Saturday, September 23, 2006

Launching A Book Idea


SEPTEMBER 23, 2006


After months of harried deadlines, (involving books, ending and starting writing classes, and baseball games) I’m finally back on this blog. In Wednesday night's Working the Magic class, Dave pointed out the fact that I make a multitude of decisions inside my own head as I work with students on the board. He suggested that I find a way to slow down and show students how I think. He feels the process, seeing it and learning it, is more important than the help.

I just have to slow down to something less than light speed.

In an effort to do that, I'm going to try the plot out a book on this blog. This book has been one that's been in my head for about the last year three months, so I've done some pre-work on it already. Nothing committed to paper, just thinking about things and getting a feel for the pieces. Therefore, I’m going to have to try to reconstruct the decisions I made that led me to the point that I currently am at.


LEARNING TO FRAME A STORY


A book plot begins by boiling the story down to something manageable. You should always try to get the plot concise enough to put into one sentence.

At first, this may seem hard to do but it does get easier. This is one of the reasons I instruct many students and people who talk to me about writing to write and submit reviews to Amazon.com. Those efforts result in the ability to reduce a book or a movie into no more than 200 or 300 words.

I don’t just suggest the reviews as merely a means of keeping track of what you have watched or read. That’s good too, when you need to learn something about your reading habits. But it’s a good practice working to get ideas down to their simplest forms.

My sentence for this book is as follows:

An estranged father and son forced by circumstance to be together discover a treasure and each other in the bones of an old pirate.

Intriguing, right? I hope so. A good premise should be.


JUVENILE HEROES

As you may or may not know, a juvenile novel is of a prescribed a length and has a definite audience in mind. Most readers are between the ages of nine and twelve, although there is some spill-over at both ends of the spectrum. Aggressive seven- and eight-year-olds may try the books, and a number of adults read juvenile novels.

The action should focus on juvenile heroes between the ages of eight to eighteen. Roughly a year younger than the juvenile reader and up to the age of Frank and Joe Hardy. Or Nancy Drew, whichever you grew up reading.

I want the story to be about a sixth grader and his forensic anthropologist father. As a sixth grader, my hero will be eleven or twelve years of age. I figure his father will be in his early thirties, young enough to still be physically able and adventurous.

I’m going to generalize here and break heroes down into three different basic groups. The first group contains the athlete, basically a man of action. The second group contains the intellectual, or geek, though this doesn't have to be played for comedic affect or in any way denigrate kids who are smart. The third group is basically a combination of the other two, a kid who’s basically somewhat athletic and somewhat intellectual, or outstanding at both.

If you’ve read Alfred Hitchcock's the three investigators you'll see these three basic hero types already developed and in action, as well as how each responds to similar situations.
The Three Investigators

Jupiter Jones, First Investigator - A former
child actor, Jupiter is intelligent, stocky, and has a remarkable memory and deductive skills. Jupiter is an orphan who lives with Uncle Titus Jones and Aunt Matilda.

Pete Crenshaw, Second Investigator - Pete is an athletic youth who dislikes dangerous situations but is nonetheless reliable as the "action member" of the team. His father is a
special effects man in Hollywood.
Robert "Bob" Andrews, Records and Research - Bob is studious, meticulous, and wears glasses. He sometimes needs leg braces because of an accident he had. Bob works in the local library part-time, suiting his role as data collector. His father is a newspaper man.

This is from the www.wikipedia.org entry under THE THREE INVESTIGATORS.


The first group features a hero that reacts to a problem in a physical manner. The kind of adventures such a hero finds himself or herself involved in include physical activities such as rafting, mountain climbing, or sports. Gary Paulson's book Hatchet is an excellent example of this type of action.

Encyclopedia Brown is a prime example of the second kind of hero, the intellectual or geek. Encyclopedia Brown is laid back, a young Sherlock Holmes. Cam Janson, the girl with the photographic memory, is another intellectual heroine. The comedy social satire, Dork In Disguise, is another good book of this type because it features a “dork” trying to pass as normal. These kinds of heroes are good for mysteries and humor.

