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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Author Funk: The Filk

Hey everyone! I've hardly been home the past few weeks, owing to sisterly graduation followed by ConCarolinas and my writing retreat. So I'm sitting here in the late North Carolinian afternoon, thankful for the air conditioning and resting after some great conversations.

We took a day off halfway through the week.This year, I was feeling creative and exhuberant, so I did something I haven't done in awhile: I filked. I present to you: "Author Funk." (And no, not the kind you'd think.)

* * *

"Author Funk"
Filk of: "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
by: Laura Sheana Taylor 

Doh doh doh, doh doh doh, doh doh
Doh doh doh, doh doh doh, doh doh
Doh doh doh, doh doh doh, doh doh
Doh doh doh, doh duh (Aaaaaaow!)

This plot
Will go far
Those re-views
Them five stars
This one’s for that story
That glory
Straight masterpiece
Writin’, incitin’
Every point-of-view’s pretty
Got characters and fancy words
Gotta kiss ourselves we’re so witty

We’re too hot (hot damn)
Call the reviewers and librarians
We’re too hot (hot damn)
Make a TV wanna retire, man
We’re too hot (hot damn)
Time to binge read now if you can
We’re too hot (hot damn)
And we’re good about that plottin’
Break it down...

Readers hit your hallelujah (ooh)
Readers hit your hallelujah (ooh)
Readers hit your hallelujah (ooh)
'Cause Author Funk gon' give it to ya
'Cause Author Funk gon' give it to ya
'Cause Author Funk gon' give it to ya
Call an agent, ‘cuz we’ll succeed
Don't believe us just read (Come on)

Doh doh doh, doh doh doh, doh doh (Hah!)

Don’t believe us just read

Doh doh doh, doh doh doh, doh doh (Hah!)

Don’t believe us just read
Don’t believe us just read
Don’t believe us just read
Don’t believe us just read
Hey, hey, hey, oh!

Don’t get weary
Do some edits, then send that query
Take a breath, then don’t you lurk
World buildin’s hard work!
With that stylin’, applyin’, point of view and some conflict
Get agents, and payment
Ten-book contracts’d be perfect

We’re too hot (hot damn)
Call the reviewers and librarians
We’re too hot (hot damn)
Make a TV wanna retire, man
We’re too hot (hot damn)
Time to binge read now if you can
We’re too hot (hot damn)
And we’re good about that plottin’

Readers hit your hallelujah (ooh)
Readers hit your hallelujah (ooh)
Readers hit your hallelujah (ooh)
'Cause Authors Funk gon' give it to ya
'Cause Authors Funk gon' give it to ya
'Cause Authors Funk gon' give it to ya
Call an agent, ‘cuz we’ll succeed
Don’t believe us just read (Come on)

Doh doh doh, doh doh doh, doh doh (Hah!)

Don’t believe us just read

Doh doh doh, doh doh doh, doh doh (Hah!)

Don’t believe us just read
Don’t believe us just read
Don’t believe us just read
Don’t believe us just read
Hey, hey, hey, oh!

Before we leave
Let me tell y'all a little something
Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up
Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up, uh
I said Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up
Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up

Come on, write
Jump on it
If it’s fantasy then flaunt it
If it’s sci-fi then own it
Don't brag about it, come show me
Come on, write
Jump on it
If it’s fantasy then flaunt it
If it’s sci-fi then own it
Come call an agent, ‘cuz we’ll succeed
Don’t believe us just read (Come on)

Doh doh doh, doh doh doh, doh doh (Hah!)

Don’t believe us just read

Doh doh doh, doh doh doh, doh doh (Hah!)

Don’t believe us just read
Don’t believe us just read
Don’t believe us just read
Don’t believe us just read
Hey, hey, hey, oh!

Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up (say whaa?!)
Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up
Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up (say whaa?!)
Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up
Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up (say whaa?!)
Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up
Authors Funk you up, Authors Funk you up (say whaa?!)
Authors Funk you up


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Avoiding Stereotypes (ConCarolinas 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

Avoiding Stereotypes
Michael G. Williams, Darin Kennedy, Faith Hunter, Melissa Gilbert, A.J. Hartley
Moderator: Janine Spendlove

Common Stereotypes They Deal With
JS: Heroes anthology: “Anything but white dudes in tights.” Also, as she’s in the marines which are 90% male; she’ll be deployed this summer as a commander. She feels that she represents all women in the marines because of the disparity.
AJ: Has a lot of problems of the way people represent the British, English, and British/English people. Still wrong, and operates on the assumption that “anything that doesn’t look or sound like me is not real”, not a fully developed person, etc. Doesn’t like the automatic equate of “You must live in a thatched cottage, etc”.
MG: She’s an English teacher, so she sees a lot in fiction and nonfiction of the stereotype that bothers her the most: the dumb hillbilly. A lot of times people think that because you came from a small town, you can’t be intelligent, can’t hold a meaningful conversation, and do nothing but make babies with your cousins.
FH: Doesn’t like the Polyannas. Women being stupid with their strength, or being weak where they could be strong.
DK: Doesn’t like the damsel in distress; or the sitcom with the unintelligent overweight husband and the smoking hot wife. (You’d never see the reverse show). And on the Disney channel, the children are brilliant and the adults are stupid and the children have to save their parents.
MW: Doesn’t like stereotype that gay men are either super macho bodybuilders or flamboyant. (“Most of us are both, thank you!”
JS: Worked on Capitol Hill when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was being repealed, and the stereotypes and misconceptions, the fears that were going to arise, among the older generation.

Typical Stereotypes
JS: Let’s discuss the F Bomb: Feminism.
AJ: Someone who thinks that women should have equal rights to men.
JS: Equal rights for everyone. Equal pay.

JS: So what are the stereotypes?
-          Equating man-hating with feminist
-          Has a bumper sticker: “I know I run like a girl. Try to keep up.”
-          Stereotypes with age and the way it’s represented
-          Fanfiction: how everyone was appalled by the Snape-Harry fanfic, but the Snape-Hermione fanfic was somehow okay
-          Audience comment: Wherever you go, the underclass, the underprivileged, the assumption that the race is the assumption, not the situation. (e.g. poor, welfare African Americans or Hispanics)
-          The concept of the other.
-          That the mentally ill are dangerous to others; usually, they’re a danger to themselves.
-          That a learning disability or ADHD is equated with stupidity, troublemakers
-          NERDS.

It’s okay to be a stereotype if that’s who you are. But most of us are not. We’re an amalgamation of everything. But we have stereotype because of laziness, lack of understanding, and snap judgments.
-          JS: Like I’m the hipster feminist who hates all men and burns her bra.
-          FH: I used to burn my bra. I gave that up.
-          JS: I’m wearing one today. I can’t stand it.
-          AJ: I like them.
-          JS: Stereotypes exist because of society.
-          MW: Because people prefer the shortest explanation ever.
-          DK: Because early-on in our development we needed to identify “this is my tribe, that’s another tribe” – that it’s encoded in our DNA to look for differences in people.
-          MG: Jungian archetypes. We do it to help ourselves understand, because in order to learn, we have to connect.
-          Audience comment: The Identification of friend or foe.
-          FH: When we create characters, the easiest way is to start with a stereotype and work back from that. If only needed for one scene and one purpose, you don’t need much more than a stereotype. But characters you build on, you pull away from that. It’s the individual traits that make them stand out.
-          MW: If you only write an antagonist that’s just opposed to the protagonist, then that’s a stereotype. But if you ask why, even in one sentence, you can make them more.
-          Sometimes stereotypes are good. Put in aviation because her supervisor found out she had a motorcycle. “Because you’re a little bit crazy.” But if you don’t use more than the stereotype, that’s when things go wrong.
-          MW: His vampires want to “pass” among humans. The concept of “passing” is a form of social engineering, inhabiting a stereotype to make people stop thinking about you. Stereotypes are good when you want people to stop thinking about who you are.
-          AJ: Whenever we deal with anything historical. We have a bad habit of saying, “100 years ago, everyone believed, “[something stupid]”. Not necessarily true. Not everyone agreed back then, either. So why do we assume in the past that it was somehow easier?
-          JS: We like our categories. It’s what we do to classify and categorize books.
-          DK: In Star Wars, assuming the whole planet is a desert planet, an ice planet, a forest planet, etc.

