Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Let’s do the twist!
Thanks to all of you who left your book premises. You’ll be working with those more later. Today, we’ll begin to cover the Twist Process. When I teach this in a workshop, it’s a very interactive class. I want to make it as interactive here as possible, because I’ve got to get you thinking. This isn’t a “mere lecture” subject. So I’ll continue to ask for your feedback as we cover this subject in the next few days.
First, tell me—what is a story twist anyway?
Here’s where authors get immediately hung up. Most will identify a twist as a surprise in the story, something unexpected. Fine, that definition is true. But how do you use that definition to help you create a twist? “Well, if a twist is a surprise, I have to come up with a surprise. Hm. Hm. What could be surprising? Can’t think of anything interesting.”
Here’s my definition of a twist—a definition that will help you create them. A twist is an assumption turned on its head.
Before we go any further, we’d better make sure we’re all thinking the same thing when we use the word assumption. My definition of an assumption is the subconscious belief that a piece of information is true.
Key to this definition of assumption is the word subconscious. Assumptions are birthed below the conscious level. This is why they’re so insidious. Think of the times in real life you’ve been tripped up by a wrong assumption. “Oh, wow, what a surprise! I just assumed that_____” You fill in the blank. Why were you so surprised to learn that your assumption wasn’t true? Because you never thought about it consciously. The assumption was just there, deeply embedded in your thinking.
Take for example, the assumption in the premise for the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The white daughter says to her parents, “Mom, Dad, I’m bringing home the love of my life.” They say, “Great! Can’t wait to meet him!” What happens to give them such a shock? In walks Sidney Poitier. Why is it such a shock to see a black man enter with their daughter? Because they just assumed on a deep, subconscious level that she’d be in love with a white guy. (Remember, this movie was made years ago.) They never went through the conscious thought process—“Well, Henry (or whatever the dad’s name was), do you suppose the man is white?” “Of course, he’s white, Mary, what on earth on you talking about!” If they’d gone through that conscious thought process, they would still have been surprised, but not nearly as surprised as they were when something that had never even entered their minds happened.
Now that we’re clear on the definitions for twist and assumption, here are the two steps in the Twist Process:
1. List all the assumptions inherent in your premise.
2. Choose a few and turn ’em on their heads.
Yup, that’s it. Piece a cake, right? Let’s take a closer look.
Step #1. Every premise is loaded with assumptions. Your job is to find those assumptions. This is the hard step. We’ve just talked about how assumptions are subconscious. Which means the assumptions inherent in your premise are going to be subconscious to you. You’ll have to dig deep within your subconscious mind to find them. As you think of them, write them down. Doesn’t matter how outlandish they are. The bigger your list, the more you’ll have to choose from for step two.
Here’s a made up premise for you to start practicing on. I’ve used this premise in workshops because it’s a fun one. In this story, we have a positive inciting incident, rather than the more typical negative one. In the opening scene, we have John and Lisa, a married couple, in their kitchen. We’re in Lisa’s POV. The phone rings. Lisa answers. It’s her OB GYN, telling her, “Congratulations! The test is positive—you’re pregnant! Lisa is thrilled. She and John have been trying for years to have a baby, and they’ve been on pins and needles waiting for this phone call. Lisa hangs up the phone, tells her husband the news (which he already guesses, since he’s heard her side of the conversation), and they fall into each others’ arms and weep.
Okay, BGs. What are the assumptions inherent in this premise? Remember, you have to dig into your subconscious thought to find them. Some will be easier to find than others, depending upon how deep in your subconscious thought they lie. Here’s a hint to help you. Read again carefully what I’ve told you about the premise. If I’ve told you something is true, you can know it is. Just as in the narrative in your story, you can’t lie to your readers. They would feel betrayed. But if something’s perceived by a character—that perception may or may not be true. Within that perception may lie an assumption or two.
Leave up to three assumptions on the comments page. You will probably find more, but just list them for yourself. This will give more people a chance to find new ones that haven’t already been listed. (If you’ve been in a twist workshop and gone through this premise with me, hold back if you will, and allow others to come up with the answers. Let’s see how well they do.) Tomorrow we’ll put together the list and see what we have. And we'll make a few more discoveries about how assumptions work in creating twists in a story.
Read Part 2
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Here’s a response to a comment from yesterday:
The triangle method is interesting, and I'll have to try it out sometime. Though my books tend to have more than one antagonist and they aren't always exemplified in a single person. :) (Though two do have specific characters rise to the front from time to time).
Yeah, I agree that the triangle isn’t going to work for every book. Some stories may take a square, or a hexagon, or whatever. But the triangle is basic, and from there y’all can build on it as you need. If you have two antagonists (which I have also had), fill in the basic information for both of them. Two protagonists (or a larger ensemble cast)—ditto.
Okay, today we turn to the other three Ds. You can start with whichever one you want as ideas come. I tend to work backwards. I start with the Devastation, because that will be the worst part of the book (for the protagonist, that is.) It’s the biggest conflict, and often the Devastation is also a major twist in my story. So if I figure out this major point, I know what I’m writing toward. Sometimes I have to think, “Hm. If I want that to happen—how can I make it work?” Certain characterization, motivation, events, etc. will have to be worked into the story in order to make the Devastation believable.
After the Devastation, I typically turn to the Denial. This will be a low point for the character, but it will also be leading toward the even lower point of the Devastation. Once I begin to understand the Denial, I go to the Distancing, which is the bulk of the story. Distancing comprises all the smaller step-by-step, always-ratcheting-higher conflicts that arise as obstacles in the protagonist’s path toward fulfilling her Desire. Distancing, therefore, provides plenty of room for the SOTPers to come up with new ideas as they write. And, in fact, there’s room between the Denial and the Devastation, and after the Devastation, too.
An extra plug for the Devastation: Include one whenever possible. Some stories, such as novellas, may not have time (that is, word count) for a Devastation. And some genres, like a sweet romance, may not best lend themselves to a Devastation. (Then again, "Devastation" is relative. For lighter genres, it doesn't have to be a hit-the-reader-over-the-head kind of event, as it would be for suspense.) Here's the thing about the Devastation--it makes the whole story more interesting, not just the end. If you look at the typical three-act structure, you'd place the crisis of the story at the end of Act II. Without a Devastation, that means you'd be placing the Denial at this point of crisis (end of Act II). Which means all of Act II will be comprised of your series of Distancing conflicts. But if you include a Devastation--that extra "gotcha" turning point--it becomes the climax. Which means you can push the Denial further to the left--somewhere between the middle of Act II and the crisis point at the end of the act. This gives you another strong turning point for conflict in that oh-so-easy-to-sag Act II. So many writers moan about the sagging middle and how to give it more punch. (Serendipity--I just discovered another mixed metaphor!) These folks' mistake is to focus on the Distancing conflicts themselves in that Act, trying to draw them out or somehow make them more interesting. Better to focus on adding the Devastation at the end of the act.
All right. Enough said about the Four Ds. In Getting Into Character, I give examples of the Four Ds using The Firm, by John Grisham. I’m not going to do that here because so many of you BGs already have GIC. And I sure don’t want to give an example from any of my books, because that would entail giving away the story. I think you all get the idea of what these Ds stand for. If not, you can always leave a question. It’s helpful when you read a novel, or watch a movie, to figure out what the Four Ds are. What was the protagonist’s Desire? What series of conflicts fought against that Desire? What was the Denial point? What was the Devastation? How did the protagonist fight back from the Devastation to reach the end of her path? What was that Answering End—one in which she fulfilled her Desire? Or part of it? Or none of it?
I have made the comment before that I never write a scene that I end up throwing out. I consider that a real waste of time. That’s because I follow this basic format for figuring out the main points of my book (all founded upon that all-important Desire)—and then write each scene as an important building block toward the next D. If I’m at the beginning of the book, I'm writing the Distancing conflicts toward the Denial. After that I’m writing toward the Devastation. Then I’m writing toward the Answering End.
There’s one more major thing to talk about regarding how I plot--how I come up with twists. One note about twists--if you're writing suspense/mystery, you'd really better have at least one. But in any genre, twists can add so much to the story. Twists are basically surprises. And if a reader ain't surprised, that means your story is totally predictable. There's another word for that--boring.
I’ve developed a process for thinking up twists that really works. It’s actually very simple once you see it laid out, but you have to approach the subject in a way that will most likely be new thinking for you. I will outline the Twist Process tomorrow. That is, as long as some of you step up to the plate with the following assignment: Tell me the premise of your wip. Hear me when I say premise. That means who the protagonist is, and the inciting incident. I don't want to know what happens after that. This shouldn’t take but a short paragraph. Doesn’t matter what genre you’re in—anyone can play.
Comments page now open for business.
Monday, August 29, 2005
Wow, Monday already. Welcome back, BGs.
Thanks for the comments left for Friday’s post. Very much appreciated! Y'all make my little heart sing.
