Monday, December 28, 2009

Story Structure Part X: The Road Back

tornado-car_1480982i This is the tenth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from“The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.


The Road Back

Act III. This is where the magic happens. This is the part of the story you wanted to write  since you held the first glimmer of the concept in your head. Everything is heading downhill with a breeze at your back at this point…until you hit the rapids heading for the waterfall. The stakes are huge. Everything your Hero has ever known is at risk. A great winner-take-all conflict is looming. I can throw in more clichés but you get the idea.

Your Hero is now exiting the Special World he has been in since the beginning of Act II. He’s heading back to the Ordinary World, but this isn’t the same world he left—he isn’t the same person anymore. The problem is…you can never go home. We all know that. And worse than that—your Hero hasn’t resolved anything in Act II. The Villain is pissed off, and follows the Hero back to the Ordinary World, putting that world in jeopardy. The Road Back is hard, and if your Hero fails, he’ll never go home again. He may have even met some would-be Heroes stuck in the Limbo, unable to overcome their fears and forever lost in the Special World. Maybe he can help those lost souls home too.

uOttawa vs Queen's.  Gee Gee's win 13-12 Our benchwarming Quarterback now has a bug up his butt. In Act II he discovered that his nice, safe, comfortable world no longer exists. To return back home, he must keep moving forward. In some ways he’s become the Villain. He abandoned his team on the field, he abandoned his family at the hospital, and of course he tells his girlfriend he never wants to see her again. His Road Back is hard. He’ll never be the Benchwarming Quarterback again. He’ll never have that special relationship with his girlfriend again. He may never be able to speak with his father again. But…what now? Who is he? All he knows is that he has to win this game. It’s become more than a game—it’s a life and death struggle, with his father’s life held in the balance.

He returns towards the end of the 3rd Quarter, and his team is still losing. As he enters the field, he sees his team’s starting QB struggle, limping around the field, the other team crushing him to the ground again and again. It’s fourth and long, and they have to punt. Our Hero dons his helmet and runs on the field. In the confusion, a man runs off, keeping their side at 11. When the ball is hiked, he steps in front of the punter, takes the ball, and runs like a flamethrower is aimed at his back. The opposing team is confused as he runs the ball down the field, leaping would-be tacklers, spinning and driving, bowling over one last man and making a first down by inches. Coach is screaming, the starting QB is ranting, but our Hero refuses to leave the field. It’s his game now. Still down by three scores, it will take everything he has to lead his team to victory. He will win this game, or he will die trying. Time is running out.

The Road Back Goals

  • Return to the Ordinary World. Stick to your Hero’s original Goals. Why did he enter the Special World in the first place? What did he learn there? How has his life changed?
  • Your Hero has few Allies left. Everyone else wants to go home, too. He must rally them for one last battle.
  • Raise the Stakes. Your Ordinary World is no longer a safe place. Your Hero is now the Villain’s #1 Most Wanted.
  • The pace should be excruciatingly fast at this point.
  • Starting casting doubt on whether the Hero will actually succeed. The final outcome should always be in question, and in fact doubtful.
  • This is why movies like The Wizard of Oz and Circle of Iron are such great examples of The Hero’s Journey. The HJ isn’t about finding out what’s “out there,” it’s about finding out what’s inside of you, about finding out who you are and what matters to you the most.

Non Goals

  • Do you really thing this is a good place for backstory? Any new information at this point is more of the nature of a “reveal” than world-building. “Oh, BTW, the girl you like is actually your half-sister”.  D’ohh!
  • Pretty much anything goes at this point, as long as it raises the conflict. Special and Ordinary Worlds intermingle. Clashes erupt.
  • No big world-changing revelations—yet. Trying hard doesn’t cut it. Using your skills doesn’t cut it. A transformation is coming,  Strip your Hero down to his most raw, naked self, because his trial by fire is about to begin.
  • The point is not for your Hero to win. It’s to learn something precious. What is the lesson? Also, remember what makes a true Hero. It’s not success. It’s sacrifice. What is he willing to sacrifice? And more importantly, what is he not willing to sacrifice? What is the absolutely most important thing in his life?

For me, this is always the most exciting and interesting part of the story to write. I can’t wait to write the next page, to find out myself how my Hero will act in the end. I learn more about my Hero in the last ten pages of the book than in the previous 300. You’ll find out what that “most important thing” is, more than a thousand pages of backstory will tell you.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Story Structure Part IX: The Reward

image This is the ninth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.


Note About “Avatar

If you want a great example of the Mythical Hero’s Journey, look no further than Avatar. It contains all the elements of The Hero’s Journey. A hero starts out with a problem: he’s crippled and wants to be made whole (Ordinary World). He has an opportunity to become something called an “Avatar” which is a replica of the native Na’vi which he can use to infiltrate their world (The Call). He scoffs at what the scientists are trying to do with the Na’vi (Refusal) but the Head Scientist (Mentor) convinces him to participate. On a scientific mission he is separated from the other avatars and must survive a night in the strange world (Crossing the Threshold).

I’ll let you work out the rest. SEE THE MOVIE! NOW!! In 3D if you can afford it.

The Reward

This is probably biggest misnomer of the bunch. Also known as “Seizing the Sword,” The Reward is the final portion of Act II. After facing a number of Tests and engaging the Enemy, the Hero comes away with new knowledge and determination. He’s seen the true face of the Enemy, faced Death, and now must turn back home. The basic concept is that the Hero has fought his way to the Dragon’s Lair and stolen the Crystal Chalice. It’s a small victory, but the Hero leaves with the knowledge that he has faced the Enemy and lived. He also know that the Dragon has awakened, and will be coming after him with everything it has. I call it a “misnomer” because it sounds like something positive and hopeful but many times it’s a dark realization that the battle isn’t over and that greater challenges lie ahead. “Seizing the Sword” is a better name, because it reflects the Hero’s determination to see the conflict out to the bitter end, for better or worse.

hospitalman Now on to our Benchwarming Quarterback. His parents are in the hospital after a wreck. His girlfriend is unfaithful. The coach hates him. The other players hate him. His father is on life-support. WTF? “There’s nothing we can do but wait,” says his mother. “And pray.” He goes to see his father, tubes sticking everywhere, machines chirping and purring. Everything he’s done in his life flashes before him. All his failures, all his disappointments, all his betrayals of his father’s love. He faces the cold hard truth about his life.
(I smudged the image’s face to protect the innocent).

“I want to be the son you wanted,” he tells his father. “I want to prove to you I’m worthy, that I can be a man. If this is your last moment on Earth, I want to do something for you, to show how much I love you.” He rises, and walks to the waiting room. “Come on, we’re going,” he snaps at the girlfriend. “We have a game to win.” He has Seized the Sword. He is determined for once in his life to be the man his father wants him to be. His mother begs him to stay, but he must do this. It’s as if his father’s life rides on the outcome of this game. His Reward is the strength to do what he must, the self-determination to carry on despite the incredible odds, and the knowledge that he himself is willing to face death to accomplish his goals. We see him turning into the Hero before our eyes, but his task is daunting, and his goals seem further away than ever.