We like to avoid stereotypes. Like “strong female character” just means “realistic woman”. And often with our first character, we base it on our selves. Why?
-          Because we know ourselves, know how to base things on ourselves, know how to write ourselves without stereotype. So how can we overcome this fear of stereotypes in our writing?
-          MG: Conversations. Talking about it. Openly, non-judgmental. Getting to know people helps a lot.
-          AJ: Once you’ve decided someone’s an ethnicity or gender, creating an actual life for them, putting aside those concerns and writing them as a character first. Wants to put himself into that character first, and then ask others in beta-reads for feedback later. The moment you ask, What do women want, women like? you’re already screwed. With writing, what we do is an act of empathy. Putting ourselves in someone else’s skin. Your capacity to put yourself in that position is always going to be mediated by a sense of strangeness.
-          DK: If your character is playing with or against type, there’s likely a very good reason why they do it. Maybe it’s not shown (the deep part of the iceberg), but as long as you know it.
-          FH: But you can use the stereotypes to show how a character is non-stereotypical.
-          JS: That’s a lot of big words for a southern lady.
-          FH: I bought me a thesaurus last year!

Audience Question: What’s the Difference Between Archetype vs. Stereotype?
AJ: Archetype is about character function. E.g. the threshold guardian. But a stereotype is something based on a set of social expectations of a particular type.
MG: Sometimes the stereotype can come out of an archetype.
MW: And stereotypes are at the expense of someone, penalize someone. Archetypes explain someone.
JS: When they wrote Tomorrowland, the script called for a white male as the protagonist. Disney has wisened up. Cast a teenaged girl instead, and changed nothing about the story. It became Terminator as done by Disney with a happy hopeful ending.

No matter what you do or what you write, you’re going to offend someone. It’s going to happen. So how do you deal when someone comes up and tells you you’re wrong because the stereotype is wrong, or because it’s offensive? (e.g. when Weird Al wrote the song WordCrimes, he didn’t know "spastic" is considered a version of the R word in Britain)
FH: Just says, “I’m not white.” And that usually shocks people. Her grandparents had to pass, and hid this from their children. She’s a stereotype, and she’s not.
AJ: Next year has a book from Tor with a 17-year-old female person of colour protagonist in a South-African like country. Says, “This is a fantasy world that looks a lot like Africa, but it’s not, and he’s the only one qualified to write this character, but he’s not.” Writing is an exercise in empathy. He’s doing his best to do his research, ask the right questions, and all he can do is give it his best shot, and see what happens. It’s scary.
MW: Plans to have half the cast male, half female when writing a book, then varies it racially and religiously, and don’t worry, next time it’ll be someone else’s turn. But when he receives criticism, he says, “So turn this into a teachable moment. Tell me what I got wrong so I can do it better next time.”
JS: Say “I’m sorry. What can I do to make it right?”
AJ: I’d like to have it before the book comes out...
AJ: Most of us have been in situations where we were out of place, not what people expected. Knows some of the strangenesses that arise from that. For example, he comes from a lower class, and was judged because of that at university.

JS: This panel could go on a long time, because this is such a big topic.

Yes. Yes it is. But they still managed to cover some great points (and.crack a few jokes, too!)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Nature as Character (ConCarolinas 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

Horned Man with Guns Pointed at Him

I wasn't expecting to be gone this long.

Real Life, for me, has been as wild and uncontrollable as the ocean Chris Jackson talks about below. But throughout the current chaos, one thing has been constant: I've been writing. (Well, revising.) Meanwhile, I'm trying to get things back on track, ConCarolinas is in a month, and I have four sets of notes from last year to post. Here's the first.

* * *

Nature as Character
Chris A. Jackson, Faith Hunter, David B. Coe / D.B. Jackson, Nancy Northcott
Moderator: Debra Killeen

Three classic forms of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Nature. We’re focusing on that last one.

Movie examples: Castaway, Call of the Wild, The Day After Tomorrow, or Post-Apocalyptic like Mad Max, etc.

There are so many different types of Man vs. Nature. What’s yours?
DK: Using nature as obstacle in her new series, taking characters from temperate climate to a desert climate, and the reality is more than what they expect; as a practicing pagan, has a different feel towards the nature
FH: With her Thorn St. Croix novels, the environment becomes as much of a character because there’s a mini ice-age, and dealing with that provides its own set of conflict and obstacles, and not just one problem but a variety of survival problems. In the Soulwood series, the forest on the character’s farm, what has become old growth forest because of the magic the character can bring to the world. Her 150 acres are developing their own form of sentience and a will of their own. And because she thinks she’s symbiotically tied to it, leaving for long periods of time it is a problem.
DBC: In the Lon Tobyn chronicle: there’s a magic system in which mages bind psychically with birds of prey. At the same time, there’s a very aggressive technological world interested in harvesting that natural world. Nature is both a source of power and a victim.
CJ: 35-40 years on the ocean has taught him one thing: it’s possible to love something that’s trying to kill you. He writes nautical fantasies – nature as obstacle, and nature as seductress. A reservoir of magic. And when Mother Nature wants to kill you, sending mountains of water crashing on you, trying to put you at the bottom of the sea, she can knock you flat. So strong, so scary. You feel like you have some control, but if Mother Nature decides you don’t, you don’t.
FH: Very like kayaking – some rivers are friendly and playful, some are scary as crap.

We have a long history of nature writing. Why do you think that’s so interesting, a thread that runs through our writing and our genre?
CJ: It’s something beyond our power. We can’t control it. We have to work with it or it’s going to kill us. You have to run with the storm, work with nature to survive.
DBC: The identity of this land has always been tied to the power of its natural environment. It’s no coincidence that the first big artistic statement was the Hudson River school of artists, portraying a landscape that caught the attention of the people. Tied to the power of its natural resources, and a natural frontier. It was seen as something to be tamed, harnessed, and used. Ask people in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and it was always nature. It has stuck with our identity as a country, and defined us.
FH: And yet the idea of a frontier was outright theft. Europeans came over and took away from the Native Americans. It wasn’t a great frontier; it was warfare and genocide and theft of a world that did not belong to them. It was one version of using nature replacing the native peoples’ version of working with nature. A head-to-head confrontation that changed the way it was viewed. Mankind took the forests, used them, and didn’t let them grow back. We need to regain a reverence for our land again. The Soulwood series is about the awareness and how the original peoples had a reverence for the earth, and how their way of life would have kept it alive, while our way is killing it. Deep abiding grief for our world and the whole human race. And we’re breeding ourselves out of existence.
DK: We’re raping our life-giving planet, and we can do a good job of paying lip-service (national parks, small conservation efforts), Yes, we do need to spread the word that it seems kind of obvious that we seem hellbent on our extinction. We need to respect nature because nature will win. It won’t miss us when we’re gone.
NN: The American ethos seems to be about conquering things: “There’s a challenge, let’s go get it.”
CJ: It’s not just Americans. It’s active in a lot of cultures. We’re a struggling species, and what’s happened is that we’ve always seen nature as a foe, not as a partner.
FH: And we believe it’s our right to use it.
CJ: Some believe that it is their right to take everything.

What’s your favorite book or movie that uses nature as a character, and why do you like it so much?
DK: A Perfect Storm. Extremely powerful film. This was based on a true story. Also, enjoyed Oz, where Baum used acts of nature to start adventures.
NN: The Time of the Great Freeze by Robert Silverberg. The characters have to cross this icy landscape. It’s about youth facing the challenges of their environment.
FH: Deliverance. The river had such a personality, such moments of serenity followed by such moments of incredible violence that was mirrored in the character struggles. Also, White Fang (Jack London). The setting affected her greatly.
DB: Rascal by Sterling North. About a young boy who adopts a raccoon. Also, A River Runs Through It. The river as metaphor and plot device as a family is chronicled.
CJ: My Side of the Mountain by Walt Murray. About a boy who learned to live in the mountains. And Dune, obviously, with nature as adversary and ally.