First, I need to respond to two questions:
For those of us with full-time jobs, it's tough to spend any time interviewing, watching trials, etc. Do you have suggestions for, say, finding and interviewing a detective or prosecuting attorney? I picture these poor overworked folks saying, "Oh no, not another wannabee writer!"
Finding people to interview may not be as hard as you think. First start with people you know in a related field. If you want to interview a prosecutor, do you know anyone who knows someone in the police department? Or works in the courthouse? You call that person and ask what prosecutor he/she might put you in touch with. You use the name of the person who sent you (with their permission.) You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to give their time. People like to talk about their work. And they’re always glad to hear a novelist wants to “get their field right,” rather than winging it.
Once you interview the prosecutor, ask that person for the name of a defense attorney you could interview. And the name of a homicide detective. Etc. Work one person off another, again using the name of the person who referred you. I’ve done this again and again. For Violet Dawn, for example, I needed to interview someone in law enforcement in a small Idaho town equal to the size of my fictional Kanner Lake. I asked a friend to lives in the Kanner Lake area if she knew anyone. She didn't, but she sent me to a friend. That friend hooked me up with one of her friends—the Chief of Police of just the right Idaho town. That Chief has been wonderful, and not only interviewed with me, but has agreed to read my manuscript to catch law enforcement errors.
Bottom line—you can do it. Somebody you know will know somebody who knows somebody. And that somebody will be just the person you need.
I get my protagonist in a situation the reader thinks is impossible for protag to get out of. The hard part is getting them out of it. How do you go about figuring out the impossible?
Hold tight, Gina, we will continue discussing plotting, including twists. I hope the next few days will help you. Your problem sounds more like one that a seat-of-the-pantser would have. These folks start their story--and don't know what's going to happen. I hope all this talk of plotting isn't boring you SOTP types. Really, if you'll take the time to plot the basics, using the triangle and then the Four D line, you'll still have lots of room to improvise along the way. But you'll be on a clearer path, and will be far less likely to end up with the type of problem Gina has mentioned.
Okay, we’ll pick up from Friday. We left off with holding in our paws quite a few bits of knowledge about the book we’re plotting. We’ve taken triangle information about the protagonist, antagonist and crime (or whatever problem is appropriate for your genre) and proceeded to the Four Ds—Desire, Distancing, Denial, and Devastation. Your character’s Desire, you should already know from the triangle work. Now you start plotting the main points of your story—the three other Ds, and the end of your story.
You might want to start with the end. Many authors find this the easiest, because they already have an idea of how everything is going to turn out. Once you know the character’s Desire, the question about the book’s ending will logically form in your head. Will the character obtain his/her Desire, or not? However this question is answered will form the end of your book—what I call the “answering end.” (Amazingly clever title, don’t you think?) If the character’s Desire is two-pronged (and it should be at least two pronged!), you have numerous possibilities for the ending. One part of the Desire may be fulfilled, and the other not fulfilled. One may be fulfilled in a completely different way than the protagonist expected. The protagonist might not achieve any part of his Desire, or he might achieve all of it. Or he might achieve part or all of it, but at a far greater cost than he was ever willing to pay. On and on to myriad possibilities.
You might hear some writers call endings “positive,” “negative,” or positive/negative.” I’ve heard these terms referring to whether the ending is happy, unhappy, or a combination of both. That’s a bit simplistic way to look at it. What we’re really talking about is whether or not the character achieves his Desire. If he does, the ending is positive; if he doesn’t, it’s negative. And if he achieves only part, or achieves it at too great a cost, or perhaps has the Desire within reach and decides he doesn’t want it anymore—these are examples of positive/negative endings.
Once you figure out the Answering End, you’ve got the last point on your Four Ds line. Way over at the beginning, on the left, you started with Desire. Now at the end, on the right, you have how your story ends. Now alls ya gotta do is figure out how to get from the former point to the latter. Hey, piece a cake, right? Next thing you know, your book will be written.
Tomorrow we begin to tackle the other three Ds.
Friday, August 26, 2005
Yowsa, it’s Friday!
First, two comments from yesterday:
Great post on plotting and twists. I'm getting to the point in my WIP where I'm trying to cast suspicion on the Red Herring and must make sure he doesn't have a great alibi. My head is already swimming with every thing I need to keep track of. No wonder you feel insane. I feel I'm on my way.
Heh-heh. Insanity looooves company.
I went back and read your NES (never ending saga). Oh my goodness. I wanted to cry for you. I've been writing for 8 years, novels for only 2 and wouldn't you know I feel sorry for myself sometimes because it ain't happening fast enough. Shame on me. That is the most amazing story. I'm going to post about the long road to publishing on my blog tomorrow and direct every writer who feels like giving up over to read your story. What an inspiration!!
Thanks, Gina. It was written to be an inspiration. Hang in there on your own journey. You’ll make it.
BGs, I want to tell those of you who take the time to leave comments/questions how very much I appreciate it. The number of responses to my blog is always a very small percentage of the readership we have here, and I want to encourage more of you to chime in. A blog is best when it’s interactive. When you leave questions, comments, when you challenge me and say “I don’t agree,” we all can benefit. My counter numbers show me that nearly everyone who reads the blog takes the time to also read the comments page. Plus, many times I’m mighty tired when I post, and seeing feedback the next day helps encourage me to keep the blog going. So don’t be shy. You can always post anonymously if you want to.
Okay, back to plotting. We’ve got our triangle outline (adapted to your needs as you see fit). And I’ve talked about the dual writing pattern in my books, because my stories are all about twists. Any of you who’ve read my suspense books will know what I’m talking about. I’ve not given specific examples from my books because I don’t want to give any of the story twists away for those who haven’t read them. (Although surely every BG among us has read at least ONE of my novels. I mean—surely.)
Once my basic triangle work is done, I know details about the crime, the protagonist and the antagonist, but I still don’t know the story. How’s everything going to unfold? And how’s it going to end? Is the protagonist going to obtain her Desire or not? At this point I switch from the triangle to the line of plotting I call the Four Ds—Desire, Distancing, Denial, Devastation. Ah, yes—that Desire word again. I talk about the Four Ds in the Action Objectives chapter in Getting Into Character. For those who haven’t read GIC, a quick summary.
Desire—(really, do I have to explain this one to you again?) Desire is what the character wants, the motivation that will propel him/her through the story. If you’re new to this blog, go back in the archives (either in August or July) and look for the series of posts on Desire. Everything in the story rests on the protagonist’s Desire. Once you know precisely what she wants, you can begin to build in conflict that will keep her from obtaining that Desire.
From the triangle outline, I already have discovered the Desires of my antagonist and my protagonist. Naturally, these Desires will be diametrically opposed to one another.
Distancing—the series of conflicts that push the character further and further off the direct path toward achieving his/her Desire. Distancing conflicts form the bulk of your story.
Denial—the point in the story at which it seems all is lost. Obtaining of the Desire will be denied, and the character might as well give up. The Denial is the opposite of the Desire. For example, if a character wants to survive, it looks like he surely will die. If he wants to win a certain prize, it looks like he’ll never win it. If he wants to stop a crime from happening, it will happen anyway. Etc.
Devastation—turning the Denial on its head. Something even worse than the Denial. Just when the character thinks things can’t get any worse . . . they do. For example, the character who wants to survive, then nearly dies, now is faced with the chance to live—but his beloved will have to die in his place. The character who wanted to win a certain prize now not only will never win it, but the prize will be awarded to his worst enemy, who will use it to wield power over him forever. The person who wanted to stop a crime from happening not only will see it about to happen—but to one of his own children.
You get the picture. The Devastation is the ultimate torture of your character. Bottom line, it’s taking the Denial of the character’s Desire and making it worse. Once the threat of Devastation hits the protagonist, she will have to fight like never before to get herself back on the path toward obtaining her Desire.
For my suspenses, the point of Devastation for the protagonist will likely be the ultimate twist of the story. Once I get my triangle work done, I turn to figuring out what this twist/Devastation will be.
I hope I don’t leave y’all thoroughly confused over the weekend about these Four Ds. If you have a copy of Getting Into Character, you can take another look at the simple drawings that depict the plotting line of Desire, Distancing, Denial and Devastation. If you don’t have GIC, imagine a straight line, with Desire at the left end, and Obtaining the Desire at the right end. Distancing conflicts push the protagonist upwards, off that straight line. Each new conflict pushes the protagonist further up and away from the line. The Denial pushes the protagonist up and even backwards. The Devastation pushes even further up and back, so the protagonist is now at a point even left of where she started. She’s got longer than ever to get back to that line that will take her to achieving her Desire.
If you’re lost, please leave a question. We’ll pick this up Monday.
Read Part 8
Posted by ~ Brandilyn Collins at 12:00 AM
Thursday, August 25, 2005
Well, here ’tis Thursday, the downside of the work week. However, I am not working this week. I haven’t told y’all I’m on vacation in our Idaho home. Have been since last Friday when my family came up to stay until Labor Day. Now you see why I was working like mad to finish Violet Dawn last week. I didn’t want to be working when I needed to be spending time with the family. My husband works ridiculous hours and travels quite a bit, so when we set aside vacation time, it’s sacrosanct. Except that I have faithfully continued to write this here blog. :)
Responding to some comments/questions from yesterday:
My crime is a kidnapping, not a murder...yet. No one finds a body, only clues that someone has disappeared. Does this complicate the plotting especially since there really isn't a crime scene to investigate?