The third kind of hero can be very average or a mixture of the other two. If these heroes are gifted physically and intellectually, they are something short of Sherlock Holmes or an Olympic class athlete. Good examples are the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift. However, heroes in this class that are above and beyond average and normal have to be challenged by villains and situations that are also above and beyond average and normal.

Choosing between the three heroes that are available to me, I'm going to select the third kind and scale him down to something perhaps a little more adventurous and intelligent than his age would normally be. As a result, I've got a kid in mind that is smart enough to get himself into real trouble. And out of it. That's a good combination for a writer, and it provides a good story for a reader!


GENDER, ALWAYS IMPORTANT


Also, as you've noticed, I've chosen to tell a story about a boy, not a girl. The selection of gender alone makes a huge difference in the publishing arena. There are more "girl" books than "boy" books being published these days. Most boys would rather play video games and read books.

That’s a danger I’m willing to undertake for this story, because I want to tell a story about fathers and sons. It’s a personal choice, not one based on market. I know more about that relationship than I do about the one between mothers and daughters. Plus, I think I have a pretty cool story in mind.

I'm going to name the boy Chandler because my eight-year-old’s name is Chandler. My son would think it would be pretty neat to see his name as the character's name in a book. Sometimes writers can be awfully self-serving.

I figure Chandler (the character) is twelve years old and is about to enter seventh grade. That’s a very scary time for most kids, because they’re moving from grade school to junior high. At that age, kids’ whole worlds, including themselves, are changing. Everything is in a state of flux. Kids at this point in their lives can be very vulnerable, yet at the same time wanting to enter the bigger and larger and scarier world of the near-adult.


BIRTH ORDER AND CHARACTER


Another thing to consider is birth order in a character.

Only children and oldest children tend to be leaders and to be able to spend time by themselves. Middle children tend to be the peacemakers in families, always willing to see both sides and talk to everyone involved to work things out. Last born, or youngest, children tend to seek attention and expect that everything will work out and be okay.

I’ve decided to make Chandler an only child. I want him fragile and independent at the same time. If he's had to deal with younger siblings he would be more prepared for the things ahead of him. As it is, he's had to spend a lot of time by imself and be responsible for what he does. He's both motivated and capable of initiative.

CONFLICT BETWEEN THE CHARACTERS

Let's call Chandler's dad Rob Killian because Professor Killian sounds good. Rob is in his early thirties and has been an anthropologist working in the field since his college days. He also does some field work for the police, which Chandler thinks is pretty cool, but that’s not what they’re currently working on at the island.

That brings us to the question of what they are working on. For the moment, I'm going to say that there has been a small but significant find regarding a shipwreck that's washed up on a Florida island where Rob is currently working with a group of grad students. I’ll have to figure out what it is later.

This can be another source of contention between Chandler and his dad: Professor Killian is involved in teaching as well as taking care of his son. This is an inconvenient time for both of them. No one on the island is Chandler’s age.

Somewhere in here the bones of an old pirate turn up. Either Chandler finds them or one of the students does but it doesn’t pertain to the work they’re doing. On a rainy day while the students are taking some downtime on the mainland, Rob takes a cursory look at the pirate and begins telling Chandler some of what the pirate experienced in his life -- and the fact that the pirate was murdered!

Chandler, of course, starts imagining buried treasure. But his dad points out that whatever treasure might have been left was probably taken years ago…probably hundreds of years ago. still the discovery of the pirates bones gives them something to start talking about.


STORY STRUCTURE


Fictional stories generally play out in three acts. They're divided like this: Act One is 20% of the story, Act Two is 60% of the story, and Act Three is 20% of the story.

Think of the book as a five-mile run. Some of you may faint and fall over just to think about running five miles, but I can remember a time when I was able to do that.

The first mile was devoted to warming up the legs, feet, and lungs. Pulling everything together to get a good start. You figure out in that first mile how the other four would go. You work on your stride, which equates to pacing in a story, and figure out your wind, which basically involves endurance. That will tell you about how long it would take you to finish the five miles.

