Monday, December 13, 2010

Revision: Sharpening Characters

Revision: Sharpening Characters

sharpen charOn my never-ending quest to revise Steam Palace, I’ve come across a particular set of feedback across most reviewers:

  1. I don’t care (enough) about your character(s)
  2. I don’t understand your character(s)

So lately I’ve been researching the issue. It seems like it comes down to two separate problems:

  1. Overall, I’m not showing my characters’ goals and motivations clearly, and/or readers don’t relate.
  2. In specific scenes, not providing insight into my characters’ mindset.

So how do I address these issues? The first thing is to make my character’s motivations and goals not only clearer, but much stronger. As I write, I always have a sense of what each character is after. A lot of us want to start with “ordinary” characters who are facing somewhat “ordinary” problems. The problem come when we send these characters on an adventure. Why? What stops them from just going back home? Why do they continue to press through even when things get tough or even impossible? Why don’t they fold like a house of cards?

The fact is that they are anything but ordinary. Characters are driven. They are the people we see in real life and say, “man, I wish I could be that guy.” “Isn’t she awesome?” Or, alternately, “I wish someone would run over that dude.” Characters are Heroes, they are larger-than-life. They are extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

So how does this apply to character revision? Should I give my character laser eyes and shoot him into space? No. But there are a couple things to consider.

  1. What are the Stakes? Are they big enough? What happens if your character loses?
  2. Can you increase the stakes? Make them more personal? What would your character die for? Is this the most important thing the character has ever wanted ever?
  3. Are your characters’ goals well-defined? Do they know what they want? Do you? Is what they want worth dying over?
  4. Can the reader relate to the character’s needs? Are they good, solid goals?
  5. Does the character have a life outside of the story that the reader can relate to?
  6. Do other characters care about your character? Does your character care about the other characters? Let’s feel the love.

Note that this applies both to Heroes and Villains, except for #6 where you should replace ‘care about’ with ‘hate’.

Now this doesn’t address of connecting with characters on a page-by-page basis. Here are some things I’m going to work through:

  1. Keep the characters’ goals and opposition up-front on every page. Think of a kid trying to get to a bowl of candy. They have eyes for nothing else. You character wants something in every situation, and struggles to achieve that goal. It’s either the candy or a diaper-wetting tantrum (or however your character handles setbacks). And remember, the goal is never, “learn the backstory.”
  2. Filter the scene through the POV character. If there’s nothing evocative about something in the scene, don’t mention it. React. Emote. Why does ever single word on each page matter?
  3. Dialogue is better than monologue. Especially if two or more characters are speaking at cross-purposes. Express inner dialogue when you can, but don’t overdo it.

How do you get your readers to connect with your characters?

PS. On the image above, let me suggest an edit. The balloon should read, “A conflicted Disney Princess on every page.” Then they won’t just teach reading comprehension, but maybe writing skills as well.

Monday, November 29, 2010

NaNoWriMo 2010 Post-Mortem


nanowrimo qualityFor this year’s NaNoWriMo, I decided to go a different route. Instead of continuing Steam Palace, I decided to use a concept that I had been toying with for years. I wanted to focus on the story of this brilliant detective who’s completely incapacitated, but it turned into something more akin to my first couple NaNo stories, the 30 Days series. More action than mystery, more plot than characters.
First, the facts:
Final Title:
Dead Air: An Archie Magnuson Mystery
56,937 words, my lowest output in 4 NaNo’s, but still a “winner.”
Actual days writing: 25
2,200 words/day, compared to something like 3,200 words/day last year
47 “Scenes”

My goal was lower this year. I was aiming for 60K, so I timed my book accordingly. My 80K first draft last year swelled to 120K by the time I finished 3 revisions. So using the same math, my 56K book may wind up around 84K, not a bad size.
But overall, I’m just not satisfied. I think I know some of the main issues that I fought against this year: Note that most of this stuff I was aware of while I was writing, but I just turned off that damned inner editor and went with it.
  • Not enough time spent planning/plotting. By the time I hit Act IV (of five), I was really lost. Usually this is the most fun part of the book to write, but for me it was a death march. I just plodded forward, forcing events instead of letting them happen.
  • Not taking it seriously. Last year I knew I was writing a novel to publish. This year I was “experimenting” with a new genre. I don’t really think I loved writing Mystery. It’s a lot of work, a lot of detail, and pantsing this kind of thing just doesn’t work. I think I can make this work, but not under these constraints.
  • Falling in love with my characters. I have a tendency to fall in love with certain types of characters (mostly female) and then they start to take over the story because I just want to write about them and give them larger roles than they probably deserve.
  • Lack of Villainy. This problem plagues me. My villains just aren’t bad enough. Yeah he’s a bastard but he doesn’t really do that much bad stuff. I want to create someone the reader wants to throttle, not just be annoyed with.
  • Distractions. Going to a 3-day con in the middle of NaNo was a bad idea (for NaNo…made a few industry contacts for Steam Palace, might post about it). Also, you know what really sucks? Getting sick. I picked up some kind of crud at the con and I’ve been sick ever since. It’s incredibly hard to write when you just want to go back to bed.
  • Why? That’s really basic. I never really answered this. Why did anyone do anything they did aside from me wanting them to? What were their motivations? Backstories? And why should the reader care about any of it?
  • Telling. Well, I’d been in full edit mode for a year, so switching back is hard. It took almost 3 days to just drop the editorial voice inside my head and just write. The problem with this is that so much crap comes out that it’s almost not worth it. Out of all the issues listed above, this is the one that really kills me. This is why if I do a revision, it will be a complete rewrite, just like I did with Steam Palace. Not a single line will remain. And it will take me longer than 25 days.
I’m not sure going forward that NaNoWriMo is the best way to draft a novel. Especially this year when I couldn’t devote as much time as I’d like to plotting and even writing it. But I guess so far I’ve only highlighted the negatives, so here are some positive things:
  • I won! ‘Nuff said. Gimme my damn badge!
  • I have a full draft of a new novel in a new genre.
  • I took a risk. I’m not sure it will pay off in this case, but it’s something.
  • Many good characters/potentially good characters.
  • A couple interesting plot twists
  • Potentially compelling conflicts.
  • Lots of series potential. It only takes one book to sell a series.
So I guess I’m giving myself a mixed grade this year. So what will I do from here? Probably shelve it. I could also do a quick 1-2 week edit and throw it up on some sites to get feedback. But right now I really need to work on selling Steam Palace. I also have a few deadlines for conference submissions.
I hope everyone had a good NaNoWriMo, see you next year!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My NaNoWriMo 2010 Cover

Part of the fun of NaNoWriMo is imagining what your cover would like like. Heck, what’s the title of your story? I’ve gone through a few variations so far such as “The Bed Detective” and “Big Woman Detective”. There’s a phrase that keeps coming up in my story. “Dead Air.” I ran it through Lulu’s Title Scorer and it earned a whopping 77% likelihood of being a best-seller. (Steam Palace ranked like 33%. D’ooh!).

