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?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Story Structure Part IV: Meeting with the Mentor

obi wan This is the fourth 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.

Meeting with the Mentor

Along with Hero and Villain (the “Shade” Archtype), the Mentor is probably one of the best-understood character types. Mentors are everywhere. In fiction, they are the characters who instruct the Hero in the ways of the Special World he has or is about to enter. We see mentors all the time. Parents, teachers, older siblings, troop leaders, bosses, drill instructors, family friends, gang leaders, and anyone who provides a hero with critical information. Sometimes mentors are agnostic—either the Hero learns or he doesn’t. Mentors can be the Hero’s greatest asset and inspiration, or a Mentor can teach through pain and humiliation. It really depends on the particular lesson and the character of the Mentor. Some Mentors even become the Villain…and the Hero must defeat his own Mentor to prevail.

Mentors can appear throughout the novel, not just in the First Act. As  a Hero grows along his Journey, his needs for information changes. Some Mentors start him along his journey, and some appear near the end, providing him with the final information needed to defeat the villain, perhaps through earning the respect of the Mentor. They may test the Hero, preventing him from progressing if he’s not ready. Generally, it’s good to establish a rapport with a Mentor early on, so as our Hero enters the Special World of Act II, he has at least some tools in hand and won’t be crushed immediately.

old coach So let’s return to our Hero, our benchwarming quarterback. Who are his Mentors? First, there are the coaches on the sideline. One old coach tells him to warm up. Our Hero has a decent relation with this “old, wise” man who is an assistant coach. We don’t know much about him, except maybe that he used to be a head coach somewhere important, maybe years or decades ago. Now, he’s a rambling old man no one pays attention to, but our Hero likes to hear his stories. This man likes to talk about the “glory days” when helmets were optional and quarterbacks ran the ball. Mentors need an air of authority, otherwise the Hero won’t listen.

He pats our quarterback on the shoulder, and asks him if he’s ready. He tells him to relax, to play his best, and watch for the corners pinching in. Then the Head Coach comes over and yells and screams, and the old man slinks into the background. The Head Coach is not really a Mentor, his concerns are much higher than day-to-day training. Our quarterback may also have words from his Father in his head, disparaging remarks about how he never will succeed. Negative Mentors can be a huge source of frustration for a Hero, but there are valuable lessons in hearing negative advice too.

Meeting with Mentor Goals

  • Provide the Hero with critical information at critical junctures.
  • Explain the Special World the Hero is entering.
  • Provide a framework for the transformation the Hero must undergo.
  • Train the Hero in skills he will need to succeed.
  • Be an asset to the Hero, someone he can turn to.

Non Goals

  • Don’t give the Hero everything he needs. A good mentor doesn’t just hand the Hero fish, he teaches him how to fish.
  • Don’t be an Ally to the Hero. He can be, but sometimes he’s providing the Hero with false information and has his own best interests at heart.
  • Don’t throw advice out there like candy. In many cases, a Mentor’s gifts must be earned.
  • He doesn’t solve the Hero’s problems. He simply points the Hero in the right direction, but the Hero must ultimately prevail on his own merits.
  • Your Hero doesn’t have to listen to the Mentor. But, he ignores the Mentor at your own peril.

Who are the Mentors in your writing? Who is your writing Mentor?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Story Structure Part III: Refusal of the Call

Blue Hawaii Heli This is the third 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.


Refusal of the Call

There’s one thing I want to point out before I talk about Part Three. Even though I describe these parts of the Hero’s Journey in a certain order, I don’t want to imply that either A) This is the exact order they must appear in, or B) Every part is required. Even though I will try to make a case that they are all required, I’m sure there are many successful counter-examples out there.

Refusal of the Call can be summarized in one word: Fear.

From the “Litany of Fear” by the Immortal Frank Herbert via Lady Jessica: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
(BTW does anyone know if by “little death” he’s referring to La Petite Mort? ‘Cause that would be weird.)

On the other hand, Fear is probably the #1 motivator in people’s lives. If your character is not living in a state of anxious excitement (the happy side of fear) or mortal dread (the fearful side of fear) then your character is not in a state of conflict and the stakes are not high enough. It’s been said that to truly achieve transformation and resurrection, a character must face his worst fears. The initial Refusal of the Call is a character’s first encounter with fear, the first challenge to his world view, the first time he considers the risks involved with the adventure.

We hear the Call to Adventure every day. Consider a Helicopter Ride.* Go ahead. Why aren’t you booking it? It’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s exciting, it’s dangerous. You might have an experience that lasts a lifetime. Now what were your “excuses” for saying no?

“It’s too expensive.”
“I’m scared of heights.”
“Who has the time?”
“Those things crash all the time.”
“I don’t want to have to travel to Hawaii just for a helicopter ride.”
“I don’t have anyone to go with me :(.”

