Friday, January 31, 2014

Plotting Part 2 - Opening Image or Paragraph

(Continuing with the Plot Structure Series. Still working on the opening "Set Up" section of the story. Check out Part 1 - Overview. Part 2- Opening ImagePart 3 - Character Intros 1Part 4 - Character Intros 1b. )

I suppose everyone agrees that the opening line or page or paragraph in a novel, or the opening image or scene in a movie, is incredibly important.  Most people however, look at it as a hook. A way to lure in the audience.

And, ironically, that attitude is something that actually leads people away from effective openings sometimes.  They're so busy trying to be special that they forget what the opening image is for in terms of the story: Orientation.

In A Chair With a Cat and A Book

When a reader starts a story, he or she is sitting someplace in the real world, hearing sounds of the real world, feeling the temperature, and the air and the texture of the book. And what he or she sees is not a story yet. It's marks on paper or a screen.

A few hundred marks on that first page just aren't enough to build a whole world for her. You can't just snatch her out of that chair and drop her into that complete and vivid other place.  While you can interest her immediately with details and promises, to immerse her in the world, you have to lay out the information one piece at a time.

And each piece will change the reader's understanding of not only what happened before, but also will affect what she expects and thinks of the next piece of the puzzle.

So last night and this morning I grabed up a bunch of movies from different times and looked at the opening sequence.

Movies have an advantage over text in that they can give you a whole big picture -- lots of people and objects and movement and sound -- all at once in a single image that may take more than a thousand worlds to describe.  Books have an advantage in that they can convey unambiguous information more quickly.  You can just say, outright, what something is or means.

That particular element is important in our first example of an opening image: Fargo.

Fargo: Words and a Tan Ciera From Heck

If you've ever seen Fargo, you remember what you think is the first image.  Anybody who has seen it talks about it.  And yet, that's not really the first image.  It's at least the second, and I would argue that it's the third.

The very first image of the movie Fargo is a black screen with white text.  The text claims that the movie is a true story, and says it took place in Minnesota in the 1980s, and something about the survivors and those who died.

This slide is a lie.  The story is not even loosely based on anything real.  That title card is there as a part of the story itself.  It might seem like a hoax, or a weird Coen Brothers trick, but the Coen Brothers weren't the first to do this.  It was a common practice in the old days.

The Prisoner of Zenda, for instance, starts with a similar title card, mentioning a great scandal that was whispered in the great halls of Europe -- although they claim this is not that story.  But that disclaimer is there to make you feel like it is the real story. (I mean. that's what you say about gossip.)  It's a fantasy of reality, and it's there for a the same reason it's there in Fargo: it tells the audience what kind of story is coming up.  It tells them how to interpret the images they will see next.

(With the Prizoner of Zenda, this is not the actual opening image. The opening image is a line of trumpeters playing a royal fanfare, and then we get the credits over a moonlit scene. Then we get the title card.  Then we get the story.  Each of these images, along with the sweeping music, tells us something about how to interpret what we will see. Here is the first ten minutes if you're interested.)

But back to Fargo....

Fargo opens with that title card (which I am told was later removed from some DVD version, perhaps by studio lawyers who feared getting sued for telling a lie).  So the audience is sitting in darkness, and now they know something.  This is a "true crime" style story. A melodrama about crime and chaos striking at the heartland of America.

The next image we see is complete gray.  Note that even though this image doesn't give you much information, it also doesn't give you confusing information either.  Instead, the blank gray makes the audience wait, and concentrate. That is partly because the title card which came ahead of it gave us information.  We are patient because the story has started already.

We soon see that this blank screen is actually the whiteout of a blizzard. The music is melancholy, and also sounds kind of folksy, and this plays into the true crime melodrama in the heartland story.

Then the first thing we actually make out dimly is weird.  It's a bird flying around in the blizzard.  Which feels like an artsy symbolic movie trick (and that's actually why it's there.)  But almost immediately, we make out a couple of other details: a fence line, and a road.  A rural road, an isolated location, a blizzard, and an incongruous bird.  And headlights -- but dim and distant headlights.  We don't know yet if those headlights are what we're supposed to be watching or not. They disappear from view.

The music becomes incredibly omninous. And suddenly the headlights reappear, much closer.  Almost bursting out of the dim grey of the storm.  An anonymous car, towing something behind it, sending up rooster tails of snow, going fast for conditions -- and yet in that weird, silent steady way of a car in a blizzard. Also it's filmed in slow motion.  It feels ... inexorable.  Like a demon or fury, which has just burst from hell into our world.

It's fateful.  And it's coming for somebody.  Not us. It doesn't pause or hesitate for us, it just keeps going. Again, like a Scandinavian art film, where death or the fates or the furies gallop by us in their chariots.

And then.... the blizzard is gone.  And it's an ordinary car, towing an ordinary tan Ciera into the parking lot of a roadside bar.  It's night, and that ominous misty gray is gone: We've got black and color and white, like a normal atmosphere.

The story then begins, and we find out that the guy driving that car is not the demon, but rather is the foolish and weak wizard who summoned the demons, who are waiting for him in the bar....

If they had started with the meeting in the bar, the story would have been fine, but we would not have had this ominous feeling hanging over our heads.  The humor would have put us at our ease, and we would have expected people to survive, the way they do in comedies.  We would not have the respect for the potential for real evil, nor would we have the level respect for our mild mannered heroine who will stand up to it.

And we wouldn't be ready for the nastiness, and we would feel betrayed.

The other thing that this opening does is give the story meaning.  The idea of chaos and evil affecting ordinary people.  It also allows the ending to feel more like a bookend.  We start with a symbolic demon bursting out of the storm in a car on a highway. We end with our heroine with the surviving "demon" locked in the back of her patrol car, driving him to where he belongs.  Minnesota Nice has survived and triumphed.  And as she comments, unlike the opening, "it's a beautiful day."

In The Heat of The Night

In The Heat of the Night is similar to Fargo.  It doesn't begin with text (other than the title), but it does begin with words -- in this case, lyrics -- and an unresolved image that makes us wait for details.

The opening image is black, with a couple of light haloes -- points of light, shot out of focus.  Ray Charles crooning soulful blues, "In the Heat of the Night."   As Charles sings, the yellow light halo in the center gets brighter and slowly resolved into the headlights of a train.

The train rolls on through a small town, late at night (we know it's late because the streets are empty) and the song and title tells us it's a hot night.  Then the train passes a sign, "Welcome to Sparta, Mississippi."  So we know where we are.

Then the train pulls into the station and we see the legs and hands of the porter as he climbs down and puts down a step for the passenger.  The passenger steps down.  We only see his legs -- clad in a nice suit with shiny shoes, and his hands and suitcase.  But because we see their hands, we know one thing about these characters:

The porter is white and the passenger is black.

(This might be a good time to mention that this movie was made in 1967.)

So we've got the Deep South, the blues, the pssion of the heat of the night, and a black man in a suit in 1967 Mississippi.

The passenger waits, and turns to watch the porter.  It almost seems like he's going to put his hand in his pocket, like maybe he'll give a tip?  But the porter keeps his back to the passenger, throws the step back on the train and the train pulls away.  The passenger pauses and then goes on into the station.

We never see their faces.  We don't know them as people yet.  And the movie cuts away from them anyway, to begin the story in a diner across town.

It's as though the passenger isn't the protagonist, at least not yet. He's like ... that tan Ciera in Fargo. Or even the shark in Jaws.  He is a catalyst.  An incident waiting to happen: something that will upend the balance of the town.

An argument could be made for the idea that Mr. Virgil Tibbs is actually the antagonist in the story of this town, and in particular it's Chief of Police. (Or at least a key impact character.)  Yes, there is a crime to be solved, and Virgil Tibbs will solve it.  But had Virgil Tibbs not been there, the case would have just been another small town crime in a story which changes nothing.  The status quo would continue to rule over justice.

