Tuesday, May 31, 2011

CONduit Report: How Do You Feel About Zombies?

It turns out a lot of people think they're cool.  Enough that I should consider writing a zombie book?  Nah, I probably couldn't do it as well as the people that are already doing it.

For instance, there's Carter Reid (and his wife -- he never names her on his site, so I won't out her either).  I met them Saturday night, waiting in line to do a short spot on the radio.  They're hilarious, and he's a very talented artist, and you can check out their work at the Zombie Nation.  What is Zombie Nation, you ask?  Shorter to ask what it isn't.  It's a blog, it's a comic strip, it's a shop for zombie merchandise, it's a repository of survival tips for When Zombies Attack.  Check it out, even if you don't think of yourself as a zombie person.

I had another, sort of surprising, run-in with zombies at CONduit, in the form of Shawn Zumbrunnen.  He fronts a trio called Rev Mayhem (on Myspace) and he joined us in the filk songwriting contest to play his song Zombie Girl, which was absolutely hilarious.  A little reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft's Rats in the Walls, the way it ended.  A lot reminiscent of Flight of the Conchords, say, The Humans Are Dead.

Monday, May 30, 2011

CONduit Report: Filking

I spent the weekend in Salt Lake City, at CONduit XXI, "Utah's longest-running and largest general science fiction and fantasy convention."  I'll spend the next few days reporting on things I did there and related observations and links.

I drove down to Salt Lake for the event, and coincidentally I brought one of my guitars (my Fender Toronado, for images of which see below).  I say "coincidentally" because I had not planned on participating in any of CONduit's filking events, but since I had a guitar with me anyway, more or less on impulse, I entered the filk songwriting contest.

The contest was judged by a panel of three, comprised of convention guest of honor Joey Shoji (pics) and special guest Kathy Mar (bio with pic) and a senior member of the Utah Filk Organization (UFO) (who might have been Danica West, but I could be mistaken).  I entered in the "original song" section, and played The Gift of Solomon Kane.

And won!

Here's my nerve-wracked, fumbling, award-winning performance.


video

The filk folks were all very generous and gracious with me, an interloper.  Filk is really cool.  I've never seen so many basically shy people being really brave to participate in an art they love.

I was unable, incidentally, to collect a portion of my prize after the awards were announced at Masquerade, which was to be a copy of UFO's CD (see the link above), so I can't review it.  If the CD is as fun as their live performance, though, it'll be worth the $10.

CORRECTION:  Per Joey Shoji, in the comments, the third judge was Dawnya Thill.  My apologies, Dawnya, and thanks again to UFO, Joey and Kathy!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Weird Al Is a Genius

This song has only one piece of semantic content: I don't understand Bob Dylan's lyrics.

The rest is structure.

Awesome.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

So Romantic

Canadian researchers report that women find dark, brooding men attractive.

This isn't really news, as anyone who's read their Jung or their Byron could have told you the same thing for less government funding.  But I'm happy to read that current research confirms the notion, since that's one of the important cornerstones on which I have built my first draft of Project Alpha.  The male lead is attractive because he nourishes secret darknesses, darknesses he cannot share even though he loves the female lead, especially because he loves her, for to unveil the darknesses within him could only injure her.

Here's an indicative excerpt, recording the first conversation between the girl protagonist and the brooding young man in question.  He wants to tell her he loves her, but he won't, because he's protecting her from himself, so instead he puts up barriers that are misinterpreted as hostility and anger.

Ah, young love.

