Monday, October 24, 2016

The Hook

I've heard that the first line buys you the editor's attention long enough to make it through your first paragraph.  The first paragraph buys you the first page.  And the first page may just buy you the chapter, which could very well buy you the book and get your book published.  And a good published book that really hooks a reader can lead to a lucrative career.  That's where to spend your time: on the hook.  It's always a good idea to read really good first pages from books that have done well.  How did J.K. Rowling draw the crowds with page one of Harry Potter?  How did J.R.R. Tolkien make his splash in the literary world with page one of his story?  Where do the greats start?

Then go look at your first line, first paragraph, first page.  Read it to people.  Does your first line snag your audience and not let them go?  Do you pose enough questions to intrigue or paint a setting that makes people curious or characterize in a way that helps people love your main character like you do?  Is it clear without being boring?  If you lose your reader with too many passive tenses, writing full of generic descriptions or cliches, too many adverbs,  description too dense or entirely lacking, or whatever, your reader is gone for good.  It does not matter if everyone would just love page seven.  If you can't get them past page one, seven can be fabulous.  46 can be prize-winning material.  None of that matters unless page one is awesome, awe-inspiring, intense, captivating, glorious, whatever.

Ask yourself a few critical questions.  Does it start at the right place, a place critical to the story?  If not, cut pages or add some.  Does it make your reader care?  If not, figure out how.  Does it make your reader want to know more?  Does it show more than tell?  Too much explanation in chapter one can end a story before it begins.  Read it to anyone who will listen and get feedback.  Read it aloud.  Take it to a professional editor.

Now go out and work on your hook.  Turn it from just a beginning to a real hook.  Do whatever you have to do to make a splash and make the reader thirsty for more.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trying to Pin down what Makes a Story Work

I just watched the new "Ghostbusters" movie, and it really worked for me and for many of those I know for whom the older version isn't seen as the be all and end all.  I expected to like it.  I loved it.  It's rare that I walk into a movie with certain expectations, and it impresses rather than depresses me.  And I'm still trying to work out what worked so well for me.  Both versions have good humor.  Part of it is the newer version is so much cleaner and is something I don't hesitate to share with my kids.  But that's more of a personal reason.  It's not just the movie that works for me.  It's the STORY that works. How often does that happen, that a reboot is just as fresh if not fresher than the original?  Many reviewers thought it was a rehash.  Although I saw some resemblance and parallels, I wouldn't call it a rehash at all.

So what is it that made the story work for me?  I like theme of girl power without the need to hammer on the concept.  Women were allowed to be the center of a story without needing to lean on men for their power, initiative, or purpose.  I liked that Hollywood women were allowed to be frumpy, nerdy, to just be themselves.  My sister complained that it perpetuated the stereotype that intelligent women had to be frumpy.  I would argue these women looked precisely like they wanted to look.  And they were all beautiful.  They just didn't feel the need to flaunt that fact.  I also liked that the ditzy beautiful blond was a man for once.  He was charming, funny, and could be competent when possessed by a genius.  And he was played by Thor, who was clearly having the time of his life.

I think what worked so well for me was the very fact of its being a reversal.  It took all the stereotypes and expected themes for an adventure yarn and turned them on their ears.  It was all about female geniuses who used their entrepreneurial spirit to start a business and save the world.  And it was funny.  Not just mildly funny but very funny.   Every serious moment was counterbalanced by a wisecrack or a bit of straight-faced silliness.  Of the characters, the one I found most entertaining was Holtsman, the newer version of Egon.  She made every scene hilarious, and you never were quite sure if she was being snarky or meant it.  She was the life of the party.

So what can a writer learn about storytelling from this movie?  1. Balance humor with seriousness.  2. Be unexpected: turn stereotypes on their ears.  3.  Make sure your characters are convincingly human but also fresh and unexpected.  4. If you're going to retell an old story, make it your own.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A simple formula for writing

Someone asked me about writing this week, and I told her my formula for writing.  This won't work for everyone or for every genre, but it might work for you.  First, come up with a germ of a story, some concept or idea.  You can use my writer's net to brainstorm.  You can use a story starter.  You can look at your family history.  You can read a novel and get a germ of a story.  One way or another, you get the basic idea and write down a bit about your story and its characters.

The next step is prewriting.  If it's fantasy or sci fi, know the laws of the world you're writing in.  Invent them.  Know the map or the geography.  I then use a character theory like Meyers-Briggs or color theory or the enneagram to get to know my character.  Other people have done the heavy lifting on coming up with character theory.  You don't have to invent the wheel, just give your characters a sense of life and reality.  It helps if you know people like your character, so you can keep their voices in your head.  You may want to figure out the characters of all the major characters and their antagonists.  A story is only as good as its bad guys.  And most bad guys think of themselves as heroes of their own story.

Next, adapt the heroes' journey.  There are many versions of it, countless.  But most of the best stories, especially adventure stories, from Star Wars to modern Star Trek to Harry Potter to anything Pixar and modern Disney take a cue from the heroes' journey.  If you are an outliner, outline the whole think as far as it works for you.  If you're a pantser --a by the pants, write as you go kind of person--just keep the heroes' journey in the back of your brain and/or keep it standing buy to give you a rough roadmap.

Then revise, edit, and send it off to your writers' group.  You may need additional editorial services.

