Tag Archives: plotting techniques

Serendipity is a Weird Mistress

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!

 

Calling back to the familiar when starting new: Star Trek: Into Darkness

 

resonance Whether we know it or not, we all respond to resonance in story telling. “What’s resonance?” you ask. To borrow from David Farland’s wonderful novel, Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing,

All successful writers use resonance to enhance their stories by drawing power from stories that came before, by resonating with their readers’ experiences, and by resonating within their own works.

Farland, David (2012-12-09). Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing (Kindle Locations 79-82). . Kindle Edition.

We feel powerful emotions when we read a book that somehow resembles other works that we love.

Farland, David (2012-12-09). Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing (Kindle Locations 100-101). . Kindle Edition.

 

trek into darkness

So, what are you going to do when you want to start fresh for one of the most popular franchises ever? Tell your own story, but make sure it resonates with what came before. Star Trek: Into Darkness excels at this.

SPOILER ALERT: THIS POST TALKS IN DETAIL ABOUT STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS THERE WILL BE SPOILERS SO IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW, STOP READING NOW. I’LL FORGIVE YOU. GO WATCH THE MOVIE AND COME BACK.

You have been warned.

Love or hate the rebooted Star Trek, you have to admire the talent that went behind creating it. The first movie set the franchise on its head. Star Trek: Into Darkness continues this seeming disregard for the prior Star Trek universe, but if you dissect the movie, you can tell that isn’t the case.

Let me start with an apology. Because Into Darkness is still in theatres, I’m sure I didn’t catch all the references. For some reasons, the people in the seats near mine objected to my flashlight and incessant note taking. But I think my barely legible notes will do well to illustrate the masterful use of resonance in this movie.

Star Trek: Into Darkness starts with a scene that could have been left on the cutting room floor from Raiders of the Lost Arc. Kirk and Bones have stolen a cultural icon, one they aren’t even sure what it is, and are being chased by angry spear wielding natives. See, the similarity to Raiders? No? Substitute Trek’s white-skinned natives for the dark-skinned ones in Raiders and the scroll from Trek with the little gold statue Indy steals before the rock comes rolling down. While Kirk and Bones don’t jump into a plane and fly away. they do swim down to the Enterprise and fly away.

What does director J.J. Abrams get from starting like this? A couple of things. He’s setting himself apart from the Trek movies that have come before. He’s also promising us that this Trek will be an action adventure movie in space. Abrams resoundingly delivers on this promise.

Even with his apparent disregard for the prior Trek universe (you know, the one he blew up), Abrams constantly refers back to it. One of the challenges Abrams has with his reboot is giving us characters that resemble, at least at first, the ones we know and love from the original Star Trek, and then developing them in a new direction based on the universe changes. But some truths remain constant. Kirk remains a womanizer. Bones isn’t keen on transporters.

When Kirk, Spock and Uhura need to go to Cronos, the Klingon home world, they take two security officers. Those officers happen to be the bullies who beat up Kirk in the first reboot before Christopher Pike convinces Kirk to join Star Fleet. The ship they take is from the “Mudd incident.” Harry Mudd, of course, featured heavily in the original series. In Season 1, Episode 6, Mudd’s Women, and Season 2, Episode 8, I, Mudd, the irrascable conman, Harry Mudd plagues Kirk and his crew. The quick one line encompasses two of the original Trek episodes.

When they arrive at Cronos. we see that the moon. Praxis, has already exploded. Even though Abrams has foreclosed a remake of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered County by already having the moon explode, he references the prior movie. The audience already knows why the moon exploded, and Into Darkness doesn’t have to delve into that bit of history.

The Klingons themselves call back to the Star Trek Next Generation ones. There is a similarity in design, but makeup designer Neville Page takes them up a level. These Kilngons are even more kick butt, not that I had thought that possible until I saw these. The gold accents to the skull ridges makes them an edgier version.

Bones experiments on a dead tribble. Who can forget the tribbles and the trouble they caused in The Trouble with Tribbles, Season 2, Episode 15? Because this is a reboot, rather than the plague the tribbles were in the original series, a tribble saves the day, sort of.

Of course, the biggest reveal and resonance in the story is…

BONUS SPOILER ALERT: Really if you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t read past this point.

…that the villain, thought to be a rouge Star Fleet member, is actually Khan Noonien Singh. Khan is probably the most love nemesis from the original series and movies. Khan first appeared in Season 1, Episode 22’s Space Seed, and who could forget the movie: Star Trek, Wrath of Khan?

 Once Khan’s identity is revealed there is a logical and inevitable progression to a scene that could have been twisted right out of Wrath of Khan. Twisted, but still almost beat for beat the same.

