Monday, May 22, 2017

Contranyms: Words that mean two opposites

I asked for examples of "contranyms"-- a word with two opposite meanings. 

Here are some friends contributed:

 Fast= quick to get away/ Fast like "he was held fast by the giant lobster claw."

Bolt= to run away, but you also bold two things together.

Oversight - looking over something carefully -- or overlooking something entirely.
Sanction -- to approve of an action, or to punish an action. 
Weather -- to withstand the effects of weather ("the house weathered the storm"),  or to *show* the effects of weather ('the stone statue was badly weathered")

Cave, as a noun, a big hole in the ground. As a verb, the collapsing of a hole.

Can you think of any others? And why does this happen? One friend reminded me when flammable things were labeled "inflammable" (meaning, uh, flammable-- don't set these on fire). Why do that?



Friday, May 19, 2017

Grammar questions answered: Restrictive and non-restrictive

I asked for some grammar questions, expecting/wanting some softballs. Ha! Not a chance. But I will throw myself to the wolves and try to answer.

Stacey asked-
Here's my question(s): What is a restrictive clause? What does it mean, really? What makes it restrictive?

I ask this, because I have a note that says if I'm using the word "which" in a restrictive clause, I should replace it with "that." It would be a helpful note if I knew what it meant! Hahaha! :)

 Okay, to get very basic, a clause is an element which has a subject and verb, and it can be "independent" (can be a sentence on its own, like This will be a long and tedious explanation), or dependent, (which can't be a complete sentence on its own, like which will be hard to understand). 
 Dependent clauses can be used in many ways in a sentence, like to establish some time or place condition--
When I was young, we used to have to walk three miles uphill to school.
Wherever we stay that night, we should get a suite with a view of the river.
"Restrictive" clauses are special types of  "relative" clauses. (A relative clause – I know, this gets arcane, but you know, you say and write these every day, even if you don't know the terms—is a clause which "relate" one thing to another. Forget that—just know that relative clauses start with those relative pronouns—who, which, that, what— and then have a verb, like Relative pronouns, which include "which and who," are how relative clauses start.) Relative nouns are usually "adjectival", modifying a noun (often but not always the subject of the sentence). So they are usually used as "appositives" and tell more about the noun that precedes them:  Governors, who serve a four-year term, are the chief executives of their states.
 You can see there that the relative clause—the appositive—just tells us more about governors. (Not all appositives are clauses—they can just be phrases, like The lady in the red hat ordered the soy latte. But let's not deal with that now. :)
What's important in that example is that it tells us more about ALL governors- that is, the meaning of the noun governor isn't narrowed by the appositive. ALL governors serve a four-year term.
 That is a NON-restrictive clause. It tells us more information about the noun it modifies, but it doesn't "restrict" the noun.

Relative clauses can be restrictive or non restrictive.  That is, they either restrict or don't restrict the noun they modify.

Let's come up with a RESTRICTIVE appositive/relative clause (so many terms! But "appositive" is syntactical—about the role this plays in this particular sentence—while "relative clause" is a grammatical term… well, never mind J).  
A restrictive clause will "restrict" or narrow the meaning of the noun it modifies, like:
Governors who take bribes should be impeached.
In this case, the relative "who" clause "restricts" the noun to a specific and narrow meaning. There are many governors, but in this case, I'm speaking only of the ones who take bribes. I'm not saying every governor should be impeached, only that special group who take bribes (I'm hoping that's a small percentage of them!). The restrictive clause stuck in there actually "restricts" the noun, see.
Now the noun phrase isn't just the single word "governors," but the narrower term "governors who take bribes."

Let's diagram both those sentences:
Subject (noun phrase)
Predicate (verb phrase)
Governors, who serve a four-year term, are the chief executives of their states.
Governors who take bribes should be impeached.
See the difference? Who are the chief executives of the states? Governors. You can take the appositive clause out and the main clause still means what you want it to mean—
Governors are the chief executives of their states.
But see what happens when you take the appositive out of the second one:
Governors should be impeached.
Even if we don't like politicians, we probably don't mean that all governors should be impeached!

Relative clause (who/which/what/that + verb)
Appositive (a clause or phrase which explains more about a noun)
Restrictive clause (a relative clause which "restricts" the meaning of a noun) Governors who take bribes should be impeached. This is NOT set off with commas before and after because it is necessary to the meaning and actually becomes part of the noun.
Non-restrictive clause (a relative clause which explains more about a noun but doesn't restrict the meaning)- Governors, who serve a four-year term, are the chief executives of their states. These are set off before and after with commas, to show that they are "unnecessary" to the meaning.
What about "which and that"?
They are both "relative pronouns" which start relative clauses.
"Which" is used in non-restrictive clauses JUST BECAUSE. (I mean, I don't know why.) That means you use commas before "which"—not because it's "which," but because it's non-restrictive, which uses "which".
"That" means exactly the same thing, but is used with restrictive clauses and no commas.
(With people, btw, no matter what, we use "who." Also, my cat, WHO is named Bandit, reminds me we also use "who" with pets.)
Restrictive clause  Pedestrian malls that are successful share three important factors. (that is, we're only talking about successful pedestrian malls).
(People= who) Pedestrians who cross against the light are taking a big risk. (Only those who cross against the light are taking a big risk.)

