The Inside Story

Title: Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc

Author: Dara Marks

Genre: Writing Guide

Length: 327 pages

Read: Oct 22 – Nov 3, 2011

Summary: Best book I’ve read on character arcs.

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I’ve been finishing up my fourth (and hopefully final) draft on my new book Untimed. In discussing the previous draft with one of my writer friends he recommended this book on writing. It’s aimed at screenwriters, but while the mediums are different, there are a lot of commonalities — stories are still stories.

The Inside Story deals with character and structure, and the relationship between these and theme. I’ve read a lot of books on writing in general and story structure in particular, and this is certainly the best on the subject of the transformational arc. It has certain overlapping information with Save the Cat (reviewed here) — but the style is radically different and more serious.

Inside Story focuses very clearly and with no bullshit on the basics of film structure. The A Story forms the external plot, the B story the internal challenge of the protagonist (usually hindered by a fatal flaw in opposition of the story theme) and the C story is contains the relationship challenges required to solve the internal conflicts, and then change enough to overcome the external ones. This book walks through each stage of the arc both in the abstract and specific, using three consistent film examples (Romancing the StoneLethal Weapon, and Ordinary People).

It’s clear after reading this that the deficit in many films is a lack of proper arc and thematic development. Sometimes even good (but not great) films forget this key component. Speed is a good example. It’s a well executed and watchable film, but it fails to really have any arc or theme. Unless you consider “Jack must stop the bomber” to be a theme. There’s no development. Jack stops the bomber by way of guts, determination, and cleverness — all of which he possesses at the start of the film. He really doesn’t have to learn any lesson. The film gets by by way of excellent execution and casting. Lethal Weapon, however, is a character driven (even if intense) action film. No one remembers the specifics of the drug dealer plot. They remember Mel Gibson and Danny Glover‘s characters. And they remember them because they actually have problems they learn to overcome (which incidentally also helps them stop the bad guys).

So how does all of this apply to my novel? Or so I asked myself as I read. Untimed does have a fairly clean three act structure. It does have a character who needs to change in order to overcome his antagonist. C story solves B story solves A story. But on the other hand, I didn’t conceive of the book originally with a clear “theme” in mind, the protagonists issues are not structurally in opposition to this theme (what theme I have, organically grown), and the intensity of suffering is muted by a sometimes light tone. Does this matter? Perhaps less in a novel. Even less in an action novel. Even less in a series book. It’s perhaps this neat and packaged arc that makes so many great films difficult to sequel. If the character has already changed, it’s hard to make him change again. All too often the studio/writers attempt to regress the protagonist in a sequel, to undo and then redo the conflicts that made the first film great (Die Hard 2!). The best sequels, films like Terminator 2 or Aliens, change up the formula and give the character something new to overcome. Still, it’s really really hard to do this three times. Can anyone even think of a stand alone movie where the third installment is great? And Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban doesn’t count, even if it is the best of the eight films.

In fact, this leads me to the interesting observation that not only do individual Harry Potter books have very weak arcs, but even the entire series doesn’t cover much emotional transformation. How is Harry (or Ron or Hermione) terribly different at the end of book 1? Even at book 7? I mean as people, not in terms of circumstance, which is only the A story. The answer is “not very different.” Yeah, they grow up a bit, but there is no fundamental quality that they gain which isn’t present in book 1. Still, these are good books. Some of them are even great books (like the first and third). So go figure.

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Untimed – Off for Line Editing

Yesterday, I finished my fourth (more like 3 1/2) major draft of my new novel, Untimed, bundled it up, and shipped it out to my editor for line editing. This was a relatively quick and easy draft (about ten days), although it still took the usual three passes/reads. I concentrated on beefing up conflict. Every book has its trouble spots. In Untimed, these are the couple chapters following the Act 1-2 break and likewise those surrounding the Act 2-3 break (plus in earlier drafts, the ending — but that’s been resolved since the second draft).

The early Second Act has the problem of needing to up the stakes without being too flaccid or redundant. In the first and second drafts it had problems with being divergent to the main storyline, of basically doubling down on the action that occurs at the end of the first act. 1+1 does not equal 2. With the third draft I rewrote it completely, but here in the fourth, my editors had suggested a superficially minor reordering of the action. While textually small, pulling a couple reveals earlier had some great effects on the dynamic between the two leads, basically, giving them more divergent agendas for several chapters. Conflict is good in fiction. In real life we go to a lot of effort to minimize it. When writing, you want to squeeze every ounce of fight out of the story.