So in some sense, his arrival is the real inciting incident of this story. (And yes, sometime soon we'll get to how inciting incidents can be split and happen both early and later in the first act.)

Of course, Mr. Tibbs isn't just a catalyst.  He is also definitely a protagonist.  He's a very much a character in setting with a problem.  (And oh, boy, is that setting and problem vivid in the mind of the audience of 1967.)  And that opening gives us all the information we need to know about both his problem and the problem the town will face.

A Hard Day's Night

The opening image of A Hard Day's Night is somewhat different: instead of a train or a car coming at us, in a lone and mournful location and an anonymous protagonist we see right off the bat, before credits, a crowded urban street, and at the far end, three of the Beatles are running toward us, pursued by a crowd of crazed teenagers.  They are laughing and tripping, and yet running as if for their lives. The teens are not laughing, but their screaming is passionate, almost desperate.

This opening image is punctuated by sound -- the discordant opening chord of the song "A Hard Day's Night."  And over that song and credits, we see John, George and Ringo dodging and running through a train station.  Paul is there too, but because he's in disguise and accompanied a sneering little old man, so he isn't being pursued.  His presence lets us know that this is a normal and forseeable occurance.

By the end of the credits, the Beatles have all made it onto the train, and we know all we need to know: they are stars, they are footloose, but also trapped by their own fame.  And the film will show us how their lives are an endless chase, as the lads fight to preserve their real nature and identity as the culture around them pushes to get a piece of them.

Say Anything

The 1980's teen romance Say Anything violates an awful lot of the rules of how a story should shake out, and one of those elements is how it opens.  The opening image however is a solid and standard one.  (NOTE: unfortunately YouTube doesn't have a clip of this, so I'll just describe it.)

We see a shot of a town on the water.  Modern day, working class / middle class.  We hear music and the voices of teens, talking about their yearbook.  Even though it feels more like background noise than information, we get the feeling that these are seniors talking about typical end of High School things.

As the camera pulls away from the water and the town and finally into the teen bedroom where the conversation is taking place, it settles on the face of Lloyd Dobbler.  He's not one of the ones talking, but once we see his face, he finally opens his mouth and says, out of the blue "I'm going to take out Diane Cort."  His friends try to dissuade him, and tell him that he'll only get hurt, but he declares "I wanna get hurt!"

Then the credits begin.

The thing that is extraordinary about this scene is that this is what is supposed to happen at the END of the first act. This is supposed to happen AFTER the inciting incident, and the charcter's life has been disrupted and he's considered his options.  He's not supposed to "Commit to the Quest" until after all that!

But ... that's what this story is about.  Lloyd Dobbler was  born committed.  He doesn't care about the consequences to himself.

In some sense, he's also a Mr. Tibbs, a Jaws shark and a tan Ciera.  While the story does test Lloyd, he doesn't really change.  So in some sense, this opening  hints that this story is really about Diane Cort -- who will have something to contend with in Lloyd Dobbler.  The subsequent scenes confirm this idea, as we see Lloyd and his determination long before Diane is even aware of him.

I should probably have saved this one until I talk about the "character commts" part of the story, but I just wanted to show you how sometimes, that opening image is literally just an establishing shot.  The image of the town, the talk of Lloyd's gal pals are not grabbers.  But they do efficiently set the stage.  We know the culture and the kinds of problems people of that age have.

So we understand what is at stake.  So, as with seeing a well-dress black man in 1967 Mississipi, Lloyd's declaration promises a us a story worth watching.

Okay, that's a lot of scenes.  I could talk about more movies, but I think I'll move on.

Next week, we'll talk about Character Entrances... part 1.  There are a number of subjects to talk about with that, and we'll start with another look at In the Heat of the Night as we look at introduction by conflict.

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)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Goodnight, Pete, Goodnight

Somewhere around the time I was posting yesterday's post, Pete Seeger died.  I didn't hear about it until morning.

I can't say I'm in shock -- he was 94 -- but it certainly has affected me. He was one of a few very strong influences in my childhood.  I grew up listening to his album of American Industrial Ballads.

I have a motto. I've mentioned it here, just some words to live by: Be Brave, Be Fair, Do Good Work.

That was Pete.  I can say for sure that he was a major influence on all three of those concepts.

A couple of things I think you should know about Pete Seeger:

Pleading the First

When he was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, he was not only brave enough to refuse to name names, he was also brave enough to refuse to take the Fifth Amendment.  Instead, he took the First Amendment.  He had a right to his beliefs.  He had a right to his conscience, and a right to associate with whoever he chose. 

And he believed everyone had that right.  He would sometimes chastise his own side, especially when union struggles got hot, to always talk with the other side, to make connections with those you disagreed with.

Those who blacklisted Pete made one mistake.  They had got him off the radio, stopped him from getting jobs on TV... mostly.  It didn't occur to anyone, though, that there was any harm in him singing folk songs to kids.  Thus Pete ended up with such a strong influence on the next generation.

Forcing Hate to Surrender

During WWII, Woody Guthrie's guitar had written on it "This Machine Kills Fascists."  Pete's banjo said "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender."

He said that songs can't save the world, and neither can speeches or books.  He meant, I think, that you have to take what you learned from songs and books and speeches and do something about it before the world can be changed.

But he was wrong about songs: he _did_ something with songs.  He got people to sing together.   That was his mission in life, and he achieved it over and over again.  He was the one who brought the long forgotten hymn, We Shall Overcome, to the civil rights movement.  (He wrote many great songs, but he is more known for introducing the songs of others or the songs of the past to a new generation.)

And when he decided to clean up the Hudson River, he didn't just sing to a bunch of tree-hugging environmentalists.  He recruited people from all sides of the political spectrum.  Conservative bankers and business people as well as families, country and city.  It wasn't about politics, it was about life.

So he sang with them, and had potlucks with them. (He often said that food is the greatest organizing tool.)

Amazing Optimism

Pete always saw the bright side, always looked for the good in people.  One of my favorite songs of his is Quite Early Morning.  I've always thought that it would be the best eulogy for him. It's a bright and yet sorrowful song -- about how it's darkest before the dawn, and about passing the "singing tomorrows" to the next generation.

But these lines are my favorite, because they are so Pete:

Some say that mankind can't long endure
But what makes them feel so doggone sure?

Here's cut from one of his concerts with Arlo Guthrie on that song:

In recent years, Pete's voice gave out.  He could only sing weakly, but he still sang.  He often toured with his grandson.

One of the reasons his vocal chords gave out is because of how he sang for 60 years: head thrown back, calling out at the top of his lungs.  If he had learned to protect his voice, perhaps it would have stayed strong longer.  I don't know, though.  It's hard to imagine a longer career.

One of the songs in which Pete called out so joyously and so long; the Weaver's version of Wimoweh.  It has so much energy, so much joy. This is Pete as I'll always think of him -- making beautiful sounds in harmony with others.

Finally, one more video clip and song: this is a song he always insisted on the auidence singing along: Michael Row The Boat Ashore.  (It doesn't show his famous ability to sing a song twice -- once to feed a line to the audience and then again with the audience, without missing a beat. But it still is a great Pete song.)

There's a whole series of songs from this concert in Australia when he was blacklisted.  You can find a bunch of YouTube videos of this concert here: Pete Seeger, Australia 1963.

So to paraphrase Leadbelly:

Goodnight, Pete, Goodnight.  I'll sing with you in my dreams.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Plotting Part 1 - The Set Up

I was going to break up my discussion of plot into four parts, but I realized I wanted to drill down deeper.  Then I thought I would do seven parts -- to coincide with the 7-Act MOW structure I told you about last summer.

