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That’s the name of the first chapter of David Gerrold’s book Worlds of Wonder, which I bought from him personally at I-Con last weekend. We also traded books, a copy of my St. Martin’s Moon for his Little Horrors. He may read mine (I suspect lots of authors trade books with him), but I’m already reading WW. I read the bio at the front, and noticed that he failed to mention a book that I had on my shelves, a Star Trek novel called The Galactic Whirlpool. I got it signed the next day, of course.

This chapter is more in the way of an introduction, some biographical notes and a discussion of the basic nature of stories which will underlie the rest of the book. So it’s a bit unfortunate that the definition of a story presented in this chapter is not one I entirely agree with. “A person has a problem, he explores the problem until he understands it, finally he makes a choice (usually a difficult one) that produces a transformation of understanding and resolves the difficulty. So a story is about the experience of problem solving and the lessons learned.” (p. 4)

I’m not sure I agree with the whole ‘makes a choice’ bit. Sure it feeds into the whole idea that the hero makes his own destiny, chooses his course, etc. But I like to think my heroes will do the right thing once they know what the right thing is, so making the choice is pretty much a given once a proper understanding has been reached. That’s why they’re heroes. (Which may be why we’ve started calling them ‘Main Characters’ or ‘Protagonists’, rather than heroes. ‘Hero’ has a certain moral component to it that those other terms don’t.)

The problem for a hero is understanding the issue. Sometimes the hero has to make a difficult choice, relinquish some cherished belief, in order to achieve the necessary understanding, but once he has it he’s good to go. Which may be why my stories have so many characters in them who aren’t the hero, because watching a hero do the right thing is dull. Maybe frenetic and plot-heavy, but worth little in terms of character development.

Or it could be Mr. Gerrold’s science fiction background talking. The understanding the hero arrives at could be a theory, like all theories in need of verification. The difficult choice could be the Hero’s decision to test that theory with his own skin, and perhaps those of his group.

On the other hand, regarding his remarks on the benefits of enthusiasm over rage as a driving force behind the writing, we are in much more agreement. I’ve never written from rage, so I have trouble imagining how that would work for me. Enthusiasm, however, I have a lot of experience with. I wrote the equivalent of 8 novels thanks to enthusiasm, in the fanfiction realm, which also served to fulfill my million-word apprenticeship, about which more in some other post.

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I was talking to a librarian just yesterday, and I gave myself the idea of a story with no hero. The more I considered the idea, the more I wondered if I was not already writing such stories, even the short ones, where you’d think there wasn’t enough room for tangled skeins of story lines.
I started out writing fantasy novels, with the premise of a man who was an incarnation of the Holy Will being called on by the Gods to do the work they needed to have done. That first story, Unbinding the Stone, was mostly about him, my Hero, but even in that book he had companions who played a significant role in how the story played out, although they tried not to do everything. I think that first book was the last book where I had a hero.
I traded that role for a host of MCs, all of whom were necessary to the resolution of the story, none of whom were sufficient to the resolution of the story. While Tarkas, hero of the first book, played a dominant role in the sequel, A Warrior Made, I can’t say that the story would have been resolved without the efforts of all the other MCs, each on their own arcs that all came together at the end. I think that book was the last where I had a villain.
Instead I have situations, often fantastical or supernatural in nature, as in St. Martin’s Moon, in which people act according to their natures. Some, with a bad nature, act badly, but the main characteristic of the villain is lacking. They are not plotting, nor are any of my other MCs planning their reactions to what he does. They aren’t necessarily reacting to him at all. It’s the situation that matters. Simply defeating the bad-natured MCs won’t resolve the situation, which is what needs resolving if the story is to have a satisfactory conclusion.
I don’t know if there is a technical term for this type of story. Do you? Most genre fiction I’ve read has a villain, with henchmen and a plan, and a hero who works to stop that plan with the assistance of any number of lesser characters. I’ve never heard of a genre novel without a hero. Have you?

I recently re-posted a story of mine on the http://www.fanfiction.net site, called ‘When Ellie Found Out‘. I had posted it before, as a prequel episode to the first season of my series called nine2five, which I had originally posted as a series of standalone episodes. When I decided to gather all the chapters in one place, I decided to append them to WEFO rather than create a new file, which I now think was a mistake. The funny thing is, that even though it’s a reposted story, I’m still getting comments on it, from people who didn’t see it before, or who just like to comment. Some of those comments take the form of, “This is so much better than what they did on the show”, which is a comment I got fairly often.

What they did on the show (in this particular case) was separate the leads, i.e., take a romantically-involved pair and place them apart, either physically, emotionally, or both, so that their struggles to be reunited will fuel the story for as long as the storyteller can make it. (What I did in WEFO, which was prone to backstory and exposition, was tell about how they got married, so that no one would separate them.) As story-telling mechanisms go, separation of the leads has a lot to recommend it, otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often as a short-cut to ramp up the intensity of the drama, which is where the problems arise.