The Third Act break just plain needed more fighting (the personal, not the physical kind). I ramped it up again. Still, I wonder if I couldn’t use a bit more of “the whiff of death” but I Untimed is fairly light and I didn’t want to somber it up. Anyway, it read pretty well in my read through.

I’ve also been banging my head a bit with the issue of character arc, but I’ll have more to say on that in a day or so.

Now off to work on other things while I wait for the line edit to come back.

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Goodreads

In my latest move to further build up my social online presence I’ve moved onto goodreads.com. You can find my new profile here. It’s also installed permanently on the righthand sidebar via the  icon.

Those of you who use goodreads, link to my profile and friend me. If you read and haven’t signed up for it, you might want to. Basically it’s Facebook for books. You can easily find rate and review books and then share them with your friends. I posted up about 50 book reviews (mined from this blog) and rated another 70+. Of course I’ve read over 10,000 novels so I’m not about to go back and do them all, but I’ll add them as I see them.

As an author, Goodreads is supposedly a great place to market your books, which is my nefarious ulterior motive in joining yet another social network. Muhaha!

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Untimed – The Last Draft?

I got notes back from my editors concerning my new novel, Untimed. This is the least stressful batch I’ve ever received. Not only are there relatively few changes, but I agree with all the big ones. Granted, this was the third draft they gave notes on, so we changed a lot of things earlier, but it’s good to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been 48 hours and I’m already through the first 25% and I’ll be done by mid-week for sure, then it’s time for another full read and polish (by me) and the line edit (by them and by me).

Suggestions for big changes, particularly big cuts, are a bit like losing a loved one. You have to progress through the stages of grief:

Denial – I won’t really have to do it. Those notes are for someone else’s book.

Anger – They don’t really understand what I was intending!

Bargaining – Maybe if I only do this or that, they’ll “let me” keep most of it. NOTE: Really the author has the power, but when an editor is good, they’re usually right.

Depression – This is going to be so much work! And I loved that stuff!

Acceptance – In the end, it’ll be a better book.

This particular batch of notes only puts a couple tiny babies on the butcher’s block. Not even whole sections of the plot, just a few little scenes or ideas. Not too bad.

Back to work.

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The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

Title: The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

Author: J.A. Konrath

Genre: How to

Length: 370,000 words

Read: October 11-18, 2011

Summary: Lots of everything, including, honesty, good advice and value

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This is an oddball book in many ways. First of all, it wasn’t really written as a book, but as an inexpensive ($2.99) Kindle compilation of J.A. Konrath’s blog posts from his excellent publishing blog. Over the last 5 or more years he’s written a lot of posts (500+), and this book is an excellent way to read/skim them quickly. I don’t begrudge him the extra $2.99. Raw as it is, the information and convenience of the format are worth far more. The book provides excellent value.

This book is also very long, perhaps 1,000 pages if it were a printed volume. It covers a vast array of topics involving writing and publishing. Tips on writing itself and motivation (other books cover much of this). A invaluable (and rare) first hand look at one writer’s career. Tips on on traditional publishing, getting an agent, and vast (I mean vast) tips on self promotion. It also, and very interestingly, chronicles Konrath’s evolving perception of the publishing business. From how to make it as a mid-list conventional author to an increasing rejection of traditional publishing’s broken business model. In this regard, it does taper off around 2010, midway through the current beginning of the e-book revolution. I’ve been reading his blog for a while, so I’ve probably read most of the posts since as he becomes ever more e-book centric in his thinking, but I would like them arranged in this easy format (i.e. JA, throw those in next time you update the book).

The book isn’t without flaws. It’s full of redundant posts, and many that aren’t applicable anymore, or to a particular writer’s interests or needs. Still, these are easily skimmed and skipped, and this doesn’t diminish from the overall value and usefulness. I don’t know how Konrath the novelist is (I bought Whiskey Sour, but haven’t read it yet), but as a analyst, he shows a keen mind and perceptivity, unusually clear and objective in his thinking. A very practical guy who looks at the situation as it is, and what’s likely to happen regardless of what entrenched institutions want. This alone is rare, but he also has an energy level that seems high to even super-manic me. The guy did a single promotional tour with 500 book signings! And he brings this level of commitment to every part of his work. Plus, he records, documents, and analyses stuff that few ever would. For example, he tries to reach some analytic conclusions on the sales effect of book signing and touring. He also includes useful logs of his own experiences with various phases of publishing (like the period from finding an agent to the book release — long!). The challenges, luck, and work required to succeed in this business seem more than a little daunting after Konrath’s whirlwind tour.

