From My Bookshelf: THE LITTLE BEACH STREET BAKERY

Have you heard of Jenny Colgan? Better still, have you read her fiction?

I just completed her novel, THE LITTLE BEACH STREET BAKERY, a mainstream book about a young woman struggling to restart her life after bankruptcy and a breakup with her long-time lover. She rents a place in a rickety building in a Cornish fishing village and finds solace and healing in the baking of bread.

Over the years, I’ve read so many books along similar themes — often featuring a divorced woman embittered by the shattering of her comfortable existence who then drifts through a plotless series of encounters with new characters.

I call such books the “Plotless Wonders” because so many of them go nowhere and simply let the protagonist wallow in angst, dive into destructive behavior, and muddle through some kind of pointless love affair that renders her more miserable.

However, Colgan’s novel was a pleasant surprise. It’s mainstream but it does have a plot. The protagonist is unhappy at first, but she moves forward in a positive, life-affirming way. There are sad parts to this book, and there are happy sections. She is kind and generous, not bitter. She grieves. She accepts. She makes a new life for herself. She even manages to strike a truce — eventually — with her antagonist.

I must say that my heart will forever belong to the charming little character Neil, who stole every scene and thoroughly enchanted me.

If you want a refreshing take on women’s fiction for this summer’s vacation read, give this a try. If nothing else, enjoy the loving depiction of bread and baking that kept my mouth watering.

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Shortcuts to Character Design

For those of us who don’t arise with the morning lark with a full-blown character in mind, courtesy of a dream, character design can sometimes be intimidating.

After all, there are so many details to consider — from what this fellow looks like, to how many siblings he grew up with, to his years of military service, to his self-concept, etc. In previous posts, I’ve delved into numerous aspects of design to consider. (And in my forthcoming book, THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA, there are a staggering number of questions that can help writers shape complex story people.) For the unwary writer, however, character design can become a tar pit of procrastination equally as dangerous as setting research.

After all, what if you don’t want to write a multi-volume epic? What if you’re intending instead to tackle a short story or novella?

Do you really want to be sidetracked into generating an elaborate, thousand-word background dossier for the protagonist of a two-thousand-word story?

Perhaps not!

Here are four shortcuts to utilize when you want to create a character quickly, or to deepen a character you already have:

FLAW

Your character should come with a built-in drawback or something inside that needs repair. The plot of your story will exacerbate this flaw enough to bring it out into the open, where the character can’t ignore it, conceal it, or deny it anymore.

Perhaps your character can’t commit to a new relationship because of trust issues. Perhaps your character is too stubborn and won’t accept change, good or bad. Perhaps your character is trying to overcome the temptation to embezzle from the company she works for.

FEAR

What is your character’s secret worry? What is vulnerable inside your character? Maybe it’s something from your character’s past that’s been kept hidden for years. Maybe it’s a fear of failure. Or maybe — like Indiana Jones — it’s a fear of snakes.

Whatever the fear may be, the story circumstances of your plot should put the character there, facing it, by the story’s climax.

DESIRE

What does your character want most of all? This element speaks more to motivation and a psychological/emotional goal than simply being the plot’s McGuffin. Harry Potter chases after the sorcerer’s stone, but inside he really wants to belong, to have a family that loves him.

OPPONENT

Who is your character’s enemy? Who stands in your character’s way? Who is determined to thwart your character’s desire, push your character into the situation she most fears, and take advantage of your character’s flaw?

Obviously you will have to flesh out a few details beyond these four elements, but use them as a foundation. Start with them and you should find the other details — such as name, hair color, and favorite foods — falling quickly into place.

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Postscript

In my last post, I ranted about plotting styles and compared the film THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to WOLF HALL, which is currently airing on my local PBS station.

I wasn’t complimentary to WOLF HALL so to be fair, I decided to give it another chance — a real chance. On Easter, I had watched it piecemeal during commercial breaks in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. So last weekend I watched the second episode of WOLF HALL in its entirety without interruption.

