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Evil vs. Hope

Several years ago, I participated in a book signing at a Hastings bookstore in some far corner of my state, and while I was waiting for the session to start I found myself chatting with a store janitor cleaning the aisles. When this man found out I was there to autograph copies of my latest fantasy novel, he mentioned the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling’s stories were then new and wildly popular, and this man was unsure about them. The popularity of the books worried him. He wasn’t sure about their themes of magic and sorcery. He was concerned about children reading the stories and how those stories might influence young minds to turn to the darker side of human nature. Most of all, he feared the villain he’d heard about.

My answer to him was as follows:  If you don’t write about evil in a story, how can you dramatize good overcoming it?

It made him think in a new direction. He went back to sweeping and I resumed signing books. My answer was a valid one because fiction needs a villain to test the hero and force the hero to change and/or grow; however, the janitor’s concerns should be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In the years since, they have stayed with me.

This morning I was reading an article called “Why We Need Utopian Fiction Now More Than Ever” by Eleanor Tremeer. It’s about the growing desirability for utopian themes to return to science fiction. As our real world careens through a climate of uncertainty and anarchy, it needs hope.

The author raises a good point; however, science fiction has a long history of reflecting the current times and whatever fears the population has. For example, the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear attack generated numerous stories about mutant monsters such as Godzilla rampaging against a helpless population. Our current glut of dystopian settings mirrors concerns about climate change and societal unrest.

Even so, I confess that I’m ready for some optimism in my fiction. I find myself worrying about the present state of so-called children’s fiction where it seems that anything goes. Do middle-grade children need to read dark, edgy stories that feature violence and disturbing anti-social behavior? If I stand on my answer to the janitor, yes. Books need evil in them, providing it’s overcome.

But if it’s allowed to prevail, what are we doing?

As I pick up book after book in the kids section at my local bookstore, I find myself sharing that janitor’s concerns. In children’s fiction, we need to take care. I’m not recommending that we censor books unilaterally, but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves: What does this story have to say? How will this affect a child reader? Will this provoke a child to ask questions? Will this influence a child to be more sensitive to the feelings of others? Will this inspire a child to be braver, more honest, and emotionally receptive? Will this frighten a child? Will this teach a child that lying is okay? Will this desensitize a child? Or will this make a child think, so that in the future the child can make connections and understand bigger, more challenging themes or issues in part because of having read this book?

Such issues used to be called the responsibility of authors toward child readers. Publishers, librarians, and teachers were gate-keepers that steered young readers to stories they might be ready for and away from stories that were perhaps too intense or confusing for them at their particular age. It went hand-in-glove with broadcasting’s prime-time regulations for television content, stipulating that certain programs could not be aired until 9 p.m. when children were in bed. There was a general agreement that children were to be protected–not just by their parents, but by all adults. At the same time, middle-class American society permitted any adult to reprimand a child for improper behavior anywhere at any time.

Having grown up in that era, I enjoyed a childhood with a bubble around it. I was protected yet given considerable freedom to play and roam just about anywhere in my community. My mother knew that the elderly lady down the street would phone her if I was doing something I shouldn’t. And I knew that if I ran into trouble I couldn’t handle, I could seek help from an adult. The single warning criteria repeatedly stressed was never to get into a car with someone I didn’t know.

That is not our world today. It is not the world that children grow up in now. The bubble has been shattered. Chide a misbehaving child in public, and you run the risk of having her parent attack you like a ferocious she-wolf. Helicopter parents guard and hover over their children, who rarely set foot outdoors and seem managed constantly. Stranger Danger is the lesson kids are taught, and they are so shielded from adults that all grownups are perceived to be a) monsters or b) totally without authority or relevance.

I find it odd that despite so much parental protection, no one seems to be watching the content of children’s books. They are troubling due to their tone, the behavior of the characters, the rudeness and profanity that now sprinkle the pages, the inability of a child protagonist to stand alone, thus gaining self-reliance and independence, and–most alarming of all–their lack of conclusive endings where evil is met, confronted, and defeated.

When stories don’t dramatize the termination of villainy, they are themselves, in their cumulative effect, villainous.

