Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 33 Days

I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative structure recently. Some of that has to do with the process of outlining, which tends to draw into sharp relief when a story doesn’t have an underlying plot skeleton. My current potential for the 2013 NaNoWriMo idea right now seems to contain a lot of battle scenes, but nothing that significantly raises the stakes or does something to pique a reader’s interest. I’m glad I’ve spotted that now, as I can make alterations and graft on some type of structure to the story.

The most common type of structure is the three act structure which is roughly:

Act 1 – Setup

This is the first 25% of the tale and is there to provide a lot of the exposition and setup for the world of the tale. There’s a general rule of thumb that in a novel that says the protagonist, key supporting personnel and the scenario of the story should be introduced within the first fifty pages. That’s a significant portion of your first act covered. Typically around halfway through the first act, some kind of event happens that puts your protagonist on the path of following your plot.

Act 2 – Confrontation

This will be the middle 50% or so of your narrative and will typically be where the main characters meet their mentors, any love interests and first start facing true obstacles preventing them from getting what they want. Most notably, this will likely be where the presence of an antagonist will manifest. As the point where your protagonist and antagonist become aware of each other, this is likely the point where they’ll have their first confrontations, and they probably won’t go to well for your protagonist. Roughly halfway through this act, the protagonist should seem on the cusp of their ultimate goal, only to have it snatched away sending the character into their own personal nadir, often giving up completely.

Act 3 – Resolution

The final 25% of the story, which typically features the main character getting over themself and returning to the narrative is all about the climax. This is where the renewed protagonist will have a final confrontation with the antagonist, which tends to go somewhat better than earlier confrontations (
not always of course, as not all endings need to be happy) After the climax, we get some form of denouement where we can see how the story’s events have changed both the character and the status quo of the world they live in.

The three act structure is a fine tool, but like all the tools in a writer’s toolbox it has to be deployed correctly. If it’s not used well, you end up with a story that is somewhat cliché, and worse, something that is utterly predictable. Of course used well, or even subverted, that structure can breathe life into a story and keep your readers turning the page.

The three act story is so well known, and there are so many parallels, especially in mythology, science fiction and fantasy tales that in his seminal book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell came up with the concept of the “monomyth,” noting the similarity that many heroes journey’s take. Indeed, an alternative term for the monomyth is “The Hero’s Journey,” and it’s a structure that has been used in many, many tales and media, though perhaps most famously in Star Wars, thanks to George Lucas explicitly mentioning Campbell’s work. Interestingly, the journey is often cyclical in nature, and like the three act structure above, it’s divided into three parts:

Part 1 – Departure

This consists of a Call to Adventure, and the Crossing of the Threshold, both things I intend to look at more deeply in later entries in this series. This is usually the stage where the hero gains some kind of supernatural or at least unusual aid that will come in useful later (In the Star Wars example, this could be Luke learning of The Force or receiving a light saber)

Part 2 – Initiation

This is the point after the hero has crossed the threshold from the ordinary world into the unknown world of the story. This part contains the Road of Trials, and finds the hero reaching their lowest point, which Campbell compares to dying and names The Belly of the Whale, after the tale of the biblical prophet Jonah.

Part 3 – Return

This is where the final confrontation or Apotheosis will take place and often will be the point where the hero receives their reward (frequently a beautiful woman or princess in the mythological tales). The hero then has to cross the Return Threshold back to the (presumably now-changed) ordinary world they were in when the story began where they might wait and receive another Call to Adventure and the cycle begins anew.

Think of some of your favorite works. Can you envision how this structure fits the tale? Or do you see points where the author deviated from the structures? If so, was it to the detriment or benefit of the story?

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 34(ish) days

[Note: Who had the bright idea to start a daily countdown blog without having any buffer? Oh, right, me. Well, Once again I am running a little behind schedule. Blogging is secondary to “being a dad,” and so it was relegated accordingly. Since I got to finally see Wreck-It Ralph and I’m still writing the post, it’s a win-win for me. Also, I currently have tomorrow free, aside from watching my hapless Redskins lose again, so I intend to get a two or three post buffer done. By the time NaNo kicks off, I might be on schedule consistently…]

Image

It was a dark and stormy night.

As opening lines go, that one is particular infamous. While I associate it most strongly with the oeuvre of a beagle named Snoopy, because I am allegedly a cultured adult, the phrase was apparently first coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his novel Paul Clifford.

