The Fictorians

Posts Tagged ‘plotting techniques’

Stranger Than Fiction

1 September 2014 | 1 Comment » | Nancy

We’ve all heard the phrase that “life is stranger than fiction” but what does that really mean? For me, it means that sometimes real life happens in such a way that if I were to use the event verbatim in a fiction story my readers would cry “implausible.” Think about that for a second. Readers accept vampires, zombie detective, purple unicorns, space ships, entire West Virginia towns going back in time to create an alternate universe, (speaking of which) alternate universes, evil twins, a series of coincidences that add up to a twist ending,,, and the list could go on forever.

So, how bizarre does an event have to be before it’s “stranger than fiction?”

Do the events have to be so coincidental that the odds of the event happening are astronomical? Does the main character have to be dumber than a fence post not to see the results of her actions? For me, I think the situation has to be so divorced from what we consider “normal” that we sit back and say, “no. No one (Nothing) could be that….” Judge for yourself though as we spend September exploring events that are “Stranger Than Fiction.”

Let me start.

Most of the things I’ve seen or heard as a lawyer I can’t repeat. Sometimes though it’s the other side’s client who does the unbelievable thing. When that’s the case there’s nothing that prevents disclosure. Still, I’ve changed names and occupation.

HOW TO BE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????A husband and wife started an interior decorating business. Mary was responsible for getting and performing the work. John took care of the back office tasks – staffing, bookkeeping, banking, billing and the like. Years into the business they were doing well on a professional front (millions of dollars in gross revenue) but not so much on the personal one. Suspicion and distrust ran deep. A little deeper on one side than the other. Eventually, Mary accused John of embezzling. Mary hired an attorney (not me) to file for divorce and seek a court appointed receiver for the business. John hired an attorney (again, not me) to counter-sue for divorce and defend the theft allegations.

Mary alleged John would go to the bank every Friday with pizza for the bank tellers. In return, the bank tellers of a national bank would cash checks for John, andl hand him bundles of cash. The tellers would then create a false bank statements that wouldn’t show the deposit (if the check had come from a company client) or the withdraw (if the check being cashed were a company one). John believed that every gap in the checks sequence on the bank statements represented a check Mary used wrongfully withdraw the money from the company. She thought John stole millions of dollars this way. After all the company had margins of 60% so where was the money? Mary’s definition of “margin” didn’t include most of the company’s salaries or overhead. Mary also thought John was stealing her paychecks.

The receiver (yup, this is where I come in) obtained copies of all the bank statements from the national bank (not the branch John was allegedly feeding) and payments from the company’s client. Like most businesses some of the jobs from a gross profit number were very profitable and others were dead losers. Once you took out the operating cost including a HUGE monthly payment for their house the company ran deeply in the red. There was no proof of a national conspiracy. The checks…checked out. And those paychecks? They were deposited into a joint bank account. From the company’s standpoint there was no misappropriation of funds.

We met with Mary’s attorney for hours to explain the situation. Mary fired the attorney when she agreed with the Receiver. Mary hired another attorney to pursue the claim. He lasted as long as her retainer did. No amount of reason could shake Mary’s belief that John had robbed her blind. She accused the Receiver of being paid off by John (NOT) when the Receiver wouldn’t support her theories.

Mary threatened to report that the tax returns were false to the appropriate authorities when the Receiver wouldn’t amend the returns to show the “missing” income. We said she needed to do what she needed to do but we didn’t have any evidence to support her position. While there were substantial tax debt owed the various agencies had been mostly silent on collection since no one had any money. Ultimately, Mary called the governmental entity designed to ensure that people paid their taxes to report that John had under-reported the company’s income for years. She didn’t think about the fact that she was listed as a 51% co-owner or that she would be deemed to have received 51% of the “stolen” money as a result.

Well, the taxing agencies were no longer willing to wait to see if the Receiver collected enough money to pay them. After all, Mary just advised them that the couple had vastly under-reported their income for years. So, now Mary has some tax issues to deal with. And she still insists that John stole millions of dollars.

 

 

 

Having the Self Awareness to Horrify Others

20 February 2014 | 1 Comment » | Nathan Barra

I write short stories to experiment with new genres and techniques. Last August, I caught wind of an anthology that was opening for submissions. However, the genre, horror, was largely beyond my experience. I had read a few books, watched a number of movies, and even written a piece or two, but I was still stepping outside my comfort zone. Perfect! I brainstormed, scanning my consciousness for an idea that was shiny enough to start with that I could polish it into a true gem.

My inner eye first turned to the bestiary, drudging up images inspired by the abominations of Lovecraft, the near satirical creatures of B-rated movies and creeping things that I had imagined living in the shadows as a child. I paired monsters with characters, with milieus and with plots, searching for tension and conflict. I worked my way through what felt like dozens of combinations, fleshing out a few, but discarding most. Everything still felt flat, unexciting and unoriginal.

