Monday, April 29, 2013

Stories are everywhere

One of the very best thing about being a writer is that writers tend to notice more. Whether a writer was always more observant or she becomes so to "write what you know", we tend to see what other people skim over. So the scene below caught my attention as I was rushing to the DC Federal Courthouse last week for a contested and likely to be acrimonious hearing:

I snapped the photo for the "what is wrong with this picture" aspect. For me it was that someone who was apparently sleeping on the street had solar panels, a laptop and cell phone. But as I've thought about the picture and the man in it, I find I keep being drawn back to the question of why. Why did he end up this way? Is the apparent homeless person aspect just a front to give weight to his protest? How did he get solar panels? How is he running a computer off them? How is he paying is cell phone bill? If he's really homeless, how is he eating? Why protest in this manner? Why did our society allow him to slip out of the mainstream?

The story behind the picture fascinates me.

The day I took the photo I was rushing between courts. So, even though he was still there when I left the first hearing, I didn't have the time to talk to him without risking a yelling at from the next judge. I also wanted an hour or two to figure out his story. But if he's there when I go back to that court in May, I may have to buy him lunch and see if he'll answer my questions.

If not, I'll just have to find a story for him.

Inspiration is all around us. We just have to keep our eyes open and keep asking "why".

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Joy of Discovery

If you asked me which moment I liked the best, the one where I get to type "The End" and the one where I confront the blank screen for the first time, I wouldn't hesitate in answering. They're both amazing moments,  but the moment of creation,  when that first word hits the screen, is a just shy of ecstasy. 

There's very few things I enjoy more than opening a book for the first time. The world is full of possibility. Anticipation of a really good book has raised goose bumps - no joke. You remember that moment when the prequel to a popular movie franchise came out? The theme music started. I practically vibrated with excitement. The event was so visceral. While the movie ultimately disappointed, for that one moment, the moment of creation when the music started, anything could happen. Hope and possibility ruled. Starting a story is like that for me.

I'm in an interesting place right now in my writing. I have two completed novels (King's Falcon and New Bohemia: Just One Night) that are in various stages of editing, and as of Sunday, I just started writing my next novel - Schrodinger Effect. It's actually why this post is late. I've been visiting Vonna's world.

My resistance to outlining is that the one time I tried it, the whole process took the joy of discovery out of writing for me. But Vonna's world, and her stories are too complicated for me to completely discovery write. So, for this one I have an outline of sorts with some nice big wholes that I can discovery write in.

If you haven't read  Flashes of Life from my Paths Less Traveled  short story collection, shame on you. Seriously though, the new novel features Vonna, the psychic detective from that story. One of the things I find fascinating about Vonna is the quirks in her psychic abilities. While she's an empathy, she doesn't feel emotion, she sees is as color around the person.

The connection between colors and emotion goes back a long way. People are green with envy. We associate different meanings with the colors of roses- red for love, white for friendship, and so on.

Robert Pulchik , a psychologist, used a color wheel to help categorize intensities of what he considered to be the eight primary emotions - anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, curiosity,  acceptance and joy. People have since built on that model to take into account additional emotions. The wheel to the right is an example of an emotion color wheel.

Vonna's a bit more complicated than that. Her ability to see emotion is, essentially, her 6th sense or, if I were writing a different kind of story, her superpower.  I have to thank my editor at Musa Publishing who pointed out that Vonna would notice the emotional colors as a non-gifted person would notice hair color. In other words . . . always. I realized that to sustain her gift/curse over the course of a novel, I'd have to account for gradients of emotion that none of the existing wheels did. As a result in preparing to write about Vonna's next murder investigation, I spent quite a bit of time coming up with the colors in her world. Her color wheel doesn't match up to Pulchik's or even the one above.

Similar emotions fall into the same primary color, except when the don't. For example for Vonna:

Love is spring green;
Adoration is Aqua;
Fondness  is Lavender; and
Like/ liking is Lavender Blush.

We're crossing primary colors (green,. blue and red) for emotions that are somewhat similar in nature. Also, because we don't have enough words to encompass all the gradients of emotion, Vonna had to make up her own descriptions of the colors she saw, and the more complicated the emotion, the more elaborate the color. As an example, "Trust" is sunset teal because I wanted to show that "trust" as an emotion was a combination of many lesser emotions and, thus many primary colors joining together.

So for the moment, I'm in the grip of a new love. So, please forgive me if I'm so wrapped up that I forget the outside world. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ben Wolverton Accident and the Kindness of Strangers

It's humbling to know that we're all just a breath away from disaster, and needing to rely on the kindness of strangers. Sadly, for one of my friends and his family, that breath came on Wednesday.

David Farland/ David Wolverton's 16 year old son, Ben, was in a longboarding accident on Wednesday, April 3, 2013.  After falling off his board, Ben suffered from severe brain trauma as well as a cracked skull, broken pelvis, broken tail bone, burnt knees, bruised lungs, broken ear drum, as well as road rash and many scars. He is currently stable, but in a coma.

When he was taken into the emergency room, Ben had a 10-15% chance of survival. On Thursday, surgeons removed his skull cap to reduce the pressure on his brain. Today they started planning for the surgery to repair his pelvis and knees. It's a good sign, and the fact that Ben is stable is nothing short of a miracle.

Like many of the self-employed in America, they have no insurance. Dave's a New York Times best-selling author, but medical expenses like the ones they are incurring are catastrophic. The bills for the hospital and treatment in this instance can exceed a million dollars.

