mother (Velma Villain) and heads out to basic training, he’ll butt heads with Sgt. Ernest Enemy I, the loud, foul-mouthed, sadistic drill instructor determined to tear the recruits into little pieces.

“And then,” Wilbur says eagerly before I can call Halt, “there will be a slimy type in Peter’s barracks that steals from everyone, especially Peter. I’ll call him Icky Enemy II. And then, I’ll pit Peter against the big guy that always beats him in the obstacle course. That’s Eddie Enemy III. Then, once Peter’s through basic training, they’ll get to the colony and start hand-to-hand fighting against the Enemy Army. There’ll be so much conflict, my pages will be smokin’!”

(Sigh.)

I think it’s time to flunk Wilbur and send him home, don’t you? Aside from having picked up every stereotype and cliché out there, he’s gone from writing oblique conflict to direct, but now his premise is episodic. He’s moving Peter Puppet Protagonist from one story problem to the next, like beads on a string.

This type of conflict may feature explosions, bombs, combat, arguing, and competition, but it’s just activity without focused story movement. Such disconnected conflict quickly develops all the excitement associated with watching a metronome tick back and forth.

Yes, I’m aware that some of you are sputtering and waving your hands for attention. Aren’t there stories where numerous enemies work as villains?

Of course! Any quest story will feature a series of enemies. The Wizard of Oz comes immediately to mind.

So let’s consider it for a moment. Once she reaches Oz, Dorothy’s goal is to get home. To do that, she must follow the yellow brick road to see the wizard, who will tell her how to return to Kansas.

Dorothy sets off on her journey. But because travel in and of itself is boring in fiction, she encounters a series of apparent enemies. These individuals–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and later on the nasty trees, flying monkeys, and the guards in the Witch’s castle–prove to be gatekeepers. Each presents Dorothy with a challenge that she must solve in order to keep moving toward her objective. To that end, each enemy is in direct opposition to her objective of reaching the wizard so she can go home. She’s able to convert some of the enemies to allies. But she never stops working toward her goal, and she remains focused throughout the quest portion of the story.

By contrast, Wilbur’s outline reads like a patchwork quilt sewn by a blind monkey. He’s cooked up random events and problems that seem exciting at first glance, but they aren’t opposing Peter to any particular purpose.

Wilbur is writing to formula without understanding the story principle beneath it.

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Direct Opposition–Part II

In this series, I’m discussing the array of possible villains at our disposal. Here’s the list:
Concealed villains
Visible villains
Enemies
Antagonists
Opponents

Previously, I provided an example of how to bungle conflict using a concealed villain.

This time, I want to look at handling visible villains.

Wilbur Writer, fuming over having been chided so publicly in my prior post, has tweaked his story’s scenario as follows:

Peter Protagonist, determined to seek adventure, has enlisted in the Planetary Patrol. As soon as he’s completed basic training, he’ll be shipped off to a rebellious colony world to suppress an uprising.

Velma Visible, Peter’s mother, believes in galactic peace and worries about the safety of her only son. (Motivation) She leads a protest march through town, carrying a placard that reads, Moms Against Enlistment. She argues with his recruitment officer–thereby embarrassing Peter. She throws a hissy fit when Peter leaves for boot camp.

“There!” Wilbur declares with satisfaction. “Velma is right out in the open. She’s causing trouble. I have a good story premise now.”

Not so fast, Wilbur!

Let’s look at this example again. Do we have direct opposition between Peter and Velma?

Not quite. Velma’s certainly making her presence known. She’s raising a ruckus, but what happens to her when Peter ships out?

What carries the conflict through the other 215 pages of Wilbur’s story?

Once again, Wilbur has chosen oblique opposition over direct. The result may be anger, but Wilbur doesn’t even have Peter and Velma arguing face to face. Instead, he’s got Velma leading a march, Velma confronting the recruitment officer, and Velma crying and yelling instead of bidding her son farewell.

Oh, Wilbur, Wilbur, Wilbur, what are we going to do with you?

First, we’ll correct the obvious problems by looking at Peter’s goal, then positioning Velma directly against it.

A.) If Peter is determined to join up, then Velma should be equally determined that he won’t do it.

B.) If Peter has enlisted before his mom finds out and she heads to the recruitment office to rescind Peter’s enlistment, Peter will do his best to stop her from going.

C.) If Peter is in line to board the ship, then Velma should be throwing herself bodily in front of him, physically trying to stop him.

Even so, these corrections will help Wilbur only until Peter Protagonist boards his ship. The rest of the story still lacks a central antagonist.

“Don’t worry,” Wilbur cries with sudden inspiration. “I’ll introduce lots of enemies that will confront Peter. Wait and see!”

I see already the pitfalls that lie ahead of Wilbur. Do you?

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