November 30, 2015

Writing Like Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse

One of my favorite authors is the late Douglas Adams, who wrote (among many other things) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and Last Chance to See.  These books have in common the late author's great sense of humor and his ability to turn a phrase.  The book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon suggests that while learning to write, you should take the time to trace your artistic "family tree"... That is, pick the authors whose work most touches you, and find out all you can about them.  Also find three people whose work inspired them, and study those people and their work as well.

I spent some time reading about Adams, then began looking into the authors that he found inspiring.  One of these is the late P.G. Wodehouse, an English writer of the late 1800s and 1900s.  Wodehouse led a fairly interesting life, being brought up by his aunts, spending time in France (during the German occupation in World War II), and finally in the United States (because there were those who believed him to have been a Nazi collaborator - though no evidence was ever discovered).  Wodehouse may best be known for his character Jeeves, an intelligent and insightful butler.

As you read both the work of Wodehouse and Adams, a similarity in the way they construct humorous lines is evident.  Below are some lines from Wodehouse's Psmith in the City that I found particularly good:

  • ...a pattering of rain made itself heard upon the windows."
  • "He was as wholly on the move as Psmith was statuesque."
  • "Bob looked slightly thoughtful. Mr. Jackson seemed thoroughly worried."
  • "...banks have a habit of swallowing their victims rather abruptly."
  • "Psmith's attitude toward the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune was to regard them with a bland smile, as if they were part of an entertainment got up for his express benefit."
  • "She wiped a pair of steaming hands on her apron, and regarded Mike with an eye which would have been markedly expressionless in a boiled fish."
  • "He was a man who had, I should say, discovered that alcohol was a food long before the doctors found it out."
  • "Sunday supper, unless done on a large and informal scale, is probably the most depressing meal in existence."
  • "It was his view that a boy should not be exhibited publicly until he reached an age when he might be in the running for some sort of colours at a public school."
  • "Mike began to realize that, till now, he had never known what boredom meant.  There had been moments in his life which had been less interesting than other moments, but nothing to touch this for agony."

Compare these with some lines from Douglas Adams:

  • "A computer chatted to itself in alarm as it noticed an airlock open and close itself for no apparent reason."
  • "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't."
  • "It was Arthur's accepted role to lie squelching in the mud making occasional demands to see his lawyer, his mother or a good book; it was Mr. Prosser's accepted role to tackle Arthur with the occasional new ploy such as the For the Public Good talk,..."
  • "She gave Arthur a pleasant smile which settled on him like a ton of bricks and then turned her attention to the ship's controls again."
  • "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression 'as pretty as an airport.'"
  • "Zaphod's left head sobered up, leaving his right to sink further into the obscurity of drink."
  • "In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn't cope with..."
  • "The best conversation I had was over forty million years ago... And that was with a coffee machine."

While Wodehouse and Adams both produced some very enjoyable Prose, Adams seemed to be able to come up with funny lines more frequently and consistently.  I decided to study both authors to get a better handle on how they do this.  What is it about lines like the above that makes them entertaining?
  • Inanimate objects embodying emotions or motivations, like the rain making itself heard, banks "swallowing" people, or a computer talking to itself.
  • Absurd but accurate comparisons, such as the hovering spaceship compared with a brick (which can't hover) or a person running to a statue.
  • Parallel sentence construction, with the second sentence being the punchline for the first (as in the "Bob looked thoughtful" while "Jackson looked worried").
  • A character having no emotional reaction, or an opposite emotional response than expected, to something terrible going on around him, as in Psmith finding misfortune entertaining or Ford Prefect not sharing Arthur's concern for his house being knocked down.
  • A situation described to an extreme, as in the woman looking at Mike with an "eye that would have been markedly expressionless" in a dead (and boiled) fish or "no language on Earth" having the expression "as pretty as an airport".
  • Characters experiencing extreme emotional reactions to relatively common (and not particularly emotional) things, like Mike feeling as though he had no idea what boredom really meant or how agonizing it could be, or a character being unable to cope with Sunday afternoons.
I decided to try my hand at producing lines that might be at home in a book by Adams or Wodehouse, assuming that either of them was alive and writing today.  Here's what I came up with:
  • As a computer administrator, Jeff spent his days rearranging millions of imaginary ones and zeroes into patterns that made his coworkers happy.  The ones and zeroes themselves didn't particularly like their new ordering, as some of them had grown rather fond of the bits they'd been close to before.  In retaliation, they crashed his system.
  • Katie liked the way Nate kissed her.  It energized her in a way that sticking her tongue in a wall socket couldn't.
  • Sheila bolted out the door, confident the hat would still be on sale at the mall.  Frank was confident they'd never be able to make the minimum credit card payment this month.
  • "What are you staring at?" Jack said to the teddy bear on the shelf.  The bear considered telling him, but remembered that stuffed animals aren't supposed to talk.  Besides, Jack was in no state to hear the truth anyway.
  • "Do you smell something, Percy?  Something acrid?" Percy turned toward him, his eyes bursting wide open.  "Yes, you idiot!  Your jacket's on fire."  Barry turned back to his book, "That's probably it, then."
  • Time slowed to a crawl, so much so that when it was lunchtime here in New York, it had gotten to be lunchtime in London, too.
  • Light bulbs have a sense about them.  They know the moment you need them most, and it's in that moment they get so excited that when electricity is applied to them their filament explodes in delight.  The key to making them last, Tom found, was to think of himself reading the tax code just before he flipped the switch.  The bulb in his desk lamp was now twenty-two years old.
Not bad for a first practice attempt, I think.

I'm not suggesting that this technique alone is enough to generate a short story or novel as good as those produced by Wodehouse or Adams, but combining this with solid characters and an imaginative plot just might do it.