What about nature drew you to using that, and how do you use it in your books?
CJ: Nothing is more spiritual to him than being 150 miles from shore on a clear moonless night. The universe opens up around you and you realize how insignificant you are.
(DBC: You mean publishing didn’t do that for you?)
CJ: It makes you feel like a grain of sand on the beach, and you start living differently, thinking differently, once you connect. So in his books, his character longs to go to sea, but when she gets there, she’s sick as a dog. You can be terminally seasick, where you dehydrate and go into a coma. But the “what I love is killing me” that he experienced personally when younger drove him to include that in his work.
DBC: Environmental history: the duality between humankind and the natural world. As much as human activity impacts the planet, the planted shapes humanity. Conscious when worldbuilding of the way the landscape affects the history, culture, society of the people he creates. It’s important to understand that even cultures we think of living as one with nature impacted the natural world with which they were interacting, and in turn were shaped by that natural world. It’s not one-sided, it goes back and forth, and that’s the healthier kind of thinking we need.
FH: Nature has always been important to her writing because as a child she was bullied, a geek before geeks were remotely cool, a tree-hugger because she found solace in nature. Nature gave her something to hang onto because she had nothing else.
NN: Not a nature girl, but when she started to write about mages fighting ghouls in a Florida swamp, she knew she had to learn more about it. The book has a nature-based magic system because nature is always there. You can’t draw from it exhaustively, and yet you can. And energy is different in a swamp, so demons and ghouls use it. It feels like an alien landscape, because it’s a blackwater bog. (Okeepenokee swamp) The writing sucked her into nature rather than the other way around.
DK: Nature is spiritually uplifting for her (so discovering paganism was no surprise), so now she uses it in her writing, and has characters in the desert harnessing the elements with their magic. Is having fun with it.

What are the benefits and problems when you decide to make nature a lynchpin of whatever you’re working on?
DK: Be careful with limitations. Controlling magic, not getting out of control when the character is using it.
NN: The advantage is that nature is all around you, and the Okeepenokee swamp’s distinctiveness is useful. The downside is that you have to get it right. There’s also a danger of making it repetitive when you use the same setting too much.
FH: 150 acres is not that big of a piece of land, and it’s hilly, so not being repetitive is going to be difficult. Finding her subconcious awareness that she wants to make the piece larger, bring more pieces in, and there’s no way to do that that she’s found yet unless she makes it antithesis to what Soulwood is. And knowing as a writer that that won’t work. The other part of her brain is trying to twist that around, find the conflict. And to get the metaphor into the series, it’s all located in one spot, she’s got to try to make it work. It’s not easy, and she likes that. But it’s hard to rein that in. Winnowing out all the things her subconscious wants to use is a challenge.
DB: In the Justis Fearsson chronicles, the third book has a lot of scenes set in the natural environment. The experience of visiting a landscape for the first time. In the Lon Tobyn chronicles, he turned it into a polemic: it’s fine to write about a society part nature and part technology, but when you allow the fact that you’re an environmentalist creep into your narrative so that it’s ideologically driven rather than plot driven, it’s not good. He must remember that first and foremost he is a writer.
CJ: First, he gets to show people things they don’t get to see. Tropical reefs, the majesty of an ocean, with his books, essential and wonderful. The downside: he gets too close to it, and if you dive too deeply into setting you can overshadow your characters. It’s easy to get too much into the sea and to nautical terminology. Patrick O’Brien used nautical terminology heavily, which can alienate.  Pull it in and realize that you’re writing stories about people. Realistically, yes, you have nature, but it’s about character. Don’t overshadow the focus on your characters.

Audience Question: DBC and CJ: what if your audience is environmentalists and people who’d agree with you?
DBC: If you’re being true to your characters, that’s fine, the problem is when the authorial voice leaches into the characters. Was writing 21st century American sensibility into the cultures. Needed to be true to the story and the characters. As soon as you lose that trueness, then you’ve stepped over a line.

Audience Question: Have you ever written a character who has a distinct experience for the first time, and how it affects how the story is told?
FH: It’s difficult, because the sense of wonder is so intense, so strong, that there aren’t good English words to explain it, and you lose something when you do. Has never been able to replicate in text that sense of wonder the first time she had an experience with nature. That sense of absolute alienness.
NN: A concept, the idea of the holy, and the numinous: that moment of awe and things come together and you feel like you’re seeing something you didn’t realize was there.
DB: Didn’t try to recreate it; went back to old journals. Went back and read what his young self thought, because as inarticulate as it is, the emotion was there. He had the words.
CJ: It’s like looking at a beautiful painting, and looking at every brush stroke it took to make that painting, and feeling what the artist felt when he made that painting. Like seeing Crater Lake, Oregon. Gestalt moments. Putting it on paper is hard.

Audience Comment: She has a specific memory of before she got glasses, sometimes it’s just the little things. Like seeing leaves on a tree after first getting glasses. Experiences so small can still give you these experiences too.
FH: She was walking a creek, and it made a wide elbow turn, and there was a spring coming up in the middle. You could put your hand over it and feel the spring. Very small moments of wonders.
CJ: Coral reefs are like that. The closer you get, the more you see.
Other audience member: In the Eragon series – seeing the mountains for the first time, and seeing a forest, then seeing a city in the forest.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Royalty, Nobles, Beggars, and Thieves (ConCarolinas 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

A chalkboard doodle at the college where I work that shows a headshot of a faceless person wearing a fancy, Italian Renaissance style hat sporting a giant feather.  Artist unknown. Much like this character.

Well, that wasn't very pleasant. Nothing like a nasty flu to throw me off my intended schedule. At least the dizziness and vertigo have finally abated.

And very soon, I have a very special feature that I've been wanting to share for months. But for now? The notes I'd intended for Monday, before this latest bout of yuck hit.

* * *

Royalty, Nobles, Beggars, and Thieves
Niko Brooks, Kyle M. Perkins, David B. Coe, Alexandra Christian

A discussion of race, class, and economic assumptions in epic fantasy

Lowport: A book about people in a spaceport, the underclass, folks not represented

When you’re writing the work that you write, do you consciously look for ways to work in those characters who are less well-represented in fantasy, or generally focused on kings, queens, shapers, and movers, because that’s where the epic action is?
NB: Wrote about what it would be like to have someone who isn’t nobility, and how it could shape how the king and people ruling act and rule. Could the leaders have someone who’s not part of the yes men, telling it straight to them and not trying to please them?
KP: The noble action is there, but you do need the people on the bottom to establish the foundation, and work up. Without them, you have nothing, and the people at the top have nothing to lean on. Having the underdog stories is beneficial. If you don’t include them, they don’t exist and your characters who are noble have nothing to fall back on. They help round out the story, establish the universe.
AC: Anytime that you’re writing about a new world, you have to know who those people are, understand the background of how those people work. Those stories interest her more than the ones about the kings and the queens. And if she is interested in the king or queen, they’re always reluctant characters. More interested in the underdog characters.
DBC: Has a history background. The new wave when he was studying was social history. No longer about great people doing great deeds. Needed as historians to get back to the lives of the people who were living the world every day, even if they weren’t shaping them. But they’re boring as hell. So writing stories about things happening that leads to the destruction of life as your characters know it, don’t we risk diminishing the stakes in our books by focusing on the lives of the “little people” rather than those who control the major events?
AC: Likes that in Tolkien, small people can change the world. That’s what people enjoy in an epic fantasy, little people making a difference. The idea that they can change and shape.
DB: The four hobbits in Lord of the Rings are the little people, but really it’s a story about great people doing great things, and the four hobbits thrown in as characters we can relate to.
NB: Yes, but with the little characters, how do these big meta events and major changes affect them, too?

There’s a difference between cinematic text and literary text. With Lord of the Rings, in the book, the corruption trickled down even to Hobbiton. That didn’t happen in the movies. The hobbits realize how narrowly the world escaped complete destruction, and everything would have been fine and no one would have known. Which is more realistic?
KP: Modern perspective: the concept of the little person making changes that can make the large aspect change in the world, but then we have our lives. How much would we be affected? Would the hobbits have continued to remain blissfully unaware if they didn’t go? How small people react to big events, and what happens up top, affects and impacts the world as well.

Audience Question: The Higher-ups make decisions based on power. Little people make decisions that affect their community. Why are the little people stories so effective?
DBC: Even the smallest person’s decisions can have deeply powerful effect on events. The decisions that Gandalf et al make are big decisions that affect the whole world, but all of these are made after Bilbo found a ring and lied about it. One person can do something that has ramifications beyond that. Rosa Parks was highly educated and an activist, so her decision to sit at the front of the bus was an informed and conscious step. But it’s something that’s been highly romanticised.
AC: We can relate to these characters. It is a romantic idea, very loosely based in reality, but that’s what people read for. To escape, to have a world they can completely lose themselves.