All those excuses are the Refusal of the Call. I just now issued you a Call to Adventure, but you refused. In your own writing you’re going to issue your character a Call to Adventure, and he might have a thousand reasons to refuse. And not just the Call. He may refuse to Cross the Threshold, to Approach the Inmost Cave, or even begin The Road Home. Or, he might hear the Call, and immediately Cross the Threshold with guns a’blazin. No matter where your character is in the Hero’s Journey, he will eventually have to face his fear, and at some point he may resist continuing upon this journey.

football lightning Let’s turn to our benchwarming quarterback. His refusal is fairly straightforward. When he sees how nasty conditions are becoming on the field, with the starting quarterback limping, another player out with a leg fracture, a storm approaching, his parents absent, and a cheerleader pleading for attention, it’s all he can do to not turn and run for the busses. Coach comes over and tells him to start warming up, and he does it half-heartedly, as if dragging his heels will prevent this adventure from occurring. He continues to blow off the cheerleader. He doesn’t want to hear it, whatever “it” is.

Underlying all these events is a strong undercurrent of fear. His primary fear is the Fear of Failure. Riding the bench has been safe. He can’t fail if he doesn’t try. He’s on the team but he doesn’t determine wins and losses. A secondary fear he’s experiencing is with the Cheerleader. Obviously they have a history. There might be events in this history that evoke fear. So right now, what are his Worst Fears? And as a writer, what do you think should happen?

Refusal of the Call Goals:

  • Raise the stakes. The Inciting Incident speaks to a character’s needs and desires. The Refusal speaks to his fears.
  • Illustrate character flaws. If our quarterback ran onto the field and saved the day, that would be nice but it wouldn’t be a story. If he was that kind of guy he’d already be starting.
  • Get down and dirty. Stick out that foot and start tripping your character. Don’t hold back.
  • Help the reader identify with the character. Make him more human.

Non Goals:

  • Don’t expose everything. Keep to the point. Don’t give your character a fear of snakes if he never encounters them again. This isn’t a character essay.
  • The temptation to Adventure will win out. Don’t paralyze your character or you’ll paralyze your reader. Keep it moving along.
  • Don’t make him face his fears, or even clearly identify them at this point. His refusal may sound logical and rational at this point. But as the writer…you know better. Keep the reader guessing.

How do you use fear in your writing? Do your characters jump into adventure or are they dragged in kicking and screaming?

* I actually rode this helicopter service during my Honeymoon in 1999 on Maui. Freakin’ awesome, highly recommend.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Story Structure Part II: The Call to Adventure

Adventure Stucture This is the second 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 Call To Adventure

This is also known as “The Inciting Incident.”

Everybody hears “The Call.” The Call to Adventure happens every day, at any time. You read something online, you see something on TV, you get a phone call. This might cause you to act in a new way. Inciting Incidents happen all the time, but they don’t necessarily lead to some kind of marvelous and dangerous adventure. In fiction, heroes generally are facing some kind of intractable problem at the beginning of the book. They’ve done everything they know how to do. In many ways, heroes are primed for adventure. They are in need of change, they just don’t know it. So when they receive that tiny glimmer of hope, a glimpse of a world outside of what they’ve ever known, they can’t resist. Heroes have to go on the adventure; a good writer leaves them little choice.

Sometimes the Inciting Incident is a lot less subtle. A car wreck. A disease. A breakup. It doesn’t become a Call to Adventure unless this incident is something out of the ordinary. However, to move the story right along, you probably want to make this incident meaningful. In certain genres, the Inciting Incident has certain specific characteristics. In mysteries, it’s usually the crime, or the dame walking into the detective agency. In many adventures it’s the actual summoning of the hero. But in general fiction it can be anything. The death of a loved one. An impeding marriage. A job offer. An attack by the previously peace-offering Cylons. A midnight knock on the door. A snake on a plane. A blood-burping Zombie. A secret admirer.

Note that just because a hero hears The Call, doesn’t mean they immediately answer it. In fact, most heroes are fairly reluctant to change their ways, to experience danger, to finally do something they’ve been putting off forever. (We’ll talk about The Reluctant Hero in Part Three). Also, The Call does not have to be a single incident. It can be a series of (unfortunate?) events that drag the hero kicking and screaming into Adventure.

Injured-PlayerR Let’s go back to our benchwarming quarterback from Part One.  He’s always dreamed of being the star, but has never come close. Will he be ready when The Call To Adventure comes? When the starting quarterback goes down, coach tells him to get ready. Often The Call is brought by a Herald, in this case the Coach. However, the starter recovers on the sideline, so our hero’s adventure is thwarted again. The starter suffered a twisted ankle, but he says he can play. Even though our hero isn’t forced into the game, thoughts and emotions are put into play. This is where we can learn more background about him. Now that the possibility of adventure is nigh, we can witness the dynamics that have brought our hero to this point. We can see maybe why he’s where he is, and maybe why he deserves more. The starter is obviously struggling, and looks like he may not last long.