Which brings me back to Tremeer’s point about our current need for hope in fiction. When you do not feature a true villain that can be confronted, outwitted, and defeated, you are serving defeatism.

You are writing a pessimistic story that leaves nowhere for readers to go. You are saying, this is a bad situation and it can’t be fixed. It will go on and on without end, without resolution. Just survive it as best you can.

That’s not the approach to fiction that I know or love or believe in. It’s not the approach to life that I want to have. It’s not what I want to see spoon-fed to children as entertainment.

Do you?

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Book Announcements

A bit of news to share …

After a considerable delay, THE SALUKAN GAMBIT, the sixth title in my SPACEHAWKS science-fiction adventure series previously published in paperback by Ace Books several years ago, is finally uploaded to Amazon and should be live in Kindle format in a day or so. It ties in closely to #2 in the series, CODE NAME PEREGRINE. I am considering using THE SALUKAN GAMBIT as a potential launching point for resuming the series with new adventures, but that project is still in the planning stages at this time.

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Also, my current new work in progress now has a completed rough draft. Woo hoo! I am editing it now, and will provide more specific information about it as it nears publication point. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, my summer’s writing plans went somewhat awry, so I’m especially pleased to be making progress on this project. It is entirely new material, and after spending such a long span of time bringing up my backlist to digital e-book format, something new is a welcome change that’s given my imagination a boost.

I hope each of you is likewise having success in whatever you’re working on, whether a long story or a short one, a screenplay or a novel.

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Testing Character

As I mentioned in my previous post a few days ago, I’m working now on the ending to my current manuscript. I’m not rushing it because a) my life is filled with distractions/interruptions and I want to get this portion of the story right; and b) I want to make sure I’m testing my protagonist sufficiently and appropriately in these last few pages.

“Test” seems to be an unwelcome word to many of us. It kicks our memories back to schooldays, when teachers put us through the wringer of pop quizzes and frightful exams.

At the time, we suffered through hours of study or wished–too late–that we had cracked our books more than we did. If we were sufficiently prepared, then we felt confident. Otherwise, test days transformed us into bundles of nerves.

But what are tests for?

To enable cruel teachers to torture us? To determine whether we’ve memorized the names of all the county seats in our home state? To make us sweat?

Answer:  They’re a gauge of whether and how much we’ve grown or altered.

To be tested academically means we’re forced or enticed to study and prepare. Doing so  broadens our knowledge, insight, and perception on the selected topic. That preparation forces us to change from having little or no knowledge to possessing increased knowledge.

To be tested physically means we train our bodies to learn tasks and/or skills or to become stronger and more fit. We practice. We stress our muscles. We perform cardio workouts. We gradually improve our body’s state of fitness or we learn to perform certain movements easily, gracefully, and efficiently.

There are other tests, of course, but I needn’t define them all. The point is that tests of any kind are designed to force us to change.

Late Thursday afternoons are when my university’s ROTC units practice marching. This week, I saw cadets in casual student attire standing at attention. By next week, as I leave work, I suppose I’ll see them marching in unison. At some point, they’ll be wearing uniforms while they practice their drills. Every week, I’ll see a more visible change in these young men and women.

So we get it. We don’t like tests, but we recognize their purpose and usefulness. In fiction, a story’s real point is to test your protagonist.

How? And why?

Let’s examine how first:

1. The test for your focal character begins with a problem for him or her to solve. Something has changed in this individual’s life or world. It’s something that directly impinges on your protagonist, something that is immediate and impossible to ignore.

2. As soon as your protagonist attempts to solve this problem or deal with this situation, an antagonist must step in to oppose those efforts. It’s up to you the writer to figure out a plausible motivation for that opposition. Just keep in mind that opposition needs to be strong and direct, and it should grow stronger and more direct as the story progresses.

3. The story problem or situation can be purely a physical one, or it can be a complex one involving emotional or psychological issues within the protagonist.

–If physical, such as wildfires are raging toward the protagonist’s home and community, and she must try to save her family, pets, livestock, and possessions before everything she owns is lost forever, then the plot is purely an external, surface one. There is no deep soul-searching required. How much will she risk? How important is her property to her? How long will she fight to save her house or barn? Etc.