That's it.  The better, the more unique your description, the fresher the voice, the more successful your story will be.  If you're running into walls, try it.  See how it works.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Creativity Net

I once wrote about this, but it was about a year ago and bears repeating.  One good way to defeat the power of the blank page is through setting out your creativity net.  What does this mean, you say?  Listen to conversations and take notes on how people talk.  Look around for odd things people do or strange events.  Watch the news for curious happenings.  Then invent your own why.  Once, I had three random strangers come up to me and give me little things over the course of a few days.  They were totally unrelated events, but it all led to a short story.

Grab your notebook and look around you.  Become a people watcher.  Become a thing watcher.  And let your imagination fly.  Spin whatever you see into a story of fantasy, science fiction, romance, whatever.  Come up with a germ of an idea then don't stop until it's written down.  Then turn it into a story with meaning and life.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Tighten your Writing

It's during the editing phase that you start to realize that you're a lot wordier than you thought.  At least that's been my experience.  And you, too, can do most of it without any help.

  • You can catch your overwriting  and redundancies ["Hey, Grandma," I said to Grandma as I walked in the house.]  
  • You can change those overly descriptive writing handles [she screamed angrily] into ones publishers will accept like said, shouted, asked, or whispered.  
  • You can dump all amplifiers after you realize they amplify nothing [really hated doesn't convey nearly as much as loathed or even just hated all by itself.] 
  • You can ferret out those pesky adjectives [beautiful woman] and turn them into vivid nouns [goddess].  
  • Above all, you can hunt down those clunky adverbial phrases [stared stupidly] and swap them for strong verbs [gaped].  

Basically, you can take your gut draft, the draft you wrote just for you, straight from your heart, and turn it into something another human being will actually want to read.  You can change it from written vomit into a compelling story.

It helps to distance yourself from your writing, so you see it with newer eyes.  I went over an old short story recently I thought was so wonderful and found about half of it was filler.  It also helps to print out your writing because then you see it from another angle.  You can go at it with a pen.  It really helps to read it out loud to yourself, as well, because then you slow down your reading pace and see so many things you didn't see before.  You can also use the software's built-in spell/grammar check.

But there comes a moment when you realize you can do no more.  You need external eyes, someone outside your head, to which you can send it or read it.  That's when writers' groups online or in person come into play.  I've written about those recently.  That's when you can call in an editor like I did recently.  That's also when you can look into buying software like Grammerly or Autocrit, which help you do a lot of the things I've mentioned.  Most of editing can be done alone.  But almost everyone eventually needs help.  You are not alone.  If you're done with your heart draft [the rough draft], it's time to write the rest with your head.  It's time to tighten that writing.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Grammar-free Zones

Last semester, I taught an English class.  Granted, it was a very beginning writing class.  But I got to teach then expect grammar and writing skills--to a point.  I've now been asked to teach a class that is even more of a beginners' class.  And it doesn't look like I'll be teaching [or expecting] writing skills in the weekly paragraphs I'll be receiving.  This, for a grammar nazi, is called torture.  FaceBook causes many writers pain.  I am one of those writers.  I read the humorous grammar nazi's rule book Eats Shoots and Leaves for fun.

Now, I will be looking at and papers, unable to let my internal editor say a word.  Tell me, fellow writers out there, how much fun it is to live in a world full of [sometimes intentional] bad grammar?  How much fun is it to walk through those 20 Items or Less [FEWER, people, FEWER] lines and not say a word?  How many times do you have to look at signs and billboards and not say a thing about how much people must be smoking to spell that way, where kids are able to see and learn all the wrong things?  How many of us can watch Weird Al's "Word Crimes" and laugh knowingly while mentally looking for (and finding) errors even there?

People like me who enter situations like these have to remember to breathe.  We have to remind ourselves that the only reason we haven't been unfriended by 90% of those we know on social media is because we can control our red-pen impulses and just shake our heads in silence.  The only way to keep the job is to be gentle and view the heart of the piece, not the trappings.  The world will spell and punctuate [or not] as it will.  We will somehow survive the experience and move on. And be thankful to have a job.  

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Power of the Hero's Journey

This week, I watched the new live-action version of Disney's Jungle Book.  The original is cute, a classic.  Many people adore it.  But for me, it was never very exciting because it was my least favorite kind of story, milieu.  This means location.  The place is the main character.  Mowgli represents the audience as Baloo and Bagira act as tour guides to show off the quirky denizens of the jungle, who sing to display their personalities/philosphies.  Some of them are dangerous to the defenseless Mowgli.  But it is nonetheless not the story of a kid in a jungle so much as the story of the characters that people that jungle.

The new move has the same checklist of characters, for the most part.  However, the story as shown in the new movie employs the power of the hero's journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Mowgli starts in the normal world, in the wolf pack.  His call to adventure comes from Shere Khan, the tiger who threatens his family and home.  At first, he resists it, then he accepts it.  He then descends into the underworld of the unknown parts of the jungle and faces a number of dangers, including a father-figure's death.  The stakes are higher.  The choices are Mowgli's to make, not forced on him, and he grows as a character through them.  The movie takes one step further in becoming a bildungsroman, a coming of age story.  Because he fulfills the hero's journey, he emerges capable, master of both worlds.

A lot of writers like to write stories, but any story, whether it be a fantasy, a fairy tale retelling, science fiction, horror, or romance can benefit from the time-proven power of the hero's journey.  As I mentioned several weeks ago, many of Pixar's movies follow the same pattern.  People subconsciously expect it when they start reading an adventure yarn, especially.  When major parts of the hero's journey are lacking, people notice and feel unsatisfied.  I highly recommend that any writer researches and employs the hero's journey in their stories.