Everything keys off of getting a good start, feeling confident, and having a clear vision of what it is you’re attempting. Just like the beginning mile of the five-mile run.

The next three miles are devoted to maintaining pace, checking your intestinal fortitude, and making sure you run each mile by itself without trying to think of a running all three together. This three-mile leg works best if you concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other foot.

You know the path, you know the way you have to go, you know the plot points you want to touch on. All of you have to do is keep working, keep running, and you’ll finally see light at the end of the tunnel.

The last mile is devoted solely to shaving seconds off the clock, making sure the story remains taut and compelling, that you’re putting everything into it that you have. I always ran against the clock, which is a fool’s errand because at some point you can’t beat the clock, and then what do you compete with?

You pick up the pace on the last mile. You spend all your reserves getting to the end as quickly as you can, without taking shortcuts and without cheating. But you have to be careful: push to hard and you’ll fall apart before you reach the end. You have to know your own limits.

BOOK LENGTH


These days a juvenile novel for nine- to twelve-year-olds can be anywhere from 80 pages to a thousand. Harry Potter broke all the rules concerning book length for juvenile novels. Publishers discovered that kids will read books of any length if they’re good.

Before that time juvenile novels usually were between 80 and 200 pages. Publishers felt that kids would feel too intimidated to read anything longer.

I'm going to arbitrarily shoes to make this novel 150 pages long. This is a conscious decision on my part because I believe publishers are looking for books that can be kept to certain costs in production, and the fact that kids would enjoy picking up a quick and fast read in between those fat Harry Potter and other fantasy books. Another juvenile author, Peg Kehret, also writes books this length.

I could be wrong, but it’s better to have a plan that no plan at all at this point.

You'll find that so much of novel design work, and that's what this is at this point, is just guessing based on things you've read and the idea you’ve come up with. Every time I sit down to work out a plot and characters, I always guess my best. Doesn’t mean I’m always right.

Given the schematic of the 20, 60, 20 percent breakdown, that means Act One should be 30 pages long, Act Two should be 90 pages long, and Act Three should be 30 pages long.

The first 30 pages will be devoted to introducing Chandler and his father and the lack of the relationship between them and the geographical setting. It should also introduce the pirate’s bones and the mystery presented by them.

The next 90 pages digs further into the failed relationship, and the needs of Chandler in his father, the obstacles that stand in their way, in the mystery of the pirate -- where he came from, how he got there, who kill them, and what happened to him.

This will also include scenes of the professor working with the students as well as Chandler, showing his passion for his work and gradually getting around to the fact that he's afraid to get too involved with Chandler because it hurt so much the last time when he went through the divorce.

We also see Chandler's reticence to get involved his father because he believes his dad is more interested in old bones many as in having a son. Maybe he heard that from his mother while he was growing up?

The last 30 pages should resolve the mystery of the pirate, the treasure, and the relationship between Chandler and his dad.

That's the preliminary setup for this novel. As you can see I still have a lot to work out, including the geography, was the pirate was Spanish, French, Spanish, English, Dutch, Portuguese or whatever, as well as the legends and mythology surrounding him and his death.

But by working out this framework, those pieces become more bite-size and less intimidating. They’re also more recognizable. I know what I’m looking for. I have the overall framework for this story. Now I just need to find the pieces that fit within the pacing I want to use to tell story.

I’m going to leave this here for the moment. When I come back, we’ll work on Chandler and his dad’s characters, their history, and what tumultuous event brings them together. Once you have the overall framework, you explore the pieces that bring everything together and alter them as needed.

Hope this is working for you. Email me or comment and let me know.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Word About Genres

Understanding the building blocks you have to play with is important. But you have to have an idea of what you're going to do with them. What kind of story do you want to tell. Who do you want to tell it about.