–If internal, such as the protagonist feeling consumed with guilt over having betrayed a friend by sleeping with his wife, then the external plot conflict should move the protagonist toward confronting that guilt, getting the issue out into the open, and solving it once and for all through confession, apology, atonement, or a fight.

As for why we need to test our protagonist:

1. A story about a character that remains static, is never tested, never grows, never changes is not a classically designed story at all, but merely a vignette. A few authors possess the talent and insight to present such a protagonist in an interesting way, but it’s merely a frozen depiction. Is that enough to enthrall today’s jaded and impatient readers the way it did in the mid-twentieth century, the early twentieth century, or even the nineteenth century?

2. We test our protagonist because classic story design is about creating an arc of change within this focal character. We are showing readers an example that change in behavior, or attitude, or knowledge, or situation is possible. Therefore, we are offering hope and optimism to readers held in the webs of an increasingly stressful and complicated world.

In the controversial (for its day) 1950s film, THE YOUNG LIONS, Marlon Brando portrays a young German who believes that Hitler offers him the hope of change and possibility. He feels that with Hitler in charge of his country, he will no longer be forced to work in the same career as his father, or live his life in the same small village where he grew up. He is eager to break the bonds of an almost feudal system, to reach for all the potential he feels he has. The film follows him as he enlists in the army and then becomes gradually disillusioned, horrified, and rebellious through witnessing the atrocities of a Nazi regime. This character is tested again and again by plot events, conflict, and stress into changing his ideas until he is willing not only to disagree with his orders but to defy them.

3. We test our protagonist because without stress or pressure or opposition or intense trouble, it is human nature generally to resist change. We might desire a certain status or item, but if achieving it takes too much effort we aren’t likely to bother. For example, I desire to be slimmer, but that means changing what I eat and sustaining a regular exercise program. Am I willing to give up chocolate milkshakes and cheeseburgers? I am not. Therefore, my weight remains where it is.

People have good intentions all the time, but they are like rivers that follow the path of least resistance. Therefore, we test and pressure our protagonists because a) they aren’t real people and we can force them to undergo whatever we design; and b) we use how they handle conflict to show readers that change is possible.

4. We also test our protagonists to make heroes of them–at least we do in commercial and genre fiction. We are entertaining readers by showing a transformation, and readers participate vicariously in that experience. Thematically, transformation is extremely popular with audiences of all ages. Fairy tales explore transformation of many kinds. Small children tie bath towels around their necks for superhero capes. Fathers take their children to movies in the STAR WARS franchise to show them the mythology surrounding the Force. Little girls grow up planning their weddings, when–at least for a day–they become a princess like Cinderella, conveyed in a limo, wearing a fabulous gown, and destined to dazzle the eyes of Prince Charming waiting at the altar.

5. Finally, we test our protagonist to prove to readers that he or she can take all the hits the story problem is going to dish out, cope with them, and survive. We show readers that the protagonist deserves to achieve the story goal, deserves to solve the story problem, deserves to win, deserves recognition and reward because the protagonist has taken the test and passed it. Giving a character what he or she deserves is meting out poetic justice.

When so much of real life can seem unfair, reading a story where matters work out as they should and heroes are rewarded while villains are punished is very comforting indeed.

And comforting, rewarding, just, optimistic, transformative, fair, and affirmative stories sell.

 

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Writing Days

Summer is winding to a close. The hot days that press down on the prairie like a sizzling iron have eased to moderate temperatures, thanks to the hurricanes pounding the coasts. My brain is starting to wake up and revive from the stupor that three-digit temperatures always induce in me. (My roses feel the same way, perking up and putting on their fall flush of blooms.) Autumn in the prairie cauldron is a short-lived season, one to be seized with joy and gratitude because finally we feel revived and able to get a few things done.

Like write.

Yeah, I know that the sun is mellowing into the golden radiance that late September and October bring, the kind of light that lures me outdoors despite my best nose-to-the-grindstone intentions.

I know that it’s time to clean up the yard, clear off the patio, put away the lawn chairs, wash the windows, treat the grass, buy pumpkins and pansies, plant tulip bulbs, tarp the AC compressor and cast iron patio table, decorate for Halloween, contemplate how many Christmas trees I might put up in November, find my flannel shirts and–more importantly–my socks, and generally get ready for winter, but I need to write.