Frustrated, I stood up from my computer and wandered, trying to figure out where I was going wrong. The monsters I was creating were as good as any I had ever read, seen or made up myself. There was nothing inherently wrong with any of the elements I had assembled, and yet, I was not having a strong emotional reaction. How could I expect anyone else to feel when I did not?

As I prefer my horror in the form of movies, I turned to my collection, flipping through the pages of disks, looking for the echo of emotion that the remembrance of a truly good horror inspires. Das Experiment. Mr. Brooks. Untracable. Pathology. Of all my movies, these four psychological thrillers inspired the strongest reactions of anticipation and fear, the same emotions I sought to evoke in my readers.

For me, it was the difference of conscious intent. The creatures I had imagined were beasts, acting on instinct or hunger. The villains I had admired and feared were rational and extremely intelligent, acting for a variety of motives but all with horrifying cruelty and viciousness. It was the actions of humans and the human mind that I feared more than the brutality of beasts.

I spent hours over the following weeks considering what horrified me, coming up with a number of story ideas that I feel are gems in need of polishing. The difference for me was self-awareness. I found that I could not write something truly horrifying to others until I could first horrify myself.

The Power of Repetition

26 September 2013 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

KnightOfFlameA guest post by Scott Eder.

I’m always looking for ways to take my writing to the next level. Classes, books, podcasts, conversations… the list goes on. As a perpetual student, I’m learning and practicing every single day. But some lessons are tougher than others and require multiple strikes of the hammer to drive a single point home. In my case, the single point I struggled with was grabbing the reader right out of the gate. It’s a simple concept, really. A story needs to grab the reader’s interest as soon as possible, and refuse to let him go. Compelling characters, barbed hooks, unique conflicts, scintillating writing, and a crisp, unique voice combine to clamp onto the reader’s imagination, tightening his interest with each turn of the page.

Easy, right? You’d think so, but it took listening to a panel of agents and editors at DragonCon for the meaning to really sink in.

When I first started writing, I thought I had time, story time that is. I opened at a soft, descriptive pace that gently introduced the reader to my setting and characters. After that, I stirred in the conflict, ratcheting up the stress and intensity, until eventually achieving resolution. I thought this approach meshed with the fantasy genre. I needed time for world building, and to introduce the uniqueness of my characters, right? So why didn’t I get any interest from the agents and editors I queried? The form rejection letters didn’t help, didn’t tell me what I needed to fix.

I realized that I was missing some critical piece to the story-telling puzzle, and made the decision to seek professional help. (Hehe. I felt a little crazy at this point.) After taking several classes where the instructors helped me understand that I needed to get to the conflict sooner, that I needed to hook the reader up front, I thought I had it. Instead of getting to the action within the first few chapters, I streamlined my writing, introduced setting, characters and conflict in a more compelling way by the end of chapter one.

Woohoo! With my newfound skills, I’d break into the biz in no time. My stories rocked. Or so I thought. But the growing collection of form rejections told a different story. If one of those editors or agents would take a minute and give me something, a hint, a bit of advice, anything to clue me in as to what was missing, I’d have a chance to fix it. Nope. Just a thanks for playing, and have a nice day.

Crap. Now what?

One of the things David Farland mentioned in his class was that you could meet editors and agents at certain conventions. I checked the Interwebs and found DragonCon. I’d heard about this fabled event, but never attended. Once I found several editors and agents on the guest list, I booked my travel plans.

DragonCon has an excellent writer’s track. Panels conducted by authors, publishers, agents, and editors, with topics ranging from writing basics to more advanced publishing concerns, run all day, every day. One of the most heavily attended is the combined editors and agents panel. I got there early, but by the time it started, it was standing room only. It turned out to be more of a question and answer session, than a formalized presentation, which was fine, because I had a lot of the same questions other aspiring writers in the throng dared to ask. And then it happened. The crowd disappeared, the lights dimmed, and the panelists turned to face me, metaphorically anyway. Their comments hit me hard.

One agent said, “Look, you need to draw me in right away. Like on the first page. With all the submissions I get, I don’t have time to read pages and pages, waiting for something interesting to happen.”

An editor chimed in. “Yeah. I’m rooting for you, but unless you hook me within the first page or two with something, and it doesn’t have to be your primary conflict, but something to make me keep reading, you’re done.”

“Hell, you need to grab me in the first paragraph or two,” said the agent at the far end of the table. “I’ll give you a little more time if you have a nifty voice, but not much.”

I blinked a few times as the import of their words sunk in. The first page or two? Hmm…The chatter continued, but I zoned out, churning over how make my first few pages addictive. I wanted the reader turning the pages of my book as if he’d just popped the top on a fresh can of Pringles.

