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Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 1

Today begins a bunch of free short fiction for the month of October! I decided this year to go with a theme of “Normal things that people normally enjoy…gone wrong.”  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Coffee.

JUST ANOTHER MONDAY MORNING HELL

So I’m just about to drink this cup of coffee at work when all of a sudden my hand melts.  I’m left-handed.  I reach for the handle of my coffee mug–which is plain on the outside but has You’ve been poisoned! on the bottom in the inside, which I bought in an effort to keep my coworkers from stealing my mug–and my fingers grasp the handle and then the handle just kind of slowly slides through them, not like I’m a ghost but like I’m butter, I’m left with most of my pinky and thumb and the stubs of the rest of my fingers, and some lumps of pinkish goo running down the side of the bland white mug and plopping onto the desk.  My wedding ring falls off the stub of my ring finger and lands on the top of the paper towel I was using as a coaster with a clunk.  And I’m sitting there, looking at my fingers, and thinking, Surely I’m more than this, more than a piece of waxwork.  It doesn’t hurt.  I mean, ten seconds ago I was holding that same cup of coffee by the handle without any issues, but then again the handle hadn’t warmed up yet.  I reach out with the right hand but I hesitate.  What if I’m completely made out of wax now?  Did the real me swap me out so she could play hooky?  Is this some kind of bullshit HR tactic to save money on employees?  What?

It doesn’t matter.  I won’t be able to function without coffee this morning and I can’t go home early, not with all the time off I’ve used this year.  I’d get fired.

I go to the break room and get a straw.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Think Like a Librarian: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edogawa Rampo

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo is a collection of short stories set in Japan.  The stories are all written with hats off to Edgar Allen Poe (the author’s name is a pseudonym based on his favorite writer) and his collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

To sum up: if a reader likes the grotesque horror and odd mysteries of Edgar Allen Poe, then they will probably like this collection, which is similar.

As an example, the story depicted on the cover above is “The Human Chair.”  A writer sends a manuscript to his favorite (female) author in the form of a letter written directly to her, about an artisan who crafted wonderful chairs and who developed an obsession about becoming part of his own furniture…and so hid himself inside one of his chairs after it was sold to a hotel.  It gets weirder, stranger, and more grotesque from there, although certainly never obscene.

Each story is stranger and more inventive than the last.

I recommend this book for older teens and up.  Readers who enjoy Edgar Allen Poe, The Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock will find much to delight them here.

“What everyone wants to see,” the crow said, “is someone getting eaten.  Preferably someone who deserves it.”  17 tales of monsters & the macabre.

How to Study Fiction, Part 12: Scenes, Part 4. Middles.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Middles.

The middle of a scene is where you get into all that nice, juicy conflict.

I know, I know.  A lot of writers have heard the advice to start in the middle.  However, that just means “don’t take forever to get to the story, don’t start with the Big Bang or the birth of the character as a baby or even with the first event that is relevant to the story, because that’s what backstory is for.”

But to rush into the middle of a scene without first having a beginning is disorienting.  Long-term professional writers don’t do it.  Write a beginning to set up the character, setting, and conflict of every scene before you get into the middle; otherwise the reader is going to get lost.  It doesn’t have to take a lot of words.  Just do it.

Okay, you’ve had your lecture.  Go read the section on beginnings if you missed it.

Middles are made up of conflicts.  The conflict can be obvious.  It can be subtle.  But every middle has a conflict.  If the conflict isn’t obvious, watch for something horrible to happen to that character in the next scene or two. Some writers like to put in a happy moment, successful moment, or reconciliation between characters before they kill that character off [cough Joss Whedon cough].

And sometimes, in more literary stories, the characters don’t have any conflict.  It’s the reader who is supposed to be conflicted at all the surprising non-conflict that the characters have.  A good example of this is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which the main character decides to take his revenge…and has zero issues carrying it out.

(I really like that story, sorry.  I’m just going to keep using it over and over in this series.)

So.  You’re not a beginning writer anymore, and you’ve stopped taking terms like “conflict” for granted.  What is this conflict, in practical, fictional terms?

A conflict is when the main character attempts to do something and is prevented by some element of the story from doing so.

The conflict can come from a variety of different sources:

  • The character themselves (internal conflict).
  • Other characters.
  • The environment.
  • An interruption.
  • Fate/bad luck.

As long as it stops the character from accomplishing what they set out to do–even if it’s something good–it’s conflict.

In the case of stories where there is no outright conflict (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), the conflict comes from upsetting the reader’s expectations in some way.  These stories are generally pretty short, around three thousand words at most–at least, the ones I’ve been able to spot in the wild are that short.  It’s hard to sustain tension without in-story conflict.

The way that the character can be prevented from accomplishing their goals can vary as well, and this can be critical:

  • The character can try to accomplish something, and fail. (Try/Fail.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, succeed, and still have things turn out worse. (Succeed But Worse.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, and be interrupted. (Interrupt.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, and how it all came out can be held in suspense. (Suspense.)

These are just the main conflict outcomes that I’ve been able to identify from my studying, by the way.  There may be more.

Here are examples of these four outcomes, from the movie The Princess Bride:

  • Inigo tries to stop the man in black from following Vizzini and Buttercup.  He fails.  (Try/Fail.)
  • Buttercup tries to find out the truth of whether Humperdink told Westley that she wanted Westley back. She succeeds and finds out that Humperdink didn’t send his four fastest ships and has in fact been lying to her. This gets her locked up and Westley tortured.  (Succeed But Worse.)
  • Fezzik tries to walk down the hallway of the castle with Westley.  When Inigo screams for him to knock down a door, he does so–however, when he comes back, Westley is gone. (Interrupt.)
  • Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo look over the castle gates, which are guarded by sixty men, and discuss their plans, which, by the way, they don’t spell out in detail.  The scene ends with Fezzik saying, “I hope we win.” (Suspense.)