Tropes like this one, or others like ‘endangered children’, or any of a number of forms of ‘intolerant ideological fanaticism’, are like story drugs, artificial stimulants that keep a story moving but without any real story in them. They are, in effect, pure drama, with no other story elements to speak of. What ends up happening is what you’d normally expect to happen when someone takes stimulants without food, the story keeps going and going until one day it keels over dead. I watched the first episode of season 2 of Glee and was immediately repulsed by the blatant self-sabotage of all the lead characters, which they would no doubt spend the rest of the season trying to repair. The last episode of season 1 of Newsroom did it for me, with all sorts of romantic partners making all sorts of wrong decisions. Tom Clancy used to use them a lot, but at least in his stories they weren’t critical elements, so the stories didn’t die from them.

They aren’t always drugs, of course. If the separation of the leads or the endangerment of the child are built up to with proper character and story logic behind them, then they’re perfectly fine mechanisms. In the canon fiction I was revising, the leads were separated very blatantly and artificially, and the show suffered almost immediately as a result. Many addicts of the first two seasons stopped watching halfway though the first episode of the third, as I did with Glee. Worse, when the showrunners realized how much they’d botched things, they went too far in the other direction, creating a full season of feel-good episodes to counter the previous season of angsty episodes, a heady dose of too-little-too-late, in my opinion. (I eventually separated them in my story as well, but only after a season and a half of development, first his and then hers, and a plot twist that made the separation logical, necessary, and most important, temporary.)

It’s very important to be wary of tropes. They combine story-logic with storyteller logic, which is why they’re useful, but they should never be used in such a way that the the telling of the story trumps the story itself (unless that’s the point of the story, in which case have fun). In my opinion, authors should be invisible in their stories, while using a story drug to force it into a preferred path is as diametrically opposed to ‘invisible’ as it’s possible for an author to be.

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.

Anyway…

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.

A lot of authors feel daunted by the first blank page of a new story, putting down that first sentence that will anchor the first paragraph that anchors the first chapter. I know that right now I have one last chapter to write for the current episode of my fanfic series nine2five, and I am feeling a bit daunted because I haven’t got a strong idea where to begin it.

This is where story layering comes in. Basically, it means start with one element of your story, it doesn’t matter which one. It could be your strongest story element (mine is dialog) or a hook from the previous story/chapter, anything that you feel most comfortable with, to just write something down. You can’t edit what ain’t there.

In my case I often start with a great swatch of dialog, two characters having a great time advancing the plot with witty banter and repartee. (The below examples are from St. Martin’s Moon.)

“How would you have felt about a ‘small vacation’, or a ‘leave of absence’?”

Like this one.

“You would have spent the whole time laying about, nothing to do, dreading the day you had to come back, obsessing about the very thing you were supposed to be getting over, through, and past. You resign, the future is open-ended. You need a new job, something to pay the bills, like but unlike the job you’re best suited for.”

“Watching a friend turn into ice crystals.”

“That’s not the job.”

“Oh, it’s a perk?”.

“It’s a hazard! Bing-Bang knew it and accepted it. So did you, once. Do you think she’d want to see you like this?”

“Better than me seeing her like that.”

Then, three pages later, I’ll look back at what I just wrote an see that it has no action at all, not even dialog tags. This is probably where I learned my dislike of dialog tags. Rather than write ‘he said’ all the time, I just fill in the missing action around the dialog, making sure the reader knows who is doing the talking by also showing what he is doing. The only time I’d ever use a dialog tag is when I couldn’t use the action do it.

How would you have felt about a ‘small vacation’, or a ‘leave of absence’?”

Like this one.

The colonel’s face was stone, intent stone, but stone. “You would have spent the whole time laying about, nothing to do, dreading the day you had to come back, obsessing about the very thing you were supposed to be getting over, through, and past,” he declared flatly. “You resign, the future is open-ended. You need a new job, something to pay the bills, like but unlike the job you’re best suited for.”

“Watching a friend turn into ice crystals.” Marquand could barely be heard by anyone but the cooling tea in his hands.

“That’s not the job,” said Pierce quickly, his voice full of the bitterness lacking in the other man’s.

“Oh, it’s a perk?” Ah, there’s the passion.

“It’s a hazard!” Pierce managed, just barely, to keep from shouting. “Bing-Bang knew it and accepted it. So did you, once. Do you think she’d want to see you like this?”

“Better than me seeing her like that,” Marquand countered.

So that’s my second layer. A third layer might be the reactive text, showing what character A is thinking or feeling about what character B has just said or done. Or it could be character A thinking about what he himself is doing. My least favorite layer is the part where I have to put something down as the author that no character is saying/thinking/doing.

How would you have felt about a ‘small vacation’, or a ‘leave of absence’?”

Like this one. Marquand shook his head mutely. The thought of such a suggestion, today, such a… trivialization of what had…he couldn’t speak through the anger. Impossible to imagine what his reaction would have been then. They wouldn’t be trying to get him back now, for sure.

The colonel’s face was stone, intent stone, but stone. “You would have spent the whole time laying about, nothing to do, dreading the day you had to come back, obsessing about the very thing you were supposed to be getting over, through, and past,” he declared flatly. “You resign, the future is open-ended. You need a new job, something to pay the bills, like but unlike the job you’re best suited for.”

