Beats

The month of May I took a sabbatical to Seattle, where my friend and playwright/screenwriter (the indomitable Katherine Gee Perrone!) helped me plot my latest novel. Because when you’re stuck, ask for help! Writing doesn’t always have to be a completely solitary vocation. But I digress. The most helpful part of our plotting session was learning some good screenwriting terminology that helped me cement in my mind how I like plots to be constructed, both as a reader and as a writer.

“Beats lead to beats!” she’d say every time I got stuck. And isn’t that the true essence of plot–more so than, say, “stuff happens” or “the characters did stuff”?

Just to make the terminology clear, in screenwriting, a beat “refers to an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal” (via Dr. Wikipedia). Even if your character goes to the store to pick up a gallon of milk, how does that affect the story? (Granted, some readers like books where Stuff Happens that isn’t obviously moving the plot forward, so YMMV).

Speaking to the zeitgeist, I see two different ways this is employed in storytelling. One is the Outlander model, more episodic than any novel I’ve read. Each chapter of Outlander feels self-contained, so while some beats lead to the next beat within the chapter, many of the events of each chapter only yield consequences further down the line. The advantage of episodic storytelling is to give the reader time and space to feel immersed in the world–and the Highlands of 1743 is a world I don’t mind being a tourist in. Still, as I’m reading I can see that something that Claire and Jamie do or say will affect the plot later in the novel, so I’m never disoriented by having lost the “thread” of the plot.
The second method is the style of storytelling employed by Mad Max: Fury Road. The pace is breakneck. Each character’s decision leads to immediate and forceful consequences. What with the action scenes and blocking, the plot of MM:FR feels like a Rube Goldberg machine–in some action scenes, I mean this statement literally. The advantage in this method (manifold) is that your reader feels a sense of danger and urgency but also continuity. It’s not hard to keep track of where each character is in their arc, because the story doesn’t give you time to forget. The character Nux is the best example of this, since his arc is the most dramatic, (SPOILER AHEAD) going from being a minion of the villain to an ally of the protagonists. The scene where he “turns” from one side to the other makes sense, even given how short it is and with such little dialogue, because we’ve JUST seen him mess something up (END SPOILER)…no time is wasted with the dialogue remind the audience of what Nux has already been through and where his head is at.

A nice thing about plotting with a “beat leads to beat” style is that you can get a nice mix of character-driven and event-driven plot (internal forces vs external forces driving the story forward), because a beat can be decisions that come straight from the characters and also external events and circumstances. However, for me, the advantage of keeping this phrase in mind while plotting is that the plot feels like there is a continuous thread tying it all together. That sense of continuity is ubiquitous in Western storytelling, and your readers are probably looking for that.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is my favorite part of story writing. I think it’s possible, if you are the outlining kind of writer, to create a pretty strong story before you start writing by simply asking the right questions.

You know when you go see a big sci fi or fantasy epic at the movie theater and (occasionally) you spend the whole time punching holes in the plot? “Why didn’t they just call the eagles to take them to the Lonely Mountain?” “If she can blast people with her magic, why did she spend so long running away from the other witch?” So when you’re brainstorming ask yourself thorough questions. Rather than impeding creativity, I find it boosts mine because problem solving is a creative exercise. ‘What if’ is fun, and a great place to begin brainstorming, but don’t neglect ‘why,’ and ‘how.’

what-if-by-fly-you-fools-gandalf-was-really-telling-them-to-use-eagles-to-fly-to-mordor

What if, indeed.

Another brainstorming method I’ve used effectively is to take a notebook (the catnip of writers), open it to a blank page, and do a free write where you list every cool or inspiring thing that comes to you. Sometimes by combining story elements you think are awesome, you arrive at new ideas and characters and plots.

favorite

List a few of your favorite things until you come up with a story about a whiskered unicorn who can blast snowflakes from its eyes.

If you use this method, I’d suggest you spend some time towards the end using with the first method I discussed. Ask yourself as many questions as possible. Explore all possible ramifications of the story you’ve come up with. Or don’t. Maybe you’ve written enough to realize that you like exploring your plot tangles while writing the first draft, i.e., a gardener or discovery writer. That’s cool too.

On Editing

(Sorry, friends! I’ve just moved to a new place, and things have been crazy. But here is the post you were supposed to receive on Monday.)

Several months ago I had a conversation with an editor who had set up her own e-publishing company. As a freelancing editor, I inquired about the company to see if it might be a good place to offer my freelancing services. But the email conversation I ended up having with this editor made it perfectly clear that we would not be a good fit together. Our ideas differed greatly in how we approach a manuscript.

