Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Big Bang Theory--Creating Great Beginnings

Here are the PowerPoint notes from the writing workshop held on August 11.  I highly encourage you to purchase the books recommended.  Mark them up and practice the concepts they teach.  You'll learn far more from these amazing authors and teachers than you will from me! 

Part 1: Story basics—review
žCharacters are key. 

žPoint of view—the point of view character provides the body and mind through which we experience the story.

žEmotion is the key to any story. The point of view character shows us how to feel about the story’s events.

žStories start with character and continue with conflict.  Without conflict, there is no story.

žThe choice cycle is the basic element of fiction.  It ties your reader into point of view, provides setting through sensory input, and provides emotional interpretation of events through the character’s evaluation and choice
 žIf the choice cycle is the story atom, then scenes and sequels are story molecules—scenes and sequels are made of choice cycles. 
žA scene is a unit of action measured in time.  A scene happens in the "now".

žA sequel is a unit of emotion.

žFor more information, read Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham.  Click here to purchase.

žThe plotline is made of scenes and sequels, just as scenes and sequels are made of choice cycles. 
žThe plotline has roughly the same format as a choice cycle.  It has an inciting incident (sensory input), followed by a character goal (emotion, evaluation, choice), followed by action.

žThe first 500 words of a novel will often determine whether an editor, agent, or reader will take the time to read the whole novel. 

žIf the first 500 words are as close to perfect as possible, editors, agents, and readers will often overlook minor flaws long enough to read your novel. 

žThe self-concept is how the point of view character sees or defines himself. 
žIt involves a deep, psychological view.
žThe story opening contains an inciting incident that challenges the self-concept.
žThe story worthy problem involves the character’s self-concept, and the inciting incident reveals the tip of this iceberg.

žThe Inciting Incident is usually big, exciting, and highly important to the point of view character—it challenges the self-concept.

žSurface problems don’t necessarily challenge the self-concept directly, but they require immediate response and are related to the inciting incident through the choice cycle chain.  They inspire your character to set short-term goals.  You will have several surface problems.  They are steps toward the climax, and will increase in tension as you near the climax—rising action. 

žThe story-worthy problem is the underlying problem that exists throughout the story.  It is the problem that will only be solved by the climax.  The opening of the story will hint at the story-worthy problem, but the point of view character and the audience will not be fully aware of it until the resolution.   

žThe story-worthy problem is inextricably tied to the character’s self-concept. 
žIt is the underlying problem that exists throughout the story.
žIt will not be solved until the resolution.
žExample: “Thelma and Louise”

Thelma sees herself as an ordinary woman who has difficulty pleasing her husband.  She keeps trying to please him, believing that someday she will, and their marriage will be happy. 

Her husband is rude to her despite her humility, and she chooses to sneak out with her friend, Louise, without asking his permission.  This is the inciting incident and the pivotal choice.  The incident challenges her self-concept because on some level, she realizes she will never please Darryl and be happy at the same time. 

Each choice she makes afterward presents a new problem (surface problems)—she goes out and a man hits on her and tries to rape her, then Louise shoots and kills him. Thelma can’t go to the police, or she’ll have to tell Darryl that she went out without his permission.  As the story goes on, she realizes she has a deep, psychological problem—she allows men to push her around. The story-problem lies in her self-concept. 

In the climax, she changes her self-concept.  She is a woman who will not be taken prisoner or change herself and her desires to please any man.
žThe inciting incident must be a dramatic scene—not a melodramatic scene.
Your point of view character must feel at a crossroads—there must be tension and an immediate need.
The character must be allowed to make a choice, and that choice will cause change.
Express emotion through understated action.
“If the character cries on the page… the reader won’t.”  --Toni Morrison
žMust be a scene, not a sequel. 
Comprised primarily of sensory input, choice, and action. Minimal back story—set up only.  NO EXPOSITION.
žMust challenge your character’s self-concept and force him/her to make a choice.

žSurface problems make up the bulk of your story and provide conflict, choice, and rising action. 

žProgress your character from the inciting incident to the climax. 

žSet-up happens in the story opening.  It is very concise and includes only what is absolutely necessary to set the tone and help us get acquainted with the character.  
žBack Story is also concise.  It appears throughout the novel, revealing what happened to the point of view character prior to the inciting incident.  It is triggered by sensory input and is only mentioned when it influences the “now” of the story.  This includes flashbacks, which are told in scene form.
žExposition is an element that is generally not used in modern fiction.  It includes long sections of back story which are told, not shown.  It is an indicator of an older style of fiction.

žSet up creates the “now”.

Setting established through sensory input.

Powerful characters introduced. (powerful=characters who influence the plot through their choices)

Point of view and voice established

POV character’s self-concept revealed through choice cycle—emotion, evaluation, and choice.