After today I’m taking a brief hiatus from NaNo to participate in SteamCon. I really hope I have a couple minutes of downtime to write maybe a couple hundred words here and there, but I’m not planning on it. I’m at 39K today and I’ll be well over 40K by lunch. Then on Monday it’s the race to the finish, my goal being 60-65K.
Now, without further ado, let me present the cover of my NaNoWriMo 2010 book Dead Air:
Dead_Air_Cover_1

I’m hoping that looks a bit ominous and not serene. I played with the image to wash out the colors even more and make it really drab. The image had absolutely nothing to do with the story but it’s more about the mood.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

NaNoWriMo 2010 Halfway Report


nanowrimo fireWell, so far, so good. I’m sitting here at the halfway point of with 32K words, my target being ~60K words. Unfortunately, my four “days off” are coming soon. I’m going to be at Steamcon Fri, Sat, and Sunday this week, and next week I traditionally take T-day off (but make up for it on Black Friday in an all-day writing spree). My pace is well under last year, especially considering that my wife wrecked her car last November and I lost a lot of time due to that…and I still finished 5 days early. This year my target is lower, and I’ve been working on a couple other things.
So storywise, it’s interesting. I’m writing a completely contemporary mystery, no Sci-Fi, no secret agents, just everyday people. Okay, there’s a mad scientist. D’ohh! Well, I never worked a good mad scientist into Steam Palace, so I guess some of that rubbed off. But still, it’s not science fiction, I promise.
I’ve stuck fairly well to the storyline. There have been a few characters that I created who I’ve never used, and a few that are creeping out of nowhere to take prominent roles. The plot has more holes than a gun range target, and it’s not all that close to what I started with, but I kind of expected that.
Here’s the thing to remember as you draft. Don’t let your plot run the story. Characters should always drive it. Emotion. Fear. Anger. Love. Week 2 is always the hardest week, because once you’ve introduced the characters and the world, then what? I had in mind a scene where my detective and the damsel in distress are in a car and the car flies off the road into a lake where they almost die. That was my goal. But that was plot. I had to know why they were in that car, why no one else was in it, and where they were going.  (I had a couple of near-drowning scenes in the first draft of Steam Palace that didn’t make it into the second…again when I have ideas I’m determined to use them).
So with that scene in mind, I started creating complications. Intrigue. Questions. Characters who acted unexpectedly. Relationships develop. When I finally hit that critical scene, now the whole rest of the story is unfolding. I now a vision of the final climactic scene, the “reveal” as it were. That scene will be the driving force for the next 2 weeks. That’s the make-or-break part of the book. That’s when my hero will be tested and he’ll know once and for all who his true friends are, and whether he has what it takes to be a true detective.
The other thing was that whenever I got stuck, I just think of another scene to write, something where two characters interact in some way.  I don’t know how, but it just sort of works. This is why you have to just rely on your characters. Give them strong goals and motivations, and let them do their own thing, even if it takes your story somewhere else. That’s the beauty of NaNoWriMo, you never know what you’re going to get.
You’re over the hump, and it’s all downhill from here!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

To Climb the NaNoWriMo Mountain

To Climb the NaNoWriMo Mountain

ToTheTop3Okay. I know a lot of you are heads-down in the midst of NaNoWriMo. Others have decided to pass. Either way is fine with me. Apparently, it’s not fine with everyone.

Laura Miller, senior “writer” at Salon.com (yeah, I meant the quotes), who admittedly “as someone who doesn’t write novels” has this to say among other things:

…far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them.

…why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? [emphasis mine]

But even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced.

(read it all here)

Okay, first point…writers are poor. They aren’t the world’s greatest demographic. I’m pretty sure writers don’t target other writers for their books. (just critique ;)

Second point…you mean like book tours, speaking engagements, posters in supermarkets, which all generally cost more than the book takes in? Okay, quick fact check. I did a local search on Meetup.com for local writing clubs. It found 43. Now for local reading clubs. 126. Look! 3 times as many results! Hey, let’s check Google. Writing Club: 46M. Book Club: 199M. Also…Google has a whole frickin’ app called “Books.” Where’s the Google writing app? (Oh yeah, Docs…but it’s blank until you write something).

Lastly…“misplaced”?? WTF? Why do anything then? Why plant a garden if it dies in the fall? Why finish a jigsaw puzzle if you just break it up and put it back? Why have kids if they just grow up and have their own families? Why breathe in if you’re going to breathe it out again?

People like Laura Miller don’t “get it.” They don’t have the spark of creativity, so they can’t appreciate it in others. Why build crap? Why write 50,000+ words that you will just throw away? What if Picasso stopped after his first crappy painting? What if Mozart stopped after his first off-key note? Yeah, are all 170,000 participants in NaNoWriMo the next Mark Twain? No. But…yes. They are. They are the seeds of something greater, that when cultivated may grow into a story for the ages. Sure, maybe you wrote 50,000 words of crap, and tossed it away, deleted the file, whatever. But you are not the same person you were before. You’ve changed. You’ve learned. The next 50,000 will be better. The next 50,000 better still.

A couple years ago I spent all my free time training for a summit climb of Mount Rainier. Every weekend was a massive hike. Every day another workout. For 8 months. And then, when all was said and done, I didn’t make it all the way to the top due to altitude sickness. Was all that time wasted? Was the money I spent on gear and training and the expedition misplaced? What do I have to show for it? Well…I have nothing. BUT. I climbed to 11,000 feet. That’s 11,000 feet more than most people have ever climbed. Will my NaNoWriMo novels ever be published? Or will they fall short? Am I just wasting my time, pretending that I am something I’m not? Are we all just wasting our time?

Here’s the thing. No one writes because they are forced to. People write because they’re driven to write, to say the things that no one else can. Here’s one last thing Laura Miller said, and it’s something you should all think about:

Frankly, there are already more than enough novels out there

Maybe. But there’s a problem. You see, there’s one book missing. One book that really connects with you on a personal level, one book that changes things, one book that tells the perfect story.

Yours. And you’re the only one who can write it.

Now get writing!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

See my Red Dress Guest Post!

See my Red Dress Guest Post!

I have a guest post up on the red dress club!
Everything you need to know about NaNoWriMo!

Go check it out!

“the red dress club” is a site for women writers…which I am not but I kinda know the hostess a little bit (okay she’s my sister). But it’s an awesome site. Check it out!