The phrase has gained such notoriety that it has inspired the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, dedicated to composing gloriously bad opening sentences, and 2013’s winner by Chris Wieloch of Brookfield, WI is a fine example of the form:

“She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination”

As the old adage goes: “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This is equally true for your novel, and needs to be kept in mind for NaNoWriMo. Your draft may not be sparkling prose dictated from the heavens by the literary gods, but it’s first sentence and paragraph need to be enough to hook the reader when they indulge in the time honored ritual of flipping through the first couple of pages in a bookshop before trying to buy the novel cheaper online.

Like titles, first sentences are something I struggle with. They tend to be to passive or expository without being evocative. At 2012’s NaNoWriMo kickoff party here in Richmond, Virginia there was a little competition to write your opening sentence on a whiteboard and the best would win a small prize. My entry was:

“It was early February in Texas and the sky rained fire.”

Which I think is quite punchy and would entice to read further. The actual winning sentence was:

“I’m bad at beginnings.”

Which shows that the writers in my area have an appreciation for meta humor, if nothing else. That’s really all I have to say on opening sentences, but I’m still a little ways short of my planned minimum word count of five hundred for this entry, so how about we play a simple game.

Can you match the ten opening sentences below to the novels they came from? And would they encourage you to read further ?

 

  1. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
  2. “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.”
  3. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
  4. “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.”
  5. “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”
  6. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
  7. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
  8. “All this happened, more or less.”
  9. “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”
  10. “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.

So, those are the lines, do any of them particular grip you? Now here are the titles:

 

  1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
  2. 1984 by George Orwell
  3. The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks
  4. The Holy Bible, New King James Version by Various
  5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  6. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  7. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  8. A Study In Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  9. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  10. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

 

How do you think you did?

 

Here’s the answers:

1-D, 2-H, 3-G, 4-A, 5-J, 6-B, 7-C, 8-F, 9-E, 10-I

 

Do you have any great/horrific openers to share?

(Photo credit goes to Mateusz Stachowski)

 

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 35 days

Okay, I can practically see October from where I sit, typing this. And so, my thoughts on this “Countdown to NaNoWriMo” series turn, inevitably, to my own meager attempts at coming up with something for 2013.

As usual, I have a bunch of ideas and no clue which one to pick for expansion. And as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been looking at using an outlining process similar to the Snowflake Method, which suggests that the very macro level summary should be a single sentence of no more than fifteen words and without including character names (though an exception is made for names of people so well known that the name itself is a key detail, which is why I break this rule a couple of times below). The author of the Snowflake Method suggests using the New York Times bestseller list as examples of such descriptions.

Perusing the current bestseller list, I only see a couple of descriptions that intrigue me, and one of those breaks the “no character names” rule, to wit, Sue Grafton’s W is for Wasted which gets a capsule blurb of “A homeless man inexplicably leaves $600,000 to Kinsey Millhone,” as I’ve read the series up to N is for Noose, I know that Ms. Millhone is a private detective and a bare bones mystery of simply “Where did the money come from?” is enough of a plot driver.

The other one that appeals is Nelson DeMille’s The Quest with the relatively meaty “An elderly priest, recently escaped from an Ethiopian jail, is joined by two journalists in a search for a holy relic.” This also breaks the Snowflake rules by being over fifteen words long (I make it 21 words, but feel free to double check my count.) There’s a lot going on in that description, it gives us a sense of characters, an objective, some obvious hardships (and I wonder why it has to specifically be an Ethopian jail…) and a classical plot structure (the titular ‘quest’). All that would be more than enough to get me to consider at least checking the book out at a local library.

But what of my own efforts? Well, of the ideas I have simmering up in my brain case for NaNoWriMo 2013, I’ve already referred to two of them in yesterday’s blog entry and linked to excerpts that might charitably be called pre-first drafts. I’ll put out their capsules here and let you, dear reader, figure out which excerpts I’m referring to.

Firstly:

“Merlin tells the real story of King Arthur to patrons of his twenty-first century pub.”

Secondly:

“America loses two Presidents in twenty-four hours, and the Vietnam War is forever changed.”

Those were my initial concepts for the ideas that became “The Bear of Albion” and “One More Shot,” respectively. I kind of want to return to these plots as I had a blast writing alternate history in 2010’s NaNo, and it’s a rich well to return to, and also because I’m a bit of a King Arthur nut.