I'm going to set off a wave of arguments here, but discussion is good -- especially when there are different thoughts about things. I coach little league baseball. If everyone was a pitcher and no one wanted to play infield or outfield, it wouldn't matter how well you could pitch. All a batter had to do was connect with the ball for a homerun. Not only that, but there wouldn't be a catcher behind home plate to catch the pitch, so you'd never get to pitch again. Just stand there being the pitcher.

So, differing opinion, dissatisfaction and downright disagreement to the point of violence is all good. That way we remain a viable, thriving culture. Stagnation, homogenization and sameness are the kiss of death. Don't get me started about strip malls. I still enjoy a good mom and pop hamburger joint and a guy who runs his shop or business because he wants to show up every day and loves what he does.

Agree with me and you'll learn something. Some confidence you can share in your abilities. Some insight that proves you're not alone in your thinking. A way you can get something done.

Disagree with me, challenge me, and you'll learn more. It's what kids do with parents, constantly pushing and shoving at the boundaries and rules till they figure out what code of rules and standards they're going to live by.

And that's what writers do. They read and admire other authors and borrow their techniques and tools. Or they think what that author is doing is dumb and that they can do better. (The latter, believe me, has launched hundreds of careers -- which has in turn inspired other others to look at the latest round of books and decide they can do better. That cycle has always been self-perpetuating.)

What works for me may not work for you. Pure and simple.

It works for me because I believe in it. And that's what writing boils down to also: a belief system.

These genres -- all seven of them -- are the entirety of different roads category fiction can take.

Notice that I said Category. Not Mainstream.

In years past, mainstream novels (like Ernest Hemingway and John Updike and, lately, like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahnick, etc), were the premiere bestsellers. Readers wanted them. Wanted big stories and often deep thinking.

Not so much these days. Readers want comfort reading. They want to pick up books and know for sure what they're getting. Since readers can read any writer under the table, it doesn't do to simply read only one writer because they'll soon have to move on to another writer because they've exhausted those books the writer has written. (And that is a sad fact. A writer takes months to write a novel and a reader takes hours to consume it. Film makers have a worse deal, though. They take months and years on a film at times and it's over in 90 minutes or an hour.)

So Reader takes a look around and tries to figure out what books have caught his/her attention. Reader wants to figure out what genre he/she has been reading. Reader doesn't want to have to think about it because that wastes valuable reading time and causes confusion.

Once Reader figures out a favorite meal (genre), Reader looks for more of the same.

And that's why publishers are looking for books they can put on shelves in different, clearly-marked sections in book stores. Kind of the same reason deer hunters don't stake out busy intersections. (Although an intersection is sometimes closer to the beer!)

Which brings us to genre. Which label are you going to wear proudly on your novel?

GENRES

I've looked around for years and decided there were seven of 'em. Yep. Seven. Argue all you want and I'm not going to budge on that. I'm obstinate. Made even more powerful because I can spell it without SpellCheck.

I'm going to list the seven genres (with the understanding that mainstream is something different, something amorphous and something that sells because it is what is is and not because it fits neatly on a bookstore shelf) along with a brief description. If you need more description, comment and let me know. I'd be happy to oblige.

Supense

One of the big boys on the block. Suspense always involves a chase. Either the bad guys are chasing the good guys, or the good guys are chasing the bad guys. Think Tom Clancy, John Sandford. It can even become more complicated with those people being chased by a third agency, either good or bad or simply controlling.

Mystery

This is a puzzle based around a crime, usually murder or a theft. Clues and suspects abound, pursued by a crafty detective you're in competition with.

Fantasy

Good versus evil. Light versus dark. The worlds can be created of whole cloth (like Lord of the Rings) or set in the contemporary world (urban fantasy) or even set in the future (Roger Zelazny's excellent novel Jack of Shadows comes to mind).

Science Fiction

There are two kinds of science fiction (and I can hear the screams starting already, but these are my definitions for me, I'm sharing them with you -- make up your own mind. As long as I'm not paying your bills, you can think anyway you want to).

Realistic SF is based on real or coming science. Usually they're an exploration of if-this-goes-on. They can be warnings or explorations, or even extrapolations of what might happen based on what we understand of the world at this point. Of course, that point keeps changing.