Audience question: In the book The Age of Reason: The earth slows its pace, an apocalypse is happening, and the main character experiencing this is who the story is told through. Why are we focused on this one young girl? So is the story better told from her perspective or someone who has a level of power?
Audience member: Likewise, literary classics are about normal people thrown into weird, strange situations and how they handle them. How can we translate this to fantasy?
DB: It can and has been done.
NB: Multiple times. Christopher Paolini, Eragon. The idea that we don’t have these decision making powers, either, so we relate to this. We make up the majority of the population, so we relate to them very much. The underdogs are us.
DBC: And we relate to the underdog not just because they’re they little guy, it’s the little guy with the hidden power, nobility, or talent. If they could be that, then we could, too. (Harry Potter, King Arthur, etc). Something about taking the ordinary person and having them face these big problems that speaks to us.
DBC: It doesn’t have to be the kid who think she’s ordinary and then becomes this special person. They can be just an ordinary guy doing ordinary things.
Aud: It’s about the feat, too, not just the cataclysmic event. We’re just focusing on one point of view. Choosing that hero makes the difference.
AC: Everything in The Shining is told through the child’s eyes (Danny’s), and it makes everything more intense.
NB: Especially in apocalypses, one of the concepts is, how do we save future generations?
AC: Could be why we have such a fascination with YA right now.
DBC: In the movie Hero with Dustin Hoffman and Andy Garcia, DH was a bum and a grouch but he saves a bunch of people, but then goes back to being a bum. The point of this panel: does a hero have to look like a king, or can they be a young street urchin living on their own and trying to make it? How can we reconcile heroism with having higher stakes involved?
AC: As a second-grade teacher, taught fairy tales: and the idea that you can always tell the princess because she’s pretty, and the villain because he’s ugly. We’ve reversed that and we’re fascinated with doing that.
NB: Yet we still have fascination with the perfect hero.
AC: Superman is boring.
DBC: More people would go to Iron Man because of Tony Stark’s snark.
BB: There will still be a population who wants the perfect heroes.
AC: Writes romance, so she sees those stereotypes. But asked her fans, and many want to see people with disabilities.
KP: The hero’s evolving from the perfect sculpture to someone we want to relate more to.
AC: It comes and goes in phases. Right now we’re getting back to that flawed thing. Maybe because we as a society feel flawed?
Audience comment: Even Superman doesn’t entirely understand humanity, and is damaged.
DBC: Now he is. He didn’t used to be.
Audience member: Even bad characters have to have good elements to them, and vice verse. The perfect doesn’t exist anywhere.
NB: There is a physical aspect to it as well. There’s a mold and a look that we still want to fit into.
Audience member: People want more diversity. That we’re having this conversation matters. We want to see the Spikes, too. Diversity not just in the writers, but the main characters, is good.
DBC: It’s hard to look at Legolas and see any flaws. The good characters are white bread, and the bad ones are evil incarnate. You can find examples of it.
Audience member: Fantasy is growing up, now we’re seeing more complex characters.
DBC: Stephen R. Donaldson wrote Thomas Covenant. The books are difficult reads and he’s a disgusting character, but he’s the prototype for the interesting antihero. It can be these guys who are dark as hell and do heroic things, and it changed his view of fantasy.
AC: Michael Moorcock’s Elric books. A scarred-up albino. He’s not necessarily a hero, he’s just trying to get through.

Audience Question: In the same vein: making thieves and assassins the hero or protagonist? Is there a way to make the murderer the protagonist and still have them do awful things?
AC: Dexter.
NB: Someone born to be a killer uses his skills to keep others safe: Weapon of Flesh.
AC: Remember, nobody is the villain of their own story. You have to write from the pov of the character you’re writing from. Maybe the person in your story isn’t necessarily a good person, but they accidentally do good things.
DBC: In his Winds of the Forelands – he has an assassin character, working at odds from the protagonist, but still a sympathetic character because he disguises himself by wandering around as a traveling musician, because he loves music. He [DBC] spent time working on the character for this reason. It’s about showing human beings doing what they do even if it’s against what your protagonist believes.

Audience Question: But to make people want to root for him, want them to succeed, you have to find some connectivity with that character. How can you manage it?
DB: That’s Thomas Covenant. He’s an awful person, but in the end you want to root for him because he’s trying to save the world.
AC: The Joker. A deplorable human being. He sticks with us, and people love him.
Audience member: You have to have a fantastic villain to make the hero strong enough to fight them.

Audience question: But are they just victims of their circumstances doing what they can to survive?
AC: Everybody has the capacity to be good.
Audience member: Breaking Bad.
AC: There’s a certain amount of escapism in wanting to do all the terrible things. Maybe that’s why the Joker and Breaking Bad can do that.

KP: Office Space, too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Short Stories Explained (SiWC 2015 Master Class Notes)

Charlie's not impressed with my tardiness. He glares at the camera with his ears back, one eye squinting.

Now that I've got my explanation of where I've been out of the way ... as promised, let's get back to notes! By special request, here's my first set, straight from the most recent Surrey International Writers Conference. We'll start with a bang: the wonderful Mary Robinette Kowal's very useful Master Class on writing short stories.

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Master Class: Short Stories Explained
Mary Robinette Kowal

How Puppetry Affects her Creative Process
- When learning, there are four principle ideas to make the character look alive.
- With writing, there are certain consistent principles for creating believable characters, too, regardless of novel or short story.
- Puppetry: break things apart into small steps. The goal is that the technique is internalized so you just think about the art.
- Applies to other arts, too. Drawing, violin, etc.
- As writers, there’s a tendency to say “I’m going to write a novel” and try all the things at once. Pacing, description, character development, should be learned separately.

Principles of Puppetry That Work

1. Focus.
- Indicates thought. What the character is looking at/thinking about. True also for what you’re writing. The thing you’re writing about, whatever you’re putting down is what they’re focusing on, paying attention to, regardless of POV.
- Don’t think about the little things that don’t matter. If the aliens are attacking you are not thinking about how the car you’re riding in reminds you of your parents, not
Controlling your character means controlling the focus of your audience.
- Order in which you present the info to them. The theatre spotlight shows you what to focus on. In writing, the order of information you present to your readers is imp because you are presenting your work to your readers one word at a time and they have to build an image in their heads.
“The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in the chair.”
“The man walked into the room. In the chair was a blonde.”
The first thing is the first they think of, the last is what they last focus on. Anything else in between doesn’t matter as much, just the first and last thing. They’re subtle differences, but very much changes your perception of the things. Order of info is incredibly important, and part of focus.

2. Breath and Rhythm.
Breath: You don’t notice it unless it carries information. The only time you notice someone breathing unless it carries information. Sneeze, sharp intakes, sighs, exhalation, laugh. Speed of motion reps how much we should engage with it. But don’t over use it.
Rhythm: the speed with which the motions happen
Relates to how long, how much time you spend on something. “Action scenes should have short, choppy sentences” – because that mimics what happens when you’re breathing faster. Also, sentence structure and punctuation show this.
Focus tells you what character is thinking about, breath tells you how your character feels about it. This is how you can get a lot of info without a lot of chatter/explainy stuff.

3. Muscle/Internal motivation.
With writing, you need it to look like your characters are making the decisions rather than it looking like the author is moving the character along the page. It’s not just about the plot itself, but to put the words on the page to explain it.
- Free indirect speech: Take a thought and write it in third person.
- The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in the chair. “He lifted her out of the chair because it was broken.” vs. “he hadn’t seen her since California. My god she looked beautiful.”
- Word choice: Lifted vs. Jerked. Free indirect speech shows internal motivation.
- Can use it when things are ambiguous.
- When used for emphasis: to make an action stronger. “Hell no she wasn’t going down like this.”

4. Meaningful movement.
Head bobbing. NOT when a puppet bobs its head with every word.
Body language reads very clearly. Meaningful movement to remove ambiguity or emphasize something. Pick one movement per phrase.
- “What did you say?” Aggressive movement, passive movement, and regressive movement.
- Aggressive: things you want to engage with further. Curiosity, happiness, delight, possessiveness, etc.
- Regressive: things you don’t want to engage with. Revulsion, anger, disgust. Different sense depending on how the character moves.
With writing: the body language you give your character can not only make your character come to life. “What did you say?” followed by: putting hands on hips, removing paddle from drawer, or leaning away from speakers blaring too-loud punk rock, etc. There’s lots of double-duty doing this. Don’t do it all the time, but include when you want to disambiguate who’s speaking, emphasize a tone, etc.

