I was just reading some of the comments from the Query Shark’s recent rant on pitch sessions, when I came across one that I was, well, unhappy with. It’s a fairly common piece of writing advice, especially on the subject of query letters and synopses, and yet it’s also a bit misleading. The advice is to always let the agent/editor/reader know what is at stake for the hero. Kind of hard to object, really. Obviously something has to be at stake, a story requires conflict and something to win or lose. My problem with this advice is that it sort of implies one thing. “What is at stake”, not what things are at stake, not to mention the possibility of multiple stakes, which may or may not have anything to do with each other.
You can have the domino set of stakes, where the hero has to make bargain A to achieve Objective B, and then has to make Bargain C to achieve Objective A, and so on, a mounting collection of debts and obligations that become increasingly unlikely to ever be paid off in full. And they often aren’t. Stories of this type usually but not always have some ‘villains’ who end up losing whatever they risked to the hero. I can’t imagine how such a story would be pitched, unless the whole tangle is simply glossed over somehow, if that can be done without losing the point entirely.
But the title of this post isn’t ‘domino stakes’, so let me move on to the layered stakes I was thinking about, which, not surprisingly, are the sort of stakes my hero faces in my most recent novel. As I claimed (and feel free to disagree with me, it’s not like I’m any kind of an authority) in previous posts, plot point one is not necessarily related to the inciting incident of the story. The multiplicity of stakes reflects this. The II can have a very small stake which is sufficient to set up the hero for PP1 (note the clever use of shorthand notation so that I don’t have to keep writing ‘inciting incident’ and ‘plot point one’ all the time), but goes no further, in which case PP1 would need a totally different stake. This can of course be done well, but there’s not necessarily any link between the first stake and the second. it feels…accidental. I have a bias against accidental plots. I write by following the story and character logic, so to me each step should in some way proceed from the previous steps. An accidental plot shows the hand of the author, when to my mind the author should be invisible.
So my preference for layered stakes should come as no surprise. The first stake, whatever makes the II inciting in the first place, does not end with PP1. PP1 adds to it, layering on an additional bit of difficulty to the original task, but it doesn’t end or replace the original task. There is only one stake, but it gets bigger and bigger as the book progresses. John Smith’s sense of guilt is what sets in motion his drive to help the ghost of Francis, and that service to that spirit resolves the story, in spite of all the additional layers and complexities that have been discovered along the way.The difficulty here is keeping an eye on the original stake, and knowing how and why it grows at each step.
Last week I was celebrating the completion of my first ever synopsis, which was true but perhaps a bit premature. Unlike my fanfiction chapters, which go out into the world unedited and unrevised, this little piece needed a lot of very tiny modifications. Somehow, I managed to write a single page, using the standard formatting guidelines, and have it come out as over 700 words, when normally it’s 450-500 words. So even though an agent might be happy it was a single page, they might still be annoyed at the length. So for the last week I’ve been revising the damn thing, removing unnecessary verbiage, condensing, trimming the passive constructions, all that good stuff. At the moment it’s at 550 words, and I think it’s probably about as short as I can make it without sacrificing content.
I wrote the synopsis based on a model from another blog post. The inciting incident is not the starting point of that model but it’s in some ways the most important, as it shows the MC (introduced in step 2) reacting to a change in his situation (described in step 1).
Plot point one is the next stage after the inciting incident, but it’s not always easy to call it a separate stage. In the Star Wars model, plot point one is the destruction of the farm while Luke isn’t there, freeing him up to follow Ben. The carnage that began the movie has reached as far as it can, with no further clues to lead it onward, The inciting incident thus directly feeds into the first plot point, like a minor surge that propels a bit of flotsam out of range of the tidal wave coming in right behind.
It doesn’t have to be like that. While the inciting incident of Ghostkiller is the hero’s awareness of his own failure, the first plot point has almost nothing to do with that sense of guilt. Trying to follow the Star Wars model was actually quite unhelpful in the writing of this synopsis.This could perhaps be a bad thing. I don’t know how connected the two are supposed to be, I simply know that in my story they are not very.
