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DonHartshorn.com

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Tag: Writing Page 1 of 2

I Agreed To Do What? – 5 reasons to panic

This morning I agreed to take over a podcast for my publisher.

Yeah.  I’m going to be a podcaster.  About writing.  I know, it’s weird for me, too.

Way back in January I agreed to be part of an authors’ support group my publisher was putting together.  I’m not much of a joiner, but I realized that if I were uncomfortable with being part of a group like that, I really needed to ignore my anti-social tendencies and join up.  So I did.  And it’s become an invaluable part of my week.  God help me, I understand now that our authors’ group is a great idea.

Which is why, today, when several of us asked if we could use the group time to learn more about the craft of writing fiction, our publisher mentioned that would probably be a topic better left to a podcast they had going.  He also mentioned that they hadn’t done anything with it in a while, and maybe one of us would like to take it over?

That’s when I became Arnold Horshack.*  I volunteered like someone had offered me money to eat barbeque, the good kind, the Texas kind, not your Mephis or South Carolina stuff.  At the time, it seemed like a good idea.  A great idea, in fact.

Now?  I wonder what I have gotten myself into.  Here’s the portion of the podcast I’d be responsible for, according to my publisher: Finding new podcast guests, Inviting guests to be on the show, Scheduling interviews, Hosting the show and recording interviews and keeping a minimum 4-week backlog of pre-recorded shows, Contacting guests once the show goes live, Creating a show calendar/schedule – 1 per week, or more?

Yikes!  This is the real deal, I’m responsible for stuff now.  The actual work is something I can easily do, it’s just talking on the phone and writing stuff down.  I’m good at both those things.  And yet… there are five things I’m in a bit of a sweat over.

1. I’ll have to cut back on the milk.

I love milk.  And ice cream.  And cheese.  But all those things make you phlegmy, which cuts down on the resonance of your voice, and really does affect the quality of any recording you do.  Usually you have to cut back on dairy products two or three days before any performance, so this is something I’ll have to plan for.

2.  I have to earn my acting chops all over.

I used to be an actor, back when I lived in Pasadena, CA.  I made good money at it and everything, a for-real career.  But I haven’t acted professionally in eight years.  The techniques are still inside me, but it’s going to be a bit of a process to get comfortable again.  I’m pretty sure I’m gonna choke at least once.  Which, truth be told, is probably a good reason for people to tune in.

3.  I have to convey information accurately and in an entertaining manner.

This is where having been an actor comes in, I have techniques for being heard and understood.  I also did years of comedy improv, so I know how to listen (that’s the point of comedy improv, if you didn’t know, to improve your listening skills as an actor).  But being a good interviewer/ podcaster is not necessarily the same skill as being a good improviser or actor.  A podcast has to be informative AND entertaining, which means I need to step up my game.

4.  I’ll have to plan, and stick to the plan.

Normally this is not a big deal, I plan all day every day, both in my pay-the-rent work and my writing.  But when I’m performing, sometimes – I’ve been told – I go off-script from time to time.  I hope that’ll do me good when my guests give me some sort of left-field anecdote, but it could also do me poorly if I get bored and decide to entertain myself.  Stay tuned to see how this part goes.

5.  I’ll have to trust others want to do quality work too.

I like to work alone.  It’s one of the reasons I’m a writer, I get to control everything.  But with this podcast, since it’s my publisher’s, I have to give up total control.  I mentioned above the things I’d be responsible for, here are the things they’d be responsible for: Video / audio editing, Writing show notes, Creating images for blog posts, Creating and scheduling the blog posts. That’s a large part of the work, but it’s also where the character of the podcast gets created.  Working as an actor means working as part of an ensemble, so relinquishing total control is something I’ve done before.  Just not with stuff I do in my own office, at my own desk. We’ll see how it goes.

*  a VERY old reference to a VERY old and terrible TV comedy from the 70’s.  This was back when we had three commercial channels and PBS, we had to watch whatever was on at the time.

 

 

 

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Character – Motivation

I thought I’d discuss character motivation, because that’s such a frequently misunderstood concept.  Motivation is not the thing that gets your characters moving within your plot – that’s incentive – it’s the drive that gets your characters out of bed in the morning.  But it’s not usually passionate or all-consuming.  It’s boring and workaday, and your task as a writer is to instill a different motivation in your characters.