What are the Story Parameters?

Parameter: Size of the theatre.
So you know how much scenery you can have on stage, and how big your audience will be and how much they can see. For writers: How long will your story be? How many scenes you can have, how many characters, etc.
Every character or scene implication you add to a story adds 500 to 1000 words even before you get to story.
- 5K limit: 3 characters, 2 scene implications (scenic locations).
- Scenic locations: when you have to move the “camera” into another room.
- Time of day can also count as a scene implication. Can change the characters’ reaction to the same setting.
- Plot structure can double or triple those numbers.
- If your character has a name, they’re typically a main character. Otherwise, they’re spear-holders. Very proportional.
- When writing short fiction: the moment the character speaks, they’re a character.
- Named pets count, even with nonverbal communication.
- Don’t allow characters to speak unless they’re a key element. So proportional and so dependent on what story you’re trying to tell.
- Typically, the initial story choice when writing shorts is that it’s too big.

Parameter: Length of the show.
How many scenes you have. With a very long show, people welcome the intermissions. But to stop in a 45 minute show halfway through for a 20 minute intermission – you could lose the audience.
- When writing something that’s only 4000 words long, and it’s split 3.5k/0.5 K, there will be a sense of let down because there won’t be time to build up the scene again.
- Why did I have that dip there? Check your scene breaks.
- Difference between novels and short stories: you have to keep things in proportion. With a novel, you can spend 3k setting up the story before you get into it. In a short story (1k-7.5k), your setup length is much shorter. Bear in mind the percentages. Don’t think in terms of absolutes, but in terms of percentages.
- Every scene break is a reset. Every scene break is the brief moment where the audience gets to reset. In a novel, there’s not much impact. In a short story, too many don’t work as well. Be mindful of proportion because scene breaks throw the reader out of the story.
- Short scenes don’t get into the character as much.

Parameter: Style of Puppetry (Voice).
- 2 choices to make: technical style and aesthetic style. With writing, that means technical (POV), and aesthetic (voice: like Austen or Southern character, or educated middle class white person, etc).
- Erase “invisible prose” or “transparent prose”, the idea that you can be neutral, and don’t think about the words and do think about the story. There is no neutral/invisible prose. There is prose that fits into the Western mainstream narrative. But that’s not the only way to write.

Senses and Character
- You have ingrained aspects of yourself that you bring to your character’s POV. So try to make sure that whatever your character’s POV is matches who they are, to inform your reader without taking up a lot of space in the short story.
- We are all experiencing the room at the same time of day in distinct reactions based on our life experiences.
- When we talk about POV, it’s not just about where our character is standing now, it’s where they were standing in the past.

Exercise: In 3 sentences, describe the room from a specific POV. Pick a person with a certain job, and we should be able to tell their job based on what they notice. Depending on what they notice, the point of view and focus, you can convey what their job is.

Now, with same character, use three emotion. Resetting to zero with each emotion. Can include their physical reaction, but just use their reaction. How long they linger on something, the words they choose to describe it. Anger, delight, fear.

Within 3 sentences, the reader should know where they are, who the character is, how they feel. Shortly after that comes the plot.

Plot and Structure

The MICE quotient: how you decide where your story stops and where it ends.

- Millieu: the place where things happen
- Idea: the questions you have during the story
- Character: who’s in the story
- Event: the things that happen

The thing that drives the story is going to be one of those elements. One of these is the most important.

Where stories start and where they end:
- Milleu – driven by the pace – these stories start when you enter a location and end when you leave it. About the place. Gulliver’s Travels, Wizard of oz, etc.
- Idea – the question your main character has. Starts when question is raised, ends when it’s answered. Mysteries, e.g. Sherlock Holmes.
- Character: Begins when your main character is dissatisfied with their role, ends when they are satisfied/reconciled. Reconciliation in different forms. Transformation into something better, better understanding of their current role, e.g. Coming of age stories. Romance stories: character story – dissatisfied with being single, ends with “now I’m not!” (though that’s a gross oversimplification). Character stories are very much about an internal conflict. The character wants for themselves to be something they’re not.
- Event: about an external conflict. Begins when the status quo is disrupted, and ends with restoration of status quo (or new status quo). Begins with disruption, ends with restoration.
- Usually these things are mixed. It’s rare to see a story that is just one thing.
- This concept can shape the story you’re telling. Know your POV character and how they’re affected.

How to use these elements when dealing with more than one:
- You deal with these like they’re nested code.
- You start with one type, then add a different type, then must close the different type. Must close each type in the reverse order you open them.
- Wizard of Oz: Starts Character, then event, then Milleu, then Idea. Idea is solved, then milieu is solved, then event is solved, then character is solved.
- When you end these out of sequence, the big question that is pulling the reader thorough the story, if it is answered too soon there’s not enough time to build tension for the next release point. Usually, the ending tags are out of order.
- Narrative tension can be lost if it’s not done out of order. Can cause a sense of letdown.
- Epliogues, depending on the novel: a classically-structured epilogue is a very tiny short story tacked onto the end that has is a brief repeat of the initial theme (e.g. code).
- In short fiction, you’ll have two, maybe three types of story. Because of length. When you add another type/element, it has the potential to double or triple the length of your story.
- Could have a tiny arc closed out before you start the next element.
- You can also have a story that is predominantly a character story with a light event frame.

Because Math Makes Everything More Fun: The Equation To Remember
Length of story = the sum (characters + scenic locations) × 750 (the average) × number of MICE elements

- The bulk of your story happens in the middle.
- The reason it’s important to know what the elements are is because each of them comes with a different sort of conflict.
- Sometimes you think you’ve identified the story type, then all the conflicts are character-based conflicts, so you’ve chosen the wrong frame.
- The beginning is the question gets asked. The middle is the character trying to answer that question and being constantly stymied. The end is when it gets solved.
- The middle is all of the setbacks along the way, and touches on all of the MICE elements you’ve included.
- If a conflict will serve multiple functions, it will shorten the length of the story.
- Often two try/fail cycles, then success on the third, but that’s a common trope. Three try/fails shows the character has earned stuff.
- Conflicts: A series of questions. What does your character want, and how do they go about getting that, and do they get it.
- Answer: Yes, but; No, and; Yes/No.
- Where people are running into problems in their stories is they’ll introduce information related to a different part of their story, or changes the type.
- Middle conflicts may have been related to something else.
- Look at it and decide what’s the smartest way to achieve their goal, and systematically deny them. Look for conflicts related to the story questions you introduced in the beginning.
- Milleu: systematically keep them from leaving the place.
- Idea: about answering the question – keep them from answering the question.
- Character: dissatisfied with their role. Stop them from achieving a new role.
- Event: character is trying to restore the status quo. Keep them from restoring the status quo.
- You must deal with your chosen elements all the way through.
- If your character is not dissatisfied, they don’t need any growth, and the story can be something else.
- Short stories typically need more than one element. Otherwise it’s a very short story.
- All of these elements are going to be present, but it’s about how many are major drivers.

In an ideal world, every scene should advance the plot, establish the setting, develop the character, and most importantly, entertain the reader. And if you fail at entertaining the reader, the other three don’t matter. If you were bored while writing it, chances are it’ll be bored for your readers.

Exercises and Further Discussion

Exercise: Write a synopsis. Think of the middle first. Then figure out what frame you need to support the MICE quotient element you’re interested in. Just one element.

Exercise: Little Red Riding hood has been told many different times and ways. A scifi/horror is very different from a kindergarten puppet show. Are you interested in the defeat of the wolf, or who the wolf is? The rescue of grandma, or the seduction of Red?

Me: Microbiologist Rebecca “Red” Jones’ has devoted the last five years to The Grandma Project, in an attempt to discover the chief DNA sequence for predisposition to knitting sweaters and baking cookies. When she encounters a particular sequence, she thinks it’s a breakthrough, except not everything is what it seems. Turns out they cause other problems – they affect the eyes, the teeth, and elements that don’t fit her needs. But after a late night in the darkened Huntsman’s café, she makes her breakthrough: the code involves the same genes that affect touch and scent. 

Exercise: Now come up with an original idea. Again, the thing that trips people up is that they have too many characters, too many locations, too many MICE quotient elements. For the purposes: two characters, only characters, and one scenic location.
Think about: Who they are, where they are, and things that can go horribly wrong.
Conflicts involving internal angst: for example, two ex-lovers, trapped in a room, have to decide whether or not to cooperate. Think about the things that interest you, and what you’re excited about, to write your idea.