Monday, October 25, 2010

NaNoWriMo ‘10 Starts in 1 Week!

NaNoWriMo ‘10 Starts in 1 Week!

creative-murder-demotivational-posterAnd I got nothing. Well, I do have something. But I don’t yet have a plot. I have a bunch of characters, I have a crime or two, I have a couple scene ideas. But beyond that…nothing. Last year at this time I was sitting around just trying to think of anything I was missing. This time around I’m grasping for straws.

Okay, enough of the weak metaphors. There’s no reason to panic. At heart I’m a pantser, so no big deal. Sure, I’ve never written a Mystery before. And now that I’m doing it, I’m finding it incredibly complicated. Clues, evidence, leads, motives, means, it all has to be non-obvious and obvious at the same time. Every line of the story has to be about the Mystery. But I have all these great ideas about scenes that have nothing to do with solving the crime(s). And not many about pursuing the bad guys.

I’ve been reading James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. It’s helpful and daunting at the same time. Frey is a proponent of a “Five Act” structure dealing with the phases of solving crimes. Here it is for those who are interested:

  1. Accepting the Mission. The Hero/Detective is made aware of the crime and thinks about working it.
  2. Tests up to Ordeal. The Hero/Detective starts investigating, finding allies and enemies, and eventually is faces with a Crisis.
  3. Solves the Crime. After passing the Ordeal, the Hero/Detective figures out “whodunit” and goes after them, trying to prove it.
  4. Trapping the Criminal. The Hero/Detective faces the Criminal and finds a way to expose and/or defeat him.
  5. Standard Dénouement. The Hero/Detective lives happily ever after and the Criminal doesn’t.

Well, I kinda have a little bit of Acts I and II laid out. The rest is completely up in the air. I have ~6 days 12 hours to figure it out. Also, according to Frey, there this kind of “Act 0” which is the story of the villain, the crime, the victim, and everything that happens outside of the scope of the book. “The plot behind the plot” is what I think he calls it. What I have so far is 4 actual murders, 2 attempted murders, and some other crimes as well. Woot!

So, how is your NaNoWriMo planning going?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Critique Freak

Critique Freak

catfight-758695 Okay. I’m going to tell you a little story about what happened during an in-person critique group I attended last night, then at the end, I’m going to introduce you to my “Two Laws of In-Person Critique” that I hope everyone will consider adopting for their own groups. These laws were massively violated with horrible consequences.

I was sitting at a table with two ladies, let’s call them “Mary” and “Sue.” I had not been to this particular group before except as an observer about a year ago. Mary had written a literary piece. It had little plot, but it painted a portrait of three people. It was eloquent, obscure, and a little rambling. But it was “literary,” a genre that I repeatedly told her that I was not very experienced in. My personal observation (that I never really got to tell her) was that it was mostly backstory and that I wanted to know the general conflict of the story before I knew the why’s and wherefore’s. Get me to care about the characters first before explaining them.

But anyways, Sue decided essentially that the piece sucked. It had no plot, it was meaningless, blah blah blah. Mary countered that Sue just didn’t understand, that Mary had X years of teaching creative writing, that the piece we were reading had won an award, and Sue was full of shit. So Sue countered that she can’t believe a creative writing teacher could write such crap. Fun stuff, no? I literally thought it would come to blows. It ended with Mary running off in tears, and when she got home, she wrote a nasty note to the group leader and left the group.

So here are my laws, which hopefully will demonstrate exactly why this ended poorly.

The Two Laws for In-Person Critique

1. Never Defend Your Writing

Here’s what happens: You hear something negative about your piece. Criticism. Disdain. Who wouldn’t want to correct or fix the critiquer’s perception of the piece? So you defend it, arguing that you are correct, and the critiquer is wrong. All that does is make the critiquer fight harder to prove their point. If someone says something blatantly useless about your piece, or has no clue how to critique your genre, just thank them for their effort. Hey, they tried. People come to these groups to improve both their writing and critiquing, and put a lot of effort to try to understand what they’re reading. Sometimes they fail. I myself knew I was highly unqualified to critique this piece. I told Mary many times that I probably wasn’t doing it justice.

Now this doesn’t mean you can’t discuss your piece, or find a way to help the critiquer understand your genre and what you’re trying to accomplish. Just don’t feel you have to defend anything you’ve written. If someone doesn’t like it or understand it…fine. Move on to someone who can truly connect with your writing.

2. The Author is Always Right

I just don’t understand why critiquers have a problem with this concept. The author wrote it the way they wanted to write it. They understand what the story is about, and what they’re trying to accomplish. This is even more important when you only receive a small portion of the entire piece to critique. If you give the author some feedback and they get defensive…don’t try to prove your point. If the author doesn’t “get it”…fine. It’s not your problem. As a critiquer, you’re never going to get to be right about what you’re reading, except in your own head. You have at best an uneducated opinion about something you know little about. Know your place. Now if the author wants to discuss some of your feedback, that’s fine and encouraged. But if the author gets huffy or defensive or argumentative, then move on. It’s not worth it, and an argument helps no one.

Realize that the author has spent countless hours on the piece before you received it, and you’ve probably spent 30 minutes. By offering the piece for review, the author is establish a trust with you that you will do your best but no more. When it’s all said and done, the author is the one who lives with the piece, not you, and they are the one who ultimately determines what works and what doesn’t, not you.

I hope this illustrates what went horribly wrong last night. I’m shocked that someone with literary teaching creds didn’t know how to shake off a poor critique, but Sue just wouldn’t let it go either. I really hope neither shows up again to this group, because I don’t care for the drama. Except that it makes for good blog fodder.

Remember, we’re all in this together.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Revision Collision

Revision CollisionSP Heat Map 1

Today is Cut Day!

Okay, for the last two weeks, I’ve tediously analyzed my story with the primary intention of finding what can be cut. So over on the left side is my heat map of every scene in the book. Green is good, red is bad. The first column is “importance,” meaning how important is the scene to the story. The second is “tension,” which is how tense the conflict is in a scene. I have about 10 more measures of each scene which I didn’t bother to chart (yet) but maybe I should.

To give you a better idea, I have these numbers summed up by chapter (each chapter is a 8-10K section of the story):

Story Chart 1

That hump around chapter 4 is a little exaggerated, but you can see the hump at chapter 4 is the end of Act I, the second hump at chapter 9 is the crisis point of Act II, and of course Act III just goes off the chart at the end. Is this more or less right?

Also it appears that the tenser scenes are more important. Or the important scenes are more tense. Hmm….wonder if I’ve discovered something….

Here is the same chart, but by word. (Sorry if it screws up my blog formatting).

