Chapters vs short stories

A writer friend of mine occasionally takes a chapter from one of her books and fashions it into a short story which she then puts on the market. She’s managed to sell several of those tales. And, since she has developed a following for her novels, it’s a great way to tease her readers about soon-to-be-released material. If only I could make it work for me, too. [Sigh]

Alas, I’ve had precisely no luck with this at all, despite spending a significant amount of time trying. I just can’t get it to work. My novel chapters typically weigh in at around four thousand words, so length isn’t usually a problem. Most magazines will consider up to 5K without too much hesitation.

The problem, I’m convinced, is that my novels typically have multiple storylines. So coming up with a single chunk of related material means carving scenes from various places and either sewing ’em, or just squishing them, together. The issue then becomes figuring out how to introduce characters and conflicts from scenes which haven’t been included. Snip, snip, paste, paste, and voila! The result is something snipped and pasted that has all the appeal of fresh poodle squeeze.

Obviously, it can be done. My friend’s efforts prove it. I just don’t think it’s possible with my own stuff. Which kinda makes me grumpy. In fact, it tends to make me think I should write in a simpler style, say one voice and one point of view. Maybe just one storyline. So, okay: Joe goes here, Joe goes there. Joe gets tangled up with some babe from the hood, maybe while he’s tracking down a bad guy for a suspicious client. But then the hot babe from the bad side of the tracks turns out to be an undercover agent who’s actually looking for him. And then….

See the problem? I already want to know more about the suspicious client and the undercover gal. And why would anyone be investigating Joe, my point of view character, who’s really a sweet guy and who wouldn’t even think of breaking a law, except for that one time when….

psycho1And suddenly my personal MAC (Motive, Action, Consequence) hamster wheel is off on a vision quest of its very own, and will soon be careening into the unknown and well beyond anyone’s control. Joe’s story will become the basis for book one of a new series; there will be all the usual novelish stuff: violence, revenge, outrage, passion, sex, mistaken identities, ice cream binges, misplaced trust, etc., and my dreams of turning a simple project into a simpler one will evaporate like manners at a food fight.

All of which is to say, that if I need to write a short story, I’ll just write a damned short story. It’ll take a whole lot less time and effort than writing a novel I can break into marketable pieces. Clearly, my female writer friend is a genius, and I should never again be tempted to duplicate her literary/surgical successes.

Instead, I’ll stick to doing my own thing. There’s probably an object lesson in there for all my other writer friends. If you’re one of ’em, I hope you can find it.


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Trigger Words? Really? Oh hell yeah!

Relax. I’m not going to talk about words which might have deleterious effects on certain 12765916_ml-txtoverly coddled college students who hear them. (This is, generally speaking, a non-political website. I don’t care who you vote for as long as you have a reason for doing it. That doesn’t mean I’m interested in discussing your politics, or my own. I’m not, ever. I only do that over drinks–lots and lots of drinks.)

The kind of trigger words I’m talking about are those that convey a sense of place. F’rinstance, let’s say you’re writing a scene (or a memoir) that takes place in your imaginary grandmothers’s kitchen (or possibly your imaginary great-grandmother’s kitchen. With any luck, you’re younger than I am). For me, that’s a kitchen built in the 1930s. Also for me, it’s located somewhere in suburban Chicago. Your granny’s kitchen may have existed somewhere far, far away, in time and/or place.

Now, when we attempt to describe that kitchen, we have a vast array of descriptors to choose from. For me, it’s a gas stove with white enamel doors covering the oven. Stark, wooden shelves bedeck the walls around the appliance. A variety of cooking tools hang wood-stove-2beneath them; there are no cabinets, no windows, no wallpaper, no decorations. There’s a radio on the plain, laminate counter top. The only warmth in the room comes from the oven. The best part is the smell of freshly baked bread, an aroma that permeates my soul and leaves me with my mouth open.

Your granny’s kitchen is likely very different. It could have a black, cast iron, wood burning stove. There could be a spindle-legged table in the mix, too. Lengths of firewood might be stacked in one corner; an apron might hang from a peg on the wall. There could be a farm calendar on the wall, or a bit of cross-stitched wisdom, maybe a psalm or a prayer.

wood-stove-1On the other hand, your great-grandmother’s kitchen may have been far more up-to-date, the kind one might describe as mid-century urban sophisticate. It might’ve had brightly painted walls, finished cabinetry and a butcher block table at ground zero. Her stove might’ve been electric, and her counters may have been crowded with lesser appliances–a toaster, a blender, and/or a coffee maker.

