Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rule #1: Make Me Care

I've repeated this mantra of writing before, but it bears repeating.  Before your audience/reader will truly get into your piece, you need to answer the "So what?" question and get your reader invested in your character.  That was the big flaw I saw with one of the most anticipated blockbusters of the summer, "Batman vs. Superman."

I think we've all heard that same review over and over.  At least I have.  It was strange that such a mixed review was repeated EVERYWHERE from Rottentomatoes to all my movie-going friends: Batman was well done.  Superman was blah.  Wonderwoman was squeezed in.  Lex Luther was dreadful.  I heard this same review from everyone, so I expected to have the same reaction.  I love comic book movies that are well made.

People seemed to more or less like this one.  So why shouldn't I?  I knew I wouldn't love it.  My expectations weren't sky high like they are when the reviews are universally wonderful.  But I expected to like it on some level.  Turned out I didn't like it at all.  Why?  Because the writers broke rule number one.  They didn't make me care about anyone, okay, except Lois Lane.  But Amy Adams is good with making the audience care.  How does she do it?  By so obviously caring about someone herself.  Her love for the Superman character here ALMOST had the strength to make me care about him.  If only he weren't so busy being inscrutable and above-it-all, so dark and brooding like all the rest of the characters, I might have succeeded in graduating past almost and into caring.  I needed to feel his humanity, but so much of the movie was bent on making him feel alien and inhuman to the audience.  Because I didn't care about any of the main characters, nothing they did or said mattered.  I didn't care if someone was in danger or someone died, got injured, whatever.  A nuclear bomb full of cryptonite could have wiped out all of humanity in this movie, and I would have felt bad about just Lois.  

I understand not everyone consciously reacted the way I did because not everyone is looking for that one thing in the main characters: a humanity and caring for something or someone that will make the audience love them.  It helps if there is humor as well, which was totally lacking here.  But you'll notice with the review above people weren't swept up into the story.  They were keeping their distance and analyzing it rather than just enjoying it.  If you as a writer break rule number one, people don't get swept up.  Even if they don't consciously notice they're not caring, they certainly don't get attached.  Just in the short bit of preview I've seen of the upcoming Justice League movie, I already care more about Batman than I did throughout this entire movie.  Why?  Because they do with it what was lacking here: they make the audience laugh and give the sense of Batman's humanity and his caring about others.

Keep rule number one--show the main character's humanity through love and optimistically some humor--and readers will follow your character and his/her adventures through the ends of the earth.  I know I would.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Importance of Writers' Groups

For any writer, I highly recommend finding and using a writers' group.  No matter how refined your writing abilities, how many degrees you have, you're always best served seeking out a writer's group.  You can do all the editing you want, including letting the manuscript rest for a while, so you can see it with fresh eyes, reading it out loud once it's been printed out, and even using editing software such as Autocrit.  There is no replacement for fellow writers.  Even readers who don't write, as I have discovered first hand, don't necessarily read the way that editors do when they read your story.  This isn't a bad thing if you're self-publishing and aren't seeking to please anyone but yourself.  But if you're going to send your writing in for contests, publishers, or anyone in the industry, there is no reader like someone else who has been trained to think more like an editor.  I have had several readers read my manuscript, but until I had a reader who thought like an editor read it, I didn't know what a publisher may think of my work.  When I did have such a reader read it, a publisher's comments on my work suddenly made sense.  

In order to be motivated to seek out a writing group, you have to be ready to take and use criticism.  If you're not there yet, a writer's group is not for you.  However, if you're ready to move past the phase where you only want people to praise your work, it's time to seek out readers.  

There are multiple online forums for getting reader/writers such as Wattpad, Critique Circle, and Writer's Cafe, among many many others.  You can assemble a group of writers yourself.  You could also join a local group.  Here in my state, we have League of Utah Writers, but there are writers' groups everywhere.  You can also find an online editor like Eschler or Book Baby, though services like that cost money.  One way or another, find readers who are also writers outside your own head, and your work will transcend where it is now.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

What Drives your Story?

Story Drives: 

Some time ago, I wrote about how important it is to know what drives your character, what makes a character do what he/she does.  I apologize if I've mentioned this before, but it couldn't hurt to revisit it [I checked and couldn't find it.]  This post is on what drives your story.  I recently read someone's story in which the main character meanders from event to event without anything driving him.  When he gets done with one major life event like a job or military or even a family, he simply goes and does something else.  That's fine for a PERSON, or even a biography, but it won't work for a STORY.  A story is about something, one specific event, set of events, character, etc.  It has a clear beginning, middle, and end, or it isn't, by nature, a story.  If you find people asking the 'so what?' question repeatedly or wondering what your story is about, it's time to sit down and figure out what drives your story itself.