Previously, I’ve discussed Character – Position vs. Interest and Creating a Scene with the Ws.  A character’s motivation runs parallel to both these things.  You’ll see writing advice that tells you a character’s motivation is a conscious thing, like it’s something they think about every moment they’re awake.  Nobody thinks about motivation all the time, not even your noblest character.

Think about your own motivation, what makes you get up in the morning?  If you work for Corporate America, your motivation is probably very basic in Maslow’s hierarchy.  You need to make rent, buy food, and pay bills.  This isn’t a motivation you think about a lot, but it certainly comes up when the ‘downsizing’ emails start flying.  Unless you’re very lucky, in Corporate America your motivation almost never rises to self-actualization.  But what if you work for yourself?  Same thing, you’re working to pay the bills.  Maybe you’re working at something you love to do, maybe you’re just good at it, but your work probably doesn’t rise past ‘Safety’ in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The same is true of your characters.  They lead regular lives, for the most part.  Until your plot starts, when their motivation should change.  But even with a new, more urgent motivation, the old motivations are still there, and possibly even more powerful.

Let’s use Batman as an example.  He’s just a man, with a man’s courage, but he has an epic motivation: make Gotham the kind of city where no little kid ever has to see his parents gunned down.  He’s got a long row to hoe there, Gotham sucks.  But that’s why he does what he does, so no other eight-year-old has to endure what he did.

Is that his motivation all the time?  Yes.  And no.  If that were his sole motivation he’d probably end up a billionaire social worker, using his money to put orphans through college and rehabilitating crooks.  But he also has a secondary motivation, to stop crime that’s happening right now.  And revenge, there’s a strong streak of vengeance in his work.  And justice, of course, he wants justice too, after all the punching is finished.

That’s a conflicting mish-mash of motivations: societal change, crime fighting, vengeance, and justice.  And trying out cool toys, that’s a large part of what Batman does.

Do your characters have multiple, conflicting motivations?  Of course they do.  In my novel I have a character who is very motivated to fight the good fight for the little guy against the system.  It’s what drives his career, even if most of the time his work is pedestrian and low-paying.  But he’s also very strongly motivated to be right all the time, even to the point of cutting ties with his brother for ten years.  Those two motivations  wage war inside him although nothing changes until outside elements (the plot) force him to reevaluate those motivations for a third one: finding the truth, even if the truth shows him to be wrong.

Motivation is not all-or-nothing, not for real people and not for your characters.  Any all-consuming passion usually turns out to be cartoonish.  Your characters should have many things that motivate them, that also drive your plot forward.

 

 

We Have a Cover!

My novel has a cover!

I had absolutely nothing to do with this, it was all my publisher, and they really hit it out of the park.  Take a look at the study:

TheGuiltyDieTwice_Study22

 

Doesn’t that make you want to see what’s inside?  So much better than I could have done.

I’ll have a publication date soon, I’ll share as soon as I know.

Dev Edits – Final Take

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It’s been a week since I turned over my pass at developmental edits on my manuscript, and I’ve had some time to digest the experience. It was, in turns, both infuriating and gratifying.

Infuriating: ‘You use this word too much to describe this character.’
How dare you question my authorial voice? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: do a simple count of the offending word to find that, in fact, it’s in every description of that character.
Oh yeah, I see what you mean now. That is annoying. You’re right, I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘You state your theme very plainly several times when you don’t need to. Let the narrative state your theme for you.’
I would never state my themes outright! Do you think I’m some kind of hack? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the offending passages out loud to myself.
Holy cow, I really did exactly that, three different times. You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘This bad guy turns good guy, and it doesn’t feel authentic to the character.’
My characters are mine alone to manipulate! I am their God! I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the last scene the character is in and get the same feeling.
That character’s wrapped up in an inappropriate little bow, isn’t she? You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Overall, I’d give it 10% infuriating, 90% gratifying. When I found it infuriating I was really being defensive and blocking myself from the process. If I took a deep breath or two and listened instead of reacting, I discovered that my editor was trying to make my manuscript the best it could be. He’s got skin in this game too, you know? He’s not making edits to piss me off ( or not just to piss me off ), he’s very invested in putting out a great product.

Authors, when your time comes and you have your first work with an editor, embrace the process. Listen to what your editor’s saying; they’re not always 100% right, but they’re almost always right. They do this all day, every day. Trust them.

