Tag Archives: words

The Best Lecture on Story Structure Ever

Probably the best lecture I’ve ever seen on story, Kurt Vonnegut lays out the arc of the Hero’s Journey in it’s most elegant form (see video for the joke). In truth, Vonnegut is a hilarious man who knows the craft so well he’s able to entertain and enlighten the audience by poking fun at how obvious stories are. Good story structure doesn’t need much explanation. Stories are simple.

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A wise man once told me that a story is never complex. No matter how deep and complex something may seem, 99 times out of 100 it’s just a series of simple points you’ve experienced since the start of the tale. The art of the craft is making those points tie together in such a way that your story seems complex. And it is, in a way, but not by making each story beat circuitous.

All the rules I’ve ever heard from Vonnegut are pure and simple. Take his eight tips on how to write a good short story:

  1. Use a time of a total stranger in such a way that he/she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character they can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character, or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading character is, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense! Readers should have as such complete understand of what is going on, where and why, that they should be able to complete the story themselves should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
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“Meet Me at the Falls” on Indie Author Land

Screen shot 2013-10-23 at 11.58.15 AMThe good folks over at Indie Author Land have created a dedicated hub for self-published authors, geared toward you: the reader. It’s a great place to find new up and coming talent and honestly just great and daring fiction. The whole site is run by a lovely couple, a journalist covering the arts and a computer programmer; both avid readers with a passion to help spread the word about good fiction. Plain and simple. Their slogan says it all: Great Books. No Middleman.

As they mention, their ‘site is growing, and that’s what they want. The idea is for their growth to be organic and fluid, growing to fill whatever void it may come across.’ Sounds like what it feels to look at a blank page with a pencil in your hand.

Admittedly, their site is also a selfish means to find their next favorite book. Their latest favorite pick comes from the self-publishing trio at Pen, Pint & Pyre: “Meet Me at the Falls“, the Sci-Fi Thriller by authors Ben Tuller, Zack Keller and myself.

Check out the interview with the authors, and the rest of their site here: http://www.indieauthorland.com/archives/5903

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Writing Process (9 of 9)

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Letting Go…

… continued from part 8: DEADLINE

This is probably the hardest part. I’ve looked at the book for so long I don’t even know what to think of it anymore. I love it and I hate it. I’m also indifferent about it. Overall, I’m just way too close to it. I could noodle with this or that forever, but I’ve hit my deadline and now it’s time to let it go.

This is where, if you’re self-publishing, you really have to be hard on yourself. You are never going to get it perfect. There is no such thing as perfection. Every author, every director, every artist has to at some point just let it go. Pass it off to your editor to send to the press, upload that file to Amazon and start worrying about how much to charge.

Glaring corrections can be fixed in subsequent editions. I’ve found copies of Fitzgerald that have some pretty bad typos. Who knows how long they were in there. But the important thing to realize is that you’re done. A work of art will never truly be finished in the eyes of the creator. But therein lies the beauty of it. It’s not supposed to be. I don’t write books for myself–I might come up with an idea I like but ultimately, I write it to be read by others. It’s the reader who finishes my books. And they finish it a thousand times over with endless variation. What wonders I would see if I could crawl inside their mind as they flip through the pages, deriving meaning from the unintended and totally missing meaning I tried to put in. But that’s the beauty of it all. Some people will love it, some people will hate it. Never in the history of the world has there been one piece of art that everyone came to love equally.

So that’s it. You’re done. Get it out there and let the readers have at it. I try to learn from my mistakes and improve on my next creative endeavor. And as an artist, I know damn well that I’ll be on my death bed, still with the desire to grow.

I’ve currently finished a short story, Meet Me at the Falls, with fellow authors Zack Keller and Ben Tuller… and for as much as I think I have it all figured out for this book, I know my next book may be an entirely different journey where I abandon these methods deeming them useless and naïve. I’d like to think that I won’t, but for me the point of writing… and for that matter, reading what people write… is to gain a glimpse into the soul and see the wonder and magic in the expression of the human condition.

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Writing Process (8 of 9)

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DEADLINE

… continued from part 7: Final Revisions

One might think my last step would be that final polished pass (and obviously it is, to a certain degree) but more important than that is giving yourself a real deadline.