There is also a great suspense scene that ends with an interrupt, which shows that you can get clever and combine conflicts:  When the shrieking eels are circling Buttercup in the water (suspense), suddenly, we are interrupted by the Grandfather telling the Grandson that “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.”

If the scene hadn’t been interrupted, it wouldn’t have been as exciting–Princess Buttercup tries to escape but propels herself deeper into danger (Succeed But Worse), only to then be rescued.  As it is, the interrupt from the Grandfather is such a reversal of expectations that it’s funny.  (If it was a trick that was pulled more than once, however, it wouldn’t have been as entertaining!)

The middle of a scene can get quite complex.  It can have one long conflict.  It can have multiple short conflicts.  It have have a few short, then one conflict.  It can have conflicts within conflicts.  The pattern of conflicts is up to you.  Different writers tend to have difference preferences for types of conflict, lengths of conflict, and how many conflicts they string together in a scene.

Which conflicts should you choose?  It depends on the story.

Mostly, go with your gut instinct.

But if something isn’t working, ask yourself, “Does this conflict reflect what the story is about at this point?”  For example, if the story is about something that just goes on and on and the scene has only one short conflict and it ends in a complete and utter failure, does that reflect something that goes on and on?  If the story is about an internal conflict and the scene focuses solely on an external conflict, does that reflect the story?

But if it’s working, don’t change it, even if the reason you wrote the scene that way isn’t immediately obvious.  Your subconscious may have plans…

Next, I’m going to talk about endings.  First the kind of ending that makes you move from one scene to the next, and then the kind of ending that makes you put the book down happy yet wanting more.

Just before Black Monday in 1929, a secretary discovers magic…and the swindlers who use it. Read it here.

 

 

 

Interview with Shannon Lawrence, author of Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations

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Welcome to fellow author Shannon Lawrence!  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan Rutter, Jason Dias, and MJ Bell are also available.

1. This collection is made up of short, creepy horror tales, not necessarily splatterpunk but not broodingly gothic, either. What made you decide to write in this particular vein of horror?  It feels both adventurous in the classic pulp adventure sense, and very thick with detail and observation that lead inevitably to creepiness and suspense.

It was never really a decision. These were the stories coming to me, and I wrote them in whatever way spoke to me. It wasn’t until more recently that I started really experimenting with different types of horror, including some quieter horror. However, I do love the classic, blue collar sort of horror, and that’s probably always what I’ll write the most naturally. My first influence in horror was Stephen King, and I feel he’s telling blue collar tales, too. I like straight forward, hopefully identifiable characters, doing normal things that prove to be a mistake in the end. Life is unpredictable, and I hope I reflect that to an extent.

 

2. This collection contains the locally infamous Blue Sludge Blues story that I heard you read part of at an event. Please briefly describe the setup for the story…and the reactions you received at the event.  (I know, I’ve heard the story behind the story before, but it’s a good one and I want you to share it anyway because heee hee hee!)

That was the most fun I’ve had reading a story! When I set out to write Blue Sludge Blues, it was meant to be an experiment in visceral horror. I asked people what words grossed them out or gave them an automatic negative feeling. And then I wrote about one of the most disgusting, uncomfortable places a person can go: a rest stop port-a-potty.

The story features a man moving across the country. He stops at a rest stop, where something waits for him, deep in the blue sludge of the chemical toilet. Something with tentacles. A quick bathroom break becomes a fight for his life.

When I read it at an open mic night, I wanted to see how people would respond. It wasn’t quite finished yet, but the gross details were there already. It was nerve-wracking, because I thought I might offend someone. Instead, there were groans, exclamations, and laughs at all the right places, and it was impossible to read it with a straight face as people sounded off around the room. They were grossed out and horrified, as I’d intended, and it remains my most requested short story.

 

3. How do you decide what kind of ending you end the stories with–from happy to tragic? It sounds like it’s a process, with some endings on some stories garnering some pretty harsh rejections.  What was the worst reaction you’ve ever received, and did you decide it was all about the person rejecting the story, about the ending being wrong for the story, or something of both?

I hate to say it for this answer, too, but I don’t plan most endings. I’m a complete pantser, sometimes not knowing where I’m going until I’m in the thick of it. I’ve been told I tend to write circular stories, with the ending doing a bit of a callback to something in the beginning, so I’d say the endings are instinctual. I had no idea I was doing that until someone pointed it out. Admittedly, I lean toward more tragic endings or the false happy ending. Likely because those are the types of endings I grew up reading and watching in horror films.

I haven’t had anyone ask for a new ending, but I’ve had issues with details within the story. The one I had the most issues with was for a story called Cravings, about a pregnant couple dealing with some disturbing cravings. Originally, the couple had a dog. At one point, the husband came home to find his pregnant wife gnawing on the dog’s neck. It lived. My first rejection came from an editor who said I should have gone all the way and killed the dog, and he was disappointed I hadn’t done so. I went ahead and changed it to see what would happen. Sure enough, personal rejections came in because I’d harmed a dog (and to be clear, I was not submitting to markets that blatantly forbade harm to animals in their guidelines). They weren’t nasty (in fact, they were complimentary of my writing style), and they said they liked the idea of the story, but they wouldn’t publish it because the dog died. Or, as one woman said, she couldn’t handle “the slow, awful death of the dog.” (It was intentionally not slow and awful—I don’t do animal torture—but it obviously bothered her). I stubbornly went on submitting the two versions of the story to various publications, and it netted me the most personal rejections I’ve ever gotten on one story. They liked the idea and the writing, but that dog (poor Jauncy) was trouble, no matter which direction I went.