But as I get into it, I realize that even that doesn't quite go deep enough... at least for the opening sections of a story.  Maybe the other acts will turn out to be simpler, but there really is a lot to do in the opening of a story.

So I'm going to give you an overview of everything I can recall about various theories of each act of a story.  I'll introduce one section, and then drill down with additional posts about aspects I think are important or complicated.  I'd especially like to talk about elements that I don't hear others talk about as much.

If you wanted to get yourself a text book for this series of posts, you could get yourself a copy of Blake Snyder's book Save The Cat.  I will refer a lot to his beat sheet.  Most of the other things I'll talk about come from so many diverse sources -- many of which are lectures or advice from mentors.  I don't know if they are written down anywhere.

So (to paraphrase Cole Porter) let's Begin the Beginning....

The Set Up

The first section of a story sets up what will come later, so it's not surprising that most plot theory refers to this section as the set up. With some screenwriting theories, this section is very strictly defined as the first 15 minutes of a movie.  In most novels I'd say it's the first three chapters, regardless of the length of the book.

Why wouldn't the length of the book matter?

Because three chapters (unless they are unusually short or long) is about as much as it takes to get the audience into the story.  That's what the set up section is for: To ease the audience into the world of the story.  Also, traditionally, three chapters is what you submit to a publisher as a sample of the book -- so it has to be a unit that sets up the story... and ends with something that gets the plot fully rolling.

And that's the real secret here: that's the real definition of the set up section: it's everything that happens up to the point of the "Inciting Incident."  That moment is also called the Catalyst, or the Thing That Throws The Protagonist's Life Out of Balance.  More on that later.

Character in a Setting with a Problem

The first theory of story plotting I ever learned was at Clarion. Algis Budrys gave us a lecture about it the first day: a story always begins with a character in a setting with a problem.

That's a good summary of what the set up section of the story is supposed to provide: information about character, setting and the conflict that drives the plot.

The great thing about this advice is that it is not only clear what it means, but it isn't really a formula.  You can play with the timing of how you introduce the setting and the character and when you get to the problem.   But there are some more advanced elements that this doesn't get to, so we're going to break this up into several elements:

The Opening Image or Paragraph

Writers aren't the only ones who start a story with a blank page.  The audience too starts a story knowing nothing, or nearly nothing.  You could say they have a blank stage in their heads.  Often they will have read the blurb and seen the cover illustration and maybe a review or something.  But just as often, especially in these days of ebooks, the audience has forgotten those by the time they get around to reading a book.  The book has been sitting on their e-reader for a while, and all the readers sees now is the title.

Furthermore, even if the audience just read the blurb and cover and a review, that usually tells them something about where the story is going... but it doesn't tell them where the story is starting out.  It doesn't put them inside the world. It doesn't set that stage.

And you can't give the audience the full picture of everything they need to know all at once. You have to fill that stage a piece at a time -- and how they relate to everything in the story will be affected by what you show them first.

We'll be talking about this in depth on Friday.

Entrances of Characters

There's an old rule of thumb in screenwriting that you should introduce all of the characters in the first ten pages. I've seen similar rules for fiction.  It's not a bad rule of thumb but it's a silly rule to stick too closely to.

What's important is to think about who you introduce in this section and how.  Who should make a grand entrance. Who might be more subtle.  We're going to talk about this one in depth next week.  But in short: you do need to introduce your protagonist, and any other character you will be setting up for a pay off at the end.  However, some characters can be set up by reputation. (More about that next Friday, with a discussion of Harry Lime and "Mr. Woo.")


Setting is sometimes one of those invisible things that we don't think about and the audience doesn't either.  And yet it's important to every element of the story.  Without setting, your characters are disembodied ghosts.

Setting is more than physical location. It's also time and social setting.  Setting is a part of your characters' limits and strengths.  It gives us the mood, and sometimes even indicates the whole meaning of the story.

Setting delineates the problem.  And very often it is the thing you need to estabish in that first image or paragraph.  (However, you don't necessarily need to establish it in depth.  Sometimes a quick word gives the audience all it needs to know.)


Blake Snyder prescribes one very specific bit of foreshadowing: he insists on a "statement of theme" on page five of a screenplay. (That's when a charcter says something that foreshadows what the story will turn out to be about.)  It's an effective technique of setting the audience up for the story, but I like to take a more flexible view on this.

The thing I am not flexible about is that the opening set up section should be making promises and giving hints as to what is to come.  Some of this will be subtle, some will be blatant. Some will be blatant but impossible to understand until you see what happens in the rest of the story.

Foreshadowing is also something that can and should happen throughout the story, but it's especially important to the beginning.

And yes, some of the foreshadowing probably should tell the audience what the character will come to learn -- which leads to the next item:

What's Wrong?

Before we even get to the Inciting Incident, we will see problems with your main character's life.  Blake Snyder calls this "Six Things That Have To Be Fixed" (six being an arbitrary number you can change).

I mentioned a month or so ago that a story reflects the five stages of grief?  This opening section coincides with "denial."  The character may or may not be in denial -- but to the audience it should be clear that things are already wrong.  Usually it's that the character is flawed in some way.  He might be too timid, or too careless. He might be ignoring his family, or be too arrogant with his friends.

Or your character might have real problems: be broke, and the car breaks down and there's no money for the groceries and she's peddaling as fast as she can to keep ahead.  But these may be ordinary problems that seem to have no real solution: bad luck.

These problems are a kind of foreshadowing too.  They create tension or conflict.  They hint at where the story is going. They promise the audience satisfaction of some sort.

The Inciting Incident

Finally, this section of the story will end with something that shakes up the situation you just set up.

The inciting incident is sometimes called a catalyst.  But whatever you call it, it's something that the protagonist can't ignore.

Sometimes the inciting incident doesn't actually happen at this point -- it happens earlier, but nobody knows about it until this point.  Sometimes it affects a character other than the protagonist, but it's something that the audience knows for sure will affect the main character.

I'll be talking about this one later too.

As for how all this will fit into the story game, I'm not sure yet.  But when we get into specific examples, I suspect we'll get some ideas.

On Friday, we'll get to Plot Part 2: Opening Images, and talk about the movie Fargo, among others.  However, I have written before about different kinds of opening pages for fiction, First Page Series.  You can read that if you want to get some ideas about how and where to start a story.

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)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sunday Update - Cocooning in Quilts

Very very cold again.  But weirdly so.  For the past few days we've had single digit and sub-zero temps in the day, and then we'll have a "warm" front of temps in the teens and even lower twenties at night. ????

The feral cat is not only accepting that she can't go out... she's refusing to go out.  (She realized she can make do hunting basement spiders.  The spiders have decided they can make do hiding under the washer.)

I've been making do baking brownies, bread, more brownies, hot wings, and more bread.  I suppose this is the time when I should be baking bread to freeze for the summer when it's too hot to bake.

Otherwise, I've been snuggling under a cat and a quilt, with five layers and fingerless gloves on, flitting from story to story and doing art while listening to the dirt on the latest political scandals. (Reality can be much more entertaining than reality TV.)

I suppose I should be doing artwork that relates to cold, cats and warm quilts, but I've been doing ... odder things, which I can't show you because they aren't done.  But I do have a few more covers up at Self-Pub Book Covers.  Such as these with an Asian theme....

Or these -- a western and a non-fiction business type covers. (Charts and Chaps, you could say.)

As For The Blog Schedule....

I'll do two posts on plot this week, all about the "Set Up" section of a story -- that's the section which happens before the "Inciting Incident" -- approx the first 15 minutes of a movie or first three chapters of a novel.

