Fire and Passion

You come across a book by two authors you’ve never read before. You read the first one, and it’s like finding treasure. The characters spring to life on every page. The action is exciting. The suspense is hair-raising. You can’t bear the anticipation of reaching the story climax and yet you can’t stop turning pages. And when you reach the ending, you’re both exhilarated and sad that it’s over. You click online to see if this book is part of a series because you want more.

Then you read the second book you purchased. Your reaction is meh. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. You find yourself trying to like the characters, but they’re merely okay. You can’t love them. You’re struggling to care about whether they’ll succeed. The story moves competently through its paces, and when you finish you’re mostly relieved that it’s over. Definitely you won’t seek any more of this author’s work.

Besides allowing for a reader’s personal taste, what’s the difference? Two authors with equal numbers of publications. Two authors with equal amounts of professional experience. Why is one writing copy that’s alive and one writing copy that’s flat?

Are their ideas that unequal?

Probably not. Very likely the difference lies not in the story premise but in their approach to their material. Writer One put her heart into her book. She wrote it because she had a passion for the story and her characters. She lived and breathed the emotions. Writer Two wrote because she had a contractual deadline to meet. She outlined a story in a competent way. She designed characters because they either fit a publisher’s guidelines or because she’s found certain characteristics sell better than others. She put her her characters into challenging situations, and then chose appropriate words to convey their emotional reactions.

One writer wrote with her heart. The other writer wrote with her mind.

Now in certain genres, such as hard science fiction or puzzle mysteries, the mind is what’s most needed. These books are focused on the story problem to be solved. They are not relying on intense character internalization and growth.

But for most genres, the heart is vital. Emotion in characters brings them alive. The writer must care about the character and the issue first. If the writer cares, then the character involved will care. If the character cares, then the reader will care. Investing emotion into a situation means stronger motivation, stronger attempts, stronger conflict, stronger confrontations, stronger reactions, and stronger determination to prevail from the story people.

Sure, writers have to think about their plots and work through the development of outlines, but once that foundation is laid, writers must then write the story from inside the protagonist’s viewpoint. That is what’s made to appear to drive the story forward.

But if a writer attempts to write fiction from the outside, the character will always seem flat and the authorial hand will sometimes be too evident in moving a puppet character here and there.

 

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The Contrivance Factor

Is there such a thing as plausible contrivance?

If we want to be philosophical about it, we could say that all fiction is in fact that very thing. We lie and contrive to create our stories and characters, and readers accept the Great Deception in order to play make believe with us.

But that’s not what I want to address in this post.

Instead, I’m thinking about the writer with a carefully outlined plot, where each event has been planned and placed in an order that makes sense and is driving the protagonist toward an exciting story climax. And yet, perhaps halfway through the story–or two-thirds of the way in–something goes amiss.

Let’s say you have Polly Protagonist in a tight spot. She barely escaped an ambush by irate werewolves. She’s been chased across Dark City. She’s cut off from her friends and the cops. She can’t get back to her fortress on Shady Elm Street. All she can do is take refuge with vampire queen Moira, who lets her in.

Fine and dandy so far.

However, the plot outline says that Moira is hostile. Okay, check.

The plot outline says that Moira’s brother learns what she’s done and overreacts, threatening to burn down Moira’s hive if she doesn’t kick Polly out immediately. Huh?

Okay, STOP!

Let’s think about this. Doesn’t that seem harsh? Would Buddy actually burn out his sister? Are they enemies? Why? Couldn’t he just phone and suggest that Moira not harbor human Polly? Why the extreme overreaction?

The plot outline says that Polly must be cut off from all help at this point, so her situation will be harder, and she’ll have to turn to the Ancient Crone and strike a Fatal Bargain–something she’s dreaded since page 4.

So, in other words, the writer of this yarn needs Polly to be evicted by the vampires, thus keeping her in trouble.

[Push pause while we consider this for a moment.]

When you’re writing toward a particular turn of events or plot twist, beware of contrivance. Contrivance is simply when a story event occurs without plausible reason or motivation for the author’s convenience.  While writers can pull off nearly any conceivable story action if they motivate it properly, in my example Moira and Buddy are not motivated. Therefore, on some level, what they’re doing is no longer plausible. And while it’s possible to create so much danger and froth in story action that readers might keep turning pages, the reader will start to doubt. And when readers doubt, they stop believing.

Sure, I can go back and devise a backstory where Moira and Buddy fall out, and now he’s always angry about how she runs the vampire hive, but why over-complicate my task? I need to think about the key to this plotting misstep, which is that Buddy overreacts.

Why?

If you’re plotting, you should always be able to answer that question for any character in your story at any point in the plot. If you don’t know, or you haven’t given the matter sufficient thought, you will fall into contrivance.

