Great heroes transform a story from the inside

Leave a comment

While there’s plenty of formulas and types of story breakdowns to follow, there’s nothing like an inside job. Things happen in stories because what’s inside the main character, as well as what’s buried in the villains, too.

luke_skywalkerPeople, and how they fare amid trouble, are what keep us reading once we begin. You can start with a fine premise (a college essay falls into the wrong hands and student is called out for an old misdemeanor revealed on its pages). But going deeper keeps me engaged. Showing me why our student was carrying that small amount of dope (her crime) is more important than the circumstances of her arrest or punishment. Knowing what was in her heart when she revealed this secret is a good driver, too.

External events like arrest, breaking the rules, sentencing and being shamed — these are vehicles you employ to show a transformation in your main character. That hero is opposed by antagonists who want something the hero does not want. But even the antagonists must desire something they do not have. It can as simple as denying a hero their desires, or exploiting the hero’s innocence.

“I’m Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you” are words the young Luke has been dying to say all of his life. Why he wants to say those words, beyond the sound of it being exciting, is a key to knowing why to care about this character across five movies (so far).

Everyone who’s a significant character in a story follows a path of transformation. The why that leads them to change the world of the story is the most important engine to push them down the path. Doing character work is rarely wasted time when you apply it to serving the transformation in a story. I always want to know what a hero desires, what a hero fears, what a hero must hide than is forced to reveal. Desire, fear, secrecy: They all can be agents of change in a character and in a story, too.

In an old Murder She Wrote, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher said that “character is the soul of plot.” Something interesting taking place is a good start. Learning why it’s interesting—that’s a story.

How to build metaphors in less than 5 minutes

Leave a comment

how-to-build-metaphorsSpeaking metaphorically. It’s a phrase we all understand. We use metaphor as a way of making something stand in for something else. A bad employee isn’t on the way to being fired. No, he’s a dead duck. We love metaphor in stories because it helps us in two ways. We understand better. We enjoy the images that metaphor brings us, too.

Metaphor is a device in writing and storytelling. But most of us think of something easier when we play with metaphors. We employ simile, the phrases that use “is like” or “as.” She was sweating like a harlot in Easter Sunday church,” me might say. Or “That show was flat as day-old pancakes.” Great fun, similes. You know, using them leads up to an easy road to making metaphors. Here’s a fun exercise you can use to make metaphors.

Write a list of 7 nouns down one side of your page. Specific nouns are better. Not “tree” but “live oak.” Not “car” but “minivan.” You wanna see these things better. You want to know what makes them unique.

Now “is like” next to each noun. Or “are like” if you’ve written something “dalmations” for a noun. Remember? Specifics. There we go. Now for the first round of fun. Finish each sentence. Don’t sweat this. You have seven of these, after all.

There we go. Seven similies. Now for the magic. Strike out the words “is like” and just use “is” or “are.” Instead of dalmations are like checkerboards, it’s dalmations are checkerboards. Or, those checkerboards of dalmations. Voila, metaphor.

You can play with this when you want to call attention to the details of something in a story. They can be events: a Second Wedding. Or places: A Greyhound bus station. Or objects, like plastic wheelbarrows. You’re making poetry, in a way. This is lyrical writing, the kind you hear in songs.

Remember that metaphors are quite a way up on the pyramid of writing skills. The legendary director at Iowa’s Writing Workshop Frank Conroy shows us a pyramid of writing skills. At the bottom are the foundation of meaning, of sense, or clarity. But a couple of levels up is building block of metaphor.

Try making some today, and have fun. You can go too far, of course, and have crazy combinations. That’s what rewriting is for. And as a lot of us writers say, writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it as perfect as a Marine’s haircut on the first draft. (See what I did there? Didja see?)

Writing to Get Into Someone’s Head

Leave a comment

brain-emotionsMalcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on its ability to engage you, to think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.” This is true whether you write non-fiction, novels, or the blend of these two: the memoir. The getting a reader into another head? That’s the work of good character-building.

Building characters comes from a knowledge of behaviors. The Meyers-Briggs personality tests rank people in four areas, using questions that measure whether you are more of a:

• Introvert vs. Extrovert
• Thinking vs. Feeling
• Sensing vs. Intuitive
• Judging vs. Perceiving

Giving yourself a test lets you ally yourself closer with one of the ITSJ combinations. It’s a great starting point for understanding aspects of a character. The book Plot vs. Character outlines the 16 types of personality combinations you can arrive at. Best of all, it derives a personality summary from each combination. For example, here’s ESTP, the extrovert who needs sensory motivation, thinks more than feels, and perceives more than judges:

Tolerant and flexible; actions, not words; the doer, not the thinker; spontaneous; implusive; competitive.

