Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Update - Sold a Book Cover

Last February I did about a dozen "pre-made" book covers for Self-Pub Book Covers, and then just left them there to see what would happen.

I just got word that one of them sold. (Hooray.)

I will show you that one after I see if I can find what the author did with it.  In the meantime, I decided to do more covers!

The trick is to keep it simple AND to fit their weird typography needs. (Very limited selection of fonts and colors, and since the customer will set the type themselves on the web, it will be pretty no-frills.)

There are actually two reasons they have to be so simple: one is to keep the price cheap, but the other is actually more important: with pre-made covers, you just never know what an author is going to need. So you're basically throwing a whole bunch of ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.  You have to do a LOT of ideas to hit just one of what a browsing customer might need.

I've got a bunch of things I'm fiddling with right now.  This one with the ship is actually a silhouette I did of the Luisitania.  The sky is a gradation with the smudgy finger brush to make clouds.

The other one, below, is one of a series I'm starting, inspired by background figures in various old book illustrations I find at Project Gutenberg. I think I'll do a series of historical designs, given how much I've been studying so many old illustrations and books.

In sketch that inspired this picture, it really was a very sketchy little image, and I squinted at it for a bit trying to figure out what was wrong.  Then I realized: the artist didn't leave room for the woman's right leg.  (When riding side-saddle, you don't sit sideways.  You sit forward, with your leg up over the pommel.)  She was practically sitting on the horses neck, and, well, I don't know where her leg went at all.

Anyway, the sketch had a couple of vague lines for her veil, and I realized I could have a lot of fun with my favorite smudgy finger brush doing both a veil and a tail.

I could have had more fun with it (with both of them) if I could have control over the typography, but alas, I cannot.  The up side of working with Self-Pub Book Covers is that it's a "set it and forget it" kind of place.  The down side is that you have to design for their needs.

Audio Podcasts

In the meantime, one of the things I love to do while I work is listen to Podcasts.  Garrison Keillor is an obvious one to listen to: News From Lake Woebegone (which I may actually start talking about later when I start talking about making my own genre), and The Writer's Almanac.  These are the first and last podcasts listed on the American Public Media website.  You can also find them at iTunes.

Another Podcast I've started listening to is Forgotten Classics.  These are mostly lesser known public domain (or with permission) books, read by a marvelous reader.  I hesitate to say this, but: She reads them kind of like you might read a children's book -- with voices and all.

The story selections are eclectic, but I think suited to modern tastes:  the stories range from the quirky pulp novellas of Norbert Davis, to the ghost story The Uninvited (which was made into one of my favorite ghost/mystery movies), to Uncle Tom's Cabin, to parts of the Bible.

The iTunes podcast doesn't go all the way back to the beginning of the blog, but you can download all episodes from the blog's library: Complete Episodes Listing.

So, off to draw and listen and make up stories.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Artisan Writers: The Indie Shake Up, Pt 1

This week Scott William Carter put up a post on his 5am Writer Blog with a very long title: "A Tsunami of Wonderful: How the Long Tail of Publishing Is Finally Overwhelming the Early Adopter eBook Bounce — and What This Means for Fiction Writers Going Forward"

He really struck a chord with what I've been thinking lately.  The landscape is changing again, it's not inherently a bad thing, but it is definitely causing disruption.  And Scott's thesis is that this isn't just a seasonal wobble -- we may be moving out of the period of relatively easy gains for Indie Writers.

The question rising in the back of a lot of people's minds right now might be "Were the nay sayers right?  Were those people correct when they said the ability of self-published authors to make a living is just a bubble and everything will crash soon?  Was Joe Konrath and other self-publishing gurus wrong when they explained why things were going to get better and better?"

No!  ... and yes.

The real truth is both sides are right.  The optimists are right that this fundamental change in publishing -- the rise of self-pubishing and the opportunities it brings -- that just isn't going to go away.  The world has changed; good, bad or indifferent, and it ain't gonna change back. Opportunities will continue... but so will change

And that's where the pessimists are right: Things will continue to change.  Stability is an illusion in a time like this, and even if there are some universal truths out there, odds are they aren't the ones we think they are.

An awful lot of indies over the past couple of years have patted themselves on the back for being the smart ones who adapted to the New World Order -- but that pat on the back is premature if they thought things have settled in and will stay put. There's a Newer World Order just around the bend.

Technically, it's not actually a different world order -- it's just that the change we've been going through has hardly begun.  Eventually things will settle down into something more stable, but it's hard to say when, and even when it does, I suspect it will be stable the way New York City is stable -- it never sleeps, never stands still.  Even the rate of change can't be counted on.  Only change itself.

Let's take a closer look at some of what prompted Scott's post and this one:

Reports of Lower Sales

Is it seasonal? Scott thinks that we've moved beyond the seasonal aspect of depressed sales.  I don't know that he's right.  The summer doldrums last year didn't start to recover until November.  But I've seen enough reports of record lows; people with good books who are publishing new works regularly whose sales are trending down over time -- not just per book, but over all.  People comparing numbers month to month over the past year, and shaking their heads.

There are also positive signs over the past year: more people around me than ever who are reporting they are making enough to quit their day jobs -- but at the same time, I've suddenly started hearing more and more concern from these same people that their income has taken unexpected hits.

And though these reports aren't scientific, they have one other advantage: they confirm my prejudices.  I've been expecting a wobbly correction -- not something serious to the indie publishing world as a whole but enough to hurt individuals and groups of writers, and to worry the rest of us.

So whether I'm just seeing my expectations reflected back at me or if it's real, I can't say for sure -- I can only say that it feels like there is a shift going on.  This fall feels darker and less optimistic than past falls. 

This may be more a matter of people lowering unrealistic expectations (which is a healthy sign) than it is actual depression of sales. I can't say.

Reports that Proven Strategies Are Failing

Over the past couple of years we've been burning through tactics.  Everybody got into "tagging" and Amazon cut off tagging.  Writers flooded into various online communities and then got kicked out for clogging the site with promotion. That one started long ago, and continues, but there were always other communities to run to.  Now (thank goodness) it seems like even the writer boards don't want to hear it.

Now folks are finding that Amazon's KDP Selects isn't what it was.  Offering books for free doesn't help nearly as much as it used to.  Bookbloggers are either saturated, shut down, or they have increased their standards for submission.  The prices of advertising and paid listings has gone up and up, and people report results have gone down and down.

And here's the place where Scott William Carter and I both disagree and agree.  I agree with him that we've reached a saturation point, and also with some of his ideas of solutions going forward -- but I disagree with the idea that the problem is competion.

Unsustainable Opportunities Cause Competition

All of those failing strategies I mentioned above -- they were competitive. They are all based on the idea that a writer needs leverage to boost himself above his fellows.  That worked in the "gold rush" of the first wave.

There were opportunities that were only there because everything was new so nobody thought to put up barriers.  The Amazon discussion communities, for a very short time, welcomed in all the lovely authors, until they realized that they couldn't hold a conversation without yet another new author interrupting to flog her book.  (As the Monty Python Sketch goes, "Well, if you don't want any Spam, you could order Spam, Spam, Spam, Egg, Bacon and Spam. That doesn't have much Spam in it.")  Even though most the authors learned quick, there were so many new authors who didn't know better that it utterly killed any love those readers had for authers.

And authors were soon banned.  And virulent anti-author gangs started roving the land.

But for that shining moment, before the bulk of writers knew about it, those few writers who "beat" the rest and got there first, got the attention of an interested group of readers.  And it worked!  Hey Mikey!

It wasn't that the rest of the authors came in and ruined something that was working -- it's that the first few got a unique, and unfair, opportunity that couldn't last.  Once the opportunity was equal, it broke the system.

This pattern happens over and over again as the new system starts to form:  a few first adopters discover a weakness in the system -- an unguarded crack. They mistake it for an ongoing opportunity (or an unlimited resource) and exploit the heck out of it, and tell all their friends that they've found this wonderful thing.

And then the system breaks or changes, and everybody is bewildered by how it doesn't work any more.

(This isn't just something writers do, it happens over and over again on the wild frontier that is the internet.)