Alas, my opinion of it has not changed a jot. Modern minimal plot structure may be the current trend, folks, but it just ain’t for me.

I want rich, robust story with people in conflict.

Given that Henry VIII’s struggle to uproot an entire religious system in order to impose his personal will on his realm, his court, and his church is permeated with conflict and the characters involved are tested to the utmost by their clashing political situation, conscience, and moral principles — how can a writer justify squelching all of that juicy, dynamic drama into this bland, boring, low-key mumble of a production?

If you happen to love WOLF HALL, good for you. The costumes are great.

Otherwise, I will seek story elsewhere.

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Fighting for Story

There’s a quiet battle waging in the entertainment arena these days.

Classic story design versus minimal story design.

Plot versus character.

Story-driven versus problematic situations.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray.

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small.

Scene-based conflict versus discussions of problems.

Resolution of story versus open-ended stopping point.

Now, there’s no simple explanation for this situation. Too many factors ranging from the flux of trends in prose fiction, TV, and films to cultural pressures and social agendas are all mixing into what’s currently taking place.

The why, in this context, is less important than the acknowledgement of what is happening. And writers need to be aware of it so they can decide whether they want to stand for one side or the other or whether they simply want to follow the current trends like flotsam riding a river.

Classic story design versus minimal story design

What is this? What does it mean? What’s the difference?

Classic design is the plot structure that’s archetypal — meaning it’s worked universally since the dawn of time. It follows this pattern:  a protagonist pursues a goal despite the active opposition of an antagonist until the conflict escalates to an ultimate showdown and the protagonist prevails or loses.

Minimal story design is where the protagonist is facing a problematic story situation but is reactive to it and may not necessarily be facing a direct foe.

Plot versus character

This debate seems a bit pointless to me because plot derives from character and what a character wants. However, the phrase “plotted story” generally means a story that follows the archetypal pattern of a protagonist in pursuit of a specific goal despite direct opposition.

The “character-oriented story” is sometimes shaped around the circumstances surrounding the protagonist and how that individual responds to or thinks about it. There may be a perception of a desired goal, but little action will be taken toward it.

Story-driven versus problematic situations

Story-driven refers to the protagonist initiating confrontations in scenes in order to accomplish a specific objective. Each confrontation causes a chain reaction or consequences as a result that lead to bigger complications for the protagonist.

Problematic situations are difficulties in the life of the protagonist or problems afflicting someone the protagonist cares about. But there’s no particular human foe behind those difficulties. They are often stemming from adversity such as illness or financial worries or some nebulous sense of unhappiness or misery.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray

It’s become unfashionable to label fictional characters as the good guy or the bad guy. To consider someone a villain means you must make a judgment. You must gauge this person against your standards, ethics, and principles, and find him or her lacking.

In classic story design, we need villains just as we need heroes in order for the story to take shape. Fiction is art, and art makes order of reality. The story protagonist must become heroic in order to prevail over an opponent who chooses expediency enough to become a villain.

While some mainstream fiction out there seeks to explore the concepts that there is good and evil in every person, classic story design acknowledges this while pushing the characters to move to one side or the other of that line. In other words, will the flawed protagonist change and take risks or overcome inner fears to become heroic and win? Or will the character waffle and wallow in doubt and angst until nothing ultimately is achieved?

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting

Classic design unfolds a story in a logical, cause-and-effect chronology. It begins with the catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action. Thereafter, it moves in a linear direction toward the finish where the story’s climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.

Webbed plotting involves numerous flashbacks to dramatize past events or character motivations through scene action. It involves several viewpoints, which in turn requires the story to present each viewpoint as directing a subplot. Strict chronology of story events is deemed less important than a character’s feelings or perspective. Although web plotting can generate more depth of characterization, if handled poorly it can result in a split focus in the story and much difficulty in achieving effective story resolution.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small

In classic design, there is no attempt to hide a scene antagonist. Every scene is focused around conflict, which is created by the clash between the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal.

Classic protagonists are heroic, strong, and admirable. They are presented to readers in ways that make readers like them, sympathize with them, and relate to them. This is not by accident. It is through the writer’s design and intention.

