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.

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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”

Aristotle Says “Pitch Your Book”

Western literature’s oldest critic tells us why critique partners help us avoid the idiot plot… .

marathea
Cool fantasy maps make inconsistent stories totally okay, right?

I finished revising The Last Omen last week, and have moved on to trying a new approach to short story writing.  The novel came up in conversation with my wife two nights ago and I discovered, yet again, that telling the events of the story does wonders for ironing out the plot.

My wife is not a fantasy reader, in fact, she reads very little fiction, and since discovering audiobooks has gotten most of her “literature” from Audible.  She does love a good supernatural story, but mostly in contemporary form, and on TV or a movie.  I think fantasy readers are especially forgiving when it comes to certain elements of plot as long as there is cool stuff going on.  As an example of this attitude, Brandon Sanderson’s most important law of magic is “err on the side of awesome.”  We write and read fantasy because it’s fun, and because it satisfies our craving for the stupendous, but someone really into that side of things is not the best critic when it comes to plot. Continue reading “Aristotle Says “Pitch Your Book””

Superior Readability

An exploration of what makes a book readable and hooks readers, in which I alienate beer drinkers… .

Readability is not a joke.  Of course, this is how I treated it a few weeks ago when I first noticed the readability of Peter V. Brett’s debut novel The Warded Man.  The speed at which I read the first book of Brett’s Demon Cycle series and the way I kept going back to reading it–and actually enjoying it–left me thinking it was just really easy to read.  This was funny because a book should be easy to read, and if it’s a pain to read, and you have to drag yourself into reading it, then why are you reading it?  It reminded me of a billboard for Bud Light that hung over the entrance to the O’Neill Tunnel in Boston: “Superior Drinkability.”  If you’re selling a drink it really ought to be drinkable, or else something is wrong. Continue reading “Superior Readability”

“Just write”

I saw The Last Jedi yesterday, and here are my thoughts:

  • Plenty of interesting stuff, lots of surprising moments
  • I still prefer the swashbuckling pulpy adventure of the first movie to the overstated drama of the newer films
  • As much as it was a good movie, I would still rather see a totally new story.

I have three young boys who love Star Wars (thanks to me), and I am getting a little tired of it. “Star Wars” movie is now a phrase that gets used all the time, and it emphasizes the feeling I had while watching The Last Jedi that these films are more like TV shows in the way they tell a never-ending story. Each time the characters face basically the same obstacles and spend their time solving a fairly explicit puzzle. This was understated in the first trilogy, but now it’s almost like watching Law and Order. Continue reading ““Just write””

Nah, NoWriMo

In which I alienate my fellow NaNoErs.

I signed up for National Novel Writing Month this year for a few reasons, but chief among them was that I had resisted doing it in previous years.  NaNoWriMo seems set up for people who have a different set of problems with novel writing than I do, and I used that as a reason to not participate.  My problem is not that I don’t add words every day or that I procrastinate or that I have “writer’s block.”  My problem is that I have a bunch of animals in my house that will starve or (more likely) eat each other if I don’t stop writing for a few minutes a day.  Four thousand words a day would be no problem for me if I didn’t have anything else to do, so NaNoWriMo didn’t seem like something for me. Continue reading “Nah, NoWriMo”

Thor: Ragnarok is a Kung-Fu Movie

In which I alienate Marvel fans, all of China and Stephen Universe fans!

thorI took my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok yesterday since they had the day off from school.  I recently sat through Iron Man and totally enjoyed Wonder Woman, but I am not a big fan of comic book movies.  Tim Burton’s Batman was cool, but in the past ten years things have really gotten out of control with comic book movies.  Wonder Woman was an exception, but when I watch these movies usually I feel like I’m not really seeing a story acted out, but loosely strung-together action sequences.  Everyone’s flying through the air and kicking the crap out of each other and completely destroying entire cities.  The action just goes on and on, and lately they seem to take themselves way too seriously with the whole moral ambiguity thing (forgetting that moral clarity is what makes superheroes).  As I said about Rogue One, I would much rather see an action/adventure/fantasy story about some new material instead of a comic hero or Star Wars. Continue reading “Thor: Ragnarok is a Kung-Fu Movie”