Non-restrictive clause -- Pedestrian malls, which limit car traffic on downtown streets, are popular with businesses because they increase foot traffic. (All pedestrian malls are popular with businesses.)
Pedestrians, who are often walking for their health, are tempted by the bakeries which line Ontario Street.

What do you think? Does that make sense?  Often if you speak the sentence aloud, you can tell if you mean the more narrow subject ("Governors who take bribes"), as you will speak that without the pause that would indicate commas.

Restrictive vs. nonrestrictive always gives me a headache to explain, and anyway, it's been explained better by others:
Another site for this
Check these out. :)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Grammar questions?

Hey, everyone,
I'm getting together some grammar lessons-- punctuation, sentences, wording. I'd love to do the lessons writers really need. What's your grammar question? I'll put it down on my list and write up a lesson for it. (I can't help it. I love this stuff.) Post here-- and also, if you see a lot of other writers' work-- what's the biggest issue you see, even if it's not a problem for you? I have to say, dialogue punctuation. (You know- She said "you don't understand" . )

What do writers need to be reminded to check?
What annoys you or intrigues you about grammar?

I just spent about a half hour trying to explain who/whom, and privately concluded this was something (along with subject/verb agreement) I might drop if I were Grammar Goddess.


Monday, May 8, 2017

3 Reasons to Choose a Small Press

3 Reasons to Choose a Small Press

Why a Small Press?
My publishing career is so checkered, I call it a “herringbone.” I’ve been published by major publishers and a couple small presses, and self-published too. So I thought I’d give you all some food for thought and write about why I chose to go with a small press for my women’s fiction novel, The Year She Fell.
I got my first publication back in the Golden Era of romance publishing, when all the major NY publishers were starting romance lines and midlist romance writers had print runs of 300K. (Not me, but many others!) I never benefited much from that wave as I wrote in a small niche genre (Regencies), but I stayed published by major pubs for more than a decade. I never made much money, but the prestige of major publication helped my teaching career, as nearly everyone was impressed to hear that I was a “Dell author.” (Of course, I published only one book with Dell before they suddenly dropped their Regency line. The great thing about prestige is it can be based on singular and long-past events.)
But consolidation of the big publishers in the 90s led to the greater commodification of books, and the multi-nationals didn’t seem very interested in marketing to niche readers anymore. Even with a top agent, I couldn’t get back into the closed circle with a book I’d certainly considered commercial. Why? Because I’d been writing “small books,” with print runs under 40K, the suddenly all-important “numbers” – how successful an author was at making lots of money for the publisher—meant editors had to send letters with high praise and that “Unfortunately” last paragraph. (“Unfortunately, with the market as it is, we can’t take a chance on Alicia who hasn’t the record of success we want.”) I knew the book was good, and I knew it would sell well if it got the chance. But it looked like I wasn’t going to get a chance. Then someone suggested submitting the book to Belle Books, a small press that a friend of mine had started years ago with some friends.

