Tag Archives: fiction writing

Welcome, New Guy

WARNING:  THIS POST CONTAINS MIXED METAPHORS.

Well, last week after much teetering on the edge of the pool, I finally held my nose, closed my eyes, and jumped into the deep waters of computer purchasing.

Just to kick things off, I drove to the brick-and-mortar store and looked over the selection like a hunter needing a new gun dog visits a kennel and surveys the young pups. Expecting two or three aisles of selection, I instead found a puny litter of five towers on one shelf. Three brands. Each one not much different from the next. After all, when you’re looking at a litter of yellow Labrador retrievers, you’re going to see yellow, yellow, cream, yellow, and gold. This store’s choice included HP, Dell, or ASUS. When I asked for Sony, the clerk blinked like a vacant android for a few seconds, then a brain synapse fired and he told me those were no longer made. (I wonder whether it was this decade or the last when Sony’s Vaio bit the dust.) Meanwhile, I stood there, clutching crib notes of what to mention and ask for, and trying to remember the sage advice and suggestions from more computer-savvy friends who’d kindly coached me ahead of time.

Then, like many modern consumers, I asked three questions before bolting from the store to go home and look everything up on Amazon. However, my attempt at this additional research resulted in glassy-eyed absorption of 9,000 one-star customer reviews from gamers that freak out over spotting a single dead pixel in the top right-hand corner of their mega-expensive monitors. I read countless complaints about the absence of some kind of special wall mount that’s apparently a case of life-or-death to certain individuals. Then there were discussions of glossy surface versus matte, bevel-edged versus non-bevel, too wide, too low, too much blur, insufficient refresh rates, and a long stream of additional gobbledygook that quickly had my eyes rolling back in my head.

Who knew–in the decade and a half since I last purchased a computer–that you no longer buy a bundled system in a box, complete with a piece of paper featuring nearly incomprehensible connection instructions that usually begin with the command of STOP!!!! Do not push the power button until … lest the world as we know it erupt in flames, or–worse–invalidate the warranty. Now, it seems to be that you either buy a laptop or enter the astonishing world of computer a la carte. Choose your tower, boys and girls! Pick those speakers! Do you want a subwoofer to go with them? Step right up here, and select a monitor. Do you want LCD, LED, blue-light filters, rapid refresh rates, high resolution, tilt stand? And just how BIG a monitor do you want? Twenty-seven inches? Thirty-two inches? How about two monitors? Or three?

I didn’t expect my computer monitor to rival the size of my living room TV. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, it’s analog but of such good quality it won’t die to justify my buying a new one. And if that identifies me as a Great Depression grandbaby, then so be it.) As I was leaving the store, I saw a man with a pickup and flat-bed trailer, loading a ginormous TV with the assistance of two employees, and I took a double-take to make sure it really was a television and not the latest thing in monitors.

Even so, modern monitors are certainly seductive. I’m now dreaming of having sixty inches of monitor hanging on my office wall, with the two-foot-tall words of my next novel looming over my head. After all, isn’t the saying “Go big, or go home?”

Up till now, I’ve been thinking that I was really up-to-date in my campus office, equipped as it is with an ample-sized Apple monitor. HAH! When I took a ruler to it, I found that it’s a mere minnow among the wide-mouth bass. And so, for grins, I measured Ole Faithful’s little monitor. A thirteen-inch pipsqueak. There are laptops with bigger screens. How did I ever write a dozen novels on that thing?

New Guy’s monitor is by no means the biggest on the market. Thank goodness! Because I can barely fit this monster on my desk, and even then it’s set at a slight angle so I can open the printer’s paper feed. My retinas still don’t know how to handle all this generous size.

Even the simple world of keyboards has changed. What I’ve used for years is now trendy with gamers and called a mechanical. The keys are big and take effort to push. They can come backlit with a rainbow array of colors. And you can turn on the clicking sound, or silence it.

Woo.

Or you can move with the times and use a membrane keyboard with flat little keys and a slight amount of lag time that will slow you down if you’re a smokin’-hot typist.

