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Back to Back to Basics: Phases of Life and Story Structure

Life and our ability to assess our own knowledge goes in phases.  There are many summaries of this, but since this is a writing blog, I wanted to point out that attitudes about story structure can change over the course of a life, or over the course of writing a novel or story.  I am working my way through a new novel during NaNoWriMo, and I’ve noticed that although I’m a great fan of story structure (for reasons I’ll go into below), I don’t really follow the structure religiously, and yet things seem to work. 

I just read the first half of the notorious screenwriting manual Save the Cat, and I’m surprised to say that this book doesn’t deserve a lot of the bad reputation it deserves.  What makes Save the Cat notorious is its insistence on a rigid unfolding of the story, such that the hero goes through certain emotional states or does particular things on specific pages of a screenplay.  You can translate the proportions of Snyder’s “beat sheet” onto the pages of a novel and get yourself a very rigid unfolding of your protagonist.  Hollywood has gone through phases with Snyder’s work, where as of its writing, Save the Cat was praised as the definitive work on screenwriting structure.  Now, a few years later, people contend Save the Cat has ruined movies forever by being too rigid.  

I don’t think Snyder’s book deserves to be hated, since his main point in the book is not actually story structure, but that you, as a writer, absolutely need to know what your story is about.  This is even more crucial for novelists than it is for screenwriters, because it’s easy to get caught up in all the details of a novel, have multiple story threads, and just too much complexity.  The worst part of writing a novel for publication is trying to write a query letter that condenses 90,000 to 200,000 words of very careful character development and worldbuilding into a single sentence.  Snyder insists that the writer have a good logline that tells the script reader what the movie poster looks like.  My goal before I started work on my WIP A Mother’s Curse was to come up with a tagline that could go on the cover of the book, and would tell me what the cover looks like.  It really helps.

Hollywood has also gone through this phase of praise and abandonement with The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s description of the common elements of mythology across all the world’s cultures.  I think the hate is mainly self-inspired, since people have figured out that The Hero’s Journey is not a story structure, but a descriptive model of mythological storytelling.  The Hero’s Journey doesn’t tell you how to write a story, it tells you how stories have been written (and not all stories, as Campbell makes clear). The Hero’s Journey is really a psychological theory, i.e. about the mind, and its reflection in storytelling, not a theory of storytelling.  Thus people who try to write strictly according to The Hero’s Journey are often going to write stories that fall flat, and they’ll be at a loss to understand why.

Just like The Hero’s Journey, these trends in Hollywood illustrate how understanding of how things work goes in phases, tempered from within by the writer’s (or human being’s) attitude and maturity.  In other words, these are phases of life, not just phases of art.  In general the phases are:

  1. “I’ve eaten plenty of pizza in my day.” The novice writer has read tons of books, and even has an inkling of what goes into a beginning, middle, and end of a novel, and sets out to duplicate that without really being conscious of what he’s doing.
  2. “Why does this taste like saltines dipped in tomato soup?”  Confusion reigns as beta readers (or mom) tell the writer how creative he is, but there’s something missing.  This is often the stage where writers face a lot of rejection and don’t know why, or they can’t complete a novel and don’t know what’s missing that would supply the energy to finish it.
  3. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to look at a cookbook.” The writer realizes he’s in over his head, and consults a few books on the subject of novel writing.  He goes “back to basics” and finds formulas, three-act structure, realizes he didn’t have a friggin’ antagonist (!), and starts from scratch.
  4. Arrogance. Once all the elements are in place, the writer finds how much easier it is to finish a work, and comes to believe that structure is The Solution, and goes around telling everybody about it.
  5. “Maybe my oven’s not hot enough.” Something is still missing, despite the writer figuring out that stories do all have to have certain things, those things alone will not make a great novel.  This is when, in my personal experience, a lot of humility, firing a deadbeat agent, and getting a writing teacher will help a lot.
  6.  “Flour, water, yeast, salt, and attention.”  The writer goes back to back-to-basics, and learns how to break the rules.

Now, just as with The Hero’s Journey, this is not a prescribed set of steps, it’s something that mimics the stages of life, and has to be experienced from within, not set out on.  I haven’t observed enough writers to know at what point publication happens, but according to Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, it could happen at any stage.  Maass writes that books often get published with authors in Stage 1 or Stage 2 and then they don’t know what the hell happens when they can’t write the next book.