On Tuesday, we'll try to pull together all of the various theories and ideas of what belongs in that opening section.  We'll probably talk a lot about Blake Snyder, and maybe Robert McKee and others.  Also that know-it-all kid in my first writing class. I'll try to pull it all together, and if there's room, sort it back out again.  (If there isn't room, well, we'll be talking about this section of the story in depth for a while.)

On Friday, we'll talk about about some of the specific elements we mention on Tuesday, in particular the Opening Image or Paragraph.  We'll discuss the opening of Fargo.  (And if you've seen Fargo, the opening image you have in mind is probably not the real opening image!) We'll probably talk about some other stories too.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, January 24, 2014


Today exploded in my face again.  The evening involved much hair-tearing and running around and yelling and looking things up on the internet. (Don't ask.)  After a couple of hours of this, I had to pause and listen to Garrison Keillor's Slow Days of Summer on continuous loop for about a half-hour before I was calm enough to get back to what I was doing.

By the time I pulled together this great blog post (or the first 1/4 of it) I realized two things:

1.) This is a multi-part series. And when I say multiple parts, I don't just mean the original four part series I had planned on: I mean that each of those parts are breaking up into multiple parts.

2.) I wasn't going to get through the first part any time before 3am, so I might as well bag it and do it right for next week.

It's theory rather than The Game anyway.  We'll see how it breaks down when I write more tomorrow and Saturday.  I'll post the schedule for it on Sunday (along with some pictures; I got a bunch of new images up at Self-Pub Book Covers, though they haven't got around to putting them up yet).

Until then, here is a relaxing picture of my boy Max, enjoying some slow days of summer:


See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Update - Forgot the Enthusiasm Thing

Okay, so last fall I looked at what I've done throughout my life and discovered that I seem to get way more done when I am totally undisciplined than when I try to make things work.  And those of you who follow my blog know that I decided to try out a new strategy I called "Chasing Enthusiam."

This strategy had the very problems anyone could predict: lots of things done, but not a lot finished.

So I figured, hey, let's just try to mix things a little. I'll mostly be undisciplined but I'll add one little goal thingie, and rejoin ROW80, and add in a minimum amount of self-discipline to the mix.

And as soon as I did that, all productivity went right out the window.

This reminds me of something I noticed at the day job....

We had a very weird political environment must of the time I worked at there.  It was often, frankly, a downright hostile work environment.  Literally so if not always legally so.  My particular unit was incredibly productive, in spite of the fact that we had some managers who were intentionally trying to prevent us from being productive. (They wanted to cut us out, and also punish the larger unit that depended on us.)

So there were times, off an on, that we recorded every single freaking thing we did, down to the minute.  (We documented EVERYTHING. Not just the work we did.) If we'd had competent hostile managers this would have been a defense -- proof we were doing the work.  However the hostile ones in this case were not particularly competent, so we got even better defensive bang out of this:

Every time there was a new person in the leadership team, they would waltz in and say, passive-aggressively, "We've decided to set up a policy where we all have to keep a log of everything we do.  Isn't that splendid? Because we do so much more than any of you do...."

And we'd hand them the log for the past three months. Their faces would fall, and they would flee and not return for months.  Because no, they didn't do as much as we did, and they realized that if they wanted to look good, they had to deep-six the new policy ASAP.

I tell you this story not just because it amuses me (which, admittedly, it does) but because there is a side light to this story.

When we didn't have hostile, passive-aggressive clowns overseeing us, we didn't keep a log, but rather kept to do lists, which gave us a very good idea of how much we got done in total, even if we didn't have a record of how long it took, etc.  And this allowed me to discover something:

Productive as we were when we had to keep a log, we were much MORE productive when we didn't have to keep a log.

Tracking anything takes time.  Reporting on it also takes time.

This time and effort can be worth it. For instance: Logs are good for learning.

When you don't know where your time goes, and you are tearing your hair out to figure out how you can do better, it's a good idea to keep a log.  At the very least, you will find out how very much you do.  If you do waste time at certain things, you will find out what those things are.

I also think that keeping a log and reporting to others can raise enthusiasm for a group effort, especially when you are young.


It can also steal enthusiasm.  It can shift your focus to the group, to the report.  Same with time and energy.

So... (You knew I was going to shift this back to writing, right?)  I think it was a mistake to rejoin ROW80.  At my age, that's just not how I get things done.  It's a great challenge, significantly better than restrictive dares like NaNoWriMo.  But I was right that I need to continue chasing enthusiasm.  I get more done when I stop counting.

So back to normal.  You can expect continued Sunday Updates and Story Game posts on most Fridays.  I hope to get back to regular blogging soon -- but I need to recharge some of my enthusiasm. (It wasn't just ROW80 that threw me off recently after all.)

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday ROW 80 Update

My A Round of words in 80 Days update:

(The goals for the first quarter of 2014 are to write on the WIP for at least Four 10-minute writing sprints/bouts/sessions.  That makes for about 800-1200 words.  I should be doing at least twice that much, but I've got a lot of other things on my plate. (Aside from weather.) )

I decided that the goal for this four day segment is to knit together everything I've got.  I have lots of notes and ideas, and I have lots and lots and lots of bits of writing from various short writing sprints and sessions.  In some cases those are duplicates as the story evolved in new directions.

So I counted that work for the "sessions" and I exceeded my goal every day for this segment.

Turns out, that once I had it all together: I have 21k words on this thing now.  That was how long I wanted the whole story to be.  And yes, there are a lot of duplications and such in that text, but this is clearly going to be a longer book than I thought. Is it a short novel or a long novella?  I don't know yet.

One of the problems I am having in regards to length is that the story structure has a weird problem. The story is about a character who has been on the run since she was a small child, and she has a reason not to want to be found, even though she is curious about the past.  So she is carefully looking into it from afar, and we don't really get to meet the people she is avoiding until late in the book.

This makes me want to stretch out the ending -- which might be okay.  It could be a longer book. However, I don't feel like that is the story I want to tell.

I think, though, that I have found the solution:  Flashbacks.   Angela has been keeping her memories buried, but now she wants to know more, so it makes sense for her to be intentionally trying to dredge them up, as she researches her family history, etc.

Thus we can meet those characters long before she works her way into interacting with them.

I'm going to do one more day on the read through and mark up -- but I hope to make today a transitional day.  I'll be sitting down and doing a "write thru" rather than just a read through.  I'll start patching in the missing bits and turning the bits and pieces into a continuous draft.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Story Game: Plot Structure and Finding The Wow

(I'm working on a central directory page for the Story Game, until then, you can review the Situation Game from Fall via the last post: Let's Play! which has an index of posts up to to that point.)

Creating the Situation Game was easy.  I'm stumbling as I try to figure out how to deal with the Plot Game.  And I think it's partly because I know so much about plot theory -- the dozens of theories of story structure, etc. -- that it's hard to get a handle on where you spin the wheel.  Every story has an Inciting Incident in the first act.  And at the end of the first act the character commits to the quest.
There is no way to do a "wheel of inciting incidents" or "wheel of character commitment."  They are things that happen, but not kinds of things that happen.  And they really have to adhere to your situation.

So, even though plot theory is a part of the game, the actual game itself has got to get its hooks in a completely different kind of theory.  You've got to drill down into genre, archetypes and a little something that Hollywood calls a "Wow."

So I'm going to tell you about one more plot structure theory.  A very simple one.  A very very simple one:

Action Movie Structure: put in a WOW every seven minutes.

That's it.  Sometimes people say a Wow goes in every ten minutes or every five minutes.  Sometimes it's three little wows and then every half hour you have one big WOW. intil the end, which is all Big Wows.But the overall theory is pretty much, keep hitting the audience with Wows.