There’s a lot to investigate when a person goes missing. Lots of people need to be interviewed. Who saw the person last? That person will be high on the cops’ list of people needing to be cleared. A photo and info is disseminated to media. Depending upon the type of disappearance (when and where the person was seen last), search dogs and/or cadaver dogs may be called in. The area where the person was last seen will be thoroughly searched. Lots of protocol here. Don’t worry, you have plenty to work with for your book. You will need to interview police to understand what would be done in the situation you’ve chosen for your story. Even if your story doesn’t center around the police investigation, but more around characters tied to the missing person, these characters will find themselves caught up in the investigation. So you’ll have to include at least some aspects of the investigation in order to have a believable story.
I like the outline. I'm going to take it and view my stories through its order-producing lens. There are lots of possible variations to make for other types of novel. Sometimes there isn't a bad guy; instead the antagonist is a society, machine or natural disaster.
Oh, absolutely. In my suspenses, the antagonist is going to be a bad guy. But antagonists come in all different forms. Adapt the basic triangle idea to your needs.
Hi, Brandilyn. I started reading your blog about a week ago and read through all the posts about how you got here. Thank you for sharing your story; God truly is amazing, and it was good to hear how He helped one writer get published, even though it took a long time! Where are you from in Kentucky?
Lyndsay, so glad you’ve joined us. But you cheated, you know. The BGs who’ve been here since way back had to read that story day by day and be left hanging overnight—and sometimes over the weekend—to see what happened next. You got to sail right over the hooks. :) As for Kentucky, I grew up in Wilmore (close to Lexington), home to Asbury College and Seminary.
Okay, yesterday I promised you more “dual mazes” talk. Here’s the skinny. Remember, this is for my books. It may not apply to yours—yet. But who knows, you just may find yourself in the same sanity-bending situation some day. (If you’re writing suspense, you’d doggone better have some surprises.)
I may begin to sound like I’m digressing here. Actually, I’m, er . . . laying the foundation. There. Sounds a bit more erudite.
My stories are known for their twists. (We will talk about creating twists soon. You see, there is a method to my madness.) So in my plotting, I always have to figure out what the final twist will be, and then what the smaller twists will be along the way. My goal is to surprise the reader. Now, this gets harder and harder, because my readers keep getting smarter. See, they know what I’m up to. They got this little “figure-it-out” gig goin’ on every time they pick up a Brandilyn Collins book. And, oh, do I hear it when one of ’em figures something out ahead of time! The person is so doggone proud of himself (or herself), that he just has to let me and the world know. And it’s often preceded by some statement like, “You’re probably going to hate me for this, but . . . ”
Let me set y’all wonderful BGs straight. I will not “hate” you for figuring out something in my plot ahead of time. I will not even be disappointed. Somebody better figure at least part of the twists out. If nobody figured out anything ahead of time in my books, I’d worry that I didn’t include enough foreshadow. Yes, I hide my foreshadow in all sorts of dastardly ways, heh-heh. But it’s there. And somebody who’s really paying attention just might see it. Of course, everyone is supposed to see it once they’ve finished the book-----ye ol’ hindsight being 20/20. (“Oh, for heaven’s sake, it was right in front of me all the time—why didn’t I get it?”)
When I teach on writing suspense, I remind students that they will be writing to a wide spectrum of readers. On one end of the spectrum is the first-time suspense reader, who has no idea how to spot clues and will only recognize them if they’re humongous. On the other end of the spectrum is the person who reads suspense/mysteries constantly and is highly cognizant of clues. The latter is what I call the “smart” reader of my books.
With such a wide diversity of readers, who do I write to? Somewhere in the middle? Uh-uh. Always, always, I write for the very smartest reader.
The smart reader will keep me on my toes. This is the reader who will demand that my foreshadow/red herrings/clues be well balanced. Therefore, in writing to this reader, I keep my foreshadow/clues veiled. And, practically speaking, the majority of my readers are the “smart” readers, because they are regular consumers of suspense. If they’ve read my books before, they are particularly aware of the mind-bending roller coaster ride I aim to take them on. I do expect that some of these readers will guess one or more of my twists. Some may guess the ultimate twist. And that’s okay. Because you see, for these readers, it’s a game. They don’t mind guessing the twist. In fact, as I’ve said, they’re proud when they get it right. But they have to be highly entertained—and highly challenged—along the way. And, even if they guess the ultimate twist, I still want to surprise them with something. I will include things in the story that will cause these folks to doubt their guess for a time. I want to jerk these readers around a bit. And believe me, if they’re jerked, the rest of the readers are thoroughly twisted.
Now. Are you beginning to see the conundrum I place myself in? Why I find my stories so very difficult to write? I am writing two stories in one. I am writing the story I want the reader to think happened. And I am writing what actually happened. Everything in the story—including events, dialogue, character thoughts and perceptions—must fit either scenario. And sometimes I have more than two scenarios going. I can have three, or four, or whatever. As the writer who knows all about the story, I must always keep in mind what the reader only knows. I have to remember what I want the reader to think, while I know the whole truth. If I change one detail in the surface story—and this could be as little as a single word in some cases—I can throw off the details in the underlying, what-really-happened story.
See? I do have a reason for being insane.
More madness tomorrow.
Read Part 7
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Welcome back. First, I’ll responding to a comment and a question from yesterday.
Brandilyn, you said: "a point or two of goodness or gentleness can make the guy far more chilling, because these points provide a comparison for the evil.” I've heard this advice before, but I don't know if I like it. I think an antagonist can be portrayed as perfectly real but without sympathy.
I agree that a bad guy can be portrayed as all bad, and many of them are. However, I think they become more interesting when they have a little more three-dimensionalism (that’s not a word, but it should be). No one is all good or all bad. Human nature mixes both. But let’s make sure we’re talking the same language here. “Good” is relative. If you’re creating a killer character, the littlest thing that’s not pure evil will look like “good.”
For example, let’s take the bad guy POV in Stain of Guilt. This guy is coming after Annie and is coldly calculating in his eluding of the police. But he loves his family, and he doesn’t want to get caught partly because he doesn’t want his family to be hurt. That’s his good. Or, take the killer in Violet Dawn, who is mostly pure evil. However, he refuses to steal from anyone. That’s his “good.” No matter that as an assassin he’s killed countless people. He can’t abide a thief. And there’s a scene on the beach when a little girl throws her ball and it bounces against him. He smiles at her and gently throws back the ball, telling her mother, who’s scolding her, not to worry about it because “he loves children.” Hey, so what if he’s killed a few? When he leaves the beach, he makes sure to catch the little girl’s eye so he can wink at her. He’s shown the girl kindness. Now you could certainly argue it’s all part of his façade so people won’t know who he really is. But he still was able to be nice rather than snarl at the kid. This is his “good.” I believe that kindness to the girl is far more chilling than if he’d growled at her.
How did you go about keeping all the details straight in your books when you first started writing? When you have plots, sub-plots and all sorts of character quirks, how do you not forget who did what, when, how, where and why over the course of a several year writing process?
It is hard to keep track of characters. You can jot notes every time you write a bit of description about a character, or a bit of background information. Some authors keep spreadsheets for this type of thing. I keep most of it in my head. And when I forget if a minor character’s eyes are blue or brown or green, I do a “find” search in the manuscript to remind myself.
These details are why all authors need an excellent copyeditor. And they’re hard to find. The copyeditor is not the same as the macro editor, who’s looking at characterization and story structure and the big stuff. The copyeditor at the house comes along after all the macro editing and author rewriting, and looks for tiny details, like a white blouse worn on page 20 becoming being on page 150. My copyeditor catches me on plenty stuff, even after I’ve refined and refined all these details.
Okay, on to an outline of what we’ve covered in plotting so far, just to help y’all visual people keep it straight. This outline refers to my suspense plots. Adapt it as you need for your own genre. Remember that you don’t have to figure out all the points in order. Move back and forth as ideas flow. For example, you might first know more about III, the antagonist, than you do II, the protagonist.
I. Discover basics about the triangle points.
A. Protagonist—career, age, family, etc.
B. Antagonist—why he has committed the crime(s)
C. Crime—who was killed, how, when
II. Discover more specifics for protagonist
A. How she is involved in the crime, and what she must do about it
B. Personal problems she faces, and what she must do about them
C. Her Desire (at least two-pronged and specific)
III. Discover more specifics about antagonist
1. More specifics on why he committed the crime(s)
2. What is in his background that made him a killer—personal issues 3. Self-justification—how he rationalizes the need for the
4. Point of goodness/sympathy—some aspect that keeps him from being all bad
5. Personality quirks—which will affect his voice
The next step should now look obvious:
IV. Discover more specifics about crime
A. How and when executed, down to minute details
B. Evidence left at scene
C. Whereabouts of all characters when crime is committed
D. Who will discover crime and what person will do about it
This step is a tough one and takes a lot of thinking and planning, and throwing out ideas, and thinking and planning some more. It doesn’t matter whether this crime is committed onstage or off (as backstory)—I still have to know every detail of what happened. In my stories, these details can drive me crazy, because there are a million of them, and they’re all connected, like this giant maze. If I change one aspect, that change can take me down a different path in the maze.