The Reward Goals

  • The boy becomes a man. The Hero takes responsibility for his life. He is ready to take on the world.
  • The Hero has conquered the Special World. He’s now a master of the domain. He has gone where no man has gone before.
  • The Hero knows what he must do to prevail in the end. He’s made his choice and will see it through.
  • The Enemy is awakened and pissed off. There is no more room to compromise or walk away. The Hero is in it to win it.


  • Remember, this is not the final transformation. There is still one more crucial lesson to be learned, one final test to pass.
  • The Enemy has been hurt, but not defeated. The Reward is also the knowledge that the Enemy will regroup stronger than ever.
  • The Reward is a Pyrrhic victory more often than not. And short lived.
  • The Reward is not the achievement of the Hero’s original goal. Nothing is resolved at this point.

What is The Reward in Avatar? There are actually two Rewards. Bonus for anyone who knows both (or are there more?) Try not to spoil anything ;)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Story Structure Part VIII: The Ordeal

ordeal This is the eighth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.


The Ordeal

This is it. This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Finally, our Hero confronts the Enemy. He’s been trained, he’s gathered his Allies, but is it enough? No, it isn’t. Nothing that’s come before can prepare him for this moment. He’s deep in the Enemy’s lair, and must rely on his own wits and judgment to make it through. Now this isn’t the final confrontation, but it’s the first major exchange with the Enemy. The Villain is cunning and smart. He knows the lay of the land. He has some objectives too—to turn the Hero to his side, to corrupt the Hero, to see if he can win an easy victory. It becomes clear that the Enemy represents everything the Hero hates, especially about himself. His own fears, his own weaknesses. The Enemy is in his head almost, exploiting every weakness of the Hero and turning him into a gibbering mass of goo.

This is the scene you wanted to write since you came up with idea for the story. Luke vs. Darth Vader.  Dorothy vs the Wicked Witch. The hospital scene where Adrian tells Rocky to “Win.” This is the final test before your Hero is allowed to start the long road home. This is when the train jumps the rails, the troops retreat, the police close in, the wife is in bed with someone else, and everything the Hero ever knew about himself is put into question. He’s no longer the innocent traveler to this Special World, he’s a fully involved participant, and his goals seem further away than ever.  He’s seen the face of the Enemy and it’s bad. Who talked him into this misadventure anyways?

Let’s go back to our Benchwarming-now-playing Quarterback. It’s halftime. Wait—what? The Ordeal isn’t on the field? WTF? Yes. Because he’s confronting his true Enemies—the Head Coach and the starting Quarterback. The starter is feeling better. The Head Coach wants him back in. But wait—there’s more. Our QB gets a phone call. His parents have been in a bad wreck on the way to the game, he needs to leave right away, which Coach says means he’s off the team. Forever. Everything seems to be falling apart. In addition, he finds out the Starting QB is the father of his girlfriend’s baby. Everything seems to be conspiring to destroy him. This is his last chance to prove himself, to become a winner, but now it looks like everything’s been cut short. He leaves the game humiliated, having to bum a ride from this unfaithful girlfriend to the hospital (which is conveniently a minute away). The opposing players mock him on the way off the field.

man-woman-brain-1 Now the Ordeal turns to this awkward car ride. The girlfriend is distraught and apologetic, almost unable to drive. She never meant it to happen, it wasn’t consensual, she doesn’t know what to do. His mind is consumed with fear about his parents, disappointment that he can’t finish the game, and bitterness that this woman and the Starter hurt him. Our Hero’s story seems to be over before it even started. He’ll never amount to anything. He’s consumed with self-doubt and self-loathing. The world is collapsing around him. Everything he’s ever feared about himself seems to be coming true. He can’t play football. He can’t be loved. And Death lurks right around the corner. Depressing, isn’t it? Why the heck did I write this book??

The Ordeal Goals

  • The Hero must face Death. In the example above, it’s the possible death of his parents coupled with the death of his football career.
  • The Hero takes on the Enemy. And loses. Badly. This is far harder than anything your Hero has faced up until now.
  • Your Hero’s worst fears must be realized. From now through the end of Act III, your Hero is in a crucible of fire. He’ll be tested beyond everything that ever happened before.
  • Allies drop like flies. Enemies grow strong and multiply. This is a hard time for everyone.
  • Make it clear what the ultimate stakes are: Life and Death. Everything and everyone the Hero cares about must be placed in jeopardy.
  • Keep Raising the Stakes, and keep the Hero focused on his Goals, even if he’s ready to give up. Something good is right around the corner.

Non Goals

  • Your Hero does not defeat the Enemy. He may wound the Enemy, he certainly antagonizes him, and sometimes steals something important from him. We’ll talk about this in the next installment.
  • Don’t commit your Hero to the fight. He may come away from this Ordeal battered and bruised and ready to go home. This was far more than he bargained for, and he may want more. Too bad, he’ll learn soon enough that all roads home lie through the Enemy.
  • Don’t give your Hero any easy ways out.  Every choice is bad. Every option leads to conflict. But definitely give him choices. He’s still in charge of his destiny. He is still driven by Inner and Outer Goals.

This is definitely a rough time for the Hero.  By the end of the Ordeal, he’ll have everything he needs to prevail in the end. He just may not know it yet.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Story Structure Part VII: Approach to the Inmost Cave

CaveThis is the seventh in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

This is perhaps the most nebulous and hard-to-understand step of the Hero’s Journey. At this point, your Hero has gathered Allies, engaged with some dark forces, and has met with his Mentor. He’s ready to take on the main antagonist But first, he must endure an arduous process on his way to the main Crisis of the story.

What is this “Inmost Cave?” It’s the enemy’s lair. It’s the embodiment of the Hero’s fears. It’s a place where few tread, and fewer return from. It’s the furthermost point away from where the Hero started his journey. The Death Star. The Emerald City. The Bedroom. The Courtroom. Jail. The Dragon’s Lair. This the place where every decision has life-or-death consequences, where the stakes are at their highest. But before this Ordeal, our Hero must get there. He must prepare himself for battle, arm himself with information, learn the final lessons, remove all doubt, and commit himself to the Journey.