So many distractions swirling like the north wind that will soon have brown, red, and golden leaves skipping across the lawn–and yet, I need to write.

I am this close to writing the climax of my current work in progress. It was supposed to be one of two books completed this summer. Alas, that objective was not reached. My sights have lowered to the all-important task of getting this one manuscript finished. I can do it. I just have to ignore the beckoning autumn weather, park myself in my writing chair, and type those final scenes.

Back in the days when every summer was a race against the ticking clock of looming publisher deadlines, involving the writing of long, large-cast, complicated novels before my return to the university campus, I typed like a madwoman. The final days of rough drafting were crazy, nearly round-the-clock sessions of writing, eating, writing, crashing to sleep, and rising to write more. I refuse to count the number of years I spent on that particular work treadmill, and how I pushed myself to meet the challenge again and again.

This manuscript is not that complicated. There is no deadline, except the one I’ve set. I have savored the luxury of taking my time. It doesn’t mean I’m writing better. It doesn’t mean this light adventure has any depth. But I’m writing, and for this year–this summer–that is enough.

Here’s a quote from Louis L’Amour that I like: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

We can let ourselves freeze up from doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty. We might be facing the kind of story we’ve never done before. We might feel we don’t know what we’re doing. We might feel we’re too rusty, too untrained, or insufficiently talented to write what is filling our heart and imagination. As creative people, we can invent a dozen reasons why we shouldn’t try.

But as L’Amour says, turn on the faucet. Sit at your keyboard and type. Make your protagonist talk to someone, even if it’s the nosy little girl next door that has nothing to do with your plot outline. Type anyway, until your story sense takes over and the real scene starts to flow. You can always cut out the little girl later. Or, you might decide to keep her.

Roll with it.

Write.

Enjoy the fall weather after your writing session for the day. Whatever your daily page quota happens to be, meet it, even if some pages are too weak or inane to keep. And during the days when buying pansies beckons, reduce your page quota–if your deadline will allow–so you don’t feel guilty and you don’t miss the fun.

And, for as long as you need to write, do it.

 

 

 

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Star Making

Ever see the movie, A STAR IS BORN? Take your pick among three–soon to be four–versions.

The original film came out in 1937 and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. It is NOT a musical. While ironically in real life Gaynor’s career was waning and March’s was just hitting its stride, Gaynor’s portrayal of a star-struck girl named Esther who comes to Hollywood with no training and no contacts contrasts well with March’s brittle acting technique. This version, unhindered by big musical production numbers, focuses on the plot of a nobody of extraordinary talent discovered by an alcoholic major star on the skids, their relationship first as mentor and student, then as friends, then as newlyweds, then as a married couple held together by her determination, and finally the heartbreaking tragedy of his ultimate sacrifice for her.

Today, some critics find the original story line to be less plausible than the subsequent versions. I disagree in that I feel they are thinking too literally. The story is all about being star-struck, about having dreams that are bigger than you are, about finding the guts to reach for them, about maybe–just maybe–meeting a mentor that will give you a helping hand up to your first foothold, about then clawing your way forward through hard work, persistence, and raw ability, and about the price you always pay for whatever you achieve.

The 1954 version–sometimes referred to as A STAR IS REBORN–is all about a Judy Garland comeback. She’d been off-screen for four years before fighting her way back to the lead of this film. Critics seem to love this one. After all, Judy Garland! What more needs to be said?

Well, I think quite a bit. The story line in the second film has been significantly altered, although most of the major plot points remain. Garland’s character Esther has worked her way up to a mediocre singing career, where she has hit a plateau. She’s happy there, until James Mason’s character hears what she can really do with a song. He convinces her to reach higher. The film, despite having George Cukor as director, struggles to balance the plot against numerous production numbers that showcase Garland’s voice. It often loses that struggle and sags badly in the middle.

In Cukor’s defense, the most egregious number–one that goes on and on and on and on–was added after he’d finished the film, requiring a few plot points to be cut. (And as we writers know, editors can sometimes chop and hack our polished effort brutally to fit some production agenda other than our artistic vision.)

