The nuts-and-bolts of writing, the part that gets you paid and lets you make a living at the thing you love.

This is the sixth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Just Happened? – The Moment Before

This part is essential for an actor, as it determines his character’s state immediately before the scene starts. Does he come in calm, cool, and collected, or does he enter in a rush, frazzled, beside himself. The moment before matters. It’s vital. It determines the audience’s first glimpse of that character in that particular scene.

But what if you’re a novelist? Does the moment before matter for your characters on the page?

Maybe it matters more than it does to an actor.

The Moment Before Can Be Told

For an actor, the moment before is only shown through the lens of behavior; the audience will never see it, unless it’s from the scene immediately preceding. For a writer… ah, for a writer the moment before can come alive on the page.

Remember, the unique strength of prose is that it reveals the characters’ inner lives. Their internal voices. For a writer, their characters’ moments before not only can be told, those moments must be told for the narrative to make sense.

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. You know the apparent event, the actual event, the environment, a relationship, the conflict, and now you give your hero a moment before. She’s just been evicted. She’s effectively homeless now.

Would that change the way she approaches the conflict? Absolutely, desperation makes people do odd things. Would being evicted change the way she approaches the apparent event? Of course, maybe she now thinks she has nothing to lose… or, maybe she’s already lost too much and needs to re-think things.

The Resolution Of A Scene Leads To The Next Moment Before

This only stands to reason, but so many writers forget it. No matter how the particular scene you’re writing ends, it’s the moment before for the next scene. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as it were.

In our example, let’s say our hero musters up the courage to go through with it, and tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country with their son. How does the husband react? Not well, obviously, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. But say he threatens the hero, tells her that she can run but she can’t hide. He’s going to find her no matter what.

What does the hero do next? Whatever it is, it’s going to be with that threat hanging over her head.

Of course, the resolution of the scene for the ex-husband is also his moment before his next scene.

Next time: we’ll put it all together.

This is the third of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Where Are You? – The Environment

The environment for the scene is the set dressing. This includes the stuff your characters can touch, like tables, chairs, rocket ships, guns, salad forks, powdered wigs, piles of severed limbs, etc. etc. etc.

The environment also includes the stuff your character can’t touch, like the wind, or darkness, or humidity. Or the seething emotion of a crowd about to turn into a mob. Or the gentle, welcoming smile of a grandmother.

In our birthday party example, your character probably is going to see a cake, some decorations, maybe some presents, and other people gathered around. But a birthday party in a bowling alley is going to have a very different environment than one on a billionaire’s yacht. Think about the fixtures and furniture you’d see in each place, aside from the cake and presents. Think about the people in attendance. It’s the same event (ostensibly) but the environments are completely different.

Story Drives The Environment

If your story is a hard-boiled noir, the hero probably won’t be seeing any androids or Jetsons-style moving sidewalks. By the same token, if your story is a high fantasy, your hero probably won’t be watching TV or driving a car.

Your story will have tropes, it’s inevitable. That doesn’t mean that tropes are necessarily bad. Used properly, they can give your reader something to latch onto, a familiar entry point. A lonely lakehouse, for example, would be right at home in a romance. It could also be the setting for a horror tale. The rest of the environment fills in the story. A romance would have sweet carvings of initials on the boathouse; a horror story would have a charnal-smelling basement where muffled screams echo at night.

The story you want to tell will determine your environment.

Environment Drives The Story

And yet… as you move along in your story, the environment has a lot to say about the direction your characters might take.

In our birthday party example, aside from the cake, candles, presents, and attendees, the event takes place at a Roaring-20s Gatsby mansion. So there are idle rich, and servants, and opulent appointments, and maybe a live jazz band. And maybe your hero hates her party and hates everyone there, but somehow finds a kindred spirit in the hip, dropout drum player from the band.

Well, now there’s a story. Rich socialite, grubby jazz musician, 1925, too much champagne, negligently unguarded revolvers… the environment has just moved the plot along.

Put The First Three Together

When you determine the apparent event for your characters, the actual event, and the environment, you’re well on your way to constructing a good, meaty scene.

Only three more Ws to go.

This is the first of a 6-part series on the W’s. This is a foundational tool I learned as an actor that’s become my go-to as a writer. I use the Ws for every scene I write, every time.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

WHAT Is Happening? – Apparent Event

The Apparent Event is not the set dressing. That’s the Environment. The Apparent Event is what someone looking through a keyhole might see going on; what’s happening in a very broad and obvious sense.