However, both of those kind of go against the spirit of NaNoWriMo as they aren’t created from whole cloth (not that I much mind rebelling).

Two more ideas that hang around are:

“A dissolute knight is possessed by a century-old sacrificial victim to overthrow a cruel god.”

(That one has the provisional title “Facets of Amethyst,” backing up my “I’m lousy at titles” point from yesterday.) and:

“Alien-enslaved humans attempt to overthrow their masters as another race invades their planet.”

That one is underdeveloped in terms of plot, but I have several key characters realized.

And finally, an idea that I failed to do anything with at the last two Camp NaNoWriMo’s but one I think I have a handle on now:

“What if the apocalypse happened, and nobody noticed?”

Do any of these capsules sound like they have potential? If so which ones? Or should I investigate the nanowrimo.org “adoptables” forum for a plot?

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 36(ish) Days

[Quick Note: As I mentioned in one of the earlier Countdown posts, I’m currently on vacation/religious observance in Wisconsin. One consequence of that is that I haven’t had the free time to write these blog posts as efficiently as I would like, so this post is delayed by a day or two from when it should appear. I am going to attempt to double up in order to get back on schedule, and try and prevent any further time slips between now and November]

I suck at coming up with titles.

Clearly, that’s not the only thing I suck at, as anyone who’s been following this “Countdown to NaNoWriMo” series can tell you that my time management skills aren’t exactly stellar either. (The obvious fact that I’m writing this two hours after the day it’s ostensibly meant to appear on has ended might be a clue to any new readers I might have also…)

It’s true, though. Despite being a reasonably creative person, any time I try and come up with a title, I struggle. Looking at my past two attempts at NaNoWriMo, I hate my titles. My first NaNo, an alternative history tale about Nazis successfully infiltrating and potentially sabotaging the Manhattan Project  (development of nuclear weapons) was given the awe-inspiring title of “Untitled” for the first fifteen days of November 2011. By day eighteen, it had expanded into the much more lofty “Untitled Alternate History NaNoWriMo draft” (I can just see that one rocketing up the bestseller list, can’t you?) Eventually, I kept ping-ponging between two titles “Trinity,” after the code name for the initial nuclear tests, and “Das Manhattan Projekt.” I felt the latter was too generic and suggested a lot of different associations before “World War II era nuclear development,” and the latter was just terribly, terribly cheesy.

By way of contrast, my 2012 NaNo title was the only thing about that thrice-accursed work that came easily. With it being a superhero/espionage conspiracy novel, I decided that “cloaked” was the perfect title, as it suggested both clandestine activities and superhero costuming (even if capes are usually thought of before cloaks), it didn’t hurt that my main ensemble had earned the media appellation “the Cloaks & Daggers” in-story.

Sadly, it seems that “Cloaked,” is very much an outlier for me in coming up with titles. If you look at the few short fiction extracts I’ve posted to this blog, you’ll see that one thing they all have in common are terribly awful titles. The least bad is probably my spin on the King Arthur mythos, entitled “The Bear of Albion,” this only works in my opinion because “Albion” is a reasonably well known name for ancient Britain and that many of the Celtic and Roman chieftains that are thought to be the basis of the mythological Arthur are described as “bear-like.” The trouble is, how many people realize that, and would understand that Arthur is the titular character? This is probably compounded by my decision to use Merlin as the first person perspective narrator for the story.

Another one of my excerpts, and a second alternate history idea that I’m kind of developing is based off of the statement by one of the men on the John F. Kennedy Secret Service detail that they came perilously close to shooting Lyndon B. Johnson in Washington, DC on the same night that Kennedy died in Dallas. I just thought “what would happen if he had fired that shot?” So, as the point of divergence, “One More Shot,” made sense as a title, but again it’s awfully generic and would have to be altered to give any clue what the tale was about.

And then there’s my third excerpt. Would you guess what a story entitled “Pegasus” is about? Would you have even pegged the genre as being anywhere near “military science fiction?” I put it to you, dear reader, that you would not. That makes it an absolutely terrible title, even if it had more thematic resonance when the story was focused more on an airborne assault.

That’s my woe with titling. Am I alone on this particular issue?

