Saturday, November 26, 2005

Christmas Wish List

My wife I are really doing it this year. We're chopping the Christmas budget to unprecidented lows. We've already achieved somewhat of a Scrooge status by bowing out of the annual family gift grab. I mean, really, what's the point in buying gifts for my cousin's kids? I don't need to launch into the ridiculous height of "stuffness" that Christmas has become, we're all fully aware I'm sure. As I near my 39th birthday (Dec. 30th), I find that there's nothing left that I want anyone to buy me, other than books, because you just can't have enough books. But things like power tools, computer toys, etc., I can buy whenever I need it. And I don't really need it anymore. When I look at a new toy, I see something else that will take up my time, not to mention my money.

What I find, at Christmas, is wishing I had enough money to give to everyone who needs it. I'd love to pay off my church's debt for the steeple we built several years ago. I'd love to buy Robin a laptop so she can bug me even more. I think Dineen and Ronie are set. Okay, laptops for everyone! Randy I. recommends the i-book. Color preferences? Gina, you get black. Wouldn't do for a spooky writer to have a pink i-book. Robin, red of course. Ronie gets yellow because she's from Texas, and Dineen gets, umm, do they make a clear one? Then you can see what your toes are doing while you write.

As long as we're in Ron's fantasy Christmas land, what else can I buy? There's about fifty ministries I'd like to support. I'll fund a thousand missionairies...and send them i-books. Some good friends or ours live three miles away. Too far. They get the house that's for sale across the street. I'll even pay their taxes. Some other good friends, who do live in our neighborhood, have four kids and need new cars. A minivan and an Avalanche so they tow the trailer I'll buy them so they can go camping with us (it's not really camping, it's a portable hotel room).

What else shall I do with my newfound fortune? A writer's retreat you say? Okay! Northern Michigan on the Manistee River. We can fly-fish between lectures. We'll have a Starbuck's on site (free, of course) and Coldstone Creamery will provide desserts (if you haven't, you must!) We'll have cabins with Wi-fi. Each guest will get an i-book.

Naturally, all AFCW members are free to use the property for their own retreats. Feel free to fly your group in (on my private jet) so you can brainstorm. Make sure you're wearing orange during deer season. I'll have a buck pole put up for any of you who wish to indulge in Michigan's favorite pasttime.

Now, if I can't have all that, I'll settle for a book contract. Surely, that's not too much to ask for, is it?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Writing from the Inside Out

I think I understand. For as long as I've been writing, I've been told to "just write." Turn off the internal editor and get it on paper. I've tried, but my brain still gets in the way. Leave it to a screenwriter to get it through to me. Robert McKee talks about "writing from the inside out" in his book, "Story." For a novelist, it's second nature to write from the viewpoint of one character and stay in that character's head. For the screenwriter, it's a little more difficult. McKee actually includes a scene from "Chinatown," where the hero is confronting his suspect. Now, before every single line, there is a short paragraph explaining what's going on in that character's head. Essentially, the notes portion of the scene is what you'd use in a novel.

For the novelist, it needs to go a step further. As I write, I should be including everything that's going on in my POV character's head as well as the other characters in the scene. The difference will come in the editing, where I cut all the stuff the POV character won't know, and even quite a bit of what he does know. What I'll get is a more realistic scene. Allow me, if you'll be so kind, to attempt an example.

Tracy knew that Jack killed his brother, but she couldn't let him know that she knew, or she'd be dead, too. She struggled to keep her face smooth, the muscles in her cheeks from twitching. "Jack," she said, "what brings you here today?" He's knows, oh Lord, he knows. Stay calm, Tracy. After all, you were in a relationship with this man once, he can read me like a book.

Jack studied her eyes. She's nervous about something. Could she possible suspect that I killed my brother? No way, she's too stupid. She could barely balance her checkbook. "Just wanted to say hi, Tracy. We're still friends, aren't we?" And I've got to get that computer file off your desktop. I never should have saved it there. Idiot! What was I thinking? Just play it cool. You don't need her blabbing to her friends that you were pulling files off her computer. But how to get her out of the room. "I was hoping to borrow that old belt sander you got from your dad." She'll never buy it.

OH NO. He's trying to get me in the basement. Blah blah blah.