žBack story reveals information about the character, but that information isn’t needed to accomplish the above. 
žThe pivotal choice is possibly the most important choice the character will make. 
žIt is a choice made in response to the inciting incident.
žIt must be consistent with the character, but may represent the feeling that the camel’s back is broken—that’s the last straw!
žEverything in the character’s life will be different because of this pivotal choice.
žThe pivotal choice is important because it ensures that whatever happens, it is ultimately the main character’s responsibility.  Thus, it is a character-driven story.

žIntroduce the story worthy problem through an inciting incident. 

žChallenge the main character’s self-concept.

žForce the character to make a choice.

žHook the reader

Anything can act as a hook.  A hook is something that intrigues the reader and forms a question in his mind that he longs to have answered.

žOpening lines
žPhysical objects with symbolic meaning
žUnique setting/characters
žIntriguing questions
žHints toward what’s to come—foreshadowing

Now available for Kindle!

A couple of days ago, I got an unexpected check in the mail.  Just over $7.  It's better than a kick in the teeth!  But the coolest thing about this check is that it is a royalty check from the re-release of all three of my books for Kindle!  Apparently, the books were released in January, and I never even knew it.  I guess that explains why they wouldn't release the rights to me--they had plans.  :) 

So, if you like the Kindle and you don't have my book yet, check it out.  And if you know someone who would like any of my books, pass on the info.  Yay! 

Here's the link.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"It's Important to Me!"-Point of View fiction writing class

Today was a fabulous day!  Probably one of my favorite teaching opportunities occurred at Write for the Heights, located in the Whitmore Library Conference room.  Three hours of instruction and workshops, free to the public. (To find out more about this program, check out the page "Write for the Heights 2012" on the home page of my blog.)  I shared techniques I've gleaned through my past ten years of writing, researching, editing and teaching.  Approximately 40 people were in attendance, and responses were very positive.  A huge thank you to those who were able to attend!  This blog post includes notes from the lecture in case you weren't able to take notes as I rambled on, or if you missed the class.  This is long, but so was the class.  :)  Enjoy!

These techniques were gleaned from my personal experiences and understanding as well as concepts taught in the following books:  "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain, "Scene & Structure" by Jack M. Bickham, and "Characters & Viewpoint" by Orson Scott Card.  All of these books are available on

Part 1: Characters

When you are developing your characters keep the following questions in mind: How does your character see himself?  (Bickham calls this the self-concept.)  What is your character's reputation, or how does the world see him?  Has he earned that reputation? Which is more realistic/true, his self-concept or his reputation?  Self-concept is important because when your story opens, that self-concept is challenged. 

Know your character's background, even if you don't include it in the novel.  Background includes family dynamics, socioeconomic status, religion, education, and anything that happened in his past that contributed to his self-concept and reputation. 

Your character must have strengths and weaknesses, fears and goals.  Your character must be strong enough to make choices and take risks. 

Ask yourself the following questions about your characters:

Is your character able to make choices and take risks?

How far is your character willing to go to get what he wants?

What is one thing your character WON'T do? Why?  Would this character vacillate on this standard if presented with the choice between their values and what they love most?

What is your character most afraid of?  (Hint--your character will have to face their fears if you state their fears, or the story will fall flat.  As soon as the fear is stated, the audience will expect this to be part of your climax....)

How does everyone else in the story feel about your main character? 

How does your character deal with stress?  He needs a physical outlet--coffee drinker?  Runner?  Soap Opera watcher?  Fiction reader?  Does he eat ice cream or chocolate? Yoga? Reality TV? Secret hideaway?

How do you feel about your character?  How do you think readers will feel about him?  Remember that we read to feel something.  Does this character inspire that emotion? 

Part 2--Putting the characters together.

Ultimately, successful stories are about interpersonal relationships and external conflict.  Internal conflict will always be present--if you have an imperfect person, you have internal conflict.  External conflict is what drives the story and makes it interesting.  External conflict is caused by characters who provide conflict for your point of view character. 

Choose your pov (point of view) character by asking yourself the following questions:

Who has the most to lose?

Who will take the most risk?

Who knows what you, as the author, want to reveal?

Who will make the audience feel the way you want them to feel?

Use the "choice cycle" to help you lock into point of view.  The choice cycle involves sensory input, emotion, evaluation, choice, and action.  It is the atom of fiction.

Every character in your story experiences choice cycles.  As the author, you should explore the choice cycles for every character in your scene so that you know what their motivations are for their actions. If you don't know this, their choices and actions may not make sense.

There is a cycle or a rhythm between characters as they experience choice cycles.  Your conflict provider's action becomes your pov character's sensory input.  Then, your character feels, evaluates, chooses, and acts.  Your pov character's action becomes your conflict provider's sensory input. 