Story Chart 2

So you can see that overall I’m doing okay, but individual scenes vary. There is no reason to have a scene with an importance under 8, so you can see where I will start looking at cuts.

So my next step is to look at all those low points and decide what to delete. Out of 119 scenes, I am targeting ~20 for deletion. It may come to more, because it’s easier to delete the smaller scenes. But I need to remove about ~20K from the novel, and my scenes average ~1K each.

Here’s one last chart, the distribution of characters by scene. Red is the POV character of that scene:

character dist

I’m going to count all those up and see who’s getting shafted and who’s hogging the stage. Can you guess whose column is whose?

The last thing I’m doing is writing a first-person account by my main character reviewing the story from her perspective. It’s opening my eyes to what’s important to her, and will help me polish off my keep/cut decisions. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

NaNoWriMo for New Writers

nanobanner

Every November for the past 11 years, hundreds of thousands of writers huddle around their laptops and notepads with a singular goal in mind—write fifty thousand words in thirty days…specifically from 12am Nov. 1 to 12pm Nov. 30. Can it be done? Yes.

The “idea” behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is that many aspiring writers talk about writing, think about it, but never actually complete a novel. The challenge is to actually complete a novel in one month. Here’s how it works: you sit down and write 1667 words a day, more if you can. That’s about 7 pages of published text every day. Once November is over, you will have a shiny new manuscript to brag about, and you will join the ranks of those with first drafts of their novels.

Here’s why this works. By forcing yourself to write every day, and write a lot every day, you must be creative. The sheer tension of the exercise translates into your text. Your characters usually face deadlines as well. You must throw them into danger and find quirky ways to extricate them. Your life and your characters’ lives become intertwined, and you start living in both worlds at once. This is total immersion into the world of your novel, where the ideas flow out as fast as you can think them up. You don’t have time to ponder proper grammar or punctuation, let alone metaphor or point-of-view.

Now let’s be serious for a moment. Most of the stuff you will come up with will be crap (whether you write your first draft during NaNoWriMo or not). Characters will show up and disappear. Threads will be left hanging. Scenes will be as empty as a Christmas store in May. Your villains will be as hollow as a later Schwarzenegger movie. Don’t worry about it. Your magical First Draft is simply a milestone on your way to a publishable masterpiece. Consider it as a detailed outline, subject to edits and revisions. The point is that you now have something you can work with, the first step in creating something bigger. You’ve written a novel, and no one can take that away from you!

Despite the fact that NaNoWriMo starts Nov. 1, I highly suggest starting earlier—not writing, of course, but plotting, planning, thinking about characters and conflicts, the general gist of the story, settings, world-building, etc. The more you have ready-to-go before Nov. 1, the easier it will be. Character sketches, backstory, maps, descriptions, scene ideas, whatever you think might make it easier.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Revision Indecision

Revision Indecision

ThelmaLouisejump Well, I powered my way through to the end of Act II of Steam Palace. Here’s the thing. I can plot ‘til the cows come home but as soon as I touch pen to paper (type the first letter) it all goes runs off the road like the car above because my characters are unpredictable. They will do something unexpected, and I’ll go, “well that’s much kewler than what I had plotted…let’s run with it.” Sigh.

In Draft One, I knew what my main character Sophia (called Prudencia back then) wanted. Her family was in chaos, and she figured if she married into a good house, then—like magic—all that would be fixed, so the story was about her drive to become Duchess despite all the crap that she had to endure to achieve this goal. Nice, clean, focused.

Now onto Draft Two. Same beginning, same idea, same goals. Except this new character Viola pops up. And like the proverbial monkey wrench into the gears, Sophia’s lofty goals have been destroyed. Viola’s mean. She’s slutty. She’s psychotically dangerous. And she’s Sophia’s twin sister. What? Suddenly the whole novel has shifted from the story of Sophia restoring her family status to her bond with this woman who represents everything Sophia does not. Yes, I’ll say it and fuck me for writing it: Viola is Sophia’s Evil Twin.

The thing is, Sophia hasn’t changed between drafts. Her real true goal, the restoration of her family, remains intact. The world of my story has changed. Her family is not just her older sister and her mom. It’s now this other person. And then when Sophia finds out she’s adopted (well…stolen), her whole family concept is thrown into chaos. What the hell is her family? Who is she? She cannot become Duchess now. It’s like Draft One was a perfect dream of hers which now lays in ruins.

So what happened? How did I completely ruin a perfectly good plot and now sit here wondering how the fuck am I going to finish this story? Sophia’s association with Viola has completely corrupted her to the point where at the beginning of Act III, they are both on the lam ala Thelma & Louise, running for their lives. Miss Prim and Proper Sophia Stratton…a fugitive. My plot has completely run off the rails. I’ve been sorely tempted to put my foot down and stop writing until my characters behave. I’ve even threatened to end the book right here. But it’s my own fault. I listened to some writing advice about adding “conflict” and “tension” and “fix the sagging middle” to the story, and now it’s an irresolvable mess.

I guess the thing I need to do is figure out what the hell Sophia wants at this point.  She wants some semblance of normality to her life. She has to find a way to make this all right. Her country is about to be invaded by two neighbors fighting for control. Her sister Viola is being hunted for murder (which she did commit), her friend Thomas is suffering the aftereffects of a leg amputation, the Duke wants them dead for messing his plans up, and she herself is wanted for committing terrorist acts (which she did do as well…no “innocent parties” here.). She has to fix all this. Everything she’s grown to care about is being threatened. And it’s kinda her own fault.

And what the hell happened to my Original Idea? That this would be some kind of love triangle story between Sophia, the Duke, and Thomas? She’s thrown all that out because of Viola, and now it’s a buddy story. Poor Thomas, he’s really getting the short end of the stick here. There is a cute scene where he spends a day with Viola convinced she’s Sophia suffering some kind of brain ailment. She tries to tell him she’s not Sophia but he won’t listen. But I digress. Thomas is now relegated to the side, poor guy.

What is this book about? Where is it going? What is the resolution? I have no idea how Sophia’s going to navigate through all this. But the thing is, I will figure all this out, and the result is going to be incredible. At last count I had 25 threads (or story promises) left dangling. I probably can’t close all of them, but I am going to try. And I realize I am going to have to do this before I start edits because I don’t know what’s going to have to change to make the ending work.

Wish me (and Sophia) luck. We’re going to need it. Otherwise I think me and her will be sharing that car up above.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Revision Forever!

Revision Forever!

pedal-to-metal Okay, that’s just short for saying, “this revision is taking forever!”

