Monday, November 30, 2009

Story Structure Part VI: Tests, Allies, and Enemies

UN Security Council This is the sixth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies

Your Hero is finally in that Special World and guess who’s waiting on the other side? The Villain. Dark forces stand in the way of your Hero’s success. The Special World is full of lies, obstacles, and conflict. It’s also loaded with courage, success, and opportunity. Your Hero will spend at least half his time (by word count) in this Special World, learning its rules, meeting its characters, and mastering this world in an eventual conflict known as the Ordeal (still to come).

Think of this section as a series of ups and downs. Failures, successes, and lessons learned. Allies won, and enemies angered. Your Hero masters a skill only to face a larger challenge. He meets friends in unexpected places. Other characters may turn against him. This is an extremely generic part of the book where many writers flounder because it’s so nebulous and undefined. Anything can and does happen. Let’s tackle each part of this.

Tests. Your Hero has to learned critical knowledge and gain certain skills to pass his coming ordeals. Imagine the first week on a new job. Where’s the bathroom? Where’s the mailroom? How does this email program work? Sounds simple, but these tests increase in difficulty as the story progresses. The Boss wants report by the end of the day. The computer is acting up and Tech Support is busy. The lunchroom serves unhealthy crap. These are non-world-ending challenges compared to what’s coming, but they are an important warm-up.

Allies. No one succeeds alone. In fact, to become a true Hero, you must have friends, and these Allies must succeed before the Hero does. You don’t win unless everyone wins. Where do you find Allies on this new job? You hang out around the water cooler. You hit the pub with the co-workers after work. You talk with the mail guy. You flirt with the Admin. You join the company softball team. You hit on the boss’s daughter (which may not end well). What happens in these encounters? Also, many great Heroes have a Sidekick, someone they trust, and can help provide the Hero with perspective and wise counsel.

Enemies. Some people say your Hero is only as strong as the Enemy he faces. The Villain has been alerted to your Hero’s presence, but may not see him as a threat. He may try to woo your Hero, trick him, reel him in as it were. The Villain would rather see the Hero on his side, after all. In fact, the Hero is the one who decides that the villain is The Villain. Something about the Hero makes the Villain who he is as well.

mud fb sack Let’s return to our Hero, the Benchwarming Quarterback. He’s now on the field. He’s in the game. Ten players face him in the huddle. First play: he hands the ball off for no gain. Second down, the same. Third down, he tries a pass, the other team catches it and returns for a touchdown. A linebacker crushes him to the ground and laughs in his face. His body is in pain, the driving rain is soaking him. The Special World is hard. Back on the sideline, Coach screams at him. The other players yell at him too. Then, one of his receivers comes up to him. “Just get me the ball,” he says. “We can do this.” An Ally?

The other team kicks off, and he’s out on the field again. The receiver nods at him. Our hero changes the play the coach called. It’s a fake handoff into an all-out blitz, and he throws to the wide-open receiver for a first down. Although the blitzing linebackers have crushed him into the mud, he has passed his first test! He returns to the huddle where his teammates look at him with a new appreciation. He himself has a touch more confidence. But on the other side, the Enemy gathers, knowing they won’t underestimate him again. On the sidelines, the injured starting QB sees his job slipping away if our Hero performs well.

There are a heck of a lot more tests we can throw at him. How does he get the players firmly on his side? What critical mistakes does he make? How does the Enemy respond? This is how we’ll flesh out this section. There is still the question of the girlfriend, the parents, and many more subplots to interweave into the main story. I could fill ten blog posts with this section, but I’ll spare you :).

Test, Allies, and Enemies Goals

  • Learn important lessons about the rules of the Special World. Give your Hero a chance to succeed. Let him master Email. Let him win a date with the Boss’s daughter.
  • Meet people, socialize, figure out who’s who. That guy in the next cube who throws a tantrum—he also knows “what’s really going on here.” The Admin who refuses to help you find a stapler—she also knows the Boss’s detailed itinerary. She’d be a good Ally…or a dreadful enemy. The guy who also seems to be hanging around, poking his head in meetings he’s not invited to—could he be an Agent of Evil? Be careful who you trust.
  • This is a large section of your story, not just the 1/12 it appears to be. Think about everything your Hero needs to learn. This is truly the Journey part of the Hero’s Journey. Once your Hero has arrived, there’s a sense of relief, of exhilaration. Have fun! Relax! Then get to work.
  • Your Hero is much more proactive in the Special World. He has Crossed the First Threshold, and now is driven to work through this world. He has to keep his job. He can’t blow this opportunity. Many people in his Ordinary World, his wife and kids, etc., are counting on him to succeed.
  • Keep your Hero’s goals intact, but make sure the Obstacles still match those goals. He climbs a mountain only to find a bigger mountain behind it. He files a report on time, only to find that it was only the first of ten he should have filed. The Boss’s daughter turns out to be a handful.
  • Keep your Hero’s spirits up. This is probably the most fun he’ll have in the whole book. By the end of this section, he’ll be ready to take on the Enemy, full of (over)confidence, and ready to take on this Special World.