I certainly don’t have all these details figured out before I start writing. I keep thinking of more and more as the story unfolds. There’s no way I could figure all this out right up front. That’s because the main plots in my novels are never just one story. They’re actually two, running parallel. It’s like I’m playing two maze video games at once, one with my right hand and one with my left. This, my dear BGs, is the primary source of my insanity while I write. (My insanity when I’m not writing is entirely another matter.)
More on these dual mazes tomorrow.
Read Part 6
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Happy Tuesday, plottin’ BGs. Before I continue, I’ll deal with two questions from yesterday.
My WIP has two antagonists. One we meet right away and the other we only get glimpses of. He is the real antagonist of the story. When should I fully reveal the second antagonist to the reader? When should the reader realize his motivation?
It depends on how you’re structuring your story. If you’re leading the reader to think person A is the bad guy, when really it’s B, then the revealing of B will be a major twist in the story. You reveal this twist when it has the most punch. But here’s the key: the motivation for B must be evident all along, if the reader will only see it. (Your trick is to place the motivation in front of the reader, but lead the reader not to recognize it for what it is.) Then when B is revealed as the real bad guy, the reader can believe it because the reasons for the motivation were there all along, and now the reader’s eyes have been opened to the truth. I will talk more about plotting twists later. That’s a whole lesson or two in itself. And btw, no matter what genre you’re writing in, all stories need twists (surprises) to some extent. So don’t just leave the twisted talk to us suspense writers.
When plotting a Romantic Suspense (as opposed to the straight Suspense) won't some of the scenes seem to be breathers from all the action to give the romance time to develop?
There is a point after action when the reader needs a breather. And some of these scenes can have to do with the romance. But don’t make the mistake of limiting the romance only to these scenes. In a romantic suspense, the romance is developing in the midst of the action, because of all the things the two characters end up going through together. A touch, a word, in the midst of action can help that romantic spark. Then you’ve got more to play off of in the quieter, more conversation-oriented scenes between the two characters.
Now on to where we left off yesterday: discovering the antagonist.
Of course, my antagonists are big, bad killers. But stories of all genres have antagonists, so you can take the process I go through in discovering my killers and mold it to your needs in discovering your own antagonist.
Because of my work on the three triangle points, by the time I turn to learning more about my bad guy, I know the crime(s) he’s gonna commit. Now I have to figure out the motivation, which has two parts. (1) Why is this bad guy committing this particular crime? (2) What is in this bad guy’s background that turned him into a killer in the first place? I need to discover the motivation for #1 first, because the type of crime involved directly affects the background motivation. I mean, what if the guy killed by accident, now just has to cover it up? That doesn’t demand the same kind of background motivation that it would take to build, say, a serial killer.
Once these two aspects of the motivation start to build, I can turn to the bad guy’s rationalization. One interesting thing about bad guys—they don’t know they’re bad. They always feel justification for what they’re doing. So I look for this point of self-rationalization. Often the rationalization springs directly from the background motivation. For example, my killer in Dead of Night is still reeling from bad stuff in childhood, all brought about by the mother. The rationalization for the serial killings this wacko commits is rooted in the self-justified need to rid the world of “evil” women who, like the mother, “adorn themselves as she did, painting and plucking, sashaying their wares through the streets.”
After motivation/justification comes the flip side of the bad guy. What’s good in him? Interestingly, a point or two of goodness or gentleness can make the guy far more chilling, because these points provide a comparison for the evil. Evil upon evil is like a black pearl necklace upon a black dress. The necklace is going to stand out far more if it’s put on a white dress to give it contrast.
In addition to having the character do something good, you can also give him some aspect that provides a modicum of sympathy for him. This often ties in with the background motivation. For example, with that killer in Dead of Night, there’s no question the killings are horrible, but there is enough in the killer’s background to elicit some sympathy, and some understanding of why this person became so warped.
The fourth aspect of the bad guy is his personality quirks. These quirks shape the narrative voice, and so can really add flavor. For example, my bad guy in Stain of Guilt read crime novels constantly, and related people and situations to characters/events in the books he’d read. His narrative voice came out very terse and choppy. Sort of like the narrative you might hear in a noir detective novel. Quite the opposite, the killer for Dead of Night rants in a more-intelligent-than-thou, holier-than-thou, poetic manner. Made for a very interesting voice. The killer in Violet Dawn, the book I just finished, fancies himself a poisonous snake, and he thrills in his own craftiness in planning his evil deeds. The snake persona and the arrogance of intellect both come through in his voice.
Tomorrow I’m going to sum up what we’ve talked about so far by making a quick outline of the steps. Then we’ll go on to further plotting elements.
Read Part 5
Monday, August 22, 2005
Howdy, BGs, on this Monday.
We ended last Friday talking about plotting. We pick up that conversation today. What do I do in plotting a book—when I’m starting with absolutely zero ideas? Here are the steps I go through:
Start plotting the points on the story triangle. On Thursday we talked about starting with the triangle for your story—working on each of the three points and bouncing from one to another as ideas come. For my suspense, that triangle consists of these points: protagonist, antagonist (affectionately termed the bad guy), and crime.
Okay, so I pingpong around, playing with ideas. An idea for one point can lead to an idea for another point. For example, for Violet Dawn, my first idea was part of the crime: a body surfaces in a hot tub, and the person who finds said body can’t tell the police. That lead to me to the protagonist. Who is this person who wouldn’t be able to call the police? What’s happened in her life that would place her in such a situation? When I was able to answer these questions in a basic way, I bounced over to the bad guy. Who is he? Why did he kill this person? Why would he place this body in the protagonist’s hot tub? I had a real problem getting very far in plotting Violet Dawn until I figured out the bad guy. Once I got some ideas about who he was, and why he killed, and some quirks to his personality, then I could start filling in more of the story, bouncing from one point to another.
I don’t go on to step two until I have a fairly good basic knowledge about each of the three points on my triangle. I know what kind of crime will happen and how. I know basics about my protagonist—age, career, family life, etc. I know the motivation for the antagonist—why he’s committing the crime. Now I need to move past basics into details.
Start doing some characterizing for the protagonist. This protagonist was a person with a life before the crime occurred. From my basic knowledge of her lifestyle, I need to discover the personal problem(s) she will face throughout the story. For example, in Dead of Night, forensic artist Annie Kingston had three personal issues going: raising her children alone after her husband left her for his mistress, dealing with her son who is caught up in the drug life, and her love life. Because I’m writing suspense, in which so much of the book is focused on the crime, I need to choose which one of the protagonist’s personal problems will be the main one. This main problem will develop into the major subplot, and the other issues may form smaller subplots.
Once I understand the protagonist’s personal problems, I can now turn to formulating the Desire that’s going to propel her through the entire story. Yup, BGs, there’s that D word again. If you missed the posts about character Desire, go back to July 25 and read forward for five or so days. The Desire for my protagonist needs to be at least two-pronged, with one prong referring to the crime element and one prong referring to the personal element. In Dead of Night, for example, Annie Kingston’s Desire was: to help the sheriff’s department find the serial killer before any more deaths occurred, while extricating her son from the drug scene. Once I understood that Desire with its two specific parts, I could start thinking about conflicts that could arise to keep her from being successful in either prong. Remember, in story, conflict means opposition to desire. So once I firmly established what the protagonist’s Desire was, I was in better shape to think of possible conflicts to throw in the protagonist’s path as she pursued that Desire.
Next—discovering more details about ye ol’ antagonist. (The bad guy’s are always the funnest.) More on that, and further plotting steps, tomorrow.
Read Part 4
Friday, August 19, 2005
Okay, I just want you all to know that as I write this blog Thursday night, I have been working since 9 a.m. yesterday morning on editing Violet Dawn. The whole first draft is now done—and will sit three weeks before I send it off to ye ol’ editor. (Before I do that, I’ll look over it again with fresh eyes.) At any rate, I started yesterday morning, worked all day, all night. Stopped at 6:30 a.m. for a couple hours’ sleep, then back at it. I am now ready for bed. So if I don’t make sense on this here blog I’m posting for Friday morning, I really do have an excuse.
Today I am answering questions from yesterday, because these questions bring up important issues.
That triangle thing made sooooo much sense. Is there a pattern for the pingponging or is it more random?
I think it’s more random, determined by what ideas develop first. At least initially. But at some point you must move beyond the triangle. More on that as we continue to talk about plotting.
