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.

For my posts on writing, click here.

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.

For more book reviews, click here.

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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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