The film also suffers from lost footage, so there are weird patches of black and white photo stills overdubbed by dialogue. While damaged footage is common to silent movies because of age and faulty storage, it seems peculiar for a film made in the 1950s.  I don’t know what occurred to damage Garland’s movie. I believe the film was restored in the 1980s, when the stills were inserted as some sort of Band-Aid measure. If you have never seen the 1937 film, you’ll find this section of the Garland movie to be baffling.

Garland’s talent is undeniable. The voice is still strong. The acting is still delightful. But she looks fragile and strained. Her personal issues show in her face, but like the character she’s playing, she hangs in there.

However, the original version had a grandmother character who embodies the theme of the story. She is the one that encourages Esther’s dreams and sends her cash when Esther is struggling to find work in Hollywood. And when Esther feels beaten and is ready to throw her career away, the grandmother steps in and chastises her for being a quitter. There are several reasons why I prefer the 1937 film, and the grandmother is one of them.

As a writer, over the years I’ve known feast and famine, success and failure, high praise, touches of glory, and moments of disappointment so acute I wasn’t sure I could go on. All of that goes with a writing career. There are times when the only way to keep going, to keep writing, to keep submitting is sheer determination. So I like the grandmother’s scene where she won’t let Esther quit or throw away all that’s been achieved. It speaks to me, and that’s what story (whether prose or film) is for.

The 1954 Garland version lacks the grandmother character. Occasional care and encouragement are provided now and then by the character of the studio head, but there’s no tough love coming from granny. (As for those who claim the Garland film is more plausible than the Gaynor version, I ask if you really swallow the concept of a studio head being as warm and kind as a grandmother.)

Few actors can cry or transmit grief better than Garland, so she tugs your heartstrings enough, especially in the scene when Esther is worried and crying about her husband and then is called by her director to resume her performance and hits it perfectly, but I wish there had been one less overdone song to make room for preserving the grandmother role. Scriptwise, it’s important to keep that theme of paying the price–which to me is the core of the entire plot–going.

As for the two other film versions, also centered on music, there’s the 1976 vehicle with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. I admit I haven’t seen it. Streisand’s singing ability is huge, although her acting annoys me. Kristofferson–a talented songwriter–has never otherwise impressed me. Since I haven’t seen the film, I don’t feel it’s fair to comment on its merits or possible flaws. However, it’s a copy of the copy. Let’s leave it at that.

Now, there’s going to be a 2018 effort. I believe the film will be released this October. It stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Is it to be a copy of the copy of the copy? In 1937, Frederic March channeled the amazing but self-destructive John Barrymore for his performance. In 1954, for her performance, Judy Garland channeled the very best of the amazing but semi-destroyed Judy Garland. Who will this year’s stars channel, if anyone? I hope the music appeals to Gaga’s fans. I hope the best of the plot remains preserved. But I hope most of all that the theme of reaching for your dreams despite the price you pay has not been tossed aside as irrelevant.

Anyone in the performing arts, whether writer, actor, or singer, has to face that reality sooner or later at any level, and find the guts to pay up. Anyone who’s driven to perform or write–or why else do we do this–must pay. If you don’t, if you quit either by giving up due to discouragement and fear or by refusing to train and hone your craft or by drowning your doubts in self-destructive behavior, then that means you are silencing the muse and destroying your gift. Think of poor Whitney Houston–blessed with outstanding talent–who threw it away. There are so many other tragic examples. Don’t be one of them.

If the price before you seems too high, ask yourself why. What must you give up or sacrifice for it? Time, effort, and hard work? What else are you going to do?

If the timeline for success seems too long and discouraging, so what? As my father always says, “Time goes on anyway.” Get started and keep going!

If the price challenges your ethics or honor, take a second, even harder, look at the situation. No writing gift requires you to cheat, plagiarize, steal, or lie. Back away and choose a different path to your dreams. Find a price you can pay.

Face reality. Your heart may be set on writing bestselling novels, but your ability lies in nonfiction. How can you make that work for you? When I began my career, the hottest genre on the market was romances. I tried, but my heart wasn’t in them. I had to choose other genres, knowing they were less lucrative. That was a price I became willing to pay. One of my favorite novelists, Georgette Heyer, was brilliant at writing witty, socially satirical Regency romances in the style of Jane Austen. She wanted, however, to write mysteries. And although she penned several, they never achieved the outstanding success of her Regencies. Did she pout? Did she quit? No, she kept going.