The point is, as a writer, you can’t be satisfied thinking your readers will imagine your setting exactly the way you see it. You have to paint the scene for them, and you have to make sure you’re using the right trigger words–words that provide a specific feel. The trick is to measure out only as many as you need to get the picture painted. Too much description is just as bad as too little; either will disappoint the reader.

One of the best ways to gauge whether or not you’ve overdone it, is to examine the pacing of the work. Does it still move along? Will readers have to struggle to hang on to the thread? Does anything really happen there? If not, all the description in the world won’t save the scene.

truck-vs-houseIf you find yourself in such a situation, consider doing something to the location. If it’s important the way it is, do something to change it! A fire, an earthquake, or a plastic bag full of frozen human waste hurtling down through the ceiling after being accidentally discharged by a passing airliner might just do the trick. (I would be gratified to see this occur more often in fiction than in real life, but I doubt a new meme is in order.) A falling tree or a bread truck bursting into the room from outside will definitely change things.

Make the setting you envision work for you. If it doesn’t, change it. In the process you might just discover something even more interesting than what you originally planned.


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Characters with… character. Part 3 of 3

We’re moving into the final lap of this character creation exercise. In case you missed the first two parts you can find them here and here. If you’ve been scribbling stuff down about your character, then this process will have been useful. If not, shame on you! Go quiver in the dark somewhere as the dreaded writing demons will surely be visiting you soon.

Eternity face CUYou’re scaring me!  Of course, because fright is good. It’s an amazingly effective element that can lay on your desk like a cattle prod, ready for use whenever you need to make life hell for your character. And never forget, that’s your job! What am I talking about? The one thing your player fears the most; the one thing they want to avoid at all costs: Disease. Pain. Loneliness. Sharks. Being trapped in an elevator. Crying babies. Anything! It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s yours; you can trot it out whenever you feel like it, or whenever things are just going too well for your protagonist. That’s the best time to administer a dose of pure, awful, meanness. [Cue evil laughter.] Don’t forget to add that fear to your notes!

What’s next? It’s time for a sketch (not a portrait).  When it comes to character descriptions, I’m firmly in the less-is-more camp. More often than not, physical characteristics aren’t important, and can even be distancing since many readers enjoy seeing themselves in the role of the folks they’re reading about. Unless you’re writing porn (hopefully under a pseudonym), there’s no need to go overboard detailing hair and eye color, height, weight, bra size or genital proportions.

Instead, write a description under 100 words. Remember the logline we started with: 140 characters or less. Don’t try to paint a word portrait; go for a quick sensory sketch. He’s 20785837_ml-txtthat dumpy poser who thinks he’s Swiss but smells like Limburger, or, she’s that emaciated teen who equates vamp with glam.

What you’re striving for is a short, evocative word blitz. Your best bet is to ignore the tired and typical and go for the bizarre and unusual. Those are the characters readers remember. Make them interesting to look at — and think about. Give them aspects, visual and otherwise, that others would find strange, dangerous, or even off-putting. Therein lies the fun. Don’t put it off; do it now. (Don’t fool around. There’s still time for me to dispatch the demons. I’m not kidding.)

Wphew. Now that you’ve got a tentative hold on your shiny new character, it’s time to see if he or she is really what you’re looking for. It’s time for a screen-test.

So, right now, sit down and write some flash fiction starring your newly revamped player. Get inside their soft and squishy gray matter. Run ’em through the grinder; force them into tough situations; toss in odd characters and expose them to their fears. See how they react, but more importantly, see how YOU react. Did they reveal something new? Do they live up to your expectations? Too bold? Too bland? Do you need to shape that wad of clay a little more? Here’s where you can find out, and possibly generate useable new material, too. Save what you write, it could come in handy later.

building-the-great-pyramid-txtBack to the top. Now it’s time to go back and rewrite the logline. Why? Because more than likely this process has changed something about your character, and updating the logline now will help you lock in the updates. Just as important, the logline rewrite is good exercise. If you’re writing a novel, you’ll have to do a great deal of revision, shaping, clarifying, modifying, motivating and improving every aspect of your work. Better start getting used to it now.

If you’re feeling really motivated, post your updated logline in the comment section below. I’d love to see what you come up with.


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Characters with… character. part 2 of 3

Last time (click here if you missed it) we covered character loglines, the character’s problem, and his or her initial plan to solve it. But there’s much more to character building. Read on.

Next up is Conflict–the great provider. All that wonderful, malleable space between a character’s problem and solution is your natural, God-given playground. It’s yours to do with as you please. You can populate it with dragons, armies, space ships, or a seemingly endless stretch of nothing. It can harbor pitfalls, dead drops, mistakes, oversights, threats, attempts, triumphs, and disasters. It’s the land of the Try/Fail, the great and glorious Middle.