Let’s look at our benchwarming-but-now-playing Quarterback. He’s on the field. He’s made a few plays. He’s starting to feel out this Special World. He throws a touchdown. Success! Maybe he can prevail in this world, maybe he does have what it takes. But the Enemy is huddling, changing their strategy. The stakes are going to be raised. There’s about to be an Ordeal near the end of Act II. He will be tested. What can we do as an author to Raise the Stakes? We’ve got the girl on the sideline. He’s now sitting on the bench while the other team has the ball. She approaches him…she’s late—it’s not his. His mind is now distracted, hurt. Still no word from his parents…what’s up with that?

muddy-431x300 They get back on the field. He throws incomplete passes and they punt. Coach is yelling and screaming. He’s going to have to clear his mind, find a way through all these distractions. And guess what? The other team knows about his girl trouble, and they start taunting him. Even the old coach on the sideline is getting agitated with him, trying to set him straight. His early success is falling by the wayside, he’s going to have to reach down deep, because with 2 minutes left in the half, he had little time to prove himself before the head coach puts someone else in. His friend the receiver is ambushed by an illegal crack-back block and is now out of the game, taken away in an ambulance, perhaps crippled for life. Now it’s time for our Quarterback to rise to the occasion and start kicking ass. And I have no idea how that picture relates but I just liked it. :)

Approach to the Inmost Cave Goals

  • Fully engulf the Hero in the Special World. In fact, you may even create an inner Special World inside the outer Special World…the world of the Enemy’s Hideout…which has it’s own special rules.
  • Start testing your Allies and Enemies. See how firm their commitment is. Some of them may change sides. Some of them bow out. Others prove themselves.
  • This can be a large portion of your story, so keep the pace up and keep raising the stakes. Throw obstacles in front of the Hero. Make him earn every success…which become more and more infrequent.
  • Your Hero Must Act. No more sitting around, philosophizing about the pompetus of direct conflict. Move, move, move!

Non Goals

  • Still avoid direct confrontation with the Enemy. Think about this as a Chess Game…everyone is still moving pieces around and waiting to strike. Some pieces are lost, but some become powerful. Direct conflict is almost inevitable at this point.
  • No more Mr. Nice Author. Why does Bad Stuff happen to Good Characters? Because that’s what makes literature interesting. Your character starts failing in bigger and better ways than ever before. But he’s also trying harder than ever before.
  • This should be the dying gasp of whatever Refusal your character still has. Kill your Hero’s doubts, because the Ordeal of Act II will destroy any Heroes that are not fully committed. If he’s not fully committed…give him some “motivation.”

Is your Hero armed and ready for his first major conflict? Are the Stakes high enough to convince him to take on the dreaded Enemy?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Story Structure Part VI: Tests, Allies, and Enemies

UN Security Council This is the sixth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies

Your Hero is finally in that Special World and guess who’s waiting on the other side? The Villain. Dark forces stand in the way of your Hero’s success. The Special World is full of lies, obstacles, and conflict. It’s also loaded with courage, success, and opportunity. Your Hero will spend at least half his time (by word count) in this Special World, learning its rules, meeting its characters, and mastering this world in an eventual conflict known as the Ordeal (still to come).

Think of this section as a series of ups and downs. Failures, successes, and lessons learned. Allies won, and enemies angered. Your Hero masters a skill only to face a larger challenge. He meets friends in unexpected places. Other characters may turn against him. This is an extremely generic part of the book where many writers flounder because it’s so nebulous and undefined. Anything can and does happen. Let’s tackle each part of this.

Tests. Your Hero has to learned critical knowledge and gain certain skills to pass his coming ordeals. Imagine the first week on a new job. Where’s the bathroom? Where’s the mailroom? How does this email program work? Sounds simple, but these tests increase in difficulty as the story progresses. The Boss wants report by the end of the day. The computer is acting up and Tech Support is busy. The lunchroom serves unhealthy crap. These are non-world-ending challenges compared to what’s coming, but they are an important warm-up.

Allies. No one succeeds alone. In fact, to become a true Hero, you must have friends, and these Allies must succeed before the Hero does. You don’t win unless everyone wins. Where do you find Allies on this new job? You hang out around the water cooler. You hit the pub with the co-workers after work. You talk with the mail guy. You flirt with the Admin. You join the company softball team. You hit on the boss’s daughter (which may not end well). What happens in these encounters? Also, many great Heroes have a Sidekick, someone they trust, and can help provide the Hero with perspective and wise counsel.

Enemies. Some people say your Hero is only as strong as the Enemy he faces. The Villain has been alerted to your Hero’s presence, but may not see him as a threat. He may try to woo your Hero, trick him, reel him in as it were. The Villain would rather see the Hero on his side, after all. In fact, the Hero is the one who decides that the villain is The Villain. Something about the Hero makes the Villain who he is as well.

mud fb sack Let’s return to our Hero, the Benchwarming Quarterback. He’s now on the field. He’s in the game. Ten players face him in the huddle. First play: he hands the ball off for no gain. Second down, the same. Third down, he tries a pass, the other team catches it and returns for a touchdown. A linebacker crushes him to the ground and laughs in his face. His body is in pain, the driving rain is soaking him. The Special World is hard. Back on the sideline, Coach screams at him. The other players yell at him too. Then, one of his receivers comes up to him. “Just get me the ball,” he says. “We can do this.” An Ally?

The other team kicks off, and he’s out on the field again. The receiver nods at him. Our hero changes the play the coach called. It’s a fake handoff into an all-out blitz, and he throws to the wide-open receiver for a first down. Although the blitzing linebackers have crushed him into the mud, he has passed his first test! He returns to the huddle where his teammates look at him with a new appreciation. He himself has a touch more confidence. But on the other side, the Enemy gathers, knowing they won’t underestimate him again. On the sidelines, the injured starting QB sees his job slipping away if our Hero performs well.

There are a heck of a lot more tests we can throw at him. How does he get the players firmly on his side? What critical mistakes does he make? How does the Enemy respond? This is how we’ll flesh out this section. There is still the question of the girlfriend, the parents, and many more subplots to interweave into the main story. I could fill ten blog posts with this section, but I’ll spare you :).

Test, Allies, and Enemies Goals

  • Learn important lessons about the rules of the Special World. Give your Hero a chance to succeed. Let him master Email. Let him win a date with the Boss’s daughter.
  • Meet people, socialize, figure out who’s who. That guy in the next cube who throws a tantrum—he also knows “what’s really going on here.” The Admin who refuses to help you find a stapler—she also knows the Boss’s detailed itinerary. She’d be a good Ally…or a dreadful enemy. The guy who also seems to be hanging around, poking his head in meetings he’s not invited to—could he be an Agent of Evil? Be careful who you trust.
  • This is a large section of your story, not just the 1/12 it appears to be. Think about everything your Hero needs to learn. This is truly the Journey part of the Hero’s Journey. Once your Hero has arrived, there’s a sense of relief, of exhilaration. Have fun! Relax! Then get to work.
  • Your Hero is much more proactive in the Special World. He has Crossed the First Threshold, and now is driven to work through this world. He has to keep his job. He can’t blow this opportunity. Many people in his Ordinary World, his wife and kids, etc., are counting on him to succeed.
  • Keep your Hero’s goals intact, but make sure the Obstacles still match those goals. He climbs a mountain only to find a bigger mountain behind it. He files a report on time, only to find that it was only the first of ten he should have filed. The Boss’s daughter turns out to be a handful.
  • Keep your Hero’s spirits up. This is probably the most fun he’ll have in the whole book. By the end of this section, he’ll be ready to take on the Enemy, full of (over)confidence, and ready to take on this Special World.


