Thursday, July 25, 2013

Selling Your Soul

Writing is a constant struggle to maintain the balance between something intimate and something marketable. We put our soul into our work and then we turn around and have to sell it. It doesn't matter if you writer fiction, non-fiction, for movies or for books, you have to sell your writing, your soul, to someone else.

Today I stumbled across a book that deals with that singular point, selling your work. Blake Snyder takes an interesting tack on it in Save The Cat. While he is a screenwriter and his book is geared toward his industry specifically, there is a lot for any type of writer to learn. Snyder focuses on something that had crossed my mind on several occasions in the past years and that is you need to know what you are writing before you write it. Not the whole story, but the premise. To do that he asks that we answer one question BEFORE we ever start writing - What is it? He, of course, focuses on what that answer should include to be successful in Hollywood, a far tougher market than the publishing world or the self-publishing world. He focuses on irony as the key thing that draws in potential producers.

We writers of novel length fiction have different audiences with different interests. Irony is a very good hook, but it may not be the most important for every genre. Know thy genre is the critically important mantra that will help you hook the readers you want. Ultimately, not matter what you write, it has to be sold to the public, either by you or by someone you sold your work to. The public will ask "What is it?" and you need to have the answer.

The first step, before you even name your characters or pick your setting, is to get to the heart of your story. Craft a simple one line sentence, commonly called a logline. You aren't interested in who at the moment, just what. The what is the foundation of your story, even if you are writing a biography.

Once you have the what is it is time to add in genre and who. Genre colors everything. You can have a story about a ship captain, but knowing that it is a modern cruise ship in a murder mystery, a future spaceship, a nineteenth century whaler, or a ship carrying a magical item to save the world. Genre colors the conflict and the characters. Then the who gives us a frame of reference, a way into the story. Who is this story about and why should we care about them. We novel writers have and advantage over Hollywood screenwriters in that our characters don't need to be as relatable. They don't need to be vehicles for stars and they don't have to be simple.

Next is structure and pacing. Snyder writes specifically about movies and gives a very set pacing (a tad dictatorial for my taste - but his pacing works). Novels flow at a different pace. A move screenplay is just a fraction the length of a novel (under 20k and only about 150 words per page) so there is less room to play with pacing. In a novel we have 4 or more times the length to work with and can weave much more complex stories so the structure is not nearly as set. But the pacing needs to be just as consistent. Movies are commonly considered to be structured in 3 acts. Novels are more like 9. You can have multiple highs and lows that build to the final climax and denouement. There is more time to delve into characters, large and small. Still, you don't want to get side tracked. You still need to stay focused on that idea you crystallized in the logline.

The nice thing is that this works for planners and pantsters. For planners, you can go a step further and plan out your structure and fill in the details. For pantsters, you have only created the kernel of the story and are free to wander to your ending, but you must keep pacing in mind as you do so. Some of the suggestions Snyder has can help, even if you don't want to preplan where you are going, you can set goals, such as in an 80k story, by the time you reach 40k, you should be halfway through your story and should be well into the problem. On the advice of Isaac Asimov (the essays from Gold), I always plan my ending so I know where I am going, but I leave how I get there up in the air.

But no matter what you write or how long it is, if you are serious about making writing your profession you will need to hawk you wares once you have your project finished. To do that, you need to have a clear image of what your story is about, who it is about, and what genre it fits into. One trick that I have learned but not yet mastered is that in trying to find a taker for your story, you don't have to be very precise in your logline/hook or summary. You want the person on the other end to read your story and everything needs to be designed to do that. These aren't skills that come easy to most writer, but doing these things up front will give you a better chance. If you create the basic logline first and then embellish it with the who and genre of your story (and then stick to that as you write), you will have the best possible tolls to gain the readers you want. This piece of your soul called a novel needs to be read and the better you can explain the what and who to potential readers, the easier it is to sell to them.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Where To Begin...

One issue that commonly plagues writers is where to begin a story. The standard advice of beginning when the action starts or to start with an action scene doesn't always lead to good results. I will attempt to put down my thoughts on the subject in a way that I hope will be helpful.

The good news is that you don't have to find your beginning when you start writing. Sometimes it can be more helpful to your overall story if you go back and fix it after you have the ending to your story ironed out. For those who outline in depth, you might just have enough of your story before you begin your first draft, but getting in and writing it might still give you cause to go back and edit your beginning later.