“Watching a friend turn into ice crystals.” Marquand could barely be heard by anyone but the cooling tea in his hands.

“That’s not the job,” said Pierce quickly, his voice full of the bitterness lacking in the other man’s.

“Oh, it’s a perk?” Ah, there’s the passion.

“It’s a hazard!” Pierce managed, just barely, to keep from shouting. “Bing-Bang knew it and accepted it. So did you, once. Do you think she’d want to see you like this?”

“Better than me seeing her like that,” Marquand countered. His voice sank into a mutter. “We were going to ask to be partnered next rotation.”

Story layering is clearly a form of story editing, and for those who prefer to write fist and edit later may not be of much help. My own writing style is to start from the beginning, and then every so often reread what I just wrote to come up with ideas for what I should write next. During this reread I will often have thoughts about text that should be in there that I forgot to include the first time, quite often flavoring pieces that don’t have much impact on the plot but enhance the presentation of the character. My personal favorite one of these occurred to me when writing St. Martin’s Moon. As my hero was being chased by one werewolf into the arms of another, the two monsters start threatening each other, rather than pay attention to him. I was on my fourth round of edits when I reread this scene and the thought popped into my head:

They weren’t social creatures. Nice to know, but it sucked to be the one to find out.

Which not only suited the character perfectly, it was an important plot point later on. The best part about this is that it’s often cyclic, as new layers inspire you to add yet more layers. It’s important to not get so lost enhancing what you’ve already got that you lose track of where you want to go. The important layers will feed into each other and propel the story. Others are just lily-painting and should be left for the end.

Unless they’re really, really good.

One of the things that keeps me writing is when I get caught up in one of those moments when so many parts come together it’s like the universe is yelling at me to write the damn story already! They’re not moments I get a lot of, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a pantser most of the time, or in spite of it.

I only get it with scenes, or short stories. Novels give me too much time to play with an idea and find a way to make it different by the time I get there, I guess. Short stories can be written very quickly and let me stay focused on the main thought.

The first one I got as part of a contest, where I was the prize. The lady who won was supposed to get written into a short story by me. (There were actually 10 authors and 10 winners.) To this day I don’t know if what I did was what my publisher wanted. I got some life details from this very nice lady and proceeded to write an entire story around her, with her as the major character.

The reason is the set of details she sent me, plus the fact that I was not writing the story just to please me, as I usually do, but I was writing a story for her, always a great motivator to me. I’m much more likely to do something for someone else than I am for myself. Once I got the details my mind just exploded in a flurry of story logic, trying to figure out ways to link them up into a coherent and consistent story with a fantasy style. The most important details were the bearded dragon lizards. This led me naturally to think of dragons but in some classically me non-standard sort of way, which led ultimately to me turning most of the great cliches of fantasy literature upside-down, like elves.

Especially elves.

This was okay, since the story was about her, firstly, and secondly, I used the cliches the way cliches should be used, to fill in the background as economically as possible, and only step forward when they had something new to contribute. Which was important because I had so much else to do with this story. I was awake for two hours that first night, plotting out most of the story for the first time ever. It took only a few weeks to write and arrived early as my story ‘Off the Map‘, which for some reason is only available through Fictionwise and BN.com, which bought Fictionwise.

The second time was two weeks ago, when my only favorite TV show ended, with a major storyline unresolved. Naturally, this led to story-logic inspired chaos in my head. Instead of someone’s life details I had everything I knew of the show. Instead of a promise and a person I had characters I cared about and an unresolved storyline that would not leave me alone. The result was the same, even more strongly, since I was trying to complete something that was already shaped by story logic, which most lives do not seem to be, for some reason.

‘Off the Map’ is a 10K-word story that took me about two weeks to write. ‘Chuck vs. the Epilog’ is a 7K-word short story that took me three days to write. The story gripped me not only in the planning stages, and yes, I did plan this one rather completely, but also in the execution. I was seeing a TV show and writing down what they said and what they did. I was hearing the characters talk and trying to make them all sound like the characters I loved. It was a totally unique story, from my perspective, with minimal introspection. TV isn’t good for that. Everything I would normally put into the character’s perceptions of their environment, or in their thoughts, hopes, and dreams, now had to be shown on stage and in the flesh. This story is my fanfic ‘Chuck vs. The Epilog’ and I honestly feel it is one of the best pieces I’ve ever done, even if a lot of the backstory is left out since I assume most readers know the show.

I felt for that one brief moment the way gods must feel all the time, and I really hope you who read this get to feel that way at least once in your lives because it’s really cool, and terrifying, to be so carried along by something so much greater than yourself.

It was a glorious explosion that I hope doesn’t happen again any time soon, because I’m really tired, and I have stories to go before I sleep.


Unbinding the Stone

A Warrior Made

A Warrior Made

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St. Martin’s Moon

St. Martin's Moon

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Ghostkiller

Chasing His Own Tale

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Struck By Inspiration

Struck By Inspiration

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Steampunk Santa

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Bite Deep

Christmas among the vampires!

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Cyber-pirates. Sort of.

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Off the Map

Reality TV...without the Reality!

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