Working under a deadline allows me to be more creative than I’d be if allowed to noodle with something ad infinitum. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that limitations and deadlines spawn creativity. Mulling over something too long destroys that fresh, new feeling; that spark of life. Creating those rules and regulations allows me to fight against something trying to control what I do. I rebel and enter areas of my mind I never dreamed of stepping foot into before.

The pressure of finishing on time after procrastinating and hitting road blocks forces me to flex my creative muscles. If I allow myself to work on something too long, I’ll ruin it. I promise you.

And on that note, I have a story to finish!

To Be Concluded.

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Writing Process (7 of 9)

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Final Revisions

(or How I Learned to Trust Readers, Eat Sushi and Believe in Dinosaurs)

… continued from part 6: That Dreaded Second Draft

When Michael Crichton sent his first draft of Jurassic Park to his usual test-readers, they hated it. All of them. They got angry, asking him why he would even write a book like that. But when he asked what they didn’t like, they didn’t exactly know. “They just hated it, every bit of it,” Crichton said.

There’s some sort of magic that happens the moment you set a draft in stone. Printed out, handed to a reader, or even just looking at a PDF on the same screen you were editing in, suddenly all the mistakes and ideas for re-writes spring up like rabbits. Fiery demon-rabbits from Hell. Some of my fellow writers and I are working on a term for this phenomenon. More on that here.

Letting someone else read my work, I wonder how I could have missed things so glaringly obvious, or I’m immediately embarrassed of certain sections. But this is good. It isn’t the final draft, so I can put out those fires right away, and embarrassment often means I’ve unlocked some truth — something personal and deep. It will resonate with readers who are just as vulnerable as I am. So much of writing is willingly putting your heart on the chopping block. And they’ll love you for it.

Addressing reader’s notes is more about trusting the reader than getting twenty of your friends to voice their opinion. I have three people look at my book. My two writing partners and my editor. I might show it to more people, just to illicit a reaction, but I take their advice with a grain of salt, and often don’t change much. Too many cooks in the kitchen.

Obviously if everyone starts pointing out the same problem or something lacking in the story, I’ll put those grains of rice in the cooker and make something of it. Rice … for sushi, maybe.

Obligatory photo of sushi, for good measure. You deserve some great sushi right about now — for following my silly blog if nothing else. And if you’re in the L.A. area, I highly recommend ‘Sushi Ike’ on Hollywood & Gower. Don’t be deceived by its humble facade. It’s one of L.A.’s hidden gems, as is their head sushi chef, Rick.

But I’m wary of this too … trusting test readers, not the sushi. The sushi is clutch. No, sometimes the problem isn’t the part of the story people don’t understand, but a failed set-up or pay-off somewhere else in the book. Adding in a single line ten chapters earlier may solve something in the climax. It’s important to really analyze the source of the problem and even test your new solution on your most trusted critics.

Crichton ended up writing two more drafts of Jurassic Park, but the response was the same. Just pure hate for the story. One of the initial problems he faced when coming up with the book was the excuse to bring dinosaurs back. He couldn’t see who would realistically pay for that scientific endeavor and the only thing he could come up with was for entertainment purposes. That was the only reason it took place in a theme park. Naturally, he wrote the story from a child’s point of view.

Finally, one of the test readers said they found it annoying that it was told from the child’s point of view. They told him, “I want this to be a story for me.” Crichton did a complete rewrite from an adult point of view, and that’s really all it took to save the novel. Without that simple adjustment, we would never have had the Jurassic Park we know and love.

“Writing is rewriting,” as the great Michael Crichton said.

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Continued in Part 8: DEADLINE

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Writing Process (6 of 9)

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That Dreaded Second Draft

…continued from Part 5: Critique

Aside from fixing all the grammar and polishing sentences, a good thing to focus on during a second pass are themes, character traits and general style and language. Here I really look at the story from a bird’s-eye view. How do certain characters talk? Is that consistent? Are their motivations clear and consistent? How do we see them change? Do I have convincing arguments on both sides of an issue? Is the audience feeling what I want them to feel at any given point?  How can this sentence be phrased better? How can I combine these two paragraphs into one well-spoken and concise sentence?