Classic antagonists are devious, ruthless, and driven. They may hide some of these qualities beneath charm or lies, but they are not depicted so that readers will like them.

I’m not saying that good guys won’t have flaws or bad guys won’t have positive qualities, but whatever the character design is … go for bold. Exaggerate that quality. Own it. Flaunt it. Build it bigger. Don’t be timid in writing characters. Make them vivid.

The drab, small, insignificant character that’s designed for realism is a character that comes across as flat, dull, and unimportant.

Writers who fear being considered melodramatic and cheesy tend to constrict their characters into bland, monochromatic, non-achievers.

Scene-based conflict versus discussion of problems

Is there anything more boring than two drab characters sitting in a small, drab room, discussing a small, drab problem without ever getting up to do anything about it?

That’s too realistic for my taste. When I read fiction, I want to follow a viewpoint character through tough problems right into the heart of conflict and see that character meet the challenge or be temporarily flattened by it.

Minimalized plotting reduces the drama, shrinks the scene conflict, seeks subtlety at the expense of story progression, and usually devolves into dull yammering circular dialogue.

Conversely, scene-based conflict focuses a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, brings an issue out into the open, pits the two characters against each other, and drives one or the other into victory or defeat.

Resolution of story versus open-ended plot

Okay, I get that the current fad is to leave stories hanging in order to entice readers into buying the next volume in a series. I get that in this rough economic climate publishers are desperate for a sure thing and would rather expand a book series than take too many risks seeking new authors or fresh stories that might or might not grab public fancy. I get that TV series are generally now structured like novels from start to finish of the season or all the seasons in their entirety, stopping weekly episodes with cliffhangers like book chapters, to keep viewers tuned in.

I get it and I understand it. However, the danger with too much of it is that readers — and inexperienced writers — lose touch with how stories should be resolved, how questions raised within stories should be answered, and how readers should be taken through a cathartic experience of anticipation, suspense, emotion, and satisfaction at the story’s conclusion.

You can resolve a plotline and settle issues between hero and villain sufficiently to give readers a feeling of completion without losing opportunities to set hooks for the next installment to come.

The habit of leaving every single thing open and hanging eventually creates a perception that this is the norm. This is realistic. This is believable.

No, it’s too much like real life.

Fiction isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s art, and art focuses on the message its creator wants to convey. Story is contrived by writers to transport readers to a different place and time, to put them vicariously through tremendous challenges and difficulties, and to let them survive, prevail, and grow as individuals.

Last weekend, I settled in to watch ABC’s special presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s masterful feature film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. I have been watching that film since childhood. Some years I focus on the costumes or sets. Other years I skip the parts I like less and wander in and out of the living room when the movie reaches the points I enjoy most.

This year, what struck me was the writing and how strong in technique it actually is. The storyline of the two rival princes vying to be Pharaoh’s successor is well written so that each character is powerfully motivated, and every scene — even if it is between a princess and her faithful servant — carries clear, easy-to-follow conflict. Every scene centers on a clear character goal, and every scene ends in a setback for the central character.

I was surprised by my reaction to the technique. Usually I acknowledge it as a matter of course, but this year I found it soothing and reassuring. It was comfortable. It worked. The plot rolled forward, and even the subplots made sense. I felt myself relaxing and truly enjoying the way the story unfolded. I realized how much I’ve been missing that kind of writing in what I view–and often read–these days.

In contrast, I took advantage of commercial breaks to click over to my public station to check out the Henry VIII drama on PBS Masterpiece — WOLF-HALL. Granted, I was watching it in small snippets, but the characters were drab and drawn with such subtlety that I found the drama hard to follow. Few historical events are as dramatic as the battle between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey, and I’ve seen — and read — several fine fictionalized accounts. But this version was small, realistic, drab, talky, and shaded to the point that I wasn’t sure whom I should be rooting for and whom I should revile. Only my actual historical knowledge of the characters involved helped me understand anything of what was going on.  Scenes faded into each other. There didn’t seem to be any significance to what was depicted. The episode didn’t make me care. If you think I’m being unfair by comparing DeMille and ancient Egypt to a smaller BBC production of Renaissance English politics, then pit WOLF-HALL against the film ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS.