Over the last two years, I’ve read lots of books on the publishing business, and this one has the largest volume of useful information. Sure it’s mixed with a lot of random other stuff and considerable repetition. But a must read. Just skim the parts you don’t need.

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Follow The Money

Any business is about the flow of money. This is a keystone for understanding them. Dean Wesley Smith, one of self-publishing’s very vocal bloggers has an excellent article on the subject of the differing flow of money in both the traditional and self-published worlds:

But so many of the discussions about indie publishing vs traditional publishing don’t take into account a very important, and sometimes critical aspect of money for a freelance fiction writer. And that’s timing of the cash flow. In other words: How Much? And When?

And trust me, this is complex and will seem odd to many, especially newer writers. But I will do my best to be clear and let you each decide on the path that is right for each of your books. And when you do decide on a path, you might understand the cash flow of that path.

--Both traditional and indie publishing have time lags in the money.Indie publishing, given the same quality book, the same level of cover, is a much shorter time lag. And with indie publishing stores reporting in so many different ways, it takes some work to see how many books in a certain time period a book actually sold.

For example, if an author had a book up and wanted to see how many copies the book sold in January, the author might have to wait until June to get some of those exact numbers.

However, discovering sales is far worse in traditional publishing. There the author is lucky to be able to figure out royalty statements for how many books sold and were held as reserves against return in a six-month period a year after publication. And that’s if the author can get the agent to send the royalty statements.

At least with indie publishing, with a little patience, an indie author can find out how many books sold exactly in any given month.

The full original post can be found HERE.

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Dreaming Along

I’m plugging away on my “after the gap” read of The Darkening Dream. At the 60% point, so I should hopefully be done by the end of the week. There’s only one scene I need to go back to and give a bit of a rewrite. It’s one that’s always been a bit problematic, where a character tells a bit of a story about a previous encounter with the undead, and while it’s only 800 words (it used to be 3,000 in the first draft) it’s told in dialog. That’s always awkward, and it’s the only place in the book where a happening longer than a couple sentences is dialoged out. I even have to use that long dialog paragraph leave off the terminal curly brace thing. Over the two years since I first wrote the scene, I’ve rewritten it perhaps five different ways. As dialog, as flashback, with sarcastic interrupts, without. It was once a creepy, but over long episode, but now after so much trimming it just lacks punch.

I’ll have to revisit after I get to the end of this pass.

And I finally adjusted to past tense again (only took 20,000 words!). It’ll be interesting to see if my head whiplashes so badly when I flip back to Untimed (hopefully soon). I’m due my third draft notes any day now.

Moving through The Darkening Dream I find it paced like a roller coaster. Literally. Including the slow initial tick tick ascent to the top of the first hill (which crests at about at the 20% mark). The pacing is mirrored by the chapter length and the progression of time. In the first quarter, several weeks pass for the characters and on average the chapters are longer and more linear. Then at the top of the hill, I start to slide in the point of view of first one and the other villain. With that, the chapter length halves and the action is compressed into a small number of hectic and deadly days. Like most stories with a lot of violence, if one actually had to endure the narrative in real life, one would probably drop dead of exhaustion. TVs 24 being the ultimate example.

On a slightly different note, I switched the name on my ghetto cover (my home-brew one on the right, placeholder until I commission a real one) back to “Andy” as opposed to “Andrew.” I keep debating this. At some level it feels slightly odd to be in my 40s, a husband, and a father and not have dropped my nickname. But I just never have, and on the plus side all my SEO points at Andy, not Andrew. The later is what the Gas Company calls me.

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Vocal Whiplash

I started a new read through and edit on my first novel, The Darkening Dream yesterday. I’m waiting for feedback on my newer book and wanted to cleanup the first one so I’ll have it ready to be proofread for possible self-publishing. This is the first time I’ve looked at it in eight months (I’ve been working on Untimed) and the difference in voice is flogging my brain.