It's not that anybody has done anything wrong.

It's just that we can't see the bigger system at work, or the power of so many of us all doing the same thing.  And there was no gate, no path, no lines or barriers to help the bulk of us see how it works.

And I honestly think this is a part of what is going on with the crisis facing the erotica writers right now.

But that, I think I'll talk about next week, along with some thoughts about the Pareto Principle and how it holds the seeds of its own destruction for those who adhere to it too vigorously.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Update - The Times A-Changin Again

A lot of posts on the interwebs this week about how this wild, tumbling joyride we call "Publishing" seems to be shifting into yet another phase.  This time, it's the Indies who are feeling the shake up most, I think. (Although traditional publishing is continuing to shake out from the previous wave.)

The particular post that snags my interest is (Scott William Carter's Tsunami of Wonderful).  He believes the "First Adopter Bounce" period is over, and takes a preliminary look at what this means.  I have been thinking the same thing, as I watch the indie community show signs of stress as the ground shifts beneath their feet.

Kris Rusch has an interesting review of the shake ups -- past and present -- in publishing via a metaphor she saw in politicial news in this week's The Business Rusch

We're also seeing some shake ups that don't seem to be a part of that bigger wave, such as the sudden crackdown we're seeing from many vendors on erotic fiction (including Kobo UK, shutting out ALL indie writers for a time), but I think this too is a sign of the maturing market.

This Week on the Blog

 On Monday I'll post my own take on recent developments, as an introduction to a new feature on my blog.  I think of it as "Artisan Writers and The Road Less Traveled", which is too long of a title for a series.  This new feature will be looking at business, advice and industry developments from the point of view of writers who don't fit the mold in one way or other.  Given the events above, which indicate to me that the new mold isn't exactly formed yet (or is cracking), that may well be all of us.

I don't have a new "Passion" subject started yet for Tuesday, and I'm not ready to start posting a re-introduction to the serial yet for Thursday.  So I'll probably post an Update on Wednesday - musings on how things are going. What I'm working on and not working on. Maybe a little pre-thinking on my next Tuesday passion series: creating my own genre.

Then Friday, the Story Game gets on to the fun stuff: we'll be creating "Character Wheels" for our heroine and hero in the Romantic Suspense game.  We'll talk about what kind of choices make for a good wheel, and what we specifically need for those roles in a Romantic Suspense story.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Story Game: The Situation Worksheet

The Story Game is either a very complicated story creation game, or it's a set of simple little writing games strung together.  It's kinda free form -- meant to be changed and adapted by the players -- but I'm creating a "Romantic Suspense" Game as an example.

Last week we talked about "Character Structure" as an alternate way to define a genre or structure of a story.

Or in this case, I was defining the roles of a particular flavor of Romantic Suspense, so I can make a game out of it.

I was going to dive deeper into the character roles today, but I realize that this is a good time to actually explain what I'm going to do with them first.

Situation Game

This game is basically a worksheet you fill in with randomized choices, and use to brainstorm a concept for a story.  It's designed to come up with a robust concept. That is, fully featured, lots of info with which you can build a whole situation that the story will spring from.

Step 1: figuring out the Character Structure of the kind of story you want to tell. (Which we did last week.)

Step 2: Create the worksheet you're going to fill in. I call this the Situation Form, and we're going to do that today.

Step 3: Create the lists you're going to make the random choices from. (Which we'll start next week.)

Step 4: Play ball! That is, roll the dice, spin the wheel, fill in the form... and then use the answers to brainstorm, and create a unique idea that still fits the formula you started with.

The Situation Form

Last week we came up with a Character Structure for the genre Romantic Suspense.  That's the six "roles" that characters play in that kind of story -- though this pattern appears in other kinds of stories too:

Heroine, Hero, Villain, Victim, Helper, Red Herring.

At this point we're not generating actual characters -- that's for the brainstorming at the end -- but rather nailing down the part these characters will play in the plot, plus a copule of important points that have to appear in every story of that type.

For my Woman In Jeopardy Romantic Suspense story, we're using the following four elements:

  • The Heroine Type (Her secret or vulnerability that isolates her)
  • The Hero Type (what keeps them apart so he can't help her too much.)
  • The Villain's Cover Type (i.e. "nice" person disguise)
  • The Crime Type (which drives the plot)

We'll also be randomly generating the sex and age of all characters, except the heroine and hero, which with romance are defined by subgenre.  More about that next week, when we talk about them in depth and create our "Character Wheels" to randomly fill in those elements.

All of the above will differ if you are writing a different genre or type of story.  They may differ quite a lot.

For instance, most Whodunnits have two separate character structures.  They have the detective and sidekicks who continue throughout a series, and then the characters of the murder plot.  I would suggest creating a game for the latter, but not the former.  The point of a game is to do it over and over again.  Series characters are only generated once.

And the list of characters for the murder plot might be as simple as: Victim, Suspect 1 (Killer), Suspect 2,  Suspect 3, Suspect 4.  And you might have a wheel for motives or relationships.

But Wait There's More

There are at least two more elements to the Situation Form.  These are classic "idea generation" elements: Title and Theme.  (You could also use "Subject" or even "Location.")

To me the most important is title, because that gives an identity to the story.  However, because it's at the start of the process, I actually only generate a random list of possible title words. This leaves me flexibility for later.

I like to have at least one of other item, because these help you define the mood of the story, and they also give you a hook to help define other elements.

For instance, say your heroine's secret is that she's on the run from the law.  There are a number of options there, but not really a flavor yet. (Or if you do have a flavor, you may be focusing on just one option.  In which case, another element can shake you out of a rut.)

But say your title words mostly kinda suck, except one of those words is "steam."  Hmmm.  That could mean "steamy" but if you put it together with the heroine's situation, you suddenly have another option: "Running Out Of Steam." That could indicate a whole different kind of story and a hook into a different kind of relationship.  He could be a lot more rescue-y, she might be a lot more brittle. (AND it could still be steamy.)

Now we roll a theme.  I just used a randomized theme chooser called Brainstormer and came up with "Letting Go."

Ooo.  A woman on the run, who is running out of steam, and the theme or lesson of the story is about letting go.  What a great theme for a romance in the first place, but there are so many layers you could build of that.  (The bad guy is stalking her becuase he can't let go of something.  She's been running so long she hasn't the strength to hang on any more -- but to survive she must NOT let go.  The hero, meanwhile, has to let go of his pride or past to help her hang on.)

Themes and titles give the story an identity.  And they give you more options if your other rolls are boring.

One thing about this game, you are always allowed to overrule the game's choices. If a couple of the choices give you a full blown idea, you can ignore anything that doesn't fit. (Although sometimes an element which doesn't fit can give you a new take on something.)  But more about that when we get to playing the game itself.

So, to review, my worksheet, or Situation Form for Romantic Suspense, looks like this:

Title Words: (pick up to ten randomly)
Heroine (age/sex chosen by genre)
Heroine Type: (what isolates her)
Hero (age/sex chosen by genre)
Hero Type: (what keeps her away from him)
Villain: (age/sex)
Villain's cover Type: ("Nice" person disguise)
Crime Type:
Victim: (age/sex)
Helper: (age/sex)
Red Herring: (age/sex)

Next Week: the Heroine and Hero Types 

We'll talk about the critical characteristics of these two main characters, so we can make lists of great choices to fill in the worksheet. To do that, we'll have to talk more about the Romantic Suspense genre, and also about what kind of choices make for a good "Story Wheel."

See you in the funny papers.

If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation. 

Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Alpha Dogs - Agents and Rogues

Continuing the series on the currently popular character attributes - Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery. First Post Index of the Whole Series.  This week we're talking about Dominance, or Alpha Dog characters.

I think I've wound down to the last I want to say in this series about Characters and their relationship with Money and Power.  (I would use a different word for Money -- one that starts with W and rhymes with "health" -- but every time I use it, I get SLAMMED by get rich quick spammers.)

Just to review, we're talking right now about Dominance as a character trait -- inspired originally by another blogger's tongue-in-cheek ranking of her own characters on a scale inspired by the fad for BDSM billionaires as romantic heroes these days.