So there's a really bad portion of a scene. I've gotten into both character's heads, which doesn't work so well any more in modern fiction. Now, stay with me, I'm brainstorming this idea as I go. But if I write a rough draft like this, I've got choices to make, good ones. After typing out ten pages of this nonsense, I have to decide which POV to go with. I don't have to do it before writing the scene, as I normally would. See what I'm getting at? I can make the choice, depending on who can provide the most tension, who generates the most internal conflict. I think that's great. I may try this tonight. Of course, I'll end up writing something like what I have above and getting maybe three lines of dialogue and two sentences of internal conflict. It's like mining for gold after you've created a mountain of dirt.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Most Important Ingredient

Writers, please fill in the blank: Without _________, you have no story. That’s right! The answer is “chocolate.” Oh, wait, Robin is shaking her head (notice, however, she has a large bag of Hershey’s Kisses torn open next to her computer). Okay, the correct answer is “conflict.” We, who have been writing for more than three days, know this as well as “show don’t tell.” You see? It’s all quite simple really. You take a character, your hero/protag, and put him or her in the midst of conflict. Nuttin’ to it.

So you think. The truth is, a good conflict is tough to nail down sometime. First of all, what you see as conflict may draw great and mighty yawns from your readers. For example, let’s take the classic “boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy joins the Al Queda and nukes several Midwestern cities.” Lot’s of conflict, right? Well no, not really, if he’s happy with his choice, the wife is fully supportive of his new career, and the Home Defense Agency is clueless and doesn’t even get close to him.

You, writer, must make things interesting. True, nuked cities are somewhat interesting, for about a chapter. Life must go on after that. How? Well, if I knew, I’d have a nice fat contract by now. Okay, seriously, let’s get into it.

First, according to Robert McKee in Story and several other sources, there are three levels of conflict: Inner, Personal, and Extra-Personal (I don’t like that one, I think “External” works just as well, let’s go with that).

The Inner conflict is what’s going on inside your character. Our boy is a terrorist. Why? He’s a red-blooded American. What drove him to it? Without getting into character development, let’s just say he should have lots of misgivings about what he’s doing. He’s struggling. Characters who are evil for the sake of being evil are passé. Let him struggle in his heart, mind, and soul.

Personal conflict comes with close friends, relatives, and, in this case, the wife. She’s obviously going to have issues with her hubby’s career choice. She’ll provide very good conflict.

Then there are the Externals. These come from bosses, agencies, everything outside our protag’s immediate circle. He should get some conflict from the FBI and law enforcement agencies, don’t you think?

It all seems simple, but I think we often miss out on one or two levels when creating our stories. The internal are probably the most difficult. We have to get inside our character’s head to understand how he or she will be affected by their choices. One level of conflict makes a good scene, but a good story requires the use of all three.

Next time I’ll talk about writing from the inside out—getting inside your character.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Jodi my Hero

I've been bugging my critique group to read something by Jodi Picoult. True, her genre is nothing like any of ours, but when I read Jodi it just makes me want to be a better writer. I'm telling you, the woman does things with words that boggle my mind. It's almost like reading poetry, where you train your mind to see things differently, come up with new ways to describe something that's been described a million times by writers throughout time. I've tried to explain what it is she writes, but I just can't seem to put it in a category. It's almost literary, but the there's a definite story there, and when you've finished, you haven't just read really good writing, you've had your brain frapped by a really twisted story. I mean twisted in a good way.

I think we all need someone to look up to. Of course, for us Christians, Jesus is the ultimate mentor. He teaches us how to behave, how to love, how to forgive, and everything else associated with living as God's forgiven. But we need earthly mentors as well. Now Jodi will never know my name, but she teaches me a great deal. First of all, no matter how interesting the plot, it comes down to character. It's all about people. She says she writes about family. The families get into some pretty interesting situations, but it still comes back to how we relate to one another. I think that's why I keep coming back to her. It doesn't matter what genre I write, I need to tell it with a fresh voice, describe things in a way that make the reader say, "Yeah, that's the way it is," though they've probably never consciously thought it that way until they read my book.

So much for my Jodi plug. I can't possibly dream of reaching her level, but knowing that such a level exists will keep me pumping the creative muscles, no matter how successful I become. It's not the goal, it's the journey that makes us strong.

By the way, my top picks for Jodi Picoult are: My Sister's Keeper, Second Glance, and The Pact.