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The Guilty Die Twice

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My novel has a new title!

As is fairly common, my publisher retains the rights to re-name my work. This is actually a good thing for me because:

  • They have a finger on the pulse of the market and can come up with a title that will grab eyeballs and sell.
  • I suck at titles.

At first the new title didn’t send me. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. Over the past week, however, I have come to like it. It’s got a noir feel to it, and while my novel is decidedly not Chandleresque, in the plot there are a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous, so I think the title is appropriate. Maybe even a little foreshadowing.

My publisher came up with a new title, sub-title, and series title. Yes, this is a series, at least three books. I’m working on the outline for the second book right now.

Title: The Guilty Die Twice
Sub: A Legal Thriller
Series: Brothers in Law Series

Since dev edits are done, we’re closer to a publishing date. I’ll keep you posted on when that might be. A few more months at least, I think.

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Dev Edits – FINISHED!!

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I have finished my round of Developmental Edits!!

Yay me!!

This is the first round of edits, from my editor to me and back again.  I’ll have more feedback in a later blog post, but I figured I’d let everyone know that I completed this major first milestone.  Only four or five more to go.

Also: my publisher has come up with a different title.  I have some opinions on that, too.  More to come.

It’s been two weeks of work, and I’m going to go outside now, to refamiliarize myself with fresh air and the sky.  More posts this weekend.

 

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Dev Edits – trying not to be touchy

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I’m about 50 pages into the developmental edits, and I have a few thoughts.

  1. I’m far less prickly about this than I thought I’d be. Not that I’m entirely cool with it, that’s a little much to ask, but I’m not as precious with my writing as once was. There have been a few points so far where I was thinking ‘come on, now… really?’ but once I got over myself those edits made the narrative stronger.
  2. I’ve encountered a few dev edit comments, and they’ve been right on. That is, they’ve made the story tighter, made the words hang together better. I haven’t yet found a comment that I disagreed with. But I’m only 50 pages in.
  3. What copy editing has happened has been strictly according to established style manuals. I have to confess, some copy edits feel like flattening out my own style – I’m not a newspaper reporter – but I’m letting them go. They stick out to me like a neon sign, but more than likely no one else is going to notice them.
  4. From time to time, I’m being ‘handled.’ That is, my editor will leave me a compliment when he wants me to change a error he feels is sloppy and unprofessional. For instance: ‘Reword: kind of a cliché. Your writing is normally so good and so original – so I’d hate to have it marred by such a common turn of phrase.’ Translated from Touchy-Authorese this means ‘Seriously? Put some effort into it, don’t be a hack.’ All right, I get it.
  5. My years as an actor gave me a pretty thick skin for notes (thanks, June!), but that doesn’t mean I’m invulnerable. I’m learning to let it go, though, and trust that the guy who pays his mortgage by editing books knows what he’s doing. Kind of like they’re trusting me to know what I’m doing.

My main takeaway so far? This really is a team effort. I do need an editor, which means I’m going to have to accept that his goal is to make my book the best it can be. Even if that means losing most of my precious, precious ellipses…


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Dev Edits – my first feedback

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Publishing News: I got the developmental edits back this morning! Now I have something I can do! Yay me!

I you have a moment, you can review developmental edits.

My publisher returned to me three items:

  • Editing letter – where the editor explains his edits in general, and what he’s looking for me do with my turn at the manuscript.
  • A marked-up copy of the edited manuscript – where all the changes the editor made are highlighted for me, so I can see what he did and digest any notes he may have left in the margins.
  • A clean copy of the edited manuscript – a copy for me to perform my edits on. There are some markups still in it, but not as many as the other copy.

I read over the editing letter, fully anticipating being outraged and offended. I was not. I agree with everything my editor said, and I will fully comply with his wishes.

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that there’s not more drama here. I kind of wanted to exercise a little righteous indignation, to rage against the machine. Oh well, maybe later.

My editor has four items he’d like me to work on. In dev edits these are big-picture items, not missing apostrophes or participles dangling.

  • Ellipses – I use these to indicate hesitation and uncertainty in dialogue. My editor wants me to cut a third of them, at least. This is the part where I might get a little touchy, but if I’m overusing ellipses and they distract from the narrative, I need to get rid of many of them.
  • Over-stating my themes – Yeah. I do that. Fair criticism.
  • A big fight scene feels staged – I agree. I’ll work on making it feel more dynamic and emergent rather than long-anticipated and planned.
  • A character’s big change – my editor would like to see this character remain unapologetic and unrepentant until several books later. I agree. This character is too valuable as a foil to change so soon. In my defense, I originally wrote this book as a one-off, I hadn’t planned other books. Now that I am planning more, this is a necessary change.