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 37(ish) Days

[Quick Note: As I mentioned in one of the earlier Countdown posts, I’m currently on vacation/religious observance in Wisconsin. One consequence of that is that I haven’t had the free time to write these blog posts as efficiently as I would like, so this post is delayed by a day or two from when it should appear. I am going to attempt to double up in order to get back on schedule, and try and prevent any further time slips between now and November]

 

Do novels need to have a theme?

To truly answer that question, we first have to define what exactly is meant by a “theme,” as I’ve been flipping through Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy’s Writing Fiction for Dummies, let’s go with the explanation they use:

“Fiction is art, and all art carries a message of some sort. We call that message the theme of your story. A theme is the deep meaning of your novel, and many great novels pack powerful themes.”

While I agree to an extent with the first sentence there that “Fiction is art” (Yes, even something like Twilight), I would argue that fiction is only partially art. Novels particularly are the result of a blending of both art and the yeomen’s effort to draft and re-draft, or craft. The authors’ second premise that “all art carries a message of some sort,” is one that I disagree with. For example, while I think Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory is a great painting and arguably the one true masterpiece of the Surrealist movement (and if it weren’t for copyright concerns, you’d see a picture of it here), I don’t feel that it has any deeper meaning or message than simply looking pretty damned cool. And for a painting, I’d argue that’s enough.

For a novel, I’d argue that you don’t need a deeper meaning or message beyond “this story is fun to read, and I want to know what happens to the characters.”

That isn’t to say that a theme won’t emerge organically in a piece. Even if the theme is something as simple as “good will triumph over evil,” or “it is what is within that counts.” I personally believe the emergence of a theme is nothing more than a happy accident, and a nice bonus.

I don’t think setting out to write anything around a thee could ever be a successful approach, as a work in that style rapidly becomes didactic or sermonizing, and no one likes to be preached to unexpectedly. If you don’t believe me, when was the last time you invited some Jehovah’s Witnesses to come in when they knocked upon your door?

 

When I think of a work that puts a message before entertainment as a novel, I think of the works of Ayn Rand. Whatever you think of Ms. Rand’s Objectivist philosophy and politics, I would say that the hammering home of that philosophical message hurts the narrative energy of Atlas Shrugged. I’ve heard more than one complaint that, part way through John Galt’s 70 page monologue, the driving question of the novel changes from “Who is John Galt?” to “When will John Galt shut the <expletive> up?” Which doesn’t seem like a question you would want people asking of one of your ostensibly heroic characters.

 

Another book that has a message deeper than the events of its story is C.S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe which includes vast swathes of Christian allegory, that even eight year old me could spot (A heroic character sacrificing himself and coming back from the dead is an obvious parallel even to me then mostly biblically-ignorant self), so why does Rand’s work inspire quotes like this one from Leverage screenwriter John Rogers:

 

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged . One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

 

Whereas Lewis’ work inspires successful television and movie adaptations?

 

Simple. Lewis remembered something fundamental. The theme, if it exists, should serve the story and not vice versa.

 

What are your thoughts on themes?

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 38 Days

Where do you get your ideas?

I can think of no six words more frustrating to creative types, including writers, than those. For me, at least, it’s not a frustrating question because there are no answers or because the answer is some kind of ineffable koan that you have to visit a wrinkly hermit sitting cross-legged at the top of some distant mountain to attain. Quite the opposite, in fact. For me the frustration arises from there being just so many possible answers to that question.

Ideas are, after all, rather fickle things. Like an ill-disciplined baseball player, they can strike at any time. I made reference to one of my more common forms of inspiration: people-watching. I’m currently on a vacation/religious observance (I won’t go into that, unless I’m asked to in the comments) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It’s a beautiful part of the country that I haven’t been to before.(IT’s also on Cenral time, meaning I’m frantically trying to get this typed up before midnight, when it would no longer by a mere 38 days to NaNoWriMo)  It’s also full of lots of little non-chain restaurants, pubs and stores. I love these as it’s a slightly unusual environment to observe people in. Last night, I was in an “English” pub called the Duke of Devon enjoying a plate of Fish & Chips and in the far corner of the main tavern area of the bar, were a couple of guys who were drinking dark beers and carrying out an animated conversation. Nothing particularly unusual about that, except that each time one of them spoke they covered their mouth like an NFL coach calling plays from the sidelines.

So, I decided that the two of them were clearly German spies sharing some vital secret about national security, or perhaps beer brewing technology and that they had chosen this innocuous tourist restaurant as a suitable place to perform their tradecraft.