My guess is that they had all the necessary elements for a reader to really love a book without really knowing what they were doing.  The author had intuitive knowledge of what makes a great book, and was able to put that on the page, but didn’t have enough discursive knowledge to know what to do when something went wrong.  I completed my first novel without any planning, without saying who the antagonist was or what the central conflict was.  My short stories, on the other hand, were missing many of the elements that actually make up a story.  I had to 

  1. Go back and analyze what a story is in the most basic formulation, as in “You know I was walking to the store today and this guy nearly ran me over while talking on a cell phone…”
  2. Look at some books on what a story exactly is.

Only then was I able to write a decent story.  I got really hung up on story structure for a while because reading about it made it so much easier to make sure that things didn’t happen too fast or that I wasn’t boring the reader.  There really is a beginning, middle, and end to every story, and if certain things happen in the wrong place, readers will be (at best) left with a funny feeling.  The Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn, for instance, feels like two stories because instead of a fake death followed by a real climax, it has a real climax at the two-thirds mark, followed by a coda of another two hundred pages, which works up to a second climax. 

Recently I’ve realized that trying to lay out a story structure is a hindrance rather than a help when you can discover those stages as you tell the story.  It took me two months to get started on my WIP, and most of that time was trying to figure out what the right inciting incident was.  Trying to lay out plot points and get them in the right places seems like a good recipe, but it actually has slowed me down since I don’t know enough about the characters to know what trouble they’ll get into before I write about them.  This gets into “architects versus gardeners,” and plotters versus pantsers, but my basic point is that as you’re writing, you can discover where the plot points are and assign stuff to happen in the newly-discovered Act I. 

Having one “inciting incident” is a little misleading, especially in a novel.  In a two or three-act play or film, you may only have time for one thing to really get the ball rolling, but in a book there’s often a series of events that really ramp things up so the reader feels like she’s in “the middle.”  I got into a situation in The Last Omen where I couldn’t decide what the inciting incident was.  The problem was not that there was no inciting incident, but that there was an escalation of events between one upset in chapter 2 and several more before the main character was really in over her head.  That’s fine in a book.  Also, books can afford things like flashbacks and misleading narrators in ways that just make films confusing.  So, although movie advice is often superior to novel advice (which tends to focus on “inspiration”), there are crucial differences between the two forms that need attention.

A lot of structuring happens in revisions, and so I’m not worrying about structure so much as I write a first draft.  Without the discursive knowledge I’ve gained through stages 1-6 and not being an expert at any stage, I couldn’t make revisions, but trying to stick to a stucture ahead of time is too restrictive.  Write now the focus is on the first draft.

I have been working hard on NaNoWriMo and I’m almost done.  The work in progress is called A Mother’s Curse, and is heavily-influenced by Celtic Revival material, and an anecdote I read in Bede about the founding of Scotland.  Apparently the Picts didn’t have any women with them when they arrived in Ireland, so they “borrowed” wives to found their new civilization in Scotland, under the agreement that they revert to the Scot side of the family in any succession disputes.  I thought this was a nice recipe for political mixups, so the story begins (this time) with the death of a king (who wants buildup anyway).  I’m mixing this in with a fair bit of magic, Lovecraftian monsters, a nasty femme fatale, and an occasional first-person narrator, a behind-the-scenes sort of puppet master.

I’m still querying The Last Omen, and have received some positive attention from agents.  I also have gotten more personalized rejections in my short stories, which I’ve just decided to keep in rotation until one of them gets published.

I Got No Roots: Fantasy Language Methods

How do you come up with fantasy languages?

A Facebook discussion earlier this week led to a request to describe my method for coming up with fantasy (i.e. invented) language. My reply was that I don’t come up with a whole language, although I try to invent a method that produces a consistent-sounding set of words. I improvise and then edit, after using a model language that’s consistent with the setting. Since it really ought to be heard, I decided video was the best way to get this across.

Continue reading “I Got No Roots: Fantasy Language Methods”

The Iron Flower by Laurie Forest (Goodreads Review)

The Iron Flower (The Black Witch Chronicles, #2)The Iron Flower by Laurie Forest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I am a colleague and friend of Laurie Forest as well as a devoted fan. If I didn’t love the book, I wouldn’t have read it, and I wouldn’t leave this review. I paid full price for my hardback copy.