Me: Some people count the exits when they get to a new place. Seismologist Nancy counts the safe spots. She knows the Big One’s coming; it’s just a matter of time. When stuck at her crotchety, aging father’s used bookstore as the earthquake finally hits, she must convince him to find a safe place to duck, cover, and hold, then abandon the building that is so not up to code before it falls on them, or else risk losing the only family she has. Only by telling him about the earthquake insurance she secretly paid for a decade ago is she able to save him—and herself.

MICE can be used as a diagnostic tool once a story is written.

Flashbacks: this framework is about how you tell it, not about the sequence in which the events happen. Sometimes a novel will start with 24hour previously/later, then jump back. Structurally, they’re moving the MICE question to a different spot. Incorporating them at different points to affect the order of info in which the reader is getting things, and the context to understand the reaction.

Character: not just about where they’ve been, but the role they define themselves as.

- When you get to the end, with a short story,
- Short stories and novels: audience is expecting different things.
- \think about it like the Olympics. A clip of a gymnastic trick should start right when the gymnast’s routine begins, do their stuff, stick the landing, and they’re done. When watching the coverage, you want to see them warming up, the emotional backstory, do the trick, finish the trick, go talk to their coach, get their maeks, watch the interview with them after. Short stories are the clip; the novel is watching the entire thing.
- Denoument: not such a big deal with short fiction. In a short, it’s usually only a couple of sentences. Stick your landing, and get out. Close your last tag. One things you can do to heighten the emotional oomph: two basic tricks – try to resolve all of the conflicts right at the same time.
- The Hollywood ending: when you get to the end, your main character needs to defeat the villain, overcome the problem, and reconcile with their sidekick/romantic interest. Sometimes the villain and the sidekick are the same person.
- Father is both villain (stopping her from escaping the bookstore), and person she loves and needs to save. She gets things happening in all the same moment. Usually in novels, it’s defeat the villain, solve the problem, and reconcile spaced a tiny bit apart.
- The closer you can get the closing tags (the big driver tags) at the same time, the bigger emotional punch you have.
- The other trick: resonance. Simply: ppl like patterns. We are pattern-seeking creatures. It’s the way our brain is wired. Children watching/reading stuff over and over: thrill of recognition.
- You can repeat something that happens at the beginning. It can be an inversion or a repetition depending on where your character is going. If you have a beautiful resonant ending at the end of your story, don’t change it; go back and change your beginning.

Remember character motivation: pick a thing that matters to your character that doesn’t need to be directly related to the plot. Something they desperately want (to do) that the event status quo disrupts their ability to do/have.

- SFF: when you are trying to decide on a market, always read the guidelines.
- Three factors to consider: 1) Money, 2) Size of Audience, 3) Shiny/Cool. Depending on where you are in your career, the importance of each will change based on what matters to you most. How much does the market pay, how many do you reach, and how much do you want to be in that market. All three of these elements *need* to be there.
- You should be paid.
- Start at the top and work your way down. Don’t NOT send something because you don’t think you’re good enough for it. Do not self-reject.
- When it hits a point that it’s a market that won’t pay you, doesn’t have an audience, and you’re not interested in, put it away instead.
- No matter how much the market pays or how big the audience is, if it’s not a market you don’t want to appear in, don’t submit to the market.

Friday, January 22, 2016

sorry-not-sorry but kinda but not

My American friends laugh every time I say "sorry", but it's an ingrained habit. Besides, while I'm travelling abroad, I might as well keep up my image of the polite Canadian who stresses her vowels and can't help adding in the occasional "eh". I even had a shirt made up.

And the back says "Sorry". Even my clothing is apologetic!
So ... yeah. It's been awhile. I'm not sure if I want to apologize for my absence or not. Certainly I wasn't expecting to be away this long. However, multiple personal crises and family member health emergencies (on top of a few things that were good but added even more stress) hit me all at the same time, because when it rains, for me it freaking pours, and even this incurable optimist has been tested.

Yes, tested. Euphemisms and understatements are kinda my thing.

At any rate, one area of my life that also suffered in this clustercrush* of bad was my notes. Of which I have an embarrassment. So I'd like to try to get back to that, if for nothing else than the fact that I'm trying to build some good habits and patterns in my life.

I just thought y'all deserved an update, first.

* My word, but feel free to use. You get the satisfaction of "cluster", and the amusement of watching eyes widen in horror because of how people expect you to finish.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Master Class: The Emotional Craft of Fiction (SIWC 2014 Notes)

So, just under the wire, here's one of the biggest sets of notes I've taken (though taking a class from Donald Maass is always rich and educational and so, so worth it). SIWC 2015 begins tomorrow (with new Master Classes before the conference proper on Friday). The excitement has been building for weeks. So without further adieu, here is a set of notes that takes what we learned last week from Robert Wiersma about eliciting emotion from the reader, and seriously putting that to work. Enjoy!

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Master Class: The Emotional Craft of Fiction
Donald Maass

Have you ever read a novel that hooked you really hard on the first page, or first chapter, and kept you reading, but still didn’t leave you feeling engaged?

It was beautifully written, but left you feeling kinda cold.

What about a mile-a-minute potboiler that you found completely forgettable?

All kinds of fiction can leave us feeling cold and empty inside.
-          Can excite our imaginations but fail to engage our hearts
-          Authors often trying to motivate protagonists via external plot rather than via circumstances of something that’s locked inside of them
-          Emotional landscape that’s obvious and hackneyed. Emotions that are easy to write cause us to feel very little
-          Great hooks, premises, well-constructed characters yet still feel unengaged, uninvolved, unemotionally connected. It’s not the story, it’s the way the writers are writing.
-          Very readable, but not feeling enough.
-          Superbowl: Best commercials by best ad agencies. Terrific masterpieces of advertising. Can have you weeping in 30 secs. Wrings your heart. How can that make us feel more than we feel in 300 pages of manuscript?
-          Stories that really moved him – the emotional impact, the way stories affect readers, is a craft. Something we can study, do consciously as we write.
-          When you talk to readers about what they really love, the answer that comes back the most is “I love the characters”. This is misleading. What they really mean is not the characters per se, but what they felt as they read those characters. It’s the feelings we have as we encounter those characters that keep us coming back in series. It’s what we feel that makes them memorable. (And there’s research to back this up, too.)

There are four different ways to have stronger emotional effect
1.      What it is we report how our characters feel.
2.      What a character feels that we do not report to the reader. Feelings that we intuit the car has because of what they do, so we provoke the reader to feel what the character feels
3.      The things the reader feels that the characters don’t. Simply story circumstances that cause us to feel
4.      Our own emotional journey as authors. You cannot write a story without feeling something about it. As you write, you feel. We’re very wrapped up in our characters experience. But how do we translate what’s going on inside us so we can translate it from our minds to the page to the reader?

There are techniques to create stronger emotional effects so the readers feel engaged (a fancy word for feeling emotional): We want them to feel. That’s the effect that we want to have.

The Beginning

Let’s start at the beginning of your story. Identify where the story really starts. Not necessarily page 1 of your manuscript. What is the inciting incident? What is the agent of change? What first happens in the story to send your protagonist on a new path to discover/avoid/etc something? When is the moment that signifies “Things are going to change. Right now.” This is where change really begins. Inevitable, unstoppable, and things will change until they’re very different and won’t stop ’til then. What is it that begins change? Someone? Something that happens? Something that happens inside? This is the beginning of change.

This apprehension that things are moving in another direction, and protagonist is feeling that things are moving in another direction, summed up. What is the event? What is it that arrives to occasion change?

This thing that arrives/occurs, why does your protagonist care about it? Your protagonist cares. Why?

If you write that “I have to engage because it matters to other people, someone else will be affected” – that’s fine. We care about other things because they matter not only to us but other people. But that’s only the first level of why people care. That’s the external reason that causes your protagonist to care. But why do they care just for their own reasons? That matters to your character so they don’t let themselves down? Why does it matter to them? Or, if nobody else cared, why would your protagonist care despite that?