Space-opera is Star Wars and Star Trek. (See? Disagreements already. Some fans are offended and others want to put Stars Wars up as fantasy.) The basic conceit that I use to separate the two is the existence of "unreal" science (and yes, that changes too, so some books that I list as space-opera may indeed fall into the realistic category some day. By the time that happens, you'll have to contact me through Mistress Cleo at the Psychic Hotline.) and aliens.

Aliens are real? Show me one. Until you can, they go in the space-opera pile.

Romance

Boy gets girl. Girl gets boy. With just about anything else inbetween. Romance has dominated the publishing arena for years, and will probably continue to do so. People like happy stories. Always have. Always will. (So having your character live at the end of your novel would probably be a good idea. Especially if readers want to see that character again. Or you'll end up like David Morrell and write an explanation in your second book that no, John Rambo didn't die in First Blood the way he originally wrote it.)

Merline Lovelace and Sharon Sala, two of the most lovely and entertaining and erudite women in romance, explained the difference between men's romance and women's romance. In women's romance, everyone lives happily ever after. In men's romance, someone dies. Sounds simplistic, but it's true more often than it's not.

Lately, romance has gotten more sexy, edgy and paranormal. In addition to the authors listed above, check out Gena Showalter and PC Cast and Emma Holly. Just don't let your mom catch you reading them!

Horror

Good versus evil. Monsters or monstrous evil. The main thing is the atmosphere that runs through the whole book. Too many writers simply write about bloodthirsty vampires and Things without understanding they're supposed to move the reader emotional. Scare us. Creep us out. Stephen King has never forgotten that.

Dark horror has magic, making it akin to fantasy, and might even come with a fantasy-like setting (a creepy house of secrets or a fog-shrouded moor).

Urban horror has Things running amok in our contemporary world, and involves magic to a degree as well.

Psychological horror usually features a serial killer (overdone unless in the right hands) or some other kind of relentless monster based in the real, physical world we know and understand (except for the bloodlust to kill thing!).

Horror is one of those genres that hovers around the edge of publishing. It's gotten such a bad name that few publishers put it out there, or they change the label to some other genre. (Alien the movie by James Cameron is a horror film of the first magnitude, but everyone assumed it was science fiction.) The field begs to be explored again, but maybe in more subtle ways.

Western

Black hats versus White hats. In the old days, westerns were set between the end of the Civil War and the 1880s. Now there is no real time period. As long as it's set in the American West (which might have been the Appalachian Mountains of the 18th century), it's a western. Matt Braun wrote a book (The Overlords) about a Hollywood stuntman in the 1920s who worked on western movies and went out to Galveston to shoot it out with the mob.

Westerns remain traditional (Ed Gorman does an excellent job, as well as newcomer Lyle Brandt) and can be exotic (like the books Larry McMurtry puts on the shelves).

Summation

Have I offended anyone? Narrowed the scope too much? Allowed too much in? Hopefully I've done all of the above. If you are convinced that I'm wrong, then you're well on your way to having concrete ideas about what it is you want to do.

And if you think I'm right, the smartest rat in the maze, bless you. (But know that I'm not. I'm still learning things all the time. I'm a work in progress even 18 years and over 140 books later.)

People may ask about historicals, if that isn't another genre. The truth is, it's not. It's a modifier. Put it in front of any of the genres above.

Historical suspense.

Historical mystery.

Historical fantasy (yes, they are there. One of them is a new series about dragons in the Napoleonic war by an author whose name I can't at present remember. I'll look it up and post it later).

Historical science fiction (Henry Turtledove's retelling of World Wars I and II, anyone?)

Historical romance.

Historical horror.

Historical western would simply be redundant, but you see the point.

That's it. All seven genres.

Next time we talk about the blessings and burdens of the outline and why you have to know the end before you begin.

Happy writing.

Monday, July 10, 2006

IN THE BEGINNING

Okay, people, class is in session. I have a number of interested parties who want to know how it is that I do what I do. What I hope to do over the next few days is give you an idea of what goes on through a working writer's mind.