Small Press, Big Advantages (3 Good Reasons to Consider a Small Press)
1. Small presses aren’t afraid of small audiences.
For someone like me, who had mostly read big-press books, and had published only with “The Big Eight” (soon to become The Big Seven and then The Big Six and now I think it is the Big Five), looking beyond NYC for publication was scary. I mean, I’d heard about small presses, but thought they published only literary fiction and poetry, and regional publishers, but thought they published only local histories. Boy, did I get an education when I sold the book to Bell Bridge Books (the women’s fiction imprint of Belle Books). I learned that small presses like BB can aim for niche readers because their lower overhead (no Manhattan office to rent! no Manhattan salaries to pay!) means they don’t have to sell as many copies to make a profit on a book.
2. Small presses can be more nimble in responding to changes in technology and marketing.
I also learned that compared to the ocean-liner-sized major publishers, a small press is like a nimble cruiser, able to turn on a dime to take advantage of new technologies and techniques. So though my book came out initially in print, the publisher quickly realized that the rise of the Kindle and other e-readers would open up low-cost opportunities. So they published my book in several electronic formats, and while the sales were small for the print edition, the title caught on for Kindle readers.
The costs are lower, and the royalties much higher in e-format, and a small press like mine can experiment without much cost. For example, my publisher put the book up for free in Kindle format the week after Christmas 2010. I admit, I thought it was crazy to give away books. But it worked, generating many reviews and getting the book onto the top 10 list in the Kindle store. Even when the free period ended, customers still downloaded the book, only this time they paid for it. So paradoxical as it seems, giving the book away was an effective way to sell the book. But I’d never encountered that method with a big press. They didn’t even like to give the author many copies. (Of course, free copies aren’t cheap in print!)
In fact, for a brief moment (and I do mean a moment), my book was the #1 bestselling book on Amazon Kindle. Hey, it’s not the NYTimes list, but you better believe I now call myself a “bestselling author.” For a Regency writer, used to sales in the lowest five figures, this was a heady experience. (And yes, I checked my ranking constantly, and suffered through every bad review too!) And when I got my first royalty check, well, it didn’t quite pay for a new Lexus, but it was several times larger than any of my big-press book royalties.
3. Small presses are eager to maximize income from a potential bestseller, because they don’t have many of those.
One of the Big 5 might have 20-30 bestsellers a year. (That is, after all, how they get to be one of the Big 5.) So even making one of the major bestseller lists won’t necessarily make them pay special attention to your book when it comes to selling it onward. In contrast, small presses are more likely, I think, to explore opportunities for alternate revenues like foreign sales and subsidiary rights, because that way they can maximize income from their relatively short list of books. Just an example: the Harry Potter books were released both in the UK and the US by relatively small presses. Of course, these novels sold millions, but much of the revenue (JK Rowling is the first writer to become a billionaire) came from adroit dealing of film rights and other sub-rights. Of course, the big presses sometimes do try to sell film rights and the like, but very seldom for books in the midlist or below. (A word to the wise, then– try to retain a big percentage of your film and subsidiary rights! JK did. 🙂
My decision was further validated the following Christmas, when my publisher once again did a marketing push for my book (now out for more than a year), and got The Year She Fell up onto the bestseller list again. This persistence was in great contrast to my experience with big publishers, where a book was pretty much up for sale for the release month, and never again. I’d gotten used to doing a frantic round of promotion that month, and then seeing the book taken from the store shelves and stripped to be sent back to the publisher. Instead, I got a second sizeable January royalty check, because my small press can keep the book for sale literally for years.
There are always trade-offs in any decision, and going with a small press has meant giving up a few perks, especially the powerful influence created by the huge multi-national publishers. And there are, of course, limitations to the small press experience. The advances tend to be small because the companies are usually under-capitalized, using the profits from one book to fund the production of the next. The smaller presses can’t afford to have marketing divisions that go out and sell the books to big accounts. (On the other hand, this means that the marketers don’t get to interfere with editorial decisions as I kept running into with big publishers.) Small presses also don’t have the clout to force booksellers to sell a “small” book in order to get enough copies of a “big” book like a Grisham or a Koontz.
[optin-cat id=”630″] But I think my own experience shows that there’s no reason to confine our submissions to big New York publishers. Small presses might have the flexibility and resilience to keep up with the near-constant changes in the marketplace. However, because small presses don’t have the name-recognition and long public histories of a Random House, I’d suggest doing some due diligence before signing that first contract. Google the company name and check with the author-warning sites (like Preditors and Editors) to make sure there aren’t a lot of author complaints (especially ones concerning unpaid royalties!). Read the contract carefully and compare it with sample big-press contracts. Make sure that you’re not expected to contribute any funds of your own. Ask about the company in your writer’s groups and lists. Check the biographies of the company personnel to see if there’s a good mix of editorial and business expertise. Check their own website, and the sales pages of some of their books at Amazon or to see if the presentation is professional. Finally, talk through with the publisher what is planned for your book in terms of publication and marketing. These common-sense precautions will also help you get to know the publisher and get some ideas of how together you can make your book a success in a rapidly changing marketplace.
Has anyone else tried the small-press route? What’s been your experience?
Alicia Rasley is a Rita-award winning author and nationally known teacher of writing workshops. She teaches composition and tutors students in two state universities. She grew up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia but now lives in the midwestern flat land. Her book The Year She Fell has been a Kindle fiction bestseller.
Her website is Her writing book, The Power of Point of View, is still available from Writer’s Digest Books. All her books can be found on her Amazon page.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Quick Scene Structuring

Get out a scene you're working on, and let's see about drafting and then revising.

A  lot of writers bore themselves by planning a scene too much in advance. This scene, how about just sketching the very basic events? Try choosing a big scene, like The Reversal, or The Point of No Return, a scene where something important happens.

 In a turning point scenes like those, something changes the direction—that's why it's a "turning point". Think about what big revelation or event could reverse the flow of events (like the heroine goes on the interview for the job she wants, and gets "ambushed") and see if you can write around that big event.  Here's a quick scene design, with the big event at the center:

The setup of the event
The buildup to it
The event
Her reaction
The beginnings of the consequences
The ending
.... which leads to the next scene.

Let's get started brainstorming:

 Scene Goal: (Heroine wants to impress in the interview because she wants the job)- How do you show this?

 Setup: Keep this to a minimum if you can, maybe a paragraph at most before things really get started, so no long walk from the parking lot through the hallway to the interviewer's office. Maybe start with her knocking on the door or telling the receptionist she's here.

 Central event: The interview where the interviewer keeps asking "ambush questions" like-- "You majored in history? Why did you do something stupid like that?"  Or ... "Hmm. Your hobby is knitting. Are you one of those women who knits during business meetings?"