August 10, 2015

Review: Super Structure by James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell is a popular and successful author, with many novels under his belt.  When he has something to say about writing, I'm generally going to listen.  I recently purchased his book Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story by Mr. Bell and have been reading it over the last few days.  This review will share what I learned from the book as well as my comments about the book itself.  It's important to note that there is much more in the book than I'm sharing here.

There are plenty of people out there, as Bell notes in his introduction, who view any mention of structure as though it implies a kind of "cheating" or "cookie cutter" approach. I disagree.  A story structure like Bell proposes in this book could be misused and treated as a rigid template to which you positively must adhere.  If that's how you view it, you're doing it wrong.  A structure is nothing more than a recommendation that says "Successful stories tend to do these things in approximately this way. Consider doing these things, but ultimately do what serves your story best."

Bell proposes a three-act structure with 14 different "signposts" that your story may pass on the way to its end.  The most critical of these are:

  • Act I
    • Disturbance
    • Doorway of No Return #1
  • Act II
    • Mirror Moment
    • Doorway of No Return #2
  • Act III
    • Final Battle
You can produce a good story with just that minimal amount of structure.  To take the story to the next level, you'll want to look at the full set of signposts:
  • The Disturbance:  (This usually happens early in Act I.)  A change in how things are that affects the Lead character.  It may be something that's missing from the character's life, a conflict that didn't exist before, some kind of trouble that's coming the Lead's way, etc.  It shakes up the status quo for the Lead.
  • The Care Package:  This is a relationship the Lead has with someone else, which causes the lead to show concern (through word or deed) for that person's well-being.
  • The Argument Against Transformation:  This is when the Lead sees that some kind of a change is needed (e.g., quit her job) but refuses to make it.
  • Trouble is Brewing:  This is like a foreshadowing, or a hint of the trouble to come. It reminds the reader that something bigger and worse is headed the Lead's way.  It often comes from something the "villain" is doing (even if the villain's not in the scene in question).
  • Doorway of No Return #1:  This forces the Lead to confront physical, psychological, or professional "death" of some kind.  Once the Lead does something here, he or she can't go back to the way things were before.  The door slams shut.
  • Kick in the Shins:  (This and the following typically occur in Act II.)  After the Lead passes through the Doorway of No Return #1, the character must face a real obstacle.  This obstacle should leave the reader feeling that things are getting worse for the character, and that even worse things may be on the horizon.
  • The Mirror Moment:  There are two kinds of these.  The first is the Lead wondering "What have I become?  What do I have to do to change?"  The second kind is the Lead thinking "I can't possibly win.  I'm going to die."  This moment tells you the core of your story.
  • Pet the Dog:  In the middle of trouble, the Lead takes time out to help someone or something weaker.  This moment shows that the lead has a heart and listens to it.  Ideally, taking this moment exposes the Lead to more danger or handicaps the Lead in some way.
  • Doorway of No Return #2:  The Lead passes through another metaphorical doorway that makes the final battle inevitable.  This is a major crisis or setback for the Lead.  It may lead to some kind of discovery or clue that's useful later.  If so, the Lead should get this information if they've done something to obtain it.
  • Mounting Forces:  (This tends to happen at the start of Act III.)  The villain sees the final battle coming and begins gathering resources and strength to fight it.  This should make the situation look worse for the Lead.
  • Lights Out:  At this point, all seems lost for the Lead.  The Lead believes that winning is probably impossible.
  • The Q Factor:  Named after the James Bond character, this is when something setup in Act I comes back to help the character out (like the gadgets Q gave Bond before he left on the mission).  It might be an inspiration ("you can do it"), an instruction given earlier ("remember that his vision is weaker on the left"), or something the Lead has that has been forgotten.
  • Final Battle:  This may occur within the Lead's mind and heart, outside (a fight or physical struggle), or both.  It's what the story has been leading up to.  If the Mirror Moment is a "What do I have to do?" type, the Final Battle is the Lead actually doing that thing.  If the Mirror Moment is a "I can't win" type, the Final Battle is probably physical.
  • Transformation:  Here we see that the Lead has changed or grown stronger as a result of the events of the novel, and is no longer the same person.
Bell provides much more detail about these signpost events, including examples from popular books and movies, in the book.  I'm not going to do that here.  The examples he provides are detailed enough that you can use them without being familiar with the works involved, although there is a very good chance you'll be familiar with some of them (if not all).  Bell also explains for each signpost above why it works, how plotters and pantsers can use the signpost, and ways to brainstorm ideas for these.

Apart from the structure advice, the biggest take-away for me from the book was Bell's suggestion that you will want to brainstorm lists of possibilities for many of the signposts above.  Often, the ideas that pop into our head first are the least original and most cliched.  The more ideas we come up with, the more likely we'll hit on something original that really helps the story.  For example, you might brainstorm all the possible Q Factors that might help the Lead out during the Lights Out moment.  The more you come up with, the more likely you'll hit on something that surprises the reader.  You'll also want to brainstorm possible opening lines and possible ending scenes for the same reason.

At the current Kindle price of $2.99 at the time of this writing, Super Structure provides a lot of good writing information and advice on story structure.  If you're struggling with story structure, it's an inexpensive way to learn more about it.  I expect to refer to my notes from the book for some time.

August 3, 2015

Review: Character Prompts by and 21x20 Media

The Character Prompts Android app by (21x20 Media) is designed to give you a randomly-generated character suitable for use in a short story or novel.  The tool generates a new character by choosing randomly from the following characteristics:

  • Role in the story
  • First name
  • Last name
  • Age
  • Current residence (city, state, and country)
  • Career and income level
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eye color
  • Hair color
  • Face shape
  • Skin color
  • Distinguishing feature
  • Nationality
  • Bad habit
  • Style (clothing style maybe?)
  • Trait
  • Hobby
  • Favorite saying
  • Twist (something odd about the character)
  • A question (for you) to answer about the character

When the app is first launched, it displays a splash screen like the following:

As indicated on the screen, you can shake your phone or tablet to generate a character, or you can swipe a finger across the screen.  When you do, you'll see the basic characteristics of your randomly-created character:

This screen displays the character's role in the story, first name, last name, age, residence, and career/income information.