  • Direct confrontation with the Enemy. Now in my example, it seems like our Quarterback is fighting the Enemy, but is he? Or are they just acting under orders? Who controls them? And is his true enemy across the field, or is he standing on his own sidelines?
  • Some life-changing Epiphany. These lessons are meant to be affirming and supportive. Everything seems to be going relatively well. We’re giving our readers hope that he’ll prevail. But we also see the Enemy strengthening as well, getting away with things. Conflict is inevitable.
  • Avoid too much backstory, telling, and explanation about the Special World. Let your Hero learn by doing. Let him make mistakes. Some lessons are easy, some are hard.
  • Don’t get sidetracked. It’s tempting to expound on everything, fill pages and pages with details about each character, explore previous relationships, describe fantastic settings in detail. Remember to keep the story moving forward, and keep these detours to a minimum, including them only when necessary to provide the Hero with some critical information.

Who are your Allies? How did you win them? How have they helped you in Life’s Journey?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Post-NaNoWriMo Post

The Post-NaNoWriMo Post

nano_09_winner_120x240 This is a lengthy self-analysis of my NaNoWriMo 2009 experience. There may or may not be anything in here of interest because I’m really just doing this for my own benefit to look at the next time I write a draft.

Quick history of Steam Palace (the current working title):

  • Monday, Sept 7, I post The Lover’s Journey, my take on the Hero’s Journey from a male romance point of view. I then try to write the female version, but I wind up with a compelling story idea.
  • Monday, Sept. 14. I officially put down Dawn’s Rise, and start working on Steam Palace, according to this post.
  • Sept. 14-Oct.31. I take my basic outline, expand it to a 10K word outline, a 3000 word character doc, a 2,500 word brainstorming doc, along with a couple ancillary docs about technology, a dictionary, and a to-do list.
  • November 1, 12:00 AM. I write the first line of Steam Palace.
  • November 25, 8:37 PM, I write The End.

The Facts

  • Original Word count goal: 90,000
  • Final word count: 79754 (By my count. The NaNoWriMo site counts 80730 but that includes some notes I made to myself in the docs, scene titles, etc.)
  • Days Writing: 25
  • Total days invested: ~75
  • Average words/day: 3,190
  • Highest word count day: Nov. 24th, 5597
  • Lowest word count day: Nov. 14th, 429 (went car shopping)
  • Number of chapters/scenes: 73 (avg. 2.92/day)
  • Days sticking strictly to outline: ~5
  • Number of main characters who died: 2
  • Title Changes during Writing: 3
  • Completely impossible inventions: 2+

I Grade My Original Goals

  • This is the novel that I will write, edit, and sell as my first novel.
    This is a great little story which I think people will find entertaining and fun, and I’m definitely not ready to throw it away.
  • Keep up the pace.
    B I think I did this pretty well. I kept the action going throughout. In fact, to keep with my word count per Act goal, I cut planned scenes of low importance which helped move things along.
  • Interesting use of low/hi tech. Something interesting on every page.
    I wasn’t able to hit the level of creativity I wanted, and I tended to focus on a few specific inventions. Definitely will be a goal of the re-write.
  • Modern anachronism, futuristic retro. Ask What If.
    I wanted to create Flintstones-like inventions, like cell-phones, GPS, internet etc in a Steampunk setting but it just didn’t happen like I’d hoped.
  • Singular character focus on goals.
    This I think I did to a fault. My main character stuck to her goals through thick and thin, until about 6 pages from the end of the novel. Other characters did as well.
  • Focus on the main theme of the story: A girls quest to find her heart. 
    Sort of. But the ending wasn’t really about her heart, it’s about discovering that names and titles and labels don’t mean anything, it’s what inside that counts. So it’s not as much about her heart as it is about the hearts of the people around her.
  • Slow reveal of backstory, keep the reader guessing.
    I think I did okay with this. I revealed things throughout the novel. My characters did not appreciate this.

Things I Did Well:

  • Outlining
    I would say that my first attempt at decent outline went pretty well. I started with a basic 12-step Hero’s Journey, and used the Snowflake Method to continually flesh it out over the next few weeks. I wound up with different variations of the same chapter, tons of scene ideas I never used, and a real wealth of ideas to draw from.
  • X-Act Structure
    I had identified my plot points very early, and I kept them intact throughout all the changes in outline. High points, low points, etc.
  • Hero’s Journey
    This proved extremely helpful in figuring out how characters change and grow during the novel. I started the outline as a basic HJ and expanded it from there.
  • Character-Driven
    Hopefully I did well with this. I tried to make the characters move the plot and act. From the very first scene, the characters are acting and moving forward. They drive the events.
  • Research
    I had a ready-made pile of maps, names, ideas, all ready to go. This cut down the amount of distracting research to do while writing. I even attended a Steampunk Convention to help with my research.
  • Conflict
    I tried to create conflict whenever I could. Inner, outer, obstacles, disagreements, etc.
  • Continually increased stakes
    She starts out as travelling to visit her aunt—Little Red Riding Hood through the woods stakes. She ends with having to save the lives of her family and the future of her entire country. That’s called Raising The Stakes.
  • Cut early and often
    As soon as I reached a certain word count for an area, I started cutting scenes, trimming scenes, and making the action move. Anything remotely boring had to go. I was so paranoid of overshooting my 90K mark that I might have cut too much, coming in under 80K in the end.