I have 14 days to do my edits and hand my edited copy of the manuscript back. I am going to use every hour of those 14 days. I feel good, I think this is going to go well.

Big Plus – it looks like my editor and I are in synch. A good writer needs a great editor, and I think I got one. I took a quick look at some of his notes in the marked-up version, and, so far, I agree with them all. To quote Rick Blaine, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Big minus – I have to work in MS Word. I do my writing in Pages, not just because it works so much better than MS Word, but because in my day job I use MS products almost exclusively and I am not a fan. Bloatware. Look it up. Or click the link. So maybe this is my ‘rage against the machine’ moment. Curse you, MS Word! From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!

I’ll have more next week, after I really dig into these edits. I’m sure I’ll find some nit-picky things to complain about.

 

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Character – Position vs. Interest

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Publishing News: my publisher is still working on Developmental Edits. Also, we’ve had two authors’ support group meeting thus far. It’s going well, for a bunch of introverts talking about stuff they’d rather not. I’ll have a blog post about it soon.

This time I thought I’d touch on how I develop characters. This goes hand-in-hand with creating a scene with the W’s, but this is focused specifically on the character, rather than the character’s relationships and actions in a scene. Just as there is tension inherent in every scene, there is tension within characters, between their Position and their Interest.

So what are Position and Interest? Picture yourself in an everyday situation, like, say taking your car in to be repaired. Your mechanic tells you that your car needs a lot of work, and fixing everything will cost $2000.

  • Your Position is that you want to get out of that shop as cheaply as possible.
  • Your Interest is that your car doesn’t break apart on the highway and kill you.
  • The tension between your Position and your Interest will likely lead you to ask the mechanic to set a priority on the repairs, and tell you which ones are a major safety issue versus which ones are nice to have and can wait. You can live with a slightly-dangerous vehicle if it saves you cash in the short term.

Let’s alter that scenario slightly. Instead of taking your own car for repairs, you’re accompanying your grandmother. The mechanic tells her the same thing, $2000 to fix everything.

  • In this scenario, your Position would probably be that you don’t want your grandmother to get ripped off, but it’s also not your money she’s spending.
  • On the other hand, your Interest is in making sure she has the absolute safest ride on the road.  You love your Nana and want her to stay around as long as possible.
  • The clash between your Position and Interest would likely lead you to tell your grandmother to spend the cash – all $2000 – to make sure she’s safe and protected. Your need not to get ripped off is trumped by your more pressing need to make sure your grandmother is driving a safe car.

All your characters have the same tensions between their Interest and their Position. In my novel, for instance, there’s a main character, Sam, who’s been arrested for a murder that he may or may not have committed. His older brother is a petty criminal, and has told Sam what happens to snitches in jail. Sam’s attorney visits him and presses him to come clean about what happened the night of the murder. Sam refuses to cooperate. Why?

  • Sam’s Position: he’s in jail, without bail money. He’s stuck there for the foreseeable future, and he knows what happens to squealers.
  • Sam’s Interest: to get through another day in jail without getting beaten up or killed. He’s not telling anyone anything, even if he’s innocent.

I usually only outline Position and Interest for main characters, maybe for certain secondary characters. That guy who appears in three or four scenes to drive the plot along? He’s not important enough to warrant that kind of time or effort. His position and interest are the same: to get the main characters from point A to point B.

Do you need to state or reveal the Position and Interest of every character? Absolutely not. The truth will come out eventually, but almost never as clearly as ‘I don’t want to get beaten up in jail so I can’t tell you anything.’ Sam’s sitting in the interview room, bruises on his face and cuts on his knuckles. He’s angry and scared and trying to pretend his first time in jail is no big deal. Your readers will know.

I encourage you to think of Position and Interest in your writing, it’ll make your characters’ interactions deeper and more nuanced.

Next time:  who knows?  I have a promotion coming up to get the word out, maybe I’ll talk about that.  We’ll find out together.

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It’s Back!

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My author web site is up and running again!!  Yay me!!