Tapping the "Physical" button will give you physical information about the character:

This information includes the character's height, weight, eye color, hair color, face shape, skin color, distinguishing feature, and nationality.

Tapping the "Info" button gives more details about the character:

This gives us the character's bad habit, hobby, favorite saying, and two less-well-explained characteristics called "Style" and "Trait."  I suspect that the Style trait refers to clothing style, since these are some of the random values I saw in a few runs:  Vintage, 80s, School Girl, and Masculine.  Traits include things like Worldly, Passionate, Chaste, Cowardly, and Noble.

The "Twists" button gives us a unique personality twist or characteristic of this character:

Other twists I saw in a few trial runs of the app included:

  • Has chronic pain
  • Is highly allergic to strong perfume
  • Suffers from vertigo
  • Is highly allergic to mold
  • Suffers from migraines
  • Diagnosed with prostate cancer
Finally, the last button ("Questions") gives you a question to answer about the character:

Presumably, you could use these questions (which will change if you swipe the screen over them) to get to know your character a little better.  A few of the questions asked by the program were:
  • If your character could try something new, what would it be?
  • Does the character prefer apple juice, orange juice, or berry juice?
  • How would the character spend an hour of free time?
  • What is the character's favorite movie?
  • What is the character's favorite food?
  • What is the character most proud of?
On any of the pages of character information, swiping your finger across it will generate an entirely new page of character traits.  This can be a little annoying if, for instance, the tool has generated a character who lives in India but has an African sounding name, and you'd like it to give you a more Indian-sounding name for them.  Swipe across the Basic information page and it will generate a new role, name, age, residence, etc.  It would be much better if you could tap on just the element you'd like to re-do and have only that element change.

When you've generated a character you like or want to keep, you can tap the button in the upper-right which looks like a black circle with a white star inside and a plus sign written on it.  When you do this, that character's information is saved in the "Fav's" list that you can access in the button on the lower left corner of the window.

You'll notice three other buttons at the top of the window.  The first would appear to be a settings button that looks like a gear.  When I tap this on my Nexus 6, I get a black screen like this:

If you tap the button that looks like a piece of loose leaf notebook paper, you'll get a text window that you can use to edit saved information, such as the question I saved earlier:

Here you could write the answer to the question for your character and email it to yourself for use in another document or application.

Tapping the "?" button (presumably help) on my phone generated another black screen:

I assume that on some phones this might provide information about the software or suggestions on how to get the most out of it.  The big black block, though, isn't so much helpful as it is confusing.


This is a $2.99 application (at the time of this writing), so you'll have to decide if it's worth the money to you.  Having played around with it for a little while, though, it doesn't do anything for me.  I can imagine it being useful in generating characters for a writing practice, but it's a bit too random at that to suit me.  It gave me a 65-year-old character who makes $370,000 a year collecting recyclables, is 4'11" tall, weighs 243 pounds, and who dresses like a school girl.  I can see a character like this fitting into a comedy or crazy flash-fiction story, but have a hard time seeing him fitting into many serious stories.

July 27, 2015

Review: Story Plot Generator by ARC Apps

Story Plot Generator is designed to help creative writers come up with story ideas by providing genre-appropriate locations, plot complications, details, and a main character.

When initially launched, it displays the following story genres:

The complete list includes:

  • Action/Thriller
  • Misfortune/Drama
  • SciFi/Space
  • Murder Scene
  • Fantasy/Magic
  • Horror/Suspense
  • Romance
  • Superheroes
  • Apocalypse
When you tap on one of the genres, the app displays prompts for a story that match up to the genre you selected.  For example, 

The prompt suggests writing a story about a character who has assumed someone else's identity and is traveling on a colony ship toward a new home.  Humans on this colony ship spend a large percentage of their day inside a virtual reality program.  Our character's access to essential resources is dwindling.

If you don't like one or more elements of this random story plot, you can tap on the green bar above that element to have the program generate another, while leaving the rest alone.  You can also tap the "refresh" button at the top to get a completely new plot idea.

You'll notice the bottom button, which will email you the information displayed on this screen, to make it easier to write a story from the prompt.

According to the developers, Story Plot Generator can create up to a million randomly generated story plots for you to use.  I've not tested that theory out, but I have noticed that it seems to offer quite a few options.

The app is currently available free of charge from the Google Play store so there's no real risk in checking it out for yourself on your Android tablet or phone.

I've usually been able to come up with story ideas on my own without much trouble, so I'm not sure how much value this app will have for me.  Where I think it could be useful is in generating ideas for fiction writing practice, where I might be trying to practice story openings, plotting, or some other aspect of fiction writing.  I'd use the app to generate a random situation and then try to come up with a good opening or plot outline for the story.

July 20, 2015

How to Write a Good Story Opening, Part 3

In the first part of this series, we looked at what makes a good opening.  In the second part, we talked about how to learn to write opening sentences by studying good examples you encounter.  In this installment, we'll look at how to review and strengthen your story opening and suggest some books you can read to learn even more.