It’s weird and not a little disturbing to read your “older” work. I started TDD in January 2008, writing the first draft of what’s now the opening twenty percent (before heavy alterations). I stopped (because of work and the birth of my son) and picked up in fall of 2009. Although I’ve done about a zillion (more like ten) drafts, traces of this oldest style remain in these early sections. And boy has my literary voice changed since then. Most dramatically, I no longer detail out as much of the action and setting. Nowadays, I concentrate on sketching and implying important points, choosing my scenes less to block through the whole action than to paint in important moments. These old sections have been heavily trimmed down, edited and reworked, but they are still organized in a stodgier more sequential fashion.

And the beginning of my story is tricky, introducing a period world with a large cast of period characters. I’ve several times restructured the start of TDD, including one late attempt this year to write a number of alternate starts. But I have never found a way to replace the measured build up I currently have with a more hook driven start like Untimed has. It’s easier to start that way. Oh well, live and learn.

The biggest shocker, however, is how difficult it is getting used to past tense again. TDD is written in the normal third person past limited, where different chapters focus on different characters. There is no omniscient narrator but the implied narrator shifts from chapter to chapter. Untimed is first person present. Single narrator obviously. I’ve really grown to love the immediate quality of the present tense. One also gets to ditch most the “hads” used to indicate the past perfect. In past tense, you might say, “He went to the store,” or to indicate prior time “Earlier, he had gone to the store.” In present you’d likewise use “He goes to the store” and “He went to the store.” The normal past tense takes over for the past perfect, and it’s a much cleaner tense.

The first mini-scene of TDD is as follows:

As services drew to an end, Sarah peered around the curtain separating the men from the women. Mama shot her a look, but she had to be sure she could reach the door without Papa seeing her. After what he’d done, she couldn’t face him right now. There he was, head bobbing in the sea of skullcaps and beards. She’d be long gone before he extracted himself.

“Mama,” she whispered, “can you handle supper if I go to Anne’s?” Probably last night’s dinner debacle had been Mama’s idea, but they’d never seen eye to eye on the subject. Papa, on the other hand, was supposed to be on her side.

Mama’s shoulders stiffened, but she nodded.

The end of the afternoon service signaled Sarah’s chance. She squeezed her mother’s hand, gathered her heavy skirts, and fled.

As an experiment, I rewrote this in present tense, a fairly straightforward change:

As services draw to an end, Sarah peers around the curtain separating the men from the women. Mama shoots her a look, but she has to be sure she can reach the door without Papa seeing her. After what he did, she can’t face him right now. There he is, head bobbing in the sea of skullcaps and beards. She’ll be long gone before he extracts himself.

“Mama,” she whispers, “can you handle supper if I go to Anne’s?” Probably last night’s dinner debacle was Mama’s idea, but they never saw eye to eye on the subject. Papa, on the other hand, is supposed to be on her side.

Mama’s shoulders stiffen, but she nods.

The end of the afternoon service signals Sarah’s chance. She squeezes her mother’s hand, gathers her heavy skirts, and flees.

Which do you guys like? I suspect that past tense is more appropriate to this story, being conventional and also given the setting in 1913. But I’ve grown so fond of the present tense that I can’t judge anymore.

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Plotter vs. Pantser

The Plotter

This is one of those eternal writer questions, getting into the heart of the creative process. For those of you who don’t know, a “plotter” is someone who plots out (outlines) their entire story before writing it and a “pantser” is at the opposite extreme, starting with an idea or a character and just going for it, like a daydream. Of course, everything between exists as well, it’s an analog space. And for what it’s worth, writers, including myself, love to talk about this.

Given that I’m more hard core, workaholic, and over-organized than nearly everyone I know (and having gone to MIT that includes a lot of anal folks) I would have assumed I was a plotter.

But when I got into it a couple years ago by starting to write The Darkening Dream, I found I totally prefer to just go with it. I do need to plot a chapter or two ahead as I can’t write the scenes until I see in my head what’s going to happen, but after I finished revising my first novel (and there was a lot of revision) I decided to try to plot the whole second. This resulted in about two months of fairly unproductive head banging. Then, with only a lame first act plotted, I started writing and it veered onto a different course anyway. The characters and the situation seem to dictate what happens. Often you can’t tell in plotting which secondary characters will be the coolest, etc.