So when I talk about "power" or "dominance" I'm talking specifically about characters exerting control over other characters. And I suppose I am particularly talking about characters who do this professionally, or at least as a life calling.  And I've mostly covered the territory: talking about the guns for hire who take control for their clients, and public servants who lead a team and wield authority (or not).

I just have three (well, four) more famous characters I want to talk about, and they blend from one kind of character to another, so I might as well cover them in one long post.

The key element of these characters is that they mostly work alone.  In the case of the first two, they are public servants. They do have authority and somewhere in the background is a team to back them up -- but we mainly see them working alone against their foe.  In some sense, they are like "agents" rather than cops.

Columbo - The Hound, or The Fox?

The TV show Columbo first appeared as a TV movie in 1968.  But in 1971, NBC created a series they called The NBC Mystery Movie, which played a rotating set of shows every Sunday night, and Columbo was one of those (along with MacMillan And Wife and McCloud).  It was created by Levinson and Link -- who had created many great mystery shows -- from Mannix to Ellery Queen to Murder She Wrote.

Levinson and Link were particularly brilliant, though, at stand-alone mystery dramas: TV movies which played out like a stage drama.  Always a battle of wits between charaters - someone trying to get away with a crime, and someone determined to catch him.  But you never knew exactly what each of the characters were up to.  These were clever, literate, deadly games.  (Two of these are currently available on YouTube, though they can be hard to find on DVD: Rehearsal for Murder and Vanishing Act.)

That was how Columbo began, and how it continued to play once it became a series.  And that twisty, game-of-wits nature is why I bring a cute cuddly chracter like Columbo into a series about domination.  I mean, yes, I did talk about Margie Gunderson, but that was in reference to her leadership style.

Although you do see Columbo interacting with other cops, for the most part, they work separately from him.  They are the system, collecting and processing evidence.  He interrupts them to look at it, asks them to get info for him, but his job is separate from theirs.  Even in those episodes where they give him a young sidekick, it seems as though the kid is there to learn from him, not really to assist him.  Columbo doesn't need or want a personal team.

In terms of our subject of "dominance" then, the interesting part of Columbo is how he handles the killers.  He's the lion tamer, the crocodile wrestler.  The guy who goes in and, carefully, politely and without breaking a sweat, talks the monster into trapping himself.  Call him The Killer Whisperer, if you will.

Columbo's technique of dominating a killer (and make no mistake, that's what he's doing from the moment he first meets him/her) is what makes him so delightful to watch.  It isn't just that he seems to bumble around and get distracted and act harmless to get the killer to relax.  No no no NO.  That's the surface, but if that's what you think is going on, you are missing the beauty of the interaction.

These are inverted mysteries -- we see them from the killer's point of view.  So when Columbo bumbles in, he may seem to be harmless to the killer, but he also "accidentally" drives the killer up a wall from the moment he enters.  He sets his hook, and then proceeds to play the killer like a fish.  And not just for fun: he's carefully maneuvering the killer into trapping himself.

A typical scene has Columbo coming to the killer for help with the case.  Some stupid little loose end bothers him.  It's always something that is beneath the interest of the killer.  The killer should just dismiss it and ignore him.  But because the killer is a killer he's hyper alert.  He can't help but be at least a little bit interested.

So he listens, and Columbo immediately gets distracted; "Holy mackerel, look at that vase!  You know my wife would love a vase like that.  How much do you think something like that would cost?"
He does this to force the killer to pay closer attention -- to commit to listening and finally to ask "What do you want!?"

Then Columbo goes into the next phase of manipulation: he tells him about the odd little loose end, and lets the killer explain it away.  He totally accepts this explanation.  He is grateful.  The killer relaxes.  He thinks he's back in control, and then Columbo looks puzzled and says, "Oh, but that can't be true, because of this other evidence...." and totally blows the explanation out of the water.

From here on in, the killer will never be relaxed again.  Columbo has his complete attention, even if he doesn't have the guy's respect yet.  He continues to play the game, dropping tidbits, directing the killer's attention at will.  But never being an outright threat.  He is careful to let the killer believe that Columbo doesn't know the significance of these little clues.  Finally Columbo accepts that the killer's vague secondary explanation is probably right, and starts to go.  He may make it partway out the door, even.

The killer is relieved.  He needs to think about this.  But then Columbo comes back.  He's got his brow furrowed, his fingers pressed to his forehead.

"Oh, just one more thing...."

And then he drops a bombshell that is of critical importance to the killer.  And the killer is left with an urgent need to do something.

It's not just that Columbo is persistent or annoying or even generally unsettling.  It's that every single thing he does -- every bumble, every distraction -- is carefully timed and chosen to tie the killer in tighter and tighter knots. And often very specific knots.

Peter Falk, who played Columbo, always said that he didn't believe Columbo even had a wife.  He believed that the entire thing, from begining to end, was a con game.  I don't believe this myself, because even in the second season, we see Columbo talk about his wife to his vetrinarian.  Why would he con the vet who isn't even remotely connected to the case?

All the same, I think Falk nailed it that when Columbo talks to the killer, every detail is planned and calculated.  He's conning the guy even when he tells the truth.

If you have never seen Columbo, I recommend starting with the earlier seasons.  The show evolved, over the years, and got more cutesy, less sharp.  Even so, any Columbo is better than no Columbo.

Bud White - Budding Vigilante

The movie L. A. Confidential, like the book it was adapted from, is a classic of hot, 1950's West Coast Noir.  It's a larger story, about various scandals and corruption among the cops, gangsters, celebrities and scandal mongers in Hollywood of 1950's L.A.  Like other books by James Ellroy, it is inspired by real events that happened in that fair city.

This is not the functional LAPD of Columbo, or the precise correctness of Samuel Gerard's U.S. Marshal Service.  It's a world where powerful people get away with murder and worse, and where the good guy cops might very well moonlight as the baddest guys of all.

Bud White, played by Russell Crowe, is a simple guy in a complicated world.  He's just a detective, a minion.  He's not terribly bright, and doesn't ask questions of his own, and is perfectly willing to be as corrupt as necessary in the cause of justice.  Planting evidence is just what you do to be sure the bad guys get caught.  You could say that Bud it a team player.

But Bud also has a hobby, something he does all on his own, although his fellow cops know about it.  Bud, whose father killed his mother, hates "Woman Beaters" with a passion far beyond what the job can contain.  So he hunts them down, and keeps them in check.  In the opening scene of the movie, he's supposed to be picking up booze for the department Christmas party, but he stops along the way to take care of a little business.

Bud's methods are as simple as his philosophy: brute force.  Beat the guy up, handcuff him, scare the excrement out of him with threats.

But his power comes from a deep seated rage.  Where Sam Spade might pretend to lose his temper to scare the other side, Bud White really means it.  I decided to show you the scene below from the middle of the movie, because it's a more heightened example.

The set up is this: Bud's fellow detectives are investigating a murder at an all night diner.  They've picked up a couple of young men with blood on their clothes, and a fellow cop (Exley, played by Guy Pearce) who is brilliant at interrogation has them in adjoining interrogation rooms.  He's just gotten the younger one to confess... except not to the crime they're investigating.  This is a crime they don't even konw about -- a Rape.  (The ultimate in woman abuse!)

As the clip begins as everyone is just beginning to realize that this is a whole different case.  (It's only about a minute and a half.)

Exley is by the book, and good at what he does, but when it comes to abuse of women, Bud it outside and above the law.  And his simple direct brute force dominates everything -- the oak chair, Exley, the suspect.

When that inner rage is triggered, Bud becomes a vigilante.

However, that incredible force of nature makes him valuable to the LAPD of the time, so for him vigilantism is just a hobby that comes in useful at his day job. 

And he's a nice bridge into the last group I wanted to talk about in this series: the Rogues.

