Friday, March 27, 2015

Fiction Friday: James Scott Bell and the Big, Fat "But"

Last night I finished reading Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story by James Scott Bell and I have a problem with it.

First let me say I have a huge amount of respect for Mr. Bell. I know a lot of writers who swear by his many books on ficiton writing. A couple of friends have attended his workshops and say he's nothing short of amazing in person.

And, overall, I liked Super Structure. It was a little more prescriptive than I feel I need at this stage of my writing journey, but if you're looking for direction, it would make an excellent roadmap. I wish I'd had it in hand when I wrote some of my earlier books.

The particular point I have an issue with is his brainstorming advice. He says:

          I like to take a stack of fifty or so index cards to my local coffee hangout. I get
          my brew and sit in a comfortable chair. the I start imagining scenes. Whatever 
          picture comes into my head.

         When I've got around fifty scene cards, which may take a couple of hours to generate, 
          I shuffle them and pick two at random and see what connections they suggest. 

So, essentially, you generate a bunch of unrelated scenes and then try to identify the correlations between them.

Here's my problem: Correlation is not causality.

Matt Parker and Trey Stone, of South Park and Book of Mormon fame, once visited a NYU writing class and gave the class some advice.

Link out to see the 2:14 video--it's worth your time. Seriously, the idea encapsulated in this video is the single most important thing I took away from the McDaniel program. Do it. It's everything you need to know about plotting boiled down to two minutes and fourteen seconds.

Are you back? Good.

Spending time brainstorming and generating ideas, especially when you're in the zone and your muses are sending you all kinds of cool stuff, is time well spent, no question.

But once you've done that. instead of trying to force connections between them, I think it makes more sense to set all that on the back burner. Instead, think about where your story starts. Ask yourself, "That first incident in the book--what happens because of that?"  and then, in turn,  "What does that cause to happen?"

Even more important, ask yourself, "What couldn't happen? What is the outcome that my protagonist never in a million years expects?" (These are the "buts" that Parker and Stone talk about.) Hit her with a big, fat "but" and watch her squirm and struggle and burn down to her truest self trying to cope.

The stuff you've brainstormed comes in handy here because gives you all kinds of possibilities, but you need to select the possibilities that fall along a causal chain. Don't let yourself get so enamored of this really cool scene that you torque your plot around to accommodate it.

Because the true super-structure of any story is the chain of causal links that a combination of expected and unexpected yet completely logical events that draw your reader along like they're on a train that's gathering speed with every chapter and no way to get off.

Unrelated note: I just received word that my manuscript, Demon's Wager (formerly title Demons Don't) has made the final round of the RWA Golden Heart contest in the paranormal category. Winner will be announced at the end of July at the RWA conference in New York. Prayers, positive energy and crossed fingers all welcome!

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Truth About Boobs

My 11-year-old granddaughter hates to go to sleep. She says she has nightmares. She's been this way since she was a toddler and over the years I've grown accustomed to having last-ditch conversations aimed at keeping her out of bed just a few more minutes. Here's last night's entry:

"What are you wearing?" she asks, coming into the computer room where I'm trying to finish up some paperwork.

"Pajamas. It's what people wear to bed when they don't forget to pack them." I raise my eyebrows to make a point, but she's staring at my chest.

"What are you looking at?" I ask.

"Why are your boobs so big?"

"Because I'm busty and curvaceous. Also, carrying an extra pound or two."

She frowns judiciously. "But why are they so low?"

I snort out a laugh. "Gravity. That's what happens when you get old."

"Eww." Her face is a mask of disgust.

"And the older you get," I go on, "the worse it is. On some women, they hang there like sacks." I cup my hands at waist level to give her the idea. By now, I'm cackling like a hyena. She is totally and utterly horrified. "And it will happen to you, too. This," I gesture toward my perdition-bound breasts, "is your future."

And she thought she had nightmares before.

(Image courtesy of Dream Designs at freedigitaldownloads.net)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fiction Friday: What to Do, What to Do?

This week I printed off copies of my Demon's Wager manuscript and passed them out to the writing group I've been part of since 2002. They'll need a month to read and review, so it's time to move on to the next project.

I have two new stories in mind, plus two more old manuscripts that early readers have asked me to finish. By which they mean, go back and rewrite with actual plots.