The important point is that Polly must be evicted. Yet Moira will seem peculiar indeed if she gives Polly refuge then kicks her out two pages later. Why would she do that? Sure, sure, she’s doing it because Buddy has threatened her, but why would he do that? I know I keep repeating this question, but it’s important and deserves an answer. How does he know Polly is there? Why should he care? What is the story situation anyway?

So if we want Polly evicted, we have to invent a plausible reason for Moira to change her mind. Perhaps Buddy doesn’t threaten her. Perhaps he’s learned Polly is hiding inside the hive and he’s concerned that the werewolves will next turn against the vampires in retaliation. Maybe a savage and costly war between the werewolves and vampires has just ended, and the new treaty is pretty shaky. Buddy doesn’t want the conflict to start up again. He doesn’t want his sister caught in the middle. So he warns her from concern for her safety.

Now, doesn’t this work as a reasonable motivator for Moira to apologize but firmly push Polly out into the cold?

The plot outline is saved, but we’ve ditched the contrivance factor.

Often writers make this type of error when the plot is clear, but writer fatigue or a desire to hurry and finish a long writing project rushes the typing along too fast–or too heedlessly. Be on the watch for it, and don’t let it slip past you. Vigilance can only result in a better, more enjoyable story.

 

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Count Down …

Having a book come out is always exciting and a day to celebrate, but it’s been a while since a real, tangible, printed-on-paper version of my work landed on my doorstep in a box. I peeled off the tape and pulled out the packing, and behold, there it was. My author’s copy of THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA–a long time in the making–all shined up and ready to launch.

February 1 is its street date. I’m told by a friend that Amazon at least will be shipping on February 3. Big breath. That’s when we’ll see if the anticipation has been justified, if all you wonderful supportive purchasers will get your money’s worth.

Meanwhile, I’m emotionally pacing the floor like a mommy watching her five-year-old ballerina run onto the stage for that first dance recital.

Fingers crossed.

We’ll see.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula Final

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Publication Announcement

If any of you have read my fantasy trilogy, THE SWORD, THE RING, and THE CHALICE, then you might be interested to know that in December 2015 I published a new novelette called THE KING’S LADY on Amazon Kindle. It deals with the first week of Dain’s reign as King of Nether, where he’s struggling to find his feet and meet the challenges facing his realm. Dain has a lot to learn in these early days, and he’s just getting started.

The King's Lady cover

I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to fill some of these “gaps” in the Nether storyline. As time permits, I plan to add more stories, including a continuation from where I stopped with THE KING IMPERILED. It was never my intention to stop there or leave readers hanging with unanswered questions. Now that I am no longer dependent on Ace Books to bring out this series, I look forward to doing more with it when my contractual obligations allow.

As for the Mandrian series with Queen Pheresa, her story was intended originally to run parallel to Dain’s, but the time lines grew apart. I have several twists and turns still in store for her.

Meanwhile, give THE KING’S LADY  a look, and see what you think.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B019YQU5W8/ref=s9_simh_gw_g351_i1_r?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=0CYZPCCZ3C931A94XQ07&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=2079475242&pf_rd_i=desktop

 

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Finding Your Story

Writing fiction involves a variety of elements:  knowledge of the craft, story sense, intuition, preparation, flexibility, focus, and trust. Some writers can only manage to juggle a few of them. For example, a writer may cling to writing technique so rigidly that he or she is unwilling to receive constructive criticism, reluctant to revise a single word, and resistant to deviating from the initial story outline. Other writers may rely so completely on inspiration or the muse that they can’t stay focused from start to finish, and the very suggestion of planning or outlining makes them break out in a panicky rash.

Those are the extremes on opposite ends of the spectrum, of course, but they illustrate accurately the issues that some writers suffer in trying to get stories on the page.

Let’s look at these elements more closely:

Knowledge of the craft involves knowing how to write sentences well, how to convey meaning clearly and coherently, how to spell and punctuate, how to open a story, how to build conflict, how to design characters, how to deal with viewpoint, description, rising action, pacing, and how to write an emotionally cathartic climax that resolves the story in a way satisfying to readers. Craft comes easily and instinctively to some. For others, it can be an arduous, challenging ordeal of practice and study. Either way, you must know your craft if you are to become an effective writer. Not only in terms of your readers, but also in view of how the process of putting a story together needs to be something you’re so well trained in that you no longer have to consciously think your way through scene construction, for example, but can instead put your full attention on the content of that scene and what your players need to say and do in it.

In short, knowledge of the craft frees your mind to concentrate on the actual story.