Poker – people who go all in before the flop turn it to roulette, not strategy – who cares? It’s a small game only for points, a mindless waste of time like solitaire – but he really gets worked up about it. Why does it matter to him? Because it takes the fun out of the game for him. Robs it of the drama, the emotion, the fun of guessing, of paying attention to the betting of the other players, of using your mind. It takes the emotion out of it, makes him not care.

So why does the inciting incident matter to your character? Why does it matter to your protagonist that this agent of change has arrived? What’s the best thing about it? What will it bring your protagonist that they’re lacking? What does your protagonist need that this change brings? What is the thing most fearful about it? What is your protagonist afraid that he or she may have to face? Change is good, but we all resist it. We don’t like new things. But we love new things. But we don’t like new things. Presents, good.

Why is this change good? Why is it bad?

Keep working on this moment in the story. Your protagonist cares and we’re starting to define why. But caring itself is a feeling. What is the best thing about it? Does it feel good to care, to be engaged? Is it exhilarating? Is it fresh, different? Create an analogy for this caring. What would it be analogous to? Like unwrapping a present? Talking to the doctor? Or something else?

Your protagonist cares, but what does the fact of caring about this say to the character about him or her self because they care at all?

How does it make the reader care that the protagonist cares?

Or, how is your character alone because he or she cares? Why is this going to isolate, make them a pariah because they care?

Your protagonist cares today about what has arrived, is bringing about change. Why does your protagonist care today more than yesterday? Or more than 10 years from now? What is it about now that makes it so important to your protagonist?

Finally, there’s a reason your protagonist shouldn’t care at all. Other things to worry about, things that matter more.

Now, in a paragraph, take your notes and answers from the above questions and craft it into a passage.

There are inhibitors as we write, about telling too much and having nothing left for the rest of the manuscript? Those are valid fears. Remember, one of the biggest challenges we face is that the readers are not feeling enough. We need them hooked, not engaged, immediately. If you’ve taken the reader inside your character and shown more than you want, then that’s okay. You’re not done wringing out your character.

Scenes (the change)

Scene by scene, step by step. Mostly we write scenes, sequences of collapsed times.

Exercise: Pick a scene that’s not especially dramatic, with emotional explosions, a scene that needs to be there even if not much happens. A “blah” scene.

Focus on that scene. In this scene, at the end, no matter how little happens, something is different. What is different that is true? Something affirmed? Something more puzzling? A shift in pereception? A new worry? Something more to do? What is different at the end of the scene than was true at the beginning?

Whatever it is, is the change. Think about this change and what it means for your pov character. Take a look at this character and the change that is underway in this scene. May be apparent right away, or the character is aware that the change has taken place.

What’s the best thing about it? Why is this good? Why does your protagonist like it? Why is it invigorating, challenging, exciting? Affirming?

You can work on “what is bad” about this change, but that’s what most people think. Nothing wrong with that, it’s what we expect.

What is different? Who will be different? How will the protagonist’s course of action be different than expected? What’s an implication of this change that your character can see? Who else will be affected that nobody will think about? What does your protagonist see before anyone else? How has the big picture shifted just a little because of this change? How has it been reframed, understood in a new way? This change has implications. How does your protagonist feel about those implications? How is it needed? Why?

If it’s a bad change, why is it good? If it’s a good change, why should we be worried?

How will this change affect one other person who is also in this scene? What do they feel? How do they feel it differently? How do they see what just happened? Now, take that perception and give that understanding to your protagonist, so they can see how this has affected that other person. Give your protagonist that perception. Then answer, how does it change your protagonist’s impression of that other character, too? What it is that your protagonist feels about this other person because they have a different reaction?

Something small has shifted here. How has your protagonist feel about himself or herself because of that? What does she or he know about herself or himself that they didn’t know before? How is it good? How is it disturbing? What does it feel like to be newly self-aware in this way, because something has changed and it cascades through your mind and you see yourself differently because of it? How? Is that good or bad?

This scene that we’ve been focusing on here. Is your protagonist or POV character feeling a little more alive in this scene? Are we digging inside this character a bit more? Are we changing this character in a way that feels like more? That’s good. Change affects people. When we see people change, we are moved. Change provokes us, no matter what that change is. Change stirs us up. So when you change your characters, your readers will be stirred. Provoked. They can’t help it.

This is something we can do in every scene. What if you did another draft and did nothing but focus on the change in scenes and how it makes the character different, and also looked at how other characters changed and gave insight to your character about this? What if a small change in circumstance in this plot affects the character deeply? Maybe the 300 pages are getting even deeper.

Something else: Let’s take a different scene. Pick a different scene from somewhere else in the middle of your novel. Write down what it is your pov character feels the most strongly about in this scene? What is the predominant emotion? Are they angry, horrified, overwhelmed, determined?

In so many manuscripts, the predominant emotion is some degree of fear. Worry, concern, apprehension, uncertainty, anxiousness, etc. That’s okay, it’s true, and we want our readers to worry, too. However.

Now write down something else that this POV character also feels while the events are unfolding. Something which they’re not immediately conscious or aware of. If we talked to them later, what else comes up besides the predominant emotion? A feeling of irony, hysteria, amusement (even while bad things are happening)? It’s another level of feeling.

Now, what is yet something else that this character feels as something happens that we could elicit from them later if we had a chance to talk to them about it? What else could they feel? Glad? Relieved? Did they think on their feet and rise to the occasion and that makes them feel better, stronger, more capable? Maybe they don’t feel it right away, but it’s in there. Do they see setbacks as a challenge, a test of resolve they’re determined to pass? What do they prove to others, themselves?

What does your character feel in this scene that’s unique to this character? What do they feel that’s different from what anybody else might feel?

Take this third feeling, and magnify it. Make this small feeling really big. The first thing your character feels. If it’s the first they feel, how do they express it to others? Or how do they show it? What do they do or say that makes it inescapable, unavoidable for us to know that they feel this way? What’s the biggest way to express this?

Create a gigantic metaphor for this feeling. How big is it? How would this be an elephant of a feeling?

Characters’ feelings are underreported. But what would happen if you substituted this feeling and showed no other feelings than this last one? (Aud: Because if it’s a self-centered, selfish, unflattering feeling, then the character would seem unlikeable.)

The characters of Gone Girl are unflattering. Crappy characters. The wife is a self-absorbed New Yorker, and the husband is the worst kind of guy, completely selfish, and their self-absorptions take over and their marriage dissolves. And we can’t take our eyes off them. We get to know them. The characters are not flattering and it didn’t seem to matter. Because everything the author reported was true. These unflattering feelings are ones we recognize and identify with. We’ve all done and felt those things. Their self-awareness is a strength and gives us compassion.

Don’t be afraid to show the reader something negative about the character. Because they care about something else. Once the reader is emotionally hooked, they’ll keep reading.

The more honest, true, and accurate you are, the more you catch the reader by surprised by the true but unexpected emotions you portray, the more you catch the reader by surprise and make them feel what the character feels, because then you’ve made space for the reader to feel the top/primary emotion.

Secondary emotions surprise us, which is why they work. Obvious emotions don’t surprise us, which is why they don’t work.

Of course his guts twisted in fear. It’s a cliché, an emotional cliché, and the reader doesn’t resonate.

e.g. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – the part with the woman with the match, backing out of the house. Yes he feels apprehension, disturbed, but he’s excited about burning books. Even when he’s disturbed by it, he’s still excited by the fire at night. Nobody feels tense here, but we do. Not just the fact that a fire is about to start. What makes it work is that Montag is excited. And we’re caught by surprise in this moment, which allows us to feel the terror, revulsion, tension that Bradbury really wanted us to feel. And he notices how someone else is feeling too, with Captain Beatty keeping his dignity by backing out slowly. He doesn’t mind the woman’s about to immolate herself, he can keep his dignity. That’s a lot better than writing that Montag’s guts twisted in fear. It made *our* guts twist in fear instead.

The Principle of Emotional Surprise – it’s an important one. When we write in this way, explore emotions like this, we can start to experience emotions on the page. And we can make mundane things poetic.

Genre writers may feel that evoking feelings cheapens the work. Likewise with very literary writers. Thrillers in particular don’t put a premium on feelings. Action, hook the reader, keep moving, never stop. (Same with romance.) The great series characters are characters we feel a lot more about. Maybe you’re feeling like Hemingway. “Recreate faithfully and accurately the experience you had so that when you do the reader will feel what you felt”. All for showing, not for telling. He didn’t hate emotion, he hated writing emotion. And it worked.