Sir Percy Blakeney - Laissez-faire Rogue

There are a lot of characters in film and  literature who work outside the law. However, most of them are not great examples for this series.  They're free spirits.  They aren't into dominance so much as twitting the authorities.  Often they are thieves and rescuers.  They right wrongs.  Bad guys may be punished, but mostly bad guys are just stopped from doing their evil deeds.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a perfect example of this laissez-faire hero -- he rescues people from the guillotine.  He does his best not to kill anyone, or to hurt anyone more than necessary.  Late in the series, he even rescues his nemesis -- a man who certainly deserves to lose his head if anyone does. (Although I have to admit it has been a long time since I read that book.  Maybe Chauvelin does get caught, but the person who matters most to him is saved. But I think he is left to live out his life in peace, knowing it is by the grace of a hero.)

While the Pimpernel loves to push the buttons of authority figures (sometimes playing the same sort of psychological games as Columbo) dominance is not his thing.  As a matter of fact, his thing is sometimes showing that he could dominate but won't.  Becuase domination is what villains do.

But there is one rogue hero who is all about domination: The Saint.  The original Simon Templar wasn't the idle gentleman adventurer we see in the TV show with Roger Moore.  The orginal was a vigilante.

Simon Templar - The Man Who Hates Crooks

The Saint's modus operandi was to target a villain -- say a drug dealer or head of a gang -- rob him, humiliate him, and hand him over to justice, and then take ten percent of the proceeds and give the rest to charity.  He did this as an outlaw, and the police were always on his trail.  (Though he often managed to keep his nose above legal hot water, and was also a friend to his persuers on the police force.)

He reveled in the intimidation and humiliation and sometimes put the victims at risk to be sure he could properly punish the bad guys.  Of course, he did it with more style than Bud White.  His signature card -- that stick figure with the halo that is associated with the character to this day -- was intended to terrify his target.  While the Scarlet Pimpernel left his calling card behind after a rescue, the Saint left it up front, a warning like the Black Spot: "I'm coming for you."

My own inclinations lean much more to the Pimpernel type hero than the original Saint.  Alex, from The Case of Misplaced Hero, was raised to be like the Pimpernel.  And though Karla compares George to The Saint, in The Man Who Did Too Much, she's talking about Roger Moore.

And that's it for this series on Characters and Money and Power.  If something truly interesting crops up, I might do a wrap up post next week.  Otherwise, I'm more likely to take up related issues in some distant future series.

On Friday, with the Story Game, we'll be talking more about the character types from Romantic Suspense (the Heroine and Hero, specifically) and maybe a little about the character structure of related genres, like Whodunnit.

See you in the funny papers.

If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation. 

Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blogiversary - Taking The Blog To the Next Level

This is not my first blog.  I think I started blogging in the late 1990s.  Back in those days, of course, there weren't blogging platforms.  You just added text manually to your webpage.  Every so often your page would get too long, and so you'd rename it to put it in an archive, and you'd start a new page.

Since blogging became a formal platform, I've had blogs related to writing and publishing, old books, cats, education, and food. As a matter of fact, one of my hibernating food blogs, Reading Chinese Menus, still gets quite a bit of traffic.

And before I blogged, I kept journals.  And not your "Dear Diary, it rained today and I feel rotten because I got a B on my Paleography paper" type journals.  Well, okay, there was some of that -- but mostly it was the sort of thing you see here.  Except more on current works and no holding back on spoilers.

So as we launch the fifth year of the blog, I think it's time to take blogging seriously.

It is a part of my art, and I mean a part of my fiction writing as well as something I do on its own.  (That's one of the reasons I write about my characters.  There is so much you'll never see on the page of a novel or short story.)  But the other part -- the analysis, the commentary, the literary theory -- is also a part of my art.

Running Myself Ragged

It's probably been a month since I really decided to Chase Enthusiasm for a while.  (Even though I posted about it later.)  I needed to run rampant for a bit with the blog before I got an idea of what I wanted to do, and what my limits are.

I have enough stuff in my head to fill this blog with ten posts a week.  But even the five posts a week I've been doing can be pretty exhausting -- largely because I'm not just putting in my requisit 500-1000 words.  I've been throwing myself into it.  And sometimes running out of steam before I get a  post done.

That's why I keep saying, "I'll get to a particular post next time, oh, wait, no, this is turning out longer than I thought, so next week, no, two weeks from now...."

I've realized that my weakest posts are the ones where I try to get it all in.  My strongest posts (in terms of what people backlink to) are those where I dig in deeper and focus in on what I thought was a small part of a post.  But by the time I'm done with that, I'm too worn out on the subject to talk about what else I had to say.

But I can usually write on something else.  And then I can come back to it fresh and can dive in deep again.

The New Blog Order

The first rule of the New Blog Order is that I will not do more than one post on a topic in a week.  Even if I have the energy to write six blog posts on a topic, those will just go for the next six weeks.

So a blog series like the one I'm doing on Characters - Money and Power will only appear on Tuesdays.  (I only think there are two more in that whole series, but I thought that there would only be three posts total when I started it.)  If a post grows on me, then I'll continue it the next Tuesday.

The second rule is that I am going to start thinking of the blog in terms of cycles: like a TV season or a college semester.  Unfortunately, each subject on the blog will have different lengths and rhythms, so even though I might have times when I completely shut down the blog, most of the time, I'll just have a break on a Tuesday or a Friday, etc.  (However, in some cases, the other posts will be written ahead.)

I'm trying this out for fall, and if it works, I'll keep it up.  I may be taking a big break in January, though.

The subjects I'm writing for this fall are:

Mondays: Artisan Writing - the Road Less Travelled
Thoughts on the business of publishing, and the writing life, from the point of view of artisans, artists, mavericks and others who don't quite fit the mold. (Starting October 28)

Tuesdays: Passion Subjects
Looking at stories and themes and tropes and movies and art. This fall, when I'm done with the "Money and Power" series, I will be waxing nostalgic, and looking at some tropes and story types from my childhood, looking to maybe reinvent a genre (or find where these tropes fit in current genres).

Thursdays: The Serial Story
In November I'll start up the serial again.  (Not sure just now if it will be the 14th or the 21st.)  I will post some talk about it before it starts, though.  I plan to make this ongoing.

Fridays: The Story Game
This is going to continue through December in the same vein as the last post: a lot of story theory and analysis behind this game.  In some ways, you could even call this a 11-week course in story building, although it's specifically built around this one game activity.  I'll be talking about the tropes and character types I listed last week, and then about titles and themes and subjects. And then, on to the Four-Act plot structure.

Sunday: Updates
As usual. Sometimes long and thoughtful, sometimes short.

This week will be a light week.  Tuesday we'll see the next Alpha Dogs post, and Friday the Story Game.

The Rest of My Writing Life

With all this attention on the blog, what does that mean for the rest of my writing life?

That's why I'm building in breaks.  That's also why I'm going to start publishing some nonfiction -- collections of rewritten blog posts and such.

As of right now, though, this rush of blogging has slowed my fiction output.  It hasn't stopped it, though.  Part of this fall's experiment in Enthusiasm Hunting is to build up lots of raw material of all kinds, but I won't be able to see what I'm building up best and worst until I've been at it for a couple of months.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Story Game - Getting Started With Character Structure

I have always felt there is a hidden structure in most story types that isn't often recognized: Character Structure.  I think dramatists recognize it more than fiction writers do, but even there you mostly hear about character dynamics -- specific instances in scenes.  Maybe a little acknowledgement that the plot is structured around the conflict of protagonist and antagonist, but only as a universal element.

For the most part, writers talk about character types, not roles, and we see them as separate and unrelated to the structure of a story.  We even get in huge fights over whether character or plot comes first, as if they are opposing elements!

I have long felt that this character vs. plot argument is wrong.  Character and plot are just too intertwined to be thought of separately, and that's especially true in genres related to mystery.  (A mystery is structured around suspects.)

Character Structure

The simplest character structure is Hero vs. Villain.  Very often, though, when you look closer, even that simple pattern has a structure of additional characters: 

The hero usually has a mentor and a sidekick, and maybe even an opposing sidekick.  (For example: Frodo has Gandalf and Samwise, as well as Gollum.)  The Villain might have a sidekick, minions, and sometimes a foolish boss or ally.