Kirk faces the Kobayashi Maru situation when the Dreadnaught class ship pounds Enterprise. His ship is crippled and his crew about to be exterminated. It’s a scenario he’s cheated in both the original Trek and the reboot. This time he doesn’t get to cheat. He loses.

Abrams doesn’t let you forget that this is an action adventure movie in space. The dying Enterprise’s engines finally rebooting, the ship falls through the clouds. You can hear the squawk of chatter as Spock tries to get Enterprise airworthy again. The camera stays above the cloud bank. Then a triumphant Enterprise roars through the clouds and gains altitude. While Abrams didn’t have the ship silhouetted by the moon, like they did with the Batplane in Batman, the resonance rings true. We know what’s coming. A kick butt fight between the hero and villain. Again, Abrams delivers.

Even the final moments of the movie refers to other ones. There’s a paraphrasing of a The Princess Bride quote, though I was really hoping for the actual quote; “You’ve been mostly dead…” Still, Bones came close enough. And of course, the movie ends with the Enterprise starting its 5 year journey to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Abrams’ careful interweaving of elements of the prior Trek Universe into his reboot has me looking forward to the next installment of the new franchise.

The Take Home:  Resonance matters. It is probably the most compelling tool we have in our writer’s tool box. So, how do you successfully retell a classic? By paying intentional homage to what came before. If the story is too “new” your audience will reject it. By carefully weaving elements of what came before into the new story, you give the readers a frame of reference, make them certain promises, and give them a comfort zone from which to relax and launch themselves into your retelling of a classic.

Creating Your Own Mythology

Creating your own mythology – how cool! And loads of fun! We write in an era where readers embrace modern and new myth. When Bram Stoker penned Dracula, he took an obscure legend, gave it its own rules and a new mythology was born. Today, we understand the social action and values for vampires, werewolves and zombies. This is newly created mythology has been embraced by generations of readers. In Tolkien’s books, the fantasy world received a new mythology Middle Earth and that lore, that mythology, is still embraced by people today.

There are those who argue that because myth is defined as being of the distant past, that it has its own cultural criteria Zeusand that it requires organic growth in a culture, that it can’t be instantly created. Humbug! Myth is a way for people to reconcile the paradoxes of life – the things that don’t make sense to us. How was life created? How do the gods and people interact? What are the rules for interaction? Apply it to everyday life and we can call it religion. Apply it to books and we call it world building.

And perhaps that is the difference – scholars will argue that because what writers create isn’t part of the everyday, ordinary belief systems for people, then it isn’t legitimate myth. But who draws that line? Who determines when an idea crosses that line? And does it matter? Is it any less compelling? I think not. We no longer believe in the Greek Pantheon of gods yet they’re as popular as ever in literature like in Rick Riordon’s Percy Jackson and the Olympian’s series. Do we have to believe in those specific gods for the mythology to be relevant, to explain creation, our relationship with the world, our struggle with life’s paradoxes and our need to have legitimate heroes to inspire us? Not at all. When we delve into other people’s belief systems, we challenge and enrich our own. We discover new ways to escape and to solve problems.

Mythology creates rules. How do heroes, people and proto-people (vampires, werewolves and the like) behave? What kills them (silver bullets, kryptonite or a stake through the heart)? Who are the gods, and what are their rules? How did creation happen and what happens after death? Why are their problems? Can man solve them or is he powerless?

We’ve established that not only can we create new mythology we must do it to explain the rules of the new worlds we’ve created. And many myths born of ancient legends and modern science are being created and believed by people (no judgements here). This is the mythology of ancient aliens coming to earth for their own purposes and seeding mankind (biologically and technologically). It is all a way to rationalize, to understand our history, what makes us human and to explain the anomalies and paradoxes of who we are and where we’ve come from.

And where will the next new mythology arise? The future. Outer space, I think. With the newly emerged and proven theories of space and time and the universe expanding faster and faster (not more slowly as some would believe) to end up in a black hole that swallows it entirely – like how do we explain that? Mythology, that’s how. A futuristic mythology born of predicted apocalyptic events. How cool would that be?

In creating the mythology for my books, I look closely at the world I’ve built along with the premise of the story. Mythology is about explaining how things came to be. Why they are the way they are. Why people believe as they do. It’s answering these questions that makes a world unique and believable. In one series, I asked what makes this one item so valuable? Why is it such a threat? How did it get where it is? What happens now that it’s been loosed upon the world? What do people believe about the item and their power to change destiny?