Other incidents are occurring as well, all foreboding signs that change is in the air. A cheerleader keeps approaching him on the sidelines, insisting they have to “talk”…during the game. He can’t find his parents in the stands. Another teammate goes down with a serious injury. The other team scores. Thunder is clearly audible. Change is coming, and if he doesn’t start to act, bad things might occur.

The Call to Adventure Goals:

  • Present the Hero with an opportunity.
  • Define the Hero’s current goals and obstacles.
  • Foreshadow the main conflict, bring some elements into play.
  • Increase the stakes a bit (but don’t overwhelm your Hero, he should feel uncomfortable but not panicked…yet).
  • The Hero may or may not make a choice here to proceed, but match the opportunity with his goals. Think about ads for the Military, how they make soldiering sound like the coolest job on the planet. This is the nature of the Inciting Incident, a hint of danger coupled with an opportunity to escape the Ordinary World.
Non Goals:
  • The Hero doesn’t have to answer The Call right away. It depends on his personality.
  • Avoid extensive backstory. Include enough to illuminate some motivations, but a wholesale litany of his life is probably too much. Keep the tempo up.
  • Don’t show that he’s a Hero. Only that he is a Potential Hero With Issues. Most Heroes don’t become Heroes until Act Three.

I’ve seen a lot of advice that suggest that you start your story with the Inciting Incident right off the bat to entice your readers. This can work, as long as you show how this Incident is out-of-the-ordinary. Sometimes this works as a Prologue where you show the Bad Guys committing heinous acts, then show the Hero in his Ordinary World, and then the Inciting Incident becomes the first interaction between the two. You want to draw the reader in, but also ground them in your world before introducing all the chaos that follows.

How do you like to draw the reader in? How soon should the Inciting Incident occur?

Friday, October 2, 2009

It’s NaNoWriMo 2009 Time!

nano_09_blk_participant_100x100_2.pngTo My Dear Readers:
Starting November 1, 2009, at precisely 12:00AM, NaNoWriMo begins. If you don’t want to hear endless posts about NaNoWriMo, unsubscribe now. (No, don’t! I promise I’ll try to be reasonable. But not really).
NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to complete a 50,000+ word novel before the clock strikes midnight on December 1st. How you accomplish this is up to you. This requires an average of 1667 words a day for 30 days straight. Sound impossible?
alex ross The last two years, I’ve written a live “blogvel” which is a novel written as live blog posts, as if the characters were posting the story as it happens. In 2007, I wrote a story about a man caught up in corporate conspiracy and espionage. He must save his own office from demolition by a madwomen who used to be his boss who used to be a schoolmate that he accidently ran off the road back in high school. It’s extremely nutty. I never really intended this to be a story I’d eventually rewrite and publish, but it’s crazy (albeit poorly written) tale of adventure.
In 2008, I took the characters to the next level. This time they had to stop this madwoman from destroying London. Stuck on some kind of nuclear-powered boat, they travel around the world causing mayhem and destruction. I can’t really describe it except to say that however nutty 2007 was, 2008 definitely topped it.
hitgirl This is the beauty of NaNoWriMo, the ultimate seat-of-the-pants journey into creating worlds of imagination. Whatever idea you have, you go with it. No time for reflection or character development. No editing the previous day’s work to make today’s plot functional. I wanted pirates and zombies and Chinese labor camps, and got them all. Doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t have to. It’s an imagination explosion.
This brings us to 2009. What should I do for NaNoWriMo? I really want to finish the “30 Days” Trilogy. They never accounted for the backers of the prison or the bizarre warship, the makers of the Singularity Matrix.  The world is still in peril. Julia has some demons in her past. Alex is still farting his life away. Carrie is madder than ever. Elena is disgraced and on the lam. There’s been no real resolution.
Here’s the thing. I don’t know if I can afford to spend a month (or two if I do all the planning in October) working on something I don’t ever plan to market. As good as the “30 Days” concept is, I don’t think it’s professional quality fiction. It’s more of the quality of fan fiction for a show that doesn’t exist. I’ve been re-reading 2007 and it’s really poor. But if I don’t finish “30 Days” this year, I never will. It will never be done.
This is what I want to do. I want to take the month of October to completely plan out this project. Then I want to dedicate November to writing. I face a few choices:AirshipBattleFleet
  • Use NaNoWriMo to write the final edition of “30 Days”.
  • Use NaNoWriMo to write another story. I have one concept well-plotted at this point. I have 2 others that are in lesser stages of development, but could be plotted by Nov 1.
  • Write two stories at once. While this may be crazy talk, there’s a certain attraction to performing 2 NaNoWriMo’s simultaneously. I don’t think it would take me all day to write the blog posts for “30 Days”. It can just be whip-it-out fiction.
Decisions, decisions.  I’ll let you know what I decide before the 1st.