 Conflict: (She loses her temper at a very personal question about what happens if she gets pregnant or married, and when she calms down, she thinks she's messed up interview )

 Result: This doesn't have to be the ultimate result of her finding out if she got the job or not. This is the result of the immediate scene conflict. Like as she walks out of the interview, someone congratulates her, and she says, Oh, I blew it, and he winks and says, "That's not what I hear."

 Or end on the cliffhanger-- the phone rings, she can't get to it, the machine picks it up, she hears the boss's voice, she dives for the receiver and...

In other words, have an actual ENDING. Make sure you end with something that closes the scene but propels into the next scene, when she's maybe on her first day at the new job. Just a quick scene design to help you build to the event and then to show the beginnings of the consequences. But notice, the "big event" isn't just her getting her goal (the job), but rather the conflict event that puts the goal into doubt.

 Now let's bring in INTERNAL.  That is, let's see how this basic scene schematic can be individualized and deepened by adding in the internal component, what the character subconsciously desires and fears.

So as you write the scene, consider how the overall character goal and motivation are going to be advanced in this scene. Of course the scene itself has a goal and conflict and all that, but it also advances the book plot (for example, the quest to solve the murder mystery).  So consider that there is a booklength external conflict and a booklength internal conflict. And there are major internal and external motivations that guide the character through every event in the story. Even if every scene has a goal, you don't need separate motivations and conflicts for each scene; rather the goal is likely to be pieces or aspects of the larger one, a step toward achieving the goal. And the conflict is the event that gets in the way of the goal, or the piece of the overall "big' conflict that arises because of this situation.

 Let me come up with an example. Hmm. I have a character, Theresa, who was adopted when she was 7 by a wealthy family. She's in her 30s now and has had no contact with her birth family since the adoption. So she comes back to her hometown and decides to find her parents. That's her overall goal for the whole book time.


Whole Book Arc
Goal: locating birth parents

Now what's her motivation? Her -external- motivation is the one she can state out loud to anyone who asks.
External motivation: I remember I had siblings, and want to see them again.

What's her -internal- motivation, what is driving her from within but she can't at this point quite acknowledge?
Internal motivation: I've always felt like the outsider in my adoptive family, and maybe my birth family will make me feel like I belong.

 Now external conflict is often what's between her and the goal, or the problems and issues pursuing the goal bring up in her. (There are other genesises of conflict, but those are good ones.) So what's her external conflict?
External conflict: Her adoptive mother doesn't want her to find her parents, and is making it hard.

What internal problem/issue is also hampering her or making trouble?
Internal conflict: She unconsciously thinks that the reason she was given up for adoption and the reason her new family never really "fit" is because there's something wrong with her.

Okay! That's all the BOOK stuff. Now how does that apply to a scene?

Individual Scene Arc
I think what I need to do is to look at the scene and decide what piece or aspect of the book-long goal, etc., it pursues. Where are we in the story?  It's still early. She's formulated the goal, but she hasn't encountered the conflict yet (her adoptive mother).  Right away, I think—it's time! This scene she's going to start trying to achieve her goal, but then encounter the conflict that tells her it's going to be harder than she imagined, because Mom is going to get in the way.

So let's say this is the scene where she goes to the courthouse to find the birth records.

Her goal for the scene: Get my birth certificate. Notice this is only a piece or step of the book-length goal. But in order to track down her birth-parents, she first has to find out who they are, and that's the "step" for this scene—her scene goal.

Her external motivation for the scene: My birth parents' names will be on the birth certificate, and I want to know that. I need the birth certificate to get other records. Again, this isn't the "big motivation" of reuniting with her siblings, but a very scene-focused motivation—why she wants the scene goal.

Her internal motivation for the scene: If I find the birth certificate, I'll know I really did exist before the Wakefields adopted me. Be careful not to reveal too much about the book-arc internal motivation. The entire story, probably, goes to reveal what internal factors are at work here, so in the beginning scenes, we probably just want a piece of it. How would this be shown? Well, she might mutter something, or have a flash of thought, something involuntary, that hints at this. (LIke maybe she's holding the birth certificate and thinks, Oh. I really did exist, didn't I?)

Now comes the all-important scene conflict. Remember, this isn't the whole external conflict, but just the piece of it that is getting in the way of this particular scene goal.
External conflict: The clerk who finds it, and then says, "Does your mother know you're doing this?" and keeps her waiting while he makes a phone call.... to her mom, probably.

Internal conflict: She's afraid of what she'll find if she does get the birth certificate... maybe mom is trying to protect her from finding out that her parents were famous serial murderers. Again, this is only a piece of the big internal conflict. But notice that there's a hint here that "there's something wrong with me" that connects to her overall internal (unrecognized) conflict.

NOW... how does this all affect her SCENE ACTIONS?

Action in pursuit of goal in scene: She goes to the courthouse and demands the birth certificate.

External conflict:
Clerk starts to call adoptive Mom.