 Even so, the two programs I watched Easter Sunday couldn’t illustrate the point of this blog better. One classically designed, clear, easy to follow and compelling. The other modern, realistic, webbed, shaded in drab stripes of gray, no clear-cut hero to cheer for, no clear-cut villain to boo, no reason to keep watching, no point in returning.

Call me old-fashioned if you wish. But muddled technique does not a compelling story make.

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Growls and Grumbles

Okay, I can’t stand it anymore. I have to complain about the misuse of homophones that seems to be steadily creeping into common usage, blogs, and — much worse! — publications such as national magazines. I’ve chosen two that are proving as irksome to me as that pea keeping the princess awake.

In recent years, the expression “free rein” has been turning up with increasing frequency as “free reign.”

While I can understand that there’s some logic to the usage of “reign,” which means to rule, in this context it is incorrect.

The expression free rein derives from riding horses, whereby in certain circumstances, you might loosen the bridle reins until they are slack. Giving the horse free rein allows the animal to transport you at its own discretion and/or in a direction of its choosing. There are times, if the terrain is very rough, when it’s sensible to let the horse pick its path without your guidance.

Over time, the expression has crept into common usage to mean allowing someone the freedom to do as he pleases in a particular situation — e.g. John gave Billy a free rein with his modeling clay.

The other misuse that’s particularly bugging me today is the confusion between “broach” and “brooch.” The first word means to introduce a topic into conversation or negotiations. The second word refers to a piece of jewelry which is worn pinned to a woman’s garment.

Therefore . . . At dinner, Alice broached the suggestion of eating turkey on Sundays.

Jenny wore a vintage rhinestone brooch pinned to her wool coat.

But for heaven’s sake, please don’t wear a broach!

Our language is rich, diverse, and large. It’s also quirky and idiomatic, meaning it isn’t always logical or easy. And while I don’t expect folks to always understand the meaning of, say, terpsichorean ululations, I don’t think brooch, broach, rein, and reign are difficult for anyone who claims to have a modicum of education or literacy. What I find particularly egregious — and what’s led to my curmudgeonly tirade today — is when I see such befuddlement in print. Magazine editors, however understaffed and overworked they may be these days, have an obligation to their readers, their publication, and their employer to get it right.

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The Dullness of Timidity

I’m seeing a trend among my writing students these days … the avoidance of a villain in the stories they write.

No villain leads to the absence of conflict …

Which causes weak scenes …

Which creates dull writing …

Which guarantees bad story.

Is this lack due to insufficient reading in young writers? Or is the current insistence of our modern society on being sensitive to others having a trickle-down effect toward villains?

In a previous decade, just the very suspicion of something so ridiculous would have had me slapping my forehead in disbelief. Today, I’m not so sure.

Are we now trying to be nice to story villains? Are we now trying to see their side of things and give them more than the benefit of the doubt? Are we now playing the relative card when it comes to situational ethics and making excuses for their behavior on the pages of our own manuscripts?

Surely not!

And yet, where are these rogues? These outlaws? These bad guys? Has Snidely Whiplash and his descendants gone the way of the dodo? Why aren’t my students coming up with antagonists?

Granted, these young writers have often experienced a soft life. They don’t always know lack or struggle. They may have been coddled throughout their young lives, praised for efforts rather than results, and shielded from the world’s unkindness. So perhaps they don’t recognize bad guys, don’t understand them, and don’t see the need for them in writing stories.

Wow. I never thought I would witness the looming extinction of fiction antagonists.

And yet … lately, I’ve been trying to explain in class exactly what antagonists are and why they’re necessary for stories to work.

It boggles the mind.

When antagonists do turn up in amateur fiction, they sometimes have a phoney, faked lack of plausibility to them. They’re weakly designed. They seem unsure of whether it’s okay to do awful things to other characters.