She said that she didn’t like to break up the editing process in rounds. Rather than do a development edit, substantive edit, and then copy edit in individual rounds, their company liked to take care of all the editing in one large “comprehensive” edit, she call it.

And I asked her why she thought it was a good idea to do a copy edit at the same time as a development edit. Wouldn’t many of the words change once the author started putting in the big picture revisions from the development edit?

Her response was something like this: I don’t understand why so many people ask me this. Not much should change throughout the editing process. Unless the editor is rewriting the author’s story, most of it should be the same. It’s the author’s work, and I can’t stand it when editors try to change so much of it. Then it’s not the author’s work anymore. It’s the editor’s.

Now I’ve heard statements like this before from self-published authors. In fact, I have had many self-published authors tell me this is the very reason why they don’t want to be traditionally published—because the work won’t be theirs anymore.

And now I’m going to tell you all the same thing I told that editor and those self-published authors.

Editing is not a bad thing. Lots of edits are not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that the author is a bad writer. Authors are too close to their work to notice even obvious mistakes at times, and all authors need an editor to point those out to them. I’ve been hired to do copy edits on manuscripts that needed serious “big picture” edits, but I wasn’t allowed to say a word because I’d been hired specifically for a copy edit

And it was painful.

As an author providing a product to your reading audience, wouldn’t you want to give them the best product possible?

What happens when one of your character’s personalities changes throughout the book for no reason, and you don’t have an editor there to tell you? What happens when your climax shouldn’t actually be possible because you forgot to foreshadow some important details? Or what if you forgot to resolve one of your minor conflicts?

Editors are there to make your work solid. They’re there to get rid of all the plot holes, character inconsistencies, and other errors. There are so many things to keep straight in a story. A book has LOTS of words in it. Odds are, you will need to change many of them, and that’s okay. Because you should want to strengthen your story. You should want to make it the best it can be, and it’s okay that you can’t do that on your own.

I believe that editing should be done in rounds, working from the big stuff, to the little stuff. Lots of people should read a manuscript and offer feedback, and authors should not be insulted by such critique. Serious writers should want to learn from their mistakes. They should want to become better. They should want to give their audience the best book possible.

I don’t understand why authors would feel like the book isn’t theirs anymore after doing edits. Once an editor or writing group points out those big errors to the author, it’s up to THEM to figure out how to fix it. Essentially, those edits become the author’s edits. The work still ultimately becomes what the author makes it to be.

I don’t know where I would be without my writing group and other readers. They point out embarrassing mistakes that I’m not able to notice for myself. Like not having a plot 30,000 words into my story. Big problem, yes? Needed to change quite a bit of words, yes? Yes. And I did. That was four books ago for me. I’ve since then discovered that I am a plotter. I need to plan out my books before I write them. These days, I start with a plot when I write my stories, and they’re so much better off for it.

Don’t be scared of critique. Be excited to make your book better. Be excited to become a better writer.

Screw-up Characters and Admirability

An easy way to make a character likeable is to make them competent at their jobs/hobbies/anything really. The common wisdom is that we like characters who are talented.

katnissnewhunting

Katniss is a pretty obvious example. She’s not warm and cuddly, but she slays, literally, with her bow.

Of course, being competent isn’t the only way to make a character likeable. One of my favorite character types is the screw-up, i.e., the opposite of the competent character. I especially love screw up characters in comedies.

bridesmaids-movie-quotes-834

Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids can’t catch a break. She had my sympathy.

Community-Cast-Season-4

Community: a whole cast of screw-up characters

Why do I like them. Whether they’re loveable losers, too dumb to live, or can’t catch a break…I want to hug them all, or laugh if not at then with them.

Thinking about this the other day, I wondered how well screw-up characters work outside of comedy. Spoiler: they can work in any genre.

harry potter exam takers

A compare and contrast in character competency.

Harry Potter, with the notable exception of DADA, isn’t particularly talented at school or magic. However, Harry is courageous, loyal, and good. Oh, and Ron too. Ron’s humor makes him pretty damn likeable.

What I realized, unsurprisingly, was that even though these characters weren’t competent at their “job” there was some big trait to admire. So if I can’t admire a character’s competency, then I admire another trait: their humor, their bravery, the way they’ve overcome their past, etc. Harry Potter serves as a great example of that. Somehow, in thinking about how to write a screw-up character whose shoes a reader may still want to fill, that’s the realization I came to.