Here are some lessons learned

  1. It always takes longer than you think it will.
  2. It always takes longer than you want it to.
  3. Unless your job is migrating web sites, pay someone else to do it.
  4. Don’t take too long to realize point 3, pull that trigger early.
  5. There will always be loose ends to clean up.  Make a list.

I’ll have another blog post by Friday, with author stuff.

Thank you for your patience.

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Do Not Adjust Your Set…

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This week my publisher begins our weekly author support group call.  I will detail this, because I think it’s an innovative way to build a community from people who will likely never meet in person.  If it works, maybe someone else can use the idea to their own benefit.

However…

I have to move my websites to a different (better?) server.  It’s called ‘reprovisioning’ in IT double-speak, but what it really means is ‘pain in my ass.’  This particular site promises to be very, very easy, since Automattic has offered to do most of the work for me.  But we’ll see.  I’ve been working in IT for a very long time, and nothing is ever as easy as it seems.  This week, for instance, has been ‘Get Don To Do Stuff He Hasn’t Done In 15 Years’ Week.

I’m asking you to please, bear with me.  This site may be up and down the next few days, as this moving mess works itself out.  My post about tomorrow’s meeting may be this weekend, for all I know.  Things will smooth out eventually.  I hope.

In the meantime I’ll brush up on my old MS-DOS commands, because the way things are going I’ll probably need them.

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Out Of My Comfort Zone – Author Community

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My publisher has formed an authors’ support group. They asked me to be part of it. I agreed. It’s very strange.

Let me explain: I’m not a joiner. I do my own thing, hoe my own row, tread my own path, etc. etc. I’m very used to doing things on my own and by myself. The idea that I would get together with anyone – let alone other writers – to… I don’t know… share? doesn’t sit well with me. It’s a little touchy-feely to be honest. It makes me uncomfortable even to think about, let alone do.

So I’m leaning in. I’m old enough now that I know myself pretty well, and if I’m shying away from something like this I need to shove my misgivings aside and jump in the deep end. Its for my own good.

We had our first meeting yesterday, a technical review of how the platform works and etiquette while logged in. There were writers from all over in attendance, of varying degrees of technical competence, and of varying degrees of commercial success. Lots of laptops, so I’m kind of the odd man out there, but I prefer a straight spine at a desk rather than a slumped spine on a couch. Plus, when I’m beaming an image from a desk people don’t have to look up my nose.

This group is only for clients of this particular publisher, so I can’t invite anyone else on my journey, but I’ll let you know how it goes. The idea, as far as I know now, is help with marketing and getting the word out, but also general help and support. I have no idea what that means, as I mentioned, I’m trying to get over being the lone wolf.

There’s the concept of liminality in life, acting, writing. It’s the idea that you can get stuck on the threshold (limen in Latin, for my old students) between one thing and another. This job or a better one, that romantic partner or a different one, success and failure, moving forward and status quo. You can’t stand in the doorway forever, you either have to step through, or step back. Despite my every instinct to the contrary, I’m stepping through.

It’s still weird, though.

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What To Do When You’re Stuck

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Publishing News: they’ll start on the Developmental Edits before too long. Probably next week. There’ll be back-and-forth with me for over a month on this part. I’ll let you know what’s happening and how it’s going as soon as I have news.

I recently got involved with the #writerscommunity on Twitter. I recommend it, even if you never post anything or respond or even make yourself known other than following other writers. It’s tough out there on your own, and most writers are absolutely on their own. Friends and family might be supportive (or not), but that only goes so far. You need to interact with people going through the same things you are, and modern social media certainly helps. A lot. If you’re not already part of it, get on Twitter and find the threads. You are not alone.

I noticed a definite trend in the #writerscommunity postings, of writers who are ‘stuck.’ That is, they’ve come to a certain point in their work and they can’t see a way forward. A variation on that is writers who reach a certain point in their work and realize they’ve been going down the wrong path and have to regroup and start over. I’ve been there, and I know exactly why this happens. Some of you are going to agree immediately, and some aren’t going to like this next sentence at all.

You don’t know what your story is.

I’ll try to soften this by saying again, I’ve been there. I’ve done this. You have a really great hook, or a really great setting, or a really great main character, or a really great theme. With this really great thing in mind you dive into the deep end and start writing. The problem is, you haven’t done the very basic work you need to do in order to write a book: Understand thoroughly the story you’re trying to tell.