At least, an idea of what goes through this working writer's mind.

There are four main ingredients to any story. These are our building blocks, and this is where you begin.

1) Plot

This is an actual list of the EVENTS that happen to take a story from Point A (which is an interesting mid-point, not the very beginning) to Point B (which is where the major problem has been resolved). Point C is the epilogue but you don't have to have one. In fact, most stories get along without them just fine.

2) Characters

These are the story people that populate your plot. Different plots require different layering for characters. An action/adventure novel may only need a strong, manly hero. Or a puzzle/mystery in the truest sense only needs someone with a keen mind that can guide the reader along, a camera to relay events and clues.

Of course, adding depth to characters like these also strengthens them, but that's not what the readers are picking them up for. But if you do create someone who seems real to the reader, you're going to be able to sell a lot more books!

Vin Diesel's character in XXX doesn't need a lot of development because the movie spins on the stunts and the action. When I did the novelization, I pushed myself into Xander Cage's skin and took a look around at his world. I tried to let the reader feel the adrenaline addiction that Cage fed on, the rush that propelled him through his life, instead of merely relaying the action onto the written page.



I did the same thing with the Blade novelization.


Read a few novelizations and you'll see what I mean. Some writers simply relay while others delve into the characters far beyond what's shown in the theaters.

The CSI shows also feature paper-thin characters. The crime-busting science is the true hero of those shows, and Bruckheimer's people know that. CSI:NY was initially going to be a more character-oriented show, but that got nixed. They know what formula works for them.

As another interesting tidbit, best-selling author Max Allan Collins (Road To Perdition --the movie and the graphic novel and novel, True Crime, True Detective, etc.) only featured one murder for the CSI team to solve in his first tie-in novel featuring those characters. Fans took umbrage at that, and Collins and his successors have made certain there were two murders in every novel since that time. Readers really do know what they want.


However, a psychological story needs deep characterization, a story person who takes on flesh and blood in the reader's mind. If these characters aren't real, there's not enough material to deal with -- and no one cares.

Take the characters Robert B. Parker and Nora Roberts created, Spenser and Eve Dallas, respectively. Each of those characters serves to ferret out the bad guy. Each of them could have been paper-thin.

Instead, Parker serves up a private eye who's an ex-boxer, can quote poetry and can give Julia Child a run for her money in the kitchen. Not only that, he grapples with moral issues and doesn't always know if he's done the right thing. (The April Kyle issue, fans, comes up one more time in Parker's new book, Hundred-Dollar Baby, this fall. In Ceremony, Spenser helped teenage April Kyle set herself up as a high-class call girl to escape her parents.)


And Roberts (writing as J. D. Robb) features a police homicide detective of the future who's been sexually abused, is a little frazzled about everyday life, timid about relationships and is OCD when it comes to putting the bad guys behind bars.


I can't remember what the main plots of those books were, but I can generally remember what happened to the main characters in them.

That's what creating deep characters is about.

And I know there would be some who would argue about my examples. But this is my blog.

3) Setting

This would be the geographical area(s) where the story takes place.

4) Backstory

These are the things that happened BEFORE the story begins. You always begin a story in the MIDDLE. Even when a story begins with the birth of a child (say in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes), you can bet that Burroughs had at least and IDEA of who John and Alice Rutherford Clayton, Lord and Lady Greystoke, were before putting pen to paper.

For a plot-driven story, you need to figure out where everything (events, mysteries, clues, bits of interesting history) came from before you start writing.

WHAT'S MOST IMPORTANT?

Of these four ingredients, PLOT and CHARACTER are the most important. In fact, given today's market for novels, I'd lay odds that CHARACTER is more important than plot. Readers like reading about PEOPLE. Although, again, several readers can point to books that blow them away just by twists and turns. James Patterson and Jeffrey Deaver come immediately to mind.

So you can pick between PLOT and CHARACTER, but the real answer to the question is: FINISHING THE STORY!

More on that next time.