The trap many fall into is equating staring your story with action to starting it in the middle of an action scene. That is the wrong sort of action. It might work for some stories, but for others it can set a incorrect image of the story. If you aren't delivering hard hitting action scenes all through your story, you probably don't want to start with one. No, the meaning of starting with action is to start with your first character doing something. It's supposed to be an action verb, not an action scene. It doesn't matter how mundane it is, but the verb should not be static. Looking in mirror is not action. Lounging in bed is not action. Driving is, opening a door, even waking up or some life event works. Visit your favorite books and see how they start. Chances are it isn't with a fast paced action scene.

What is that moment that is the best beginning? It is the moment when things change. It could be as seemingly insignificant as a blown interview or cancelled appointment or as eventful as a birth, death, marriage, or car accident. Think about it like alternate realities. What is the point where this story breaks off from all possible other stories. Then find the first interesting thing that happens. Often the very first scene will be the change, but at other times, it has already happened. Such as a couple agree to sell their house and move, but the first scene is their final walk-through of the house - the moment that sale becomes final, at least for the characters if not the bank. In the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) the pivotal moment is when the plans are stolen, but it doesn't impact our characters until Leia gives the plans to R2-D2 during the epic battle over Tatooine. In The Hobbit, that moment is when Gandalf chose Bilbo to be the fourteen's member of Thorin's party, but we don't start the story until Gandalf puts a mark on Bilbo's door on the day of the gathering. And this is nothing new. Jane Austen started Pride and Prejudice with a conversation about Netherfield Park being rented at last, the day Elizabeth Bennett learned of the event that would change her life.

Also, if you like to be a bit more realistic, sometimes those early moments on the path to the conflict are not always that interesting. Maybe the key moment happened some months ago, but only now do things that make for a good story pick up. The key is to know what the pivotal moment is and how your characters get involved. One way is to have the opening scene be when another character gets involved. George Lucas used the two droids as his vehicle for moving the story. They are technically secondary characters, but they are the story link between Leia and Luke.

Once you lock in where to begin, the question becomes how to begin. That really depends on your story. But no matter what the story, you have to keep in mind two things. First, get the reader's attention and get them hooked by your story. Second, every story should build to the ultimate climax. You don't want to start with something so big and epic that the rest of your story can't live up to it. Now if you are going to tell a big epic war story, like Star Wars, you can start with a battle. If your character is in the military and a particular battle is crucial to the start of his story, then that works. What you don't want to do is make the opening scene bigger than the payoff later supports. You don't need big to snag an audience, what you need is something intriguing. Something that catches their interest. Movement and action verbs are just one of many tricks to do that. Mystery is another.

Like with just about every aspect of being a writer, the best education is to read and read widely. Step out of your comfort zone. Say, like me, you love science fiction and fantasy. On occasion, pick up a historical fiction, a mystery, a spy novel, or a chicklit. It will enrich your writing and let you in on what other types of writers are doing. I've found some pretty great books that way. While reading for enjoyment is always a good thing, as a writer, you really need to do more. You need to pay attention to how the plot unfolds, where they start the story, how the opening scene catches you, how the conflict builds and morphs and moves to the climax. There are many ways to structure a story and the more ways you know, the more widely you are read, the more depth your stories will have.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Annoyance Of 'Whom'

Sometimes a word outlives its usefulness. 'Whom' is nearly such a word. It has lost much of its meaning because it was most people don't understand when to use it. Consequently when in doubt, people use 'who' instead.

Part of this stems from a lack of knowledge by the learned grammarians as to the origins of the word and its correct usage in historical context. Students of German should instantly understand what I am talking about because Old English and German had the exact same structure of pronouns. Modern German has four cases, Nominative (subject), Accusative (direct object), Dative (indirect object), and Genitive (possessive). You may notice that two cases carry the name object and therein lies the problem. 'Whom' is a specifically Dative form of 'who'. That is why when grammarians say that if it is an object use 'whom' and to our ears it usually sounds wrong. Because it is. Most of the objects are Accusative and so use 'who'. Only when used in Dative do you need 'whom' and only then does it seem to fit.

The gist is that something that started back in the Dark Ages during the birth of English, is still causing changes even today. 'Whom' is becoming less and less frequent. Fewer people use it and more and more just stick with 'who' in all instances. This has been a problem for English since the original Accusative form, 'whon', went away. Those of learning have consistently replaced it with 'whom', while the common people have replaced it with 'who'. Trouble is the common people tend to win these sorts of things. This particular issue has just taken a lot longer to work itself out than just about any other linguistic conundrum. Technically we still haven't fully worked it out, but it is pretty obvious that 'whom' is on the way out at last.