I started revising Steam Palace in December. Six months later, I have Part One revised. Umm…this is not acceptable. Yes, I spent a lot of time working on an online revision course, deciding what to keep and what to throw out and designing a new plot and new characters. Then I decided the course was taking too long and I started revising the story a couple months back. I was really hoping by now that I’d have something to take to publishers.

Here’s the thing. I really think Steam Palace is good. Publishable, even.  Yes, I know I’m still weak in areas. I’ve successfully navigated all the common writing pitfalls, made my writing strong, improved my story structure and characterization, but how close am I? I have no idea. Even if I’ve improved my writing 200% in a year, how much more do I have left to improve? (to be publishable)

For me, drafting is the easiest thing in the world. I can whip up 4-6K words a day on a draft. But editing—that’s super slow. I’ve literally spent this entire week working on a single chapter (granted it’s the most important chapter of the book so far—basically the climax of Part One that sets the entire rest of the book in motion—and it’s grown to over 6K words in four mini-scenes). At this rate I won’t finish by the end of the year---and there’s still NaNoWriMo! No matter what, I have to be finished on Steam Palace by September 1. Mostly because as great as Steam Palace is, The Immortals is ridiculously better. We’re talking Terry Goodkind good.

So the question is how to get this thing done in three months. Obviously I can work better, stronger, faster. I have the technology. I have nine chapters(40+scenes) to write in fifteen weeks. Gulp. So basically it’s go-time, heads down, full-throttle, and pedal to the metal. But without clichés of course. Which means I’m going to have to start cutting back on blogging, blogfesting, blog reading (notice a trend here?), until this thing is ready to go out the door. Is one fully edited chapter a week doable? If I could finish by Aug. 1 I would be ecstatic, then I could start sending out queries while I do final full-ms edits.

Sigh. Well enough talk and now time to do it. Wish me luck!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Heat Map and Answers

Remember this post I made last week about revision? Here’s the results of some of that analysis:

Steam Palace Heat Map
The columns left-to-right:
  1. Scene Number
  2. Word Count
  3. Cumulative Word Count at end-of-scene.
  4. Importance (0-10). High values indicate a critical scene that usually contains some form of turning point.
  5. Promise Count – Promises are new pieces of story information not explained in the scene. This is high in the beginning of the book and tails off towards the end. I do have a “promises kept” count column but I haven’t started filling it out yet.
  6. Tension Level (0-10) – How high are the stakes in play in a given scene? This is what keeps the reader interested.
Note that this is Act I and a bit of Act II. Can you tell which scene is the transition scene? So you can see that the map starts pretty hot, levels off, then pops up for a bit. From here on, the map should increase into the reds as we press on into Act II, then Act III should be red across the board. Hmm…does that mean the ending is more important than the beginning?
One thing to note is that anything in green is probably worth cutting or combining with another scene. Since I’m running about 6K words over budget, I’m going to look through this carefully to see what I can do.

Friday, April 23, 2010

More on Revision

More on Revision

love_on_the_square Or is that Moron Revision? Anyways, as usual, I’m now five months into my revision of Steam Palace. I’m now at the point where I’m in a full rewrite and done with all the endless analysis. So much stuff is changing that it’s hard to keep up. I now have to figure how twins were separated at birth. D’ohh!
I’m trying to avoid getting sucked into the Evil Twin meme. Even though the twins grow up on the opposite side of the tracks, I don’t want one to be the polar opposite of the other.  And then there’s the so-called love triangle, where my MC is marrying one guy but is in love with another. Well that damn twin messes everything up, because she loves the guy the MC is supposed to marry, but then gets with the guy the MC loves….it’s a horrid mess. BTW I’m NOT a romance writer. So now I have a Love Quadrangle (or is it a Love Square?). Help…me……
And then there’s this new element, this whole backstory that explains why and how my alternate history is alternate. And I’ve barely touched on it, and it’s an integral part of the story.
So right now, I’ve printed out what should be the first third of my novel (Act I + maybe a little Act II) and I’m going over it with a fine-tooth comb. I can see a lot of issues in the printed version I can’t see in Word. Aside from writing down all the story issues I find, marking up poor sentences, and checking consistency, I’m rating every scene on these dimensions on a 0-10 scale. Then I add a comment to justify the score.
Dimension Definition
World/Setting How real is the setting? How unique is the world?
Conflict How intense/interesting is the conflict? How can it be improved?
Tension How much will the reader care about what happens here?
Twist How big, permanent, and irreversible are the actions in the scene (the outcome)?
POV How strong/deep/intimate is the POV? Do we really feel the emotional arc of the scene?
Importance Probably the most “important” dimension…how important is this scene is the grand scheme of things? Turning points should be 8-10, pure backstory should be 0-3. How much does this scene contribute to the Main Plot?
Character How believable are the character’s actions? Are they “in character?” Would they really do these things or am I making them act for my own convenience?
Continuity/Transition How does this scene flow from the previous to the next scene? Do we know where/when we are relative to other scenes? Are we missing anything in between?
Theme How strongly does this scene express the Main Theme of the novel? Do we go off on tangents?
And now here’s my write-up for Scene 4 to give you an example. I probably need to be harsher on the numbers, but I’m still fleshing out my system.

Item
Rating
Comment
World/Setting 7 Nice intro to RL. Maybe some more details on clothing
Conflict 8 Emperor is asking Dunstan to do a lot of hard things he doesn't want to do.
Tension 9 Emperor is nuts.
Twist 8 Dunstan now has a few missions...one to get married
POV 7 Dunstan really sees what's going on...need a bit more emotional reaction
Importance 6 Kind of backstoryie. Also promises a lot that won't show up until Act II. It might make sense to push back a few scenes
Character 6 Emperor is good, Dunstan a bit soft, but he knows his place. Emphasize Emperor's power a bit more
Continuity/
Transition
7
This gives me a better feel for time but it's not related to the other scenes in any way yet.   
Theme 6 Nobility gone wild. Power madness.


And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t plug my Bad Girl Blogfest coming up May 7! And checkout my Blogfest Page for many more!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Alternate Version Blogfest: Steam Palace

Thanks to Livia Blackburne for hosting the Alternate Version Blogfest.

PLEASE VOTE FOR WHICH BLOGFEST I SHOULD HOST!

alternative I chose a scene from my WIP Steam Palace where Prudencia, my main character, meets Lily for the very first time.

Original Version:

A rustling noise shivered the door. Prudencia shot up, feeling vulnerable with only a towel to cover her nakedness. The door opened, and a figure stepped in, closing and latching the door behind. The figure removed a cloak and turned to face Prudencia.

“Oh,” she said.