New Guy came with a wired membrane keyboard. Because I’m a smokin’-hot typist and in no mood to be slowed down, I intended to use Ole Faithful’s keyboard. It’s a mechanical which has held up under years of heavy use, but it needs an adapter to connect it to New Guy and even then it might not work. I think I can buy an inexpensive wireless keyboard that probably costs about the same as adapters, connective cords, and drivers capable of translating Win 10 to old keyboard; however, I must confess that deep in my heart what I really, really, really want is that expensive keyboard with the multi-colored lights glowing around the keys. Yeah, I want more than woo. I want wow. But that’s a want, not a need. I’ll wait until my wallet’s no longer smokin’ from this purchase.

As for the tower, with disk drive or without? Do you prefer that drive tray to open horizontally or vertically? As for the innards, solid-state drive or conventional hard drive? How about two internal drives? Do you want a thunderbolt port, or can you–sigh–live without it? Even the kid at the brick-and-mortar couldn’t explain exactly what a thunderbolt is or will do, once the gizmos it’s supposed to connect actually come on the market. But it’s great! It’s coming! It’s … still a mystery to me.

I didn’t get one, thus ensuring that New Guy is obsolete already.

And I didn’t order my new system online, despite potential price savings. I finished my research and returned to the store, where at least employees could follow me to my car, carrying boxes the way grocery stores used to send out a teenage porter to carry your food across the parking lot.  And guess what? No longer does any box contain a piece of paper with connection instructions. Presumably I’m supposed to perform a monkey-see/monkey-do procedure from YouTube video guidance, although how to do that when the computer isn’t online remains as logical as the Geek Squad notifying you by email that your computer is ready for pickup.

That’s fine. I can match the shape of a plug to the shape of a plug. (I think I learned that skill at eighteen months with my first set of blocks.) But I didn’t know that new computers come with an extra cord that you should not connect unless you’re going to use two monitors. This small piece of consumer ignorance caused a great deal of frayed nerves, frustration, phoned-in tech support which did NOT identify the problem, appointments with technicians that shook their head over the baby, and a great deal of bodily contortion connecting and disconnecting, plus driving back and forth across town in heavy traffic to bring the tower in, to take the tower home, to bring it back, to fetch the monitor, to bring a cable, to not bring a cable, etc.

Fourteen years ago, I went through an equal amount of heinous running to and fro with my new computer tower, trying to get Ole Faithful set up and functioning. It seems to be simply a part of the process, like ritual initiations or being hosed down with Betadine before going under the surgical knife. But, unlike torture by bamboo shoots under the fingernails, once setup is complete and successful, the horrors of the ordeal eventually fade and you resume writing.

Next I have the joy of figuring out Windows 10 and all its quirks.

What happened to the spellcheck function key?

UPDATE:  Thanks to much advice, support, and assistance from my friends out there . . . I have finally ordered a keyboard adapter as this membrane thing is sleek, cool, and w-a-a-a-y too slow. Product reviews say the adapter works great, or it glitches. I’m hoping for the former, but if the latter happens, I can order another adapter or cough up the funds for the wowza, super-snazzy, completely and utterly extravagant rainbow-hued, lighted keyboard. Which, by the way, costs as much as a monthly payment on the new machine. Alas!

 

 

 

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Podcast 6

Things eventually come to an end. I have enjoyed my first foray into this high-tech type of interview, and I hope those of you who have listened have gained some insight into the process of writing. This final podcast about THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA offers a few tips about revision and critical feedback. Enjoy!

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Fishy, Fishy–More Hooks

The first hook you write in your plot may be its most important one–not so much in terms of story advancement but in catching a reader.

After that, how many hooks do you need and how often should you place them?

For grins, I’ll divide hooks into divisions and title them as

                        Minnows

                                       Marlin

                                                Sharks

                                                        Whales

Let’s deal with them in reverse order, or from least used to most used.

Major hooks (whales) should be set at key turning points in the plot’s progression. They’re huge plot twists. They should really surprise readers, maybe even galvanize them out of their chairs, saying “Whoa!”