Once you’re in the game, how will you stay in it? By being willing to make sacrifices, by putting in hard work, by adapting and changing what you do and write as the world, your readers, and the markets shift, and by never quitting.

Remember that whether you are a big or little star, you make your luck through persistence, hard work, and being prepared to seize opportunities when they come your way.

 

 

 

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Exploding Plot

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion–that’s Plot.”

–Leigh Brackett

Have you outlined a tidy, well-organized, and logical plot for your story? Are your characters busy being civil, well-educated human beings going about their lives and work, sighing now and then over a lost dream or one of life’s disappointments? Are they angst-ridden mopers propped up on bar stools, feeling sorry for their failures and delivering beer-sodden soliloquies that are your insights to life?

Are you typing and typing and typing, compiling a ever-growing page count while in the back of your mind you worry whether your story is actually going anywhere and how will you end this thing anyway?

And if you have a reader that’s honest with feedback instead of simply an ego-supporter, and that person is quiet after perusing your sample pages and hasn’t much to say in reaction, then it’s time to face reality:

Your work-in-progress could well be a self-indulgent, staid, lackluster, sanitized bore.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Where, I ask you, is the fire?

A book, a story, a yarn intended for the commercial market isn’t a collection of words, or character speeches, or passages of description, or self-conscious style, or even a slice-of-life duplication of life’s most mundane moments.

Instead, it should be alive, with vivid characters bursting with emotion. It should be messy, because human beings are squalid, and tender, and ferocious, and petty, and heroic, and gentle, and greedy, and contradictory messes themselves.

Your characters should be in trouble. Not just suffering from a bad day. Not simply afflicted with the choice of whether to purchase a white car or a blue one. Not concerned with how to afford those Starbucks lattes while paying little Jimmy’s private school tuition. When I say trouble, I mean plagued with worry so intense the stress is eating them alive. Blighted with jealousy so white-hot it sears them every time they look at the person they believe is their spouse’s lover. Terrified in mind-numbed paralysis by the stalker that leaves eerie messages and gifts inside their apartment while they sleep. Raging with the grief and frustration of being falsely accused and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Horrified by the cruelty of cyber-bullies that have been secretly grinding their once-happy daughter into a withdrawn, bulimic, isolated, social outcast.

At its essential core, a story is what pits one character against another. It’s how those characters clash in struggle against each other, how they grow fiercer in striving to win–or survive–and how they overcome the biggest challenges of all at the end to achieve poetic justice.

You cannot generate a successful, emotionally satisfying plot that comes alive in reader imaginations unless you’re willing as a writer to get your hands dirty. By that, I mean willing to step right into the intense emotional quagmires within your protagonist and antagonist. Until you do that, you will never fully understand their motivations, and of course without motivation the actions a character takes will always seem contrived and artificial.

In other words, you can’t write at a distance from your characters. You can’t remain tidy and detached. You must be willing to crack open a sleek character’s facade and look at what’s seething beneath the mask.

More than that, you must be willing to apply more pressure to a protagonist already in tremendous trouble. This is done by not protecting or safeguarding your lead character. This is done by allowing the antagonist to hit the hero where he or she is most vulnerable–and hit that person hard.

Until we push a character hard enough, how will we–let alone readers–ever know what that story person is really made of?

Until we push a character hard enough, that character will not take action, will not take risks, will not dare to strike at another individual, will continue to hide or stay safe, and will remain dull and boring on the page.

Think about the best mysteries you’ve read. Often–in cozies anyway–the first victim is a sly, wicked, conniving, ruthless, immoral blackguard so rotten every suspect has a solid reason to wish him dead.

Think about your favorite thriller where the protagonist is swept up in the sudden terror of an ordeal so dangerous and horrific the suspense is tightened to an almost unbearable degree. The danger forces the protagonist to flee whatever comfort zone she has always known and attempt the unthinkable in order to survive.

Think about those romances where sparks fly between hero and heroine who stand on opposite sides of an issue yet are pulled together by a physical attraction so potent they are nearly powerless against it.