Just today I was reading an article about genre; it started me thinking if I should fit my story to a genre or be more experimental. I certainly like the idea of writing a story that is wildly undefinable, but doing so requires even more care in plotting if there is no framework to go by.
Two thoughts here. First, my vote for the unpublished author is to stick with a known genre. It’s hard enough breaking in as a new author. Even established authors will have more trouble selling a manuscript that’s nondefinable in genre than a definable one. So, an unpublished author with a nondefinable manuscript is like a double whammy.
Second, it’s not so much that a nondefinable has no framework. At least, not if it’s going to be worth reading. It’s that it combines numerous frameworks. Let’s say you write a suspense/romance/western/fantasy. To make it work, you’d need to adopt the basic conventions of all these genres and include them in your story. Otherwise the story structure won’t hold up. And to include all these genres’ conventions, you have to know all those conventions very well. This is why it’s harder. It’s a lot for a new author to attempt.
Do you find that you need to let an idea "stew" for a while, so it can germinate? (how's that for a mixed metaphor) Anyway, do you find that sometimes the first thing that crosses your mind is too obvious a choice, and your idea won't stand out from the crowd? That's what I'm dealing with right now...making the idea stand out.
You know I loved those mixed metaphors (MMs). Hm. Been too busy ever since I started this here blog to think about ’em much. I really must start letting my mind flow so I can begin a post now and then with a new MM.
But I digress.
To answer your question: yes. Ideas stew with me for a long time. Too long. I’ll see the days tick away when I’m supposed to be writing, and I haven’t come up with enough of a plot to start writing yet. The reason for me is the same one you state. I tend to throw out ideas too quickly because they’re not good enough. I’m finding this is a bad thing to do. Because my standard for choosing what’s good is that high, fully blossomed and mature standard, such as I expect to find in a finished book. But ideas aren’t fully formed, they’re just seeds. No seed is gonna look all that terrific. So in the pingponging triangle stage, I think it’s better if we allow ourselves more of the brainstorming mindset, in which no ideas are bad. Even an idea that looks ho-hum-been-done can be done a new way. I’ll give you an example. A serial killer story—how unique is that? Oh, good grief, they’ve been done a million times. However, I’m really happy with the way my book Dead of Night turned out, and it’s a serial killer story. But I was able to come up with new approaches to it. In fact, it’s because serial killer stories have been done so much that I worked really hard on making mine unique. I worked in a large subplot, for instance. I worked in the forensic art procedures of drawing the dead. I managed to create a killer with a unique voice. (Okay, truth be told, the killer’s voice came first. I wasn’t even planning on writing that story until that voice said, “Sit down, you’re about to write a rant of a prologue.” But please don’t tell my mother I have such voices in my head, because she already wonders about my sanity.)
So it may be that as you begin your triangle, one point is going to look been-there-done-that. What about the other two points? Can you come up with unique aspects for them that will make the ho-hum point not so ho-hum after all?
Suspense ideas are tough for me because--how many different versions of a maniac can you come up with? I can create interesting ways to die and interesting protagonists, but I always come back to the same nut who was abused by his mother/father. I did just watch a video at work about workplace violence, though. That could be fun.
Don’t forget the killers who are basically normal people who never meant to kill. It could be an accident that has to be covered up, then the coverup has to be covered up, and on and on. It could be a fight that goes too far. A woman who gets mad at her husband and picks up a gun, and pow. All sorts of possibilities. If you use this kind of killer, of course, you have to figure out what will end up making him dangerous to the protagonist.
I'm confused about what to save for the unraveling of the tangled web my bad guy weaves with his story-long deceit. In my plotting, I'm supposed to leave questions for the reader. Right? I have to show his intention to harm so the reader knows he's the bad guy. The reader knows more than the heroine most of the time. I want to throw in his admission of guilt and a fuller explanation of his motivation than has been hinted at so many times previously, but not until she's figuring out the truth at the end. Can I make the reader wait until the end of the story for the full reason he's being mean?
This is a tricky question to answer without seeing the story. My first concern would be that if you don’t show full motivation until the end, the reader won’t see enough motivation to be satisfied. My second concern is the ending to your story. It’s so easy to fall into that bad-guy-explains-everything-just-before-he’s-caught scene. Usually these scenes come out poorly, because it’s obvious to the reader that, although the bad guy is talking to someone (usually the protagonist who’s about to die), really what’s happening is that the author’s talking to the reader as a way to explain everything. The dialogue comes out very stilted. I’m not saying this can’t be done effectively; I’m just saying it’s tricky.
We have much to cover in plotting. The triangle is just the beginning. Check back Monday, and we’ll dig in. (Meanwhile I am hoping for some sleep.)
Read Part 3
Thursday, August 18, 2005
First, a quick answer to a question left yesterday about my segment on The 700 Club. Don’t know nothin’ about the air date yet. Don’t know what’s taking them so long to produce the segment. When I finally hear when it will air, I promise to let you know.
Okay. Last week I had a question about my process in plotting. Yikes. I’m in the habit of answering BG questions, so I’ll tackle it. It’s not that I don’t know anything about the subject. Oh, I can teach on it, sure, sure. It’s just that, even with what I know, when it comes to plotting one of my own books, the process drives me nuts. I think it’s because I’m always competing with myself to write better, create better stories. Plus I’m looking for something new under the sun when, as I remember, some bestselling book says there ain’t no such animal. This is certainly true in suspense, when you have to have a protagonist in trouble, and a bad guy. And usually a murder or two. Or three. Or more. Anyway, with the same basic conventions to follow book after book—well, see why I go a little crazy?
I lay before you this sordid truth about myself for one reason. Well, maybe two. First, if by some outlandish, insane, over-the-top reason you’ve put me on any kind of hey-no-problem-with-this-writing-stuff pedestal, you can knock me off with grinning alacrity. Two, to let you know that when you face trouble plotting, and you’re kicking cabinets like they’re ain’t no tomorrow—you’re not alone. And you will survive.
All right. Now that we have that out of the way, onward and upward. How do I tackle plotting? As much as I dread the process, it’s something I’m compelled to do—whether I feel like it or not. Imagine a contract, an I-believe-in-you editor, a deadline (that Mufasa-shuddering word)—and a blank page. No story, no ideas. Zip, zero. Oh, yeah, that plotting thing’s mighty important, all right.
Because I write suspense, I shall speak in such terms. Take what you will from my process and make it work for your genre, whatever it may be.
First I start with the conventions of my genre. As mentioned, at the most basic level, I need a protagonist, a crime, and a bad guy. It’s a triangle. I can start with any one of the three corners of this triangle. At some point some smidgling (if that’s not a word it should be) of an idea relating to one of the three is going to pop into my little brain. For example, with Violet Dawn, it was the thought of a body surfacing in a hot tub during the dead of night (ooh, there’s a book title). Only problem was, I didn’t know who the body belonged to, or why said person met his/her demise. But—I had that germ of an idea.
The basic aspects of most genres tend to fall into triangles. In a romance, you have the hero, heroine, and whatever’s keeping them apart. In a fantasy, you got the protagonist, antagonist, and the quest/adventure. In a romantic suspense, you’ve got the hero, heroine, and the problem that throws them together. Etc. So figure out your triangle—or maybe it’s a square—and start with those plot points. You don’t have to figure out one point completely before you go to the next. Quite the opposite. It’s the pingponging from one corner to another that builds the story.
I’m finding one of the best ways to get my story off the ground is to figure out the bad guy. It’s really hard to come up with an interesting, fresh antagonist. Think about it. The protagonist can do any one of a million things. The bad guy has to kill. Sigh. How to make him unique?
The key to the bad guy is motivation. Why does he kill? Was the murder intentional? Or a horrible mistake . . . that leads him to more killing to cover it up? This motivation must be very strong—strong enough to make him a chilling, frightening foe for the protagonist.
When I start getting ideas about the bad guy and his motivation, then ideas for who’s murdered and how can start to flow.
As for the protagonist, sometimes that’s already decided. If I’m in the middle of a series focused on one person, I know this character. Whew. One triangle corner down. (See why I write series?) But in the case of Violet Dawn, I had nothing. It was the start of a new series. Not only did I not have a protagonist, I didn’t have a location. What’s the community? What’s the world I have to build—and live with for the entire series?
When I was writing Hidden Faces, I had Annie Kingston, the forensic artist. For each of the four books in the series, I knew I would have her tackle a different sort of project within the large and fascinating field of forensic art. For Brink of Death, it was a composite drawn after interviewing a child too traumatized to describe the face of her mother’s killer. For Stain of Guilt it was creating a twenty-year fugitive update for a double murder suspect on the lam. Dead of Night dealt with drawing unidentified murder victims. When I came to the fourth book in the series, for which I had no story idea, I knew my starting point was at the crime corner of the triangle—figuring out what Annie hadn’t yet tackled. Once I got that figured out, the story that become Web of Lies began to develop.
More on this plotting stuff tomorrow. If you’ve got comments/questions, you know where to leave ’em.