Internal conflict: But when she encounters interference, she wavers. Not sure she wants to pursue it this bad-- what if the clerk tells his friends and everyone in town hears about it...

IOW, her internal conflict of being afraid of what she might find makes her ambivalent about achieving the goal. BUT… it's not ACTION unless she DOES something, right? So she how can she show that she's ambivalent?  She can say, "Never mind then," and start towards the door, but then turn back and point at the receiver in the clerk's hand. She can wait with her hand on the door until the clerk hangs up without making the call. Then she can say "Thank  you" and leave.  See how that expresses her internal conflict (maybe Mom is right and I don't want to know) and external conflict (all I know is, I really don't want Mom to know) through action, not just her thoughts.

But remember the effects or consequences of the conflict?  That's how you move from this conflict into the next scene, how you make the step deeper into the story.

So- consequences!

When the clerk picks up the phone again (forcing the conflict again) to call her mom, however, the larger conflict between her and mom fires her anger and forces her into real action (she steals the birth certificate off his desk, maybe).

This sort of action, the action at the end of the scene, is more interesting when in some way it's irrevocable. After all, once she's stolen something, she can't really turn back. She's committed a crime! She's tipped her hand and now the clerk knows she really wants that birth certificate!  And she's actually proved to herself how much she wants it, enough to go against a lifetime of morality to commit a theft.   (Plus the clerk is SO going to tell her mother!)

Think of the motivation and conflict as pullers and pushers. The motivation pulls her towards the goal, but the conflict is shoving her from behind or shoving her back or shoving her in another direction. How is that going to play out in this scene?

Consider that every scene has "Goal Motivation and Conflict," but not the larger GMC. Rather they're all going to be aspects or pieces of the larger GMC. And what's important is-- how do they impel this character to act and react at this moment?

 ACTION is the ultimate purpose of motivation and conflict-- to cause the character to do something she has to do to be in this story, to move one more step towards her goal or away from the relative comfort she enjoyed before this story got started, before she started going after the goal, before she confronted the conflict.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Inconvenient Research Information= Opportunity!

Inconvenient Research Information= Opportunity!

For some reason I decided I had to have a story where my sleuthing couple are at a cricket match and the batter gets "beaned" by the ball. Only it's not a ball, it's a meteorite.

No prob! Of course, I know nothing about cricket or meteors either! But that's what Google is for. And when Google fails, someone within my husband's wide acquaintance can always step up. (He knows all sorts of interesting people because he's been the program chair of Scientech, a lifelong-education organization composed muchly of retired engineers and physicians.

Okay, I'll be honest here. It wasn't that Google FAILED, precisely, but it gave me information that seemed to make my scene impossible. To wit: Many meteorites fall to earth every year, but almost none (like two in the history of the world, as far as we know) have hit humans. Also, a meteorite falling on someone's head would pretty much obliterate him, because it's fallen a very long way and very fast. Shoot! I can't kill off a kid in a cricket game with his parents watching! And anyway, this is supposed to be a romantic novella, and Natasha and Matt are unlikely to be feeling much like cuddling if they just saw a death. 

But I persevere. It's not a problem, it's an opportunity! I realized I needed to write around these inconvenient research facts. First, of course, I turned to the higher source, Jeff's buddy the astronomer. He gave more inconvenient information, but the facts were more nuanced, a lot of "it depends." And I could work around by manipulating the options "it depends" gave me.
So while it will cause some adjustments in the sequence, it's still all feasible. Of course, plausibility is still an issue, but really, this would be a one-in-a-billion event in the best of situations. People really don't get hit by meteors very often! But they COULD be-- if it's ever happened, it can happen again, right? And fiction is about the unusual, right? That's why we get to make it up. So my cricket-playing youth turns out to be the THIRD person ever to be hit by a meteorite. Talk about wrong place/wrong time.

So anyway, Kurt said that they are usually 2-3 inches in diameter (which is fine), would come down almost perpendicular to the ground (a bit of a problem, given that kid-obliteration issue), and would probably be 800 degrees hot or so (but could be much hotter). However, my meteorite (yes, it's MINE! :) could be touchable in an hour depending on the material. (I love "depending on" because that means I have some leeway and it's still legal.)

What's fun is to work the scene around those requirements. I don't want the meteorite to hit the kid on the top of the head (perpendicular descent), but I could have it hit something else first and ricochet. So I can have that something be a tree, which it splits or breaks. That impact would diminish the velocity to a less lethal level and could also change the trajectory, so it's now moving horizontally and could just glance off the youth's temple rather than, you know, obliterating him.

As for the super-heatedness, also a obstacle/opportunity! I'd planned to have Natasha send the children to look for the object that hit the tree and kid, and her niece was going to bring it back. But now I'm going to have Dorie try to pick it up and cry out because it's still hot (I can make it be about 20 minutes after the impact), and Natasha will then have to join her and pick it up with her glove and maybe some leaves from the broken tree. That makes for more character interaction with each other and the object, and also that little minor bit of conflict that makes a scene more fun to read.
Research Obstacle = Plot Opportunity.
Anyway, I wanted to report back on this momentous issue! And seriously, everyone, watch out. 18,000 to 84,000 meteorites hit Earth every year, and your head could be in the way! (Source is here.) One more thing we have to worry about! (NOT.)
Hey, sign up here and you can get instant access to my new e-book, 13 Prime Principles of Plot.