*   *   *


“Hey,” he said again.  This time he looked, and he had that same piercing stare in his eyes, like a bird of prey, like a hawk.  There was a hardness to his face, too, an inaccessibility, a remoteness.  “Am I in your way?”
My mouth was too dry to speak.  I shook my head and pointed at my locker, right next to his.  He nodded, made a grimace that was not quite a smile but was still exquisitely beautiful, and shuffled slightly to the side to make room. 
I opened the locker and shoved books and papers into it, along with the hairbrush and lipstick.  He couldn’t help but see it all and I was grateful I had nothing too embarrassing.
“The location’s not bad,” he said, cool but polite, “but I hear that all the lockers have the same combination.”
“Are you new here?” I finally squeaked out.  “I don’t think I know you.”
“Sure you do,” he contradicted me.  “I’m Manny.  We had three classes together last year.”
Manny.  I tried to think back, which was hard, because all my brain could focus on was his perfect face. 
Manny?
“You grew, like, a foot over the summer,” I pointed out the obvious, “and you’re beautiful!
His face hardened, a shield of tight expression falling down over it instantly like a portcullis.
“Sorry, I… sorry, that rounded sude, I… sounded rude, I didn’t mean to say that,” I staggered through half a retraction.
“Guess not,” he acknowledged.
“I’m Ash Evans,” I said, immediately realizing what a foolish introduction it was, since he’d already said we knew each other.
“Sure,” he agreed, “you’re the girl that almost ran me over this morning.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Outlining by Chapter: Francis (Lucy) Drollery

Okay, forget Surfer Dude, I didn't enjoy making it up any more than you enjoyed reading it.

Still, I want to show you one more pre-writing / outlining tool, so rather than go through the exercise of making one up for a bogus story, I'll show you a real one.  This is what I call my "Chapter Outline" for The Case of the Devil's Interval.

Disclaimers for this: a lot of stuff changed between when I started outlining and when I finished revising.  There is no longer a chapter one as indicated in the outline, for instance.  Also, the girl Lucy is now the boy Francis, et cetera.

Still, the outline below should be adequate to show you what I want you to see, which is the following.  Once I have outlined my subplots, I turn those subplots into an outline of the entire book by chapter.  I always have columns headed "Chapter," "Plot" and "Subplots", and the other columns I have are dictated by the story.  If the protagonist needs to solve a mystery, I use a column to keep track of the protagonist's progress.  If suspense or romance are important, I keep track of those elements in a column.

I generally start writing before I have finished the Chapter Outline, and update it as I go along (at least to some extent, especially with larger stories).


CH
PLOT
SUBPLOTS
CHARACTS.
GHOST STUFF
CLUES / MYSTERY
MILIEU / SIGHTS
1
Lucy introduces herself and explains who her parents were and that there was to be a party

Lucy Drollery



2
Lucy recounts the party, ending with her going to sleep on the Heath. 

Edmund Serious puts on a bad table rapping show with his female assistant.  He argues with his assistant, and then goes down to steal and drink wine while she watches the rest of the show. 

A couple leaves early, gauchely.

There is a harp performance by Mr. Nimble, a foreign midget, who is sponsored by the [Baron] Stoat.  The harpist is scheduled to play for the Queen (maybe only hinted at?) “[six] nights hence”, Stoat nervously touches the harp during the performance of a very modal folk piece.

Lucy sneaks out, and goes for a walk on the Heath.  Falls asleep under a bramble.
Edmund Serious is a bad table rapper and a drunk. 

Lucy Drollery is a strong-willed adventurer and proto-feminist.
Edmund Serious

Stoat

Nimble

Very Significant Person

Foreign looking midget

Plays a modal piece – “the devil’s interval”
Drawing room party

Table rapping


3
Lucy “wakes up” dead.  Lucy’s first night as a ghost; she finds her family dead, some of the help dead, accidentally haunts surviving help (she lifts a list of the party guests that the [doorman] was using to check off attendees as they arrived), but Mr. Edmund Serious, and some of the help, survives.  She begins to wonder why and she returns to her body.  Passing Edmund Serious drunk on the Heath, she takes a calling card from him.


She is dressed forever in the same clothes.  She can pass through small spaces, is physical but very fine.  She notices heat and cold but feels no discomfort from them.  At daybreak she sinks into the ground where her body lies.
The people of the household that attended the musical show are all dead

4

(next night)
Lucy reflexively returns to her home, and meets Heaven Bound Bob and Billy the Snake, two young (12? 13?) chimneysweeps, who have dared each other into climbing down the chimney of the haunted house. 

The Pinheads enter, with all their whirling and clicking gear.  The chimney sweeps disappear up the flue.  Lucy narrowly evades the Pinheads by jumping out a window.  She then follows the sweeps to see where they live.

Lucy begins to go to the homes of the other party guests, and finds them dead, if they listened to the music show.