Revising Your Opening

You need a strong opening to ensure that agents, editors, and readers will you’re your story a fair chance.  Once you’ve written your opening, the following suggestions will help you tighten up the prose and improve it:
  • Using the word processor's find function, locate or highlight the following words to see if they signify the problems indicated here (I created a Microsoft Word macro that highlights these in my work):
    • words the end in “ly” (these are often adverbs and adjectives which signify the need for stronger nouns and verbs, or can be eliminated entirely)
    • words that end in “ing”, and “ion” (these often appear as the ending syllable in long words like “intoxication” which would be better to write as “drunk”)
    • of (Phrases like "he stormed out of the room" can be rewritten as "he stormed from the room" in order to make it clearer and more concise)
    • that (Change "She thought that he might have a problem" to "She thought he might have a problem" or "She feared he had a problem")
    • said (Eliminating this word as much as possible will strengthen your fiction.  Avoid using euphemisms like "articulated", "interjected", etc.,too.)
    • was/were ("Fred was making a martini." isn't as strong as "Fred mixed a martini.")
    • by (When used in a phrase like "She was struck by a bus" it slows down the action versus "A bus hit her.")
    • his/her (when used in phrases like "his car was fast" you can make it strong with a phrase like "he had a fast car")
    • very (often this implies that the following word or words should be replaced with something stronger, for instance "the book was very old" might be rewritten to "the book was ancient" or "she picked the book up carefully, afraid it would crumble to dust in her hands")
    • about (when used in a phrase like "there were about ten people here" it's vague, and you're better off using an exact count unless there's no way your character would know)
    • And/But (sentences that start with these words sound pompous, and unless they're part of a character's speech pattern, they should be eliminated)
    • like (this will draw your attention to similes that can be removed or replaced with clearer language)
    • felt, feel, hear, heard, smell, saw, taste, touch (These words can filter the reader's sensory experience through a character, distancing the reader from it.  Instead of "she felt the rough wooden surface" you can say "The wooden surface was rough" to eliminate the filter and bring the sensory experience closer to the reader.)
    • as (When used in phrases like "nutty as a fruitcake" ask yourself if there is a better word or phrase you can use that doesn't include "as" -- like "eccentric" or "insane")
  • If you're unsure about any facts in your opening, research them.
  • Look for cliches and eliminate them unless they're part of a character's unique speech pattern.
  • Make a list of all the adjectives and adverbs in your opening.  Consider whether these can be eliminated, or whether they signify the need for a stronger noun or verb.  If the adjective or adverb is needed, is there a more unusual or stronger one you can use?
  • Look for any unnecessary words or phrases.  Eliminate them or replace them with stronger and more-descriptive words.
  • Look for any long sentences and see if you can break them apart or simplify them.
  • Look for any redundant phrases or words and replace or eliminate them.
  • Look for long dialogue exchanges without any other text breaking them up (i.e., no breaks in the dialogue like "Margaret walked over and opened the window" or "He took another bite of spaghetti.).  This is sometimes referred to as a "white room problem".
  • Make sure your dialogue reflects the character speaking it.  We wouldn't expect a poorly educated man from a rural area to say "Yes, I suspect to find an appropriate solution presently."  He'd more likely say "Yep, I'll figure it out.")
  • Examine the length of your sentences and ensure that it varies, mixing shorter and longer sentences within the same paragraph where appropriate.
  • Make sure you're showing the characters' thoughts, actions, and reactions to story events.
  • Read the work aloud and be alert for anything that is hard to speak or that doesn't sound right when you say it.
  • Have someone else you trust read the text and get their feedback.

Your opening should now be much stronger.

Reading List

There is a lot more to learn about story openings than I've covered in this series.  Below are some of the resources I recommend if you are ready to dig in deeper:

The above links to go the web page where you can buy the books listed.

July 13, 2015

How to Write a Good Story Opening, Part 2

In last week's post, we looked at what makes a good opening.  This week, we'll look at how you can inspire yourself to write good openings and even how to practice so you get better at writing them (while also creating a weapon against writer's block).

Inspiration by Example

Advertising copywriters often keep what they refer to as a "swipe file."  This is a collection of the most effective headlines, phrases, and copy they've encountered.  These samples become models they can follow to write their own copy.  I believe fiction writers should accumulate swipe files of their own, especially for opening lines.

Here are some examples from my file:
  • It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression "As pretty as an airport." -- Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
  • I woke up in bed with a man and a cat.  The man was a stranger; the cat was not. -- Robert A. Heinlein, To Sail Beyond the Sunset
  • "I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get." "That's what you said about the brother." -- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game
  • Millicent Mannings Hollander could not stop looking at evil.-- James Scott Bell, Deadlock
  • Though Robin Ellacott's twenty-five years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived. -- Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo's Calling
  • She'd drunk way too much. She was an idiot.  Why had she, Delsey Freestone, a reasonably intelligent twenty-five-year-old supposed adult, swan-dived into those last two margaritas? -- Catherine Coulter, Bomb Shell
  • On the hottest day of July, trolling in dead-calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm.  His wife flew to the bow of the boat and tossed her breakfast burritos. -- Carl Hiassen, Bad Monkey
  • On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.  -- Mitch Albom, The First Phone Call from Heaven
  • Black ice coated earth frozen hard by night temperatures that had dropped below freezing, a thin skein of slickness that challenged the grip of his toughened-rawhide boot soles. Yet the Gray Man stepped with grace and ease across the treacherous smoothness, not oblivious to the danger so much as accustomed to it. -- Terry Brooks, Bearers of the Black Staff
  • The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault. -- Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
  • Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he'd never before imagined, Dylan O'Connor left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake. -- Dean Koontz, By the Light of the Moon
  • The scene and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.  Then the soul-erosion produced by high-gambling - a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension - becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it. -- Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
  • The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03am, eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1. The term was a misnomer, of course, but within ten hours of the event, most of the scientists capable of pointing this out were either dead or insane. -- Stephen King, Cell
  • For some time now they had been suspicious of him. Spies had monitored his movements, reporting to the priests, and in the tribal councils his advice against going to war with those beyond the bend had been ignored. -- James A. Michener, Chesapeake
How do you use a collection like this?  Treat each one as an example of a technique to learn.  Read the example and ask "What makes this line memorable, and how did the author do it?"  When you understand that, try writing a similar sentence using your characters, settings, and plot points.  (You should not plagiarize the author's work, however.  The point is to learn the technique, not steal the words.)