Ghostkiller, like all of my stories, is character-driven, rather than plot-driven, so the connection between the two is mediated through the character rather than the plot. The opening sequence shows John at work, mainly because the actual business of Ghostkilling needs to be demonstrated, since no one would have the necessary referents. (Star Wars is basically a standard epic adventure, set in space, but it’s the knights and the swords and the quest that are the story, not the lasers and hyper-drive.) John’s feeling of guilt is a direct result of the side-effects of his work on him as a person, as is the first plot point. It’s not nearly as neat and tidy as a plot-driven synopsis would be. (I think. I’ve never written one.)
The problem comes from a multitude of characters, each with their own plot, each responding to the actions of the others, in their own particular ways. I could describe the same story in many different ways, depending on which character viewpoint I took. (Try watching a movie called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the story of Hamlet told from the perspectives of some minor characters.) My stories usually start with one person, so I know who the primary player is at all times, but that’s just me.
It would have helped me a great deal to have known this before I spent a lot of time trying to warp a character-driven story to fit a plot-driven model, but I don’t know of any character-driven models out there. Which is why I’m writing one, I guess. What’s the character equivalent of a plot point?
I just wrote my very first synopsis. It’s my fourth novel, but I was never able to write a synopsis before this, so…yay, me!
Of course, this comes after a year of contemplating the damn story, writing and rewriting the damn query summary, or query hook, or mini-synopsis, or whatever the hell it’s called. Really, there should be a more unified vocabulary for this sort of thing. Or maybe there is and I’ve just outed myself as never having attended a writing symposium of any kind.
Anyway, after a good chunk of forever spent thinking and rewriting, I finally just sort of dashed off a query thing pretty quickly, which surprised me a bit. I found an agency that looked interesting, but their submissions page mentioned a synopsis, in addition to the query, and I’d never written one of those. But hey, I just wrote the query hook/pitch/middle/whatever, how hard could this be? Well, as it turned out, quite a bit harder.
First I wrote a pretty detailed precis of the story, 3000 words worth. Which could be what I needed. Or not. Some friends of mine on Facebook recommended a one-page approach, and that was a good deal trickier, even though I was pointed to a very nice little blog post on the subject. But even with a model to follow it still took me two days to get something I don’t hate.
The trickiest part, since it colors everything that follows, is the section called the inciting incident, which is the part of the story that sets the guy off from whatever life he’s got into the adventure to come. What is it, and what action does it incite? I confused myself by thinking that my hero had to be pursuing some epic goal, which he wasn’t. I thought maybe he had to want something grand and glorious, which he didn’t. The most epic adventures are those where the hero is just doing some little thing that he knows ought to be done, and then the consequences pile up.
So in my latest story, the hero isn’t trying to solve a murder, or save the world, even though he ends up doing both. When the police come and bring him to the murder scene, and start asking him questions, he is ashamed. He knows nothing about the man’s life. He feels guilty, and he wants to correct that. What took me days to figure out was that the initial motivation didn’t need to be epic, it just needed to be great enough to make him move. When good characters move, epic events follow.
Of course, something has to be epic, and somebody has to do those epic things, but I don’t think it has to be only or always the MC. (There’s probably no more epic moment in Star Wars than Ben stepping back and letting Vader strike.) I sometimes feel like my stories don’t have a plot so much as 2 or 3 co-plots, with some number of different characters each pursuing their own goals and their individual stories intersecting. My last three stories have been like that, so maybe it’s not an accident after all.
Pretty hard to synopsize, though.