The couple that left early, gauchely, is alive.
Lucy begins to investigate the murders.
Heaven Bound Bob and Billy the Snake

The Pinheads, Eek and Bumbles
She falls slowly and is not hurt.
The guests are dead – those who attended the musical portion
Chimney sweeps

Victorian ghostbusters


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Collins Guides

So I'm writing a couple of different things set in England (the Francis Drollery, Ghost Crusader series and Project Alpha), and I have been using the Collins Guides to help me select and describe trees, flowers and birds, as needed.  The books are replete with wonderfully executed illustrations and have terrific detail very useful for a writer: each Trees guide entry, for instance, identifies when the species was brought to England, and the Flowers guide tells you when each plant blooms, and the Birds guide describes the calls of different species.

Such a wealth of information presents a challenge and a temptation to a writer.  How much of this should translate into text on my page?  The answer, I suggest, has to do with 1) audience and genre expectations and 2) character and POV.  A girl-oriented romance whose POV character is a painter with an eye for detail will have much more description of the flora and fauna of the setting than a boy-oriented adventure story whose POV character is a crime-fighting ghost.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing Retreats

So I spent nine days on a beautiful ranch in Boulder, Utah (yes, UTAH, not Colorado).  It was wonderfully isolated, just us writers, the mice and the seven o'clock deer.  And I was very productive, at least by my standards, writing over 200 pages.

I was productive, and I think it's important to understand this, not because the place was inspiring, but because it enabled me to be free of distractions.  My wife very kindly handled all children and house issues for a week and half, so I was able to sweep the decks, not worry about stuff, and just write.  I was up at 6:00 or 7:00 am every day, and spent all day, every day, sitting on the same couch by the south-facing window, writing until midnight or 1:00 in the morning (less time for hot tub breaks, hiking, food preparation and playing guitar on the porch).

In other words, you don't go on a writing retreat because you're stuck and you're hoping good ideas will come to you.  You go on a writing retreat when you're not stuck, to buckle down, take no prisoners and crank out the pages.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Roll a D6

This is parody twice over.  I don't care about the "Like a G6" parody, because I don't care about "Like a G6".

But the other parody in here is a parody of my own youth culture.  Ah, heady days!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What is Steampunk? (6) (Art Deco Architecture)


From Aldershot, Hants, England.

P.S.  Photo by my wife, taken on a recent trip.  This is the ceiling of a shopping arcade.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Query Letter

Dear Mr. ???:

Max Spencer looked like your average 12-year-old middle schooler, although a bit more buoyant and a tad less athletic than most. He’d never scored the final point to win a game or crossed the finish line with people still in the bleachers. His only fight ended in a draw (he accidentally kicked a sixth grader after a bee flew up his pants), and while he was smart, he wasn’t Rubik’s Cube or honor roll smart. What Max did have was blood. Not in a weird vampire kind of way, but in a family tree that stretches back to the most powerful sorcerer who had ever lived—and that makes Max singularly unique.

His story begins with the discovery of a book: The Codex of Infinite Knowability. But Max soon learns it isn’t an ordinary book at all. First, the copyright warning reads that violators will be lashed to the Tree of Woe and licked by Fire Kittens. Second, it seems obsessed with the world-ending threat of squirrels. Third, it mentions a unicorn named Princess who becomes Princess the Destroyer. And fourth, it has a habit of allowing Max to read only what it wants, and not the other way around. When Max inadvertently casts one of the Codex’s prime spells, he and his friends are swept away into a fantastical world that includes a talking motivational dagger, a claustrophobic dwarf, and a host of evil characters who have a simple goal: find the lost Codex and retrieve the only person in the three realms who can read it: Max Spencer.

Unlock the secrets of the magical Codex, rewrite a dystopian future, stop Princess the Destroyer, all while our hero finds the inner courage to lead those who depend on him most—now we have an adventure on our hands!

I’d like to submit Max Spencer and the Codex of Infinite Knowability, the first in a series, for your consideration. Complete at 62,000 words, the book is aimed at the middle reader / young adult audience (with a few fart jokes and philosophical meanderings thrown in for good measure). Max Spencer is my first book, although I’m a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) West and have written two award-winning children’s shorts. I recently adapted The Best Christmas Pageant Ever for film, optioned by Walden Media.

The first 10 pages are below.

I can be contacted by phone at AAAA, by email: BBBB, or by mail: CCCC.