Story Sense stems from your talent and how exposed you’ve been to stories. Have you read copiously for a long time? Doing so builds and enhances your story sense. Are you a film buff, one that watches movies not to examine stage direction or camera angles but the story and emotions? Then you’re adding to your story sense.

Avid readers possess excellent story sense, and that’s why they become irate if a plot suddenly veers off course or a character reacts in a way inconsistent with her design. Think of the little boy in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, protesting when he thought his grandfather was messing up the story. That’s story sense at work.

As a writer, listen to it and let it guide you. There are times when writers hit what seems to be a dead end or they face putting together a huge and complicated story event that intimidates them. But even if they lack sufficient craft to know how to handle what lies ahead, if they will heed their inner instincts they usually come out fine.

It can be challenging to obey story sense. So often we’ll think of something for our protagonist to say or do and then we talk ourselves out of it. Later, an editor or writing coach will ask, “Why didn’t Irmentrude open the door?” and you shout, I thought of that! I was going to do that! And then … I sort of talked myself out of it.

Why?

You lacked confidence in your own story instincts.

Intuition is closely allied with story sense. Maybe it’s another term for the same quality. But it’s an emotional feeling about where you should take your story next, or about what you should write about, or about which character should be your protagonist. Intuition is your gut telling you to have your hero leap off that building, even if you aren’t sure how to ensure his survival. Intuition pushes you to take creative risks, to dare let your characters say and do things that you wouldn’t in real life. Intuition is your gateway into creating larger-than-life story people and situations.

Preparation involves thought, research, planning, plotting, testing, and outlining. Good prep saves writers time. Yes, it delays actually typing words when you’re dying to get started. But it rescues you from dead ends, mental roadblocks, plot holes, and other dangers that can force your plot off course. What’s so horrible about writing a plot outline anyway? It makes you face the soft spots in your idea. If you face them, then you can fix them. Better by far to do that than write fifteen pages that later have to be thrown away.

Some writers, especially when they’re inexperienced or still learning their craft, shy away from outlining because they don’t have many ideas and they’re afraid to over-examine what they have. In fact, they may know instinctively that their idea is weak and won’t hold up to examination.

But if your story idea is so fragile that it will crumble in an outline, it’s not worth writing. Good ideas can’t be destroyed. You can examine them, thump them, test them, play the what-if game with them, invert them, change the characters around then back again, and they will hold together. What a relief that is!

You prepare by making sure you have a central protagonist, a central antagonist in direct opposition, and a clear goal. With that triad, you can then logically and systematically create a series of events that will occur as these two opposing characters maneuver against each other to achieve what they want.

If you skip this preparation or ignore the triad, then you will be doing a lot of writing and tossing, again and again. Perhaps that’s your method and you persist until you finally find some sort of plot you can follow. But often, writers who are unprepared hit too many roadblocks and obstacles and end up confused, frustrated, and willing to abandon what might have become a very good story.

Flexibility means being willing to allow a story leeway. It means that despite the planning and outlining and careful thought, there is still elasticity in the story’s framework for a few unplanned details and incidents that will enhance and improve the plot. It also involves being willing to listen to an editor or agent when they make good suggestions for the story’s improvement. It means keeping yourself humble enough to continue learning no matter where you are in your writing career.

Focus is achieved through preparation, through knowing you have a solid plot that will go from start to finish without dumping you somewhere in the middle, and then sticking with it. Not rigidly, but following your outline without taking wild tangents or impulsively changing your protagonist’s motivation for no better reason than a dream you had the night before.

Focus is about sticking with a draft until the story is completed. It’s about pushing aside distractions and doubts and worries and fatigue, and continuing until you type “The End.”

Trust was perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned in my training–other than the actual craft itself. Because once you know how to construct a story and how to put the triad in place and how to line up goals, conflict, motivations, and reactions, you have to trust the process. Even with an outline, I find myself in the fog partway through a novel. I’m human. I’m a writer with a big imagination. I can conjure up fears and self-doubt as well as anyone. I can grow weary of my characters. I can be so tired I can’t hear my story sense sometimes. And yet, I have to trust that what I’ve set in motion will keep going. I know that if I line up certain pieces of any story properly, it will move successfully to the finish. And I have learned to trust that, whether I can see light at the end of the tunnel or not.

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Contriving to be Stupid

One of the pitfalls writers can stumble into is when they know exactly where they want their story to go. Their ending and theme are clear in their minds, and they are so determined to reach that plot point that if they aren’t careful they may end up contriving part of the storyline to reach it.

Let me provide you with a couple of examples: [SPOILER ALERT!]