Ultimately, I removed the dog entirely and rewrote the story to actually be slightly more extreme on the one hand and more discreet on the other. No harm to an animal was directly depicted.  I was deeply frustrated, and couldn’t decide between the two courses of action, so I figured out a third instead.

I definitely felt it came down to personal preferences for the different editors, not so much this detail being wrong for the story. My critique group was sad to learn I’d changed the story to remove the dog. I’d gotten exactly the reactions from them that I’d intended when they read the original piece, but sometimes it’s best to let it go. With such mixed reactions from editors, the readers were going to have equally mixed reactions.

 

4. You, M.B. Partlow, and I have been reading through several lists of horror novels over the last few years (it feels weird to say that, but it’s been going on for a while, hasn’t it?). Who do you feel that you’ve discovered through those lists that you most relate to, as a writer?  Not necessarily the book you enjoyed the most, although feel free to mention that.  What techniques have you stolen or borrowed?  What have you simply said a big fat “nope” to?

It has been a few years, hasn’t it? That’s hard to process.

The story that struck me the most (so far) was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It gave me a new understanding of horror. I was already familiar with monsters, both human and animal, but this book has varying levels of human monster, and the big ones, the ones that put this dystopian landscape into play, are never seen. We only see the results of their actions. Other than that, they’re faceless. It’s astoundingly well done.

Other than that, I learned a LOT about what makes up horror. In the beginning, there were books I’d read and I had no idea why they’d been classified as horror. But I’d think about it, tear my ideas apart, and eventually expanded my definition of horror. All horror authors should have an epiphany like that one. As it is, I still have people argue with me about The Handmaid’s Tale being horror. People also have trouble understanding that a story can be horror-plus. As in, it can be horror and science fiction. We don’t have to pick one genre. The film Aliens can be both horror and science fiction. In fact, it can be horror, science fiction, military sci-fi, and action/adventure. It can be all those things without diminishing it or changing its meaning to any one person.

Overall, the entire project helped me become bolder and more experimental with my writing. I’m more willing to play because of what I’ve experienced in the books on the list. For the most part, I’ve also stopped saying, “That wasn’t horror,” instead immersing myself in it and picking it apart until I can see why someone else might have defined it as horror.

One of the skills it’s made me work to hone is holding back. Sometimes I rush forward, so excited to get to the big freaky thing. It’s more effective not to do that, and it takes finesse.

My big nope? The nonsensical, bizarro, political weirdness of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Too abstract for me.

 

5. Where do you think you’ll go from here with your writing? I know a lot of short story writers end up writing novels, often because it pays more (at least, in theory).  If you were able to make a living at short stories, would you stick with those, or still work your way into novels?

I was actually working on novels first, and I do have a few in the works, but I enjoy my time with short stories so much more that I rarely work on the novels. There’s a roller coaster high-low addiction to short story writing, submitting, and publishing. Instead of one or two novel releases a year, I have a bunch of releases, and the excitement involved in them. Sometimes I’ve got multiple releases at once! Plus, there’s a kinship with the people sharing the tables of contents with me at times, as well as the editors. It’s a fantastic community, and one that’s growing.

Novels move at glacial speeds. Short stories are rapid and exciting. I’ve been published with big names that I’d never share space with in writing any other way.

In short? I’d love to also have novels published, though not for the money so much as the fact that some of my story ideas simply turn out to need a novel’s length to tell, and they want out as much as the short stories do. Well, almost as much. I don’t see myself ever giving up short stories. I’m making the same amount monthly from my collection of short stories that friends with one novel out are making. It’s not a lot…for either of us (bearing in mind I’m speaking only of self-published friends with a single novel out), but we’re running parallel in terms of royalties. And in addition to that one book, I sell short stories throughout the year, which is a meager additional income they’re not bringing in.

I’m also playing around with short memoir/creative non-fiction and working on a craft book on short stories, so we’ll see where that takes me.

 

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on? (Hint:  the additional promo question.)

Writing short stories has led me to opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of the same benefits and opportunities as novelists, such as being picked up to speak at conferences, be a panelist at conventions, do standalone workshops, participate in book signings, etc. Short stories have a natural ebb and flow, like many other aspects of writing, but right now they’re flowing. It’s a great time to try your hand at short stories to see how you do. Short fiction is selling especially well in the speculative fiction realm, so give it a go!

And those opportunities I mentioned? I’ve got a piece coming out September 4 in an anthology with some of the most amazing, up-and-coming women in horror. I’m incredibly excited about it, and there are already rumblings of an award nomination for the book, as well as a review in Publisher’s Weekly. If nothing else, it’s made a stir. Most of the stories are reprints (including mine), but there are also new stories written for the anthology. That book is Fright Into Flight, put out by Word Horde, edited by Amber Fallon.

And I’m in an anthology of novellas and novellettes, due to be released September 15. The Society of Misfit Stories, Volume II can be found here.

A fan of all things fantastical and frightening, Shannon Lawrence writes primarily horror and fantasy. Her stories can be found in several anthologies and magazines, including Space and Time Magazine and Dark Moon Digest, and her short story collection Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations is now available. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking through the wilds of Colorado and photographing her magnificent surroundings, where, coincidentally, there’s always a place to hide a body or birth a monster. Find her at www.thewarriormuse.com.

Think Like a Librarian: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

The Vegetarian is a short novel set in contemporary Korea.  Yeong-hye is a housewife who, after a terrible dream, decides to become a vegetarian.  Because her role is so restrictive and other people’s understanding of her humanity so limited by her circumstances, her decision–seemingly so minor–comes to have horrific effects.