In the historically-based fantasy series I’m currently working on, the creation and afterlife myths mythology are crucial to how this world acts. The problem is, there is very little information about societal beliefs for the time period I’ve chosen to write about and I’ve been scouring academic journals for months. And that, for a writer, is perfect! From minute tidbits of factual information on tools, trade and astronomy, I’ve got just enough information to ground the story in history yet enough leeway to create a whole new mythology as to why things were done the way they were. This has forced me to really see the world through my characters’ eyes and in doing so, their actions and reactions have a genuine truth. And in doing that, the story has become so real, so alive and so fascinating!

You can take more modern or current historical events such as the decay of an empire, an evil despot trying to conquer the world, invading armies, geological tragedies, interpersonal tragedies, whatever you wish – take these larger events and change the details of the experience. Create a new world, a new way of looking at things, a new mythology which your characters use to explain their circumstances, their world, why the scourge seeps through the country – use all that to create and influence your hero, your proto-humans and your society. Or, take one of the ten basic creation myths, put you own spin on it and ask yourself, how would this influence a given society? Again, Rick Riordon did this in his series when he brought the Greek gods to America. Neil Gammon has his own unique spin on mythological figures come to the Americas in American Gods.

So go for it! Create new worlds with ground breaking, mind bending mythologies. There’ll always be a flick of our modern realities and value systems in them, how can there not be? Besides, those bits of our world in them is what will make the issues, the dilemmas and the challenges ring true for the reader. Mix, mash and have fun with it.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll talk about how I create new mythology for my worlds.

Happy mythology building!

And the character ran away with the story (or, my story wandered off track). . .

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image5158855

Hey diddle diddle

the cat and the fiddle

the cow jumped over the moon

the little dog laughed to see such a sport and

the dish ran away with the spoon

Okay, it’s all fun and games when the dish runs away with the spoon, but not so much when it’s your character who’s running off with your story. Or at least what you thought was your story.

As a discovery writer, I tend to have my stories overtaken by events. I’ve had a character yell at me that while he could be a cold blooded killer, there was no way he was going to kill that girl for that reason. When he refused, it changed everything. I have to say he was right when I looked at it, but still, what do you do?

Moments like that when my characters talk to me, heck, when they rebel are part of the reason I’m a discovery writer. For the most part, I let them take me for the ride and then see what I ended up with in editing. But sometimes the tangent the characters want to travel down isn’t one they should. Or, as often happens to me, my short story becomes a novella, becomes a novel, becomes a trilogy. Sigh. I’m in the middle of that now with New Bohemia: Just One Night.  When I started that story, it was a short that kept interrupting my ability to work on a novel. So, I figured what the heck, I’ll write the short and get it out of my system. That was months ago. At 60,000 words, the story isn’t so short anymore because I decided I needed to kill off my main character’s parents in a way she’s going to feel responsible for the deaths. The story didn’t derail so much as I added a twist to make my characters’ break-up make sense.

 As I see it, the trick is knowing when the diversion adds to or deepens the story and when it doesn’t. If in Chapter 12, Rafe is suppose to have a have a fight with the love of his life and the relationship is supposed to look like it’s over, but, instead, if Rafe decides to go hunting with the guys and finds a magic sword that happens to be Excalibur, you might have a problem or, at least, be writing a different story than you thought you were.

If you’re an outliner, you probably know almost immediately when your characters stray and can assess whether in the overall plot arc if the diversion is a complication that should stay or navel gazing that needs to be cut. It’s a bit harder for us discovery writers. After all, we often don’t know where the story is going. (Yes, I acknowledge that this is the way to madness for some.) It could be that the first 100 pages is wrong and not the “diversion”. Been there, done that and it stinks.

So, you have a couple of choices when the characters try to run the show.

1. Go with it. Since the characters are only the writer’s unconscious mind, they might be on to something.

2. Assess the detour and see if it’s a path the story should travel. If not, stop or see #5 below.

3. If it’s a main character mutiny, write it and worry about whether it works in rewrite. This is often what I do.

4. If it’s a minor character, cut, paste and save the “new” story for a sequel or related story.

5. Cut, paste and save in another document, and keep on your plan or outline.

Sometimes when your characters decide to turn left instead of right, you discover wonders. Sometimes it results in the never ending story. The latter isn’t good. You must finish the story. Any story. Every story.

Remember, you need to choose what’s important for your story. If the track your character wanders onto doesn’t advance the story you want to tell, stop, hold a character intervention and get back to the plot line you want. If the path through the forest isn’t well defined, don’t be afraid to leave it and smell the flowers along the way. Just watch out for the big bad wolf, and Hades.