Best Regards,

*   *   *

Above is Platte's query letter.  This letter got seven responses from agents, and the actual manuscript got Platte represented.

You can see all the usual and appropriate stuff here.  The teaser paragraphs, the business paragraph describing the work and stating what Platte wants, the contact details.

I think two things make this query letter stand out, and they can be summarized as one thing, which is this: the teaser paragraphs don't just describe the book, they reflect it, in a way that makes the agent excited to read the book.  First, the teasers focus on the protagonist, starting with him and describing him in a very kid-reader-sympathetic way.  Second, they contain and therefore (truthfully) promise that the book will contain silly, offbeat, Hitchhiker's Guide-esque humor, all in the language and mindset of middle reader-aged kids.

Another way to summarize the goodness here would be to say that the query letter doesn't tell about the goodness of the book, it shows it.  Good job, Platte, and congratulations again!

P.S.  See Platte blog here.

Story Monkeys, ho!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Inspiration

"I write only when inspiration strikes.  Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp."

(Variously attributed, including to William Faulkner and W. Somerset Maugham)

Writing Targets

You gotta have 'em.

Maybe it's three pages a day.  Maybe it's 500 words.  You have to have some sort of target, especially if you're writing something on spec, and there's no editor pressing you to hit a deadline.  You have to hold yourself accountable, or you won't make progress.

At a writing conference, I recently heard a successful, published author express the view that page targets didn't work for him, that what worked for him was committing to write for a certain amount of time each day.  If that's your approach, fine, but you can't spend any of that time faffing about on the Internet or playing Minesweeper, or you've shot yourself in the foot.

What do you do if you don't hit your target?  Just like with any other failure in life, you resolve to do better the next day and you keep going.

At my recent retreat, my daily target was 30 pages (two chapters).  On six of the nine days, I hit the target.  Twice, I wrote only 15 pages (one chapter).  On one day, I wrote nothing, because my fellow retreater and I spent the entire day talking through our respective plots and backstory, resolving some thorny issues and making important progress that way.

Usually, my target is fewer than 30 pages per day.  Depending on the book, it's 10-12 pages, though with some projects, where the voice is particularly difficult for me, it's been as few as five.  As I finish the rough draft of Project Alpha, my daily target is 15.  As always, that's with 1" margins and writing in 12-point Times New Roman.

What's your daily writing target?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

He Shoots, He Scores!

Platte Clark of the Story Monkeys has today accepted representation by East-West Literary.  Congratulations to Platte!

Story Monkeys, ho!

The Wounded Bird

I gave my love a secret name
I gave my love an emerald ring
I told my love my fear and shame
I said I'd give her anything
I said I'd give her anything


I gave my love three leaping foals
I penned them in a roaring hall
We sat beside a fire of coals
And listened to the angels fall
And listened to the angels fall


I gave my love a wounded bird
I gave my love a shackled ape
I taught my love a secret word
To heal the world and give it shape
To heal the world and give it shape

Happy anniversary, babe.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I Hate Riding Sidesaddle

I've just returned from spending ten days at a ranch in remote southern Utah, sequestered to write.  As a result of that cloistering, I am now within striking distance of finishing the rough draft of Project Alpha, and in a week or so I hope to hand that baton off to my co-writer.

I have some thoughts to share as a result of my writing retreat, but here, first, is an excerpt from Alpha.  Our protagonist, Ash, is being courted by King Henry.  Warning: some mild sauciness!