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
But in case you’re looking for something else to do, here I am. I did my classic Christmas film watching yesterday, with Die Hard, so today I saw some other things. In particular I watched the first Hulk movie, by Ang Lee, an underappreciated little gem in my opinion. I very much like the visual effects, the way they slid panels around to indicate collective viewpoints on a single scene, or motion from one point to another. Really good stuff there. I also liked the way they tied the Hulk issue to his psychological problems with his father. Certainly the way they had the Hulk come about was so unlikely that some sort of determinism had to be at work. I have some vague feeling that at some point it was stated that someone was in fact manipulating Bruce’s choice of career, specifically to get him into his father’s footsteps, but now I don’t know where I saw that.
One thing I wasn’t so appreciative of was an early scene, where Bruce and Betty meet in a hallway for the first time on screen. She starts out talking about a presentation they have to do, which almost instantly becomes a pointed barb about his inability to respond emotionally. She apologizes, and them almost immediately shoots a second arrow his way. This insanely OOC cluster of dialog, very much in the ‘tell, don’t show’ mode that we are cautioned to avoid, is then followed by the nefarious word, ‘anyway.’
I feel like that literature professor in Stranger Than Fiction, who says he taught whole classes on ‘little did he know’. In my case it would be the word ‘anyway’. This word, to me, usually signifies that the author wrote himself into a dead end and had to jump-start his dialog, which is bad enough. But worse, I find in many cases the reason he painted himself into that corner was something stupid. He wanted, e.g., to hit us with dialog that serves little purpose to the story, but instead is some ideological nut-point, badly told bit of uncomfortable humor, or a patch-job meant to cover up something missing, such as a deleted scene that would have presented the same information in a much more organic sort of way.
This train wreck, once the smoke clears, is then followed by the word ‘anyway’, to draw the curtain on the whole thing and move the story along to the next actual plot-point. This movie is neither the first instance of it that I’ve seen, or the most egregious. Off the top of my head, the one that most immediately comes to mind is a scene from a Jack Chalker novel. One character says, “I must remember to spend more time among thieves and politicians”, to which another character responds with the conversation-killing bit of wit, “There’s a difference?”, followed by, “Anyway, let’s go over our plans to…” which brings the story back to the thread it should have been following all along. (There are quite a few problems with this series, but the others will wait.)
I’m not saying that such words are useless, but the use of them should be monitored carefully, since they indicate a radical discontinuity in the flow of the dialog that cannot help but jerk the reader out of it. Are there any words that you find a s a reader that have that effect on you, or that you consciously avoid as an author?
For many years now I’ve been out there, selling books to people, through a little bookselling operation called Author Guy.
I started selling shortly after my first novel was published and i found out the hard way that no bookstores were interested in carrying it. It was a small press title. I wasn’t already famous. It was POD. Bookstores, like a lot of businesses, are trying to make money, which means they have to sell things. My book, in spite of being the best thing since sliced bread, was unlikely to sell with so many strikes against it. Large presses have a number of faults, but one of their benefits is their number of different parts, and connections to other companies’ moving parts. This is where the fabled ‘buzz’ comes from, as people in the industry start talking up this book or that.
There was a nice little publishing movie called ‘If You Believe’, about a woman who slips on ice at Thanksgiving and starts seeing a version of herself when she was younger, berating her for having gotten so dull and boring as she grew up. The woman worked for a publisher, and as she was helping her latest author edit his magnificent novel ‘Phooey’ she starts to get in touch with her former self. It’s a nice little movie, not great but I like it. Anyway, at the end of the movie, she’s presenting her book to the meeting and no one on her list has read it and she has to defend it as an acquisition, when suddenly someone she didn’t like speaks up from down the table, going on about how everyone in the copy room was raving and he bootlegged a copy for himself. He gets the others on the board interested, and before the meeting’s over, the chairman is saying “I can’t wait to read your new guy.” That’s buzz, or the beginnings of it.
A small press has no or few connections. No buzz. My book came out to a whimper, not even a whimper. Even worse, it was POD, which meant, to the bookstores, that it couldn’t be returned. Unfortunately, as my publisher discovered, they could indeed be returned. There’s nothing about POD that says it can’t be returned, that’s really a bookstore excuse for not buying POD. What POD really means to a bookstore is that individual copies of the book are expensive, which means they don’t make as much of a profit as they want. Large presses can print up large quantities, at low cost to them and maximal profit to the store. A paperback costs about a buck and a half to print, the publisher sells it for five and the bookstore sells it for fifteen.