Prudencia held the towel tightly. “Um...hello? Who might you be?” The person who had just entered didn’t look much like a housemaid. She bore long golden hair, a contrasting dark complexion, and her low cut shirt revealed half her bosom, which had been enhanced with some kind of tight corset. Dark liner circled her eyes, and her lips were painted a painful red. Her skirt ended shockingly right below her hips, exposing her knees and ankles. Prudencia wonder if some street walker had just walked in by mistake, not that she knew what one looked like except in books of course.

“I’m Lily. I’m the—maid.” She extended a white gloved hand.

Prudencia studied the girl. Buxom, handsome, mixed ancestry, but the kind of figure she knew men sought. She grasped the hand and shook it. “Aunt Bea—I mean Lady Harwinton is not up yet,” she commented.

“She never is.” Lily lifted a sack and handed it to Prudencia, who managed to grasp it without losing her towel. “Put that on the counter, would you dear.”

Prudencia lifted the heavy sack and heaved it over. “I’m Prudencia, Lady Harwinton’s niece. I just arrived late last night, and I’ll be staying here.”

“For how long?” Lily eyed Prudencia.

“For—as long as I want, I suppose. She wants to show me Hartford.”

Lily laughed. “Not much to see here. Factories, banks, whale rendering plants, machine shops, a lot of boring stuff. If you want some excitement, you’ll have to leave this part of town.”

Okay, I call that “Welcome to Snoresville.” So during revision, I completely changed Lily’s character into someone much darker, and changed her name to Viola. I wanted her and Prudencia to be in conflict from the first second they meet. In the first draft they become fast friends. In the new revision, they hate each other…but they will be forced to work together and overcome their differences. So here is the “alternate” version of their first encounter:

Prudencia woke to the sounds of rummaging. Judging by the moon’s progress, dawn’s arrival would be imminent. She pulled on a thick woolen robe and wrapped it against the night’s chill. Something downstairs clinked and clattered. She stepped into the hall and glanced into Bea’s room from which emanated the soft sighs of sleep. Could some stray animal be foraging in the house? She grasped a baleen broom from the corner of the hall and crept down the stairs, prepared to beat away any crafty raccoons who might be pilfering the pantry. The nocturnal animals were regular infiltrators in the Wethersfield Manor, and a strict beating would usually deter future infiltrations.

She froze near the bottom. This was no animal. A dark figure moved among the shadows. An intruder. Prudencia clutched the broomstick. The creature dropped something and cursed. A woman’s voice. She peered into the unfamiliar pantry, searching for an accomplice, but the female felon worked alone. She spotted no sign of forced entry, but the darkness could conceal the evidence.

“Come on, where is it,” muttered the figure.

The intruder lit a small lamp. In mere moments, Prudencia summed up the figure before her. A black corset and dress, long dark tresses of hair, and deep colored eyes revealed the hallmarks of a lady of the night. Prudencia might have been raised in Podunk, but she knew enough of the world to notice the bright painted lips, the red sash, and ambergris scent of a prostitute. As she computed this postulate, the woman’s gaze fell upon Prudencia. A thick silence gripped the air as both women appraised the situation.

The black-clad intruder sprang for the door, but quicker than thought Prudencia blocked her, wary of her sharp red nail-tipped fingers. She waved the broom above her head. The thief crouched like a cat, her gaze darting about the room. “Who are you,” demanded the intruder at last, pointing a finger at Prudencia. “What are you doing in my house?”

It has come to my attention that people do not like the name “Prudencia.” In fact, many people hate it so much they would rather read something else than deal with it.
So in the spirit of “Alternate Version”, I’d like to suggest some alternate names. Let me know if any of them resound with you, or if you have any suggestions.. I’m looking for a formal, antique sounding name. (Last name is Stratton FWIW)
Priscilla
Providence
Primrose
Bethania
Camilla
Lavinia
Sophia

EDITED TO ADD:

Apparently, there’s more to “Alternate Version” than I thought…many people are alternating genres….so here’s my attempts (very off-the-cuff and unedited)

Spy Version:

Agent Stratton woke to the subtle noises. She was instantly awake, every sensory nerve firing at maximum. She downed a stim, just in case, and checked her Glock as quietly as possible. Something stirred down in the parlor. She had come to this B & B her aunt run as a vacation, and now she feared her past had found her. She slowed her breathing, and hugged the walls as she crept down the stairs.

Down in the kitchen, a dark figure rifled through drawers. Dressed in black riding clothes, a helmet sat on the counter, along with a brown leather duffel. Stratton noted the curves of a woman. She hoisted the gun to eye level.

“Drop it,” she said, but before the words left her throat, she must have made a telltale noise, because the intruder pulled her own gun. They stared each other down.

The intruder spoke. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing in my house?”

Slash Version (The alternative alternate version)

Prudencia woke from her usual dreams, her body tingling with a lust no man could satisfy. A noise echoed from downstairs. Throwing on a sheer silk, she stumbled down the stairs, wondering who dared disturb her delightful slumber. A woman pawed through drawers in the kitchen, but not any woman. Perhaps another guest, Prudencia could not remove her gaze from her curvy figure, her pert breasts, her deep eyes and tumbling hair. She drew in a sharp breath, and the figure turned to her.

The both watched each other as time stood still. Every sense in Prudencia’s body came alive. She dared not hope for the impossible, that this woman shared her desires. At last the angel spoke.

“Please tell me you’re staying here too,” she said, her breast heaving with emotion.

Sci Fi Version

A chime woke Prudencia. Words flashed across her vision, something about a visitor. She rolled out of bed which deflated and retired to its box. She waved and arms fell out of the closet, throwing clothes on her. She checked her message list and feeds, finding nothing of import. Her hoverpad approached, and she stepped on. “Downstairs,” she said, and the pad pushed her along while a head spider arranged her hair.

She stopped at the bottom. A readout appeared in her vision, identifying the person who rummaged through the kitchen.

Robotic Model “Viola”
Current Location: Steam City
Current Assignment: Pleasurist

Yes indeed, the android bore the trappings of a pleasure provider, the vinyl and rubber of a machine dedicated to the whims of its clients. The machine turned to her.

“Return to your designated quarters and you will not be harmed.”

I hope you enjoyed those!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Revision Reschmision II

Revision Reschmision II

shooting-star-wallpapers_9475_1600x1200 As some of you know, I’ve been working through an online revision course for Steam Palace. The first half of the course was a detailed examination of my  draft, including analyzing scenes, plots, characters, settings, and consistency. It hasn’t really touched structure and style. But now I find myself at an impasse. I have a vision of what the book should be, and I want to start writing it. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been rewriting certain scenes, trying to gain a feel for what the new version will be like.