*   *   *


            One of the King’s companions brought forward another courser, ribbon-festooned and saddled.  Side-saddled.  My heart sank.
            “What ails you?” Henry barked, when he saw me hesitating.  “Why do you not mount?”
            I hate riding sidesaddle.  “Your Majesty,” I curtseyed again, fumbling for some way to get Henry to put me on a different horse.  Make him laugh, I thought.  Make him think you’re interested.  Hint that he’ll get what he wants, but do not promise it.  “I confess to disappointment in the manner of the saddle.  It is but that I had so longed to have something between my thighs.”
            “At last, an honest woman!” the King thundered, and laughed like an act of nature. 
            Uh oh, I thought.  Have I dug too deep a hole for myself?  I have to flirt and hint, but not commit to anything I’d… rather not do.
            “Mistress,” Daniel asked, and I realized he had been standing behind me, bowing.  “Shall I saddle two horses?”
            “No, by Luther’s ponderous buttocks!” Henry shouted.  He cast a glaring, wheedling eye upon me.  “Do you still require a chaperone, Mistress Symonds?”
            “No,” I said, “just a good saddle.”
            Henry looked irritated and I worried I might have pushed him too far.  I was about to retreat from my position when he turned to address his companion leading the horse, a stocky man with large shoulders and a thin, dark beard.  “Charles!” he demanded.  “Did you saddle that hunter with a good saddle?”
            “I did, Your Majesty,” Charles answered jovially.
            “Is it, indeed, a fine saddle, a superior saddle?”
            “It is, Your Majesty, a most excellent saddle.”
            “Do you believe that saddle to be beneath supporting the posterior of any person in the realm?” Henry wanted to know.
            “That saddle is of sufficient quality and virtue that any person in Your Majesty’s kingdom should ride upon it with pride,” Charles assured his King, a smug, bantering look upon his face.  “It is beneath the posterior of no one, in that it could be beneath of the posterior of anyone.”
            “Perfect,” Henry said.  “Charles, you sit in the side-saddle.  Give the lady yours.”
            “What?” Charles spluttered.  “But you can’t… but…”
            “I can’t what?” Henry shouted, spraying his companion with spit.  Charles, give her your horse!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sometimes You Don't Have to Read

Or at least, you don't have to read everything.  Here are two useful practices that can get you good information short of reading whole books:

  • Read parts of books.  In particular, I think that you can read the first 50-100 pages of almost any novel and get a good feel for the book, i.e., you will get to know its protagonist, you will see how the author tries to make the protagonist sympathetic and/or hook you into the book, you will see what subplots are set up, how much detail goes into communicating milieu, etc.  Quick-partial-reading eight or ten books this way can really help you get a feel for a particular genre or subgenre you are thinking about writing in.
  • Read bookshelves.  You need to be aware of the limitations of the shelf you are looking at (for instance, realize that library shelves will include older books that may not currently be selling copies, and you should know that bookstore shelf space is bought and paid for by publishers, so may not truly reflect natural reader demand), but browsing through a bookstore or library section, just briefly examining the individual books, can give you useful information.  It can help you understand what kind of thing your target audience likes; it can help you clarify your own thinking as to what your target audience is; it can help you figure out how to describe your project to industry professionals ("Well, Sharon, it's basically CIRQUE DU FREAK meets HIS DARK MATERIALS, with a twist of THE HUNGER GAMES").

Little Boy in a Dress (2)

Here's another little boy in a dress; this one happens to be a relative (at least by marriage).  This is my wife's grandfather, Asael Sorensen, as a likely young lad early in the twentieth century (and several decades after 1881).


Sunday, May 15, 2011

1952 Vincent Black Lightning

Here's another great songwriting storyteller with one of his classics.  Richard Thompson plays his ballad (yes, ballad) about outlaw love and motorcycles.


And here are Del McCoury and the boys honoring Thompson and his traditionalist prowess with a bluegrass cover.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Camouflage

Light weekend fare: some great storytelling from Stan Ridgway, one of America's great noir craftsmen.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Subplots Mapping: the Chronicles of Surfer Dude...

My next step usually is to start mapping out the various plot strands by character.  Rather than try to explain it, I will return to Surfer Dude and show you.


Character
Plotline
Beginning
Middle
End
Surfer Dude
Recover the Artifact before the evil team (MAIN PLOT)
Surfer Dude and Surfer Dad are attacked in their Malibu retreat.  Dad is kidnapped, but in his last words to Dude, he reveals that the map finding the both the Artifact and the key that makes the Artifact accessible is hidden on the back of an old nautical map in Dude’s bedroom.  Dude forces Mentor to bring him along.
Dude leads the team to Cornwall, and there they recover the key to the Artifact.  The bad guys get there too, because they interrogate Surfer Dad.