Other sources of inspiration can strike from anywhere. Today, while playing golf (badly), I looked up to see an unusual cloud formation:

Image

To me, those clouds kind of look like feathers. And when I see a sky full of feathers with no birds, I get to wondering “what happened to the birds?” and the somewhat moody lighting of the shadowed trees as the sun sets put me in a dark mood, so some great catastrophe has taken place in the sky, causing what was a huge flock of seagulls (the bird kind, not the bad hair “I ran so far away” kind) to be vaporized instantly leaving nothing but falling flight feathers. I’d have to figure out the nature of the catastrophe, and if only birds were affected, or whether aircraft, bats and other occupants of the friendly skies (satellite/radio communication waves, for example) are suffering. It’s not very concrete, but there’s clearly a germ of an idea there.

Or perhaps the building on the far right of this picture with the twin smoke stacks is some form of diabolical evil laboratory performing experiments that are an affront to the laws of both God and man?

Image

Again, these are barely sketched thumbnails of ideas, and they are things that have hit me when I’ve been distracted. The only thing they have in common is that they are all based on things I’ve thought or seen in the last twenty four hours.

What about you, dear readers, what are your inspirations?

And what’s your answer to these six words:

Where do you get your ideas?

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 39 Days

Writing is an inherently solitary pursuit. I’m sure that’s a revelation as Earth-shattering as “Water is wet,”  “the Pope is a Catholic,” and “Obama/Boehner is wrong” [Delete as politically applicable]. Clearly, it’s no great secret that an activity that is spent primarily inside a world created in your own head is one that is by its very nature hermitical.

To me, one of the big attractions of writing during NaNoWriMo is that it shatters this solo paradigm. One quick look at the nanowrimo.org forums, or the trending topics on Twitter during November, or writing-focused Facebook groups or even blogs such as this one shows that all across the world there are a flurry of equally crazed people turning the world and voices swimming in their head into a tangible form, either as bits on screen or words on paper. I find that large quantities of caffeine are an essential lubricant for this process.

The other big thing, for me at least, is the prospect of write-ins. While having a nice writing space to oneself is a blessing during November, and I love my writing nook as pictured below, it’s still just a space where I write by myself.

Image

My writing nook, affectionately known as "The Bookcave"

The glory of write-ins though, is that I get to meet people who are just as insane as myself, people who have looked at the idea of banging out 50,000 words in 30 days and thought “Yes, I want to do that.” The best thing about that for me is that write-ins create a symbiotic relationship between all the various authors there, even if no words are spoken, the act of writing (for me) encourages others to write. It also allows for fresh voices, and fresh eyes to look at what I’ve written and tell me how awesome my deathless prose is (I know they’re lying, but man if it doesn’t feel good to get that validation). You can also use other writers as a sounding board to bounce ideas off of, whether plot related or regarding what name this minor character should have. He might have just been “obstinate doorman” in the outline, but now, thanks to a timely suggestion from a fellow WriMo, he’s become Jeff Paglieri, and he’s now making cameos as a minor character in three of this year’s Nano entries.

There’s also the competitive element of word wars and sprints. I’m generally not the fastest or most productive of writers, but I am insanely competitive, so if it’s a race to be the first to bang out 500 words, I’m going to take part and type until my keyboard smokes to try and win (I seldom do), or if we have fifteen minutes to knock out as many words as possible, I’m going to do my best to make sure one entire scene or chapter is finished in that time. I can always edit later…

In fact, so addictive did I find that collaborative energy that several of us that participated in NaNoWriMo 2012 in my local area (RVA represent!) that we’ve tried to meet at least once a month ever since to keep that going. It’s almost a gateway drug to creative energy. Even if it occasionally goes off the rails or devolves into discussions on who we would cast in our stories, or, for some unfathomable reason, which of the Winchester brothers on Supernatural is hotter. (Since I’m sure you’re dying to know, I have ended up on Team Dean during that debate.)

The other thing about write-ins is that they are usually in public places such as coffee shops, libraries or book stores. I’m an inveterate people watcher, so seeing the members of the public who haven’t turned into soulless dead-eyed husks staring at their laptop screens whilst consuming enough coffee to flood the Sahara go about their business is a singular joy. I like to make up a tale for each person, and those tales sometimes sneak into my works as sub-plots.

That’s my take, what do you do to relieve yourself from the occasionally lonely existence of the writer?