All four of the projects interest me and each has its own argument for being my next endeavor. (Why don't I work on two or more? you ask. Because I barely have enough short-term memory to keep one set of characters in my head, much less two or three. Seriously, try walking around with an entire town in your brain. It's not easy. And the more stuff you carry around this way, the less likely you are to remember things like "turn off the oven, dinner is ready.")

So I thought maybe I'd do an informal poll and see what you Raisin-ets think sounds interesting:

The candidates are:

1) Jephthah's Daughter--historical YA
Seventeen-year-old Lucy Johnson wants to be a newspaper reporter, but Angus Hay, owner/editor of the Hinckley Gazette, believes women belong in the home--or the school or the flower shop, anywhere but his newspaper.

Pros: Lucy is, of all the characters I've ever written, hands down readers' favorite. The background event, a massive forest fire that destroyed the town of Hinckley, MN in 1894, is fascinating. Plus, a lot of the work is already done.

Cons: Every attempt I've made to change the book so that it has a plot has resulted in changes to Lucy that make her less likable. And it's been ten years since I did the research.

2) Demon's Design--paranormal, second in the series I've dubbed Touched by a Demon.
Asmodeus runs DemSec, the satanic bureau in charge of outfitting demons for Aboveworld assignments, but he wants more--to be second-in-command to Satan for all of Hell. So he takes on a mission to corrupt and destroy Zora Neal.

Pros: If any agent/editor shows an interest in Demon's Wager, there's a good chance they'll want a series, and if they want a series, they'll want the second book soon.

Cons: I have no idea who Zora Neal is, other than the fact that she has two moms who are anthropologists and think her new boyfriend would make an excellent research subject. I have even less idea what would make an up-and-coming young techno-demon abandon the pleasures of Hell for a short, messy life on Earth. And I know from painful experience that having God and Satan as secondary characters is a huge challenge because it's so tough to get anything past them.

3) Widow's Peak--suspense thriller
Julie Pontrain is a woman-in-hiding from her abusive husband, Kyle. Kyle wants her back--along with the $3 million she stole when she took off. He plants a video, purporting to be from a department store security camera, of an unknown woman beating a young child. Close-ups of the woman in the video are engineered to look like Julie, and the media goes crazy: Find This Woman. Rick Porter is a radio shock jock in Boise, IA who has a personal vendetta against child abusers. He's determined to see the anonymous mother located and jailed.

Pros: Like Jephthah's Daughter, early readers still bug me to finish this one. It's a fun story that could really benefit from all the stuff I learned in McDaniel College's Writing the Romance Novel course. Plus, a lot of the work is already done.

Cons: Julie ranks second on the list of all-time most unlikable characters I've ever created. And, if I ask my writing group to read this sucker even one more time, they'll commit hara-kiri.

4) To the Bone--women's fiction
When telemarketer Adrianna (Adie) Phelps applies for a job in Corporate Sales so she can rescue her home from foreclosure, they turn her down as too homely. But after she wins an extreme makeover in a Hollywood contest, she returns home to  find everyone treats her differently, including her high school sweetheart husband.

I'm not even sure who the antagonist is in this one--Adie's husband, Pleasant, who had his reasons for marrying a homely woman, or her boss, Dick Wolf, who refused to hire her.

Pros: I already love Adie and Pleasant and I'm really intrigued at the idea of exploring how we, as a society, feel about beauty.

Cons: Women's fiction is a lot harder to sell than romance.

So--what do you think? If you found all four of these in a bookstore, which (if any) would you buy?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Fiction Friday: Holding Out for a Hero

I've been working on this novel, currently (and I hope finally) titled Demon's Wager, for nearly three years.

If you're already familiar with the plot, skip to the next paragraph. If not, the premise is that God and Satan decide to revisit their wager over free will. They've tried this bet twice before, once with Adam and Eve, once with Job, so the score currently stands at 1-1, Satan's been pestering God for another shot, but for the past 4000 years, God had steadfastly refused. Now, for his own inscrutable reasons, he agrees to go another round. He selects Dara Strong, a widowed nurse who runs a free clinic, to represent him, Satan chooses a demon named Belial, famous for the three snares he uses to trap humanity--weath, fornication and a little something called "corruption of the sanctuary."