Relationship with Surfer Dad



Relationship with Surfer Mom



Relationship with Surfer Chick



Relationship with Big Bad Guy



Relationship with Good Guy Team Mentor (attitude towards authority growth subplot)
In Act I, Mentor is the head of the team coming to recruit Surfer Dad.  He is involved in the Act I action, so we see that he is totally awesome.  Then Surfer Dude bucks his authority and insists on coming along with the team, and he and Surfer Dude begin a phase of cool hostility.
Mentor and Surfer Dude struggle for control. 

Earning the team’s respect
At first, the good guy team shows Surfer Dude respect as the son of Surfer Dad.  Then, he holds them hostage and insists on coming along, which makes them view him negatively (in various ways: as spoiled, or selfish, or immature)


Surfer Dad
Relationship with Surfer Mom



Escape attempts



Surfer Mom
Plot to subvert evil team



Surfer Chick
Relationship with Big Bad Guy







Okay, some disclaimers.  If I were actually going to write this book, I'd want a table with more plot lines than this.  Maybe 20, I guess, though that's a creative decision and you could write the book with more or fewer.  Also, I haven't even tried to finish filling in the grid above -- I've just started filling it in, so that you can see how I do it.  Also, yes, the above story is silly.  I would never actually write it.  In fact, that's why I've used it for this example, so I wouldn't feel like I was actually giving any good ideas away.  Ha!

Notice that I've added at least one new character in working through this grid, with attendant subplot(s) -- the Mentor.  Understand that this, too, is an early step, and having created my full subplots table, I will not stick slavishly to it.  I'll use it to get started on the next step, which is my chapter outline, but once the chapter outline is going, that's the principal tool I'll use to follow and shape the story, and I will return to the subplots table only rarely, if ever.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

You Need to Read a Lot

For various reasons:

  • To know your market, both the classics and the current hits.  What is successful with the audience you are trying to reach?  What fails?  What has not been tried yet, and should be?  What has only been attempted poorly, and should now be tried again by a better writer... you?
  • To see how other writers do it.  As you work out your own craft, see how other writers have solved the problems you face.  Look at big picture issues, like how many "acts" a book has and how dense its subplots are.  Look at small picture points, like how a writer tags his dialog, what POV a writer follows, etc.  Look at specific tasks and specialized issues, like flashbacks, dream sequences, drug-induced visions, and so forth.
  • Knowing other authors' work will help you as a professional.  You will be able to talk about it intelligently with other industry professionals, e.g. your agent or editor, and if you know a writer's work, you will have a leg up when you bump into her at a convention and try to network.
  • You need to have grist for the mill.  You should be reading non-fiction, news, comic books, fiction in genres you don't work in, whatever... it all goes into the sausage-making machine you call your brain, and with the right twisting and shaking, it can come back out again as tasty breakfast links.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dave Butler Reworks Traditional Material

Genius?

(Special birthday shout-out to my friends in the Blackdown area, for whom I wrote this lullaby.)

Baa baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full
One for my master, one for my dame
One for the little boy off Hammer Lane
Twinkle, twinkle, little star


Baa baa, brown sheep, how you sail
Yes sir, yes sir, the wind's in the dale
Up the Punchbowl, o'er the Down
Through the Wealdwood and back to town
Twinkle, twinkle, little star


Baa baa, gray sheep, did you hear the bells?
Yes sir, yes sir, in Waggoner's Wells
The bells of morning, and the bells of noon
The bells of evening will be ringing soon
Twinkle, twinkle, little star


Baa baa, white sheep, did you say prayers?
Yes, dear mother, when the monks said theirs
Down by the river, snug in the bend
All long days come to an end
Twinkle, twinkle, little star

Monday, May 9, 2011

Brainstorm Document: the Chronicles of Surfer Dude

Surfer Dude fights evil.  What kind of evil will he fight?  Could be coastal bases of evil natural/human enemies, like COBRA.  Or he could defend goodguy coastal forts, that works for a surfer, but it makes him passive.  What about sunken cities, e.g., stuff that Graham Hancock writes about?  Surfer Dude could be not just a good surfer, but a retired SEAL, and he gets recruited by someone in a secret good organization that is racing against a secret evil organization to assemble an ancient artifact from the ice-age ur-civilization (Atlantis, etc.).  There are, say, 5 pieces (= 5 books in the series), and Surfer Dude is recalled from retirement to lead the team that has to get the first one (because clues to its location have just been found -- it's off the coast of India, or Malta, or Japan, or whatever).  By the end of book one, Surfer Dude has uncovered the clues that will lead him, in book 2, to the second site (these are the 5 great capitals of the ur-civilization -- climax has to be in Atlantic, presumably).