The course is wanting me to build scene cards, mark keep/change areas, blah blah blah, but my plan is to completely rewrite everything., Every single line. The reason is simple. Although I had an outline for my first draft, when I sat down to write it, all I wanted to do is to get my idea for the book down on paper. I rushed through the draft, not worrying about anything. The result is a mix of good and bad (mostly bad), but rewriting is far more effective that revising.

Revision is different from drafting. In this revision, every line, every word counts. When I was drafting, I could crank out 5000 words a day. With revision it’s closer to 500, and I’m writing copious notes to make sure I don’t drop threads. But that’s not the main difference. I know where the story’s going. I know what the character relationships are. I’ve thrown out 3 characters and replaced them with far more interesting people. I’ve ripped out the middle and replaced it with something deeper. I’ve taken my setting and cranked it up a couple notches, raising the stakes up to where a true Sci-Fi story should be.

Here’s the thing. In my heart, I’m a pantser. I’m not a plotter or an outliner. I can’t sit around for the next 2 months plotting out cards for every possible scene. Yes, organization helps me. Having an outline made drafting immeasurably easier. But organization is not my strength. I’m a problem solver, and I’m creative thinker. I can’t plan everything out to the Nth detail.

At a critique meeting the other day, a newbie was incredulous that I could imagine a world with imaginary characters. I explained that it’s a simple process. What you’re looking at right now is a bunch of dots on a screen, but your brain sees it as something else. Imagination is the same. I see a setting, some characters, and some issues, then my brain interprets that as a story. You “imagine” stuff all the time, you just don’t know it.

This is why I’m kind of giving up on the course. I don’t want to draw dots. I know I haven’t figured out every problem that I have in the story, but my imagination is begging that I start crafting full scenes, not just one-line summaries which don’t really tell me what happens in a scene. My brain has connected all the notes I’ve made, and is ready to tell the story as it should be.

This week I created a new prologue for my story…just for fun (please no anti-prologue lectures). I may or may not include it in the final revision, but something I read in the coursework really made me think, and I’ll paraphrase here:

Do not write any scenes or include any characters that you are not dying to write.

That really struck a chord with me. I knew during drafting that there were a bunch of scenes that I “got through” because they “needed” to be in there. Then when it came time to print out a chapter for my critique group, I sometimes skipped the boring scenes. After learning this, I realized that

  1. If it’s not fun for me, it’s not fun for the reader.
  2. Some of my characters are just plain boring and don’t add to the story.
  3. I will only include stuff that I am determined to share with the world because it’s so awesome.

Note that this does not apply to first draft. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to make every scene perfect and you’ll never finish. In your first draft, include every piece of crap that comes to mind. But during revision, everything counts.

And now, without further ado, here is a snippet of my new prologue, a highlighted bit that appears above the chapter header.

One sister will marry, one sister will die;
The day that Belonia drops from the sky.

“Belonia” is a strange star that’s been in the sky for 450 years. It travels across the sky backwards, counter to the Sun and Moon. There used to be four of them, but now there’s only the one. A crazy old witch lady issued this prophecy. I’m not sure it fits the story, and the name sounds a little like “Bologna” (I used an online name generator), but I had a lot of fun writing it. And maybe that’s the secret.

Do you make sure everything in your novel is included for a reason…and that the reason isn’t “it has to be in there”?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Revision Test Results!

Revision Test Results!

In my previous post, I ask you to consider which of two versions of the same scene was better. Here are the results:

  1. Which version did you read first?
    Everyone read #1.
  2. Which version interested you more in reading the whole story?
    #1-8
    #2-1
  3. Which version would you say is better? Why? (briefly)
  4. #1-8
    #2-1
  5. Which do you think is the revised version?
  6. #1-6
    #2-2

And now for the dramatic reveal:

You were (mostly) right! #1 is the revised version!

Here’s the story. I wrote this originally about 15 years ago for a creative writing class at the local university. So when I looked at it again, I had very fresh eyes. #2 is definitely not first-draft, but it reflects kind of “where I started.” I wrote the revision from scratch, creating a new outline and throwing out the old story. Here is a list of things I changed between the two versions you see:

  1. Deeper POV. Even in first person, you can still distance your readers from your characters. There’s a difference between a character explaining, “oh here’s something that happened to me that might be interesting” versus “you have to hear this. You won’t believe what I’ve been through. I want you to really understand what I’ve been through.” It really comes down to the old “showing vs telling” maxim. In version #2 he seems annoyed. In version #1 he’s enraged.
  2. Sparse description. In #1 I have maybe 4 adverbs, and looking at it now I can probably remove at least 2 more. I have 7 in #2. Adjective counts are similarly slanted. In fact, the one line of description, about the sky, needs to go as well. I’m thinking I want him to shade his eyes against the sun instead of just noting it. Then the harsh glare becomes more important, but I still get in the hint that we’re not on Earth.
  3. Almost no backstory. Instead of explaining why the narrator doesn’t like androids isn’t as effective as him railing against them. I have even less explanation of who Nancy is as well. It’s not that important.
  4. Inner dialog. It puts the reader into the narrator’s head, instead of hearing his impressions almost second hand. This makes everything more immediate.
  5. The character acts. In every paragraph, he does something. In #2 he’s just an passive observer.
  6. Other style changes. Variable sentence length, smaller focused paragraphs (that second paragraph in #2 actually goes on for  ~150 more words), voice, etc.

Here are some additional things I did to the story that aren’t evident from this small section:

  1. Reduced word count from 10K to 8K words. There was a lot of backstory in there, as well as either unimportant scenes and/or unnecessary exposition.
  2. Eliminated four characters, added one. He interacts with a lot of people, but I thought that was too much for this length of story, so I combined a few of them into one character.
  3. Reduced scene count from 19 to 13. Combined redundant scenes, eliminated some “traveling” scenes.
  4. Added new ending. The original story really had no Dénouement so I figured out how to tie everything together in a way that hopefully will elicit some OMG’s from my readers.
  5. Added conflict everywhere. Every page, every scene, every paragraph. This is a man who is struggling to avoid the Stockade himself, so there’s a high level of tension throughout.
  6. Story Structure. I’ve used Hero’s Journey and other structures to ensure that the story flows nicely.
  7. Better world building. I added a few twists in there to give the reader pause. But I dole out the world in dribs and drabs, and I try not to explain everything. I want people to want to re-read the piece to find all the clues/breadcrumbs I left for them.

One comment I have about the original version #2: a couple people noted that they like a couple things about #2, but those elements don’t really work in the revised version, so they’re left out on purpose. The lesson here is to not get too attached to any version or concept in your work, and feel free to kill your darlings, to eliminate things that don’t work anymore.

Thanks everyone for your input, you’ve given me hope that I really am improving my craft! And now for some XKCD love.

impostor[1]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Revision Test!

Revision Test!