  • Direct confrontation with the Enemy. Now in my example, it seems like our Quarterback is fighting the Enemy, but is he? Or are they just acting under orders? Who controls them? And is his true enemy across the field, or is he standing on his own sidelines?
  • Some life-changing Epiphany. These lessons are meant to be affirming and supportive. Everything seems to be going relatively well. We’re giving our readers hope that he’ll prevail. But we also see the Enemy strengthening as well, getting away with things. Conflict is inevitable.
  • Avoid too much backstory, telling, and explanation about the Special World. Let your Hero learn by doing. Let him make mistakes. Some lessons are easy, some are hard.
  • Don’t get sidetracked. It’s tempting to expound on everything, fill pages and pages with details about each character, explore previous relationships, describe fantastic settings in detail. Remember to keep the story moving forward, and keep these detours to a minimum, including them only when necessary to provide the Hero with some critical information.

Who are your Allies? How did you win them? How have they helped you in Life’s Journey?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Post-NaNoWriMo 2009 Post

nano_09_winner_120x240 This is a lengthy self-analysis of my NaNoWriMo 2009 experience. There may or may not be anything in here of interest because I’m really just doing this for my own benefit to look at the next time I write a draft.
Quick history of Steam Palace (the current working title):
  • Monday, Sept 7, I post The Lover’s Journey, my take on the Hero’s Journey from a male romance point of view. I then try to write the female version, but I wind up with a compelling story idea.
  • Monday, Sept. 14. I officially put down Dawn’s Rise, and start working on Steam Palace, according to this post.
  • Sept. 14-Oct.31. I take my basic outline, expand it to a 10K word outline, a 3000 word character doc, a 2,500 word brainstorming doc, along with a couple ancillary docs about technology, a dictionary, and a to-do list.
  • November 1, 12:00 AM. I write the first line of Steam Palace.
  • November 25, 8:37 PM, I write The End.

The Facts

  • Original Word count goal: 90,000
  • Final word count: 79754 (By my count. The NaNoWriMo site counts 80730 but that includes some notes I made to myself in the docs, scene titles, etc.)
  • Days Writing: 25
  • Total days invested: ~75
  • Average words/day: 3,190
  • Highest word count day: Nov. 24th, 5597
  • Lowest word count day: Nov. 14th, 429 (went car shopping)
  • Number of chapters/scenes: 73 (avg. 2.92/day)
  • Days sticking strictly to outline: ~5
  • Number of main characters who died: 2
  • Title Changes during Writing: 3
  • Completely impossible inventions: 2+

I Grade My Original Goals

  • This is the novel that I will write, edit, and sell as my first novel.
    This is a great little story which I think people will find entertaining and fun, and I’m definitely not ready to throw it away.
  • Keep up the pace.
    B I think I did this pretty well. I kept the action going throughout. In fact, to keep with my word count per Act goal, I cut planned scenes of low importance which helped move things along.
  • Interesting use of low/hi tech. Something interesting on every page.
    I wasn’t able to hit the level of creativity I wanted, and I tended to focus on a few specific inventions. Definitely will be a goal of the re-write.
  • Modern anachronism, futuristic retro. Ask What If.
    I wanted to create Flintstones-like inventions, like cell-phones, GPS, internet etc in a Steampunk setting but it just didn’t happen like I’d hoped.
  • Singular character focus on goals.
    This I think I did to a fault. My main character stuck to her goals through thick and thin, until about 6 pages from the end of the novel. Other characters did as well.
  • Focus on the main theme of the story: A girls quest to find her heart. 
    Sort of. But the ending wasn’t really about her heart, it’s about discovering that names and titles and labels don’t mean anything, it’s what inside that counts. So it’s not as much about her heart as it is about the hearts of the people around her.
  • Slow reveal of backstory, keep the reader guessing.
    I think I did okay with this. I revealed things throughout the novel. My characters did not appreciate this.

Things I Did Well:

  • Outlining
    I would say that my first attempt at decent outline went pretty well. I started with a basic 12-step Hero’s Journey, and used the Snowflake Method to continually flesh it out over the next few weeks. I wound up with different variations of the same chapter, tons of scene ideas I never used, and a real wealth of ideas to draw from.
  • X-Act Structure
    I had identified my plot points very early, and I kept them intact throughout all the changes in outline. High points, low points, etc.
  • Hero’s Journey
    This proved extremely helpful in figuring out how characters change and grow during the novel. I started the outline as a basic HJ and expanded it from there.
  • Character-Driven
    Hopefully I did well with this. I tried to make the characters move the plot and act. From the very first scene, the characters are acting and moving forward. They drive the events.
  • Research
    I had a ready-made pile of maps, names, ideas, all ready to go. This cut down the amount of distracting research to do while writing. I even attended a Steampunk Convention to help with my research.
  • Conflict
    I tried to create conflict whenever I could. Inner, outer, obstacles, disagreements, etc.
  • Continually increased stakes
    She starts out as travelling to visit her aunt—Little Red Riding Hood through the woods stakes. She ends with having to save the lives of her family and the future of her entire country. That’s called Raising The Stakes.
  • Cut early and often
    As soon as I reached a certain word count for an area, I started cutting scenes, trimming scenes, and making the action move. Anything remotely boring had to go. I was so paranoid of overshooting my 90K mark that I might have cut too much, coming in under 80K in the end.

Things I Wish Went Gooder

  • Staying on target
    The novel followed the outline for about five days than meandered around, only crossing the original outline here and there. I think I over-planned the outline a bit, not allowing enough flexibility. I also didn’t plan enough for the middle.
  • Creative inventions
    I liked the things I came up with, but I don’t know how much was truly inventive. Airships, mechanical horses, it all was interesting but didn’t break ground like I’d like. I’ve done well with this before, so it’s just a matter of details and rethinking things.
  • Characterization
    Despite my self-props for being character-driven, It’s not there yet. I think to work on backgrounds more. I think I have a number of good characters, but not many great ones. I have a bunch that can be flesh out more. I just need more details. More faults, more history, etc.
  • Style
    I wanted to create a turn-of-the-20th century eloquent style. It worked for a few chapters, but I wore out after a while. However, I was surprised at the number of words I came up with that the spell-checker didn’t recognize. I think it was a lot of fun.
  • POV
    Who knows. I tried mixing it up a bit between a few characters. But I never achieved that real deep POV that I was shooting for. I just don’t naturally write that way.
  • Avoiding “banned” words
    That went out the window very quickly. Adverbs, adjectives, transitive verbs, interjections, all of it. And frankly, I don’t care. I’m beginning to see that I write the way I write, and adhering to “rules” doesn’t really serve me.
  • Passive
    Whatever. I was made to write passive sentences.
  • Showing vs Telling
    By compressing the outline as much as I did, I tended to start each scene with a description of what happened since the last scene…which probably will be cut or expanded in the re-write. Or maybe it will work.
  • Sub-plots
    These didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. Some of them just petered out, some never gained ground, so I’ll review them and see what I need to work on.
  • Romance Fail
    This was supposed to be a Romance. It’s not. It’s an adventure with a love sub-plot. Maybe I’m not cut out for Romance. Not that there isn’t a lot of suggestive content, and a love story. But there’s no sex (on-camera as it were), very little kissing, and the girl chooses the wrong guy at the end.
  • True Heroism Fail
    I wanted to her to be a true hero, I really did, but she isn’t. Yes, she has a Hero’s Journey. Yes, she transforms. But I feel there’s still something missing, some element of self-sacrifice for the greater good that’s I left on the table. This will be my #1 priority for the re-write.
  • Middle Sag
    The dreaded Middle. I kind of avoided the problem by not writing much of it. My Act II is 1/3 of the book, when it should be 1/2. It needs about 15K more words to balance it out. Or alternatively, I could chop down the beginning/end, or move scenes over to the middle. This I think is the main weakness of HJ. 
  • Wanted more betrayals, reversals
    I wanted my main characters to be betrayed at some point, to have friends turn against them. It didn’t really happen, but there should be opportunities to introduce this.
  • Write-By-Hand Fail
    Well, I don’t mean to say that it was terrible. All it did was make me write slower, and in the end, I saw no improvement in the result. No to mention that when I transcribed it, there were several words I couldn’t decipher. I will not be repeating this experiment. I’ve noveled by keyboard for 20+ years, I don’t think I’m going to change now.