Get free book here!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

We're still here! Just busy. And you know, considering how hard it is to break a bad habit, is it fair that it's so easy to break a good habit, like posting to a blog?

Anyway, came across this quote in an article by Jay Rosen, the journalism professor:

The writer and non-fiction master Gay Talese used to describe for anyone who asked how he would pin the typed pages of his articles to a wall, in order to step back and re-read the draft with binoculars. That’s right: binoculars! Why did he do this? Because it was the only way he could think of to examine his creation at the sentence level and as a completed whole: simultaneously. To perfect what he made, he needed distance from, and intimacy with. He felt he couldn’t sacrifice one for the other. If he planted a bomb on page 2, he wanted to see exactly how it went off on page 22, and assess whether that was the right story arc.

I think one of the most complicated tasks for writers is to find a way to actually read our own work-- not just edit it, or revise it, or write it, but READ it.
I don't know about binoculars though. :)
How is everyone?
I'd love to collect some sentences that need editing/revising. Donations? Post in comments a sentence you'd like to have me edit (or rather, use to spark some thought about sentences!). Can you identify what you think the problem might be, or alternatively, what you'd want to accomplish?
Thanks- it's always hard to generate examples!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Call to Action: Some Strategies to Make It Big

The Call to Action: Some Strategies to Make It Big  
I was discussing a friend's manuscript, and I suggested she pump up the "call to action." That's usually in the first chapters, and is where the protagonist is given the incentive to act. It doesn't have to be a big high-stakes event, or some insistent demand, but I think a good "call to action" (Vogler calls it the "call to adventure," which is more intriguing!) can entice the reader to keep reading and also launch the story into the second act of rising action.
Sometimes the call is rendered a bit too subtly to provide enough motivation for the protagonist to get off her duff and get moving.  However, we don't necessarily need a Wizard of Oz style tornado call to action. It can seem minor and become more important later, or actually be minor but end up dragging the character deeper and deeper into danger. Point is, whatever the incentive is, it should be enough to motivate the character out of her routine and into doing something.

I came up with a few suggestions that might help power up the call, and give the reader a clue that conflict will be heating up.

1) Make it matter to the protagonist.  The main character is usually our surrogate in the story, so it has to matter to him/her for us to feel that it's important. I was just reading a pretty good book, a police procedural, that could have benefited from a stronger call to action.  The detective saw the central crime as just another murder of the 20 or so he investigates a year. There wasn't anything special about this murder, at least as far as he was concerned, and his "just a job" attitude made it easy not to get really invested in the conflict.

So what's different about this conflict event? Why is it a "call to action" that's more imperative than "get to work on time?" How can you show that either when the event is initiated, or as the character gets more involved?

2) Place it early. Don't make the reader wait too long. The call to action is the signal to the reader that the plot is getting underway. But it's also the event that tells the character to do something, to get started on the goal or overcoming the obstacles. In the classical dramatic schema, it's the end of the setup and the beginning of Act II. It means things are changing.
Even if you want to ease into the conflict-- it seems like just another murder at first-- think of having some little signal that this particular one is just a bit different, like the police commissioner calls right after the body is discovered in Chapter 1, oh so casually, to ask who caught the case. That way, when the victim is revealed in Chapter 3 to be the commissioner's mistress, the reader will experience a certain glee-- aha! I knew something was up!

3) Make it new. The police procedural never really overcame the "just another job" problem you see often in books where the protagonist's job is taking care of this problem. The call to action might SEEM routine-- just another murder for the homicide detective!-- but think about how you can pretty quickly make it more than just another job. Maybe the victim is the mayor's college roommate, or the evidence points to the police chief, or the modus operandi reminds an old-timer in the department of an unsolved murder, or.... What's different about this event? How is it not just routine? How can you show that early enough that the reader's attention doesn't wander off?

4) Make it demand some action. The "call to action" means the protagonist should act or react because of this, and not just the usual or routine (opening a file, stopping at the bank). What does the protagonist have to do in response to this event that's different than usual? Maybe he agrees to call the police commissioner back after the autopsy. Maybe he stays late to wait for a call from the Pacific Time parents about their daughter, and so misses the pickup at his kids' daycare center and gets into trouble with his ex-wife.  Or he has to call her at 5 pm and ask her to do the pick-up, even though it breaks his heart to hear her voice. The call to action should quickly disrupt this person's life and call for some unusual activity.

5) Use scene placement to show that however negligible this might seem, it's actually important. Anything placed at the end or beginning of a scene gains importance just from the position, from the pause that comes before or after, and from the sense that all builds up to this event or ripples from it.  So put it at the end of the first or second scene, or the end of the first chapter, and you'll give it some subtle emphasis.