This pass may be the hardest of them all, and the hardest to keep track of. Use of character worksheets, location worksheets and anything else that might help keep track of things are highly encouraged.

Running through my story the second time, I keep a rather large one-sheet of notes for the polish phase … writing rules and snippets I’ve adapted over the years about things I like in good writing; little reminders for myself. Each story is unique, too, and I’ll add many notes specific to the story I’m working on in the one-sheet. It’s a cheat sheet and one should have no shame in referring to such an item.

Here are some helpful tips from some of our favorite authors:

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Seven_tips_from_F. Scott_Fitzgerald

Seven_tips_from_William_Faulkner

Writing Rules from other Authors

Author Zack Keller just recently put up a great post about Editing your book like a reader. Some really good stuff in there that I wholeheartedly agree with. I may even find myself cutting out entire chapters, as I read my story more like a reader. Certain things are just extraneous and don’t need to be there. I might absolutely love them. But deep down I know they shouldn’t be there and you just have to kill your babies for the greater good.

I polish, polish and polish the story until I am satisfied with every aspect and feel I have explored every corner of the world without going off on unnecessary tangents. This can take several passes. Patience is a virtue.

Continued in Part 7: Final Notes

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Writing Process (5 of 9)

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Critique

…continued from Part 4: Rough Draft

I finished the rough draft! I didn’t think my story would end the way it did, and that’s a very good thing. I’ve surprised myself, even if I knew roughly how it should end. So I’m done right? Not nearly. The journey is far from over. Now that I have something to work with, I must look at it objectively. I compile my massive amounts of notes and address them. I try to get everything into Scrivener and flesh out any parts that are underdeveloped. Then, once I’m satisfied, I’ll look at my general outline. This gives me a chance to really get a bird’s-eye view and switch on the story structure part of my brain.

For structure stuff, I loosely follow the guidelines laid out in the “Hero’s Journey” and even more so in “Dramatica” — but I really just make sure that it makes sense. If there aren’t gaping holes, sections missing or double-beats, I move on. Story theory and story structure are really just tools to analyze what I already have. In an extreme void of creativity they can prove useful to find a solution, but I would never start with an outlined structure in mind. How could I? I don’t know what’s going to happen in the story any more than the characters would, living it out in real-time. They will inform me of what happens next, what they want and try to do and what happens as a result of it. Story structure would get in the way, and at best it would work but come off contrived and formulaic.

Now if there ARE gaping holes or if I’m just feeling like something is missing, I might turn to the old Hero’s Journey outline and see what it might offer. There’s volumes of books and seminars on the subject.

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However, I took two years of story theory at CalArts that focused on the Hero’s Journey and I ended up learning more about constructing story from one year of Dramatica. I would urge anyone interested to check out their site, or take a trip on over to my professor Jim Hull’s blog, Narrative First (formerly Story Fanatic). Jim is an animator and story artist over at DreamWorks and really knows his stuff inside and out. He lays out the basics of the subject in his books.

Dramatica is more than a story book, however. It offers an interactive tool where one can plug in aspects of a story and it in return plugs plot holes, solidifies character interactions and helps complete your story in such a way that it will resonate with your audience long after they’ve put down your book. Worth taking a look, for kicks if nothing else. I honestly don’t use it the way it was intended, but knowing the story theory behind it has helped me out tremendously.

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Once I’m satisfied with the working outline, I’ll scrutinize the details of the story a bit deeper and get more into research. More notes, adjusting things and rearranging. Some parts remain largely unaltered, while others are expanded or improved upon based on the research I find or connections I hadn’t yet seen in the story. The second pass is perfect for making sure those through-lines, themes and foreshadowing are well-placed.

But as I said, the journey is far from over. Here is where the really hard part begins. One has to make hard decisions and really start to craft the story. A lot of the time, my rough draft doesn’t even read like a story. It’s awful, some of it still in bullet point form or a very rudimentary sentence describing the sentiment or action. Hopefully, I’ve gotten down the core of the story and answered the questions: What happens to the characters? What choices do they make? How does it all unfold? What does it mean to them? How does it affect them? Etc…

After writing out an entire novel by hand, I’ll often forget what it’s like to be a reader. Since my book really isn’t at the stage where I can read it like a reader, I find it somewhat therapeutic and informative to pick up some old favorites and re-read them just to remind myself what a book feels like. If something strikes me, I’ll make a note reminding myself to try and apply it to my own work. There is no one way to tell a story and no right or wrong way to write. Ultimately it comes down to taste. I love both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, though they’re vastly different in style. The same could be said about any number of authors. Finding what resonates with you will help unleash your own unique style as it challenges what you innately find appealing or not.