Main Takeaways

  • Outlining works up to a point
    If I hadn’t waited until Nov. 1 to start writing, I probably would have cut down the amount of time spent outlining with no loss of quality on the draft. As each chapter went on, I deviated more and more from the outline. After the 1/2 way point the story took over and I stopped consulting the outline at all; the story just wrote itself.
  • Hero’s Journey works up to a point
    It works and it doesn’t. It’s a great tool to identify the major phases of the character arc, but it falls flat in areas, especially the middle. Also, each character has his own HJ, and they experience different parts at different times. So the end project is a mish-mash. Heck, one character has literally 3 Resurrections. So I’m learning that it’s a basic guide, but a real story has many more twists and turns in it.
  • Pacing is hard
    I want to write and write about every little thing and expound on everything, reveal mounds of backstory, and explain every device, but there’s so little space in the book.
  • Progress
    3K/day is sustainable for a first draft, further drafts will probably be 1000K/day range
  • Getting the story done is more important than getting the story right
    I wrote an ending for the 1st time in 3 years. I’ve spent so much time working on story beginnings that I’ve neglected the endings. I literally learned more about my characters in the last 10-20 pages than I did in the first 280. When everything was on the line, I found out what was really important to them beyond everything else…and it’s not what I had intended. Do it. Finish whatever you start, even if it’s crap. It’s one thing to plan, it’s another to finish.
  • New stories are good
    I should write 2+ stories a year to keep fresh/excited.
  • Changing (sub) genres is fun
    I really enjoyed writing in a new genre. Romance, historical, I learned a lot from it. For some reason it got me writing the way I want to write.
  • Writing is always surprising
    For instance, first I wanted my FMC to sneak into the ball via a stolen invite. Then I wanted the ball to be a debutante dance. In the final version, she’s in the orchestra, which works out even better. She doesn’t play what the host wants—instant conflict, instant interaction. She’s not even a guest…she’s the help, so he’s more at ease with her.
  • My true style comes out, no matter what I write
    I’m not saying everything turns out the same. But somehow, things just sneak in, and even if I wrote a straight Romance, I’m sure it would be full of plot and action.

Next Steps

  1. Print Story (in case I never touch it again…it’s free from Create Space).
  2. Put on shelf for 4-8 weeks, work on another project (The Immortals).
  3. Review story with critical eye, revise outline to match current story.
  4. Brainstorm new ideas, conduct additional research.
  5. Create new outline, update character sheets.
  6. Create initial Query Letter—this will help figure out how to market this piece, and what I can change to make it sell. It’s not intended to be something I send out quite yet.
  7. Rewrite story from scratch, but with corrected POV, style, plot, characterization etc.
  8. Review, get feedback and critiques, etc
  9. Repeat from step 2 until published.
Is anyone still reading? I hope this helped a bit.

Monday, November 23, 2009

NaNoWriMo Week Four Tips

NaNoWriMo Week Four Tips

finish If you’re still plugging away after 23 days, congratulations! Whether you’re at 10K or 100K words, you’re facing the same age-old question that every writer faces: How do I end this thing?? Get me out of here. Help!!

Well, the secret of the Ending is to “bring it all home.” And yes, I may use a lot of clichés in today’s piece. Your Hero has spent a good portion on his time in the Special World, and now it’s time to return home, back to the Ordinary World where it all started. But of course, the road home is blocked with the biggest obstacles of the whole novel. Your Villains are hell bent on your Hero’s destruction, everything he’s ever known is falling apart, and everything he’s worked for during the entire book is in jeopardy. Everything hangs in the balance, and failure is imminent.

There are two things to focus on: Choice and Transformation. During the final climactic scene, your Hero must make a choice. And the choice is Death. Your character must choose Death over some alternative. Now this sounds extreme, but hear me out. If your character is not willing to risk death to achieve his goals, then the stakes are not high enough. Now, this Death can be metaphorical, but really it all comes down to personal sacrifice. He must lose something to win something. The result of this risk is Transformation. Through this process, your Hero learns something new about himself, about the world, and now has the power to finally defeat the Villain. This is the final lesson, the most important of the Hero’s life.

To tie it all together, go back to the first chapter, the first line, and think about the everyday problems your Hero faced. How has he changed? How does he solve them now? What has he learned from this experience? How do people see him now? Did he achieve his initial goal, or did some larger goal replace it? This is the part of the story where the most important lessons of all are learned. How do you show that the Hero has truly changed? You send him back home, and his former insurmountable problems seem like trivial annoyances which he handles with ease.

So now for my NaNoWriMo Week Four Tips:

  • Keep writing! You’re not done yet! GO! GO! GO!
  • Raise the Stakes. Not just life-and-death. Not just lose-the-girl-lose-the-job-lose-the-house. We’re talking End of Days level of stakes. If your Hero loses, everyone loses. The World loses. Life as We Know It ends (which it does even if he wins BTW).
  • Your Villain has a Fatal Flaw. Pride, overconfidence, a blind spot, a secret love, underlings seeking revenge, an even eviler overlord who won’t tolerate failure, a history of tax evasion, an allergy, a compulsive disorder, and most importantly, unlike your Hero, an inability to adapt and transform, to see the bigger picture, to become bigger than life. He’s stuck in his ways. Use that to your Hero’s advantage.
  • Your Hero cannot win unless everyone he cares about wins too. There are no selfish victories. No one will really care that he wins his competition, or that he gets the girl. A good recent example of this is in the animated flick Cars. In the final climactic race, Lightning McQueen loses the race…intentionally. But in losing, he wins everything. Self-respect, friends, the endorsement contract, and most importantly, he gets the girl (love). He risks death, which in this case is his entire racing career, because suddenly something became more important than winning.