‘I’m not a plotter,’ you protest, ‘and I don’t work the way you do. I let my story sing through my fingers on the keyboard. Don’t shackle me with your notecards and plot points and character arc notes. I do things my way.’ Fair enough, but I’m not talking about how you do your work, I’m talking about the story you want to tell.

At its most basic, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When a writer gets stuck, it’s because they’re missing one (or all) of these parts. This is the ‘and then…’ excitement you get when you tell a story to child. This happens, then this happens, then another thing happens, and then… and then.. and then…

If you don’t have an ‘and then…’ all the way to the end, you don’t have a story.

Twenty years ago (yikes!) South Park had an episode that was an indictment of the booming pre-Y2K tech bubble in the stock market. The allegory was gnomes who were stealing underpants with the aim to make a profit. The only problem was the gnomes had no idea how to connect stealing underpants with making money. They had a beginning and an anticipated end, but no middle at all.
underpants-gnomes-business-plan.png

This exact thing is happening with writers who don’t know what story they’re trying to tell. They’re trying to connect the thing that excites them – their hook, character, setting, or theme – with a finished book. They don’t understand the middle part, the actual story, at all, and that’s why they’re getting stuck, or having to rework it, or abandoning it altogether.

So what’s the fix? What do you do when this happens? You’ll have to find what works for you, but when I’m working on a story, I talk it out. I tell the story, just like Homer did 2,800 years ago, out loud, over and over and over. It helps that I live alone. Talking out the story, telling the story, helps me get a handle on it, to understand what I want to say and how I want to say it. Pretty quickly I also get to know what I’m missing. Once I know the story then I can get to the technical parts and start constructing the narrative.

Maybe next week I’ll have details about the developmental editing process? We’ll find out together.

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Create A Scene With The W’s

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Last time I described some of the tools I use when I’m outlining. I also included a list of ‘The W’s’ I got from my acting teacher many moons ago. For reference this week, I included them again:

WHAT has just happened? The Moment Before. The Characters’ emotional states.
WHAT is happening? The Apparent Event. Actions/Behavior
WHAT do you want? The Objective or Actual Event. Emotional need.
WHERE are you? The Environment. Create a setting.
WHO are you? The Characters and Relationships.
WHAT is the obstacle? The Conflict.

I came to this list as an actor, and it’s invaluable for breaking down a scene into bits an actor can use to create a believable performance. It’s also really great for a writer to get a handle on each character in a scene. In order to illustrate this point, I’ll break down one of the first scenes in Special Circumstances. From the first chapter, it’s where one of the main characters, Travis Lynch, goes to witness the execution of a man he tried to save from death row ten years earlier. While in the viewing room, he meets Christine Morton, the reporter who almost ruined his life, also ten years before.

For Travis:
The Moment BeforeTravis spent four hours driving through Texas in a car with no air conditioning in August to get to Huntsville, where the executions take place. On the way he was recognized from his disgrace ten years ago.
The Apparent EventTravis agreed to be a witness to the execution of Reilly Wayne Sutton, and act as a proxy for Sutton’s family, who will not attend.
The Actual EventTravis comes face to face with the reason for his estrangement from his brother, and with the instrument of his public disgrace, Christine Morton.
The Environmentthe viewing room on death row, where people watch the condemned die.
The Character and RelationshipsTravis has become the black sheep of his family because of his conscience and morality. He hates Morton because of the way she used his crisis ten years ago to make her career.
The ConflictTravis doesn’t want to be there, and is unprepared for the shock of watching another human being die. He also loathes Morton but needs her experience with this situation to hold it together until the end.

For Morton:
The Moment Beforeshe saw Travis Lynch walk into the one place she never thought she’d see him, the viewing room on death row. She considered leaving him alone, but her reporter’s instinct would not let her do that.
The Apparent Eventshe’s doing what she’s done many times before, being the media witness to a Texas execution.
The Actual Eventshe realizes Travis is in way over his head, and she helps him through the experience even though she knows he hates her.
The Environmentthe viewing room on death row, where people watch the condemned die.
The Character and RelationshipsMorton has the strength of her convictions behind her, and her ethic as a member of the Fourth Estate. She knows she rubs many people the wrong way, but she views her job as a public trust. She also wants to completely understand events from ten years ago, and Travis is the only one who can provide her closure on the remaining gaps. She needs to talk to him, but he’s clearly unwilling.
The ConflictTravis needs her help, though he doesn’t understand that at first and resists even looking at her. She wants to use this opportunity to cultivate Travis as a source. She also thinks she’s immune to the emotions of watching an execution, but she really isn’t.