Let me just say that, in fiction, timidity guarantees dullness. If you’re timid with your character design or your characters’ actions, then chances are you’ll be timid when it comes to your plotting. You’ll never take creative risks. You’ll never develop flair.

Let’s look at an example:

Here’s a character named Stanley. He works as a bank teller. He lives alone in a small rented house in a medium-sized city. He drives an aging Civic that’s a fading silver gray color. On his days off, Stanley shops on eBay, sometimes takes in a movie, and mows the grass.

Stanley, declares Wanda Writer, is going to be the bad guy of my story. Stanley is going to rob the bank.

Seriously?

Why should he? This bland character is barely memorable past a few paragraphs. He couldn’t cause any trouble for the story protagonist if he tried. And if Stanley suddenly, on page 2 of Wanda’s story, pulls a revolver from his lunch kit and waves it at his coworkers, readers won’t believe the plot.

Stanley cannot work as a plausible bad guy because 1) he lacks motivation; 2) he’s not vividly designed; and 3) he’s not a villain.

Let’s address these flaws separately:

1) no motivation

Why would an ordinary guy like Stanley suddenly risk imprisonment in order to steal from his place of employment? What would drive him to such extraordinary measures?

Maybe his mother is dying of cancer because her medical insurance won’t cover the medicine and operation she needs. So Stanley is going to help her by stealing the money.

That’s a motivation, but it doesn’t make him a villain. Let’s suspend this quandary for a bit while we examine the next problem.

2) vague design

Let’s jazz Stanley up. His real name is Artem. He came illegally to the U.S. as a child, smuggled into the country. He was put to work begging on the streets, then stealing cars, and later running drugs. Arrested and convicted as a youth, he learned computers while in juvvie. Now a skilled hacker, he left the Russian mob to work alone. He moves frequently, changing his name and identity, taking employment at banks or businesses until he figures out a way to infiltrate their accounts and clean them out. Then he’s gone, a phantom, heading for the next medium-sized city and his next opportunity to steal. When he has enough millions stashed away in an off-shore account, he plans to retire on an island where there’s no extradition treaty. There, at last, he will live the good life.

According to plan, he’s presently adopted the name of Stanley Brown. He’s renting a modest house and he’s landed a job at the local branch of a state bank. He’s driving a used Civic of no particular color because it’s harder to identify, but underneath the hood the engine is a souped-up monster that can outrun any cop car on the streets. He keeps a mistress in a nearby community, and she knows him by a different name. He refuses to make any relationships, any ties that might render him vulnerable. He’s frugal and seldom goes out for entertainment. At night and on his days off, he’s hacking, doing his best to figure out how to break the bank’s firewall of security.

3) villainy

At present, Stanley is starting to take better shape, but he’s still just a criminal and hardly a villain. It’s necessary to push Stanley over the line. Now, Wanda Writer could decide that Stanley poisons the neighborhood dogs for fun, but that’s just something crazy and doesn’t connect with the story parameters.

It’s usually helpful to think about the story protagonist and what that individual’s qualities are. The protagonist and antagonist should be tailored into foil characters — opposites of each other or characters who will stand on opposing sides of an issue. So who will stand in Stanley’s way?

Maybe, despite all of Stanley’s efforts to be a loner, a co-worker has befriended him — or tried. Let’s call this teller Nick. He’s served in Afghanistan and seen how soldiers returning home can become withdrawn loners. Nick can’t get Stanley to talk much about himself, but he’s aware of how Stanley shows evidence of possible former military training in the way he stands or watches or is alert. Or maybe Stanley acts like a guy who’s done time, yet Stanley’s background check was clean. Nick thinks Stanley is much too much on his own, and tries to draw Stanley out by inviting him over for a barbeque with the family, asking Stanley to bring his girlfriend along, etc.

Suppose Nick isn’t really a teller, but is in fact a security expert posing as a common employee. Evidence of hacking attempts have triggered alarms in the bank’s computer security system, and Nick’s on the alert for who might be trying to breach the accounts. Maybe Nick is himself ex-military. He’s suspicious of Stanley, but he can’t actually get any proof on the guy. And maybe another employee is more suspicious, so Nick is unsure of which person to watch.