A big part of the three years I've been fooling around with this thing was spent on Dara, trying to figure out how to craft a character who represents Good without making her such a goody-two-shoes I couldn't stand to read back my own dreck. Belial, though, was easy--evil, gorgeous, charming, powerful.

Or so I thought.

When I turned the book over to my beta readers, everybody was fine with Dara, but their reactions to Belial ranged from lukewarm to downright cold. The recommendations were inconsistent--make him darker, make him nicer, make him initially meaner, but more redeemable, and I-don't-know-why-but-I-just-don't-like-him.


Finally, my sister Lee (who's suffered through being my beta reader for three novels now) managed to put her finger on the core problem: he's a wimp. After that first shock of realizing that she did not love my guy the way I loved him, I really looked at the book and she was right.

He was a weenie.

How the heck did that happen? How did I take a guy who makes Christian Grey look saintly and turn him into a wuss?

In the first scene God, Satan, Loki and Zeus are playing poker in the Ninth Ring of Hell. Belial is also at the table. As originally written, Belial makes a smart remark, which pisses off Satan and things escalate from there. It's a funny setup, but it's got a fundamental flaw that I didn't recognize till Lee helped me see it. Because his initial motivation is fear, it sets the throughline for the entire novel as fear. All the escalations revolve around fear--he's afraid of being cast into the larvae pit, he's afraid of losing his long-awaited promotion and eventually he's afraid of being cast into the Lake of Fire and destroyed.

From a technical standpoint, that works because it ramps up nicely as his fear increases.

From a build-a-hot-hero standpoint, though, it doesn't, because fear isn't sexy. At the risk of sounding sexist, it might work if the protagonist was female, but in a guy? No way.

As I was mulling all this over, I picked up Naked in Death, the first in the J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) futuristic crime/romance novels. The hero in those books, a guy singularly named Roarke, is seriously hot. What makes him hot? He's gorgeous (check), wealthy (check), not-completely-nice (double-check) and, above all, powerful (no check).

At which point I realized I need to revamp the entire throughline of Demon's Wager, starting with scene one.

So that's how it's going for me. What's happening in your writing world?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Fiction Friday on Monday: Doing My Happy Dance

Over the weekend I learned that I finaled in the Diamonds in the Desert contest sponsored by the Desert Rose Chapter of the RWA.

What this means is that my novel, Demon's Wager, will be critiqued by Brenda Chin of BelleBooks.

Doing my happy dance.

(BTW--if you don't know Alex Boye, check him out.)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

50 Shades of Gimme a Break: Movie Edition

If you want to see a really excellent, well-reasoned review of this movie, check out Billy Merritt's Living the Romantic Comedy blog.

Since you're here instead, I'm just going to share my favorite moment from the movie and let you judge for yourself.

The Setting: The Red Room of Pain--Christian Grey's "playroom."

The Setup: Christian has just buckled a mostly naked Ana into leather cuffs and notched the attached carabiner into a hook set into a metal frame. No, she's not, like, hanging by her wrists or anything. Her feet are solidly on the ground.

The Scene: He slides off her last remaining article of clothing, her panties, holds them to his face and breathes deeply.

I think it was supposed to be erotic, but instead it just came across really pervy, like he handcuffed her so he could steal her underpants and sniff them. I mean, I know a woman who divorced her second husband when she caught him doing that with her teenaged daughter's undies.

There's been a lot of furor around Social Media World about how Christian and Ana have an Abusive Relationship and how this Sets a Bad Example for Young Girls and Completely Misses the Point About What a Loving Relationship Really Is.

And I'll give you all that, although I think if we're going to stop young women from watching movies that romanticize dysfunctional relationships we should also ban young men from watching movies that glorify war.

Anyway, my two cents is, if you're looking for a movie with a laugh-until-you-pee-your-pants funny scene, you could do a lot worse than 50 Shades.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Dysfunctional Relationships, Automotive Version

As a couple of people suggested on FB yesterday, the one of the springs on the garage door is broken. The Overhead Door guy won't be out till Monday. In the meantime, my Subaru is being held captive.

This is clearly not my fault, but all Old Dog says is, "You broke the garage." He holds up two fingers in what is NOT a peace sign. "Twice."

I have an alternate theory of the crime.

I think the garage is getting even.
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