Things I Wish Went Gooder

  • Staying on target
    The novel followed the outline for about five days than meandered around, only crossing the original outline here and there. I think I over-planned the outline a bit, not allowing enough flexibility. I also didn’t plan enough for the middle.
  • Creative inventions
    I liked the things I came up with, but I don’t know how much was truly inventive. Airships, mechanical horses, it all was interesting but didn’t break ground like I’d like. I’ve done well with this before, so it’s just a matter of details and rethinking things.
  • Characterization
    Despite my self-props for being character-driven, It’s not there yet. I think to work on backgrounds more. I think I have a number of good characters, but not many great ones. I have a bunch that can be flesh out more. I just need more details. More faults, more history, etc.
  • Style
    I wanted to create a turn-of-the-20th century eloquent style. It worked for a few chapters, but I wore out after a while. However, I was surprised at the number of words I came up with that the spell-checker didn’t recognize. I think it was a lot of fun.
  • POV
    Who knows. I tried mixing it up a bit between a few characters. But I never achieved that real deep POV that I was shooting for. I just don’t naturally write that way.
  • Avoiding “banned” words
    That went out the window very quickly. Adverbs, adjectives, transitive verbs, interjections, all of it. And frankly, I don’t care. I’m beginning to see that I write the way I write, and adhering to “rules” doesn’t really serve me.
  • Passive
    Whatever. I was made to write passive sentences.
  • Showing vs Telling
    By compressing the outline as much as I did, I tended to start each scene with a description of what happened since the last scene…which probably will be cut or expanded in the re-write. Or maybe it will work.
  • Sub-plots
    These didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. Some of them just petered out, some never gained ground, so I’ll review them and see what I need to work on.
  • Romance Fail
    This was supposed to be a Romance. It’s not. It’s an adventure with a love sub-plot. Maybe I’m not cut out for Romance. Not that there isn’t a lot of suggestive content, and a love story. But there’s no sex (on-camera as it were), very little kissing, and the girl chooses the wrong guy at the end.
  • True Heroism Fail
    I wanted to her to be a true hero, I really did, but she isn’t. Yes, she has a Hero’s Journey. Yes, she transforms. But I feel there’s still something missing, some element of self-sacrifice for the greater good that’s I left on the table. This will be my #1 priority for the re-write.
  • Middle Sag
    The dreaded Middle. I kind of avoided the problem by not writing much of it. My Act II is 1/3 of the book, when it should be 1/2. It needs about 15K more words to balance it out. Or alternatively, I could chop down the beginning/end, or move scenes over to the middle. This I think is the main weakness of HJ. 
  • Wanted more betrayals, reversals
    I wanted my main characters to be betrayed at some point, to have friends turn against them. It didn’t really happen, but there should be opportunities to introduce this.
  • Write-By-Hand Fail
    Well, I don’t mean to say that it was terrible. All it did was make me write slower, and in the end, I saw no improvement in the result. No to mention that when I transcribed it, there were several words I couldn’t decipher. I will not be repeating this experiment. I’ve noveled by keyboard for 20+ years, I don’t think I’m going to change now.

Main Takeaways

  • Outlining works up to a point
    If I hadn’t waited until Nov. 1 to start writing, I probably would have cut down the amount of time spent outlining with no loss of quality on the draft. As each chapter went on, I deviated more and more from the outline. After the 1/2 way point the story took over and I stopped consulting the outline at all; the story just wrote itself.
  • Hero’s Journey works up to a point
    It works and it doesn’t. It’s a great tool to identify the major phases of the character arc, but it falls flat in areas, especially the middle. Also, each character has his own HJ, and they experience different parts at different times. So the end project is a mish-mash. Heck, one character has literally 3 Resurrections. So I’m learning that it’s a basic guide, but a real story has many more twists and turns in it.
  • Pacing is hard
    I want to write and write about every little thing and expound on everything, reveal mounds of backstory, and explain every device, but there’s so little space in the book.
  • Progress
    3K/day is sustainable for a first draft, further drafts will probably be 1000K/day range
  • Getting the story done is more important than getting the story right
    I wrote an ending for the 1st time in 3 years. I’ve spent so much time working on story beginnings that I’ve neglected the endings. I literally learned more about my characters in the last 10-20 pages than I did in the first 280. When everything was on the line, I found out what was really important to them beyond everything else…and it’s not what I had intended. Do it. Finish whatever you start, even if it’s crap. It’s one thing to plan, it’s another to finish.
  • New stories are good
    I should write 2+ stories a year to keep fresh/excited.
  • Changing (sub) genres is fun
    I really enjoyed writing in a new genre. Romance, historical, I learned a lot from it. For some reason it got me writing the way I want to write.
  • Writing is always surprising
    For instance, first I wanted my FMC to sneak into the ball via a stolen invite. Then I wanted the ball to be a debutante dance. In the final version, she’s in the orchestra, which works out even better. She doesn’t play what the host wants—instant conflict, instant interaction. She’s not even a guest…she’s the help, so he’s more at ease with her.
  • My true style comes out, no matter what I write
    I’m not saying everything turns out the same. But somehow, things just sneak in, and even if I wrote a straight Romance, I’m sure it would be full of plot and action.