For example: a birthday party. To Western eyes, at least, every birthday party follows a certain pattern. Just think of all the YouTube videos you’ve seen of a birthday party: if you turn off the sound, the scene could be set anywhere in the world, there’s nothing unique about candles on a birthday cake to tell you where in the world that party’s taking place.

Another example: bad news in a doctor’s office. Same thing, if you turn off the sound on any bad-news scene, you can still tell immediately what’s going on. Doctor comes in, hesitates, patients looks on with hope until she realizes that the doctor’s not going to have good news. Shake of the head, sincere look, tears.

A third example: being called into your boss’s office. The worker’s at his desk. The boss appears over his shoulder. Some brief words. The boss returns to her office. The worker hesitates – is it good news or bad? – then follows.

The Apparent Event Grounds The Action

When you set the apparent event – and all scenes must have an apparent event – you immediately have a handle on what’s taking place. You can then move your characters around inside that event as you see fit.

If the scene’s at a birthday party, for instance, you know the beats of that process. Your character will (probably) know the beats of that process too. They’ll react to what’s going on according to the other Ws – see the list above – and to their own nature. Do they hate birthday parties? Love them? Resent the people attending?

You Can Subvert The Apparent Event

What does this mean? Sticking with the birthday party example, suppose you follow the regular beats of a birthday party, but we find out the birthday ‘cake’ is a vegetable concoction instead of devil’s food chocolate. And suppose your main character only discovers the old switcheroo when she’s handed a piece of the broccoli-beet cake.

In that example, your apparent event has changed from ‘birthday party’ to ‘terrible birthday party the main character never expected.’ We’re still not into the actual event, or even the environment (aside from the specific about the cake), we’ve just subverted the audience’s expectation of what the event really is. This is perfectly acceptable. Just not every time.

How quickly should you move your story along? That depends, what kind of story are you telling?

I think the biggest structural mistakes I see in writers’ work is the wrong pace for the material. You need to pick your pace as carefully as you pick your scenes and your characters.

A Big Story Needs A Fast Pace

Let’s say that, for some reason, you’ve decided to write the next ‘War and Peace.’ That’s a huge story, and, full disclosure, takes its time like a stoned sloth staring at wallpaper. But it’s not the 19th Century and you’re not Leo Tolstoy, your writing needs to move faster than his did.

A big story is going to have a lot of characters, and a lot of plot points, and a lot of incidental characterization and detail. You absolutely cannot take your time with that kind of story. You have to hammer it out, rapid-fire. Get it done.

Imagine you’re explaining your story in detail to an interested party. Imagine also that you can see their eyes start to droop. You’re losing them. Every part of your story that you’d gloss over for the purpose of keeping them interested you can probably lose from your first draft. If it’s not vital to the ‘and then…’ part of storytelling, dump it.

A Smaller Story Can Go Slower

Notice I didn’t say ‘less dramatic’ or ‘less important.’ Instead of ‘War and Peace’ you’re going to write the story of a man’s slow failing and transformation as his marriage dissolves after the death of his only child.

That’s some serious, serious storytelling. Heart-wrenching drama that will probably make your reader cry. But it’s not a ‘big’ story. You can and should take your time with this kind of story, because the meat is in the characters’ internal voices, and in their sad, inevitable interactions with one another. There’s no war or peace with this kid of story, no tales of sacrifice and heroism, just the very real tale of one man’s misery. Take your time.

Know What Kind Of Story You’re Telling

I’ve seen people with big, big, stories spend far too much time on their characters’ internal lives, while outside the world is ending. Maybe you can pull that kind of juxtaposition off, but you probably can’t. Big stories mean big choices, and big choices mean broad strokes at the keyboard.

Alternatively, I’ve seen authors try to tell small stories with smash-cut urgency, which no one can sustain. It’s exhausting to read, and those stories tend to reach several conclusions as the author pads the word count to reach novel length.

Be honest with yourself as you plan your story. Is it big or is it small? Then pace accordingly.

Say what? Ignore Joseph Cambell? Blasphemy!
But… if you want to dispense with formula, if you want to tell your own story your own way, you’re going to have to shun the crowd and show Mr. Campbell the door.

Campbell Was An Academic, Not A Novelist

Of course saying that Campbell was an academic is soft-pedaling the truth, he was a highly-accomplished, highly-regarded academic, a teacher who later in life found his ideas embraced by Hollywood.

Did you know that Campbell wrote fiction? He did, early on in his career, but that’s not what he’s known for. He’s known for his studies in comparative mythology and the hero’s journey, and it’s his scholarly work that’s been embraced. And misued. His ‘Hero With A Thousand Faces’ book – published in 1949, let’s remember – forms the foundation for almost every big film coming out of Hollywood today.