Because this is a story about one’s point of view being invalidated, the story is told from other characters’ points of view, in three novelettes.  The first is from her husband’s point of view; he is incredulous that she will not eat meat, and even more incredulous that she won’t start eating meat because he told her to.

The second is from her brother-in-law’s point of view as he turns her into a kind of living art object, only caring about whether she will model for his video art or not.

The third is from her sister’s point of view, as she struggles to decide whether to treat her sister as a person with a will of her own or as an inconvenient bit of living meat after everything else has been stripped for her.

The Vegetarian is one of the world’s perfect book club books; it’s short and easily readable, and it’s almost guaranteed to provoke interesting discussions.  Are the events of the book fully realistic, or do they have any sort of supernatural implication?  Is the book a fairy tale or not?  How should the people closest to Yeong-hye have reacted?  Who was at fault?  Readers’ emotional reactions will also vary greatly; I found the book very Kafkaesque and ironically funny at times (as I do with Kafka).  Other readers have said they found the book tragic and moving.

I recommend this book for adults and older teens; there is no strong language, but shocking situations, including graphic sex and violence, abound.  Readers who are interested in modern-day fairy tales will also find this of great interest; the story reads like a retelling of an old fairy tale that one hasn’t happened to have read yet.  The book should also be of interest to readers who enjoy weird fiction such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.  I read this in one sitting, and enjoyed it very much.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

How to Study Fiction, Part 11: Scenes, Part 3. Beginnings.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Beginnings.

This is my weakness, really.  I’m terrible at beginnings, or rather I have been.  My attitude has always been, “My readers are smart; I shouldn’t have to tell them everything…and then tell them everything again…and again…”

I started out as a poet, see, and readers of poetry hang on your every word.  They let words sink in.  They ponder.

Readers of fiction don’t ponder until after they put the book down, really, which ideally they have read in a single, rushed sitting.  Kind of the opposite of poetry, in which you know it’s a good poem if you can’t finish the stanza, because the poem has triggered so many emotions and memories that you have to process them first.

So:

I have a problem with not adding enough to my beginnings.  Some people try to shove in too much (the “wait wait let me explain my entire world to you before the characters get to do anything” people).  And both groups, I think, can end up getting burned by early criticism and try to do the exact opposite.  Overkill abounds.

For a good beginning, I think the point of balance is:

  • When you tell the reader what they need to know to get through the scene with everything making sense, but not more than that.
  • Lines that “promise” that there will be more information on areas where the reader doesn’t need to know something yet, but will clearly be curious. (Ironically, these go in the endings of things–which we’ll talk about later.)
  • Anchoring everything through your POV character’s POV, rather than getting ranty or explainey as an author.

What the readers need to know:

  • Who are the characters involved, especially the main character and (if different) the POV character (as in a Holmes/Watson duo).
  • What the setting is, including time frame, location, and any attitudes/rules about the way the setting will be treated (for example, the UK of a James Bond movie has different attitudes and rules than the UK of a Dr. Who episode).
  • What is going on, including enough of what went on before the start of the scene/story to get us up to speed.

I’d also like to note that readers need to know this stuff…a lot.  Often.  As in the words that cover this information are probably about a quarter to a third of the book.  Not the first third of the book–this stuff has to be scattered throughout every chapter, every scene, and every try/fail of the book (more on try/fails next time).

At the beginning of the book, you have a lot of “beginning” information to cover.  Then, every time you change POV characters, introduce a new character, change scene locations, or add a plot twist or new information, you also have to have more “beginning” information.

Let’s look at an example, the movie version of The Princess Bride.

  • There is a scene introducing the boy, his mom (who never shows up again; she’s just there for the boy to whine at and to deliver the information that the grandfather is going to be there), the illness, and the boy’s love of sports and video games.
  • There’s another scene introducing the grandfather, the book, the boy’s opinion about same.
  • There’s another scene introducing the farm, the girl, the farm boy, and their relationship.
  • There’s another scene deepening their relationship, and the two begin to kiss.
  • Whoah!  The rules of the story have changed, and the boy interrupts to demand that the grandfather explain the rules of the story.  “Is this a kissing book?”
  • The story resumes and the girl and the farmboy split apart so the farmboy can seek his fortune.
  • But news comes to the girl of his death, and she announces that she will never love again.
  • Five years pass, and the girl has become a princess, about to marry Prince Humperdink, and we’re shown (and told) that she doesn’t love him.

All of this stuff is the beginning.  We only start getting to the action of the plot when Vizzini tries to kidnap her.

However, the action of the plot (the middle) also has a beginning.  The beginning of the main plot, which is “try to rescue Buttercup,” goes like this:

  • The princess is abducted.
  • Vizzini explains that he is kidnapping the princess in order to start a war between Florin and Guilder.
  • The three kidnappers’ characters are introduced, so that we like Inigo and Fezzik, but not Vizzini.
  • The princess tries to escape from the ship and is threatened with death.
  • The story is interrupted by the grandfather as the rules of the world appear to change.  The princess doesn’t get eaten at this time–but someone might get killed.
  • The grandfather gets back to the story, the princess is “rescued” by her abductors.
  • Inigo spots someone behind them, but isn’t sure who it is.
  • The kidnappers flee to the cliffs of insanity (new location), climb them, and cut the rope.
  • Vizzini tells Inigo to kill the person following them, then catch up.

Now we’re at the main action of the main action.  Yes, this whole “beginnings, middles, and endings” thing gets a bit complicated and may seem repetitive (but if done right, the reader won’t notice).