Goals are essential to story progression.  Without goals, there is no conflict and without conflict, there is no story.  Your pov character's goals should be in conflict with your conflict provider's goals. 

Writers know everything, but they don't write everything.  :)

Remember that writing is a form of communication.  You need an audience.  Find a critique group, a beta reader, or hire a coach/editor. 

Part 3--Using the choice cycle to critique.

Use the choice cycle to pinpoint weaknesses in your work.  Make sure topics of conversation are organic to the situation, or make sure your character has a reason for changing the subject. (Deflection, for example).

Critique Group Questionnaire re point of view and character:

Ask your critique group the following questions:

Based on what you've read, do you believe this character is strong enough to carry a story?  (In other words, can this character make choices that will influence the world around him?  Can this character put himself in bad situations?  Can this character deal with conflict?)

How do you feel about the character?  Do you care whether this character gets what he wants?  What do you know about the character?

Are the steps in the choice cycle present?  What is missing?

Do the choice cycles progress logically?  Is there give and take between characters?  Plausible motivation and response? 

Do you know who is speaking at all times?

Do you ever get confused?  If so, when?

Part 4--Using the choice cycle in the revision process.

Use the choice cycle to help you through the following revision issues: 

"I can't tell who is speaking"

If the person who is speaking is the point of view character, add emotion or evaluation in the same paragraph as the action.  This "internalization" will act as a speech marker. 

If the person who is speaking is not the point of view character, add a speech marker (he said, she said) or add a sensory input using a sense other than hearing.  (When a character who is not the point of view character speaks, it is always sensory input because speech is heard.)

"This action seems out of character"

Make sure you have an "evaluation" section to explain your character's choice. 

Make sure your character has set a goal, and the action somehow moves the character toward the goal. 

"I'm not sure what's going on."

Make sure you have enough sensory input.  Try to use emotionally charged words as you describe what the pov character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels.  If you use emotionally charged words, then you won't have to state what the character feels because you will already have stated it. 

Slow down the action--make sure all of the choice cycle elements are present.  It's usually easier to cut what doesn't need to be there than it is to add new stuff. 

"This feels rushed"

In order to slow down the action, insert more evaluation and emotion in your choice cycles. 

"This drags"

In order to speed up the action, take out some evaluation and emotion.  Make sure your verbs and nouns are emotionally charged. This will cut down on verbiage.

Sometimes, when the comment concerns dragging, what they are really trying to say is that the scene lacks external conflict. To increase conflict, strengthen your character's goal.

"This ending feels abrupt"

When ending a scene or chapter, make sure you end it in the correct place.  You want to encourage the reader to keep reading--make them anxious to find out what will happen next.  There are two places in the choice cycle that maximize this tension--After sensory input, and before action.  This is the best place to end chapters and to change point of view. 

"You slipped out of point of view"

Anytime you include information that your point of view character can't observe, you've slipped out of point of view. 

He couldn't imagine what awaited him around the corner. 

If he can't imagine it, why is he mentioning it? 

Also, through point of view, your character observes the other characters in the story.  Through emotion and evaluation, your character assumes/judges what the other character's emotions and motives are.  Using that assumption and judgment, along with your pov character's goals and his own emotions, your character chooses how to respond, then acts.  Avoid any statements that assume what other characters feel or think unless you go through this observation-internalization process. 

A few final thoughts: 

In most cases, the difference between a published author and an unpublished author is the ability and determination to revise. 

Most of these techniques will make more sense when used during an outlining phase and during a revision phase.  Don't worry about them during the writing phase. 

Every author must find his or her own technique, balance, methods, and patterns.  This is what makes writing an art and not a science. 

And finally:

Writers Write.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Writers Write?

I hear it over and over--Writers Write.  You're not a writer if you don't spend time stringing words together to communicate some pithy thought that's in your head.  Well, what if my head is empty?  No more pithy thoughts.  Gone, gone gone.

Just kidding.  I have a lot of pithy thoughts, they just don't want to fit together into a story that can take me past chapter 13.  Seriously.  I don't know what it is about that ominous half-way mark, but I have gotten there twice now with the characters who have been living in my head for more than a year, and I've started my third new draft--new genre, revised villains, same main characters with new twists.  Does it count as writing if it ultimately ends up in the recycle bin? It better count!


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Personal Histories

I'm teaching a class on writing personal histories.  The last time I taught this class was in 2004.  A lot has changed since then.  Technology plays a much bigger part in, well, everything.  My octogenarian parents have an iPad, for goodness sake.  How do you use technology to keep your personal histories?  Blogging is a big part of that, I think.  Any thoughts?  I'd love to expand this topic beyond my personal knowledge.