I’d really encourage writers to go with their gut. Use trial and error and pick apart your favorite stories and films as opposed to studying structure and writing. That being said, there are some other books on story structure I would recommend to at least throw into your head (but only after you’ve already written your story). I would NOT recommend the popular book “Story” by Robert McKee. It’s purely critical and offers nothing to the would-be writer — and on that note, take anything these books say with a grain of salt:

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Continued in Part 6: That Dreaded Second Draft

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Writing Process (4 of 9)

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Rough Draft

…continued from Part 3: Create Tent-Poles

Act Two is always the longest part of the adventure. The journey of writing a book is no exception. Still, that isn’t to say that ninety percent of the work isn’t done in the planning phase — because it is. And it’s nice to take a break between the planning and execution phase of your book. My mind needs time to reflect on what I’ve already done, what it all means for my story, and really whether or not I still like it. I’ll come back to my piles of notes and organize them so I can move on to the next step (see steps 1-4 here, if you missed them)

Now I actually sit down to write this damn thing. By hand, and with a pen! More on that here. I always try to work in the mornings, when my mind is fresh. I only write for three hours a day, maximum. Overworking my brain and not experiencing life would be detrimental to my story, my health and my social life. Not to mention, there has been so much I’ve included in my story as a result of getting out of my hole and taking in the world around me. It opens up doors and windows I would have never even thought of. I’m already finished with the rough draft of my novel, Wonderful World of Zombies, and I’m still taking notes when inspiration strikes.

This could go on forever, and it’s important to set goals. I’ll make myself a target word count and really try to stick to it. Every day I write I know I’ll write roughly a certain amount of words and then I can calculate a realistic deadline for that rough draft.

Another thing about working only a few hours a day is that my brain doesn’t shut off. As mentioned in that John Cleese video, the mind keeps working at problems for days on end after you’ve put in the hours and then put down the pen. I think most of my story has come out of moments driving in the car, scrambling for a notepad or my phone at a stoplight so I can get all the ideas down before I lose track of them. And let me tell you, they come in like someone opened a floodgate! Pouring out of my mind at lightning speeds, sometimes it’s hard to keep up. But by working in a method like Cleese describes, it really does allow me to find better solutions than if I were to have burned the candle at both ends. I’ve tried that method. It never works as well as I want.

I realize now, looking at what I’ve written about this part of the process, that I really don’t have much to say about how that rough draft actually gets down on the paper. And I think that’s because despite all the planning and character development I’ve done, writing is truly a loose, creative endeavor. There are no rules or guidelines that will tell you what an interesting and engaging story will be. But I do trust the process, nevertheless, and I trust my instinct.

Go with your gut!

This is play time!

I shit out the rough draft onto the page so I have something to work with, and I work in the most effectively creative way that I can. Alone in the dark of my mind, there isn’t much that would really help me except my own imagination … and no one to hear me scream! Okay, it’s not that bad … most of the time. I let myself go and open my mind to any possibility. Often times, I’ll bounce ideas off other trusted writers or just simply listen to the characters. It’s amazing when the story starts revealing itself to you by surprise. In fact, this is the part where the real magic happens. Let yourself be surprised.

Continued in Part 5: Critique

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“Suexliegh” Receives Honorable Mention

My good friend Zack Keller’s book, “The Success of Suexliegh” just held it’s own against giants like John Irving in the 2013 San Francisco Book Festival!

Zack Keller

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My novel, The Success of Suexliegh, received an Honorable Mention from the San Francisco Book Festival in the General Fiction category. Congratulations to the winner, John Irving, and all the other entrants, honorable mentions, runners-up and winners as well. Quite an honor indeed to be listed amongst such talented writers and wonderful books.

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