I met Ben at the first Superstars Writing Seminar where he was drafted for  (I mean, helping with) the book store, and generally helping where he could. I doubt Dave has ever refused a request for help.

If you can, please help out, even if all you can do is share this link. Please Donate

We're also putting together a Book Bomb for the family with Dave's books Nightingale and Million Dollar Outlines to help out. The Bomb is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, but I'll post when we confirm everything.

Thank you.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Backwards Outlining or How I Kill My Darlings

I've said it time and again on this blog and elsewhere, I'm  a pantser or discovery writer. I often start my stories (whether short or novel-length) with the main characters, the main conflict and a proposed resolution, and that's it. I love the joy of taking the trip with them. The downside, of course, is when the characters get distracted, so do I. I tend to write FAR more than I really need to as a result.

I've floundered around a lot with how to take a 200,000 word novel and cut it down to something that's traditional NY publishable. Note, I say traditional NY publishable. Electronic publishing, theoretically, has changed what we can sell as completed novels since the cost issues are radically different when you don't have to print the text on paper. Still, the NY houses still set the guidelines. Will that change? Probably, but for now, being publishable means sticking within "normal" word counts for your genre until you reach a certain level of success. No one is going to tell Stephanie Myer, or Brandon Sanderson to cut 80,000 words of their novels to meet the "guidelines." Given the caliber of those writers, it's really unlikely there are 80,000 words that could be cut from a 200,000 word story without harming it. Sadly, I'm not there yet.

Where does that leave me?

Cutting words and strengthening the ones I do use.

Since going to Dave Farland's Novel Rewriting Workshop in August, 2012, I've become aware of a new metric I can use to edit my novels in a way that doesn't harm the story. I've talked about Dave's Million Dollar Outlines and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat before.  It's these tools I'm using to "outline" my completed novel as part of the editing process.

Right now I'm working on the novel I took to Dave's workshop, The King's Falcon. Let me give you
a bit of background so this makes some sense.  I've been working on it for far too long. Originally the first draft was a whopping 300,000 words. Yup. That's not a typo. I realized that I'd actually written 3 books and started breaking them up. The first story was heavily character driven so while technically fine, I'd get comments back that "nothing happened." Not a good comment. So, I took the second book, which focused on the civil war and started merging it into the first so the looming battle actually occurs in Book I. I wasn't really successful at doing this on my own. Enter Dave's workshop. I knew going into the workshop that I had, at least, a pacing problem - too much of the character stuff still happened at the front of the book and too much of the action was stuck in the second half of it. Dave showed me how to pull the two story lines through each other and merge them.

Guess what? The end result of that process is a story that needs its word count trimmed, again. But what to cut? What's a "darling" and what's really necessary?

I've started a process that I call "backwards outlining" using Dave's Million Dollar Outlines and Snyder's Save the Cat, I'm outlining the completed story. Each scene must justify it's existence. What conflict is there? Do the characters change emotional beats within the scene? What information is being imparted that is critical to the forward motion of the story. Am I hitting the right emotional beats or story turning points at the right time?

Let me give you an example:

There's a story beat that Dave labels the "Call to Action" and Snyder calls "The Catalyst." Regardless of what you call it, it's that moment when your hero's world changes and propels him into the story. It happens at the 12 minute mark in a 110 minute movie according to Snyder (he's right, by the way).  That's just a bit shy of the 11% mark. In a 120K word novel, its approximately word 13,200 or page 52 (250 words per page). 

Again, I know my story drags. I'm going to be missing beats somewhere and adding them other places they don't belong. So where did my "Call to Action" fall?

Page 32. 

But wait. I'm 20 pages early, that's good right? Nope. It means my next section (the "Debate") drags on far too long because my midpoint is spot on half way through the text. Now I know where at least one of my pacing problems is. I can go back in and fix it. So, I'm moving a scene from the "Debate" section that doesn't fit forward to the set up phase where it belongs.

Let's go back to my "Call to Action" scene again. Here's the diagram of that scene:

Location: Interior, Sabryna's chambers
Falcon learns that Sabryna is dying. She wants Falcon to marry her widower to reclaim the throne and unite the kingdoms.

Emotional Beat: +/- Falcon starts curious as to what mission Sabryna will send her on, and ends up devastated by news of Sabryna's terminal illness.

Conflict >< Falcon wants everything to stay the same; Sabryna needs Falcon to be more than she is and accept her responsibilities.

That works, I have emotional change and a conflict. I also impart a lot of plot relevant information in the wrestling with the conflict. It's a scene I can probably leave alone other than to punch up verbs and tighten the prose.

What about a "darling" that I need to cut then?

"Coffee Clach" with Leesan and Iestyn
Location: Interior castle kitchen
Falcon catches up with her foster mother and best friend, and learns more about Mordent.

Emotional Beat: +/+  Falcon starts content and ends up curious.

Conflict: Ahm, I don't have one. Lessan wants the veggies cut up, Falcon and Iestyn do that. Leesan and Iestyn want to hear information about Falcon's trip, she tells them. Falcon wants to catch up on Court politics and they tell her. Everyone gets along too well.


So while there is needed information here and I love the relationship between the three of them. I can do a quick two or three line recap of the information needed in the next scene. This is a darling, not a required beat. It needs to go or it needs a major rewrite.

Anyway, that's my new take on editing. I'll let you know how the process works for me.