Is this a YA book?  Maybe Surfer Dude is really a teenager, a part-time lifeguard, but a surfer of legendary talent and daring.  His father is the retired SEAL, and his father is the one recruited to lead the team... only his father is kidnapped by the evil team, and Surfer Dude holds the key to the first sunken city.  The good guys try to get it from him, but he insists that he must come along, or he won't give them the information.  He does this because he wants to rescue his father.

So we have a father and son.  Need some YA subplots.  Maybe Surfer Dude insists on coming along not because he loves his father (he does, but can't admit it), but because he feels a burning need to prove his worth and talent to his father.  He has always been in his father's shadow, and now the tables are turned. Meanwhile, the evil team is led by none other than Surfer Dude's mother.  Surfer Mom and Surfer Dad are divorced, so they can have a need-reconciliation or need-closure subplot, and Surfer Dude needs to reconcile with both of them over the divorce.

Why are they divorced?  It can't be because Mom is evil, she needs a good motive.  Probably has to do with why people want the artifact.  Should be either crazy wealth or crazy power, and it's probably the latter.  Maybe the first four artifacts assemble into a key (they won't recognize this at first, but will figure it out en route) that opens a secret vault in Atlantis, wherein lies the key to the great power of vril with which the Atlanteans built their world civilization and kept the ice floes at bay.  Maybe Mom wants the power for herself, because she wants to save the world from anthropogenic global warming (or maybe, more generically, environmental disaster), and she calculates she can more easily do this from a position on the evil team; Dad, on the other hand, wants to do his duty by the good guys (a UN task force, maybe, or a US one, or GI Joe?).  That gives them both "good" motivations.  They quarrel, she leaves, he's disillusioned and quits the team, then later, both good and evil teams realize he holds the key, and come after him -- and the bad guys get to him first.

If it's about surfers, the book needs to feature cool surfing beaches.  Maybe three aquatic locations per book, in a rough three act structure?  For book one, say Malibu, Cornwall (could involve Tintagel Castle) and the Gulf of Cambay.

  • Malibu Act: set up subplots, Dad is kidnapped, Dude can't quite save him, good guy team tries to get Dude's information, Dude holds them hostage to get himself on the team.
  • Cornwall Act: the teams race and battle to get a piece of information (??); the bad guys apparently win, but due to Surfer Dude's ingenuity (??), the good guys get enough information to lead them to the climactic confrontation in the... 
  • Cambay Act: the teams battle, one of them gets the artifact (not sure it matters which, since the artifact could change hands back and forth over the series), but, crucially, Surfer Dude figures out where the next piece is hidden.  
It's YA, need a first love plot.  Surfer Dude should be in love with a bad guy (this will help him better understand his parents' dilemma, so the subplots will naturally intertwine as they resolve).  He has fallen in love with a young bad guy agent, Surfer Chick, who has been hanging around the beach a lot, and who in fact turns out to be a scout / advance agent for the bad guys.  (Perhaps he reveals the location of the second artifact piece to Surfer Chick in a romance subplot moment in Act III, in which he trusts her foolishly... but that trust will eventually win her over, down the line?)

There needs to be a bad guy team leader.  He can be rich and funding the villains, and he wants the power of vril, too, for what he thinks is a noble end (a more extreme version of Mom's goal): he wants to "restore" earth to its "pristine" state, by reducing human civilization to rubble.  Man has overturned the natural order with his tools and buildings, ending its own evolution by easing the pressure of survival-of-the-fittest.  The way forward is to go back, destroy civilization, return humans to being cavemen in a wild and natural world.

Surfer Chick should be torn between Surfer Dude and Big Bad Guy romantically, so Big Bad Guy should be relatively young (which may mean his mistaken aim is due to naivete, and he can have a change of heart late in the series to help battle some common threat).


*   *   *

See how I do it?  Everything above after "Surfer Dude fights evil" is basically stream of consciousness.  Since this is just a demonstration, I will stop it right here, but in a "real" project I would keep going and might produce three or four times this amount.

