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.

 

 

Up until now the editing process has been pretty sweet.  I felt it was a collaboration, my editors making recommendations based on their experience and their reading of what’s best for my story.  You need someone to point out your blind spots, you know?  Keep you honest.  And it was going well.

And then 17 May happened.

Houston, we have a problem.  During my regular proofread edit I came upon a ‘suggested’ change that I did not agree with at all, not in the slightest.  I felt it was arbitrary, with nothing behind it but the editor’s preference.  To make it worse, that edit changed a foundational element of my story, a main character’s reason for a decision he made 10 years prior to the story, that directly led to the story taking place.  It was like deciding that Bruce Wayne’s parents weren’t killed by a robber, they were just inconvenienced by a kindly panhandling hobo.

I fixed the suggested edit as best I could, without changing the tentpole premise of the entire story, and sent it back with the rest of the proofread edits.

On 17 May my manuscript came back.  There was a ‘plot change comment that was not addressed.’

Well… I addressed it, I just didn’t gut my story to suit someone’s whim.  To make matters worse, I got that email after a 16-hour day working the job that pays my mortgage.  The phrase ‘did not take it well’ would be something my neighbors might say if you asked them.

Now I was in a dilly of a pickle.*  Up until this very last minute, all my publisher’s suggested edits made my manuscript stronger.  This one made it much weaker.  I really, really, really disagreed with their suggestion.  What could I do?

There is very specific language in my contract that states if the author (me) refuses to make edits the publisher deems necessary, the publisher has every right not to publish my novel.  To pull the plug and never look back.  This is my debut novel, I can’t make waves, I can’t stand up and fight, I can’t adamantly refuse to change a very, very basic story element.  I have to surrender.  I have to be someone else’s bitch, or I won’t see my name on that nifty cover.

So I made the change.  23 words out of 83,204.  I tried to face down the playground bully and ended up stumbling home bruised and shoeless, with my mouth full of sand.

Am I overstating this?  Possibly.  Am I concerned that this edit changes my story for the worse? Absolutely.  Am I right now stabbing voodoo dolls of editors I’ve never met in person? No comment.

I don’t think I’m being a touchy author here.  Sincerely.  I took the notes they gave me, I made the changes they suggested, I engaged in the process fully.  I played well with others.  Until the very last day, when they wanted a major change that made the story weaker.

No, I’m not going to tell you what that change was.  When my novel is published, you tell me what the weakest part of the story is.  If it’s the change I’m talking about here, I will definitely let you know.

 

*dad joke

I thought I’d share some of what I know about storytelling, since I seem to be good enough at it to land a book deal.  At least one book deal, anyway.

I’ve had many people tell me they want to be authors, that they think they have a story to tell, but they don’t really know where to start.  I usually smile and nod and give them some sort of platitude like ‘start anywhere, you need to learn by doing.’   But that’s really just me being polite, most people who tell me something like that aren’t ready to write.  They might be ready to think about writing, but that’s not the same thing as writing, not by a longshot.

Everyone knows where to start a story.  At the beginning.  If you have trouble with that concept, sit down with a five-year-old and tell her a story.  She understands how it goes, and she’ll correct you when you get it wrong.  You start at the beginning, work your way through the middle, and finish up with the end.  Easy peasy.  Yet, somehow, when you’re an adult, you forget all the very, very basic storytelling structure you knew by heart when you were five.

So here it is, the breakdown of the story parts:

The Beginning – this is the bit where you introduce your characters, the world they live in, and the problems they’re likely to face.  ‘Once upon a time, a princess lived in a poor but happy kingdom, across the lake from a family of ogres.’

The End – this is the bit where you wrap up the tale you just told, giving everything a conclusion, though not necessarily a happy one.  ‘And the princess realized that, despite her best efforts, she had been as cruel and hateful as she supposed the ogres were.  She resolved to be better, and to listen first, instead of reacting.’

Everyone has the beginning of a story.  Literally, everyone.  Ask a random stranger on the street if they have a story they’d like to tell and you will get an answer every time, and that answer will be the set-up.  The beginning.  Many times, though not always, people also have an ending to their story, even if that ending is ‘it was all just a dream’ (my father pitched me a story with this ending once.  I’m not joking).

The Middlethis is your story.  All of it.  The ups, the downs, the betrayals, the sacrifices, the twists, the red herrings, the daring deeds, and the vile crimes.  How did the princess come to the realization that, perhaps, she wasn’t as pure and noble as she imagined?  That’s the story.  What did the ogres think of her and her actions?  That’s the story.

No one has a middle to their story.  Literally, no one.  Unless you’re a writer, because writers realize the meat of the story, the most delicious bits, come in the middle.  Everything you remember about a story happened in the middle.  In the Watergate story, the break-in has already happened, before the action begins and off-screen.  What people remember is the revelation of the break-in, and the slow unwinding of the truth, all the way back to the White House.  The story is the investigation, and how all the bits come together.  If you took that story linearly, it would be a boring procedural, maybe a court record.  The drama comes in gathering the pieces.  The middle.

Think of the three parts of a story this way, with font size indicating the importance of the part and effort you should put into writing it:

  • The Beginning
  • The Middle

  • The End

Remember that everyone has the beginning of a story, many people have an end, but a writer – a real writer – spends her time on the middle.

More in a later post.

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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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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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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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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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