And we've seen those action movies.  I call that genre "Movies In Which Things Blow Up For Absolutely No Reason Whatsoever."  I also call them "Friday Movies," because they are a great thing to watch on a Friday night after a very tough week at work.

But the concept is not just limited to those kinds of movies.  Comedies, for instance, often use this same concept.  Keep the jokes coming, and if one fails, well, the audience will laugh at the next.  The theory behind this is that you should never bore the audience. It's related to Raymond Chandler's advice to bring in a man with a gun whenever the story flags.

Wow Isn't Just About Big Explosions

There are good stupid action movies and bad stupid action movies.  The bad ones are where it's just noise and flash and there is no actual Wow invovled.  There is more to a Wow than just making something big and loud, and if we're going to take this concept outside of the stupid action movie genre, we have to understand what a Wow is.

A Wow has to be satisfying.  This may involve paying off on something we expect, but usually it pays off unexpectedly or ironically.

Star Wars (the original Episode IV) starts with a classic Wow: a space ship racing though space, blasters firing. We think we're seeing a pretty big space ship...

But then from just above the camera (as if it is coming from behind the audience) we see the bigger ship that's chasing it.  That is, we see the front of it enter the screen.  Oh, yeah, we think, that's bigger.  But then it keeps coming.  We haven't seen the end of it yet.  Oh, that's just the front bumper!  It's still coming, and coming.  OMG, it's really really big!  The ship just goes on and on and on.

If you've never seen this on the big screen you have no idea what it was like back in 1977 when theater screens were enormous. That scene would actually make you hunker down in your seat.

That's a wow.

A similar Wow with a different effect is when the Tyrannosaurus Rex is chasing the jeep in Jurassic Park and you can see in the rear view mirror 'Objects in mirror are larger than they appear."  This one works because it's surprisingly understated and ironic.  Same with Jaws when the shark flashes out of the water to be properly seen for the first time.  Only Roy Scheider sees it.  He's scared stiff (as we are) and says "We're gonna need a bigger boat. " (Spielberg was the master of the Wow, especially the ironic wow -- which contrasts something shocking or impressive with an understated comment.

Wows are about the audience's emotional response.  Which means a lot of the time they are archetypes or cliches.  The audience wants to experience it again and again... except that it doesn't always work so well when it's not unexpected.  Then the creator has to work at it.

For instance, dropping a luxury car out of an airplane was a Wow the first time it happened, but thereafter it was a Ho Hum.  It's no longer a surprise, and the irony isn't enough to make it fly.  But that leads me to an example of another kind of Wow, the Payoff Wow.

The Payoff Wow

There's a great "Stupid Action Movie" called Con Air.  I sometimes think the premise of that movie is "What if everyone in the universe, including God, had their IQ docked by about 25 percent?"  This is a movie which didn't try to do anything new, they just worked really hard to put a little extra something into every cliche to turn it back into a Wow.  They didn't always succeed, but like a fast-paced comedy, they keep coming at you so fast that if one thing doesn't work, the next thing probably will.

They used the old "luxury car drops from the sky" routine, and they turned it into a Wow by giving the audience a relationship with the car.  It belongs to a character you really hate, the the more you know him the more you hate him.  The car is a symbol of what you hate about the character, so you hate the car too.  The car almost has it's own subplot, and they build multiple Wows into it. At some point the car gets to fly through the air.  Wow.  Then when that car falls out of the sky... it falls at the feet of the owner.  The guy we hate.

And that's a big Wow.  Because it's a payoff.  It's like a punchline of a joke.  We are rewarded for patience.

Even Art House Movies Have Wows

An intellectual movie will Wow it's audience with moments of insight.  These will also involve irony or unexpected turns or payoffs.  They also have their equivalent of the big loud explosions: beautiful imagery in a movie, or incredible poetic language in a book.

There is a famous scene in the middle of The Third Man, when Joseph Cotton is walking home in the dark and empty streets of Vienna.  He thinks his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) died before he even arrived in Vienna. (At this point in the movie, we haven't even seen a picture of Harry.)  And he knows that he's under surveillance by cops and crooks.  He's drunk and pissed off so when he sees someone concealed in the shadow of a doorway, he taunts the guy. Calls for him to come out and show himself.  The guy doesn't come out, but then someone opens a window and casts a light into the shadow.... it's Harry.

That's a Wow, too. It's surprising and ironic, and what a classic look on Orson Welles' face!

The Third Man is chock full of "art movie" Wows (gorgeous cinematography, and careful counter-intuitive pacing, spritely zither music in a thriller plot). You could say it's the Arthouse equivalent of Con Air: You are barraged with Wow moments.

A wow can be a joke or a speech or a kiss, or surprise.  But it can also be something expected.  It can be the thing that the audience hopes for and anticipates with glee.  When Columbo turns around and says "Oh, there's just one more thing..."  That's a Wow for the audience waiting for it.  In a slapstick comedy, when there's a pie on the mantelpiece, you just know the movie ain't over until it is thrown.

A Wow, then, is basically any moment or event that gives the audience satisfaction.  In every kind of book or movie or poem or play, the Wow is what the audience is watching or reading or listening for.  That's why so many cliches are also Wows, because anything good is going to get used over and over again.

Part of what defines a genre is what kind of Wow the audience is expecting.  And because they've seen it all before, one of the skills of the master of any genre is to be clever and interesting with those expected Wows.  The masters are those who find a way to make them unexpected.

Wows and The Story Game

I'm thinking that the Plotting Game is going to have to revolve around Wows.  Yes, we'll start with plot theory, but to create a form for a plotting game, we're going to have to drill down from that into Wow territory.

So we're going to take a look at each act in a four-act structure and think about how it applies to genre, and then create Wheels of Wow for each item we identify.

So next week, I think we can finally get to Act 1.

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)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wed ROW80 Update

This part of the week had gone somewhat better.  However, meeting a low goal shouldn't be listed under "better."  Still got tiring "stuff" going on.  I did manage to write and do some art too. With the writing, I was mostly pushing and shoving at the romance.

However, the feral cat who disappeared during the killer cold spell has returned. He is in good health and no hungrier than usual.  We think he does have someplace else to go for warmth, even if he does seem to prefer our chow.  Col. Scruffy appears to have used up more than nine lives, but he keeps chugging.

My A Round of words in 80 Days update:

The goals for the first quarter of 2014 are to write on the WIP for at least Four 10-minute writing sprints/bouts/sessions.  That makes for about 800-1200 words.  I should be doing at least twice that much, but I've got a lot of other things on my plate. (Aside from weather.)

Sunday, Day 7 - 4 sessions. I don't remember what.

Monday, Day 8 - 4 sessions. Plus two new covers at Self-Pub Book Covers.  The one you see here came to me in a flash as I sat down for the evening.  Good thing I had three of my sessions done for the day already.

Tuesday, Day 9 - 3 sessions.  I hope to do one more tonight, but I am so sleepy, I don't think it will happen.  Also, I did another cover, but I'm not putting it up yet, because it's a non-fiction cover, and I want to do more dramatic fiction covers first.

We should be getting some snow by morning.  Supposedly not more than a few inches.  I, however, am too sleepy to think about it.  (I suspect this might be one of those vestigal migraines.)

I currently have no idea whether I'll make the Friday Game Post or not. You guys should start a pool....

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Update

This was a very disappointing half week.  The story was going gang busters, but stuff happened.

The one thing I did do was fill in a lot of plot holes (and find some inconsistencies I have to deal with).  This is intentionally a kind of throwaway ripping yarn, and so I don't mind a certain amount of dumb plotting... but it has to make sense on some level.

But I didn't expect the anonymous thug to show his face and make such a polite threat to the heroine. I also didn't expect the $50,000.  I can only say, wow, that puts an interesting complexion on things.