But dry, undernourished manuscripts that don’t talk about feelings can cause us not to feel anything. And editors/agents can say, “Take out that emotional experience, it’s antithetical to plot”. So why did it work for Hemingway but not for others? Because Hemingway was able to make us feel things that other writers can’t because he was playing a trick on us. The difference is that the scene has strong feeling inherent in it anyway. “Hills Like White Elephants” is about two people sitting in a café talking and nothing happens at all. Except that these two characters talk around what they’re talking about. They avoid talking about what they’re talking about. “It’s a very simple procedure, really” and she dodges it. He doesn’t have to report the feelings much because everyone is going to have an opinion about abortion. They weren’t talking about something banal. And in “Now I Lay Me” he starts a story with a character sleeping, dreaming, thinking about the silkworms eating, thinking and remembering how a war explosion has affected him and that makes us feel something. Because he’s writing about near-death experiences and being afraid to die. Death evokes emotions. When you write about big stuff the emotions are present already. And with “I listened to the silkworms eating” we’re already creeped out.

Try this: Choose a moment in your story when your protagonist faces a difficult choice or needs something very badly or has a shock, an unwelcome realization of sometime, suffers a grievous setback or affects someone else grievously. A dramatic turning event in the story. Let’s go there. Now put this moment in the story into mind. Think about the ways when this moment your protagonist is conflicted. E.g. Hemingway: he needs to sleep, can’t go to sleep. As we find ourselves in this moment, where are we? One or two details unique to this setting. Something different about it. (e.g. silkworms). What’s different in your story? What’s happening that we can see? What do other characters say? Make what is done a little bigger, make what is said a little stronger. How can what is spoken at this moment be shouted? How can a gesture turn into an action? What can your character physically do that we can see that would be symbolic? What might your character do that would deny what he or she feels? Does the character force him or her self to do this? Instead of what they should do, what does this character do differently? How do they substitute one emotion for another (i.e. run away) in this moment? Even if it’s just counting the exits, showing that they want to run away, but they don’t.

Now what is it that your character actually feels? (e.g. “I was afraid of going to sleep.”) Write it down. And then cross it out. You are forbidden from writing that in this scene. You must make me feel that with everything else in this scene. Can you do that?

Work on the circumstances of the scene, the gestures, the denial, etc, until it’s perfectly obvious what they feel until it’s perfectly obvious what they’re feeling even if we don’t state it outright.

e.g. Counting the exits shows the desire to escape, without saying it.

How do we make it stronger still?

Suppose you had to show in one gesture what it is the character feels but you can’t tell the reader directly, exactly what it is. How will we know that they feel this way? The obvious would be blatant statements.

This works because this is a pivotal moment. Dramatic situations with emotions inherently attached to them. Ordinary stuff does not necessarily provoke emotion in the reader. Dramatic does. By using emotions that are ripe in the situation, without stating it, and focusing on that, you can have more emotional effect. Not just, “they’re running running running” and we should feel “fear, fear, fear”.

Keep digging. Find something that works. By exploring what else they feel, and how it’s different. The reason emotions feel cheap is because they’re cheap emotions. When we surprise readers, even the most common, run away thriller scenario can be enhanced by attaching unexpected feelings.

Communicating Dry Information

Dry information (e.g. in science, historical, important details in science fiction and fantasy) that you have to explain to the reader in the context of the story for the story to make sense – dull stuff. Dry stuff. How do you get it across without slowing things down?

Well, what info do you need to get across? Pick one thing. Whose POV are we going to be in when this info ahs to be delivered? Who is the vehicle when the info is given to the reader? Now, your character has knowledge the reader doesn’t. But let’s take a look at your character. Who knows something the reader needs to know. What matters is this:
-          This information that they have, that we need to understand. How does your character feel about it?
-          What is good and satisfying about it? What does your character say to himself or herself thinking about it? How does your character feel when they are doing this action? How can the reader relate to those feelings? (e.g a doctor that wants to help a patient with various symptoms who won’t tell her what’s going on because it’s clear that the patient was trying to decide whether or not to trust her – we see the doctor’s concern that something else is going on. So we can relate to the doctor.) SO. What is it in this information that concerns or worries your character? What is ambiguous, potentially dangerous? What suggests we should be afraid of it? What new possibilities have arisen now that we have this new information? What will it mean in the future? What does this information mean? What implications of this information are exciting, concerning? What will the character have to do differently because of this information? In what way is this information a metaphor for something else? What does it cause your character to think differently about something else?
-          What makes information (data), historical, worldbuilding, technical, scientific, anything that is dry or factual, just pure data, and will lie flat and dull on the page until it means something to the character. Until the character has something to feel about it. How the character questions or worries or becomes excited about it.
-          Dan Brown’s The DaVinci code – fully a third of the book was dry information, so how did Dan Brown get all of this info across to the reader without boring the reader? Because he gives each of the three main characters an area of expertise, and the others think they know more than the other two. And they debate it. There’s a power struggle going on between the three characters, all trying to top each other, doubting what the others say, calling it into question and raising additional issues and they all have different opinions. And they’re constantly debating it. \
-          Attach feelings to information, and that information becomes engaging to read. Because they we feel things about the characters, especially how they react to information. If info or learning info stirs the character up, that gets us interested.
-          Remember: outer journey (events of story, plot, things we can see) vs. inner journey (how the characters undergo change or transformation, grow or fall apart) – the long inner change unfolding. Get them working together. Fasten them together so they form a strong hold like structure in a building. Feelings, emotion, meaning are the way to do that.
-          Take any event, and focus on how that event affects the character’s inner personal journey.
-          Also, you can externalize feelings to an event. You can attach that emotion (internal) to something else. Attach that feeling to an event. (In a saga, carrying a struggle or need forward.) Find big meaning in small events and dig out overlooked things that are highly meaningful from large events. Even doing the dishes can be profound, if you work with emotions.

The Reader’s Emotional Arc

We can also provoke emotions not part of the character’s experience, that only the reader feels. What is the reader’s emotional arc? What are they experiencing as they read the story?

Mostly, authors want the reader to feel what the protagonist feels. But that’s not the only journey the reader can go on. You can actually manipulate the reader to feeling things they might not want to feel otherwise.

Pick another important character in your story. Or your novel’s general setting. Take a look at this character or setting. At four points in the story (beginning, major middle turning point, climax, end) and at each four points don’t look at what’s happening in the story but what our reader feels about this character or setting. What is it that you want the reader to feel?

What is our first impression? What would you like the reader’s impression to be? When they first see this, what would you like the reader to feel?

Now, your target is what the reader is going to feel. You can either create one detail to feel what you want them to feel, or you can give this feeling to your protagonist.

Middle turning point: How does this change? How do you want your reader to feel? How is this more complicated, dangerous, intriguing, beautiful than we thought at first? What hidden side will we have seen by this time?

1.      Give this new, nuanced, different perception by showing what the reader says or does, or by noticing something different, or give this to your protagonist to convey
2.      This new perception – in what way is this new perception completely wrong? What have we missed? What don’t we know yet? What is even more deeply hidden? What is an even bigger surpise about this person or place? What will we reveal, for good or ill? What is a secret about this person or place that we don’t know yet? What are you hiding from the reader? What would this person or place like to hide? What would be too embarrassing to reveal?
3.      You can change your reader’s opinion one more time – by the time the climax comes around, tell the reader what to really think about this character or place. Until.
4.      What do you want your reader to feel about this person or place at the end of the story? What new way can we understand this story? Can your protagonist see that this place is neither good or bad is just the same? What’s one unchanging feature that your character can come to appreciate by the end of the story? Can a good place become ordinary? A bad place become just a place? Same with character. How can we appreciate them in a nuanced, balanced manner by the end of the story?

Have you been able to change your reader’s opinion four times? If so, you’re manipulating the reader. But you’re causing them to feel differently. Most importantly, you’re causing them to feel. And that’s what matters.

Oh, and

One more thing – and this radical proposition – It doesn’t matter what your story is about. It doesn’t matter what happens. It doesn’t matter what kind of characters you’ve chosen. It doesn’t matter what style you write in, a quiet writer, a dramatic writer, objectively or with a lot of voice. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a lot to say or hardly anything at all. What matters is how much your reader feels, regardless of what you’re writing or the style. What matters is they go through a strong experience, have a lot of feelings. Readers will be stirred and will remember. A television commercial can do this. So can your story.