16456502 - two men break the rope hands competing. on a white background.You could find this section ridiculously easy to populate. Story stuff could spew out of you as the by-product of the Problem/Solution line up. In “Scorpion,” Walter can’t bring himself to ask Paige out on a date. But, when she’s threatened by something that happens as a result of a Scorpion project, Walter will always be the one to risk himself to save her.

Alas, that doesn’t always happen. What if the Problem/Solution combo fails to provide the sort of conflict needed for your epic? Then it’s time to add external conflict. In “Scorpion,” it comes as a result of the new challenge the team faces in each episode.

In the case of Gone With the Wind, the conflict appears in the guise of Ashley Wilkes, whom Scarlett adores. But he’s betrothed to Melanie, and this pushes a variety of Scarlett’s buttons, forcing her to make decisions and take actions that provide even more conflict.

24763825_ml-coverIn “Star Wars,” Luke Skywalker dreams of becoming a great Jedi warrior, but his tutor is a little green guy with big ears and an annoying set of speech mannerisms. There wouldn’t have been much of a movie if all Luke had to do was buy a copy of Jedi for Dummies.

The great thing about external conflicts is that they provide endless opportunities to develop the character and his/her abilities and/or shortcomings. Walter uses his stratospheric IQ to turn household objects into defensive weaponry. His mind is his principle asset, and the external conflict allows us to see it in action.

We all have LIMITS? Of course! A limitation is generally internal, something within the character as part of their nature. This limitation hobbles them in some way, altering their plans to solve the problem, also known as the “mission.”

In the case of Walter O’Brien, he doesn’t know how to deal with emotion, either his own or someone else’s. This constantly results in clumsy efforts at interaction with the woman he loves. Not only that, it constricts his ability to deal with others as anything but the alpha nerd. This limitation is a constant source of tension-generators and new plot twists.

Not all limitations are flaws or frailties. Instead, they could be positive traits that generate edges and angles, be it in plot or character.

  • 45840872_ml-txtScarlett O’Hara, while outwardly flighty and superficial, actually has a steely resolve. Her unyielding determination, whether focused on romance, appearance, or survival, forces her into situations other characters would never face.
  • Han Solo is an honorable guy when it comes to his friends, if not his business partners. His tough guy persona dissolves when someone he cares about is in trouble.
  • Imagine a character based on Joan of Arc. She can’t lie or be deceitful, even if those who depend on her need her to take the low road from time to time. She just can’t do it.

It’s complicated.  Complications tend to be external. They are entanglements outside the character that complicate their lives. These can be either character-based or plot-based depending on the aspect of the story you’re developing. In Gone With The Wind, for example, a major complication for Scarlett (to say nothing of the rest of the country) is the Civil War. Scarlett’s story isn’t about the war, it’s about how she copes, and the war provides a significant, and recurring, set of problems. Coming full circle, it turns out Scarlett’s unyielding determination proves to be the one thing which allows her to succeed, or at least persevere.

As in Scarlett’s case, the best outcomes — from a plot standpoint — occur when a player’s limitations and complications turn out to be the very issues which help them achieve their goals, even as they generate new and unusual difficulties.

Now, track down your notes from part one, and add to them some potential complications for your character to face. Then figure out at least one serious complication. Can you see where this is headed? There’s only one phase to go.


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Characters with… character. part 1 of 3

For most readers, novels are judged by the degree to which readers care for the players in the story. Character-driven stories haven’t just evolved; they’re as old as storytelling itself. 36612546_mlAnd yet, far too many novice novelists concentrate more on plots than players. The truth is, good novels must excel at both. A further truth is that the complexity of the characters often generates complexities in the story line. They ought to be inextricably linked. If you think in terms of DNA strands, you’ll begin to get the picture.

So, how does one go about creating characters that matter? It takes time and patience. And maybe a few suggestions. Here’s one way that’s guaranteed to work, provided you follow all the steps.

A Character Logline? At the outset, most of us already have a character in mind, so let’s start with what we’ve got and use it to write a character logline. Sometimes called an “elevator pitch,” a logline is just a one-liner that sums up a character and his/her role in the story. Keep it to 140 characters or less. Like these:

  • “The Big Bad Wolf, an aging loner with an insatiable taste for pork, seeks survival in the form of three pigs living nearby.” (122 characters)
  • “Han Solo is a devil-may-care space jock with a hot rocket ship and too many enemies, who falls in with a princess and a wannabe hero.” (133 chars)
  • “Scarlett O’hara is a pampered Southern belle whose goals in life suddenly change from finding a proper husband to surviving the Civil War.” (138 chars)

If you’re struggling with your own character, try doing loglines for well-known players in existing books and movies.