For example, consider the opening line from Larry Niven's Ringworld:
In the nighttime heart of Beirut, in one of a row of general-address transfer booths, Louis Wu flicked into reality.
Niven took an event that is seemingly impossible to us (a person "flicking into reality") and made it seem like an ordinary event in the world of the story (by referencing "a row of general-address transfer booths" which presumably exist for the purpose).  We are left wondering who Louis Wu is, how he accomplished what he's just done, why he's in Beirut, and what exactly those booths are.  This will keep us reading for at least a little while longer.  (Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is practically a textbook for repeatedly hooking a reader.)

To achieve the same effect, I need to take something from my story world that would seem impossible or unusual to a modern reader and make it appear to be part of my characters' ordinary world.

Here's how I used Niven's technique, without stealing his setting, characters, or story plot:
Alice Monroe, like everyone else on the streets around her, was running home as hard as she could.  In eight minutes, the Night Watch robots would begin vaporizing anyone breaking curfew.
I've taken the unusual idea (to someone in our world) of robots violently enforcing a curfew and made it completely ordinary to my character (by showing she's aware of it and knows when it will occur). I also show that it's common knowledge in the story world by showing others running home also.  A reader should wonder why there's such a curfew, why there are robots enforcing it, why vaporization is considered an acceptable punishment, how far Alice has to go to be home, and so on.  It should keep them reading.  I haven't stolen anything from Niven's work.  I'm not showing people popping into existence, not setting my story in Beirut at night, etc.  All I've taken from Niven is the technique he used.

Opening Practice

One of the best pieces of writing advice I've encountered came from a workshop taught by author Brady Allen.  I've discussed it before in more detail before.  Allen suggested that you set aside time every day, week, and month to practice openings.  The practice has two goals:  Improve your skill at writing openings.  Provide you with a source of material to help eliminate writer's block.  

The practice is simple and quick:

  • Each day, or as often as you can, write at least one opening line for a potential story.
  • Once a week, look over all the opening lines you’ve written.  Find one that resonates with you, and turn it into an opening paragraph.
  • Once a month, look at those opening paragraphs and expand one into an opening page or opening scene for a story.
That's it.  The next time you aren't sure what to write, pull out that list of opening lines, paragraphs, and pages.  It's likely that something there will motivate you to write a story.

If you find yourself getting stuck trying to do the practice, have a look at the swipe file mentioned earlier.  Try to write a line that mimics one of the examples without plagiarizing it.

Coming Up in Part 3

In Part 3 of this series, we'll look at how to revise your opening to improve it and provide some resources to learn more.

July 6, 2015

How to Write a Good Story Opening, Part 1

A good writer never assumes they’ve mastered every aspect of writing.  As with any other activity, someone is better at it than we are.  When it comes to story openings, I still have a lot to learn.  For that reason, I continue to research and practice story openings.  Here’s what I've learned.

When agents, editors, and readers pick up your short story or novel, your opening paragraphs will get the most attention.  If you don't hook them quickly, they'll put your story down and move on.  

What Makes a Good Story Opening?

A good story opening should:
  • Leave an impression on the reader in the first sentence
  • Introduce the main character(s) and build reader empathy toward them by showing the character's humanity (both their good qualities and their flaws)
  • Show the characters in their ordinary world, and foreshadow a change or disturbance.  This can be done many ways, including:
    • The character finds that something is more difficult than expected.
    • The character learns something new and upsetting.
    • The character arrives in an unfamiliar place.
    • The character meets someone who impacts her in some way.
    • Something happens in the character’s life, like losing a job, experiencing a car crash, a fight with a friend or lover, etc.
    • Hint that a disturbance is coming, as in “She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was seeing Fred for the last time.”
  • Raise questions in the mind of the reader to keep them reading
  • Give the character an "external goal" they are motivated to achieve, even if that goal isn't the ultimate goal they'll achieve during the story
  • Show how the goal is important to the character and why they're motivated to achieve it
  • Give enough details on the setting to help the reader visualize the story world, but no more
  • Deliver the minimum amount of backstory necessary for the reader to appreciate what is going on in the opening
  • Change something for the character by the end
Everything in the opening should be moving the story toward a moment of change in the character's life.  It can be helpful to ask questions like these as you brainstorm, write, and review your opening:
  • Why is this character in my opening, and is the character's presence necessary ?
  • Where is the opening taking place, and why is this setting important?
  • What minimum details do I need to include about the setting in the opening to ensure that the reader is grounded in it?
  • What details do I need to share about the characters in the scene, and is it necessary to share those details right now (or can I wait until a later scene where they're more relevant)?
  • Why should the reader care about this character and the character's future?
  • What questions am I creating in the reader's mind?   Will these keep the reader turning pages?
  • What emotional stakes are raised in the opening that reflect the rest of the story?  
  • What good and bad qualities of the characters are important to show at this time?
  • Is there some tense situation or exchange of dialogue that could happen here?  If so, is there anything I can do to increase the tension?
When you're ready to revise the opening:
  • Is all of the backstory relevant to the scene it appears in?
  • Are the setting descriptions as concise and relevant as possible?
  • Is any of the dialogue "pointless chatter" that can be removed (e.g, “Hi Tom!”)?
  • Are any of the characters' thoughts acting as "info dumps"? 
  • If a character is sharing critical thoughts, introspection, and past memories, are these interwoven with action?
  • Are any adjectives or adverbs in the opening overused? 
  • Are the nouns and verbs as strong as they could be?
It's been said that a writer should spend proportionally more time on the story’s opening than on most other parts of the story.  

Something that can be helpful is to write and rewrite the opening scene several times.  Play around with different points of view, narrative styles, settings, etc.  One of these may feel more "right" than the others.  If that version of the opening grabs your interest, it will probably do the same for your readers.

Next week, in Part Two, we'll look at how to study and practice opening sentences.