However nebulous “likeability” really is, in fiction “likeable” characters are characters we can admire.

Interactive Books

If you who don’t have your finger on the pulse of the publishing industry, you might not know that the industry is currently like a coin flipping in the air, and no one knows just how it will land. With the rise of the ebook, traditional forms of publishing–particularly print publishing–are under attack from all sides, and no one knows what publishing is going to look like in five or ten years.

While some people are using this time to cling to old formats of publishing, others are taking advantage of the disruptive innovation of the ebook to do some really impressive things. Those of you who are interested in what the future of books might be, take note. Interactive books are coming.

In reality, we’ve had interactive books for a while now. I’m sure you can all remember the choose-your-own-adventure books from your childhood or, my personal favorite, those picture books that had little icons on the page that corresponded to noise making buttons on the side. You guys remember those? I sure do.

But with the rise of the ebook and the internet, books have the capability to become far more interactive–and far more high tech–than a choose-your-own-adventure story.

Back in September of 2012, the first installment of The Infinity Ring series was released. The Infinity Ring was published by Scholastic and was their attempt to bring together reading, gaming, and history.  The story follows time travelling kids who have to keep history on track to avoid world catastrophes.

While the book can be read just by itself, readers also have the opportunity to continue the journey of the book online. By going to the internet, readers can play a role-playing game as one of the books main characters. Scholastic, which has previously tapped into the goldmine of the internet through its 39 Clues books in which readers could go online to unlock exclusive bonus content, has long since realized that most kids aren’t satisfied with books alone. They want something more, something they can control and interact with. And with The Infinity Ring, they can do just that.

This, of course, isn’t the only multi-media book experience. J.K.Rowling, who is no less than a queen in the publishing industry, introduced her fans to Pottermore in 2011. Pottermore is meant to be an interactive online companion to the Harry Potter books. While all seven books aren’t up on Pottermore yet, users still can interact with pivotal moments of the first four or five books. They can get wands (mine is pear wood with a phoenix feather core) and get sorted (Gryffindor) and make potions or duel other users to get points for their houses. While a lot of users, myself included, complain that the site has no return value, fans of the Potter books keep going back to the site for the free content that delve deeper and deeper into J.K.Rowling’s fictional world. For die-hard fans of the books, that content is absolutely invaluable.

Of course, both of these are examples of print books with interactive supplemental content. The possibilities are considerably more endless.

I’ll let this Ted Talk explain it all:

Personally, I have a hard time seeing all books going in this direction, but the possibilities are endless and exciting to explore.

Self-care for Writers

I was hanging out with Tricia on Saturday, thinking/complaining about how I’m so inconsistent with how I write. First, I don’t do it often enough. Second, as soon as something’s not fun anymore I give up on it. Third, I don’t even revise what I finish or let me friends comment on it.

avatar_demi_playing_simon_the_worlds_smallest_violin_teQ51gXc.sized

And as any writer will tell you, a writer writes. So that makes me not a real writer…right?

But, here’s the thing. Don’t delude yourself, but don’t be too hard on yourself either. There are always extenuating circumstances, and you need to take a deep breath and decide whether to suck it up and stop making excuses for yourself OR if you need to get help and take care of yourself. You know, mentally.

My happiest writing memory, by far, is sitting at the junior high where I worked a couple of years ago, subbing a teacher’s classes while the students watched a mockumentary about dragons, and working on a brand new novel. It was four hours of fun. Four hours that I hold on to like I’m hanging on to the edge of a cliff. Because beyond those few hours, writing has never been fun for me. It’s a painful, abusive hobby. The only reason I still want to do it is because I have too many characters running around in my head. I want to give them life, but actually doing it feels like rubbing my face against a cheese grater. (If you’re a perfectionist to the extent that I am, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.)

Those Platonic hours were the easiest, sunniest writing hours of my life for virtue of the fact that I was in the best place mentally that I’d been in years, and have been in years.

So if anyone is beating themselves up because their dream is to be a writer/artist/whatever, but they just can’t seem to get it together, you have all my commiseration. Rather than repeat over and over that writers write, let’s focus our energies on taking care of ourselves. With that in mind, I’ve created a self-care list for writers.

JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech is still one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever heard.

Learn to recognize shame in order to eliminate it from your thoughts:

Laughter is the best medicine and I don’t care how hackneyed that phrase is, it’s true.


Laugh and cry with Allie Brosh?

depression17alt

Click on the pic to follow the link

And remember