And one final thought, courtesy Philip J. Fry from Futurama, to think about in the darkest moments of your novel, when your Hero is on the verge of defeat, and you see no way to rescue him from the hole you’ve dug:

philip j fryYou can't give up hope just because it's hopeless! You have to hope even more, and cover your ears and go, 'blahblahblahblahblahblahblah!'



Good luck! Next week, my exciting (actually most likely a ponderously dull) post-mortem on this year’s NaNoWriMo experience for me, what worked and what didn’t, and my plans for the re-write.

Monday, November 16, 2009

NaNoWriMo Week Three Tips

NaNoWriMo Week Three Tips

drawning-vader-vs-luke-in-dagobah For those doing NaNoWriMo, one of two things has happened: you’ve either forged ahead, or lost interest and motivation. Either way, congratulations for hitting the halfway point! Believe it or not, everything is downhill from here. Why? Here’s what you should have accomplished by now:

  • Introduced all the main characters, good and bad, and gotten to know them.
  • Figured out things like the Story Question, the main conflict, separated your characters into good guys/bad guys, and made your hero face increasing challenges.
  • Included foreshadowing as to what to expect in the second half. We understand the dilemmas facing the Hero, but it still may not be clear how to solve them.

That’s a lot to have accomplished in 15 days! Pat yourself on the back, take a deep breath, because this is when the “real” writing begins. Those of you who have abandoned NaNoWriMo are missing the thrill of the Crisis and Climax, where everything is put on the line, and your main character makes the most wonderful transformation. Now, onto the details.

We’re now into the meat of Act II. Your Hero has a goal, and only one thing stands in the way. The Villain. He must confront the villain, enter their lair, and retrieve something incredibly valuable. This is known as the Crisis, but it isn’t the ultimate Climax of the story. Here is where he’s entered foreign land, learned all the curious rules about it and gathered Allies, now attempts to take on the Villain on the Villain’s home turf. Generally, this is not a good idea, but your Hero must be so committed to the journey that he will face any risk to achieve his goal.

So he’s off to face the Villain, who is kind of “huh?” right now. The Villain is not really focused on some insignificant bug that’s buzzing around. He’s off doing his dastardly deeds, heedless of the consequences. By the end of this week, that all changes. He now will see the Hero as his main threat, so he’ll come after the Hero with everything in his arsenal. Week Three is when you separate the men from the boys, the Heroes from the Wannabe’s. So here is a general outline:

  1. The Hero approaches the Villain’s Inner Sanctum. The Villain is safe and secure in his world, not really worried about pesky Heroes showing up. He may have even tried to befriend or recruit the Hero, but it’s becoming clear that they are diametrically opposed on certain key elements.
  2. The Hero engages the Villain in a preliminary scuffle. Not an all out war, not a duel to the death. More like a shoving match. There may be lesser cohorts that he does defeat on the way to facing the Villain, but he’s still unprepared for a final showdown.
  3. The Hero steals something valuable from the Villain (knowledge, power, influence, allies, money, love, secrets, clues, etc). The Villain has underestimated his foe, but won’t make that mistake again.
  4. The Villain is really pissed off and pursues the Hero. “It’s On” as they say. The Hero must flee back to relative safety. He about to be on his way back to his Ordinary World, but everything has changed, and he can’t return until the Enemy is defeated.

So now onto the Tips for Week Three:wickedwitch2

  • Raise the stakes. Raise the stakes. Raise the stakes. The story’s no longer about finding a hamburger joint. It’s now a life-and-death struggle to find a hamburger joint, and this hairy dude holding your girlfriend hostage.
  • The Hero must be willing to face death to confront the Villain. This is a perfect time to kill off a couple characters, to remind the Hero what the ultimate price of failure is. If not actual death, then show those characters fighting the Villain…and losing so badly they abandon the journey. Either way, they’re martyrs who remind the Hero what he’s fighting for.
  • The Hero will end the week with everything he needs to defeat the Villain…except for one thing: the ability to defeat his own inner demons. This is the focus of Week Four, so hold off on major transformations.
  • A Hero’s allies can not be trusted. They have their own agendas. They are lured by the Villain and may fall prey to their baser needs. The Villain has agents everywhere, ready to snatch away unwary travelers in his kingdom.
  • Reward the Hero for his efforts after he faces the Villain. You could call this the “final breather” before the very end of the story, because after this week, it’s a frantic race to the finish.

If you still get stuck, here are some thoughts to keep you going:

  • What is the villain’s agenda? How does he react when some usurper dares invade his territory?
  • Put more things on the line, more lives in jeopardy, more things the Hero holds dear in the balance.
  • Your Hero must cling to his original goals through thick and thin, despite all the evidence that they be on the wrong path. Is saving the world really worth the sacrifice? All he wants is a burger, but now he has to save the world? WTF?? Can’t he just have a burger and call it a day? No, he can’t. Drill that through his head. You’re in Act II buddy, no turning back now.
  • There are no easy victories at this point. Everything is earned with a steep price. The Call to Quit is strong here. Both for you as a writer and the Hero. But you both can’t.
  • Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Here. Make it so. Deal with it.
  • Don’t give up. I mean you, as the writer. You can get through this rough week where your characters are beat up and flailing against a seemingly invincible enemy. But this week will expose the enemy’s weaknesses, and hopefully illustrate your strengths as a writer. Now you know how to defeat the enemy, and Week Four will be a breeze.

Good luck!

Monday, November 9, 2009

NaNoWriMo Week Two Tips

NaNoWriMo Week Two Tips

writers-block-4 Tip Zero: DON’T GIVE UP!

You started out NaNoWriMo with the world’s greatest idea, wrote furiously for a week, and now you find yourself staring at a blank page, unable to fathom a single idea to propel your book forward. If you’ve outlined, that document is now thrown out the window, a hopelessly inane piece of unimaginative tripe. If you’re pantsing, the awful mess of spaghetti prose you’ve laid out has tempted you to throw out everything you’ve written and start anew, or give up entirely. Welcome to the Wonderful World of Week Two.

The other thing that should be happening is that you’ve made the turn into the Special World of Act II. In Act I (see Week One Tips), you introduced your characters, defined their specific issues and goals, and sent them on a fruitless quest to solve and/or avoid these issues. But now it’s time for your characters to stop reacting, and start acting. They must enter a new world of excitement and danger. This Special World is far different than where they started, full of opportunity and challenges. They are now in enemy territory, trying to negotiate their way through unfamiliar terrain. No more sitting around on their keisters, they must act.

Week Two is all about rising challenges. Your characters are now on a mission, and they need to accomplish three things over the next week or so:

  1. Acquire the skills needed to tackle the mission.
  2. Identify their friends and foes, and gather their friends close (and their enemies closer?). A handy way to achieve this is through the Bar Scene or it’s equivalent, where both allies and enemies gather for refreshment, and secret knowledge is shared.
  3. Practice their skills against increasingly difficult opposition.