Next Steps

  1. Print Story (in case I never touch it again…it’s free from Create Space).
  2. Put on shelf for 4-8 weeks, work on another project (The Immortals).
  3. Review story with critical eye, revise outline to match current story.
  4. Brainstorm new ideas, conduct additional research.
  5. Create new outline, update character sheets.
  6. Create initial Query Letter—this will help figure out how to market this piece, and what I can change to make it sell. It’s not intended to be something I send out quite yet.
  7. Rewrite story from scratch, but with corrected POV, style, plot, characterization etc.
  8. Review, get feedback and critiques, etc
  9. Repeat from step 2 until published.

Is anyone still reading? I hope this helped a bit.

Monday, November 23, 2009

NaNoWriMo Week Four Tips

NaNoWriMo Week Four Tips

finish If you’re still plugging away after 23 days, congratulations! Whether you’re at 10K or 100K words, you’re facing the same age-old question that every writer faces: How do I end this thing?? Get me out of here. Help!!

Well, the secret of the Ending is to “bring it all home.” And yes, I may use a lot of clich├ęs in today’s piece. Your Hero has spent a good portion on his time in the Special World, and now it’s time to return home, back to the Ordinary World where it all started. But of course, the road home is blocked with the biggest obstacles of the whole novel. Your Villains are hell bent on your Hero’s destruction, everything he’s ever known is falling apart, and everything he’s worked for during the entire book is in jeopardy. Everything hangs in the balance, and failure is imminent.

There are two things to focus on: Choice and Transformation. During the final climactic scene, your Hero must make a choice. And the choice is Death. Your character must choose Death over some alternative. Now this sounds extreme, but hear me out. If your character is not willing to risk death to achieve his goals, then the stakes are not high enough. Now, this Death can be metaphorical, but really it all comes down to personal sacrifice. He must lose something to win something. The result of this risk is Transformation. Through this process, your Hero learns something new about himself, about the world, and now has the power to finally defeat the Villain. This is the final lesson, the most important of the Hero’s life.

To tie it all together, go back to the first chapter, the first line, and think about the everyday problems your Hero faced. How has he changed? How does he solve them now? What has he learned from this experience? How do people see him now? Did he achieve his initial goal, or did some larger goal replace it? This is the part of the story where the most important lessons of all are learned. How do you show that the Hero has truly changed? You send him back home, and his former insurmountable problems seem like trivial annoyances which he handles with ease.

So now for my NaNoWriMo Week Four Tips:

  • Keep writing! You’re not done yet! GO! GO! GO!
  • Raise the Stakes. Not just life-and-death. Not just lose-the-girl-lose-the-job-lose-the-house. We’re talking End of Days level of stakes. If your Hero loses, everyone loses. The World loses. Life as We Know It ends (which it does even if he wins BTW).
  • Your Villain has a Fatal Flaw. Pride, overconfidence, a blind spot, a secret love, underlings seeking revenge, an even eviler overlord who won’t tolerate failure, a history of tax evasion, an allergy, a compulsive disorder, and most importantly, unlike your Hero, an inability to adapt and transform, to see the bigger picture, to become bigger than life. He’s stuck in his ways. Use that to your Hero’s advantage.
  • Your Hero cannot win unless everyone he cares about wins too. There are no selfish victories. No one will really care that he wins his competition, or that he gets the girl. A good recent example of this is in the animated flick Cars. In the final climactic race, Lightning McQueen loses the race…intentionally. But in losing, he wins everything. Self-respect, friends, the endorsement contract, and most importantly, he gets the girl (love). He risks death, which in this case is his entire racing career, because suddenly something became more important than winning.

And one final thought, courtesy Philip J. Fry from Futurama, to think about in the darkest moments of your novel, when your Hero is on the verge of defeat, and you see no way to rescue him from the hole you’ve dug:

philip j fryYou can't give up hope just because it's hopeless! You have to hope even more, and cover your ears and go, 'blahblahblahblahblahblahblah!'



Good luck! Next week, my exciting (actually most likely a ponderously dull) post-mortem on this year’s NaNoWriMo experience for me, what worked and what didn’t, and my plans for the re-write.

Friday, November 20, 2009

How We Turned a Wreck Into a New Car

How We Turned a Wreck Into a New Car

subaru dead On November 3, my wife lost control of our 2003 Subaru Outback on the Interstate. It spun off the highway, up an embankment, rolled over, and landed against a guard rail. Here’s her account with pictures. She was fine…the car was totaled.

Here’s the process we went through that finally landed us a new car. I’m sure that we made a few mistakes, but we wanted to get rid of the junky $200/week rent-a-wreck.

This was our requirements for our car search: All-wheel drive or 4WD, wagon or SUV style, roomy enough for 4 tall adults and a dog, not too many miles, and within $1000 or so of our settlement check (which I thought came out a bit low). I went to car lots, searched internet ads, everywhere, and found very little in our price range ($12-14K). Jeep Liberty’s, questionable imports, and generally junkers with 100k+ mileage. We spent Saturday November 14th cruising the local used car lots. More of the same. We found an Acura and a Land Rover, but both had huge mileage. My wife found a Saturn Vue she liked, but I cringed at the thought of buying a Saturn right now. We might as well buy an Edsel or DeLorean.