The 1940 film THE MORTAL STORM depicts a non-Jewish German family in the 1930s that begins as a comfortable, well-established, close-knit group but is torn apart as Hitler rises to power and the sons and their best friend are caught up in fascism. The film presents a chilling example of how dangerous peer pressure can be for adults, and was made as a warning at a time when the U.S.A. was not yet involved in WWII.

[SPOILER ALERT!] Despite this compelling plot and its inherent conflict, the film stumbles at the climax. The heroine and her friend attempt to escape over the Alps and are nearly to the Austrian border where safety lies. (In the story’s time frame, Austria has not yet been annexed by Germany.) However, just as they have one last slope to ski down to safety, a German patrol shows up. All the couple has to do is wait until the patrol is gone. They are breathless and exhausted. They are hidden in the rocks with a good vantage point. Why not sit down and take a breather? Oh no! As soon as they see the patrol and exclaim in dismay that it’s shown up, they immediately launch their skis and head down a long, open, snow-covered slope where they can’t help but be spotted.

Now the whole point of this character action is to test the girl’s ex-fiance who is in command of the patrol. Will he order his men to open fire on his girlfriend? He does, and she’s killed. The screenwriter or director or producer wanted to depict how far her young man will go in order to follow Hitler. There’s a close up of the agony in his face as he gives the command. And the ending is very sad.

Except it’s not. How can viewers share emotionally in this “tragedy” when the girl has been so stupid? Her fate has been contrived to achieve a certain end, and it just doesn’t fly.

Here’s another example:

Some years ago, I was writing a historical romance set during the French Revolution for Harlequin Books. To tip the book from its mid-point into the third act, I needed the heroine to be abducted by the villain. So focused was I on this objective that I contrived her capture by having her leave her hiding place and go wandering out through an orchard in search of something to eat. The idea was that she would pick a peach, be seen, and although she would run for it, the villain would catch her.

Fortunately I had an editor that refused to pass such nonsense. She yanked my chain hard, calling my heroine “stupid.” And she was right. I had to go back to the drawing board and rewrite that story event completely, coming up with a much more plausible way for the heroine to land in trouble without being a complete idiot.

Here’s the lesson: of course every event in fiction is a contrivance. Writers are moving their characters here and there through a plot for a desired effect. The challenge lies in concealing that contrivance from readers, so that readers suspend disbelief and vicariously experience the story as it unfolds.

The trick in achieving that concealment hinges on proper character motivation for every action, no matter how risky. Failure to provide a plausible reason leads to characters that may be too stupid to live.  And stupid characters become unsympathetic characters.

Perhaps in THE MORTAL STORM the screenwriter wrote a valid reason for the couple to risk death in skiing where a German patrol could not help but see them. But it ended up on the cutting room floor. Oops.

My novel ended up with a rewrite and some Band-Aids, but it got the job done. Even so, I still wince when I think of that scene.

Know where you’re going, but avoid character stupidity in getting there.

 

 

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Chapters

For some reason, chapters tend to baffle newbie novelists. I am frequently asked questions such as

What are they?

How long should they be?

How should they start and end?

Are they the equivalent of a short story? Is a novel a series of short stories strung together in chapters?

Should they have titles?

Let’s take these one at a time.

Chapters divide a novel into sections that psychologically give readers a stopping point. They help to break up a very long story and make it visually less intimidating. They serve to assist writers with transitions, viewpoint changes, and the setting of hooks. They are usually centered around a plot event.

Therefore, if an average-length novel contains roughly 20 plot events–give or take–then there will be approximately 20 or so chapters.

Chapter lengths vary. Time was when chapters were lengthy, featuring perhaps two or three scenes, with sequels in between. But then James Patterson started the trend of very short chapters. His rationale was based on shortening attention spans and multi-tasking, where readers are increasingly distracted by our hectic, modern world. So you might pick up an older, midlist book where chapters run as long as ten or fifteen pages. Or you might decide to read the latest young adult bestseller, where chapters average two to five pages.

The shortest chapter I can recall reading is in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It’s one sentence long.

It’s placed somewhere in the midpoint of the book for special effect, and it works beautifully as a transition and pacing change.

Chapters should end with hooks. Chapters should begin with hooks, or viewpoint changes, or time/location changes. Avoid starting each chapter the same way. Avoid ending chapters with your protagonist falling asleep. Set a hook at the end to keep readers turning pages.

Chapters are not short stories and should not be written in the same way. As I’ve already mentioned, they are either focused on a story event, which may involve one scene or two scenes. They may be focused on the aftermath of a major story event, where the protagonist has to pause and process what just happened.

Chapter titles usually appear in fiction for young readers. They serve as a guide or a foreshadowing of what’s about to happen. In effect, they are a tiny hook to keep young readers going. Fiction for adult readers seldom requires them.

 

 

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