What’s the PROBLEM? Remember, the character must have a problem. It’s why he/she exists, and it helps to generate plot(s). Figure out what the problem is, and spell it out as briefly as you can. If you’ve already included it in your logline, you’re ahead of the game. Use anything that stands in the way of the character reaching their goal. You want examples? We’ve got ’em. These are all perfectly valid fiction issues:

  • 63722024_ml-plusA girl can’t find a date.
  • A guy is pursued by a soul-eating monster escaped from Hades.
  • A woman deals in used souls but has lost her own.
  • A man longs to hear the symphony but is going deaf.

Consider poor, brilliant Walter O’Brien from the CBS TV show “Scorpion.” His problem isn’t the bad guys he encounters; it’s his inability to interact with “normal” people, primarily his love interest, Paige. Whatever gets in the way of their eventual connection is mere plot complication. The real driving force for Walter is his inability to connect with her.

In general terms, the problem is the immediate issue–why we’re here, watching this character, right now.

What good is a problem without a solution? Your character must think he has a solution to the problem. (No, not you, the writer; it must come from the character.) He or she must have a potential solution in mind, and it is precisely that which launches the tale.

  • 52010147_ml-txtThe gal who can’t find a date may decide her best bet is to rent a permanent booth in the trendiest singles bar in town.
  • The character who can’t duck the soul-eater from Hades may opt to join the space program in order to put some serious distance between himself and the boojum.
  • The dealer in dead souls may join a Buddhist order to find sanctuary in some remote mountain temple.
  • The guy who’s losing his hearing might seek out a faith healer or a witch doctor if he can’t afford traditional medical remedies.

If you haven’t been taking notes and/or writing down your responses to the questions, go back and do it now. You’ll need the answers when we get to part 2 next time around.


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Outlines for those who hate outlining

Note: the same poor shlub is riding all three horses. Dying once isn't enough?

Note: the same poor shlub is riding all three horses. Dying once isn’t enough?

There’s one thing we always hear about outlines and writers, and we hear it over and over: writers are either “plotters” or “pantsers.” But there are some, me f’rinstance, who do both. Like many who write by the seat of their pants, I often charge into a story as if I’m in the Light Brigade. But I typically have to slow down when my regrets pile up like the bodies of Tennyson’s famed 600 in the valley of Death. (Who sez I’m not smart enough to look up classics on the interweb?)

I may have a few plot lines wandering around in search of conclusions, if not climaxes; I usually have a character or three whose role at first seemed vital but which has rapidly diminished in value; I may have had a gonzo crazy idea for a finale that I just couldn’t wait to write until I realized — oh shit! — it won’t work. So, what do I do? Scrap the whole thing and start on something else? Stick it in a drawer and pray the writing elves will execute a daring midnight rescue? Go on a bender, expressing my sorrow to anyone unlucky enough to stumble by?

Probably not. At least, not until I’ve done a little post-crisis evaluation. If the idea really and truly sucks, then a deep, dark drawer or a handy trash can would be a good place for it. On the other hand, if I’ve already spent a significant amount of time and energy on it, a better course might be to salvage some of it. I know I’m a good writer, so the content surely can’t be one hundred percent irredeemable crap. Fifty percent, maybe. <shrug> But how does one determine what can be saved and what needs to go down the ol’ flusheroo?

My method, derived from an almost countless number of misbegotten beginnings, is to go back and outline what’s already been written. Call it a reverse outline, a trail map of where characters have been and when/how events occurred.

outln-scrn-shotI break these down in a simple chart, by chapter and scene, noting point of view character (because I usually employ way too many), plot element, and word count. I also add a fat column for remarks. This one comes in handy for recording random thoughts that pop into my head (kill off this moron, add something to show we’re in the 6th century AD, make Babs a short redhead to balance the tall brunette in chapter 3/scene 2, etc.). The order of the columns isn’t important unless you’ve got obsessive compulsive issues, but that’s a topic I’d rather not schlep around in just now. [Note: The screen capture above is from my current work in progress. See? Some of this stuff I don’t just make up, some of it I actually use!]