June 29, 2015

You Can't "Learn" Your Writing Process from Others... But They Can Help

Like many people closing in on age 50, I look back over my life and wonder how things might have been different if I'd followed my passions and interests more than I did.  I'd wanted to be a professional writer back in high school.  I'd read incredible books by authors like Harlan Ellison, Thomas J. Ryan, Warren Norwood, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Alan Dean Foster, Dean Wesley Smith, and others.  I wanted to write something just as good.  Instead, I listened to teachers, parents, family members, friends, and others who pushed me in the direction of something I'd always seen as a hobby - computers.  That's served me well financially, and challenged me for most of my life, enough so that I very rarely missed the need to create and write.  Lately, the number of true challenges at work has declined, and many of the remaining challenges hold no excitement for me - or are "more of the same" with a different name or flavor.  As a result, I've focused more and more on writing.

It's teaching me a lot about myself.  I'm realizing that while I have always been able to learn computer engineering skills by reading about them, tinkering around a bit, finding examples on the Internet, etc., writing is different.  It's something you can only learn by doing.  You can read how a great writer like Asimov, King, Ellison, or Bester worked, but you can't do things exactly the same way they did.  You're not them.

Take the "plotter vs. pantser" question.  Some writers discover a story as they write it.  Others need to plot it out to some level of detail before they write a single word.  The rest fall somewhere in the middle.  The odds are good that if you studied ten different successful writers, you'd find ten different ways of writing a novel.  If you tried to painstakingly replicate any one of their methods, you would probably find that it doesn't quite work for you.

This is what I've been struggling with for a few years now.  I tried to write my first two novels with only a vague idea in mind, and failed miserably.  The first had severe timeline issues, with events happening out of sequence, characters who needed to be in one place being in another, etc.  It was a disaster.  The second had no timeline issues, but also had no conflict and no real plot.  It was something like following a random stranger around with a camera and finding out his life was pretty bland.  For the third, I developed a detailed outline.  About half way through, I wandered off the outline and down a tangent that derailed the story (and took the excitement out of it, too).  When I got back to the outline, it was more like slogging through a boring business report than writing a story I was excited about.  The next three or four were somewhere in the middle.  The fastest I completed one was when I'd plotted it down to the scene level and had notes for each scene.  Despite that, it was still a bland, boring piece of work.  I think that's because I'd plotted the story to such a level of detail that by the time I got to writing it, I felt I'd already done it and was simply re-writing it.  That wasn't particularly fun.

Lately, I'm starting to believe that my own writing process is probably much closer to that of author Dean Wesley Smith than anyone else.  In one of Smith's books on writing, which I read recently, he explains his approach on writing.  I'm paraphrasing and simplifying it here, but it goes like this...

Smith begins, as we all do, with an idea, a scene, a character, or something that appeals to him.  Then he starts writing.  He has no idea where it will go.  This helps maintain his own interest in the story, because he's discovering it just like a reader would.  He trusts his subconscious to help him tell the story, but occasionally finds that the story has gone down a tangent that grinds it to a halt.  When this happens, he scrolls backward through it until he finds the place where it started to go wrong.  Then he begins writing again from there.  It's not true "pantsing" in the sense that he does back up, throw out material, and move forward.  It's not "plotting" because he's discovering the story as he writes it, but he is working on and refining the plot as he goes.  It's somewhere in the middle.

Two weeks ago, I began writing a science-fiction story following my interpretation of Smith's method.  It's one of two stories I've started in the last couple of years that excited me as I wrote it.  The other was one that I wrote the same way, without really realizing it at the time.  I think I'm on to something.

I also know that my inexperience means that I can't (yet?) use Smith's approach as-is.  While I'm getting better at things like including sensory detail, sharing character emotions, describing settings, eliminating "white room" situations, and the like, I am a very long way from having beaten those problems.  So I suspect that, for a while, my approach is going to mirror Smith's as I create the initial draft of the story.  Once it's created, I will need to go back and fix those problems before I can consider a story truly finished.

If you are struggling getting the words out, I recommend experimenting with different levels of plotting and pantsing.  Look at how your favorite authors work, and try out their processes yourself.  If you find that you're writing better, writing more, or enjoying it more, keep using that approach.  If you find that it's drudgery or takes the fun out of writing, try something else.  Find what works for you, even if it doesn't work for others.

June 1, 2015

Tell, Don't Show, Your Story

One of the most commonly-heard pieces of advice given to novice fiction writers is "Show, don't tell."  We're told to show what's going on, what's important to our characters, what the characters are feeling, etc.

Naturally, when I encountered James Lofquist's Tell, Don't Show! it caught my attention.  How could he suggest doing the exact opposite of virtually every other writing instructor out there?  As it turns out, he makes a great point.

Lofquist suggests that both plotters and pantsers tend to write their first drafts in great detail, thinking carefully about word choice, dialogue, pacing, etc.  This kind of writing can be very time-consuming.  Worse, after spending all that time getting words "just right" we'll sometimes end up cutting entire scenes, pages, or chapters because they don't work.  Perhaps worst of all, we might never complete that first draft because we spend too much time polishing it as we go.

He suggests that a better approach is to write the first draft of the story in "telling" mode as much as possible.  Use short statements, bulleted lists, etc., to capture what is happening in the scene.  If good bits of description or dialogue happen to strike you as you do this, jot them down.  If the right details don't come to you, insert placeholder statements like "They have an argument about the budget."  The goal is to lay down the entire story as quickly as possible.  You now have a "first draft" which is short on details but easy to read through and review.