The main action of the story is Westley’s efforts to rescue Princess Buttercup from marrying Humperdink.  The story isn’t over until he has definitively rescued Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.  Everything up to this point has been setting up the rescue of Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.

But wait!  There’s more beginning.

  • Inigo paces around, watches the man in black climb with painful slowness up the cliff.
  • He throws the man in black a rope.  He climbs up, after some bits of dialogue that establish more of Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black climbs to the top and is about to start the main action of the main action of the main action of this scene, when he is interrupted by Inigo, who wants him to rest up.
  • They have more conversation to establish Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black says, “You’ve been more than fair,” etc.

Now the action begins, and they begin to fight.

However, each beat in the action has its own beginning as well.

  • They both pose with the sun setting behind the man in black, at the edge of the cliff.  (Beginning.)
  • Inigo takes a few slashes with his sword, which the man in black easily dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo pauses, circling his opponent. (Ending.)
  • They both pose, now with the sun setting behind Inigo, at the edge of the cliff. (Beginning.)
  • The man in black attacks Inigo, using the same moves, which Inigo easily, but less easily, dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo smiles.  (Ending.)
  • Inigo begins another exchange, this time more complex.  (Beinning.)
  • The two play back and forth, demonstrating their basics to each other, but it’s clear that this won’t be over very quickly. (Middle.)
  • The camera transitions to a wide shot, showing the setting around them.  (A bit of setting interrupting a slow spot in the middle, to help give it a little structure.)
  • The swordplay continues, as if it could go on all day like this. (Middle.)

This is the beginning of the swordfight (made up of several tiny beginnings, middles, and endings of its own).  This part of the fight is more about establishing who is more skilled (not clearly either at this point), how they both fight (the man in black remains a mystery), and isn’t about combat and winning so much as it is about feeling each other out.

The beginnings continue on a regular basis throughout the fight:

  • Inigo begins analyzing the man in black’s technique.
  • The man in black begins driving Inigo back, even though Inigo has demonstrated all this learning.
  • Inigo begins driving the man in black backward after he switches hands.
  • The man in black compliments Inigo at the top of the ruined tower, before switching swords.
  • Inigo goes after his sword.
  • The man in black throws away his sword.
  • Inigo asks, “Who are you?”
  • They begin fighting again.
  • The man in black holds the sword at Inigo’s face after disarming him the last time.

What’s happening is that in order to keep the fight from becoming one big blob of action, the beginning/middle/ending structure is being applied to break up the fight into smaller sections.  Unless there’s a reason not to, this is generally how stories work: people’s brains can only take in a few bits of any one thing at a time.  In order to reset the brain so we don’t get confused (as you would if this were a real swordfight!), the story is broken up into smaller and smaller parts.  The beginnings help keep the viewer from getting confused or–even worse!–getting bored with the action.

We need to know:

  • Where each part of the fight happens in relation to the rest of the fight.  Why didn’t Westley fall off the cliff when Inigo had him pinned to the wall?  Where did that wall come from? We know this, because we were shown the fight up the stairs, then a shot of the ruined tower, and then Inigo pins Westley against the crumbling wall.
  • The “rules” of the fight.  Inigo doesn’t just fight Westley.  First Inigo studies Westley using a simple bit of technique, and only then does he get more intense.   Also, we know that Inigo is supposed to kill Westley, regardless:  this sets the expectation that this is a life-or-death fight.
  • What the characters are like.  We learn about Inigo’s character (he doesn’t want to kill a weaker opponent but will if he has to, and wants a good fight more than anything else at this point).  We learn about Westley’s character (he holds back until he must use his full technique in order to move past Inigo).  We learn that they are both masters.  (And, later, in the beginning of another scene, Humperdink confirms this, which tells us about Humperdink’s character.)

Because we know these things, the fact that Westley cracks Inigo over the head to save him at the end of the scene is both a surprise, and yet makes perfect sense.  The expectation of this being a life-or-death fight was set in the beginning, more than once–but it wasn’t set by Westley.  His goal was always just rescuing Princess Buttercup.  We just assumed that it would require death in order to do so, because Inigo’s goal was to kill Westley…after a good fight.

When you’re studying a scene:

  • Look for new locations, characters, and information being introduced, especially if it’s right before a fight or argument, a conflict of some kind.
  • At the beginning of a chapter or scene, look for the first action that has something at stake for the main character.  That’s the start of the middle–everything before that must necessarily be a beginning.  But it has to be an action; saying that something will be at stake isn’t action.
  • Watch for paragraphs of nothing but description.  They often are used as a structural element to reset the reader’s brain and mark the beginning of a new attempt at solving a problem.
  • Look for small talk that goes nowhere; it can be used as a beginning, too (Agatha Christie does this a lot, and it’s all over the mystery novel Fletch, too).

As we look at beginnings, middles, and endings, please notice something: beginnings aren’t just the start of a story, or a chapter, or even a scene.  They’re all over the freaking place!    But that doesn’t mean they have to be long, drawn-out, or repetitive.  Even though such a huge amount of The Princess Bride is dedicated to beginnings at each level, as a viewer you barely notice it, because the beginnings cover slightly new information, or someone else presenting the same information but in a different way, every time.  A good beginning doesn’t feel laborious.  It just feels comfortable, like you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.

And that’s your goal, as a writer.

Next time, we cover the middles…

Once upon a time, the fae came to earth to engineer the perfect changeling…then the Others began to shatter their world.  Are the fae here to save us from their fate…or to replace us and avoid their own? Click here to find out.

 

 

How to Come Up With Story Ideas

Something that you have to do as an author is come up with story ideas: on time, on certain subjects, about 80% as expected and 20% new and fresh, and to fit with the rest of your work.

Difficult.