We arrived at a Honda dealer around 3:30. I instantly had a good feeling when the salesman offered us a ride around the lot in a golf cart, since my wife is still recovering from her broken leg. He was an enthusiastic Asian man with a squeaky laugh. He showed us some used Elements. These are those boxy SUV’s with the suicide doors. I really liked the Element—it is kind of a guy car. Utilitarian, no frills except a good stereo. We test drove it…not too bad, even with 95K miles. We made an offer but they couldn’t come down to our range since the car had already been marked down.

We were sitting there about to walk. We relayed our sob story about not having income, and that we were limited to the proceeds from the insurance settlement. I didn’t want to finance anything because I don’t want monthly payments. I figured we were done, when a woman from their finance department comes up to us and says, “what if you could walk out of here with a new car, no payments, spending just the proceeds from the settlement, no money out of pocket?” We were like, “uhhh.” I didn’t even think for a second about a new car. We figured we’d just get some clunker and overpay for it, then keep it on life support for as long as possible.

Turns out there’s a thing called a “single payment lease". Yes, go ahead and show me all the drawbacks. Sitting in a car dealership, I made the best decision at the time. Here’s how it works: turns out that if you pay the lease up front, you wind up paying zero interest on the lease, and avoid monthly payments. Here’s my reasoning in a nutshell:

I didn’t want monthly payments. I had a good used car in the Subaru but with high mileage. Imagine this scenario: what if I had simply brought in the Subaru as a trade-in? I probably could have gotten a similar deal. There’s another huge savings in maintenance costs. Having two used cars with 80K+ miles, I know exactly how costly they are to maintain. All this expense goes away as well.

Now fast forward three years from now when the lease expires. I’ll have to refinance the residual, or lease another car. But here’s the thing. In three years (or less) we would have completely outgrown the Subaru. It would have had 30K+ additional miles at the point, so what would its trade-in value be then? So essentially, nothing’s changed. All I’ve done is trade in the car earlier than planned.

I don’t think this is a complete wash. In the long run, the new car will still need to be paid for, or returned if I can’t make payments at that time. But for now, in terms of my personal cash flow, nothing’s changed. No new payments, no money out of pocket (except we did spring for some rubber mats etc), and we still face the same problem we would have faced anyways, except we get to drive a new, roomier, and safer car for the next three years.

So what did we get, you ask? A 2010 Honda CR-V LX, a base model with no frills, but All-Wheel-Drive and plenty of room. It doesn’t have all the amenities the Subaru had, such as heated leather seats and premium stereo with multi-disc changer, but it should be a trusty reliable car for years to come. It also has a lot more safety features, which after you roll a car, becomes something important.

2010_honda_crv_1(not ours, pix to come)


Monday, November 16, 2009

NaNoWriMo Week Three Tips

NaNoWriMo Week Three Tips

drawning-vader-vs-luke-in-dagobah For those doing NaNoWriMo, one of two things has happened: you’ve either forged ahead, or lost interest and motivation. Either way, congratulations for hitting the halfway point! Believe it or not, everything is downhill from here. Why? Here’s what you should have accomplished by now:

  • Introduced all the main characters, good and bad, and gotten to know them.
  • Figured out things like the Story Question, the main conflict, separated your characters into good guys/bad guys, and made your hero face increasing challenges.
  • Included foreshadowing as to what to expect in the second half. We understand the dilemmas facing the Hero, but it still may not be clear how to solve them.

That’s a lot to have accomplished in 15 days! Pat yourself on the back, take a deep breath, because this is when the “real” writing begins. Those of you who have abandoned NaNoWriMo are missing the thrill of the Crisis and Climax, where everything is put on the line, and your main character makes the most wonderful transformation. Now, onto the details.

We’re now into the meat of Act II. Your Hero has a goal, and only one thing stands in the way. The Villain. He must confront the villain, enter their lair, and retrieve something incredibly valuable. This is known as the Crisis, but it isn’t the ultimate Climax of the story. Here is where he’s entered foreign land, learned all the curious rules about it and gathered Allies, now attempts to take on the Villain on the Villain’s home turf. Generally, this is not a good idea, but your Hero must be so committed to the journey that he will face any risk to achieve his goal.

So he’s off to face the Villain, who is kind of “huh?” right now. The Villain is not really focused on some insignificant bug that’s buzzing around. He’s off doing his dastardly deeds, heedless of the consequences. By the end of this week, that all changes. He now will see the Hero as his main threat, so he’ll come after the Hero with everything in his arsenal. Week Three is when you separate the men from the boys, the Heroes from the Wannabe’s. So here is a general outline:

  1. The Hero approaches the Villain’s Inner Sanctum. The Villain is safe and secure in his world, not really worried about pesky Heroes showing up. He may have even tried to befriend or recruit the Hero, but it’s becoming clear that they are diametrically opposed on certain key elements.
  2. The Hero engages the Villain in a preliminary scuffle. Not an all out war, not a duel to the death. More like a shoving match. There may be lesser cohorts that he does defeat on the way to facing the Villain, but he’s still unprepared for a final showdown.
  3. The Hero steals something valuable from the Villain (knowledge, power, influence, allies, money, love, secrets, clues, etc). The Villain has underestimated his foe, but won’t make that mistake again.
  4. The Villain is really pissed off and pursues the Hero. “It’s On” as they say. The Hero must flee back to relative safety. He about to be on his way back to his Ordinary World, but everything has changed, and he can’t return until the Enemy is defeated.