By the end of the week, they should be approaching the enemy’s hideout, and heading for the main crisis point of the story. Note that isn’t the Final Battle or Climax, this is just their first big encounter with the enemy which occurs about 1/2 to 2/3’s of the way into the book, depending on whose structure you follow. So by this coming weekend, they should be on their way if not actively engaged with the Enemy.

So now for my Tips for Week Two:

  1. Keep Writing. Don’t stop. Ever. This is your goal, this is your mission. You must suffer for your craft, as your characters must suffer to achieve their goals. No matter what form of bilge appears in your manuscript, you must persevere.
  2. Keep raising the stakes. Everything the character wins must be earned. The risk of failure is growing. The rewards of success are multiplying. We’re not at an extreme yet, but keep upping the tension.
  3. Help the character grow by encouraging lesson-learning setbacks. Make sure that your characters are driving the plot, making things happen, and getting into loads of trouble on their quest.
  4. Don’t place them in impossible situations. Provide them with the skills to succeed, give them mentors and allies. They will need a certain level of confidence for the Big Fight to come.
  5. Goals, goals, goals. No matter how ridiculous the goal, your characters must pursue them with bulldog-like tenacity. Once you focus on goals, then add the obvious converse—Obstacles. Higher walls, deeper moats, darker storms, better enemies.
  6. Remember, your Villains have goals and dreams too, and they pursue them with just as much, if not more tenacity than your Heroes. Who wants it more? What does your Hero learn from your Villain about life and desire? What does your Hero learn that the Villain doesn’t?

If you still get stuck, here are some helpful tricks to keep the narrative flowing:

  1. What’s the Worst Thing that can happen right now? Flat tire? Roving gang of Zombies? Meteor strike? Swarm of locusts? Make it so.
  2. What are your character’s worst fears? Afraid of heights? A failing report card? Snakes? (on a plane?) Getting fired? Make them happen.
  3. Reversals. Every scene must contain a Reversal of Fortune, either something really good or really bad, just something unexpected. Hire a maid? She steals your cash. Go out to dinner? Credit card fails. Read the newspaper? Don’t read the obits…you won’t like what’s there.
  4. Stop writing for a day and conduct an interview of your character. There are many templates of these online, but just pretend you’re conducting an interview for your blog. Heck, if it helps your word count, have your character answer a phone call from Mom and explain exactly what she’s doing in sub-Saharan Africa chasing infected monkeys while trying to avoid the looming insurrection against the local backwater dictator.
  5. When all else fails, kill off a character. Yes, it sounds trite, but it’s a stark reminder to your characters of what the ultimate price of failure is: Death. It may make them reconsider their commitment to action, and rededicate them to the cause.

Good luck, and keep writing! This is definitely the hardest week to get through, but have faith, and keep it up!

Monday, November 2, 2009

NaNoWriMo: Week One Tips

NaNoWriMo: Week One Tips

img-nanowrimo-typewriter For those of you doing NaNoWriMo, welcome! Here are some tips for working through Week One, especially for the pantsers among us (writing by the seat of our pants).

You’ve had a day or two with your new novel. You’ve created some characters, a scene or two, and maybe some plot. Week One is all about Character Development, more or less the “Act One” of your novel. You’re introducing your characters, your world, and it’s all interesting and new. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Show your character in some ordinary situations. Show their goals and dreams, and how they can’t immediately achieve them. Show how they’re miserable failures who really don’t deserve to star in a story. Everything they touch turns to crap. Even Superman blows it with Lois Lane. But don’t overload them right away. Act One is about showing them trying to solve their problems with the same old approaches, which of course doesn’t work. They’re essentially in a rut.
  • Conflict is essential at every stage of your novel. To create conflict, you might want to consider Plot Reversals. Nothing your character expects can occur. If they go for a coffee, they don’t have enough money, or the store is closed, or they don’t have the right brand, or the Evil Barista messes up their order. If they are walking the dog, then the dog runs away, or chases a squirrel, or bites another dog, or poops on the neighbor’s lawn right in front of him. Or something can go well, like a feared blind date where the guy or girl is actually nice and attractive. Reversals. Use them.
  • Set up the Adventure. Examples: A letter in the mail promising a prize if they do X, Y, and Z. A mysterious message on the answering machine talking about inheritances. A want ad in the paper for an exciting job. A random stranger on the bus who tells them how they lost 70 lbs in 3 days. Define your character’s problem, and then entice them to go out and find a solution.
  • What is the problem? Seriously. Why is your character single? Why can’t she excel at work? Why does his brother always outperform him? Why do the Aliens find her so interesting? Why are vampires always hanging around? Why are the Voices so irritating?
  • Who does your character listen to for advice? Who can they trust? Is there someone out there to help guide them, someone who may have BTDT in the past? Is there someone out there who will steer them wrong? What skills will they need on their Journey, and who will help them learn these skills?
  • What is your character afraid of? Why won’t he run for Congress? Why doesn’t she go out on dates? Why can’t he just assault the enemy’s fortress? Why can’t she just tell her mom the truth for once? What is keeping them trapped in their own miserable lives with their tired circle of friends, and what is it going to take to for them to get moving? They don’t have to get moving, not quite yet, but the more uncomfortable you make it, they more impetus they will have for change.

If you can cover all this in a week, and in 12-25K words, you’re doing great! Just keep putting your character through more and more situations until you find what they really need to get going. Then next week, your character will start actively working on their problems, start encounter resistance and Enemies, and will take the conflict to the next level.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Why I NaNoWriMo


National Novel Writing Month.
The goal: write a 50,000+ word novel in 30 days.
Why do I do it? Why put myself through 30 days of hell? Well, let me tell you a little story. It was 1985. I had just graduated High School. I had already been accepted to college, but I had little to do that summer. I might have had some kind of job, but I don’t really remember. What I do remember is sitting out in the back yard and working on a grand post-apocalyptic story. In longhand (probably the last time I ever wrote a novel longhand).
I worked out mankind’s future history for the next 3000 years. At the time, the Cold War still raged, so I started with an East vs West World War set sometime around…I don’t know…2015 or so (gasp). I also predicted orbital colonies and colonies on the Moon and Mars. I did think that everyone would have these networked computers that would provide them news and information, so I wasn’t all wrong.
Anyways, by the time school arrived, my school work precluded any time for writing. Months passed, and at last I found myself at home on Winter Break with my shiny new Mac 512K. In those days, Macs were the modern equivalent of laptops…a whole computer in one box. Anyways, I decided to finish the story I had started during the summer. But unlike NaNoWriMo, I only had three weeks to write a complete novel. I literally wrote all day, from the time I got up ‘til the time I went to sleep. Then, on the final day before I had to head back, I would print the whole thing out. I repeated this the next two winters, not finding time to do writing during summer break.
I’ve looked back at that writing, and it’s crap in its purest form. But I’ve never forgotten the intense satisfaction I got from the pure creative process. Since that time, I’ve always planned to have a second career as a writer. NaNoWriMo answers the call I have to be a writer. I’ve always worked best under pressure, and watching the word counter move every day is great motivation. I want to recapture those days, except I want to produce writing that’s not pure crap.

