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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Or for my full list of book reviews.

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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Skins UK – The First Two Series

Title: Skins UK

Genre: Contemporary Dramedy

Watched: First Two Series, October 1-11, 2011

Summary: Surprisingly addictive character study

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I wouldn’t have expected to like this — other than the promised nudity — but it was rather sly. Plus, being on Netflix streaming it was “free.” This ensemble show follows nine or ten British sixteen-seventeen year-olds studying, loving, and partying (not in that order) somewhere in nowhere Western England. Each episode picks a particular cast member to focus on, using them as a POV into the group dynamics.

While Skins borrows techniques from documentary and reality television, in that it has an extremely young and inexperienced cast and little in the way of sweeping dramatic arc, it still manages to be extremely gripping for one simple reason:

The characters are well written.

While there is plenty of drama and incident in their lives, and the show does touch on all sorts of issues (teen pregnancy, eating disorders, dysfunctional families, parental death, parental neglect, religion, sexuality — both orientations, race, drug use, health, relationships, etc. etc) none of it feels particularly forced. Not at all like the whiplash effect of an overproduced show like Gossip Girl where the writers strain every character to — and beyond — the breaking point of believability in their quest to feed the flames of constant conflict. In Skins, it feels more like the characters have separate identities that organically drive the plot. Which is as it should be. It’s a fallacy to think that conflict alone drives interest in a story. Sure you need the friction between desire and the character, but without believable — and likable — characters, conflict isn’t worth anything.

But all the Skins characters are pretty likable, and quite varied. We forgive them their idiot decisions, their wanton self-destructive behavior, because they have a certain naive goodness about them. But there is a lot of self-destructive behavior. One of the talked about things about this show is the pretty enormous amount of nudity, drug use, sex, and all that goodness. While the nudity is rarely very erotic, mostly consisting of boy butt or the occasional swinging nad-sack, there is a lot of it. And the drinking, smoking, and drug use is pretty constant (“spliff” is a favorite word). Even the fourteen year-old little sister is staying out all night and shooting heroin. But this stuff doesn’t dominate the story, instead adding a train-wreck fascination. Now I can only hope this isn’t a realistic portrayal of the “average” British teen, who I suspect probably won’t even handle that kind of youthful debauchery as well as even these flawed characters. But I have no idea. Another constant in the show are the broken families. While some of the parents are good and well meaning people, there is only one character (Dev Patel, in his  pre-slumdog debut) with a working pair of them. We have everything from single parents, to lunk-head parents, to pill-popping parents, to hippy-no-attention parents, to none at all. No wonder these kids have so many problems.

A final thing that made this show extra fascinating was the slightly exotic British factor. The semi-suburban 21st Century England depicted is an interesting reminder that America isn’t the only country with its decadent first-world problems. The accents are cute, the slang even more so, and the peculiar British youth fashions — looking as they do like technicolor hip-hop goes La Cage Aux Folles — endlessly entertaining. The directing is stylish too, with nice use of music and weird camera work to emphasize mental state. A favorite moment for me was when Hannah Murray’s fey character is amusing herself by walking her fingers along a guardrail. The camera keeps the fingers in focus at constant distance while the background swirls behind. You have to see and hear the effect, but it had a wonderful playful mood consistent with the POV. Also no wonder the actress was cast for Season 2 of Game of Thrones, as the equally crazy Gilly.

I haven’t checked out the short running and supposedly worse MTV version of this show, but I suspect it failed to capture that elusive formula from the original: good writing = good characters.

For more of my posts on TV, click here.

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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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.