There’s no rule that says you can’t fill in one of these charts as you go, and lately that’s exactly what I’ve been doing: write a scene, add a line to the outline. Rinse and repeat. It’s a handy way to keep track of all kinds of things, not just word count or how often one particular point of view character (POVC) shows up. The remarks column can serve to record anything that might qualify for future consideration. If it matters that a character is left-handed, or is a Polish national, or was a great athlete, jot it down there. The same goes for any minute detail you might need to recall later. (What was the name of the cop’s poodle that got squished by the mafia don’s girlfriend in chapter 3?)

11370453_ml-txtLike many writers I know, I get antsy dealing with the same character for too long. This causes me to create extra POVCs, and their very existence almost always generates additional plot lines. These all have to intersect or at least inter-relate somehow, somewhere. Having a chart like the one above makes it much easier to see who’s getting the most page-time, whose plot needs to be advanced next, and how much to speed up or slow down the pace of a given storyline. And, if the worst happens and I discover a character who isn’t pulling his or her own weight, the chart makes it much easier to decide if I should chop ’em out, kill ’em off, or fluff ’em up.

So, you see? There’s hope for those of us who don’t like to outline in advance. We’re okay with having little more than a dim idea of where our stories are headed. When it’s time to do an outline, we’ll be ready. Eventually.


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Let’s take a step back

Normally, when I’m working on a new story, I’m all about forging ahead, full steam if possible. But I realize that may not be the proper approach for everyone, especially if what they’re attempting to do isn’t what they’re ready to do. If, for instance, you decide you want to build a house, it might be a good idea to tackle something a little less involved first. The same is true of novel writing.

21896791_ml-txt58835978_ml-txtWhat you may truly want to write could be the literary equivalent of the Taj Mahal, and that’s certainly a noble goal. If, however, you’ve never actually written anything, I’d urge you to consider scaling back a bit and do the verbal edition of a deck, or maybe a doghouse — just as a warm-up, of course. It’s all about your skill set and knowing when you’re ready to attempt something as difficult as a novel.

Yes, there have been some incredibly successful one-hit wonders, but their fame is tied closely to their rarity. In all likelihood, you won’t pen the next To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t say that to crush your spirit, but merely to help you manage your expectations.

So, how does one build a novel writer’s skill set? Trial and error may work well for lots of things, but neither writing nor brain surgery is among them. If you want to write a novel you need to do at least three things:

  1. Study the craft
  2. Write shorter pieces and put them on the market
  3. Connect with other writers

16306482_mlVery few things in life require little or no instruction, much of which is gained via observation and emulation. We see how friends and family operate in certain situations, and we learn from it. Some learn better than others. Parenting is a good example.

Writing, however, is a craft. It can’t be learned by watching someone else do it, and only the essential elements of it are taught in school — sentence structure, spelling, grammar, etc. Some emphasis is placed on theme and essay writing, but that’s about it. If you want to write something people will pay to read, you need to dive in deep and find out what works and what doesn’t. Take some classes, practice what you studied, and then do some reading, but not for entertainment. Do it for enlightenment. Study the writers whose work you most admire, and see how they put the pieces together.

The next step involves practice. And lots of it. Write short stories, essays, poetry, limericks, flash fiction, character sketches, experimental openings and anything else you can think reject-slipof. All of it will help you build the skill set you need to produce good novels. But just writing them isn’t enough. If you’re serious, you need to take the extra step and submit them for publication.

Why would I suggest such a thing when I know only a minuscule fraction of fiction submissions are ever purchased? Aside from learning a solid lesson in humility, there’s a chance you’ll get feedback from editors, and that can have an extraordinary effect on your work. At one point in my early writing career, I maintained at least a dozen short stories in circulation. Of course, I developed a huge pile of rejection slips in the process, and it seemed like forever before I finally garnered my first sale. But during that time, I also received hand-written comments on some of the rejection slips, and as a result, I concentrated on those markets. And when my writing had improved enough, I sold to them.

The third thing I urge nascent novelists to do is to find other writers with whom they can share their work, their worries, their failures, and ultimately their successes. An active debatewriters group can make a huge difference in one’s work. If you’re able to stifle your ego long enough to exchange honest critiques with your fellow writers, you’ll enhance your knowledge of the craft ten-fold.

There’s a very good reason why this is so. When it comes to our own work, most of us wear blinders. We can’t see our mistakes; our brains are hard-wired to overlook them if not to mentally correct them. Your fellow writers won’t have that problem. When they see that you’ve strayed, it’s their job to call you on it. Just as you will for them. Do this long enough, and eventually you will be able to see the boo-boos in your own work. More than likely, however, you’ll catch that stuff and fix it on the fly.

And that’s when you’ll really be ready to write a novel.


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