You need a whale of a hook (groans, please) in the center of your book. For example, [**spoiler alert **] in the middle of the Dick Francis novel, HOT MONEY, the house is blown up.

A book will probably have two such enormous hooks, possibly three, depending on its genre and the intensity of the stakes. The advantage of these hooks should be evident. The disadvantage of using them is that each successive whale should be larger. You must keep topping yourself through the course of the story. Agatha Christie’s mystery, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, ends with a massive plot twist so effective that I’m not going to reveal it to you here.

Use the whale too soon, and your story dries up to a disappointing finale. Use a whale too often, and you’ll either become absurd and/or campy.

So, use a killer whale in the middle of the story and a humpback in the story climax.

Moving on … the hooks I consider to be sharks can be plot twists or turning points. They should be startling and intense. I often think of them as “stingers.” In thrillers, a shark is the first revelation of the villain to readers. Each time viewpoint shifts back to the villain, another shark is placed.

Sharks may also appear at the end of chapters, because you never want a chapter to close without grabbing the reader in some way.

Sidney Sheldon’s book, IF TOMORROW COMES, opens with a shark-level hook: “She undressed slowly, dreamily, and when she was naked she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show.”

The marlins are strong and agile. Like their real counterparts–the actual sporting fish–marlin-type hooks exist to keep the reader entertained and the pace moving along.

Marlin hooks fall at the end of scenes. All scenes should end with hooks. Some will be quite small. Some will be intense. But ordinary scenes advance the story via strong setbacks (your marlins). I also recommend that, whenever possible, you open your story with a marlin as well.

Think of it leaping from the water, flashing bright in the sun, catching the reader’s eye and heart.

Okay, now for the minnows. I know they skew my metaphor because they aren’t salt water fish like the others. But minnows are small, insignificant creatures. We don’t even eat them. We only use them for bait.

Bait … a key word. Don’t you set a hook with bait?

Yep. Minnows are small questions raised in readers’ minds. We use one, or three, or five at a time. We fill a page with them, or a chapter. Minnows seem insignicant when they appear, but they’re niggling at the back of the reader’s thoughts. Slip in enough minnows, and you create a worry for the reader, a concern about a character’s safety or situation. You use minnows to build anticipation for a coming event. You let minnows entice readers into turning another page, and another, and another unti–pow!–was that a shark that just hit?

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Plot Twists

So you’re reading a story and you think you know where the thing is headed next. You know what the characters are about to do. You’ve figured out who killed Cock Robin.

And then–WHOA! What the blazes just happened?

The characters didn’t follow the plan. The plot swerved left when you thought it was heading right. And your prime suspect now has an air-tight alibi.

How did the writer do that to you?

Even more importantly, how do you do that to YOUR readers?

Effective plot twists should be unanticipated by the reader, but logical to the story and its premise. In other words, once you’ve jolted your reader with this surprise, the reader can think it over and realize that it makes sense.

I should have seen it coming. But I didn’t. Wow, what a great story this is.

Plot twists are going to come from three primary sources: the protagonist, the antagonist, life.

Let’s consider them one at a time.

Plot twists from the protagonist: Okay, in plotting our story we’re dealing with two kinds of dramatic units known as scenes and sequels. Scenes deal with story action, conflict, and setback. Sequels deal with reaction, analyzing a problem, and planning the next course of action.

Your protagonist weighs options and chooses what he or she will do next. In the following scene, your protagonist may follow that plan exactly. That’s fine. But if you do this every time, soon your story will become predictable. And predictable leads to boring.

But what if your protagonist makes a plan, and then in scene action deviates from it? This impulsive action may be rash; it may also make the difference in the scene’s outcome. It will perk up the story because the character is doing something other than what was expected.

Another way the protagonist can inject plot twists is through unpredictable behavior. It may seem zany or bizarre. It may not make a lot of sense initially, but through later sequel-internalization the character’s motivation is shared with readers.