For example, your first draft might include a scene like this:

  • Fred comes home late.  Jane confronts him.
  • Fred's been out working a second job to earn money to buy an engagement ring, but doesn't want Jane to know this.
  • Jane's been cheated on before, and believes Fred's late arrival is a sign that he's having an affair.  If that's the case, she wants to end things sooner rather than later.
  • "If you can't tell me where you've been," Jane says, "I can only assume the worst."
  • Fred's got to convince her that he's not cheating on her, without spilling the beans about the ring.  He decides to make up a white lie that he had a car problem and it took four hours to get the car running.  The car's been acting up lately, so it'll be plausible.
The actual scene written from these notes might be several paragraphs long, but the notes can be written down quickly and easily.  This shorthand approach allows you to flesh out the entire story relatively quickly, in essence "pantsing" a first draft in minutes or hours.

A big advantage to this approach is that high-level revision is much easier.  Imagine that we want to layer in a bit of foreshadowing.  We decide to show Jane rifling through Fred's desk to look for love letters or hotel receipts proving an affair.  Later in the story, when Jane's thoroughly convinced Fred is having an affair, she'll rifle the desk again and find the receipt for an engagement ring.  She'll wonder if the ring is for her or the other woman.  Adding that bit of foreshadowing is as easy as dropping in a bullet like "Jane goes through Fred's desk, looking for evidence of an affair.  Finds none."

Once you've tightened up this "telling" draft of the story and feel that it's as good as it can be, you're ready to begin writing your "showing" draft.  Now you can take the time to write clever dialogue, vivid description, and solid action.  Having made a few passes over the "telling" draft, you'll have hopefully weeded out all the scenes that didn't work, peppered the notes with imagery, foreshadowing, etc., and be able to write a much stronger first full draft.  

This seems like a good way to get your first draft down on paper and quickly work through the first few passes of revision.  I've done something similar in the past before reading this book, but didn't think to use this as a revision tool.  I plan to try this with my next few stories and see how it goes.

May 25, 2015

Raising the Stakes for Your Characters

Despite having written several novels, I've continued to have problems plotting my stories.  The challenges I set for my characters often seem too easy for them, and there are often times where the stakes aren't that high.  This has caused characters to walk away from a potential problem (since there was no compelling reason for them to solve it) or to easily overcome the problem because I "let them see it coming" and they prepared successfully for it.

I've been making a conscious effort lately to learn more about plotting, conflict, tension, and raising the stakes on characters.

For that reason, I borrowed from Kindle Unlimited the book Story Stakes: Your #1 Writing Skills Strategy to Transform Readers into Raving Fans & Keep Them Turning the Pages of Your Screenplay or Novel by H.R. D'Costa, the author suggests that there are 11 ways you can raise the stakes on your character:
  1. General Protection:  Put your character in a position where their actions protect a group of people, a community, a city, etc.  The hero's failure will cause others to suffer, which will spur the character on past a point where they might have given up in the past.
  2. Demise (of Someone Close to the Character):  Someone important to the character, such as a spouse, parent, sibling, or child, is in danger and will die (or suffer a similarly devastating outcome) if the hero can't save them.
  3. Livelihood:  If the character doesn't succeed at what he or she has undertaken, they'll be unable to make a living.  This usually works best if the hero worked hard to get the job, had to suffer disapproval to get it, it's a rare and coveted job, it's important to "who they are", or losing the job will ruin their chances of getting other jobs.  Losing the job should also endanger the hero's ability so support someone important.
  4. Freedom:  The character's failure will put his freedom, or that of someone he cares about, in jeopardy.  This doesn't have to be jail.  It can mean being left in an undesirable place they can't leave, being in a relationship that makes them unhappy, etc.
  5. Reputation:  The character's failure will destroy his own reputation or that of someone important to him.  This works best when tied to other stakes, such as livelihood or freedom.
  6. Sanity:  The character's failure will cause the loss of sanity for himself or someone dear.
  7. Access to a Person, Place, or Thing:  The character's failure will result in a loss of access to something important, such as child, a sibling, or a loved one.
  8. Regret:  The character's failure will lose an important opportunity.  For example, a character whose actions or decisions cause a problem in the past might like to have a second chance.  In the story, they're given a second chance in a similar situation and have the opportunity to get things right this time.
  9. Suffering and Sacrifice:  Suffering that a character endures to get to her goal is only worth it if they win, otherwise the suffering was in vain.  Similarly, if a character sacrifices something important, gives up an easy way out of a bad predicament, or someone close to her makes a sacrifice, this is only worth it if she succeeds.  In essence, you're showing the price that the character (and those who helped her) paid for her success.
  10. Justice:  We see the antagonist do some really terrible things, whether against the protagonist or some other character.  If the hero fails, the bad guys get away with their crimes.  If the hero wins, justice is served and the bad guys pay for what they've done.  How effective the Justice stake is depends on how bad the villain's crime was, and how much time passes before the villain is brought to justice.  A really terrible crime committed at the start of the story will lose much of its impact if justice isn't served until the end.  It's also important that, relatively speaking, what the hero has to do to bring the villain to justice isn't as bad as the villain's crime.
  11. Hero Happiness:  The hero's happiness is tied to achieving the story goal.  If he wins, he'll be happy.  If he loses, he'll feel like his life is over.  The key here is that the thing the character wants must be very specific, such that only this particular goal will work.  If he wants love, for example, anyone might provide that.  But if he wants the love of a particular woman because she has the qualities that he or his life do not have, finding love elsewhere won't do.  If the hero's goal is money, it has to be clear that he wants the money because of what it means to him, what it will do for him, and how it will help him than for the money itself.  Wanting money to save the family farm, get a child through college, or save the lives of homeless people works.  Wanting money so he can quit his job and spend his days drinking on the beach, isn't going to thrill readers.
Later in the book, D'Costa shares ways to alter the emotional impact of the stakes created by the above methods.  One of these is to create an object that many characters want (called a "MacGuffin").

The author also discusses how to build a "Story Stakes Matrix" which helps you to keep raising the stakes, avoid an anticlimactic ending, and improve the appeal of the story to readers.  The book concludes with an "action plan" for laying out the plot and the stakes.