As for my A Round of words in 80 Days update:

The goals for the first quarter of 2014 are to write on the WIP for at least Four 10-minute writing sprints/bouts/sessions.  That makes for about 800-1200 words.  I should be doing at least twice that much, but I've got a lot of other things on my plate. (Aside from weather.)

Wednesday, Day 3: 4 bouts, for about 1200 words.  I wanted to do a session earlier in the day, but ended up replotting some things.

Thursday, Day 4: Day lost to personal stuff.

Friday, Day 5: Day lost because I was an idiot.  After being trapped in the house for so long, I decided that I'd try to get back to my regular routine and go out to MacDonalds to type some blog posts early on.  I have now discovered the source of my terrible shoulder RSI.  It appears to be that danged tiny keyboard on the netbook I use when I'm out of the house, combined with the high restaurant table.  (All those days in the house, no trouble. One session out of the house, OUCH!)

Saturday, Day 6: 2 bouts, for about 500 words. Rested shoulder, tried out some other portable keyboards.  (For home: Found my new ergonomic keyboard xmas pleasant is Da Bomb! I'll talk about it later.  When I can type long enough to write about it.)

I've learned my lesson and I'm not going to predict anything for this week.  In my pain-inducing session on Friday, I did get some nice rough drafting done on some posts about plot. However, they aren't ready to post yet, so what will get posted on Friday will depend on the shoulder.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Apologies - No Story Game Post

Today was consumed by utterly exhausting personal stuff.

It's been going on for a while, and between it and the Polar Vortex, I haven't even had a chance to look at my notes on the Story Game plot stuff.  I thought I would just pull it together tonight, but things blew up in my face even before getting out of bed this morning.

I am, however, able to get out of my house now.  The car has returned to life. I have hopes that tomorrow will see a return to something near normal.

I might just fall asleep right now, or I might get a little writing done, but I'm not going to get any blogging done.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Wed Update - Winter Edition

Yeah, I know, I said I was going to do an Artisan Writers post on predictions for 2014, but shoveling snow wore me out, and I couldn't get interested in that post.  So maybe next week I'll do something on the interesting parts.

I reached my goals, mostly, but I should be doing better.  However, weather is time consuming.  (Just putting on four or five layers of clothing makes so many minor tasks take way way longer than usual.) Yes, the year of the Snake is lashing us with a pretty fierce ending.

The picture here is looking out my back door about halfway through the storm -- 9-10 inches of snow. (The posts are 4x4.)

Also, though this storm was nowhere NEAR the intensity of the great storms of 1967 and 1978 (39" and 33" inches storm totals), Michigan State University did close down for a day and a half -- and that qualifies this year's storm as a certified Snowpocalypse.

And yes, we are still snowed in.  The car is dead of hypothermia, and we don't wish to join it.  Tomorrow, as you read this, we will attempt to dig ourselves the rest of the way out.  We are out of butter and Cheerios.

As for my A Round of words in 80 Days update:

The goals for the first quarter of 2014 are to write on the WIP for at least Four 10-minute writing sprints/bouts/sessions.  That makes for about 800-1200 words.  I should be doing at least twice that much, but I've got a lot of other things on my plate. (Aside from weather.)

Sunday Day 0 - 2 sessions, managed before I realized that I was too tired out from shoveling snow to stay awake.  Stayed awake anyway and drew some very boring pictures.

Monday Day 1 - 4 sessions, plus some new brainstorming, and a new cover for Self-pub Book Covers (non-fiction this time.)  All of today's words were from Reef's point of view. I think that this will work out better and faster if I do switch back and forth from heroine to hero. This would allow me to get information to the audience more easily for one.

Also -- I got to bring Chef more directly into it.  He was deeply concerned that the heroine did not eat her pain au chocolat.  He is my favorite character, and I'm wondering if he has a certain detective quality, and if I should decide this story needs a cavalry... maybe Chef should show up with a 9" boning knife.

Tuesday Day 2 - 4.5 sessions.  (I was in the middle of a session when I came to the end of a scene and realized that I needed to  stop and replot some things.  Is Reef going to find anything if he goes to check on Angela's apartment? If not, it's not a scene, just a summary.  If he finds something, is it just a puzzling clue or is it a whole scene -- like a chase through an alley or something?)

(Other participants reporting in on the Linky page here: ROW80 First Midweek Checkin)

A Little About The Story

In Flight could end up a novel rather than a novella.  It still feels like a movie.  I thought this was going to be just from the heroine's point of view, but the guys have horned their way in.

 I like Reef and Chef as classic helper/impact characters. They're just background characters at the heroine's place of work. (Well, Reef is the leading man -- he rolled up as "authority figure; boss" in The Game.)  So....

I'm going to tell you about the story from the wrong point of view:

Chef is the boss of a catering company owned by a hotel chain.  Reef is the suit from corporate who is supposedly running the place, but he's really just a useless excess manager who is trotted out to fire people when they displease Chef. Reef wants to open a detective agency one day.  (And by the end of the story, I think Chef will consider adding detection to the menu of services offered by the catering company.)

Into this milieu comes Angela, an apparently shy and secretive young woman hired as clerk and menu designer, who proves indispensable with her creative and willing hard work.  But a soon as Chef decides to promote her to a more responsible position... Angela's past catches up with her, and she flees without explanation, leaving her pain au chocolat untouched.

Chef is concerned.

He sends Reef after her, equipped with eclairs.

The actual story -- and pitch -- will be from Angela's point of view.  But the above just seemed like fun (and it is Reef's point of view I'm working on right now).

In the meantime I'm mad at Chef, because this story is beginning to sound like a whacky Camille LaGuire adventure, and less like a classic Woman-in-Jeopardy Romantic Suspense.

Anyway, on Friday we'll get on with the Story Game - Plotting, and talk about the first act of a four-act story.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Update - Art and Flash Fiction and ROW80

Oh!  The next ROW80 starts Monday.  (ROW80 = A Round of Words in 80 Days. A quarterly, on going writing challenge/dare.) And when I do ROW80, I like to start it a day early, so it ends in time to actually report on the last check-in day.

So I guess that will be today.

The Goals will be my general goals for the year as mentioned on New Years:  Four 10-minute writing sprints minimum every day.  This is a very low goal -- only accounting for about 1000 words -- but I only count work on the "current project."  I have a lot of other projects on my plate, so it's challenging enough.

The current project right now is In Flight -- a romantic suspense novella generated by The Story Game.  (The cover you see here is still in progress, and the pen name is not set in stone yet either.)

Flash Fiction

One of the distractions is that the folks on Kboards are putting together a huge group project involving Flash Fiction.  I'm not going to say much other than that it's getting my muses all stirred up and I'm going to use it to ramp up my short fiction efforts.  I feel like writing a bunch of flash and microfiction stories.

Some time, way off in the future, I may bring in some smaller story games -- more like prompts -- for generating quick short fiction ideas.  I'll probably post a few when I get done with Plot on the Friday Story Game posts.

Cover Work

The other big distraction is that I am getting more cover work, especially from Self-Pub Book Covers. (You can see my portfolio page here.  It doesn't show covers which have already sold, though.)  Nothing like a little cash to inspire you to concentrate on something you find fun.

And although I realize I should be doing more nonfiction covers (non-fiction writers -- especially business writers -- are more likely to want a full paper cover), I keep getting inspired to with these dramatic fiction cover ideas.

The images you see here I just did tonight.  They haven't been approved yet. (Though they might be by the time you see it.)

With these graphic silhouettes and abstract designs, I could probably do them faster in Illustrator (at least some of them -- not the more organic shapes like people), but I enjoy doing these in Photoshop so much I keep putting it off.