It’s much easier to dream up a character, for some writers, if you can peg that person on one of those 16 summaries. Best of all, since the basic types have been summarized, it helps get the plot-first writers motivated about characterization. The summaries and the types are an easier step up into someone’s head. You have to take this step to make a strong character, or at least one who makes sense when they act.

That’s an important step to get your writing into someone else’s head: the reader’s. “Oh yeah, I know somebody well who’s like that” is the kind of connection you want readers to make with your story’s actors. A plot can be brilliant and lure a reader to the story. They stay more often, and bring away more from their story time, when the actors are memorable.

Discount training: worth all you won’t pay for it

Leave a comment

plasticflowersI have an old friend who’s embarking on a new book. His first, in fact, although he’s been writing for his business for many years. A book demands more of a writer than an article, of course. I brought more than 20 years of journalism editing and writing to my first day of creating fiction. Making a 4,000-word article is not enough experience to create an 80,000-word book. You can’t just create 20 stories and stitch them together. You need to practice skills you might not have polished yet.

The same kind of calculation is part of choosing a coach or a class for your writing. People go to the gym and pay $30 for a hour with a trainer. Ask them to pay more than $50 for a writing coaching session, and some will point to Udemy on the Web. “It’s just $40 for 35 modules of writing. I can do that.” Ah, the Web, the great discounter of all learning.

There’s been a revolution in buying and selling services. As writers, we now can choose the world over for our writing lessons. Coaching, too, if your coach provides you 1:1 time. Some of the lessons come from far away, places where English is not the common language. But it’s not just the native language that matters. Mistaking coaching for such instruction is commonplace. Instruction is only as good as the practice it triggers. If a $40 Udemy course doesn’t require you to write and turn in for an evaluation, you’re not going to pay for all of that expertise which reveals what you know—and what you still need to master.

“Why should I care about getting graded?” you might say. “I never liked that part of school anyway.” To avoid all that grading, we then audited courses instead of taking the tests. College systems didn’t discount tuition for audited courses, though. Remember, right alongside you were students working to prove they learned the lessons. Submitting work. Hearing evaluations. Seeing where you misunderstood, so you can master the skills.

I’m making a series of Write Skills videos this year. Just about one a week is my goal, and you invest about 4 minutes watching each one. When you finish each, you’ll have one more tool in your writing belt. Write Skills are free, but you won’t get your practicing afterward evaluated. (If you don’t have a plan for practice, you’re not growing your skills. Short lessons, yes. Longer practice.) That’s what coaching does, or sitting in a real class in-person, or online. You measure your training through evaluated practice. You won’t have to pay for that training when you buy a $40 writing course. You might be paying later on, though, when your writing hasn’t seemed to improve as much as you desired.

Desire drives genuine growth. It’s worth the investment to build a book that people will finish reading and remember. Other kinds of books are everywhere, of course. They’re set aside unfinished, or leave an impression that no writer wants. Whether you’re creating your first work, or just the latest, all of us need to keep growing our craft. I like to think of discount training like plastic flowers. They look great. But if you want the aroma of a genuine bouquet, then an arranger working with the fresh stuff gives you what you really desire.

Making Metaphors: Instill Imagery

Leave a comment

Speaking metaphorically. It’s a phrase we all understand. We use metaphor as a way of making something stand in for something else. A bad employee isn’t on the way to being fired. No, he’s a dead duck. We love metaphor in stories because it helps us in two ways. We understand better. We enjoy the images that metaphor brings us , too.

Metaphor is a device in writing and storytelling. But most of us think of something easier when we play with metaphors. We employ simile, the phrases that use “like” or “as.” She was sweating like a harlot in Easter Sunday church, we might say. Or That show was as flat as day-old pancakes. Great fun, similes. In fact, using them gets us onto an easy road to making metaphors. Here’s a fun exercise you can use to make metaphors.

Write a list of 7 nouns down one side of your page. Specific nouns are better. Not “tree” but “live oak.” Not “car” but “minivan.” You wanna see these things better. You want to know what makes them unique.

Now “is like” next to each noun. Or “are like” if you’ve written something “dalmations” for a noun. Remember? Specifics. There we go. Now for the first round of fun. Finish each sentence. Don’t sweat this. You have seven of these, after all.

Dalmations are like checkerboards
Live oaks are like mile markers
A bank safe is like a minivan
Canadian geese are like fact checkers
Plastic wheelbarrows are like circus tents
The Greyhound station is like a church
Black and white movies are like postcards
Pedal steel guitars are like coyotes

There we go. Seven similies. Now for the magic. Strike out the words “is like” or “are like” — just use “is” or “are.”