It's definitely worth a read if you experience the same issue I do.

May 22, 2015

Open Source and Free Writing Software

There are some excellent, free tools that writers can use to both create and improve their work.  This article will discuss some of these and provide links to sites where the software can be downloaded.

Note that the appearance of an open source product on the list below is neither an endorsement or recommendation.  The purpose of this list is to make it easier for writers to locate and try various free and open source writing tools to see if any of them are suitable for that writer's creative processes.

Open Source Word Processing Software

Many of the following, and some commercial products, are compared on Wikipedia.
  • AbiWord: A free word processing program similar to Microsoft Word.

  • Document.Editor: A multi-tab .NET/Ribbon based word processor for Windows XP, Vista, and 7.

  • EZ Word: A free word processor that is part of the "Andrew User Interface System".

  • Feng Office: An open source online office suite package similar to Microsoft Office Live.

  • Fiction: A free word processor for Windows.

  • LyX: A "document processor" which encourages an approach to writing based on the structure of your documents and not simply their appearance. Runs on UNIX, Linux, Mac, and Windows.

  • NeoOffice:  A free office suite for Mac OS X that includes a word processor.
  • This open source application is comparable to Microsoft Office.  It includes Writer (which is similar to Word), Calc (similar to Excel), Impress (like PowerPoint), Draw (similar to the drawing tools in Office), and Base (like Access).

  • Pathetic Writer: An open-source GUI word processor.

  • Scribus:  An open source page layout and desktop publishing tool.
  • Ted:  A free word processor running under X Windows on Linux.

  • WordGrinder:  A "unicode aware character cell word processor that runs in a terminal or Windows console window.
  • WordIt:  A word processor designed to be more reliable than Microsoft Word and smaller than Word or OpenOffice.
Open Source Fiction/Screenwriting Tools:

While there are plenty of "novel writing" software projects listed on SourceForge (an open source software repository), few have any actual code available to download.  Those listed below have actual software available that you can download.

  • Celtx:  Described as "the world's first all-in-one media pre-production system", Celtx includes a wide variety of features including autocomplete, scene management, embedded notes, spellchecker, and more.

  • Storybook: Open source novel writing software which helps the author manage characters, locations, chapters, parts, ideas, background information, task lists, and storyboards.  It can also display charts showing the appearance of characters by scene/date, occurrence of locations, etc.  (This tool has a number of similarities to my personal tool of choice, Scrivener.)

  • Kabikaboo:  A tree-based note pad designed to help you plan a book or complex project.

  • NaNoWriTool:  A text editor specifically geared toward NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month.  It features the ability to edit text files, a real-time word counter that uses the same algorithm as the NaNoWriMo site, and other features.

  • The Writer's Forge: A suite of free software tools for writers of fiction.

  • Dramatis Personae 2: A Macintosh app designed to track the personalities and information used by authors in writing fiction.
Free Word Processing Tools:

The following word processing tools are free of charge but are not (to my knowledge) open source:

  • Bean: A small, easy-to-use word prcessor for Mac OS X.

  • Dark Room: A full-screen, distraction-free writing environment for Windows. The Mac version, Write Room, is a licensed product that must be purchased.

  • Jarte: A word processor for Windows that is based on the WordPad engine.

  • LedIt!: A free, cross-platform, multi-lingual unicode word processor with features such as subscript, superscript, full undo, word wrapping, and the ability to be embedded into other apps.

  • PolyEdit Lite: A free word processor designed to be lightweight, reliable, easy to use, and fast.

  • Q10: A full-screen, minimal distraction writing tool.

  • QJot: A small USB portable alternative rich text (RTF) editor that is meant to serve as a WordPad replacement.

  • RoughDraft: A donationware word processor designed for writers (development stopped in 2009).

  • SoftMaker FreeOffice: Windows suite that describes itself as "so easy to use that you will wonder why you bothered with Microsoft Word or for so long".

  • TED Notepad: A freeware Notepad replacement for Windows.

Other Tools Useful for Writers:
  • Awesome Name Generator:  A simple generator for names for fictional characters.

  • FreeMind: An open source mind-mapping tool written in Java and usable on most platforms.

  • Graviax: A grammar checker for the English language.

  • PDF Creator: Open Source PDF creation tools.

  • Research Assistant: A multi-platform tool for researchers to organize their work.

  • Style and Diction: Two standard UNIX commands. Diction identifies wordy and commonly misused phrases while Style analyzes the surface characteristics of a document such as word length and readability measures.

  • WikidPad:  A wiki-style notepad to keep ideas and notes in a single place and allow cross-referencing.

  • Writer's Tools for OpenOffice/LibreOffice:  This set of utilities is designed to help OpenOffice perform a number of useful functions for writers, including looking up words, translating to other languages, and more.

Other Free Tools for Novelists and Writers

  • Bibus: A bibliographic database that is helpful for citing sources correctly.

  • EverNote: A cloud-based tool that allows you to capture ideas and information and store it for later use. Items stored in the cloud are accessible via computer, tablet, cell phone, etc.

  • LitLift: An online novel writing application.

  • SAMM: Submission tracking for Windows, Mac, and DOS.

  • Sonar: Tool to help writers track their manuscript submissions.

  • TiddlyWiki: A "reusable non-linear personal web notebook"

  • TreePad: An award-winning personal information manager for Windows and Linux/Wine. It can be used to store, edit, search, organize, and browse any type of textual information.

  • WordNet: A "large lexical database of English…nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are grouped into sets of cognitive synonyms, each expressing a distinct concept." Available online and as an application you can run on your computer.

  • WordWeb: A dictionary and thesaurus.

  • yWriter:  From SpaceJock software, this tool is designed specifically for novelists, by a novelist.  It helps break the novel down into chapters and scenes, and provides other useful features like word counts, automatic backups, a storyboard view, drag-and-drop scene/chapter reordering, etc.