Monday, November 14, 2005

One Ending

Okay, I’ll attempt to get back into Robert McKee’s “Story” on my bloggin’ site. I’m up to “The Substance of Story.” If you haven’t read McKee’s book yet, he does a wonderful job of putting his main points in large bold letters and as separate headers. It makes it easy to find when you want to come back to it. So today’s header topic is “A STORY must build to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another.”

Everyone resounds with a mighty “No Duh!” But it’s harder than it looks. I think, for me, it may be the hardest part. I can plot and put in lovely twists and turns, but when the final sentence falls onto the page, can I truly say that was the only way for this story to end?

Since McKee is focusing on screenwriting, he uses “Interview With a Vampire” as an example. Now, I know and you know that Anne Rice did a better job of explaining the inner turmoil that her character was undergoing, but Hollywood blew it. Brad Pitt plays Louis, a suicidal Frenchman in the 18th century who gets fanged by Tom Cruise (I think the idea was for every woman in America to long to become a vampire). Well, poor Louis suddenly doesn’t like having to kill people. He’s a depressed vampire. Oddly, there are no vampire therapists in the 18th century, though I’m sure a walk through New York’s theatre district will conjure up three or four.

Okay, so Louis is trapped as a vampire. He was suicidal as a mortal, and he’s even more depressed now. Yet, 200 years later, he’s still a blood sucker. The audience, in the meantime, is wondering why he just doesn’t do a little sunbathing without his SPF 40. So, our alternate ending, which the audience wrote for us, was barbeque vamp, end of story.

Do you see the cardinal sin, here? We have to be honest in judging our own manuscripts. Was there an easier way out? Could my hero have said “Screw it” on page two and walked off to catch a matinee with a much better plot than my novel?

For this reason, among others, is why I’m becoming a big fan of step-sheets or, at least, a plot summary on a spreadsheet. There’s nothing like writing 80,000 words and realizing it just don’t work. My SOP (Seat of the Pants) friends will give me attitude about this, but I just don’t think it can be done. If a novel is going to have any depth at all, there has to be planning. I don’t mean you have to describe the way the setting sun glints off the hero’s Ruger in your step sheet, but do jot down that said hero is pointing his Ruger at Mr. Villain at the Plaza Hotel in room 318 (where, by the way, the sun won’t be glinting off of it).

The moral of the STORY is: ONE ENDING, no alternatives. Readers are smart people, and they will re-write your ending for you if they think it’s necessary.

Monday, November 07, 2005

My Voice or Lack Thereof

It's pretty sad, isn't it, when I Writer doesn't post on his blog because he can't think of anything to say. Truth is, I can think of lots of things to say, I'm just concerned that some of them will have me hauled off to spend the rest of my days longing for TV time and crafts that involve nothing sharper than a boiled potato.

I wanted to talk about voice a little today. I'm not sure why, it seems to be the most elusive of writing subjects. I think, because, it's really nothing that can be taught. It just happens one day. You're writing along, having written thirty chapters of your novel, each one sounding like a different pre-schooler had written it, when suddenly—wham! You have a voice. Does it work that way? Beats me. All I know is nothing I write sounds like me. And if it does sound like me, it'll never get published.

So how do you get there? When does your writing stop sounding like something your English teacher would be proud of and start sounding like something interesting? There are a lot of not-so-good writers on the best seller list because A)The stories rock and B)They have an interesting voice. Okay, there's more to it, I know, but you get my meaning. We all have writing buddies who, if we laid all their manuscripts side by side, couldn't tell who wrote what. The writing is fine, there are no weak verbs or POV jumps or any of those other deadly sins, but it just sort of lays there, like a healthy meal.

Sometimes, maybe one sentence or even a whole paragraph, we see our voice pop out. "Hello!" it says, then slips away again like a chipmunk in a rotted log. You keep trying to catch it, but it's too quick. People who know me will tell you I'm a bit "flippant." I think that's a nice way of saying I'm a smartass (If I write it as one word like that, it's not swearing). And when I write off the cuff, that comes out. But when I get "serious," and shoot for some good suspense, I sound, well, serious. And who wants that?

So, I'll let y'all know when my voice happens. It's kind of like waiting for puberty, I think. You look down one day and scream. I don't think I'll scream, but I will get out my butterfly net and nail that little sucker before he sneaks off again (my Voice, I mean, get your mind out of the gutter).