If Campbell’s ideas had stayed academic, I wouldn’t have a problem with him.

Campbell’s Ideas Have Become Dogma

Joseph Campbell showed us one way to tell one kind of story, God bless him, but Hollywood turned that into the only way to tell every kind of story. And that’s what’s wrong with Hollywood story telling today.

The Hero’s Journey works fine for Star Wars – and by that I mean the first movie, Star Wars, not the rest of them – but with that movie’s overwhelming success, Hollywood glommed onto the formula as the surefire way to box office gold.

The fact that most Hollywood movies actually lose money is lost on those who insist that The Hero’s Journey is the One True Path. If you step back and take an objective look, using Campbell’s myth outline to tell a story about revenge, or about a love affair, or about anything other than a myth is a straight path to Hollywood failure.

Which doesn’t keep people from trying over and over again to apply a formula to the kind of success that defies categorization. As they say, there is a lot of stupid money in Hollywood.

Mediocrities Write To Formula

Notice I didn’t say ‘unsuccessful mediocrities.’ There are some very, very successful folks – monetarily speaking – churning out very, very formulaic, very, very stupid stuff. You could become a one-percenter doing very, very bad work. But you probably won’t.

Your story needs to spark wonder in you. It needs to make you eager to tell it to other people. It needs to get you excited. Writing to a formula won’t do that at all. Especially if the formula originates with bean-counters trying to factory-produce financial success. If you get to page 50 in your manuscript and you turn to a checklist wondering what you need to include and which story beat comes after that, you’ve lost. You’re never going to sell what you’re working on because you don’t believe in it. You’ve become an assembly-line worker instead of a writer.

Here’s the one storytelling formula you absolutely must know, embrace, and practice: Beginning – Middle – End. Everything else is optional.

This post isn’t so much about the content of your writing, or about technique, it’s about your environment. Believe it or not, your environment can make a world of difference to your creative output. Pay attention to it.

Whatever Space You Have, Make It Your Own

I’m lucky, I have a house with a spare bedroom that I’ve turned into my office. I have a desk, and a desk lamp, a nifty computer, a crazy-expensive office chair, and walls painted a soothing maroon. This is where I write.

But I didn’t always have this. I have written on planes, on trains, in ratty efficiency apartments, in hotels, even outside on a porch. The one thing all these environment have in common is that I took a little bit of time to make them my own.

Wherever you write, even if it’s temporary (or especially if it’s temporary), take a few minutes to rearrange things. Move a chair around, clear off the coffee table, vacuum the carpet, close the blinds, place your laptop just-so… whatever it takes to announce to yourself that this is your environment and this is where you write.

When I had roommates, I didn’t have any permanent writing space. So every time I needed to write, I set up my space. This also let them know that I meant business. It’s a psychological crutch for you, too, kind of like putting on your golf shoes before you head for the links. ( I imagine, I don’t golf, but you get the idea ).

Your Chair Makes A Tremendous Difference

I know, it sounds like grandpa advice, but it’s true. Don’t shortchange yourself on a chair.

If you have a permanent writing space, get yourself the best chair you can afford. You’re going to spend a huge amount of time at your desk, in front of your computer, and you need to take care of your back and shoulders. You don’t want to cripple yourself for your art. And, if you think of the money you spend vs. the amount of time your butt’s in that seat, even the most expensive chair will be very cheap on a per-minute basis.

If you don’t have a permanent space, creating a comfortable chair is part of claiming your space. Believe it or not, a beanbag is often a decent solution. A kitchen chair is usually not. Yes, if you have to set up in the dining room you have to deal with what you get. But if that’s your situation, please work to make the chair better for your back. Kitchen chairs and dining room chairs might be sturdy, but they’re not designed for you to sit in them for any period of time longer than a meal.

Remember, if you do it right, you’ll be writing for the rest of your life. Take care of your body like you take care of your mind.

Let There Be Light!

I cannot stress this enough. Turn on the lights. Please. You’re a human being, not a troll under a bridge, darkness is not your friend.

I’ve seen people working in darkness, with the only light coming from their computer. This is SOOOOOOOO bad for your eyes. Don’t do it. Whatever your environment, turn on the lights. If you have to, bring in a light from somewhere else and plug it in.

Don’t Snack ( At The Desk )

Sacreliege! Snacking while writing is how we know how far we’ve gotten. Half of a pound bag of M&Ms means we’re almost done with a chapter, right?