The point here is that these aren't always just characters.  Sometimes they are roles.  Roles come with story duties to perform.  And with many genres, these roles have less to do with the plot or filling out the story, and more to do with providing those zings of satisfaction we get when we read a story in a genre we like.

One example: The bad guy's job is not just to oppose the hero, it's also to simply be bad.  In some stories, we might enjoy this badness directly, when the villain does something we always wanted to do, like smack down an officious twit.  But the Prime Duty of this bad guy is to give us satisfaction in seeing evil defeated.

This is different from characterization, which is about the specific character, and his motivations.  We writers tend to think of characters primarily in terms of characterization.  Which, imho, is a good thing.  We're looking to bring the character to life, and make him interesting, and almost autonomous.  And if our villain character rebels and decides not to fill that role?  That's always a lot of fun, but if we're writing heroic adventure, we're going to have to come up with a new villain.  Or were going to have to change the genre.  (Of course, sometimes the character simply decides to fill the role in his very own way -- and that is often the most fun of all.)

You'll often find character structures even in literary fiction, though it might be less obvious.  For instance, a journey story will have important impact characters that the main character meets along the road.  A coming-of-age story will have various mentors and peers, as well as someone younger or weaker that the character will learn to be the adult for.

The Pantser's Outline

If you want to write a story by the seat of your pants, Character Structure can often replace an outline.  If you really know your genre well, and you know who your main characters are and what they are up to, you can just start the story and let the characters sort it out.

Although I enjoy plotting too, I generally find that the Character Structure is the key even to that part of the process.

So for the first game, I decided to forget the plot wheels, and start with Character Structure.  I decided on the sort of story I wanted to tell -- a variation of Romantic Suspense -- and created my Situation Form to nail down the motives and secrets rather than the plot points.

Woman-in-Jeopardy Romantic Suspense

I used to pick these up in late summer, after I had exhausted the library's supply of all the new books of authors I prefered.  I liked them because they combined some of my favorite elements of my two favorite genres: they had the romantic notions of swashbucklers, and the twists and intruigue of mysteries.  Some of them even did this very well.

Alas, not all did them well at all, but the one thing I could say about the bad books is that they displayed the creaking machinery of the plot for me.  After recognizing the pattern in the bad books, I could see where it was hidden in the good books too.  And that helped me understand how the good books satisfied me.

The stories I'm talking about almost always started with a nurse or graphic designer (or some other girly profession that could be done alone -- older books would, of course, have governesses) who has just moved into a new situation.  There she was drawn into some secret plot, which she had to solve to escape from.

The "Character Structure" of these stories broke down like this:

1.) Protagonist: Woman who has a flaw/secret that makes her emotionally vulnerable
2.) Hero: Suspicious person who seems like a villain.
3.) Antagonist: non-suspicious person who seems like a buddy
4.) Helper: an actual buddy
5.) Victim: may seem like any of the above up to the point of being a victim (which can happen late in the story), or could have been victimized even before the story starts.
6.) Red Herring: who can seem like any of them.

In some variations of this story, the heroine is actually the victim -- the one the bad guys are out to get from the start -- but I was never interested in those stories as much as the ones where the heroine was an innocent bystander caught up in the case

I would say that a really great mainstream story that displays this character structure would be the movie/play of Wait Until Dark.  That's not a romantic suspense story, or a mystery. We know who the bad guys are, and why they are up to what they're up to, and the story isn't driven by a romance plot.

And yet from the heroine's point of view, the story plays out exactly as a romantic suspense.

She has a weakness that both isolates her and makes her vulnerable: she's blind.  Her husband is absent, but suspicions as to whether he's up to something are prominent in the story.  The bad guys play the part of helpers and red herrings, but then one turns out to be a victim.  There's also a real helper character.

(BTW, I highly recommend you go out and get a copy of Wait Until Dark for Halloween, or any time.  It started as a play, so it is not gruelling or horror.  It's smart, charming, and very suspenseful.  Very scary.  It has one of the great scare moments in all movie history.  And it reminds us that Alan Arkin could do a heck of a lot more than the comic roles we're used to seeing him in. Here he plays the creepy hipster, Roat: one of the great movie villains.)

But back to the game....

Of course, just listing the character structure does not a story make.  That's something that applies to all stories in the genre, and a few outside of the genre.

We'll have to fill them out with randomized choices from our version of the plot wheels. We have to come up with a list of tropes of all kinds to plug into those spaces.  So we'll have to think more about those archetypes -- both the commonly used variations, and those less used, and maybe a few wildcard exceptions.

We'll get started next week, though, with "The Situation Worksheet" - where we'll fill out the Character Structure with some other elements.

See you in the funny papers.

If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation. 

Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Year In The Writing Life

One year ago today, I got laid off, something I hadn't planned to do for myself until 2015, and probably should have done earlier. 

And though I have technically been a full time writer for all this time, it hasn't been the year I expected. (Which in itself is to be expected.)

Sunday, it happens, my Blogiversary.  Four years of blogging, 1160+ posts.  So on Sunday, I'll give you more about the future.  Today, I think I'll take a quick look at the past year.

*Dealing with the paperwork of losing insurance, shifting expenses around, considering filing for Unemployment, etc. can take months.  The mental adjustment is distracting.  There are many problems to be solved, and you use the same part of your brain to solve problems as write stories.

*As soon as you have more "free" time, other people's lives will expand to fill your life.  And it's not people who are trying to take advantage of you (those are easy to shut down).  It's just that, when anybody in your circle - even mere acquaintances - has a real life-threatening emergency, they will call everyone they know... and you are the one who's home.  And next time they call you first.  (Because there will be a next time.  All major emergencies are ongoing.)

*A small glimpse into the mess other people make of their lives will send you back to step one -- to make sure that you really have dealt with all the back up plans and processes and emergency procedures in your life.  Furthermore, the high-stress fallout from other people's crises can be intense.

So that was more than half the year gone before I even got started.  By that time my career was in a "dead stick" situation.  All propulsion gone.  And it was my very worst time of year; summer.

You can see that situation progress in my blogging schedule:  The blog was going full steam last fall, and then coasting on reserves for a while, and then sputtering with a few ups and downs, and then it became a non-blog for a while.  Minimum life-support stuff.

I'm prone to forget that's where I was this summer.

Sometimes I also forget that I decided then to take advantage of the complete loss of momentum; instead of blindly trying to restart what I had, I would take the opportunity to start over.  To explore options, find out what I want to do differently.

And I don't expect that phase to be over until the end of this year (the end of the actual year in December, not just the end of the first year of freedom).

That's part of the problem with the instancy of the internet.  It reduces us to the mental state of dogs, who see time as "now" and "never."  Maybe a wise dog grasps the concept of "later" briefly, but usually they're only thinking of "immediately after now."

(This mindset is enhanced by spending time on internet forums filled with newbies who have no sense of time or the concept of large-arc business cycles.)

So back to work.  On Sunday, my fourth Blogiversary, I'll talk about some of the interesting new directions I'm considering.  Before that, though, we'll have Friday's Plot Game post, where two of these new directions will cross over. I talk about looking at plot structure in terms of Character Structure instead of timeline.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Alpha Dogs: Public Servants - Mommy Dog, Officials and Overseers

Continuing the series on the currently popular character attributes - Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery. First Post Index of the Whole Series.  This week we're talking about Dominance, or Alpha Dog characters.

Oh, boy, today's post split in two on me.  This particular trope is rich and varied, I guess....

In the comments on yesterday's post, Angie pointed out that Marshal Sam Gerard has a fatherly side.  Sure he tells Dr. Kimbal that he doesn't care (about justice), but he actually does care.  That's the flip side of being the gruff and demanding team leader and coach: he cares deeply about his "kids" - his team.  And about his duty as well.  Part of the reason he picks on people, especially other authority figures is because they are not doing their jobs well.

It is this devotion to duty -- this caretaker role -- that makes these types of characters so attractive.  They are just about my favorite type of character.

And yet I almost never write this type of character as a protagonist.

Furthermore, when I think about the many examples of famous characters I came up with for this post, I discover that there really aren't any protagonists in the bunch.  Oh, a few of them are co-protagonists (as is one of my own) but for the most part, they don't completely carry the story themselves.