The next step will be to begin to structure this into plots and characters.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Starting from a Blank Page

My experience is that you get one thing free from the Muses.  After that, it's all work.

Okay, that's accurate for a piece of writing as short as a song, but an exaggeration for a novel-length piece of writing.  Still, the point is true; when you've got your basic idea, you don't sit around waiting for more ideas to pile up on their own, because it won't happen.  You start working.

I start by opening my blank Word file and writing the idea as I have it, as if I am summarizing a story that is already written.  This usually requires no more than a few sentences, or maybe a couple of paragraphs at most.  When I've got the idea down, I keep going, adding more detail and depth.  If I don't know what to write next, I type in questions that go to the heart of the story, its basic conflicts, its structure, its theme.  I don't go back and edit the document to make it coherent -- it is a sort of real-time brainstorming piece, like a whiteboard in a conference room, and once I have moved beyond the document I won't come back to it, so it's not worth trying to make perfect, or even self-consistent.

To show you what I mean, I will make up a dummy story and brainstorm it in this fashion in Monday's post.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Lion of Missouri

The wild beasts of the Great Green Wood
The bison, the sloth and the wolf
Learned to hear his footstep and light out in a hurry
His blade was sharp, his arm was strong
His eye was keen and his shot was long
The Lion of Missouri


The Teutonic Knights and the Kaiser’s men
The Hessian, the Prussian, the Turk
Felt the white-hot fire of the young Cahokian’s fury
His word, his heart and his aim were true
His iron will and his soldiers, too
The Lion of Missouri


Against sorcerers and highwaymen
Lawyers, land agents and banks
He rode as hangman, circuit judge and jury
His horse was fear, his cloak was awe
His look was death and his word was law
The Lion of Missouri

*   *   *

Another Witchy Eye chapter heading, written in the Witchy Eye world (according to the conceit) by Woody Guthrie.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Know Thyself: Abstract Plots

Another problem I have is that I tend to conjure up, as a first effort, characters with abstract needs or needs readers do not naturally relate to, e.g. strong devotions to principle or needs to grow.  (This may have something to do with my awkward social life.)

Knowing that I have this tendency, I focus hard in early pre-writing stages on getting concrete plots for all my characters.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What Kinds of Problems?

What sorts of problems / needs / objectives should your characters have?

To some extent, the answer to this question is genre-driven.  In a mystery, the detective needs to find out who done it.  In a thriller, the protagonist must stop the bomb from going off.  In a romance, the protagonist's big concern must be to overcome the obstacles to love.  In middle reader and young adult books, the protagonist must (and other key characters may) have needs that are universally comprehensible to children: finding one's place in society, discovering one's identity, relating to adults / authority, first encounters with the opposite sex, etc.

Beyond that, I offer some observations.  Needs are stronger if they are universally or nearly-universally shared or shareable.  They are stronger if they are concrete and urgent.  Jill must recover the vaccine and deliver it to the hospital in time or her mother will die is stronger than Bob would like to win the flower show this year, though there are stories in which the desire to win the flower show would be a fine motivation, especially if Bob needs to avenge the humiliating loss last year to a romantic rival, or has to win the flower show to keep his job.  If needs are abstract (e.g., a fear of mortality), try to root them in concrete common experience (e.g., the loss of a loved one).

Conflict is generated by multiple characters in your story having pressing, urgent needs that drive them to fight for conflicting objectives.  Conflict is crucial because conflict generates interest -- and interest is how you get people to read your book.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Know Thyself: Novelist's Gearshift

Self-knowledge is key for a writer.  One reason (of many reasons) it's so important is that knowing your weaknesses is a necessary first step towards overcoming them.  One of my own weaknesses (or, optimistically, "features") as a writer is something I am coming to think of as a second chapter Novelist's Gearshift.

In songwriting, a truck driver's gear shift is when the songwriter (producer, etc.) shifts the key up to keep the listener's interest.  See here.  This is done on purpose.

My Novelist's Gearshift, by contrast, is something I do on accident.  I find that it usually takes me until the second chapter to find the right gear for a story (my wife will tell you that I drive the same way).  Specifically, I tend to overwrite the first chapter (sentences too long, writing too flowery or intense).  Knowing this about myself, I take extra care in reviewing and revising my first chapters to compensate.