Pumpkins of Death: Brief Update (NaNoWriMo and when to fire a literary agent)

I can’t put my finger on why, but I hate it when bloggers apologize for not posting regularly.  Is everyone hanging on their every word?  Did they sign a contract saying “I will post no fewer than twice a week and no more than eight times a day?”  I’m not doing this because I owe any words to anyone.  I just make a lot of words.  It’s nice there’s a platform where I can put them out where Google can find them for people, but I’m not writing because I owe it to anyone but myself.  Yeah, so screw you people.

Anyway, sorry for not posting for a while.

I haven’t because I’ve been working on a new book, The Last Omen, loosely based on Greek Tragedy and (of course) Shakespeare.  Alyatha is the reluctant queen of Marathea, prophesied wife of the newly-prophesied king.  Marathea is sandwiched between the empire of Habia Korenz, and the anarchic non-state of Nemerev, where warlords and pirates threaten the network of roads and shipping lanes around Marathea.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal if her husband were up to his job: the Habiari are threatening to invade to quell the violence in Nemerev, and someone keeps paying a vile priestess to perform human sacrifices in order to change the course of fate, the most sacred thing in Marathean culture.  The priestess happens to be her husband’s former lover, but when push comes to shove, Alyatha has to join forces with this witch to save the kingdom.  Fantasy hijinx ensue.

I wrote about 14,000 words of this before November started, but I decided to do NaNoWriMo since I was already working on a new manuscript.  Though I always scoffed at it before (“I make my own damn goals, I don’t need a friggin’ website for that!”), it’s actually a lot of fun to track my progress and share it with people.  I’ve written about 37,000 words so far, and my goal for this book is between 90,000 and 100,000.  Because…

I had to fire my literary agent.  I won’t give too many details, but the important part is he wasn’t doing enough to support me as a writer.  He did nothing in the way of editing, and never initiated communication (i.e. he never asked me what I was working on next).  He didn’t tell me what was going on with my submissions, even when I pressed him for info.  When I brought him new material, he rejected it outright instead of helping me make it marketable.  I rationalized it at the time, but have since found out different agents would have worked completely differently.  He never suggested career development like writer’s conferences or classes, and he didn’t do much to make my book marketable.  I have other avenues, so this is nowhere near giving up.  Don’t send me sad emojis.

The manuscript he rejected outright with no assistance to make it something worth his time was Firesage, and I am most likely going to send that one to an open call from Angry Robot books.

I am keeping some short stories in circulation, including “The Harp” and “Killing Montherek, and a new one called “Her Name is Memory.”  The last one was definitely a challenge, as I tried to write from the perspective of a narrator with a damaged memory.  It was rejected without placing in Writers of the Future, where I also submitted “The Harp.”  I probably won’t write any more short stories until I finish The Last Omen, but as I have found saying “I probably won’t write any more short stories until…” is a good way to find yourself writing short stories.

It’s snowing in Vermont.  Pumpkin season.  Yes.  Sentence fragments can tell you a lot.  So can complete sentences.

The Hunt for Story Ideas

The_Hunt_for_Red_October_movie_posterLast week my novel manuscript was rejected by my agent, so I’m spending this week coming up with new novel ideas. Coming up with novels from scratch is somewhat new, somewhat not new since I had to go through the process of actually creating good stories with my first three books. The difference was that I “pantsed” them and so by the time I went to outlining I already had characters, a setting (which in fantasy means a whole world or at least part of one), a main problem for those characters, and a premise (in the sense of Lajos Egri) on which to build a story (I didn’t have good stories, let that be a lesson to you). I also had what I call an “archetypal clarity” or “cosmic principle.” This is the additional element of fantasy that the universe is organized around. The One Power, for instance is the cosmic principle behind The Wheel of Time. Continue reading “The Hunt for Story Ideas”