As Nick closes in, and Stanley feels pressured or endangered, perhaps Stanley will retaliate against Nick’s wife or small children. Now Stanley is crossing lines. He is demonstrating — through his actions and goals — his capacity for villainy.

[I should also note here that Wanda Writer had better do some research on banks, hacking, and security systems to see if any of the above scenario is plausible.]

1) back to motivation

Remember that we suspended motivation until we knew Stanley better? Let’s now readdress this issue. How can Wanda Writer put more pressure on Stanley? Perhaps he didn’t just leave the mob. Perhaps he was made the fall guy to save his boss, and that’s how Stanley ended up in jail. For years, he’s felt resentment at such a betrayal.

Raise the stakes. Pressure on Stanley will drive him to take desperate measures. Maybe he’s just a greedy man. Maybe he’s a sociopath. Or … maybe he’s afraid to go back to prison. When Nick — a guy that Stanley perhaps likes in spite of himself — starts closing in with suspicions — and when Stanley learns that Nick, his friend, is in fact the security inside man who is trying to catch Stanley, then Stanley will feel betrayed and angry. All that anger from the past will be turned against Nick, and Stanley will retaliate.

And the stakes go up again.

This isn’t to say that a writer and readers don’t understand how villains become the way they are, but we aren’t obliged to sympathize with the bad guy, or condone bad actions, or excuse them.

So let bad guys (and gals) in fiction be bad.

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The Slog and the Glory

From time to time, I’m approached by a student wanting reassurance that writing will bring guaranteed success or income. My answer is usually to tell the individual to choose another major. Shocked, the young person often walks sadly away and gives up the creative dream.

The reality of writing is that it bring no guarantees of any kind. Very few things actually do. Those of us who write generally do so because we can’t not write. It is a part of our heart. It is our blood, our breath, our life. We can turn our backs on it. We can close our ears to its siren’s call. We can ignore it, and we can smother it. But we do so at the peril of rejecting a gift that most people will never experience.

Of course, the writer’s life is not always kind. It’s certainly not easy. Dictating bestselling novels while reclining on a chaise longue and eating chocolate is more fantasy than reality. Just when you think you’ve come up with a genius-level story premise, you find that no editor is interested and no publisher will buy it.

And when you’re slogging along in what feels like a muddy rut to nowhere, a friend will email you and ask, Have you checked your numbers lately? They’re fantastic. Congratulations!

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say over and over, “Trust the process.” And that’s all a novelist can do when half-blind, dazed, fatigued, and unsure whether any scene in the middle of his book is working. You trust your idea and your knowledge of the writing craft. You have faith in those elements, and you just keep going.

Once I learned how to put scenes together, how to write dialogue, how to design characters, how to control viewpoint, and what pacing was all about, I had to learn trust. And trusting something can be the hardest lesson of all.

I’m stubborn. I’m deliberate. I’m inclined to take my time. I do not trust quickly or readily. I was the child who spent the entire first week of my two-week series of swimming lessons learning to put my face in the water. But once I give my trust, I give it.

When I learned that trusting the writing craft would see me successfully through the completion of a novel every time, I put my belief in it. I won’t say that every book I’ve written since then has been stellar, but I know that when a story falters it’s due to my mistakes and not the fault of writing principles.

I’ve also learned to trust my story sense and the fact that I was put on Earth to write stories. I don’t mean to sound grandiose or egotistical in expressing that. It’s just the way I’m made. It’s what I do.

For me, writing flows in a feast or famine cycle. There are lean years and fat years. There are times when I am unable to explain to anyone why I continue to write. I just have to.

Experience has taught me that if I keep going, keep utilizing my craft to the best of my ability, then just about the time I feel most lost is about when the famine cycle flips to a feast.

In my view, if a writer gives up when feeling most discouraged, then he’s never going to find the glory that follows the slog.

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