So now onto the Tips for Week Three:wickedwitch2

  • Raise the stakes. Raise the stakes. Raise the stakes. The story’s no longer about finding a hamburger joint. It’s now a life-and-death struggle to find a hamburger joint, and this hairy dude holding your girlfriend hostage.
  • The Hero must be willing to face death to confront the Villain. This is a perfect time to kill off a couple characters, to remind the Hero what the ultimate price of failure is. If not actual death, then show those characters fighting the Villain…and losing so badly they abandon the journey. Either way, they’re martyrs who remind the Hero what he’s fighting for.
  • The Hero will end the week with everything he needs to defeat the Villain…except for one thing: the ability to defeat his own inner demons. This is the focus of Week Four, so hold off on major transformations.
  • A Hero’s allies can not be trusted. They have their own agendas. They are lured by the Villain and may fall prey to their baser needs. The Villain has agents everywhere, ready to snatch away unwary travelers in his kingdom.
  • Reward the Hero for his efforts after he faces the Villain. You could call this the “final breather” before the very end of the story, because after this week, it’s a frantic race to the finish.

If you still get stuck, here are some thoughts to keep you going:

  • What is the villain’s agenda? How does he react when some usurper dares invade his territory?
  • Put more things on the line, more lives in jeopardy, more things the Hero holds dear in the balance.
  • Your Hero must cling to his original goals through thick and thin, despite all the evidence that they be on the wrong path. Is saving the world really worth the sacrifice? All he wants is a burger, but now he has to save the world? WTF?? Can’t he just have a burger and call it a day? No, he can’t. Drill that through his head. You’re in Act II buddy, no turning back now.
  • There are no easy victories at this point. Everything is earned with a steep price. The Call to Quit is strong here. Both for you as a writer and the Hero. But you both can’t.
  • Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Here. Make it so. Deal with it.
  • Don’t give up. I mean you, as the writer. You can get through this rough week where your characters are beat up and flailing against a seemingly invincible enemy. But this week will expose the enemy’s weaknesses, and hopefully illustrate your strengths as a writer. Now you know how to defeat the enemy, and Week Four will be a breeze.

Good luck!

Friday, November 13, 2009

RIP Subaru Outback

(based on a true story)

RIP Subaru Outback Legacy Wagon LL Bean Edition

subaru1 I want to talk about our beloved friend that we lost last Tuesday.

We first adopted Sube in March of 2003, as healthy baby hatchback. I remember when we brought her home, so shiny and new, and her interior smelled like fresh lilacs in the summer. She loved her new garage, and proudly carried us around town. She made a new friend with “Baby Car,” the BMW in the next stall. Her engine roared with life, and she tackled every challenge we threw at her with joy and exuberance. Now we're left with only a sense of loss, without anything except a check from the insurance company to temper our grief.


That's the question on everyone's mind. Why did you end it all on that cold November night, throwing yourself off the freeway, spinning out of control, and tumbling to a stop against the guardrail? Haven't we always been good to you? Haven't we changed your oil, washed your windows, and rubbed soothing wax against your side panels? What changed? We've asked ourselves a million questions since then, and we only hear the empty chatter of the wind through your broken skylight. My heart almost stopped when I found you there, a broken heap bleeding transmission fluid. I couldn't believe you were gone in a blink of an eye, crumpled into a pile of twisted metal and broken glass.

I remember fighting with the tow men as he dragged your corpse onto his truck. “What are you doing? Please, she can be saved,” I cried. “Do not take her to that awful place, where cars are parted like organ donors and the remains crushed into scrap.” But he pushed me aside and performed his grisly duty.

What do we do wrong? Did I say some off-hand remark about the new Toyota FJ Cruiser that upset you so? Did I leave a moldy sandwich in the back? Had you tired of the daily routine, back and forth, without any excursions beyond work and the supermarket? We wanted to drive you more, but with the price of gas and the economy in general, we just were never able to.

A rage overcame me. How could you do this? Were we not good enough? Didn't we take you in, spending extra money for heated seats and a luggage rack? How could you be so ungrateful? And didn't she know she could have injured others in the process? What was she thinking? I wanted to walk away, not even stop to see her mangled corpse to the salvage yard, to say some last words to her.

I argued with the insurance people for days. “She can be saved. It's not that bad. It's just a door ding.” They responded with words like “total loss”, “unrepairable at any price”,  “stop calling us”. They finally sent me a check—a complete insult. How do you put a price on a car's life? How can you know what a car has meant to a family, all the cherished memories of days at the beach, climbing mountains, and rollicking on the freeway?

I don't want another car. I don't know if I can endure this pain again. When I see other Subaru's out on the road, my hands shake and I have to look away. Buying a new Subaru would be insulting to her memory. I just have no interest in cars right now. I don't want to mock her memory. I'm not ready for another car, I don't care how shiny it is.