But what’s even more difficult are the requirements left unsaid:

  • The idea has to generate a story that is neither longer nor shorter than the intended length of the work.
  • You have to have a personal connection to the idea.
  • The idea has to be translatable into a story with a strong setting, characters, and action that extend beyond the idea itself.
  • The idea can’t be something that the logical readers for that story will hate.

If you generate enough bad story ideas, you will eventually just generate a story idea that meets the expectations.  If you write enough stories, you’ll eventually write a story of the correct length and quality, too.  There are techniques to help make all this more efficient, of course, so you don’t have to write a million words just to get a 3,000-word short story down on paper.  But random ideas and a lot of writing will, eventually, do.

The trick actually seems to be in finding a personal connection with any given story idea.

I’ve written stories that fit all the requirements but seem like someone else wrote them when they were done.  Or I’ll get a quarter of the way through a story and come to a dead stop.  This isn’t my story, someone else tell the damned thing.

I thought for a long time that you had to search desperately for story ideas that “connected” with your soul, or something.  Is this “my” idea?

However, finding a connection to a story is a process like any other:  what about this story idea is like my life? what about this story idea do I feel passionately about? have I had strong dreams that are like this idea?

You just have to feel a connection to your story.  Doesn’t matter what it is. You don’t even have to know what it is.  If you don’t feel it, nose around until you feel something.  Or ditch the idea and find one that you feel more strongly about.

It doesn’t matter where you get your ideas, what they are, or that you feel good about a story as you write it.  Just that you feel something about it.

That’s what makes you finish a story.  And, when tempered by craft, that’s what makes it worth reading.

Anthology story that you’re stuck on?  Feel something.  Trying to decide whether to write to market or not write to market? Feel something.  Stuck in the middle of a passion project that’s gone dry? Feel something.

Have an opinion and emotions about the content of your story.

Have your own personal point of view.

I wrote this as a reminder to myself as I’m sitting down to write a story for an anthology and am stuck on it.  Mutter mutter… Anyway, please sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t yet.  You get a free story, and in every issue there’s a terrible pun, some random book recommendations, updates on what I’m working on (ghostwritten and personal), and an article or short piece of writing that you get ahead of everyone else.  I think next month’s is going to be a poem about a hilarious bird call I heard out on Chatfield Reservoir. Click here to sign up.

 

 

 

 

 

What Am I Selling, When I Sell a Story

I’ve been working a lot on studying marketing lately.  Not just indie book marketing, but the principles behind selling stuff.

When I started out as a writer, I thought writing was mostly about putting one’s thoughts and feelings down on the page, and then some magic would happen, and people would like what I wrote and want to pay for it.

Like many things in life, if you want the magic to happen, you have to make it yourself.  And when you do, the magic turns out to be completely mundane.  I eventually figured out that the magic, in this case, was selling things.  The connection between making something and have people want to buy it is…selling things.

Duh.

A lot of people seem to grasp this instinctively; I didn’t.  Here’s what I’ve been reading to study up:

  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Robert Bly.  If you read one book on the subject, do this one.
  • Kickass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, by Susan Gunelius.  Pretty good, another approach on much of the same material.  For people who need more structure.
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman.  This is more of a “why” than a “what” book for freelancers.  Very good.
  • Six Figure Author, by Chris Fox (and related titles).  Translates Bly into action steps specific to indie writers.

And some other books that I abandoned after they made my eyes roll.
Two things stuck out to me:

  1. I had no idea what I was selling.
  2. I had no idea why anybody would buy it.

Erk.

I had come a long way from the standard indie writer approach to marketing and promotion, which is basically, “I have a new book out, if you are so inclined, please buy it,” which I tend to refer to as the buy my crap approach.

Telling people to buy your book without telling them why they want it is poor salesmanship, and can’t possibly do your book justice.

But I (and it seems most writers) didn’t actually know why anyone would want my books, or books in general.  What do books do for people?  And how do you demonstrate that your book does that in general, and specifically that one thing that the reader wants from your book and no other?

(This is called a “unique selling proposition,” by the way; you have to identify it before you can do anything else.)

I had to back up.

Why do people read books?

  • To be entertained in the way that they specifically find entertaining.
  • To escape from their lives.
  • To process the problems in their lives in a safe way.
  • To empathize with other people, to become them for a little while.
  • To totally geek out over something.

Why do people read my books?

  • To escape from the normal world, but not necessarily too far.
  • To feel like they’re part of an intelligent, insightful conversation.
  • To see something they’ve already seen, but with a fresh perspective (often ironic).
  • To see something they haven’t already seen or cannot see, as if it were real.
  • Alice in Wonderland geeks (yay!).

There’s something that gets discussed in the process of selling stuff, features versus benefits.  The features are the things about your book that make it what it is.

The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a book about Alice in Wonderland; it has zombies.

The benefits of the book are what the reader gets out of it.

The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a dryly ironic book that sets you right in the middle of a Victorian Oxford class war and provides insight into Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, her family, and even Queen Victoria.  The story is a darkly true coming of age story, where Alice doesn’t so much come into her own as get bullied into taking her place as an upper-class daughter.  Sometimes there is no happy ending, because people are jerks, and it’s nice to have that dragged out into the open rather than, once again, prettied up for the family photo album.

The difference between features and benefits is emotion.  Features are about stuff that exists; benefits are about how the audience feels about it.  The magic is in the feels.

I’m still struggling with how this works, and until I’m a millionaire I probably won’t feel like an expert on the subject, but I have reached the point where I can see other writers screwing this up.

Nobody wants to know the plot of your story, per se, before they read it.

People want to know how you’re going to make them feel.