An example: In the film classic, Bringing Up Baby, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Hepburn’s character takes any number of silly, unexpected actions. At first, the audience (and Grant’s character) thinks she’s a nut. Eventually, we begin to understand that she’s intensely attracted to him and does whatever random stunt comes into her head to stay close to him. Her methods may be wild, but she’s believably motivated.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn search for the missing dinosaur bone in BRINGING UP BABY, a Howard Hawks directed film from RKO Pictures, 1938.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, a 1938 classic film directed by Howard Hawks for RKO Pictures.

Plot twists from the antagonist: Even when out of sight, the antagonist isn’t frozen in place. This character is up to something in his or her efforts to thwart the protagonist. When the next attempt or attack occurs, it feels like a plot twist because readers haven’t been in the antagonist’s viewpoint and–like the protagonist–don’t know what’s coming.

So, for example, in the Dick Francis mystery, Hot Money (1988), readers and the protagonist are jolted by an explosion that blows up the house. It’s a complete surprise to everyone except the antagonist who planted the bomb.

Dust jacket for the Dick Francis novel, HOT MONEY, published by Putnam.

Plot twists from life: If twists from the protagonist are the most challenging and twists from the antagonist are the easiest, then twists from life run the risk of being the least believable.

Be very careful when designing a “random” event that’s going to wallop the protagonist from nowhere. This type of twist may appear coincidental. Too much coincidence in fiction becomes unbelievable.

For example: Gary Paulsen’s YA book, Hatchet, deals with a boy who survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness and must then stay alive until rescue comes. There are any number of hazards in the woods. One evening, the mosquitoes are biting the boy mercilessly. To protect himself, he kneels at the edge of the lake to smear mud over his skin. While he’s doing this, a moose comes running out of nowhere and crashes into him, knocking him into the water.

Say, what?

It’s unexpected. It’s shocking. It’s unpredictable. But why has the moose chosen that instant of time to charge? What did the boy do, if anything, to provoke this animal?

As long as the story establishes that the woods are dangerous, or that moose herds are migrating through the area, or that at certain times of year moose will charge anything that moves, then when this event will work well as a plot twist. If moose aren’t mentioned at all as a possible hazard, then the event may be perceived as too coincidental.

Cover art for Gary Paulsen's 1987 Newbery winner, HATCHET, published in paperback by Simon and Schuster.

Setting up for a twist to come is called planting for future action. You don’t call attention to the information. It’s slipped into the story as unobtrusively as possible. If done well, readers will barely notice it and the story action will distract them until the twist appears. Then they realize that they should have made the connection.

Planting done poorly will telegraph the twist to come by calling too much attention to it and giving it away. Even worse, if a twist is planted in an obvious way and then happens exactly as expected, it’s ho-hum predictable.

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Plotting Without Guns

From time to time, I come across a student story that’s about a couple having relationship trouble. The characters are in conflict over some issue and on the verge of breaking up. Halfway through the tears and drama, one of the characters will pull out a gun and wave it around.

WHOA!

To quote one of my favorite cartoon characters–Foghorn Leghorn: “Now hold on–I say, hold on there, son!”

What’s this about? What does a gun have to do with a couple breaking up? Has the gun been in the story before? Is the gun’s presence justified? Does it have anything to do with what’s happening in the story action?

“But I’m raising the stakes,” the writer will say. “I’m trying to make things worse for my characters.”

Hmm, maybe. Except raising the stakes doesn’t mean your character should just plug her spouse for no reason other than the author is stuck. Remember that your plot should be plausible. The events and plot twists that occur should be organic to the situation you’ve set up and not some wild, disconnected behavior that doesn’t make sense for your characters.

Whatever your plot is about, keep it about that. If two people who love each other can’t work out the problem that his career is forcing him to move across the country and she wants to stay on the farmstead she inherited from her grandfather, then what are they going to do?

Split up?

Okay. Let ’em split up and be miserable without each other for a few pages. That’s raising the emotional stakes plenty. Maybe they need that test in order to grow or change for the better.

Think about the couple. What is the basis of their relationship? What do each of them want and expect from the other? What do each of them envision for their relationship? How will a permanent breakup damage them individually?

When you can answer those questions, chances are you’ll have figured out which character is going to bend for the sake of the other’s happiness.

And not a bullet is flying.

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