Category Archives: Mary Pletsch

Cause and Effect in Outlines

In the past year I reviewed story pitches for a small publishing house. Prospective writers were asked to provide an outline of their story, including protagonists, antagonist/conflict, and a brief summary of the plot.

Most writers were able to adequately describe their heroes and the challenges they would face, often from villains/enemy characters, sometimes from nature, circumstances, or their own old beliefs. But several writers didn’t show cause and effect in their outlines. Often, these were the same writers who ran into trouble while creating their stories.

“My hero is captured by the enemy king and put in prison, but she escapes…somehow.”

“My hero”s sidekick finds out…somehow…that his ex-boyfriend is in trouble and decides to go help him.”

You’re writing away, following your outline, and you’ve successfully gotten your hero thrown into prison…but now you’re stuck, because you don’t know any way to get her out without resorting to cliches (look! a loose brick in the back of the cell!) implausible coincidences (the guards all get the Spotted Pox and are too sick to pursue her) or power creep/god-moding (it’s fine because my hero is tough enough to beat up all 20 guards at once!)

Meanwhile, your hero’s sidekick is riding to his ex’s rescue, leaving your readers wondering why anyone would put their entire lives on hold to go haring off after a former lover, or how he even knew his ex was in trouble to start with. You’ll explain it later (like, perhaps, when your editor points it out?)

Getting stuck during the writing process, and weak spots in the story, can be avoided if cause and effect are worked into the outline.

“My hero’s sidekick finds out from his ex’s sister, a prison guard at the king’s palace, that his ex has signed on to a dangerous scouting mission. She begs the sidekick to go with him and keep him safe. He agrees, on one condition: his friend (our hero) has been thrown into the king’s dungeon for speaking out against government corruption. If the sister helps him break our hero out of prison, both of them will go to assist her brother.”

In summary, knowing what happens is only half of what you need….you also need to know why and how it happens. If you’ve pre-planned why and how, you’re less likely to get stuck during the writing process. You’re also less likely to feel tempted to resort to cliches, coincidences, and over-powering your characters just to keep the story moving forward. And your manuscript will have a lot fewer weak spots, where a character seems to psychically know some crucial bit of knowledge, or a glitching machine will suddenly start working properly again, or some other event occurs “because the author needed it to” rather than because of any in-story chain of cause and effect.

Fill your outlines with why and how. Show cause and effect–how one event leads into another. You’ll have an easier time writing and end up with a more satisfying story at the end.

 

Sharkasaurus!

Have you been swimming in Fossil Lake?

Be careful if you do. There’s something in the water…

…and it’s got teeth.

The first two Fossil Lake anthologies explored the beautiful horrors of Fossil Lake. The third, Unicornado!, mixed fantasy, disasters, and terror. Now, for the fourth, we’re back at the Lake and it’s now hosting some very toothy critters in its depths.

Sharkasaurus! draws inspiration from monster movies, Jaws, and Jurassic Park to take on our fears of what lives in the dark water. Proving that gory and funny aren’t necessarily opposites, my story, How to Make a Monster, puts a new twist on the old mad-scientist character so often responsible for The Brain That Terrorized The City…

A female academic, taking the fall for ethics violations, moves to the tropics and tries to rebuild her life to the tune of Jimmy Buffett songs. But when the land sharks start mawing down on tourists, and her old co-worker shows up to track down who’s responsible, this mad scientist has to say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em….

Plus thirty-six other weird works of fiction prose and poetry.

You can catch your own Sharkasaurus in print on Amazon or in ebook on Smashwords.

Lies – But Only From One Point of View

When is a lie not a lie?

Characters holding different points of view often have different ideas of what constitutes a lie.

Different people will have different, even contrasting, memories of the same event. Some people’s memories will fixate around the particular things they noticed during the event (for example some people will remember sounds; others won’t remember sounds at all). The brain fills in “missing information” to create coherent narrative—if two people saw a bad guy on the roof and then on the ground, one person might say the bad guy climbed down the fire escape and another might say the bad guy jumped. One—or both—of those statements is untrue, but each will seem true to the person saying it.

If your character is an atheist, he will consider the statement “There is a God” to be untrue.