6) Use another character to elicit some notion of "specialness".  The police commissioner is elaborately casual in his inquiry... too casual. The ex-wife remarks that the detective has always picked the kids up-- what's wrong?  The detective's partner passing by the desk picks up the file and mentions that this is the third "Brittany" killed this year-- weird, huh?

7) Don't be too gradual. This is my mistake every time. I think I want to make it entirely plausible, completely logical, and so I spend three scenes carefully setting up the interlocking clues that This Is Special. (I also keep telling myself to "bury" the big clues in the middle of other clues, so I have to create all those other clues, hence more scene detail, more scenes.) In the first scene, maybe the detective notices her charm bracelet. In the second, he has to call her parents to tell them that she's dead, and they weepingly tell him that she had a new boyfriend, someone important. In the third scene... you get the idea.  By the time the reader has carefully picked through the minefield of event, clue, detail, I might have lost her interest.
Stack.  Get more than one big moment into the "call to action" scene.  Start with the charm bracelet, have him call the parents, let the partner notice something-- all in one scene. Let the small event build into the larger revelation or realization that.... "this is different!"

8) Show the change soon. Again, don't be too gradual in the opening. (I think in the middle of the plot, you can probably take things more slowly and meticulously, but in the opening, you want to get underway.)  The call to action changes things not three scenes later, but right now. If you can make the change clearly a result of his taking this unprecedented action, all the better. As soon as he agrees to keep the commissioner informed, he gets caught up-- the commissioner is "casually" calling him the very next morning.

9) Show the character having to change-- that is, how does this skein of events make his actions and/or attitude different right away?  For example, he might be sort of flattered that the police commissioner is paying attention to him, but he knows that his captain won't approve, so when the commissioner calls, he lowers his voice and takes the phone into the hall so no one, not even his trusted partner, overhears.

10) Let this call to action open to a new world or a new opportunity.  Say the police commissioner is grateful to be kept informed, and invites the detective to his club where the mayor and the judges hang out. Or the trail of clues leads to Los Angeles and he has to board a flight and leave the frozen Midwest for the beach.

11) Notice what you set up in the call to action scene and use that later in the book, to deepen characterization or develop new conflict.  If you want him to get back together with his ex-wife, for example, in the end, how can you let the call to action and aftermath set that up? Like instead of just abandoning the kids at daycare (not conducive to later getting back with ex!), he uses this as an opportunity to call her, get her to do the pickup, and... this is the important thing... promise her in exchange a nice dinner out. That last in the chain of actions will set up the much later "date" that resolves the romantic conflict.

Again, you're in control here. You're the one who determines what the event is, and how it first appears. You can turn up or down the emphasis. You can move the initiating event earlier or later. You can use dramatic or understated prose. You can select detail that adds to the suspense or narrows the focus. You can show the ripples of the event on the character's life and the setting.  Challenge yourself to use the tools you've got to make this event a real call to action, for the reader as well as the character.


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Three Acts: Three "Things' That Can Increase the Coherence of Your Conflict

 Try this exercise if you're afraid your conflict is lagging!

This uses the 3-act Structure to organize your plot events into setup, rising conflict, resolution, and that structure provides propulsion and the progression of events within the story arc. Willy-nilly eventing won't build up the dramatic power that intensifies the emotion.  In fact, effective plotting is all about cause and effect. Events matter because they cause something else to happen and something to change and the characters to feel. The accumulation of events is what propels the reader to read on, and organizing this cause/effect sequence into acts will help you build tension and cause change.

Three Acts:
Act 1 -- Set up conflict.
Act 2 -- Make conflict rise.
Act 3 -- Make conflict explode, and then resolve it.

Try breaking these acts into 3 big events of ascending emotional risk: Examples-
3 times she needed help
3 times he got stuck
3 attempts to deal with the conflict
3 attempts to reach the goal
3 heartbreaks
3 secrets
3 lies
3 failures
3 betrayals
3 times she didn't ask for help

Just try it-- ascending risk, remember!
Then consider: What are the risks he/she is afraid of?
Why is this a risk?
What might this risk cause, and what might be caused by their trying to AVOID the risk?

For example, let's take one that is just full of emotion-- secrets. Three secrets.
Kept or revealed? Or both? Maybe the attempt to keep a secret leads to revelation.
Let's think of ascending risk --
Act 1: This sets up the first secret. She's an FBI agent, and she's sent undercover into a small town. So the first secret is that she's secretly an FBI agent.
There's not a lot of emotional risk in this secret because it's her job. But it sets in motion all the rest of the risks.
What does this cause? It causes her to be placed in this small town to investigate the local bank, and it causes her to have to take on a disguise—she's pretending to be a bank teller.