Orson Scott Card talks about four kinds of story drives: 1. milieu or location  2. question, as in whodunit, 3. plot, as in what's wrong with the world and how can it be fixed? and 4. character as in what's wrong with your character and what does he/she do about it?  If you know your genre, chances are you can figure out what drives your story.  A book that primarily takes you on a tour of any location is a milieu book.  This can include fantasy or science fiction in which the magical land is the most important aspect of the story.  Think the Lord of the Rings trilogy, if you think of it as a world in which prototypical characters of various races appear in a struggle, or "Gulliver's Travels," wherein an outsider comes into a foreign land and learns all about it.  A mystery is most often question-driven because the story isn't finished until the primary question, whodunit most often, is answered.  Adventure yarns, science fiction stories, fantasy novels, and fairy tales are mostly plot-driven.  Something is wrong.  The story is about how the something is fixed.  Think Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series, particularly the first.  4. Character-driven stories can include science fiction or fantasy but are more likely to include romance, literary fiction, and the like, stories that are not complete until the character is happy in his/her own skin.

The Contract

The story drive chosen is a kind of unspoken contract with your reader.  Once the reader understands the promise made by the text--that you won't finish the story until he or she has learned everything about the world or the question is answered or the world is put to rights or the character gets their satisfying happily ever after--he or she will find it highly dissatisfying if you don't complete your promised story.  I've read novels about a whodunit that don't answer the question but end in a happily ever after.  It's very unsatisfying.  A story about a lonely, sad character may end in the solution to a question, but if she's not happy, I, as the reader, am not happy.  I ran into this with the recent "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" movie.  We start with a world launched into zombie war and end with "and they live happily ever after."  At which time, the zombies return in force.  I imagine movie makers were setting up for a sequel, but the sequel isn't likely to come because the movie doesn't complete the contract it promised.  Audiences don't like that.


The Harry Potter series manages to balance out all four story drives.  We start with a lonely boy who is immediately handed a question--who am I?--which leads to other questions, all of which are resolved by turns as he enters a foreign magical world and attempts to resolve the problem in the world as well as his own loneliness.  All four drives come to satisfying endings.  This is part of the books' appeal.  Rowling makes several contracts with the reader, all of which get a satisfying resolution.

Now, You

If you're struggling with a story you're writing, unsure if it's hitting the mark, figure out which contract you are making with your reader.  Are you promising to show off an awesome world, answer a question or questions, fix a world, or make a character happy?  Do you fulfill your promise?  If not, how can you fix that?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Taking Inspiration from Nature

I had the privilege of walking into nature over the weekend.  I saw Yellowstone National Park.  I viewed colors, vivid colors I have never seen elsewhere in nature: blues, rusts, greens, aquamarines, yellows... sights, sounds, and odors I never smell anywhere else from the smell of evergreen to sulfurous mist blowing in my face.  When walking through such natural beauty, there are many ways to view it all.  Some of the people I traveled with found these unique natural vistas exciting to begin with but then dull and familiar after a time.  Some people view such things as an opening to adventure, a place to hike and take risks.


As a writer, I could see it as something else again: a source of material, a muse.  The vivid colors could spin my thoughts into a world of vivid intensity, a magical portal into a place of imagination.  As water explodes into the air, I could turn that geyser into a water dragon and that one nearby into a wizard bent on taking that dragon down.  Or as I look at the twisted, tortured trees that fought their way through the harsh environment to grow out of rock then failed and fell when the sulfurous blasts got too toxic, I could envision a landscape like that and ponder what else could cause it, some malaise or curse upon the land.  The wild titles of those geysers and pools could spin my thoughts with red dragons' maws and churning cauldrons.

If my style tends toward the less fantastical, I could still imagine a couple meeting among the geysers and finding love.  The couple who got engaged to the blast of Old Faithful while I was there could inspire a tale of love and tragedy among the geysers.

If my imagination suits the world of science fiction more, I could envision a fleet of aliens that start their invasion over a field of geysers and on shaky ground, only to meet misfortune on every side as one ends up in a hot pot, another crashes through the crust, and yet another is gored by a moody bison.  That invasion could be defeated not by men with technology but by mother nature herself.

Or I could write a western in which a mountain man or early settler and his family faces the unknown perils of a side of nature never before seen by their people.  I could write about a Native American tribe's relationship to the park itself, including one brave's voyage of self-discovery.  I could write poetry about the intense feeling of looking straight into the eyes of a nearby bull elk or engage in nature writing about my experiences with the park.