So, to make a long story less long, I ended up creating my own bookstore. I started selling my books at craft and gift fairs, but I eventually turned it into a genuine business, a portable bookstore called Author Guy. (I originally wanted Books and Beasties, but the lady in the office where I was registering didn’t like ‘Beasties’ as a word, so I chose Author Guy instead, after a character in a story I’d just written, named Author Guy. Other characters were Fearless Hero and Evil Enchantress. The only one with a regular name was the Damsel in Distress, named Loretta, but I digress.) Author Guy exists to sell books, mostly my own but I carry all the books my publisher makes so a lot of others as well. Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts don’t need me, but these other guys are as unknown as I am, so I gave them a chance too. It helps that my publisher has the same taste in books that I do, strongly character-driven stories, so I could read all these books in genres I don’t usually read and enjoy them. More important, I could talk about them to customers, since none of the titles or authors were known to them. One of our slogans is “If you’ve heard of it, it’s not here.”
And now Author Guy is on the web, too. AuthorGuy.biz is live online, with all the books and deals we’re known for, but now available to people who don’t happen to be standing right in front of me. I even have my own little icon, a piece of art that I commissioned years ago and never used before.
Ever since I finished my fanfic series I’ve been trying to catch up on other stories I’ve been interested in seeing but put off. I didn’t want to see other things while writing in the Chuck vein, sometimes I have trouble getting back into that mood.
First off, naturally, was to review and re-edit my last novel, Ghostkiller, which I was able to finish mainly because of Chuck (I alternated writing chapters) but I see now wasn’t done very well. The story is complete, but much of the ending is in dialog form, with only enough narrative material to connect the dots. But it’s worse than that. I spent the last several days revising a single chapter, which is top-heavy with some backstory. I had to rewrite several times before I finally got a chapter I liked, and now I’ve moved on, but that doesn’t mean it’ll get easier from here.
That’s for my mornings. In my afternoons I’ve been watching DVDs of some shows I discovered a while back. I saw seasons 1 & 2 of Castle a while ago, and discovered my library had acquired seasons 3 & 4 while my back was turned, so I got those and we plowed through them. More focus on the relationship angle, which was okay by me. I was less than thrilled with the mystery-of-the-week format of the first two seasons, one of the reasons I was willing to wait so long to see the rest. The manipulations were more obvious, though. Beckett retcons herself, stating she has walls she’s built up, which is the first I remember hearing of them. And there are only so many times you can play the sudden interruption card, but practically every start of an intimate conversation ended with “Beckett, I got something…” I much prefer the scene in Notting Hill, where the rather brainless reader is walking in on the Important Conversation and Hugh Grant tells him to go away. But there was enough of it that when she finally did choose him over the job it wasn’t totally out of left field. But S4 only showed the beginnings of that in the finale, they could still get hit with a rocket launcher on the way to bed. Michael Dorn as the therapist was good to watch, his role had more weight than Christopher Lloyd’s therapist in Chuck, which was a wasted opportunity on several levels.
And then I finally got started with Dexter. I admit the main reason I want to see it is because of Yvonne Strahovski’s appearance in season’s 7 & 8 (another film I got from the library is The Killer Elite, because she’s in that as well), but the show seems to be highly developed over time, and I’ve heard many good things about it, so I’m starting at the beginning. I found the S1 DVD set at BJs and picked it up, but waited until now to open it up and watch. Now that is a wonderful show! Dexter as the outsider, commenting on human foibles as he tries to copy them, while at the same time so blasé about his own hidden predilections. I don’t think the show would work without the star. Playing a man who’s playing a man isn’t at all easy. The ending was a little bit off, though. Too many sudden reveals diminished the dramatic impact. Harry is supposed to be this compassionate man who cares for Dexter, but there’s an older boy in the trailer who gets ignored? What? The killer makes mistakes because he’s in a hurry, but no one’s close to catching up to him, and they’re not even really looking. Deb is unconscious and misses the revelation that Dexter is a serial killer, but wakes up and instantly twigs to the fact that Dexter stops the killer from killing her. Huh? The conclusion was lacking from a plot perspective, but the impact on Dexter was still worthwhile, thanks to Mr. Hall’s acting, and that’s the central focus of the show so I’m good with it.