Read Part 2
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Yes, BGs, I typed the last word on Violet Dawn today. Actually tonight. Actually five minutes ago. But hey, I did it.
Tomorrow—a full day of editing. And probably another one after that. Sigh. Then, however, I’m scheduled for some real vacation time with the family here in Coeur d’Alene. I feel like I’ve earned it.
Okay, comments/questions from yesterday.
Great news about Violet Dawn! Congratulations! Can't wait to read it because I feel like I've gotten a glimpse into the impetus of its creation. Unfortunately for Paige it's the first in a series, right?
Yes, the first of a three-book series. However, each book will have a different protagonist, with the former protagonist acting as a supporting character. I followed this same format in my Bradleyville books. This is a nice way to establish a fictional community.
Okay, I'm going to give my pitch a shot. "En route to pick up her best friend's daughter from an orphanage in the middle of the Amazon jungle, Cassidy McKnight is kidnapped by terrorists. The last thing ex-special forces Gabriel Sinclair wants is to rescue the girl he knew as a spoiled rotten brat, but since he owes her father his life, he agrees to do it, never suspecting what an incredible woman she has become.Together, they must battle terrorists and their feelings for each other as they rely on God to get them home safe." Okay, lay it on me. Thanks.
Well, ya certainly gave us a lot of information. Hm. How do we distill this down to its essence, using twenty-five words or less? Thinking . . . thinking . . .
Okay, how about: A young woman kidnapped by terrorists in the Amazon is reluctantly rescued by a childhood acquaintance who knew her as a spoiled brat.
I think that does it (given the knowledge I have about this story.) And it carries that aura of romantic suspense. Whadya think, Lynette?
Here's my best after some help from the gang on the discussion board: "A grieving woman's abduction by a dangerous offender may be the answer to her prayers."
Yeah, I kinda lika that. Makes me go—“Hm. Really?”
I'm working on getting your Bradleyville series for my wife. Then I'll move her into the Seatbelt Suspense...
Ah, Jason, I always knew you were a good man. Just buy her a nightlight first.
One more shot on my pitch to see if it is less general, any better...worse (I hope not, lol): "A crisis counselor initiates revenge when her client's corpse falls through the ceiling -- a gift from her secret admirer."
Okay, good. You might use the word seeks instead of initiates. How’s that for nit-picking?
All right, BGs. From now on—happy pitching. You got the basics down. Tomorrow—check back tomorrow for another hoppin' topic.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
We have a few more comments/questions from yesterday on pitches that I need to respond to. First, however, my news. Oh, yeah, and something else I’ve been meaning to tell you.
As for the latter, want you I’m part of a new blog featuring quite a few different Christian novelists. It’s called the Charis Connection. I’ve placed a link to it on your left. We each will post a couple times a month, posts running daily Monday through Friday. When I was first asked, I thought, “I need another blog like I need a hole in the head.” But, what the heck. It’s a chance to write something different. I’ve already written one post, based largely on ramblings you’ll find in my Web site. I suppose it will be posted sometime this week, what day I don’t know. For all I know, it could be today.
Okay, now my news. I’m almost done with Violet Dawn!! Yup. I’ve been writing like a fool the last couple of weeks, holed up in our Idaho home. The intensity of the writing—all day, every day—has really made me weary. But this happens with every book. Today I woke up with a driving sense—finish the book, finish the book. I hit the computer and worked over 14 hours, pretty much straight through. Now here I am, writing this here blog. If I make little sense—well, at least tonight I have an excuse.
Anyhow, I wrote almost 30 pages—and finished the main part of the book. Only thing left is the epilogue. That I will write tomorrow.
Finishing a book is always such a heady time. I work and work toward it, thinking I’ll never live through the thing. Then, slowly, I start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then I write and write some more, gaining in intensity until I can’t see straight. And finally, somehow, some way, I type the last word.
At that point I always do the same thing. I sink to my knees and thank God for getting me through another manuscript.
Of course, more intense days follow—this time of editing. But I’ve already edited a lot of this manuscript. So once I type that penultimate, then ultimate word tomorrow, from thence on, it’s downhill. Oh, joy! Can’t wait.
Okay, before I fall asleep at the computer, some responses to yesterday.
I thought I had my pitch line down: "A faith shattered. A secret revealed. An aspiring artist risks love and life to find the man who holds the answers to her past." But after reading your blog, I'm thinking maybe not. Is this more specific? "When an aspiring artist discovers her unknown father is still alive, she risks losing newfound love and life to find him." Or: "When an aspiring artist discovers her unknown father is still alive, her search uncovers love, a brother and a madman."
Yes, I think these are much more specific. The first new one hits me best because we are told what she risks. The madman sounds intriguing, too. Is there a way to combine that with the first pitch?
To my Saurian buddy Stuart, thanks for the info about the “one sheet.”
Here's my latest: "Mistaken for a servant, a noblewoman escapes her family’s murder and searches for the identity of the killer, knowing that he also hunts her."
This is close, I think. (Again, it’s kind of hard for me to do this when I don’t know the story.) But you could tighten up the words a little and add some drama: Mistaken for a servant, a noblewoman escapes her family’s murder and must hunt for the killer—before he finds her.
My original pitch was: "A young reporter stumbles on a body and fights for her life in a game of cat and mouse." This is my revised one: "A television reporter discovers a body at the theater. While she investigates, she enters an intense game of cat and mouse when the murderer targets her."
Yes, this is more specific, especially the first part. But the second falls back into generalities. It’s very common—in fact, almost expected—that someone who gets pulled into the vortex of a murder will end up being targeted. This is because it’s a convention within the suspense genre for the protagonist to wind up in terrible, usually potentially fatal, danger. (The pitch before this one, about the noblewoman, is a little different in that the protagonist was supposed to be killed in the first place. In that instance, I think the pitch referring to the killer still hunting her works.) Would it help here to tell us who is killed? Or maybe a clue the reporter uncovers? Or why the reporter risks her life for the story? We need to hear unique aspects of this story so it won’t sound like a hundred others in the suspense genre.
Let's face it, pitches are hard. Who invented 'em, anyway?BGs, see you tomorrow. Perhaps we’ll have a new topic. Perhaps not. All depends on you.
Monday, August 15, 2005
We had lots of new folks coming to our blog on Friday and over the weekend. For those of you who are new—BGs stands for bloggees, or blog readers. If you’re reading this, you’re now an official BG.
I always try to answer questions left in the comments section. In responding to those left last Friday, I’ll give some further explanation about creating pitches—either for a conference or a query letter—that I hope will benefit all of you.
What if your book is more of a humorous, light, chick lit genre that focuses on character development and growth over plot action? Can I still come up with an exciting pitch for that?
Of course you can. You need a humorous, chick lit-sounding pitch. But what sets your book off from all the other chick lit? What’s the inciting incident (conflict that begins your story?) What major girl problem is your protagonist facing? Make sure your pitch includes some specifics on that.
BC, could you set us straight on the different blurbs we need? A pitch to editors, a few sentences to sum up the story for a proposal and/or to explain to our friends, short teaser summary for back cover copy?? I know we need a longer synopsis as well, but I'm just thinking of the short snippets.
An editor pitch distills your book down to its basics, plus has that “hook” feeling. If you can create a good pitch, you can use it various places, including at the beginning of a proposal or a query. After that pitch, in a proposal you’d expand on the information, filling in more details and giving an overall synopsis of what happens in the story. But it’s just as important to catch the editor’s attention with the first line of your proposal as it is to catch his/her attention when at a conference.
Back cover copy is a different thing. You’ve got more space to work with than a pitch, which is only a sentence or two. And far less space than in a proposal. In general, you’ve got two to four paragraphs to hook the reader. But really, you probably won’t have to worry about this, at least not anytime soon. Most authors don’t get to write their back cover copy. In fact, I’m unusual in that I now insist upon writing my own, but that’s because I have a marketing background and understand what’s needed. Most houses have their marketing people write this copy. Problem is—and here’s my pet peeve—about ninety percent of the back cover copy I see tells too much of the story. My philosophy is to lay out the premise only. Why should the back cover give away events in the story? In fact, this is such a common error that I never read the back cover of a novel before I read the novel, because I know it’s going to tell me more than I want to know. After I read the novel, then I’ll check the back cover, and most of the time, I think, “Man, I’m glad I didn’t know that. That would have spoiled part of the story for me.”
But I digress. Back to pitch questions.
Here’s my pitch: A female river guide battles nature and sabotage, becoming entangled in a web of deceit and murder.
This is actually a comment, but I wanted to respond to it because it reinforces an important point. To me, this pitch falls into the “too general” category. The start—a female river guide—is good. But battles sabotage? What sabotage, exactly? Entangled in deceit and murder? Whose murder? Who’s deceived? I think this pitch would be improved by including the specific occurrences in the inciting incident.