After several iterations, and an enthusiastic thumbs-up from my critique group, I sent it back out. This time, it sold!

And all it took were several books, a few teachers, and one panel at a convention to make it stick. Never stop learning. Make it a part of your writing process to seek out new techniques and information. You never know which one will make the difference between rejection and acceptance.

Guest Writer Bio:
Scott EderSince he was a kid, Scott wanted to be an author.

Through the years, fantastic tales of nobility and strife, honor and chaos dominated his thoughts. After twenty years mired in the corporate machine, he broke free to bring those stories to life.

Scott lives with his wife and two children on the west coast of Florida.

Check out Knight of Flame on Scott’s Website: www.scotteder.net

Serendipity is a Weird Mistress

23 September 2013 | Comments Off | Ace Jordyn

Serendipity really is a weird mistress. I mean, I’d been wondering for months what I could do to take my writing to the next level. I’ve edited an anthology, I’ve published and yet I found myself feeling absolutely stuck. A mentor was what I wanted – someone to show me how I could improve. But where are they? All the really good writers I know are writing and publishing with little time to spare. My critique groups (I love every writer in them) felt predictable. Plus, I couldn’t afford to go on an expensive training session. So where could I get the injection of awareness and learning to improve my craft?

When Serendipity cast her hand, I was elated for my help came in three ways:

Psychotherapy for writers and their characters
Maass-Writing-21st-Century-Fiction-cover
Based on his latest book Writing the 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, Donald Maass’s one day workshop focused on making writing deeper, more meaningful, more palpable and more energized. It was psychotherapy for the writer and story characters. Here are two examples of the exercises he had us do. If you answer them honestly, then it creates an opportunity to take your writing to the next level because the core of who you are becomes the core of your characters and that’s what readers find interesting.

Example #1 What can’t I say in my story (what is it I fear writing about)? When does my protagonist fear the very thing I’m not saying? When does my protagonist become me?

Example #2 What makes me blissfully happy? How is it different for me than for anybody else? When in my story will the protagonist experience the same bliss?

Example #3 What feeling was new to me in the last year? When in the story will my protagonist experience this same new feeling? What happens that stirs this new feeling?

An awesome revision checklist
My imagination is boundless – I have five first draft novels on my desk waiting for revision. Yet the very idea mortified me – if I’m writing at a certain level, how do I know what to look for? How do I make my story better? When I attended FictionWriterCoverWeb-190x300Nina Munteanu’s one hour presentation on revision at the When Words Collide Conference the pieces to the puzzle fell together and now revising is totally fun!

I was elated to discover that I had many of the skills and resources I needed to revise. What I lacked was structure for the task. Revising, I learned, is a ten step process. The second step, Dig Deep, is the most exciting for it gives permission to restructure and change things to make the story better. For example, I had been toying with changing the gender of a main character but was unsure. Then, Nina said it was okay. Bingo! When I did it, I discovered that I hadn’t made the original character as strong and unique as I thought – there were trite mannerisms and stereotypical reactions I had subconsciously written. Why should a female wail and a male not? Or did I want either of them wailing? Was that the reaction I wanted? Of course not! Out with the stereotypes, in with more concrete characters and writing. It’s given me a whole new perspective as I examine all my characters.

The other helpful thing about the book is that Nina has a good succinct information on things important to telling a good story such as an overview of the hero’s journey, using the metaphor, getting sensual, the Zen of passionate writing and more. Simply and succinctly written, The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now is an excellent resource which has helped me get my writing to the next level. Simply written (I don’t have the patience for long dissertations), it makes its points quickly on essential things such as the hero’s journey, using the metaphor, getting sensual, the Zen of passionate writing and more. Nina will be our guest next week, so be sure to join us then.

Learning from each other
computer 2
Many writer friends, including some in my critique groups, also attended sessions, took workshops or did cool things like attend Odyssey for six weeks. Now, we have some truly interesting discussions, brainstorming sessions and meaningful critiques. I learned that the mentors I sought weren’t some magical gurus from best seller lists (although I wouldn’t turn one of those down!). They’re local writers who continue to learn and grow. Because we each pick up on different things, we can see issues in each other’s writing that the writer cannot. The importance of having a learning, supportive group becomes evident when you read a novel’s acknowledgement page. Great mid-list and best seller authors credit numerous people for everything from technical information to proof reading and editorial advice. We all need a community to help us get to the next level.

So yeah, taking my writing to the next level was as simple as 1,2,3: psychotherapy, a revision checklist, and having a community of good supportive writers who have the same aspirations. Serendipity provided me the tools I needed to grow as a writer – I just needed to take advantage of them when they presented themselves. I’m really glad I did.

Happy writing!

 

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