Think about the fantasy where magic is the only way to save the person the protagonist most cherishes, yet using that magic will extol a terrible price the protagonist fears to pay.

Do you see how, in each of these genre examples, I’ve set up a situation that puts the protagonist inside an emotional or ethical pressure cooker? Yes, some of these examples are stereotypical, and the tropes are well worn, but they work to illustrate my point.

Brackett’s quote says that explosion creates plot. If so, then you need intense emotion, conflict between characters in active opposition to each other, and situations that demand frequent clashes. They are your dry tinder. Additional pressure and/or stress is the spark.

Result?

Conflagration … and a plot that comes alive.

 

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Growing Acorns

“Sometimes … the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”  –A.A. Milne

Through my career, I have often been asked by newspaper reporters or newbie writers how I get ideas. It is not a good question, or a useful question, or even an insightful question. Most professional novelists sneer at it. Some might even label it “dumb.”  Innumerable jokes have been generated by it. When asked, you feel superior and clever. You try not to smile or burst out laughing, if you’re a courteous person. And if you’re a kind person, you might even answer this question with some degree of honesty, especially if the inquirer is a new writer genuinely trying to understand. But if you’re neither kind nor courteous, then you could succumb to the terrible temptation of being flippant, disdainful, or even misleading.

For a long time, I found the very notion of seeking an idea to be laughable. My imagination was teeming with so many plots, characters, and settings that I despaired of finding time to write them all. I had no patience with anyone that claimed to suffer from writer’s block. I felt that anyone lacking in ideas should go and do something besides write.

These days, I’m less arrogant. I’ve learned that you can hit emotional dry holes that leave you empty, too drained or distracted to create. It’s not the same as being blocked–not exactly–but the result is similar, in that you sit at your keyboard but produce nothing beyond a new Pinterest board. I’ve also realized that some new writers feel so timid and unsure that they can’t judge any idea that comes to them.

Fear and uncertainty can kill ideas by draining away all the belief and excitement generated by creativity.

Expectations that are too high can blight a story idea before it barely gets started. I’ve known beginning writers so determined that every word be perfect, so focused on the mistaken belief that their first writing effort would not only be amazing but an instant bestseller that they could not move their project past an endlessly polished Chapter One.

And good ideas can starve and wither when an unprepared writer lacks the skills, experience, or craftsmanship to write them well.

Writers at all stages seek ideas every day, and every day good ideas come to them. Some will make a writer clap hands and chortle with glee. Others don’t look like much at first glance. They get pushed aside, ignored or even forgotten.

But often the best ideas are much like the Milne quote I began with. They are small and quiet. They creep into your mind when you’re paying no attention to them at all. But unlike your grocery list or your promise to walk the dog after supper, they aren’t forgettable. They take your notice, fade to the back of your thoughts, then return. And each time they come again, they’re slightly bigger or they’re better or they shine with a gradual brilliance that finally forces you to look at them, thump them, tug them this way and that, and at last to start testing them for inherent conflict, unpredictability, and marketability.

Milne wasn’t writing about writers when he penned that sentence I’ve quoted. His simplicity of expression, that bell-like quality of purity and the direct thinking of childhood, is what grabs our reading attention and makes us think, Hey now. That’s profound. I’ve pulled this quote from its original context and applied it to our topic without any straining to make it fit.

As writers, what takes up the most room in our heart? The big overblown, over-plotted, grandiose story with a cast of hundreds? Or a story of smaller scale that’s deeper and more complex? Either or none or both?

You decide.

But the little idea can grow into something large and worthy. Don’t be too quick to judge it invalid. Don’t dismiss it as foolish. Don’t call it silly. Don’t criticize it to death to prevent others from potentially picking holes in it.

Evaluate it by all means. Ideas have to be turned into plots, and that process involves stringent tests and plenty of thought.

But don’t try to make it bigger than it wants to be. And don’t throw it away because it’s only a short story idea and you wanted a novel or it’s in a genre you don’t want to tackle or it’s sweet when you want to be dour and mysterious or moody when you want to write romantic comedy.

Listen to it. Think it over without prejudgment. If it stays in your heart and grows, give it a chance.

 

 

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