It’s quite the oxymoron, really. In trying to leave that “hook” question in the editor’s mind, we think we need to stay general, or we’ll leave no room for questions. Just the opposite is true. When we state specifics, that’s when things get interesting, and more questions arise. Remember how my pitch moved from general: A lonely young woman runs from a painful past only to come face to face with murder. To specific: A lonely young woman running from a painful past discovers the body of an aged movie star in her hot tub--and CAN'T call the police. Which one is more interesting? Which one makes you want to know more?
Here’s another pitch from Friday with some of the same issues: A crisis counselor revisits her past when a dead body falls out of the ceiling -- a gift from her secret admirer.
Okay. Revisits her past is too general. Dead body—whose? Is this dead body someone from her past? Try adding in some more specifics, and see what happens.
Every few days my pitch changes. It went from this: When a mysterious roll of film is discovered and fashion models start disappearing, the photographer must confront his past to save them. To this: An award winning photographer faces his guilt when a roll of film leads him to the dark room of his past.
I think the first one’s closer because it includes the specifics about models disappearing. Faces his guilt is too general to be very attention-catching. The dark room of his past is a nice play on words, but it also is general. How many people have something dark in their past? And can you tell us something more about the photographer to help make him empathetic? I don’t know what he has to face in his past—can it be said in a few words? How about something like: When a mysterious roll of film surfaces and fashion models start disappearing, a _____ ____ photographer must _______ to save them.
I've heard that a pitch line should be no more than about 25 words, and including character names is discouraged because they don't provide the editor with anything useful. Do you agree with these rules of thumb?
Yes, 25 words is plenty. If you look at my pitch, it’s exactly 25 words, and I think it sounds pretty long, so I sure wouldn’t want to go much past that. I also agree with not using character names. For example, in my pitch, A lonely young woman tells more about the protagonist then Paige Williams. In fact, these words lonely and young were specifically used to boost empathy for the protagonist’s plight.
Pitch based on your blog (and intended follow-up questions): An abused housewife, who ran away years prior, finds her past has caught up with her and learns of a horrible injustice which happened because of her escape. Is there any way to right the wrong and not loose the one thing that’s become most important to her or must she run again?
What was the injustice? An innocent person served time for her murder. What is the one important thing? She’s fallen in love and is finally happy. There’s just one problem. And the problem is? The man she loves is the man who was convicted of killing her.
This one provides another good example of how specifics would make the pitch better. It’s also too long. Hm, what a problem. How to add more specifics, yet shorten it?
Past has caught up with her—too general to catch much attention. Far more eyebrow-raising is the specific—someone served time for her “murder.” I would include that in the pitch itself. How about something like: An abused runaway wife learns the man she now loves served time for her “murder.” Clearing his name would mean losing her new life.
Granted, it’s a little hard for me to write pitches for books I haven’t read. But in general I hope you get the gist. Always go for the more specific, while keeping it short. If you can end up doing both those things, you’ll have a good pitch.
I’ll continue with this topic as long as there are comments/questions to warrant it. Then we’ll move on.
Read Part 3
Friday, August 12, 2005
Some of you BGs will be attending the ACFW conference next month. Others will be attending conferences at other times. And you writers out there at some point will be querying agents or editors about your stories. So you all need to come up with those infamous one-liners we call pitches. Here’s my take on the subject. First, I’ll speak to those attending a conference and talking face-to-face with an editor. The same pitch principles can be used for any query, so I’ll address query letters at the end.
A pitch is a HOOK. It should have one goal and one only: to make the editor want to know more about your story. Just as a chapter hook makes the reader turn the page, your pitch hook makes the editor ask a follow-up question. (Sometimes editors will ask a follow-up question simply to be polite. The trick is making them ask a question because they really are curious about the answer.)
A pitch therefore doesn’t have to cover lots of info about your story. On the contrary, it should be concise. And it shouldn’t focus on theme. It should focus on specifics in your premise that will place questions in the editor’s mind.
You have to put yourself in the shoes of the editor, who's heard a million pitches. What will make this editor want to know more about your story? Certainly not generalities. Nor themes. These things don’t lead to specific questions. Besides, all generalities and themes have been done before. The editor will think, “Ho-hum.” Ya gotta give him/her something fresh.
Let’s look at examples from my suspense wip, Violet Dawn. First, a generalized pitch:
A lonely young woman runs from her past only to come face to face with murder.
Uck. Boring. There's nothing fresh here. Nothing that’s going to make the editor want to know more. How many books are about people running from their past? How many books have a protagonist mixed up in murder?
Okay, so let’s try a theme-based pitch:
A lonely young woman—who's running from her past and becomes mixed up in murder—learns how to build a family.
Even more boring. First, the reasons stated above apply. Second, the "learns" part actually diminishes the painful past and murder elements. I’ve just skimmed over the major conflicts to make everything all neat and tidy.
Now, here's a specific pitch based solely on the premise. One designed to make the editor ask a follow-up question:
A lonely young woman running from her past discovers the body of an aged movie star in her hot tub--and CAN'T call the police.
Actually, I’d be willing to bet this pitch would place two questions in the editor’s mind. One—why can't she call the police? Two—if she can't tell police about the body, what’s she going to do about it?
If I were pitching this at a conference, I'd have responses ready for those two follow-up questions. I wouldn’t design the responses to fully answer the questions. Rather, I’d design each response to give a partial answer, with another hook. (Note--your response to a follow-up question can be longer than your original pitch. But still be as concise as possible.)
Editor question #1: “Why can’t she call the police?”
Response: “She doesn’t trust the police to believe in her innocence. And, this crime will bring national media. She can’t have her face plastered on the news—because the people she’s running from will find her.” (Inherent hooks: Well, who’s she running from? What happened in her past?)
Editor question #2: “So what does she do about the body?”
Okay, you have to trust that I’d have one, if I were pitching this book. But since Violet Dawn is already sold and coming out next year, I ain’t tellin’ the answer on this here blog.
Now, if you’re not attending a conference, but you’re preparing a query letter to an editor or agent, prepare your basic pitch in the same way. In your case, you’re hooking the agent/editor to read on—with the goal of prompting him/her to ask you to submit part or all of the manuscript. You can put this pitch in the very first sentence of your query. Or—I actually went further when I was looking for an agent. I bolded and centered the pitch right after the salutation. Sometimes I even put a box around it. That way, in one second, the agent/editor would know the gist of my story—and, I hoped, be hooked.
All right, wanna try writing pitches for your wips? You can leave comments here, or for further chatting, hop over to this blog’s discussion board (link on the left) and start a discussion on the topic.
Read Part 2
Thursday, August 11, 2005
There was a comment and a question from yesterday regarding the pacing graph that I want to address. Let’s just jump in. First the comment note from Grady:
This is a great idea, why couldn't I think of it? I had been trying to write about each chapter before, explaining what happens and how things fit together. Graphing works a lot better. My graph ain't too hot. So I added a column for where the chapter ought to be. I also realize this isn't just for danger/peril intensity. A person could use the same idea to chart emotional conflict as well.
Thanks, Grady, for bringing up a very important point—one I forgot to make yesterday. When you’re checking the intensity level of conflict in your story, you must remember that intensity of conflict can refer to inner or outer conflict. As I’ve put it before on this blog, action doesn’t necessarily mean activity. Activity refers to outside stuff going on—in suspense it’s someone getting killed, being chased, a fight, whatever. Action can refer to this kind of outer conflict, but it can also refer to inner conflict. Therefore a scene can have little activity going on but still have lots of action, or conflict, because it’s internal. So if you’re doing the graph to check pace, you need to rank your scenes that are full of internal conflict accordingly.
Yesterday I mentioned that my next release, Web of Lies, ranked consistently high on the pacing graph, which surprised me. Now, really, even for someone who writes “seatbelt suspense,” I can’t be killing off people and chasing someone down in every scene. There are numerous scenes that are pure interaction between characters. To keep these scenes high on the pacing scale, I give the characters a lot of internal conflict. For example, if it’s a “resting” scene after activity-oriented conflict, the character may still feel a lot of roiling emotion over what happened. Or maybe she’s worried it will happen again. Or maybe she wishes like crazy she could do something to stop the madness, but her hands are completely tied. Or maybe she’s worried because her son’s going off the deep end into drugs. Etc.
This ties directly into the question from Cara:
When you have a police investigation going on and the suspense building, how do you balance between the necessary details of the investigation and keeping the suspense up? I know: I should take a day or two to reread one of your books. :-) But I am struggling with that balance.
Of all genres, in suspense you need to ratchet up the tension all you can. But again, you can’t have people dying and fighting every minute. So in the quieter scenes—in this case, the details-of-the-investigation scenes, I’d suggest two things. First, do try to put as much tension into these investigation details themselves as you can. Have the various pieces of evidence jerk the detectives around a little. First the evidence leads them to think A; then further evidence makes them think B; then C comes along that totally confuses and frustrates them, etc. This is the building of your mystery thread.