Other high points for me were Officer Doakes’ treatment of Deb Morgan. He chews her out when she screws up, but is also free with praise when she does good work, as does Angel. I liked the way he does what Dexter does at one point, but gets away with it thanks to official connections (and defends Angel to boot, who had to choose honesty over loyalty), which could be some foreshadowing for Dexter. He could easily have been a caricature, as could Lt. Laguerda, who’s extremely petty and vindictive, but does redeem herself at times. She deserves what she gets, but she’s a better character at the end than she was at the beginning.
I can’t see myself writing fanfics for either of these shows, though. Okay, back to chapter 19…
It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally beginning to move on from my epic retelling of Chuck’s third season, a 190K long, 20 episode, 80 chapter monster that consumed my life for more than a year. I finished it. I made an omnibus version, which I PDF’d and sent to a few people who asked for it. Then I read it and re-edited it and re-PDF’d it. I still find myself checking the special mail folder I set to receive mail from fanfiction.net, hoping that someone would have left me a comment. That’s a very addicting side effect of that site, getting feedback on what you wrote and put up there, pretty quickly. For my books I have to go searching for any comments people may have left about them, and that isn’t as often as I’d like.
I really need to start posting on Twitter and stuff, doing more blog posts here. I tend to get very single-minded when I have a project, I focus on it and not much else.
But eventually the PDF was as finished as two rereads could make it and then I put it away, and started watching Castle. Not that I like Castle all that much, but I’d already seen the first 2 seasons and discovered my library had the second two on the shelf, so I figured, “What the hell.” I have to say I’m liking these second two much better. I can’t say I hated the first two but I don’t really remember them all that well, which is indication enough. I do wish they’d get the romantic angst stuff out of the way, though, and move the story onto some other topic. I like the way they expanded the roles of some of the other players, and brought in a different Captain for the precinct.
I can’t help but think of Bones, though, and how they changed her boss from one season to the next. I can’t really say, since I don’t watch TV much at all, but it does seem like these shows are starting to cannibalize each other. I don’t care when the story is good. Seeing a little shout out to some great moment in another show I liked is kind of fun, then. When I can predict the entire course of an episode because it looks so much like some other TV show or movie, well, not so much.
But Castle is for the afternoons. In the morning I reread Ghostkiller, and try to add little bits of text here and there. I plowed through the last several thousand words by alternating with my Chuck stories, and I have to make sure they don’t read like that. When I’m in a hurry i usually focus on the dialog, and let the story just flow as characters talking to each other. I have to go back over the text to fill in the action and movements and stuff, which is what I’m trying to do now.. So far I’ve added about 1500 words, enhanced the backstory, etc. It’s actually quite a delicate business, since sometimes it’s adding three words to a line, and other times it’s rewriting 5 paragraphs to make the story flow work better.
I sometimes wish I had a beta-reader, though, I don’t know how much is really needed and how much is me being paranoid. One of the better aspects of my Chuck writing is that it pulled me into areas I don’t normally write, made me practice different styles. At the end I had to do an entire action-packed episode for my season finale, when my group, fractured into multiple groups, nonetheless manages to come together and bring doom to the villains, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It”s not a style I do much, and I had to figure out a lot about pacing to make it work. My ending for Ghostkiller needs some of that same attention. The climax is just a little too breakneck.
I’ll get around to doing that nine2five prequel. Just not now.