Act 2: The next secret comes when she meets and is drawn to the son of the bank president. This is just the sort of guy she despised when she was growing up, rich and polished and educated. But she's supposed to investigate his father, and she's supposed to be a bank teller who would be flattered by his intentions, so she has to keep the secret from him about who she is... and the secret from her boss that she's falling in love with one of the "targets".
What does this cause? She's getting deeper entrenched into deception. It's going to be far, far worse now when her secret is revealed. She's also becoming alienated from her job, from her old self, from the FBI, as she's not reporting her contact with Junior. Maybe she's even started lying to her boss, withholding information that could get Junior in trouble.

Act 3: What's the final secret? It's probably her real identity, not just FBI, but her former identity. Maybe she's never told anyone that she grew up as "trailer trash," the daughter of a small-town prostitute or drug dealer. Her final secret is her shame, which has caused her all along to hide her past and her true self, to cut herself off from her old friends and her family, maybe even to make up a more generic and acceptable past.
(The big task would be—and I'm too brain-dead now to come up with an idea!—make the revelation of that secret in the start of Act 3 happen and affect the plot.)

Let's try another "Three Acts, Three Somethings."
Remember the film Casablanca? Rick is a symbol of the United States before Pearl Harbor, isolated, uninvolved, as the world crashes around him.
This is a tightly plotted story, and there are several "3 things", but the one I like to focus on is "Three Times Rick Refuses To Help." (Tip: To determine “ascending risk,” you want to ask after each of the 3 things: What is the risk? What does this cause?)

Act 1: Ugarte asks Rick for 2 things—to hold the letters of transit for the evening (he agrees), and later to help him escape from the police (Rick refuses this time).
What is the risk? There's some emotional risk from refusing to help—a few hours later, he drunkenly refers to it—but he can shrug it off as kind of a cost of doing business—sometimes, to run a successful saloon, you have to sacrifice a friend.
What does this cause? It's very important externally because with Ugarte dead, Rick is now stuck with these letters of transit, and as he says drily, "As long as I have them, I'll never be lonely." (I tell you, this film is SO well-written, because in fact, he is alone, and his loneliness is ended only because he has those damned letters of transit!)

Act 2: The news of his having the letters spreads, and he's approached by Victor Laszlo, a Resistance leader who will be arrested by the Gestapo if he can't get out of Casablanca. When L offers to buy the letters (which will get him and his wife to safety—do NOT ask why! Because, that's why. These are magic letters :), Rick refuses, and when asked why, says bitterly, "Ask your wife."
Much more emotional risk here! In refusing to help, he is acknowledging that the wife (Ilsa) hurt him earlier, and he's using this as a means of revenge. His hard-won isolationist wall is beginning to crumble. Also, weirdly, he's sort of letting himself hope that Laszlo will find out about the earlier affair and cast Ilsa out so that she will come to Rick again.
What does this cause? Well, one effect is, paradoxically, to reconcile Laszlo and Ilsa. She's been keeping the secret of the former affair (she'd thought L was dead), and this actually lets Laszlo understand what happened and gently indicate that he doesn't blame her. (This becomes a huge part of her conflict, actually, as she realizes she still loves both of them.)
For Rick, this causes him to get more and more involved in Ilsa's dire situation and make it that much clearer that he's still in love with her.

Act 3: Ilsa herself comes to him and asks for—no, demands—the letters of transit to save Laszlo so he can continue to fight the Nazis. She is so determined that she pulls a gun on him, and he is so determined to refuse to help her, that he invites her to shoot him. Rather than help her, he will commit suicide! Talk about emotional risk. Helping her would be worse than dying?
(She as always ends up acting with love, putting the gun down and confessing that she still loves him, and he ends up embracing her—this is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film.)
What is the risk? That he will fall in love with her again (as he does), that he will lose all his defenses, that he will be hurt again, that he will lose her. This ALL happens. (That is, sometimes the greatest emotional risk should explode.)
What does this cause? Rick’s refusal causes her to confess her love, and that leads to their tacit decision to use the letters of transit. But here's the amazing thing. Ilsa says to him, "You'll decide what's right? For all of us?" That is, she is telling him that whatever he decides to do, he has to help Laszlo to safety. (She assumes that he will give Laszlo one letter of transit, and she and Rick will escape together some other way. And you know what happens, or if you don't, go watch the film!!!!!)
The real result is Rick's return to the family of man, actually. He accepts responsibility for other people, and joins the war effort. He gives up his isolation and accepts the power of love.

Notice that a powerful place to put 'the thing' is close to the end of the act, so that its repercussions propel into the next act.

So look at your own story, and see if you can identify "Three Things", or invent them, and center each act upon this thing.
1. What is the "thing" in "Three Things" in your story? If you'd like to speculate about what this means, how it relates to a deep internal issue or theme (like Rick's refusal to help is an aspect of his fear of getting too involved again and getting hurt), have at it.

2. Where can you put some manifestation of "this thing" in each act?
For each occurrence, ask:
    a. What is the emotional risk here (and remember to assemble these three in ascending risk)?
    b. What does this thing cause to happen?

3. How can this thing near the end of the story (maybe the dark moment?) cause a great emotional change?