Laurie Forest’s sequel to her 2017 debut The Black Witch extends the primary storyline and invokes new points of view to add to the epic scale of the conflict. Elloren Gardner is now firmly ensconced in the Verpacian resistance to encroaching Gardnerian rule. Her aunt has kept up the pressure for her to marry (wandfast) and the harassment of non-Gardnerians increases. Her small cadre of teen revolutionaries is secure and expanding, but Elloren finds herself caught between feelings for a boy she can’t be with, and her duty to the resistance. If she fasts to Lukas Grey, she might be able to turn him to the resistance, and make him a powerful ally. But her true feelings lie with Yvan, a Kelt whose secrets become harder to hide.

The action really heats up when the Gardnerian military cadets refuse to hide their prejudice, start riots, and attack members of the other races. Everyone makes an escape plan, and Elloren plans to stay behind to help whoever she can.

This book is an incredibly complex epic fantasy with an original take on fantasy races. There are so many reasons I wouldn’t like the Black Witch Chronicles: it’s YA; it uses stereotypical fantasy races like elves, dragons, selkies, amazons and so on; it’s overtly political, possibly even allegorical. But dig beneath the surface and you’ll find a well-written story with a compelling character and a compelling conflict at its heart. Thanks to Elloren’s hazy memories, we know she’s powerful, but she cannot access her power, leaving her at a disadvantage and feeling useless. The Iron Flower traces Elloren’s rise into her own power over the course of the Spring following the events of The Black Witch.

As for conflict, this is again, on the surface, the same conflict brought up by so many Tolkien-derived fantasy books of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, but Forest puts a twist on everything by introducing new races and giving unique qualities to the ones we’ve already heard of. At least two of the races, the icarals and the Gardnerians, are her own creations, and they are the most crucial. The final third of The Iron Flower reveals just how unique Forest’s creation is, and how far she has come in introducing and maintaining tension.

Laurie Forest knows how to build suspense, specifically tension, and Elloren’s growth to power is just one of the ways she does it. Other examples: what’s going to happen with Lukas Grey? What is the deal with Yvan? You’re going to find out. You may have your suspicions, but you’ll be surprised. And you’ll find all of that amid one of the most turbulent and troubling third acts I’ve read in a long time. Not predictable, not gentle. INTENSE.

The impression I had at the end of The Iron Flower (other than “WOW”) was this is an intense, complex epic masquerading as a YA fantasy drama. The choice of point of view gives an impression of the emotional intensity we expect for a teenage girl character (and yes, it verges on melodrama sometimes), but the conflict she’s embroiled in is huge, and she won’t be able to solve all these problems herself. At the end, we’re left with a character who’s embroiled further in the conflict, and further torn by the necessity of doing what’s right.

Read the book. It’s excellent.

View all my reviews

Getting into Lovecraft

Reading H.P. Lovecraft requires, ironically, going beneath the surface.

h-_p-_lovecraft2c_june_1934
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937)

The stories of H.P. Lovecraft have a dedicated following in the Fantasy and Science Fiction community, and are canonical in Horror, along with Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Algernon Blackwood. Lovecraft’s corpus enjoys a certain unity, which some might call repetition, unparalleled except in more recent authors who aren’t afraid to cite Lovecraft as an influence, or even hail him as a genius. The works of Stephen King and Clive Barker, for instance, have so many crossovers that readers often conclude each work is part of a larger whole, an entire fictional universe. Just like Stephen King’s fictional analogue of the state of Maine, Lovecraft’s work takes place in a New England of his own creation, with its own universities, towns, and publications.

These repetitions and allusions build up to a world that is haunting and creepy, but not because of what you might expect. We have to take a look at Lovecraft’s style of narration and the psychology of those narrators to really figure out why Lovecraft’s stories are indeed weird, enduring, and influential. Lovecraft’s stories get under your skin but not for anything on their surface. I have been reading At The Mountains of Madness for the past few days, and while I’m reading I don’t sit there thinking “oh God, I’m terrified,” or even “that’s sick!”

But I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, terrified that lurking in the corner is something whose terrible presence so chills me that I cannot sleep. To keep typing this blog post is so deeply against my nature that it may result in a complete nervous breakdown, terrifying my very soul and giving rise to the persistent thought that I should stop typing, delete my WordPress account, and drift into anonymity…but it’s a warning you all must have before you make the same regretful choices I have made. Oh, how I wish I had never opened the 2014 publication of The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger with an introduction by Alan Moore, and published by W.W. Norton. Oh, the regret… Continue reading “Getting into Lovecraft”

Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman (Goodreads Review)

Black Sun Rising (The Coldfire Trilogy, #1)Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short version: richly-imagined world, historically important in modern fantasy, and mostly skilled prose, though mixed and sometimes hard to follow.