When someone writes a story, they are writing an experience for the reader.  Everything else builds toward making the reader feel something in particular.  When I write, I am selling experiences.  What people want to buy, when they buy a book, is a particular experience.

Selling uses the features of the book to focus the reader’s attention on the experience they’ll have.  “You’ll have a great time reading this book!” is not a convincing argument.  Why?  What if I’m not the right reader for the book?  How will I know?  So you do have to use the features somewhat. They just aren’t the focus.

“If you like Alice in Wonderland and zombies, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”

Pretty much true.

“If you like dark historical fiction with a horror bent, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”

Also true.  Genre is a way of identifying clusters of experiences in books.

I’m still not to the point where I can pull an effective book description out of my butt, but I’m getting closer.  I’m also finding that it affects my writing; I’m thinking more about what readers will experience as they read.  This is a real pain in the ass at the moment.  I’m thinking waaaay too hard about it as I write (and it’s me saying that).  But I feel like I’m getting closer to what readers actually want.

What do readers want?  They want a good time, the time you get from visiting old cemeteries and wondering whether that statue covered in moss and stains is an angel or some kind of fallen demonic entity.

Or something like that 🙂

I don’t just send out Wonderland Press updates via my newsletter, but articles like this one.  More of the same here.

How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

This time, we’re going to talk about basic scene structure.

Very nearly every professional-level scene that you read has a basic structure in Western fiction.  There will be some exceptions (especially when it comes to highly literary or experimental books), but…this is mostly just it.

  • The beginning sets up the scene.
  • The middle shows the main character of the scene trying to do something, and the results thereof.
  • The ending sets up another scene.

Like many great big truths in writing, it’s pretty prosaic (which literally means to be “like prose”).  The wonders and delights and inventiveness of the most creative books are mainly based on those three elements.  Over and over and over again.

The main exception is at the end of the book, in which the ending of the scene does not set up anything else, but gives the reader a kiss-off, or feeling of satisfaction at the conclusion of the book.  Some people call this a validation.

I’ve been working with some authors who struggle to grasp how straightforward and dull the crafting of scenes is (it’s the content of the scenes that is exciting, not how they’re put together).  It’s like they can’t believe that this is literally all there is to it; these are often writers who don’t type things in and are still captured by the illusions that writing creates.

In our memories, books are endlessly inventive.  In practice, they really, really aren’t.  Human brains are, for most people, fundamentally the same, and are affected by the same techniques.  We are so used to overlooking these techniques that we forget they’re being used on us.  It’s like watching commercials on TV. You don’t actually notice that there’s an audience in mind or that the commercial is identifying benefits of using that product or service for that audience.  You might notice something clever about the ad, but you’re completely missing the point that there’s a specific group of people being sold to, or that the information in the commercial is presented in such a way as to make sense to that audience.

The structure of a scene is there to make readers’ brains do something specific.

  • Explain why the reader should care about what’s happening in the scene.
  • Increase the tension in the scene/story.
  • Move the reader to the next scene.

That’s it.  At the end of the book, you stop moving the reader forward and instead give them a sense of satisfaction.  That sense of satisfaction is the biggest advertisement for your next book (not a cliffhanger for the next book in the series!).

The beginning of the scene should contain all the information the reader needs to know in order to care about what’s happening.  No more, no less, no surprises.  Don’t withhold clues from the reader; they are part of what sets up the sense of satisfaction at the end of the book!  Hide the clues instead–bury them in other information.

The middle of the scene should contain the main character (who may or may not be the point of view character, as in Sherlock Holmes stories, where Watson is the POV narrator) trying to take the next step to resolve whatever is going on in the story.  As a general trend, whatever the main character does has to make things worse somehow, either by failing or by succeeding in a way that triggers something bad to happen. This is how you increase tension.

The end of the scene should set up the reader for the next scene.  Generally, this means wrapping up the current “try” that the main character is attempting and letting us know the fallout, or promising to tell us later.  Foreshadowing for the next scene is hinted at, new information is revealed, and dramatic escalations of danger (cliffhangers!) are introduced.

It’s like one of those flip books where there are sixteen heads, sixteen chests, and sixteen tails:  pick the ones you like and make an “original” scene!

I’ll go into beginnings, middles, and endings in more detail next. But here are some signs that you’re missing on scene structure:

  • “This is an interesting scene but I’m not sure what it’s about.”
  • “This scene is full of infodumps.”
  • “I think I’m missing some pages.”
  • “Cool story, but I had a hard time getting into it.”
  • “You have to read the first five chapters before you can decide whether you really like the story.”
  • “I liked the beginning but the middle got boring.”
  • “OH MAN THE END PISSED ME OFF.”

Some of these issues refer more to the overall structure of the story, but you have to grasp scene structure in order to understand the reasoning behind overall structure issues.

When I first started studying structure, I felt offended that writing was nothing  more than a “craft” in which predictable pieces were glued together in certain predictable patterns–it felt like there was very little art involved.  But every art has a phase like this, I think, where one studies one’s materials and how they’re put together, so that it’s easier to take flights of fancy and to follow one’s intuition.

You won’t always be so self-conscious about scene structure, I promise.

Next time, I’ll talk more about beginnings.  What information needs to be in your beginnings?  What do you do if you tend to sprinkle that information throughout your scene instead of putting it in the front?  How do you keep the beginning of a scene from turning into an infodump?

Until next time…

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with M.J. Bell, author of Next Time I See You

Amazon | Goodreads | Author Website
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Welcome to fellow author M.J. Bell, also author of The Chronicles of the Secret Prince trilogy.  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan Rutter, and Jason Dias are also available.

1. I know you worked hard on making the time travel as accurate as possible.  Can you tell me (well, the blog readers really, since you’ve already told me) which theory of time travel you picked, why you picked it?