If your character is a practicing Muslim, she will consider the statement “There is a God” to be true.

If your character is a practicing Hindu, he may respond to the statement “There is a God” with “Actually, there are many gods”—ie, the statement is an incomplete truth.

Or think about politics: “The best candidate to run the country is….” Supporters of various political parties will argue passionately about whether the statement is true or false depending on whose name is used to conclude it!

In cases like these three, nobody is telling deliberate falsehoods or trying to deceive anyone. Rather, people’s perspectives are leading them to make judgments of “truth” or “falsehood” based on their own experiences, beliefs, and understandings.

Sometimes the character may be proven wrong. The person who thought he saw and heard the bad guy making his way down the fire escape may be shocked when he sees the security footage of the bad guy jumping from the roof. He may question his own sanity or his eyesight. But he hasn’t deliberately lied. He’s had a (very common) mistaken perception.

And sometimes the characters may never find out whose version is the truth. Maybe the character who believes in the paranormal is sure she saw a ghost and the character who doesn’t believe in life after death is sure she didn’t…and the story ends without anyone ever finding out if the ghost was “real” or not. In this case, the plot of the story—the story arc—is focused on something else, and whether or not the ghost is real doesn’t matter.

Contrasting points of view can create tension and mystery, cause conflicts between characters, and drive the story forward—and they can be done with everyone involved certain they are each telling the truth.

Living the Dream. Oh, Crap

pletschportrait2016 was a game-changing year for my writing career. An editor who’d bought two of my previous short stories asked if I’d be interested in writing a novel or series of novels in a shared universe. I started the year as a published short story writer who wanted to write a novel, and I’m ending the year as a novelist under contract to deliver the first novel on January 1, 2017.

I’m also under a non-disclosure agreement, so I’m not free to give details, which is a big challenge when I can’t talk about what I’m thinking about all day!

Because my focus has been on novels, I’ve written fewer short stories this year. My first novel isn’t coming out until some time in 2018, and the meat of my payment will be from royalties, meaning it’s over a year until I actually see money for the majority of the work I’ve done. The good news on the money front is that I’m getting royalties from novelettes published this year and previous years, and I received some nice cheques from short story markets that pay pro rates. Overall, though, I still need my part-time job, and I’m very fortunate to not be the only income-earner in my household.

I’ve also had some interesting insights about living the dream.

I’m no longer as free to write whatever takes my fancy. I can’t spend so much time crafting a random idea into a short story and then look for a home for it, because I’m obligated to turn in a novel-length manuscript on a certain topic by a certain date.

Writers under contract still have to do laundry. I thought the entertainment industry would be more glamorous.

There’s a certain gratification that I don’t have to wonder about whether what I’m writing is ever going to find a publisher. I’ve got a folder of unsold short stories that represent several cumulative months of work for, as of yet, zero financial return. Of course, I also have a folder of sold short stories, but sometimes I’m surprised that stories I think are really strong are still in the zero folder, and I also have a “I got HOW MUCH for THAT?!” story on hand. With the novel, I have a signed contract saying that what I write is definitely going to be published (on the assumption that it meets the publisher’s standards). On the other hand, it’s in my best interests to deliver the best manuscript I can, not just something “good enough to publish.” This book is going to be a lot of readers’ first exposure to my work, and if I want them to buy Book 2, I will make Book 1 as good as I can possibly make it.

I had a big shock one day when I felt sore and tired and just wanted to rot my brain watching cartoons all day, but my common sense told me, “Hey, you have a novel deadline. You know you can’t do good work last-minute (since high school I’ve envied people who can). You better go write a thousand words BEFORE you put that DVD in.”

And my lizard brain snarled, “I hate having a book contract.”

WTF?! my consciousness said. You’ve wanted this for twenty years, and now that you have it, you hate it?

No, I don’t really hate it. I might have hated doing the responsible thing rather than the thing which would provide me with instant gratification, but I don’t regret my choice, because having a book contract is worth it.

On the other hand, for those aspiring writers out there: Do you know the feeling of knowing you have a project, an essay, a big term paper, a graduate thesis due? It’s going to feel like that for the rest of my life. Or at least as long as I have books under contract.

It’s strangely familiar. And it’s worth it.