Why is that?

Two related reasons.  One is that impact characters and co-protagonists have a freedom that main protagonists don't.  They don't, in particular, have to have fatal flaws or weaknesses to overcome.  They can be more mysterious, less forthcoming, funnier and more surprising.  So... you can write them as perfect, or powerful as you want to.  You can have more fun with them.

And that leads us to the other reason: They are powerful, whether you like it or not.  As I mentioned in yesterday's post, they have the authority vested in them by the government or organization for which they work.  They either have minions, or they can draw on minions.  They are naturals as The Cavalry.  They also make great fairygodmothers - pulling some strings in the background.  They make good mentors and great pseudo-antagonists -- that is, the person who provides opposition to the hero when the real villain is hidden.  And when you're telling a story in which the protagonist is a bad guy (such as with Columbo) they are the antagonist.

Mommy in Chief

But for now I want to get back to the concept of team leaders; the concept of a public servant who takes care of not just the team but the community. And also, provide you with an extreme contrast to Sam Gerard:

I give you the very pregnant Chief of Police of Brainerd Minnesota, Marge Gunderson, from the movie Fargo.

Margie has a very different leadership style from Sam Gerard.  She is a gentle and soft-spoken leader of a gentle and soft-spoken people.  In some ways this scene reflects some of the same types of things as the one from yesterday, with very different cultural connotations.  (Another similarity: like Tommy Lee Jones, Frances MacDormand won an oscar for this performance.)

Here is a four minute clip of Margie investigating a triple homicide in the tiny town of Brainerd Minnesota.  (The movie Fargo is quite violent and gruelling. This scene, though epitomizes how it is also wry and funny.  And even a little sweet.)

Most of Margie's minions don't show up for the triple homicide because ... it's cold out.  Geeze, it's Minnesota in the winter. We don't know how she is going to handle this, because she keeps her reaction to herself (but we get a hint later on).   The only thing we see of her leadership style is when her sidekick gets an obvious fact wrong at the end of the clip, she gives him a surprised look and says, "I don't know if I agree a hundred percent with your detective work there."

For the most part, Margie interacts with her minions the same way she interacts with her husband.  They kind of mill around, doing their routine and get the job done.  A little reminder here and there should be all that's necessary.  They are hardy northern folk, after all.

You wouldn't think these small town folks would be up to handling a triple homicide by vicious gangsters.  But you know what?  Margie is on it.  She and her sidekick, Lou, persue the information gently and politely but doggedly until she catches a brutal killer, single handed.  And then as she drives him to jail, she gives him a gentle commentary -- hardly even a lecture -- on how much destruction he's done for so little purpose. "There's more to life than a little money.  Don't you know that?  And here you are, and it's a beautiful day." 

You get the feeling this is how she'll handle her cops who didn't show up at the crime scene earlier.  It's the disappointed mom talk.  And maybe for her team, a lecture like this will work.  They are dutiful people, who are grateful for a "beautiful day" when it's cold and overcast and perhaps even blizzarding.

My Own Characters

I have two very different characters who fit into this model, both from serials I have posted here:  Captain Rozinshura from The Case of the Misplaced Hero, and Rocken from Test of Freedom.

Rozinshura - Your Friendly Neighborhood Official

Rozinshura is an official in a revolutionary government.  His nature fits somewhere on the spectrum between Margie and Gerard. He's a lot more friendly and cuddly than Gerard, and also willing to be as indirect as Marge, but he has no cultural issues with exerting his authority.

And like Gerard, he tends to operate with a flock of minions.  He wades into the scene and directs people, often without looking at them or where he is pointing, just as Gerard did in the clip yesterday.  But while Gerard takes over with the full and correct authority of the United States Federal Government, Rozinsura does it whether he has authority or not.  He bluffs his way through everything. If you call his bluff, he'll keep a straight face and give you another line.

And that's part of what makes him a good facilitator -- by taking responsibility onto himself, he not only gets the job done, but he also gives his superiors plausible deniability.  (In some ways, it's a part of his job to be like he is.)  But he also does it because he's a true believer.  The party functionaries over his head?  They're not The State he serves.  They're just the temporary form it has at the moment.

He even does it to ME.  I write a story where he's a secondary character, he declares he's a co-protagonist.  I come up with a story where he is the protagonist, he declares that's totally wrong. He should be the one who makes the protagonist's life interesting.

Given what he is like, I wish very much I could show you a clip of another movie.  Unfortunately, that move is currently available only in French, without subtitles.  (I have it somewhere myself with subtitles, but I can't give it to you.)

Les Ripoux is a movie about an old crooked cop (played by Phillip Noiret) who gets a new straight-laced young partner.  When I look at it, I really think that Noiret's performance had a great influence on me when I created Rozinshura. He's French, he's laid-back, he displays bald-faced chutzpah. Sometimes it's like Claude Rains in Casablanca ("I'm SHOCKED!  Shocked to find there's gambling going on here!" "Your winnings, sir." "Oh, thank you very much!")

There is one scene in Les Ripoux which displays how this unauthorized use of authority can make this kind of character like The Cavalry.  After the new cop arrives, he tries to get a room in a cheap hotel recommended by Noiret, but the hotel is full up, so the kid calls him to report that he can't get a room.  Noiret shows up with a squad of gendarmes, and raids the place.  "There," he says as he strolls back out. "Two prostitutes and an illegal immigrant.  Now you've got three vacancies."

(If you want to see it, here is a link to Les Ripoux in French.  The scene starts at 12 minutes in. It's pretty clear what's going on in that scene without understanding French.)

The Overseer

I'll end today's post on a character who is trapped in a very different version of this model: Rocken, the overseer on the prison farm in the serial I did last winter, Test of Freedom.  When Rocken introduces himself to the new prisoners, he says,  "If you make trouble, I'm the one who'll beat the hell out of you.  I'm the one who decides what work you do, and how much to feed you.  You'll make me happy, won't you?"

Rocken would seem to be just an arm of the oppressive institution above the prisoners, but he's got a big twist: he's a prisoner himself -- a murderer with a  life sentence. And for all that he hangs on to the hope that if he pleases his evil overlord he might some day be free again, he hasn't actually lost his humanity and good sense.  He's buried it as deeply as he can.

The fact is, he identifies with the prisoners.  He doesn't see himself as an instrument of justice, just a herdsman who manages resources and does his best to take care of them.  Even though he knows he's hated by the men, he takes on a protective role toward them.  Cursing them when he has to punish them, relenting when he can get away with it.

I have drafted the continuation of this story, and I'd like to find a way to finish the series -- because Rocken has a whole lot more to happen in his story.  Jackie, the main character (and another anarchist, but of a very different kind), has a really strong effect on Rocken.  There is a major battle of good and evil going on inside the guy, and that will explode.

And this may be a good place to split this post off in prep for the next post.  Because, though Rocken fits with these team leader characters, he is also a minion, who does his duty alone, though he wields it with the power of the state.  This makes him a little like some characters I'll talk about next week.

Because some public servants are not team leaders, they are investigators who go out and deal with the job alone.  And as with Rocken, that's only one step away from the last group, which I'll talk about after that - the Rogues.  So next up, Agents and Rogues.

See you in the funny papers.

If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation. 

Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Alpha Dogs - Public Servants: The Big Dog is Always Right

Continuing the series on the currently popular character attributes - Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery. First Post Index of the Whole Series.  This week we're talking about Dominance, or Alpha Dog characters.

Continuing on with the Characters and Dominance series.  This time we're talking about public servants, in particular the enforcers of society: cops, soldiers, bureaucrats and the like.

And when it comes to the classic kind of "mind games" domination that kicked this series off, I can't think of anyone better than U.S. Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard of the 1991 movie, The Fugitive.  Played by Tommy Lee Jones.

What is most interesting about him, in terms of this series, is one element of contrast between him and Jules of Pulp Fiction (whom I talked about last week).  Jules is a gangster - but under that dangerous and flamboyant gangster style, he uses law enforcement techniques to take and keep control of a situation.  Including things like being reassuring and kind.