All I know is that I hope Sube is in a better place right now. Her body might be in a junkyard, but I want to think that her soul is somewhere in a showroom in the sky, restored to her original glory, with a glossy coat of paint, clear bright lights, and limitless gas, opening to endless freeways where she can roam free with others of her kind. I hope when I pass over into that good night, I might enjoy one last ride with her, ease her pain, and tell her that we loved her as much as anyone could love a car.

Goodbye Sube, you were a true friend, and you'll be missed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

NaNoWriMo Week Two Tips

NaNoWriMo Week Two Tips

writers-block-4 Tip Zero: DON’T GIVE UP!

You started out NaNoWriMo with the world’s greatest idea, wrote furiously for a week, and now you find yourself staring at a blank page, unable to fathom a single idea to propel your book forward. If you’ve outlined, that document is now thrown out the window, a hopelessly inane piece of unimaginative tripe. If you’re pantsing, the awful mess of spaghetti prose you’ve laid out has tempted you to throw out everything you’ve written and start anew, or give up entirely. Welcome to the Wonderful World of Week Two.

The other thing that should be happening is that you’ve made the turn into the Special World of Act II. In Act I (see Week One Tips), you introduced your characters, defined their specific issues and goals, and sent them on a fruitless quest to solve and/or avoid these issues. But now it’s time for your characters to stop reacting, and start acting. They must enter a new world of excitement and danger. This Special World is far different than where they started, full of opportunity and challenges. They are now in enemy territory, trying to negotiate their way through unfamiliar terrain. No more sitting around on their keisters, they must act.

Week Two is all about rising challenges. Your characters are now on a mission, and they need to accomplish three things over the next week or so:

  1. Acquire the skills needed to tackle the mission.
  2. Identify their friends and foes, and gather their friends close (and their enemies closer?). A handy way to achieve this is through the Bar Scene or it’s equivalent, where both allies and enemies gather for refreshment, and secret knowledge is shared.
  3. Practice their skills against increasingly difficult opposition.

By the end of the week, they should be approaching the enemy’s hideout, and heading for the main crisis point of the story. Note that isn’t the Final Battle or Climax, this is just their first big encounter with the enemy which occurs about 1/2 to 2/3’s of the way into the book, depending on whose structure you follow. So by this coming weekend, they should be on their way if not actively engaged with the Enemy.

So now for my Tips for Week Two:

  1. Keep Writing. Don’t stop. Ever. This is your goal, this is your mission. You must suffer for your craft, as your characters must suffer to achieve their goals. No matter what form of bilge appears in your manuscript, you must persevere.
  2. Keep raising the stakes. Everything the character wins must be earned. The risk of failure is growing. The rewards of success are multiplying. We’re not at an extreme yet, but keep upping the tension.
  3. Help the character grow by encouraging lesson-learning setbacks. Make sure that your characters are driving the plot, making things happen, and getting into loads of trouble on their quest.
  4. Don’t place them in impossible situations. Provide them with the skills to succeed, give them mentors and allies. They will need a certain level of confidence for the Big Fight to come.
  5. Goals, goals, goals. No matter how ridiculous the goal, your characters must pursue them with bulldog-like tenacity. Once you focus on goals, then add the obvious converse—Obstacles. Higher walls, deeper moats, darker storms, better enemies.
  6. Remember, your Villains have goals and dreams too, and they pursue them with just as much, if not more tenacity than your Heroes. Who wants it more? What does your Hero learn from your Villain about life and desire? What does your Hero learn that the Villain doesn’t?

If you still get stuck, here are some helpful tricks to keep the narrative flowing:

  1. What’s the Worst Thing that can happen right now? Flat tire? Roving gang of Zombies? Meteor strike? Swarm of locusts? Make it so.
  2. What are your character’s worst fears? Afraid of heights? A failing report card? Snakes? (on a plane?) Getting fired? Make them happen.
  3. Reversals. Every scene must contain a Reversal of Fortune, either something really good or really bad, just something unexpected. Hire a maid? She steals your cash. Go out to dinner? Credit card fails. Read the newspaper? Don’t read the obits…you won’t like what’s there.
  4. Stop writing for a day and conduct an interview of your character. There are many templates of these online, but just pretend you’re conducting an interview for your blog. Heck, if it helps your word count, have your character answer a phone call from Mom and explain exactly what she’s doing in sub-Saharan Africa chasing infected monkeys while trying to avoid the looming insurrection against the local backwater dictator.
  5. When all else fails, kill off a character. Yes, it sounds trite, but it’s a stark reminder to your characters of what the ultimate price of failure is: Death. It may make them reconsider their commitment to action, and rededicate them to the cause.

Good luck, and keep writing! This is definitely the hardest week to get through, but have faith, and keep it up!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Car Wreck, NaNo, Invasion Tips, Awards!

Car Wreck, NaNo, Invasion Tips, Awards!

This post is just a catch-all of random things that have been going on lately. Treat it like a newsletter I suppose.

Wife Survives Highway Rollover!

dead subaruShe's doing fine, but the car is totaled. Apparently she hit some debris in the road, the car skidded off the road and up a steep hill, then rolled over down the hill. It's a complete loss. She only suffered some minor bruises from the whole thing, but it could have been a lot worse. Kudos to Subaru for building a car that can withstand this, but wag of the finger for losing control when a tire bursts. So now we're in the market for a brand new used car. We want a roomy AWD car with lowish miles and airbags.