And I want to do more drawing, sketching and painting styles, and that I need to do in Photoshop or Painter.

In the meantime....

Coming up on the Blog

Everybody's posting predictions for publishing in 2014.  So I'll post a little something in the Artisan Writer column on Monday -- not so much a prediction as mentioning trends I see and reacting to the predictions of others.  (In particular Joe Konrath and Bob Mayer.)

Wednesday, my ROW80 update

Friday, we'll talk about ACT 1 and seek out the fun and cool stuff that might go there, that could inspire more of the Story Game.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Story Game - The Psychology of Plot

Welcome back to The Story Game!

This fall we created The Situation Game (which focuses on everything in place before the story starts -- characters, motivations, conflicts).  I have a few people testing it, and it's shaping up nicely, but there are a few tweaks I'll need to do.

(The last post for the Situation Game -- "Let's Play" -- starts with an index to all posts in that series.)

This Winter we're going to focus on plot.

And even though the game itself focuses on formulaic fiction, the goal is to understand the mechanics that apply to all kinds of fiction. (Or at least more kinds of fiction.)

So though I will, as usual, bring in ideas and examples from literature and movies and comic strips and any storytelling medium, the focus of the game right now is still the "Woman in Jeopardy" Romantic Suspense Story.

(However, I myself will be pushing over into other mystery genres as much as possible soon.)

Plot As Game

When you think of turning story telling into a game, plotting certainly seems to be the most natural part to use.  Especially when you're talking about pulp fiction formulas.  Part of the inspiration for this game was Erle Stanley Gardner's plot wheels.

Oddly, I found when I started this phase of the game, the pieces of this part of the game were just not falling into place.  Perhaps it's because I have a lovely image in my mind as to what a story game should look like:

The image involves a wonderful three-dimensional game board representing the journey of the protagonist through an unknown landscape, with cards and dice rolls and spins of the wheel springing surprises on him as he goes.

That's attractive, because it mimicks the experience of reading formula fiction.  You sorta know where it's going, but the details and twists and turns are a surprise when they happen.  And, if you anticipate those twists and turns too much you get bored.

And I think that's why this magic game board is attractive to me: writers know what's going to happen.  Sure, ideas come at you by surprise sometimes, but the actual process of writing is slow enough that most of the time, you're ahead of any surprises, and far ahead of even the most astute reader.   You have to set the twists and turns up.

Being a writer can be like being an actor.

An actor has to know the play and rehearse his actions long before he presents his art to the audience -- and so he has to find ways to keep it fresh for himself, to keep some sense of spontaneity going.  Of course, live performances have one thing that keeps everything fresh: accidents happen.  Another actor misses a beat, or delivers a line differently, and you have to adapt for that.  Noises in the audience, a missing prop.  All of this keeps live drama from being boring.  Sometimes actors even introduce challenges intentionally -- surprising (an annoying) their fellow actors with unrehearsed twists and turns.

That's what Improv is.  Making it up as you go along, playing with the cards you're dealt (and having no script to fall back on).

For a lot of plotting games out there, that's the purpose of using a random choice generator.  It creates an improvisational freshness.  You never know what's going to happen next, and a choice could throw you off your plans, so you are, in essense, writing on the edge.

It's sort of like writing a round-robin story by yourself.

(You know what a round robin story is, don't you?  One person writes a page or a chapter and hands it off to the next person, who writes the next bit.  Each person taking an equal part, locked into what went before and having to come up with the next bit based on it.)

But there is a problem with this kind of beat-by-beat improvisation, though.  Most round robin stories start off strong, but they quickly go down hill and become boring and dissatisfying.  This is because the parts are equal and there is no opportunity to set up anything. There is never a real arc -- just leaping back and forth of the story line.

The Pulp Plot Formula

If you just look at the standard pulp plot formula, as the Lester Dent formula for pulp short stories, or my own Maverick formula, you see something similar going on.  These descriptions of plot may be useful to seeing structure -- but the fact is they are very straight line descriptions.  Basically, the same thing happens in each act.. only more so.  The hero gets in trouble, then he gets in worse trouble, then in the worst trouble possible, and then gets out of it.

That doesn't really get into what a good plot does.  Even in the most formulaic plot, the pulp hero doesn't just get himself into deeper and deeper trouble at random.  The trouble builds, on piece on another.  Each action affects what happens next.  And more important, each action reveals more information, which changes the perspective of the audience -- what the audience thinks. (This was partly touched on by the Maverick formula -- as Maverick also has his mind changed with each act).

If the story is to feel satisfying, it has to be a psychological unit.  It must lead the character -- and the audience -- through a psychological cycle.

The Psychology of a Story

Stories exist to play "what if?"  The point is to put us through a virtual crisis.  Or maybe I should call it a "Virtual Change in Conditions" -- because the crisis could be a happy one or a terrifying one.  Although all humans react differently to different changes and crises, there is a common pattern that happens inside our heads.  Stories reflect that.

I was thinking about it last fall, and I realized that the standard plot formula -- whether it's the 7-Act Movie-of-the-Week structure I talked about it last summer, or the 4-act structures of Lester Dent and Maverick, or the classic Hollywood 3-Act structure -- all have mild association with Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief.

I don't think this makes a good formula for your writing (well, it might) but it does help us see the psychological progression of a story.  We may rational purposes of all kinds for any particular story, but this is about the irrational side of us -- that psychological pattern that needs to be gone through to feel satisfied.

Act 1 - Denial  (The Set Up - What It's Like When Everything's Fine)

Every story starts with set up.  The character and audience believes the world is a certain way.  The story often lets the audience know that something is wrong before the character, but not always.  Either way, there is something wrong, something that the character doesn't realize he has to react to.  Then the inciting incident happens, and the character is forced to recognize it and react to it.

Act 2 - Bargaining (Treating the Problem Rationally, Because Everything is Still Fine)

Usually this is the second half of Act 1.  The character first reacts by thinking they can take ordinary action that fits into their worldview (that is the "denial" worldview that everything really is, basically, fine).  They run around trying to do things the right or habital way.  Aliens attack their house, they try to call the cops, or run away or hide or do those things we plan to do in a crisis.

In other words, they feel the problem is a reasonable one and you can take normal, reasonable actions to "bargain" it away.  But they find they are wrong, and that they must react more strongly than they ever thought.  And that makes them more determined to deal with this problem than ever.

Act 3 - Anger (Expending Energy, Because Things Are Not Fine)

At first glance this section (which Hollywood would refer to as the first half of the second act) would seem like it isn't about anger.  But think about what anger is: a release of stress and energy.  And what triggers anger? Frustration.  When you try to deal with something reasonably, and that doesn't work you get frustrated, and that pushes you to do things you wouldn't have thought to do otherwise.  And maybe that means Hulk Smash!, or maybe that means you set aside your ordinary tasks and go after the problem.  This is the point when the kids screwing around in the basement actually did make Mom come down there and settle it.

So though this equates to the anger part, this is also the most energectic and often fun part of the story.  This is where the characters go all out for something. At least until they crash.

Act 4 - Depression (Failure, Desperation and Truth)

Merely going after the problem with more energy and commitment failed.  You might have achieved some joyously exuberant triumph, but it's a an empty success.  The Thing That Is Not Fine is still there.  And maybe it's not only stronger than you though, it's worse than you thought.  The stakes are higher than you thought... and yuou're not up to it.  You expended all that energy for nothing. You may have even made things worse.  You feel weak, inadequate, and you don't know what to do.

But that's what it takes to give up on denial.  You have to hit bottom before you can see the truth.  

This is the part of the story where all seems lost, and many secrets are revealed -- at least one of which is significant enough to give you some kind of renewed hope.  You don't know if you're strong enough or smart enough, but at last you understand what is going on.