Or I could blog about how the park fills the imagination and invite other writers to go out and seek their own adventures in nature that could act as their muse in their writing.  See the world of nature in a fresh way.  Make it new.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Back Story

There are some important things to remember about back story when writing about a character.  Number one is to have it, in a lot more detail than you're ever going to share with your reader.  It's always a good idea to know not just this generation but the parents, possibly even grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc. because you want to know what makes this character him/herself.  One of these characters may be important in your story or its prequel...or you may just want to know this for yourself.  What tragedies form your character?  What makes your character tick?  Know this.  Plot it out in some detail.

But don't share it in detail.  The last thing you want to do is data dump within the first chapter.  Sneak it into conversation.  Use it as a source for drama.  Show it as much as it can be shown.  Turn it into meaning rather than a three-page filler when you can't think of anything else to do.  Most people have to do some data sharing to get the reader up to snuff, but the less tell about the past you have to share as a narrator, the better.  If you're going to share this as a narrator, try making the narrator unreliable.  I'm telling you this, but I'm also the catty next door neighbor or the hated boss.  Can I be trusted?  Find a way to turn background into meaning and drama rather than filler, and your reader will thank you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Texts and subtexts

Text and Subtext

Sometimes, a spade is just a spade.  Sometimes, when you're writing about a blue rug, it's just a blue rug.  Others may read into your blue rug: depression, sadness, water, nature, whatever.  But sometimes, you just want to write about the rug.

However, when you want meaning beyond the surface description, it's important to keep in mind what the point or motivation is at all times.  What are you trying to show through your rugs and spades?  Say you want meaning to come through in dialogue.  Sometimes, dialogue is just dialogue.  A character says something, and another responds to move the plot along or show character.

However, sometimes, it's better yet if two characters can SEEM to talk about one thing and yet be really talking about something entirely different under the surface.  Say two characters are talking about whether to get a dog.  On the surface level, the two characters are talking about a dog.  However, under the surface, she's really asking if they can start a family, can try to have a baby.  He blows her off because he doesn't get what she's really asking.  He just doesn't like dogs.  Or, sometimes better yet, he gets what she's saying.  He understands she's not JUST asking for a dog.  And he wants nothing to do with a baby.  It's too much commitment, too much stress, feeds into childhood trauma, etc.  This is a great way to SHOW character.

The most meaningful movies, books, and scenes show clear motivation for the character.  One of the truly sophisticated ways to show clear motivation is by having two characters talk about it or, sometimes, talk about it WITHOUT SEEMING to talk about it.  We start to walk the realm of symbolism and deeper meaning, something great literature often does.

Now go back to that piece of dialogue that is sitting like a rock on the page.  Is it not working because it's too obvious?  Try using context and sneaky language to hint at motivations and meaning.  Best of luck.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Exercising the Senses

Someone recently asked me how to enhance sensory detail in their writing.  A writer doesn't want to bog down every scene with so much sensory detail that the narrative slows to a snail's pace, yet writing must have some kind of sensory detail to keep it interesting, fresh, and engaging.  So where is the balance?  How does one write enough detail but not too much?

I'd recommend pausing over the scenes that are the most significant, the scenes that the author wants to be most memorable and meaningful.  Then, count to five for all five senses.  Vision is easy.  But if you want a scene to be truly memorable, make sure you also feature something you can taste, touch, smell, and hear.  It may even help you to close your eyes in various places--at a park, in your room, in a library, in a classroom--and just write down everything you sense besides sight just to work on focusing on anything and everything but the visual.

When you sit down to write your piece, if you want a pleasant moment, have us smell melon body wash, taste freshly baked bread, feel the soft grass under the character's feet, see the vibrant colors of the flowers across the grass, hear the wind through the trees, etc.  Help us live that significant moment.  If it's a scary moment, we can smell our own sweat, feel the chilling breeze across that sweat on our skin, hear the eerie sounds of rattling wind through the branches, etc.  Create the atmosphere, just enough that we can experience it along with the character but not so much that we get bored.  Read it with someone else just to be sure.

And remember, the same hair color, eye color, etc can be described with very different words for just the right connotation.  The same color can be called golden, medium blonde, bronze, dishwater, muddy, etc. all depending on how you want the reader to feel about that character.  It's all in the sensory language.  I've heard it said that when you're describing a character, it's often best to minimize, to describe one or two primary features and leave the rest to the reader's imagination.

So that's it.  Mark the significant moments in your plot or characters you want us to remember and count to five.  If you can turn that moment or that sensory imagery into symbolism or metaphor or foreshadowing or alliteration, all the better.  Have fun!