Instead of dalmations are like checkerboards, it’s dalmations are checkerboards. Or, The mile marker live oaks.

Then you can go one step further and use your metaphor in a phrase like so:

Those mile markers of live oaks

That bank safe of a minivan

You can play with this when you want to call attention to the details of things in a story. It makes images of things that might seem ordinary. They can be events: a Second Wedding. Or places: A Greyhound bus station. Or objects, like plastic wheelbarrows. You’re making poetry, in a way. This is lyrical writing, the kind you hear in songs.

Remember that metaphors are quite a way up on the pyramid of writing skills. The legendary director at Iowa’s Writing Workshop Frank Conroy shows us a pyramid of writing skills. At the bottom are the foundation of meaning, of sense, of clarity. But three levels up is the building block of metaphor.

Meaning Sense Pyramid

But try making some today, and have fun. You can go too far, of course. That’s what rewriting is for. And as a lot of us writers say, writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it as perfect as a Marine’s haircut on the first draft. (See what I did there? Didja see?)

Making the Most of an Editor’s Time

Leave a comment

Max PerkinsThe Writer’s League of Texas has a superior Agents & Editors Conference each year here in Austin. I’ve attended, volunteered, been on faculty, pitched, and exhibited there over the last 10 years. Some writers attend to meet with agents in consulting appointments of 10 minutes. Others submit manuscript samples and synopses in an annual contest. Others just come to learn how the publishing business works and understand their genres better.

But there are probably fewer than 100 writers each year who come to meet with publishers’ editors. This year only three editors are taking consulting meetings, but does a limited number of writers make sense? Wouldn’t you rather talk to an editor, instead of an agent, about your book? You’d think a 10-minute meeting with someone who buys books, instead of an agent who represents and sells them to publishers, would be the smart way to go. There are good reasons why it’s not so simple. The WLT explains them well.

Why would I want to meet with an editor? Aren’t agents the ones who make the deals?”

Our answer: Editors can and do acquire books — but it’s very rarely that they acquire a book (or request materials) from a writer directly; an agent is almost certainly involved in this process.  Regardless, editors can offer valuable insight into agents who represent your type of work, should you need suggestions. What’s more, editors can offer valuable information on how to shape your story for not only agents and publishers, but for readers. They are also often experts on specific genres or categories and can share great advice that’s specific to what you’re writing.  For all of these reasons, and more, we invite editors to the conference and we make one-on-one consultations with them available.

BUT (very important) you should not select a meeting with an editor if your sole goal is having someone request materials or tell you they’d like to consider your work for publication. This is not a realistic goal for a meeting with an editor and you will likely be disappointed. We’re cautioning you here so that you don’t regret it later.

The League’s staff invites the curious author to call and learn more. Good show. Indeed, these editors don’t arrive to buy books. Everyone needs to see a book proposal these days, it seems. Even fiction authors get deals more easily with one. But an editor does a service to a conference attendee who meets with them. They tell them what they think of the book and the idea. It’s pretty much what an agent does at the conference. You pitch. They listen. They tell you what they think. In some cases the agent asks for a sample of the book.

Editor’s requests for a sample are not unheard of at the conference, though. One Workshop writer from my memoirs/nonfiction group said he got a request from a Big Five imprint for his full book after a meeting. Dave’s a worker and following through, but the important thing is that editors want unique, good books as badly as the agents who represent the authors writing those books. Time with an editor is almost always time well spent if you learn something and the book evolves.

3 Things That Good Story Description Demands

Leave a comment

We always want specifics in description. We try to choose the ones that help us know the why about the story’s characters.

Lisa Cron, the teacher of storycraft on Lynda.com and elsewhere, says “Scenery without a subtext is travelogue. (read: boring) Ensure your specifics are story-related, rather than floundering in the dreaded realm of “just because.” All the rules about “setting” and “place” are irrelevant without this: if a description doesn’t give us specificnecessary insight into the characters in the story you’re telling, that description will stop the story cold.”

So there you have it. The three things are

  1. Specifics
  2. Insights
  3. Relationship to a character

FlatsWithout them, the writing will be as flat as any backdrop on a theatrical stage. And so the beautiful prose is just travelogue. Pretty, yes. Story-stopping, too. Here’s an example of travelogue, from YouTube. It’s one of the old TravelTalks shorts from the 1930s that gave moviegoers a look at many places, but no characters. (You see lots of people in these little films, but no characters.) Plenty of visuals. So if you include something like this in a story, it will stop — no tension, no insight.

Also, here’s a nice definition page for milieu  It’s a nice word to trigger a description that includes culture. (Characters = culture.) Your settings should be doing work to help us experience your characters.

Older Entries Newer Entries