Gerard, on the other hand, uses the techniques of a particularly smart school yard bully.  While he has all the tools and skills at his disposal, his favorite tool of control is dirision and sarcasm.  But unlike in the schoolyard, he uses them judiciously, intentionally, and if you look closer it's not quite like the schoolyard bully... it's like the leader of a schoolyard _gang_.  He is also very much like an ultra tough drill sergeant or coach, too. 

And in that sense Gerard is much closer to the definition of an Alpha Dog than anyone I talked about last week: he's the leader of a pack.

But more than that, he is in a chain of command and has authority.  Which is true of all the public servant characters I'll talk about tomorrow as well. This might make a character seem weak.  After all, unlike the Paladins of last week, these guys don't get to pick and choose their clients.  A gun for hire can refuse a job, or quit, and still go on being exactly what he is.  These guys have to keep their jobs to continue being what they are.  So doesn't that make them weak?


If we're going by Sam Gerard, not at all.  Being a part of a pack -- even being one of Gerard's sidekicks -- means you wield the full power and authority of the pack.  Including the power and authority of those above you, who can command additional packs as necessary.

But Gerard, like any great coach or drill sergeant or ship captain or gang leader, wields a second kind of authority.  He's the BEST.  He's smarter, sharper, more on the ball, more competent than anybody.  And so is his team, partly because he constantly nags at them.

But because they are the best, too, they nag back.  He is always in charge, but if you live up to his standards, you have the right to push back.  He is at ease in his authority.

I couldn't find a perfect clip for Gerard, but I think this one illustrates a lot of my point -- the teamwork, the wielding of authority even with other authority figures, the hyper-competence. Unfortunately, it's a rather low quality clip.  I'll describe it below the clip.

This is the entrance moment for Gerard and his team.  It's the beginning of act two, after a horrific wreck of a train and a prison bus has set our hero -- an innocent man on his way to prison -- free.  He runs off through the woods, the movie cuts to a short time later.  The scene of the wreck, filled with law enforcement and emergency responders, and in through the mass of flashing lights slides the plain dark car of the federal marshals.

That very first line, "My my my my my, what a mess."  Spoken like the guy is almost bored.  It takes more than a train wreck to impress Sam Gerard.  He nags and banters, as well as points out details and barks orders as they make their way through the site.  Note that the team banters and nags back, but they are all business about the details and orders.  These guys are proving that they are SO good that they can have a running comedy routine without missing a beat.

But the important part here, is how he treats the OTHER authority figures, which starts about one minute in. On the one hand, he does the minimum he needs to do -- as if to prove they aren't worth his time to nag.  A state trooper stops him he doesn't say who he is, he just pulls open the flap that covers his badge and asks who is in charge.  Then when the guy tells him, he intentionally gets the name wrong -- just like a school yard gang leader would to show his disrespect.

But when he meets Sheriff Rollins, he does politely introduce himself.  Rollins makes the mistake of being condescending.  Gerard lets him. The guy gets a chance to prove himself worthy or not.  Gerard observes a moment, looking harmless, and yet his eyes are narrow, watching.  The guy proves himself incompetent by simply accepting the witness's story.  Gerard is still polite, and suggests what he should be doing, but the guy tries to pull authority on him. It's his investigation, he gets to blow off "advisors." 

And Gerard lets him do that, and then lowers the boom, by taking away his authority. Very sarcastic, but also very bored.  And watch the woman marshal, who with perfect timing, taps the guy on the arm and hands him the paperwork as Gerard speaks.  He already HAD the authority when he gave the polite suggestion.

Let's just face it and say Gerard is mean.  He lets people lead themselves into traps and makes fools of them.  But that's also how he turns them into subordinates.

And that's exactly what this scene turns out to be: he and his team came in and took charge of all the other teams.  This is the process by which he takes charge.  The troopers and sheriff's deputies and all are new recruits.  He dominates their alpha dog, gets the evidence and the story while the sheriff is still stammering and trying to deal with the fact that he's lost status.

And when Gerard straightens up and says "Listen up, people!" he has completed the take over.  Everyone there is a member of his team now -- they're his minions.

And once in charge, like a good coach or officer, he barks out clear information and orders.  It's like formal a military briefing, but off the cuff.  (He knows exactly what to do and how and why at any moment.)  And then, like any coach, he signs off with the command to hit the field: "Go get him!"

Not all public servants are good leaders (or leaders at all).  Sometimes they are minions.  Sometimes they do their best work alone, even when they can command others.  But they all have the leverage of authority.

Tomorrow I'll talk about a few other types, in particular I'll talk about Marge Gunderson from Fargo, who exerts authority in a somewhat different way.  Then on to some more lone characters, who work with their teams in the background, such as Columbo.  (That will likely be next week.) And one more famous character: Bud White of L.A. Confidential. Because Bud isn't entirely a team player -- and he gives us a segue into the last type of Alpha Dog, which I'll talk about next week: the Rogue.

See you in the funny papers.

Index Post on Characters, Money and Dominance

I decided that this index needs it's own separate post.

This is a series of posts inspired by another blogger, who was musing on how her characters measure up to the current fad for Billionaire Bullies as romantic heroes.  This inspired me to start musing on how my characters, and famous characters in popular culture, relate to Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery.

It turned out to be a long series, so this is an index.  (Links will be updated as I write them.)

*Billionaire Bad Boy Scale (First thoughts)
*Billionaires, Vampires, Wolves and La Bete (A look back at the inspiration for the series - which is not at all what I'm going to talk about for the rest of the series.)

Money Week (Sept 30 - Oct 4)

*Monday: Wealth and Glamor
(Wealth is glamorous, yet my wealthiest character, George Starling, is not really very glamorous -- and that's what makes him interesting.)
*Tuesday: Wealth and the Zen Gunslinger
(Mick and Casey McKee have no wealth or glamor, but they've got what they want.)
*Wednesday:Wealth and Pragmatism
(A look at the characters from The Serial, who run the gamut from rich to socialist.)

Alpha Dog Week (Oct 7-11)

About characters exerting dominance (and will probably have three posts, although if it makes sense, any of them may get kicked to a future week.)
*Monday: Alpha Dogs - How Characters Take Control
(It's the nature of the protagonist, no matter how weak, they need to learn to take control, or else you've got a tragedy on your hands.  We'll talk about Samuel L. Jackson and Pulp Fiction.)
*Tuesday: Paladins: On Dicks, Saints and Saddle-Bums
(Outsiders for hire - including Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon, George Starling and Mick McKee.  The guys you call when you can't handle something yourself.)
Alpha Dog Week 2 (Oct 14-15)
*Monday: Public Servants: The Big Dog is always Right
(Marshal Sam Gerard, of The Fugitive, is your ultimate Alpha Dog, because he leads a pack.)
*Tuesday: Public Servants: Mommy Dog, Officials and Overseers
(Other team leaders - Marge Gunderson (Fargo), plus Rozinshura, Rocken, and a short side trip to Paris.)

Alpha Dog Week 3
*Tuesday: Public Servants: Agents and Rogues
(Columbo, Bud White of L.A. Confidential, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Saint.)

As for "Jackasery and Inner Torment" (the third quality of those Billionaire Bondage Boys) - I may not do a separate post on that, or I may do it later.  Not sure until I get there.

See you in the funny papers.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Update - Indecisive Muses

Okay, the chase after enthusiasm is going about like you might expect.  Some good work, taking on more ambitious projects, but also debating things with people on the internet more than I should.  I got over the cold, though.  And I've been doing enough to keep myself in a state of sleep deprivation and lost a pound. (If you remember, these were supposed to be measures of how well I was doing.)

If I don't crash next week, I will be pleased.

This Week On The Blog

I'm going to handle the rest of this like I did last week: talk about an archetype from popular culture, and then a post about my own characters and maybe some other famous models.

*Monday: Alpha Dogs: Marshal Gerard - Dominant Public Servant
And all around schoolyard bully - but yet admirable in his own way.
*Tuesday: Alpha Dogs: My Own Cops, Soldiers and Bureaucrats
My cop characters tend to be secondary: Rozinshura, Sgt. MacGreevey, Uncle Rosie. I'll probably talk about Columbo too.
*Friday: The Plotting Game - Defining My Version of the Old Woman-in-Jeopardy Suspense
The game really starts with thinking about genre and tropes.