I wanted to write a time travel story for as long as I can remember. But I wanted it to be scientific, not magical, and that was a problem since a normal person, like my main character, Kat, had no way of getting access to a rocket ship to fly close to a black hole or fly at the speed of light, or access to a wormhole or cosmic strings—the only ways time travel is possible, according to the top physicists of the world. And though I could have just made something up, I don’t have a scientific brain and I knew readers are savvy and I didn’t want to disappoint them with some lame excuse of a time machine. But I kept researching, hoping to find a way, and a couple years ago, I found it—an article about a college professor back East who had developed a hypothesis that stated that light could bend the space time continuum into a loop in which a person could then travel forward in time. At that time, he was also in the process of building a real time machine. The minute I read that, I dropped the story I was working on and immediately started writing Next Time I See You. It didn’t really matter if the professor got his time machine to work or not (and as far as I know, to date he still hasn’t), his hypothesis was a solid, scientific base for me to use, and after doing extensive research on quantum physics and talking the subject over with several physicists, Kat’s time machine was born, and I have no doubt that someday the professor will get it to work!

2. Your character goes back in time to assassinate the mass shooter who killed her boyfriend (he wasn’t her fiancé) .  Would you have tried to do what your character did, in a similar situation?  What do you feel like drove her to even try, where so many people would have just gone, “Not possible!”

That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure I can give a definite answer to! While losing a loved one would be horrific, and losing them in a mass shooting would triple that horror, I don’t know that I would have the guts to go through a time machine and face a killer. But I could see myself hiring someone else to do it for me! Haha…

And I don’t know that my character, Kat, would have gone through with it either if she had been able to process her grief in a normal way and been in her right mind. But she wasn’t. She went to a very dark place after the shooting and the dementors had swooped in, circling overhead and sucking her life out. At the point she discovered the time machine, she had lost just about everything and didn’t feel like she had anything left to lose.

3. All right, what other time travel books/movies/shows do you actually like?  Or do they all just drive you nuts?

Well, who doesn’t love the Back to the Future movies? I also enjoyed the first three Outlander books and the TV series, but not so much because of the time travel aspect—because of the history and Gabaldon’s writing. But to be truthful, a lot of time travel books and shows drive me nuts! I can’t help but pick out the inconsistencies, and it always drives me crazy when a person from our time goes back hundreds of years and is able to fit right in. I think that’s why I always wanted to write a time travel. I was going to make my character have a hard time and fumble everything, because realistically, I think that’s how it would happen. A person from this time, who is used to technology and all the conveniences we have today, would not have a clue as to how to deal without. But then, as it turned out, Kat only went back in time sixteen months, so she didn’t have to deal with a different time period. Although, there were still plenty of hurdles for her to get over!

4. As you know, I got waaaay too involved with the main character and was very upset that she was being put through the wringer in the beginning of the book.  How did you add so much tension?

I’m sorry I put you through that, but I wanted readers to be inside Kat’s head, and as I mentioned earlier, that wasn’t a pleasant place to be. But it made for great tension and that was necessary to the story. I also wanted readers to understand she wasn’t a bad person. She was just very broken and with good reason. And she needed to be backed into a corner and desperate enough to make the decision to kill the POS. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been any story to tell!

5. What are you planning for your next project?  As in, how do you follow a book like this?!?

Ha! One of my favorite TED talks is by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. She starts out talking about how after the success of that book, people would come up to her, pat her on the arm, and look at her with sympathy and say, “Wow, how are you ever going to top that?” I’m not anyway close to being on Gilbert’s level, but I kind of feel the same way – what am I going to do now to top this! I loved Kat’s story and it is hard to move away from it, but I still have that urban fantasy that I put aside to write Next Time I See You. I’m getting back to it, researching facts and logistics and I’m sure in another month or so, I’ll be completely involved with it. The title of it will be Three.

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint:  the additional promo question.)

The experience Kat had in meeting the blue-eyed stranger (a.k.a Blue-eyes) was actually taken from a personal experience. It was long, LONG ago, but I still remember it as if it was yesterday. A friend and I were taking our daughters to their first concert, and due to the size of the event, we had to park quite a distance from the stadium. Fortunately, they had shuttles set up to transport us. When we got on the shuttle, all seats were taken and we had to stand in the center aisle. I turned and looked behind me and straight into the most mesmerizing blue eyes I have ever seen. I have never to this day seen eyes that color, and just like Kat, I instantly felt queasy and started shaking all over. It was the most intense déjà vu experience I’ve ever had. My friend and no one else around me seemed to be affected the same way I was, but I swear, I could have sat and stared into those eyes for the rest the night. All I did, though, was throw a few glances his way, as many as I felt I could get away with, because he was a stranger and I didn’t want to be caught staring. The shuttle ride was way too short and before I knew it, we were off the bus and going our separate ways. Those eyes have haunted me ever since and I’ve always regretted not knowing his story, and never thought I would find it out. But then he appeared again in this book, and Kat, being a lot braver than I, was able to uncover the answer for both of us. It’s there in Next Time I See You, if any of you are interested in knowing it too!

M.J. Bell is an award-winning author (Gold in the Mom’s Choice Awards) of the Teen/YA Fantasy trilogy, Chronicles of the Secret Prince, and the science/fantasy, Next Time I See You.

Having escaped the mosquito-infested land of Iowa where she grew up, and the scorpion-infested land of Arizona where she was transplanted for way too long, she now lives happily ever after in Colorado, spreading magic wherever she can as a full-time writer, full-time babysitter, full-time cheerleader, full-time cook/housekeeper, and full-time taxi cab driver.

 

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