That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? But it’s the skeleton on which I can hang the meat of the scene. This provides me relationship, tone, backstory, and conflict. I know where the scene begins and where it (sadly) ends. I know the middle part. I know how the characters are changed as a result of the scene, which then is ‘Moment Before’ for their next scenes.

These two are major characters in this story. You don’t need to go into quite so much detail with other characters. For instance, the condemned, Reilly Wayne Sutton, appears in this scene. It wasn’t necessary to define him with The W’s, because his role here is to provide emotional energy and some exposition, and then, ultimately, to die. One and done, as it were.

I hope you find this method as useful as I do. It takes guesswork and uncertainty out of things for me, and lets me focus on making the characters and their interactions as real as possible.
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Tools of My Trade

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Still no assignment from my publisher – it’s probably going to be after the New Year, I’m guessing – so I’m going to show you how I work. I promise, as soon as I get deeper into the publishing process you’ll be the first to know.

For the next part, reference the photo below. This is my kitchen table, one of the places I work. I go here when I need a solid surface, like when I’m doing my note cards. Note: do not attempt to adjust the picture, I’ve blurred the words on the note cards and my pad because I ‘m working on a sequel to the novel being published next year (spoilers, sweetie).  I’m not very far along, there are going to be a lot more of each type of card.

work_blurred

I use note cards in my plotting. Over the years I’ve found it’s easier to move things about, add, remove, and enhance. There is a method to this:

  • Red cards are definite actions, emotions, or events that drive the plot. These need to be in the story explicitly. For instance, the crime that sparks the plot, including all the details the reader discovers over the course of the story.
  • Green cards are character elements that are softer than the red cards. A character’s initial outlook, for example, or the change that the story provokes in them. These are not explicit in the story, but emerge out of it. The ‘show’ in ‘show, don’t tell.’
  • Blue cards are scene cards. The basic building block of a novel is the scene, at least the way I do it. There’s not enough room on a card to go into all the detail I need in a scene, these are really just detailed place holders. I can also tack these onto the cork board in my office so I can follow the flow of the narration. (see below for more on scenes)

The spiral note pad in the bottom left is a small pad I carry with me most places, where I write down whatever I’m thinking about the story. I do tend to repeat myself over time, so I re-read my notes probably once a week. The things that look like red, green, and blue Sharpie markers are exactly that. The black box is a note card holder. The round thing is a container of beer-themed coasters. The green things are cheap cloth place mats.

The Scene
A long time ago, in a foreign land (Los Angeles), I used to be a working actor. I didn’t get rich doing it, but I did buy a fancy convertible with the money I earned acting, so I’m ahead of 90% of working actors. I started acting because, in order to make my writing better, I wanted to know what actors did. I discovered I was a pretty decent actor, so I stuck with it, got an agent, landed some gigs, made some money. Much more important, though, was the scene breakdown I learned as an actor. It works so well I started using those elements in my writing, which got much tighter, and more emotional. It’s not a secret, so here’s how I break a scene down. From my acting teacher June Chandler*, who I’m sure got it from her teachers at her school, it’s called ‘The W’s.’ She even gave us a little business card with the W’s on it, which I still have and still refer to all the time.

WHAT has just happened? The MOMENT BEFORE. The Character’s emotional state.
WHAT is happening? The Apparent EVENT. Actions/Behavior
WHAT do you want? The OBJECTIVE or Actual Event. Emotional need.
WHERE are you? The ENVIRONMENT. Create a setting.
WHO are you? The CHARACTER and Relationships.
WHAT is the obstacle? The CONFLICT.

I’m sure any number of writing books give a similar breakdown or approach, but this one is specific to an actor navigating a scene as an individual. It’s a rubric for how an actor should break a scene down to digest it and turn those details into a performance. But, as it turns out, it’s also a very handy method for a writer to flesh out a scene, you just have to define the W’s for all characters in the scene.

Next time I’ll go through how I use The W’s to build up a scene in a novel.

* June’s amazing, and I love her a lot.  I’d take a bullet for her, and that’s not a metaphor.

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