Act 5 - Acceptance (Facing Reality and Conquering It)

When you see and understand the truth, you are at last able to go after the problem in a realistic way that has hope of success.  And because you were wrong about the problem before, this section isn't just about overcoming the biggest problem, it's about surviving and becoming a new person, a wiser person.

This Is Not a Plot Formula

Don't take the psychological points above too seriously in terms of what your character faces or how he or she reacts to it.  It's really about emotional energy -- it's a way of seeing what emotions dig into the "lizard brain" of your audience as the story progresses.  It's what the brain expects to feel:

The opening is logical, then next section high energy, the next low energy, and finally satisfaction and wisdom. (And because this is about emotions, "wisdom" can mean completely dumb things like blowing up the bad guys.)

What does this have to do with The Story Game, then?

Well, first it explains why creating wheels of problems which act like beads on a string won't create a satisfying story.  The difficulties that assail the character from plot point to plot point can't be equal in this kind of story. (There are other structures that don't work like this, or which only deal with part of it -- I'll be talking about some of those later -- probably not within the Friday Story Game posts, but maybe on a Tuesday -- just going into different kinds of story theory.)

What I'm thinking is that the way to approach this part of the game may be to peel it back in layers, or to take it in "modules." We're going to use the above theory, as well as the MoW theory I mentioned last summer as a kind of lens, as we look at our Romantic Suspense genre plot (as well as other kinds of stories) act-by-act in a four act structure.

Next week we'll talk about Act One - the Set Up. Which is a very busy act in terms of things you have to do with it.  You've got to introduce everything, sew the seeds of your ending, "Save the Cat" (and maybe "Kill the Puppy" for you villain), as well as have your hero and heroine "Meet Cute." (Though I think they might also "Meet Suspicious" in a romantic suspense story.)

Before that, we'll have a Sunday Update, and on Monday I'll have an Artisan Writer thoughts on the upcoming year in publishing.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year, and Upcoming Plans

My Plans for This Year

First, I am going by the Chinese calendar this year.  2013 was the Year of the Snake -- a wriggly, trickster of a year.  And the Year of the Snake is not over until January 31.

January of this year is a liminal zone for me.  It's all about prepparing for the next phase of my life/career -- to begin with the Year of the Fire Horse on January 31.

Those preparations started last summer, really.  I don't really want to look back any further than that: I glanced at my journal, and I just do not want to revisit last spring.  Last spring was a nightmare.  And then summer was just too hot to get work done.

However, last summer I got the chance to look at my own patterns and cycles and start getting the ball rolling.   By fall I set myself on a couple of paths that will continue into next year:

Chasing Enthusiasm

My "Chasing Enthusiasm" project has worked pretty well, but as predicted, it doesn't work well in the area of getting to the finish line.

(Short review: In looking over all my work, I discovered that self-discipline accounted for very very little of my productivity over my lifetime.  The vast majority of my work was accomplished when I was being flightly and undisciplined.  So I decided to be flighy and undisciplined for the rest of the year.)

The two big successes of the Enthusiasm Project were:  1.)  Art work - I'm starting to make some cash at covers that I do spontaneously, for instance - and 2.) The Story Game, which may or may not become a salable project in itself, but it is piling up some interesting stories to be written. (More on that below.)

I am going to continue with a modified version of Chasing Enthusiasm for a while, but I'm going to temper it by putting a game-like goal into my day.  I will likely rejoin ROW80 - which means update posts on Wednesdays and Sundays again -- and the goal will be measured in 10 minute writing sprints.

Four 10-minute writing bouts a day, no matter what else I'm doing.  Ten minute bouts or challenges are fun to do, like an exercise or game.  And I expect to do more than four any days that I don't have too much else on my plate.

The Story Game Stories

My original purpose for The Story Game, for those who haven't been following closely, was to create consistent "pulp" stories and write them quickly.  However, it was a very hot summer, and I found the game part more interesting than the writing part.  This fall, however, when it cooled off and I got serious about the game, I found myself getting serious about the stories too.  I have  returned to my original plan:

I will be writing these under a pen name -- probably Vera Avrila or something similar. (I like the typographical possiblities of As and Vs.)  I am doing this not because the stories will be so terribly different than what I write under my own name, but rather because, unlike my regular, they will be consistent in terms of genre, tone and length.

Another reason I want to write them under a pen name is because I want to experiment with a pricing structure that will be different from the books under my own name.

I don't know if this will be a money-making enterprise.  I considered writing popular genres (such as smut).  I even created an anoymous publisher entity for it, just in case it worked out... but it didn't work out.  Luckily, I was smart enough to create an identity that was flexible.  The branding was focused on short and romantic. Therefore I could use it for romantic suspsense novellas. (However, I'm not going to unveil it until I decide for certain.)

Another reason it might not be a great money-making enterprise: I will be bucking the trend toward more and more erotic content.  While my books will not be "sweet," they will meet the standards of The Production Code for the most part.  They will involve adult concepts, and may involve limited use of adult language, but for the most part if you didn't see it in a Hollywood pot-boiler such as Mildred Pierce, you're not likely to see it in my Vera Avrila books.

We'll see how that swings with the kids today.

I've got three books in development on that, and I'm not going to publish any of them until all three are fully drafted.  Then I'll publish them a month apart.  I hope to start in March.

The Serial -- Plink, Alex and The Awarshi Contingent

The Perils of Plink have been postponed again mainly because the world is developing on me and I have some bigger plans.  Plink may even have to wait until I get some other stories in the series done.  That particular muse has a lot to handle, so I'm letting her do it however she wants.  She wants me to do the slower stories -- the more children's story type stores -- first.  We'll see. (More about that in the blog.  There are some interesting literary/creative subjects in there.)

Mick and Casey

You may or may not see some Mick and Casey shorts come up soon -- but I have decided to go back to submitting them to commercial magazines before self-publishing them.  So I can't predict when you'll next see some stories from them.  Sometime this year, but probably not until later.

Starling and Marquette (i.e. "The Man Who....")

This is actually the series that is burning to get out.  The books, however, have complications that make it a slow process.  I think, however, that The Story Game is giving me some tools to move this forward better and faster.  I hope to move this series along faster once I get the Game Stories out of the way.

Non-fiction and The Game Itself

I'd like to have the Situation Game tested and tweaked to sell as an ebook and workbook sometime around summer.  I don't know if the "plot game" section will be a part of this, or if I'll sell them as smaller modular "ebooklets."  Depends on what develops.

Miscellaneous Short Fiction

I have an urge to return to writing short fiction and submitting it to magazines as well as self-publishing.  The Ride to Save King had some interesting things happening in the stats when it went free.  It did much better than my other free books.  I wonder about a budding children's market -- especially for chapter books and narrative shorts.  I used to write children's stories mainly.  It might be time to start again.

I also want to do more mystery short fiction again.

Summer of Paper

Last year the heat wiped me out of creative work.  So this year, I am planning for that. I will be doing layout for paper copies of all of my books this summer, for release in late summer and early fall. 

I should also mention that things are going well on the cover art front.  I'm making a nice bit of extra cash and enjoying what I do.

But Out of All Of That...My Goals.

For now, those four 10-minute writing sprints a day will focus on this:

*A Mick and Casey Christmas story to be submitted to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine by the end of January.  (Six-gun Santa)

*Three Game Stories (In Flight; Hours of Need; Covet Thy Neighbor) to be at least drafted by the end of March.

I think I can actually do much better, because the sprints are fun and I can do 8-10 in an evening if I watch out for RSIs.

On Friday, we'll start in talking about plot and how we can work that into The Story Game.  And on Monday I may take an "Artisan Writers" look at all the predictions for next year in Indie Publishing.

See you in the funny papers.