If you have snacks – or, God forbid, meals – at your writing desk, you’re blending two things. It’ll be very easy to get into the habit of eating ALL THE TIME while you’re writing. If you’re lucky, you’ll be writing a lot, which means you’ll be eating a lot. A LOT. Which means you’ll get fatty, fat fat. And at your age that’s not charming, it’s unhealthy.

I do snack. Probably too much. But I do it in front of the TV like regular folks. No food allowed in my office, only drinks. When I’m working it’s all business. Pleasure, like eating, is for other parts of the house.

Your goal as a writer is to get published. Probably. If you’re one of those people who writes solely for love of the craft, then more power to you. You’re a better man than I. Most of you want to see your name on the shelf in a bookstore, though.

It’s difficult at best, nearly impossible at worst. Your inclination is to try to write for the market, to try to guess what agents or publishers want to see and give them that.

Don’t do it.

Publishing Lead Time Is At Least A Year

It’s the Internet age, you say. Things move at the speed of cat memes. If the hot thing right now is sparkly vampires, then you’re going to write the best damn sparkly vampire story you can, so you can dip your ladle into the river of money that is publishing.

Despite what you may have heard, or thought, or felt in your bones, publishing is still a very plodding industry. From the moment a publisher accepts your manuscript, you have at least a year until publication. Sometimes two years. That sparkly vampire story on the shelves now? It got the green light twelve to twenty-four months ago.

What’s Hot Now Is Cold To Agents And Publishers

By the time you – a publishing outsider – notice a trend, that trend is already old and stale as far as the publishing insiders see it. They don’t want your sparkly vampire story, they’ve already seen thousands of them in the past two years. Your attempt, no matter how well-done, isn’t going to rise to their notice.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a chance your story will break through. Just like there’s a chance you’ll win the lottery if you buy a ticket twice a week. But you’re probably not that lucky.

Writing For The Market Is Cynical

I know. A cynical writer. What a concept…

But seriously, if you try to write for the market you’re not going to do your best work. If you’re passionate about your project that will show up in your finished product. If you have a story you absolutely need to get out of you and onto paper, your readers will be able to tell. Your work will reflect your sincerity.

If you’re not all that into sparkly vampires, and if you think deep down they’re stupid and wrong (I mean, what kind of vampire is sparkly in the sunlight?), your vampire story is going to be terrible. Not to say that sparkly vampire stories aren’t terrible from jump street, but yours will never rise above the level of background noise. You’ll be spending a lot of effort for what is almost guaranteed to be zero return.

Don’t Be One Of A Crowd

Writers who try to write for the market think they’re the only ones doing so. This is the curse of a solitary passion. You never have office buildings full of writers who talk about writing during lunch breaks. We almost all work alone, and we think the ideas we have are unique. Fresh. Never been done.

If you try to write for the market, you’re just one more hack trying to cash in on a trend. That’s not to say there aren’t very successful hacks cashing in every moment of every day. If you want to be one of them, step up your game. Get good at it. Lead the pack of hacks. Be the alpha hack.

If you want to do good work, if you want to have your contribution be worthy and noticed and appreciated, leave the market-chasing to the desperate writers. The ones who have no confidence in their ability to tell a story. The ones who need someone else to tell them what a good story is. There’s plenty of those writers out there. Don’t join them. Hoe your own row.

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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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Last time (The Contract pt. 1) I went over the negotiation process, or at least how I approached it for my contract. TLDR – know what you’re getting yourself into before you sign, and get all the help you need to reach that understanding.

I signed, they signed, we now have a legally binding document that outlines our obligations to one another as we go about getting my novel published.

Sweet. But… hold on a second. I wrote the novel, isn’t my part in this exercise pretty much over? Not even close. If you want to get your book in someone else’s hands – and have them pay you for it – then finishing a novel is just the very first part. Your publisher is putting themselves out for you, especially if you’re a first-timer, and you need to realize you have obligations too.

Marketing

In the contract, my publisher outlines very specifically what marketing they’re going to do for me. For example:

  • Provide PR leads
  • Promote my book on their website and on social media
  • Outreach to influencers
  • … etc

The contract also outlines what marketing I agree to do. For example:

  • Build a website (where you are right now)
  • Journalist and influencer outreach
  • Contacting reviewers and responding promptly
  • … etc

This is a lot of promotion and glad-handing, and we haven’t even gotten to the editing process yet! Hokey smokes, can’t I just write stuff?