21_SS-RevisionCD I’m conducting a test of my revision skills, and I need your help! I’ve re-written a short story called “Android” and I’d like your input to see if I’ve actually improved anything. Below I have two versions, #1 and #2, basically the first ~250 words of the original version, and the revised version.  I’m not telling you which is which. Read through both, and then answer the questions below. Feel free to email me your answers at iapetus999 at gmail dot com. By the way, feel free to read either version first, just note which one it was.

Version #1

The harsh tone tore through my head. I dropped my tools and turned towards the window of my store. There, over in the town square, the procession dragged the struggling figure through the streets. My hands shook as I hustled out my customers and locked up my store.

Not another one. Not so soon. Not another android.

The crowd assembled in minutes. Anyone within the range of that tone would come running. The figure screamed and struggled as they pulled it up onto the Stockade, clamping its arms and feet to the metal beams. The sun shone high in a deep green sky, casting few shadows and warming my neck. The crowd buzzed with anticipation and dismay. I stepped closer, wondering whom the androids had stolen this time. I stopped in my tracks. Nancy Perkins? She was one of my regular customers. A wife, a mother—I considered running away, unable to stomach the thought, but this monster up on the stockade, it had to pay. They had to be stopped, one way or another. We had to remain ever vigilant against the android invasion.

I pushed my way up to the front. I wanted to know: how did an android completely replace Nancy Perkins down to the last detail? This thing in front of us, this awful, soulless creature was created to deceive us. But I knew underlying that soft, human exterior lay the cold metal of an unfeeling robot, simply programmed to subvert our community and our way of life. What had become of Nancy? Was she killed? Tortured? I shuddered to think about it.

Version #2

The throbbing notes of the town bell pummeled my heart like a jackhammer. I snatched my jacket as I rushed out of my store to observe the horrible spectacle. The town square hummed with anticipation and dread. A quick question confirmed my worst fears: a horrible android had been caught, and would be dismantled. The faces around me echoed my fear and anger. This time the androids stole Nancy Perkins. I shook my head in dismay. The crowd erupted into rancorous shouts and curses as the android appeared. In the center of the town square the android clone of Nancy Perkins screamed and protested hysterically to the stern constables escorting it to the stockade. They handled it roughly, fearful of its android mechanical power. I had barely known Nancy. A mother of two, rarely frequented my store, but I had always thought of her as a kind, beautiful woman. The men cuffed its wrists to the arms of the machine, and firmly strapped its kicking legs to the base. They clamped its head to the back, until its only possible movement remained the rapid heaving of its chest and blinking of its eyes. The android’s protests and tears didn’t fool me. It was an android, how could it feel anything? It was just an act, an attempt to create pity so we might spare its life.

Ever since I could remember, I had hated androids. They were a blight on the world, an evil presence so profound I relished and celebrated their deaths.

Questions!

  1. Which version did you read first?
  2. Which version interested you more in reading the whole story?
  3. Which version would you say is better? Why? (briefly)
  4. Which do you think is the revised version?
  5. Any other thoughts? Ideas for improvement?
  6. Would you be willing to critique the whole piece (8000 words)? Send me an email offline.

Thanks for your time! I’ll tabulate the results and post them soon!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Story Structure Part XII: Return With The Elixir

Victory This is the twelfth 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.

Return With The Elixir

The End. The Dénouement. The Conclusion. The Epilogue. The Resolution. The Verdict. The Payoff. Whatever it’s called, we’ve come to the final chapter of our Hero’s Journey. We know what’s going to happen, and finally, our Hero is back home in the Ordinary World. But, it’s not the same world he started in. It’s changed. He’s changed. He’s undergone a traumatic transformation, and now returns home forever changed. “The Elixir” is the essence of this change, the lesson, the arrest, the anti-virus, the deciding vote, the surrender of the Enemy, the winning score, the hard-earned victory against incredible odds. Something he can carry with him for the rest of his life, and improve the lives of everyone he cares about.

It’s nice to show how your Hero has changed, to cement his transformation. In the initial Ordinary World, he was pushed around, taken advantage of, alone, in debt, or whatever problem he couldn’t overcome. Now he handles bullies with ease, is wise to the world, rife with friends, loaded with riches, and a master of his destiny. Of course, you don’t have to wrap up everything—don’t forget about that sequel—but make whatever final points you want to make.

I think this brings up the entire purpose of writing the book. The “Return” is where you draw your conclusion and illustrate your lesson. “Marriage is hard work”, “You must lead by example”,  “Grief is how we move on”, “Don’t ever cross a ghost”, etc. Did you make your point? Did your character experience enough consequences to warrant this ending? The ending justifies the meaning.

football win Now to conclude our Benchwarming Quarterback story. One final play, one last chance to prove himself, and he leaves the game. On the drive back to the hospital, he confesses his sins. He’s been a terrible son, a lousy quarterback, and a poor boyfriend. The cheerleader never meant to hurt him, but he seemed disinterested, so she strayed. He understands, and forgives her. Everything he’s done lately has been a failure, and even his attempt to redeem himself was false.

Now for the Lesson part. He must do the hard things. He can’t just waltz through life. When he arrives at the hospital, he has the Elixir. He’s back in his Ordinary World. Turns out—his father is fine, and in fact, is conscious. They found the game on the local cable channel. They beg him why he left the game and he tells them because his responsibility lay here…with the people he loves. Suddenly he has his father’s approval, and his girlfriend sees him in a new light. Turns out his Ally on the team caught the winning touchdown, so everything worked out in the end. It’s not a perfect ending, but we leave the story with the sense that things will work out.

Return With The Elixir Goals

  • Clearly demonstrate that the Lesson has been learned.
  • Tie up most loose ends, especially major subplots. If the airplane is going down, either crash it or save it.
  • It’s fine to leave a teaser for the sequel, but at least resolve something. I’ve read some books that just stop. Bad. How do I know there will be a payoff in the sequel, or will it just stop as well?
  • This is the part of the story where you show that you appreciate the time the reader spent reading your novel. Give them something to talk about. Make them wish the story never ended.

Non Goals

  • Don’t tie everything up. Note that in the QB story, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the girlfriend’s baby. We only know he’s be there to support her.
  • Don’t introduce more conflict here. This is the one point of your book where it’s fine if everyone agrees for once. There can be a implied conflict, such as “the whole city has burned and we need to rebuild, but at least we’ll do it together.”
  • Endings don’t have to be happy. They need to be conclusive. In “Paranormal Activity,” the ending is the credits (or lack thereof). But the Lesson is clear: Some people are just doomed. Get over it.

Next Installment: How to Apply the Hero’s Journey to your own writing, what it is and what it isn’t.