The Pantser

But certainly the pantser approach requires plenty of revision. I always have to go back and examine the motivations of the characters after the first draft and map  more of the formal dramatic arc onto the story in the second and third drafts. Pantsing also leads to Second Act Problems (what doesn’t?). I think that’s just the way it goes. It would be very difficult in the first draft to do the kind of “setup and payoff” that good stories have. A great example of this is the film Back to the Future which undoubtedly had umpteen drafts and where every little reference at the start of the film is a setup that tests and then pays off for one of the characters. Case in point where George McFly gives in to Biff about the car. Then back in 1955 he does it as young George, but by the end of the film, with Marty‘s help he has the backbone to be in charge in the revised 1985. This is formulaic but satisfying and artfully crafted in a way that takes multiple passes. Still, I think you can start any which way that works for you. Sometimes getting the draft finished is the most important thing. Then you can step back and look at what needs changing.

Personally I find the two different modes: plotting vs. just writing, to use different sides of the brain, and therefore useful to stagger. I can only handle a few days of plotting before I need the release of getting it out there. There really isn’t any rush in writing as good as just pounding out a great scene that’s already gelled in your head, and it’s even better when the scene and characters take on a life of their own and bring something novel to the process. Looking back on it, I realize that as a computer programmer I took this same exact alternating approach (between designing the algorithm and just coding) and that the rush and rhythm were nearly identical.

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All Things Change

So I’m about halfway through my last polish pass on my third major draft of Untimed. [Update 7:44pm, finished the polish] This is one of the umpteen revision passes. Only another day or two to go before I send it off again and get down to waiting for feedback (hands down my least favorite part of writing).

The book totally kicks ass BTW — biased opinion but true.

Anyway, this has me planning to spend my “downtime” (waiting) doing some really serious research on self-publishing my first novel, The Darkening Dream, and seeing if I can get it out there before the holiday season.

I’ve been following self-publishing blogs like A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing and Dean Wesley Smith for around a year. These guys — rhetoric aside — have made sense for some time but the arguments for traditional publishing grow lamer and lamer. Check out something like this, which lays it out there — albeit with a lot of flavor. Publishing is in the throws of the cataclysmic “doing digital” change that has or is shaking up all the media businesses. For example, in music the conversion from media (vinyl, cassette, CD) to MP3 during which the labels/studios stuck their head in the sand and found themselves nearly destroyed.

The fact is, the change is coming no matter what any big old-school companies want or try to do. Readers are well on their way to embracing ebooks, the rise of the tablet (aka iPad), and dropping smartphone and reader prices (order your Kindle Fire here! 250,000 preorders in 5 days!), has etched the writing on the wall (in blood). In a few short years print will make up 20 or less percent of the market. Paper books (and I say this as someone who has a two story library with over 15,000 of them!) aren’t going to vanish instantly, but they won’t be majorly relevant for novel sales.

So this basically guarantees completely and without any doubt that print revenues will crater, leaving publishers unable to support their big overheads. Borders (and nearly every independent) going bankrupt will just hasten this. Barnes and Noble is next. They tried with the Nook, but Amazon is going to crush them (again, Kindle fire, not to mention $79 regular Kindle). And publishers, being large old-school companies that employ LOTS of people under the old model are showing lots of signs of panic, but pretty much not a glimmer of adapting to the changing business.

But they won’t have one soon. Because without control of the gates to bookstores, they don’t control anything.

Right now they still make the better product. But as an author they:

1. tie up rights

2. take way too much money (15% vs 70% doing it yourself)

3. take way too long (15 months instead of like 1-2 to market!)

4. charge too much for ebooks

5. don’t actually do any marketing

6. often have really stupid ideas about “marketability” (like “sex doesn’t sell” or “vampires are over” *)

Eventually new meaner leaner packaging companies will make the murky ground of processing books a bit easier, but in the meantime. Time to get researching.

If anyone knows a kick ass indie book marketer, I’m looking to hire one (that’s the only part I can’t really do myself).

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* From above: The Vampire Dairies and True Blood both prove both statements simultaneously asinine. And while TDD does have a vampire, he does not ever sparkle in daylight (900 years and he hasn’t seen a glimpse of it) and he is not in the least sexy. He is, howeverfrightfully smart, cautious, and happy to decorate your house with the entrails of your closest family members.