Second, give the people doing the investigating a lot of angst in their personal lives. For example, let’s say we’re talking about a male cop protagonist. He’s all involved in this investigation. Yes, but he also has a life outside that investigation. Who is he? Give him a personal problem—one that keeps intruding upon his ability to solve the case. Maybe some woman he had an affair with is threatening to tell his wife, and she keeps calling him at work with blackmail-type threats. Maybe his child is terribly sick, and he has to keep running to the hospital. These kinds of conflicts will pump up your scenes that would otherwise be slower. And—you end up with a more defined, deeper character. Because no character is made up of just what he/she must do at work, investigators included.
This concept gets back to that character Desire thing. Remember we talked about that just a few weeks ago? (Discussion began on July 25.) In fact I mentioned in an example that a cop investigating a crime needs to have a Desire that speaks to more than simply solving the crime. It needs to have a personal element in it as well. If you’ve got a two-pronged Desire for an investigator, one dealing with the crime and one dealing with the personal issue, when the crime-based conflict is lower, the personal-based conflict can rise.
See why I hammer that Desire idea so much? Ultimately, the whole story rests upon it.
Hm. Methinks I have talked meself in a circle. Lest I start going ’round and ’round, I shall stop for the day.
If you have further questions/comments about pacing, please leave ’em. If not—y’all better come up with topics for me, because one of these days my little pea-brain is gonna run out of ideas.
Oh, one more thing. The last comment left yesterday by Anonymous:
Hi, I found your blog recently and I've really enjoyed reading it!! It's entertaining and insightful. Like most people who comment here, I'm also an aspiring author (who has a procrastination problem). Thanks for the helpful tips though! And it's nice to find an exciting Christian author too. I've tried Christian literature before and a lot of it seems to be romance novels or shallow stories. Kudos for breaking the mold!
Anonymous, I'm very glad you've found us. As for Christian fiction, if you haven't read it lately, you're in for a surprise. It ain't what it used to be. There are a lot of good Christian novels out there--in all genres. Hope you try reading a bunch of them.
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
A question came in yesterday about how I edit—on a hardcopy of the manuscript or on the computer. I do everything on the computer. Way quicker.
Okay. As promised, here’s my handy-dandy way to check pacing. It ain’t exactly rocket science, but it works.
As I said yesterday, I did this first for Web of Lies because I started to get antsy about 60 pages from the end. I was worried that the story was boring. I always worry that my stories are boring. It’s this fear that creeps over me—a generalized emotion not really based on anything solid. So I decided to fight this pure subjectivity with pure objectivity. See if the story really was boring or not.
1. I made an outline of the book, chapter by chapter on sheets of paper. I wrote down each chapter number and a one-line description of what happens in that chapter just to remind myself of its events. And I noted what happens at the end of that chapter as a hook.
2. I devised a scale to measure the intensity level of conflict in each chapter, using 1-10, with 1 being no conflict whatsoever (better not have any of those!) and 10 being oh, sheesh, somebody’s gonna die.
3. I went through my list of chapters and ranked each one with a number according to events in that chapter. I was surprised at the results. That is, I knew major chapters of crisis/climax would be 9s and 10s. But I was surprised to see that most of the chapters fell in the 7-8 range. Still high on the conflict/intensity scale. A few fell to 5s or 6s.
4. I’m a visual person, so I wanted something I could see all at once to give me a clearer sense of the flow of the book’s pacing/intensity. I took about 3 typing paper sheets, turned ’em horizontally and taped them together to create one long piece of paper. On the left side I wrote the numbers 1 through 10, starting at the bottom of the paper and working up. Across the bottom of this long sheet, I wrote the chapter numbers.
5. I went through my chapter rankings and plotted them on this graph I’d created. For instance, I made a dot at #9 for the prologue, #8 for chapter one, etc. (Or whatever they happened to be.) When I had all the dots in place, I connected them. Now I had a clear graph to show me the highs and lows of the manuscript.
Again, I was surprised to see how high on the intensity scale the book ranked. Just goes to show how my emotions about a book can have little to do with reality. Mostly, I wanted to make sure of the lowest rankings of 5s or 6s. Were any of them together? The lowest rankings should be found after a peak. These are the passages where the reader is allowed to catch his/her breath until the next ramp-up. And, of course, I wanted to make sure that the most important parts of the book—beginning, major turning points, and crisis/climax—were at the high end of the scale.
This process can be done with a book in any genre. You just have to adjust your definitions of the rankings. Since I’m writing high-tension suspense, I expect my chapters to fall in the higher numbers. If I were writing women’s fiction, I wouldn’t expect so many high numbers. The entire graph would be brought down. But I’d still be looking for proper pacing (that is, ups and downs) within that graph. If you see even two chapters of your lowest ranking back-to-back, you’d better take a look at how to pump one up.
One note--I plotted the graph by chapters because my chapters tend to be shorter, with only one scene. (My books can run over 50 chapters long.) Some writers have longer chapters made up of various scenes. If this is your case, you'll need to graph each scene
As part of my Hidden Faces series, Web of Lies is written in first person, except for the short “bad guy” chapters in third person. So there wasn’t much rearranging of chapters I could do if I’d happened to see a graphing problem. However, I can rearrange to an extent in my current story, Violet Dawn, since it’s written in third person multiple POV. The story’s events all take place in less than 24 hours and are told in a linear fashion. But when you bounce from one character to another, and they’re doing various things, you do have a bit of leeway in chapter arrangement. Also, there’s one character whose story is not a part of the current events. Her story is told in scattered, episodic chapters starting from when she’s seven up to when she’s 22. I have lots of leeway regarding when I insert one of her chapters.
In doing the intensity graph for Violet Dawn, I’ve been able to see when I should rearrange chapters for pacing’s sake. When I saw that I needed to do some rearranging, I referred to the list of chapters and their hooks to see how best to rearrange. A chapter with a stronger hook can better support a subsequent chapter that’s less on the intensity scale, because readers will keep reading to see what happens with the hook.
Give this a try with your wip—see how it ranks. I’d be interested to hear how the process works for you.
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
So here I am, about 60 pages out from finishing Violet Dawn. For me, the last two to three weeks of a book are always crazy. Basically working night and day. I’ve found with the last five books or so, I’ve fallen into a sort of weird pattern. First I’m writing, writing, trying to do extra pages a day. Then, along about here—60 pages or so from the end—I stop writing new stuff. Boom, just like that.
I never quite plan to do this, mind you. It’s just that my brain hits a lull. Well, that’s putting it mildly. More like a brick wall. Suddenly, I’m sick and tired of pushing pages every day, and I find myself wanting to do everything at the computer but write. E-mails, blog reading, googling, just plain messing. This would be fine and dandy if I didn’t have a deadline looming, but really—there ain’t no time to waste.
So I figure—okay, I’m tired of writing new pages, and I have to read through and edit everything I’ve done anyway. So I’ll just give myself a little break and turn to that editing now. Then I’ll catch back up with myself, and it’ll be a straight shot to writing the rest of the book.
Besides rationalizing, this is actually a very good plan. Fact is, it’s been a few months since I wrote those chapters at the beginning of the book. And as I prepare to go into the crisis/climax, I need a solid sense of how the whole book flows. Re-reading and editing at this point gives me that flow. Gives me impetus to write those critical last sequences.
And, truth be told, there’s another good reason. By this time in the book, I just know it’s the boringest thing ever written. It’s sure to kill my career, and the minute my editor reads the manuscript, Zondervan will never want to see my face again, much less contract with me. Ever. Then, by golly, by some miracle when I go back and read what I’ve written, I inevitably see it’s not quite as bad as I thought it was. Not quite.
Now here’s the ironic part. I start editing, telling myself it will be easier, because it’s not new writing. I suppose it is easier. Sort of. Except when it’s harder. Thing is, when I’m going through the whole book like that to see its flow, interruptions are a bad, bad thing. So I end up working all day—as in twelve to fifteen hours. That’s if I go to bed. There’s no “write your daily pages, Brandilyn, then you can kick back.” It’s just go, go, all day long. And maybe all night.
It takes me two to three days to go through the book in this way, depending upon how much life manages to interrupt me.
Why this amount of time, you ask? Basically, when I write, I get things the way I want them each day. That is, I don’t throw just any old words down, thinking I’ll actually make them sound half decent during some future edit. If I want to be metaphorical, I think up said metaphors that day. I try to characterize deeply day by day. Etc. Still, there’s nothing like fresh eyes to see things ya couldn’t see before. So when I start editing my so-called “the-way-I-want-it” book, I see all sorts of tightening and nuances that are needed.
I finished with that edit today. Now I’m back to where I left off—I gotta write the rest of the book. Except there was still one thing nagging at me, having to do with pacing. Pacing is important in any novel, but in suspense, by gum, you’d better not have many “down” chapters in a row. “Down” meaning less intense, let-’em-rest kind of pages. Out of necessity, I’ve developed a sort of innate sense about this pacing business. While writing my last manuscript, Web of Lies (you know, the spider book that releases next January), I came up with a nifty little system to check pacing. I’m using a variation of it this time around.
Tell you how it works tomorrow.