Nope. Being an author means, in the parlance of our times, you gotta hustle. My publisher will do everything they can to make my novel a success, but I can’t just lay back and wait for the cash to roll in, I have to take an active role in my own success. I have no problem doing that, I actually like it, but if you’re the kind of person who really would rather not, you’re going to need to get over it. If you want someone to buy your book, they need to know that it exists in the first place. Like it or not, you’re your own marketer.

Editing

While you’re revving up your marketing engine, you’ll also be going through the editing process. I’ll get into more detail as my novel reaches those stages, but in the contract there is section dedicated to the editing process. This is perhaps the most collaborative section, since the publisher and the author need to work closely on edits. The publisher protects itself, however, by outlining that when the author is unable or unwilling to make edits, the contract terminates immediately.

Honestly, I’m behind the publisher on this one. If you’ve gone through the effort to find this work and execute a contract to publish it, and the author digs in his heels and won’t make changes to the manuscript to make it fit for publishing, they’re not really someone you want to work with anyway. As I’ve outlined elsewhere, authors used to working alone might have a problem becoming part of a collaboration.

The contract also includes sections for royalties, payments, subsidiary rights, sequel rights, controls, translations, termination, auditing, etc. If you really want to go over any of that stuff, let me know, I can make another post about it.

The process starts in earnest tomorrow. I’ll fill you in as it moves along.

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In the beginning there was the contract. An agreement, a meeting of the minds, a legal document that outlines the responsibilities of both parties regarding that agreement. Offer, acceptance, consideration. But what the hell does all that actually mean?

When I got that emailed contract I was almost there. Just a hair’s breadth away from my ultimate goal of getting my writing published and available for people to purchase. Now I had to read this document, digest and understand it, and then determine if I agreed with it. Even though my novel is about a murder case, I am not myself an attorney. But I know people who are. I sent the document to my friend, also named Don, to get his professional opinion.

The reason you send legal documents to an attorney is because, as your advocate, your attorney reads that contract with an eye to any potential harm to you. In my situation, Attorney Don pointed out a certain section where I would be surrendering all rights, and two other sections that needed clarification on fairly technical legal specifics. Attorney Don made the corrections he felt were necessary to protect my rights, and I sent his suggestions (three total) to the publisher.

Within half an hour the publisher roundly rejected the corrections.

Among the things that fill my day, I am a mediator, I help other people resolve their disputes. I can recognize when someone is negotiating from a disadvantaged position, and in this matter I was that guy. I had never been published before, and this offer was a close as I’d ever gotten. They had what I wanted, and if I walked away chances were good another opportunity wasn’t going to come along. The worst case scenario for them, if I didn’t sign, was that they moved on to the next author; the worst case for me was going back to Corporate America with its enforced mediocrity and 10 Federal holidays a year. I absolutely had to sign. Right?

Not so fast. People make bad decisions when they’re rushed. That’s why those timeshare sales places are terrible, they want you to buy TODAY. I mulled my options over: sign a document that was almost but not quite what I thought it should be, or refuse to sign it because it wasn’t precisely to my liking. The details are unimportant to this story, the point is I had a choice to make, one I’d seen many, many people face during my time as a mediator. When is ‘good enough’ not really good enough? When do you walk away?

I did sign. I decided that the details of the contract meant the publisher was as invested in me as I was in them. Aside from a few quibbles about wording where I didn’t get my way, I believe they’re approaching it as a partnership, just as I am. In it together, which, honestly, is a fairly freaky proposition for me (see Publishing vs. Writing).

More on the details of the contract in part 2.

Signing a contract checklist:

  • Get an attorney to read it. Yes, this will cost you money.
  • Take your attorney’s suggestions seriously. They’re your advocate, they’re looking out for you.
  • Read the entire contract yourself. Understand every part of it. You will probably need your attorney’s help here.
  • If your attorney suggests changes, understand what those changes will mean for a revised contract.
  • Recognize your position, there’s always a strong side and a weaker side. Understand your side when you negotiate.
  • Negotiate in good faith. That means you don’t have a hidden agenda and you’re not trying to cheat, swindle, or screw over the other side. You’re going to have to trust the other side is approaching it as honestly as you are.
  • When you have a final proposed contract, read and understand it thoroughly. Do not let anyone rush you. If you’re pressured to sign before you’re ready, walk away.
  • After you sign a contract, make a list of everything you’re obligated to do. Post this list prominently, and add any dates to your calendar. Structure your work towards these obligations.
  • If questions arise, talk them through with the other party. Over-communicate. Bad things happen when people don’t talk to each other.

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