 

Black Sun Rising is a book I have looked forward to reading for years, as it’s often found on library shelves and lists of influential or favorite books. The tipping point came when I found the third book of a different trilogy at a local thrift store. C.S. Friedman’s skill was evident from the first word and I found myself stuck, ignoring my kids. Black Sun Rising, likewise, is engaging and drew me in with its inventive and original world. The author is not tentative about revealing the nature of the world: this is a future world colonized by spacefaring humans, and the relationship to earth is clear from the very beginning, in the prologue. You’re clearly dealing with earth cultures and remnants from Earth on a world that works differently, right on page 1. Continue reading “Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman (Goodreads Review)”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: what sets it apart?

What makes the final book of the series so meaningful and complete?

I haven’t posted in a while thanks to numerous life developments and lots of writing done.  If you’re interested in that, see below.

136251Lately I’ve rewatched two Harry Potter films and it’s brought back memories of reading the books, a project I finished in 2015, reading all seven books to my sons. Harry Potter was a known character even before we started the books, and enough of my friends and enough of popular culture centers around Harry and Hogwarts that I thought reading the books would be a good idea.  I am just a few years too old, and was too cynical about fiction at the turn of the century, so I missed the Harry Potter boat until my boys were old enough to hear them aloud.

And it was certainly fun.  Reading books with kids is a completely different experience from reading them as an adult, especially an adult in graduate school.  Prisoner of  Azkaban was incredibly fun, and the prospect of my kids getting excited and staying excited to read books together, especially books over 500 pages, was really exciting.  Finally understanding the jokes and references related to the books was also fun, even if I made sure to tell people right away that I was reading the books to my kids, not just for my own enjoyment.  I finally knew who Tonks was, and that was helpful in my general life. Continue reading “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: what sets it apart?”

Solar by Ian McEwan (Goodreads Review)

SolarSolar by Ian McEwan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perhaps it’s schadenfreude, or simple voyeurism, but only Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood can make unlikeable characters so engaging. McEwan is also a master at believable immersion in the technical aspects of the characters’ world, in a way that myself, a former scientist, is totally engrossed. McEwan nails how scientists think, interact, and the hypocrisies and benefits, habits and mannerisms, as well as the unique demands on the mind and “real lives” of scientists. Reading this book was like being back as a professional scientists. The conversations were realistic, the thoughts and judgments of the characters were completely like the people I’ve worked with. Continue reading “Solar by Ian McEwan (Goodreads Review)”

Is Solo a Star Wars Story?

Or can we boldly explore some new worlds?

solo_a_star_wars_story_posterI saw Solo: A Star Wars Story on Sunday, and I was impressed.  It was a fun movie, not as dreadfully serious as the other three new films, and had some nice surprises.  Spoilers: you actually get to see Warwick Davis’ face on screen.  There is no Boba Fett, no Jabba the Hutt, and there is little about The Force, the Jedi, the Republic, and I didn’t see many stormtroopers.  Come to think of it, there was an entire fighting force devoid of stormtroopers, something never-before-seen (not counting Clone Wars).  The ships, the droids, the planets, the villains, and the primary conflict are all completely new.

Continue reading “Is Solo a Star Wars Story?”

How not to piss off your readers, or “Have you driven a Ford lately, Terry Goodkind?”

The rise of social media has given many readers new ways to cross authors off the list.

andre-norton
Recognize this author?  Me, neither.

The internet is great, but it’s a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to authors.  When I was a kid, authors lived in far off worlds whose locations were rarely hinted at by About The Author passages.  If I passed Dan Simmons or C.J. Cherryh on the street when I was growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I never would have known it.  Everyone knows Stephen King lived in Maine (and for a while he lived in Boulder, and set one of his books there), but King is not only a superstar, he’s a down-to-earth guy who most readers find accessible (even if his books aren’t; although sales suggest they are).  One can believe he not only lives in a house, but he coaches Little League.  The details of Arthur C. Clarke’s personal life came out pretty well in his later books, but for most authors, they might have been dead and I wouldn’t have known it.

Continue reading “How not to piss off your readers, or “Have you driven a Ford lately, Terry Goodkind?””