NaNoWriMo Update!

I'm currently right on track for my goal of 90K. I know I'm taking at least one day off from writing, so I actually need to build up some margin. I'm finding several advantages of plotting vs pantsing, the main one being short-term goals. With pantsing, I know how the story starts, and I know about where it ends, but I have no idea how it happens. With Plotting, I know each major plot point, so I only need to focus on getting the characters to each point, which makes it a little easier to judge progress. However...the first week of NaNoWriMo always goes well so I'll be better able to judge this in a week. Look for my Week Two tips on Monday!

Blog Awards!

I received not one but two blog awards this week:
Erica from Laugh. Write. Play. gave me my second excellent Kreativ Blogger Award!

kreativ blog[1]

Thank you very much!

And  quillfeather from W.M.MORRELL gave me the coveted Honest Scrap Blogger Award!


Thanks! I don't know what Honest Scrap is, but it sounds great!

Apparently there are some conditions with these awards which I will pretty much ignore, but I will tell you a few things you might not know about me:

  1. My father was a professional synchronized swimmer.
  2. My mother performed Burlesque shows on Navy ships.
  3. I used to drive the NASCAR circuit before I was caught taking steroids.
  4. My daughter breeds champion muskrats and competes all over the world.
  5. My son has a rare genetic disorder which gives him superhuman strength and agility. We're discussing options with the CIA.
  6. Our dog once foiled a terrorist plot by chasing the terrorists into a deep well.
  7. None of these is they're still things you don't know about me!

Disagree With Me!

Nobody disagreed with my post Crossing the Threshold. Turns out I made a big mistake. It’s Crossing the First Threshold. Oops. See anything you disagree with? You could win.

Tips for Knowing the Aliens have Bad Intent!

Did anyone catch the series premiere of V? No one seemed distressed by the aliens, but they should have been:

  1. They came with no warning. And when they knocked down a few planes they said "oops."
  2. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. 'Nuf said.
  3. They were far too sexy. Disguise is the first clue of deceit.
  4. They were using Mankind's Greatest Invention against us: Marketing. Have you ever met someone in Marketing you can trust?
  5. Has ANYONE ever watched or read Independence Day (ID4), War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or Star Trek: First Contact? When giant space ships hover over major cities, it's BAD, m'kay? Heck, they even mentioned ID4 in the episode! WAKE UP!

Monday, November 2, 2009

NaNoWriMo: Week One Tips

NaNoWriMo: Week One Tips

img-nanowrimo-typewriter For those of you doing NaNoWriMo, welcome! Here are some tips for working through Week One, especially for the pantsers among us (writing by the seat of our pants).

You’ve had a day or two with your new novel. You’ve created some characters, a scene or two, and maybe some plot. Week One is all about Character Development, more or less the “Act One” of your novel. You’re introducing your characters, your world, and it’s all interesting and new. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Show your character in some ordinary situations. Show their goals and dreams, and how they can’t immediately achieve them. Show how they’re miserable failures who really don’t deserve to star in a story. Everything they touch turns to crap. Even Superman blows it with Lois Lane. But don’t overload them right away. Act One is about showing them trying to solve their problems with the same old approaches, which of course doesn’t work. They’re essentially in a rut.
  • Conflict is essential at every stage of your novel. To create conflict, you might want to consider Plot Reversals. Nothing your character expects can occur. If they go for a coffee, they don’t have enough money, or the store is closed, or they don’t have the right brand, or the Evil Barista messes up their order. If they are walking the dog, then the dog runs away, or chases a squirrel, or bites another dog, or poops on the neighbor’s lawn right in front of him. Or something can go well, like a feared blind date where the guy or girl is actually nice and attractive. Reversals. Use them.
  • Set up the Adventure. Examples: A letter in the mail promising a prize if they do X, Y, and Z. A mysterious message on the answering machine talking about inheritances. A want ad in the paper for an exciting job. A random stranger on the bus who tells them how they lost 70 lbs in 3 days. Define your character’s problem, and then entice them to go out and find a solution.
  • What is the problem? Seriously. Why is your character single? Why can’t she excel at work? Why does his brother always outperform him? Why do the Aliens find her so interesting? Why are vampires always hanging around? Why are the Voices so irritating?
  • Who does your character listen to for advice? Who can they trust? Is there someone out there to help guide them, someone who may have BTDT in the past? Is there someone out there who will steer them wrong? What skills will they need on their Journey, and who will help them learn these skills?
  • What is your character afraid of? Why won’t he run for Congress? Why doesn’t she go out on dates? Why can’t he just assault the enemy’s fortress? Why can’t she just tell her mom the truth for once? What is keeping them trapped in their own miserable lives with their tired circle of friends, and what is it going to take to for them to get moving? They don’t have to get moving, not quite yet, but the more uncomfortable you make it, they more impetus they will have for change.

If you can cover all this in a week, and in 12-25K words, you’re doing great! Just keep putting your character through more and more situations until you find what they really need to get going. Then next week, your character will start actively working on their problems, start encounter resistance and Enemies, and will take the conflict to the next level.