The Game - Saving Time on Decisions

Garrison Keillor likes to make jokes about groups of polite midwesterners, standing in the cold of a Minnesota winter, in a parking lot, unable to decide where to go for dinner.  "Wherever you want to go is fine with me!" they say.  "Naw, I can go anywhere.  Where do you want to go?"

I am a midweseterner.

Furthermore, according to the Myers-Briggs test, I am a borderline J/P ("judging" personality vs. "perceiving" personality).  I tend to test neutral on that.  But I think that's just because they define percievers as people who can't stand it when a decision is made.  Finality bugs them, and they have to walk the decision back and do it over.  I don't have that compulsion at all.  Constitutionally, I am pure perciever.  I can see all sorts of options and it doesn't bother me whether a decision is made or not.

So I don't actually have trouble making a decision, it's just that exploring all the details of all the options is more interesting, and I have no drive to hit the "final answer" button.  And it doesn't tend to bother me if decision is taken out of my hands. (Hey, I was the one who came out of my layoff meeting grinnning from ear to ear.)


For me, flipping coins, rolling dice and drawing cards are a great time saver.

From what I hear from other writers, some level of indecisiveness is a common problem for writers, particularly when we're in creative mode.  I mean perceiving -- at least on the level of thinking through the options -- is a big part of what we do.

The point of plot wheels, and other writing games is to direct that energy into something more fruitful.  It narrows the options quickly, so you can put that perceiver energy into finding a new wrinkle on that one option. You can go deeper and deeper.

The Joy of Brainstorming

I've written before about The Magic of 100 -- the way pushing your ideas further and further gets you to something new and interesting.  I'll be honest, though, and tell you that I do this because I enjoy it in and of itself.  (Which is another time-waster for writing: I can flip into brainstorming mode and go forever.)

So that makes two reasons why writing your own plotting game could be useful to your writing.  It saves time on decision making, and it also is a practical and useful outcome to general wool-gathering.  I mean, when you need to stop and screw around, you can either play Angry Birds, or you can come up with 16 categories of "Meet Cute" for your rom com plotting wheel.  (Or 16 sympathetic motives for the killer in a whodunnit.  Or 16 weaknesses that are really strengths.  Or 16 ways to lure your gothic heroine to the basement that actually make sense to an intelligent adult human being, or even a moderately intelligent iguana.)

Okay, I just had an idea for that last one. (Pause to take notes.)  Oh, and another idea, considering how Mick can sometimes behave like a Gothic heroine.... (Pause to take more notes.)

So anyway, where was I?

Next week, on the Plotting Game, I'm going to skip the overviews. I realize that the key to this game actually is in creating it, so I'm going to jump in and talk about defining a personal "genre" (or really it's a "trope" within a genre).  So we'll get straight into the old-fashioned Woman-in-Jeopardy Romantic Suspense.

But I'll see you on Monday with the next edition of the Characters and Money and Power series.  We'll be talking about Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitve, and the Dominant Pulbic Servant.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Story Game: Erle Stanley Gardner's Plot Wheels

I have a cold.  I hear from the waitress at the Taiwanese restaurant where I picked up some hot and sour soup (as cure) that there is a really nasty but short head cold going around.  I am hunkering down with said hot and sour soup, Halloween candy and a half-gallon of OJ.  I did not have a coherent version of the post I meant to put up today, so instead, I have a canned post I intended to put up later.  It's still about a writing game....

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, and writer of dozens and dozens of novels from Mason to Pulp Fiction, was a self-taught lawyer.  As I understand it, he was kicked out of law school somewhere back east and so he went west to California and simply studied law on his own and passed the bar, and became a successful (and sometimes unorthodox) defense attorney.

One of the things he understood as a writer and a lawyer, was playing with the rules.  He, like his famous creation, thrived on taking on an intricate, rule-bound environment and using those complex rules to his client's advantage, and against the opposition.

So it's not surprising that he liked to work within strict formulas in his writing.  And at one point in his writing, he created a randomizing story creation game of his own.  His "game" is actually the inspiration for my original story game, which is growing and growing and growing.....

The University of Texas at Austin has in its collection four of Gardner's famed Story Wheels. I downloaded and transcribed them. (For the most part... there is still one or two words that I just can't figure out.)

If you're a long time reader of Gardner, their contents aren't surprising, though it is not clear whether he used these wheels for all his books or just for a time.  He certainly had these elements in his head before he created the wheels, and by the time he created them, those elements were strongly enough in his head that he didn't need the wheels to remember them.  I doubt that these wheels changed his fiction any.  They were likely just a way to mix it up and keep it fresh -- to allow him to leap more quickly into the writing.

It is interesting to study these wheels as someone who has read his books.  When I look at the phrasing, and what he chooses to include, you realize what is conscious in his writing.

(Another thing learned: A great lawyer and writer isn't necessarily a great speller.  He spelled the word "villain" as "villian" throughout all the wheels.)

What I find interesting is what elements he finds necessary to create a story.  Of course, elements he takes for granted wouldn't be in here.  Also anything that he doesn't feel the need to vary wouldn't be here.  Another thing that wouldn't be in such a plot wheel are things which are unique to the story.  There's nothing here, for instance, that relates to the main concept of the story.  This isn't a brainstorming tool.  It's about writing the story once concieved.

Before I go further, here are the titles for his wheels: 

  • Wheel of blind trails by which the hero is mislead or confused.
  • Wheel of hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero
  • Wheel of Complicating Circumstances
  • Solution

The thing that strikes me above all is how much these topics all relate to one thing: the battle of wits between the hero and others. ("Solution" is about how the hero wins.)  These are all about strategy.

Of course, strategy is what he did brilliantly in his writing (and I assume in court).  The whole appeal of reading a Perry Mason novel is wrapped up in the legal shenanigans and maneuvering that Mason does.

I'm speaking here, about the books, not the TV show.  The TV show, which I also love, had a certain amount of strategy, but focused more on investigation.  I understand the earliest books (which I haven't read) did too.  But the developed series, after the first ten books, was at least as much about legal maneuvers as they were about the mystery.  But back to the wheels....

What I find interesting is that Gardner did not make any wheels for the things he was weak at. For instance, he wrote very flat characters, but he didn't bother to create a wheel for generating character.  (His secondary characters wheel is all about the opposition they present to the hero, not actual character.)

The stereotype of a writer who uses a formula or a mechanical tool to generate plots, etc, is that he'd use it for the stuff he was no good at or didn't care about.  If you don't like to do something, you create a machine to do it for you, right?

But when you think deeper, it makes sense that Gardner would create a tool for the things he loved most, not least.

Creating flat characters is not hard.  If you don't care about characterization beyond a certain rote level, there are no decisions to make.  You just throw in a cliche, or leave the character blank.  The more you know about something and the better you are at it, the more you see a million options.  Decision making is harder, because you can see many benefits and problems with each direction you could go.

So randomizing choices with what you're good at can actually be a time saver.  It only requires a minimal short hand, and you jump straight into solving that problem; put your energy into pushing it in a new direction.  The fact that you've artificially limited your options just forces you to be more creative.

Which brings me back to my own Plotting/Writing Game....

I suppose this is the difference between a game (and learning) and using something as a work tool:

A work tool is to make the job easier.  Both learning tools and games are designed to make the job a little harder -- to challenge the student or player.  Using random choices forces you to do things you might otherwise avoid.  You have to work harder, and be more creative.

(Added note: I drafted this before I found more information about how Gardner used the wheels and had a whole theory of plotting related to them -- and that he originally created more wheels.  In the end, his game is a lot more like mine than I thought.  So I'll probably revisit this subject again later -- and at that time, I'll give you a transcript of the four extant wheels.)

In the meantime, let's hope the waitress was wrong about this cold maybe laying me out for three days.  I will post an update on Sunday, if only to give you an ETA on next week's posts.

See you in the funny papers.