NaNoWriMo 2009

So now on to this year’s project. The last two NaNoWriMo’s have been just for fun. I created a fictional blog and wrote the story in real time. It was a blast and I might pick it up again someday. But this year, I want NaNoWriMo to count. I’ve spent the last two months outlining a new book in a new genre (or two) that I think is totally marketable, if I can nail it. So I hereby present to you:

The Battle for New Britannia
Steampunk Romance

New England a Monarchy? Pennsylvania populated by Germans? Armies composed of airships and mechanical horses?
All Prudencia Stratton wants is to restore her family’s name by finding a nobleman to marry. When she discovers that her country is on the brink of civil war, she sides with the devious Duke who knows no boundaries on his quest for power. However, when a handsome Sky Captain sweeps her off her feet, a new civil war begins—the battle over Prudencia’s heart.
Okay, I hope that blurb isn’t too sappy. That’s the core conflict of the story, your classic love triangle. But there’s a bajillion subplots and substories and a slew of characters all waiting to be fleshed out. I’ve created an entire new history of North America, where Steam Power is the norm and electricity hasn’t become popular. If you want a longer synopsis, check out my NaNoWriMo Profile (user Iapetus999). You may have already noticed the slow conversion of my blog over to a steam-powered motif.
My goal for November is of course to hit 50,000, but my target word count is 90,000 overall. I won’t be upset if I don’t hit that larger goal by Dec. 1. I know the purpose is to write with “reckless abandon,” but I think that woks best when you don’t really know what the story’s about. In this case, I have it plotted down to individual scenes, but I’m not committing to staying within the outline. We’ll see what happens.
So now a note to my loyal blog followers as to what to expect over the next 30+ days. I’m probably not going to read a lot of blogs. I’m not going to be posting much except NaNoWriMo updates. If your blog post doesn’t contain the word “NaNoWriMo” I probably won’t read it. But if you comment on this blog, I will take the time to check yours out. I’m going to spend my free time on the NaNoWriMo forums which only seem to have life October through November then everyone disappears.
Lastly, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo, comment here and I’ll add you to my NaNoRoll on the side of this blog when I get a chance, so we can compare progress and hopefully motivate each other.
Good luck everyone, Happy Halloween, Happy NaNoWriMo, and see you on Dec. 1st!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Story Structure Part V – Crossing the First Threshold

SkiBackflip This is the fifth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

Crossing the First Threshold

There is one moment in the story when something irrevocably changes for the character. The High Point of Act One, this is also known as the Turning Point, or Answering the Call. It can be subtle or overt. A characters Crosses the Threshold when he finally accepts the fact that change is inevitable, and he begins to act. He is entering what’s known as the Special World. This is a new world, with new rules and customs. It is a world filled with danger and opportunity.

Once your character enters the Special World, he cannot return back to the Ordinary World without embarking on an adventure. I liken it to stepping off the skilift at a ski resort. You have entered the Special World of Skiing, whether you know how to ski or not. Your Ordinary World is the lodge, full of warmth and comfort, but somehow not satisfying. You’ve heard The Call of “skiing is awesome” but resisted up until now (Refusal). But your friend (Meeting with the Mentor) has convinced you to try it. Now you stand at the stop of a steep hill, completely clueless as how to proceed. You can’t get back on the lift, and there are only two ways down: skiing or crawling. Good luck, see you at the bottom!

A story may contain many thresholds that are blocked by Threshold Guardians who must be defeated or won over before the Hero can proceed. The Threshold is often a physical threshold, such as a door or change in light, such as sundown. In any case, once crossed, a hero can only return after a lengthy Ordeal, and not until he’s altered in some fundamental way by the experience. He must learn the rules of his new world, and use those lessons, to help him eventually return to his Ordinary World.

Goal Line Returning to our benchwarming quarterback, his Threshold is clear. It is a white line that surrounds the football field. His turn has come. Coach puts him in the game; the starting QB is unable to continue. He has a choice: either enter the game, or run away in defeat, never to play football again. However, Heroes don’t really have a choice. They must cross the threshold, it’s what makes them Heroes. Even though it seems like Coach is forcing him to play, he’s simply answering a deep Call, not just to play, but to confront his fears, to find out once and for all what he’s made of. He’s going to soon have to cross two other Thresholds: where the heck are his parents, and what is going on with his girlfriend. A massive storm is raging, swamping the field, reminding him that he is now in unfamiliar territory.

Guess who’s waiting right on the the other side of the Threshold? The Enemy. Up until now, your character has avoided direct confrontation. What is the first thing our skier sees upon exiting the skilift? Trail signs such as “Bone Crusher Alley,” “Hell’s Canyon,” and “Perry’s Plunge.” What does our quarterback encounter? Teammates who don’t trust him or respect him, and the other team, giddy over knocking two opposing players out of the game, are thirsty for the blood of an untested newcomer to the Special World of full contact football. Also, the Story Question is becoming clear. His team is already down 14-0. Can our untested Hero survive his Journey to the Special World and wind up victorious?

Crossing the Threshold Goals

  • Start the “Story” part of the story. Your Hero starts acting, starts interacting with the world around him in order to achieve his goals.
  • Show that the Special World is different. Different feel, new characters, bigger obstacles. The rain is now pouring down on the football field, a clear change in atmosphere.
  • Raise the stakes. The cost of quitting now are huge and growing.
  • The Villain also starts to act, sensing a threat and/or opportunity entering his World.
  • Even if not obvious to your character, your readers should see what the Story Question is at this point. Ex. Can you make it down the Ski Slope? Can the QB help win the game?
  • Keep the Hero focused on his goals, even if new immediate goals emerge.

Non Goals

  • Do not start your story in the Special World. You can hint at it such as, “let me tell you how I wound up upside down in a tree” but it’s much better to show what made the Hero decide to act.
  • Don’t give the Hero a choice. (Feel free to disagree with this one, but I’m sticking to it). When the hatch closes, you’re taking the flight whether there are Snakes on the Plane or not. Whatever his reasons for entering the Special World, he now has to see it through. My point is that the Ordinary World problems have grown so big, that he has no other choice than to enter this new world. The alternative is essentially Death.
  • Even if he simply enters a room through a door, he cannot turn back and retreat. (Have I made this clear yet?) Heck, move the Villain in front of the doorway if you have to. The crossing is one-way only.
  • This is not a climactic event. Nothing is resolved, but it’s the first step towards some kind of ultimate resolution.

On a somewhat related note, I’m personally going to Cross a Threshold at 12AM Nov 1, 2009 when I start NaNoWriMo. I am going to start writing a new novel. I wonder what enemies I will encounter in my journey? Can I write 50,000 words before 12AM Dec. 1? Will I finish the first draft? Am I making a huge mistake tackling a genre of which I know very little?

When have you answered The Call, and how did you Cross the Threshold in your own life?