Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Writer's Diagram

As we write a story, structure and time are critical. Normally we like to put “A” before “B” and so on and on. Sometimes we don’t, and we mess around with the fractured time frames, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is a great example. Yet, as I pointed out last week, it is critical to outline the story. In addition, it is important to diagram the story; to visually see how it flows and moves forward and upward. Every movie made has had some form of a storyboard in its history and evolution. Whether it is a series of vignettes or a formal diagram, it is easier to follow than an outline.

When I developed the story diagram for Elk River I used the concept of two worlds, the civil and the wild. The hero in the story moves back and forth between these two parallel worlds (sorry, they are real places, not time warps or something else). Each world provides the stage and the context for the events in that portion of the story. Simply put, you wouldn’t want to find a snake in your living room or a couch in the swamp (but then again, you might!). The following diagram, though difficult to read (the original is three feet by five feet, but click on the image to a larger version), gives you an idea as to how much detail you can invest in both the outline and the story diagram.

Elk River Story Diagram
Last week, I again visited Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, to get my head and arms around a story line I have been kicking around in the ol’ cabeza for over twenty years. True story: I was given a letter years ago that tells of a simple journey to an exotic land, in 1928, by a man and his family; a few days, a small adventure, the challenges of culture and nuance. The letter gnawed away, teasing me with the thought of a larger story, an important story, an epic journey. Thus from those nine type written pages I’ve been evolving an outline and a supporting diagram. The outline we discussed last week (see blog below).

This diagram is both an expansion of Vogler as well as a graphic of how the story may flow. Three acts, the first two develop the story’s trajectory as it ascends, the last presents the climax to the denouement. The goal here is to develop the hero’s evolution. These all lead to the Moment of Truth (M.O.T.). The last Act pushes the story to its conclusion. Within the journey are trials and resolutions and Turning Points (T.P.). Each pushes the hero and the characters forward. Each builds on the last T.P., Vogler’s Writer’s Journey is posted along the base line.
Click on to enlarge
This is hardly the last story diagram I'll generate, and like Elk River, I will continue to evolve a very detailed diagram as to how the characters will interact with both events and each other. So, take a look, and think about the climb to the M.O.T., not unlike most us and our own life’s journey. Let me know what you think.

More later . . .

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

To Outline or Not Outline – That is a question!

When I start a new project I am faced with the inevitable question: How much should I know about the story before I start grinding? I’ve written a few books underwritten by the historic phrase: Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. The result was a lot of torpedoes in the form of confused characters, sagging storylines, and even downright confusion on the part of the author. I’ve gotten better at constructing the story and all the attendant baggage that goes with, I had to. I was spending too much time wandering in the wilderness.

Check out last week’s post (see below). Christopher Vogler presents in his book The Writers Journey, a concise outline of story structure – all you rabid “Can’t tell me what to do!” folks please just sit back and think about it for a moment. All Vogler is doing is showing you a road map, actually quite generic if you distill it to its primary points. This staging of a story is well founded and historically based and considering that there are very few “New” stories out there, it is an excellent place to start.

This outlining and structuring of a story at the idea’s earliest moment of conception allows you think of college for the poor thing, even before it’s born. Normally I break the story line into paragraph descriptions or synopsizes of major changes in the flow of the story. It’s two or three descriptive sentences that continually help to push the story forward, if a significant event or issue is thought of, it is here is where I note them along with other brief references. I also post a character list with their names (if known), their part in the story, and their traits. Both the outline and the character list are continually updated as the process evolves (an aside: When the character list is complete I do a character evaluation on a form I developed to better understand them and who they are.)

As the story is expanded through each stage of its journey, I flesh out various “What ifs?” that allow me the non-lineal aspect of pushing quickly forward and backward to other story events that respond to conflict-resolution sub-stories, all leading to a collective (and hopefully) successful denouement. (I stayed up late thinking about that sentence!) This is done with a quick and free flowing (almost out of body thing) series of sessions that frame and drive the story. I am looking for cohesion and lineal connections – not bulk and detail. Drive it forward, push it.

A novel may take a year or two to write (much depending on whether you need to work to live). It is very easy to get lost in the thing, get distracted and lose your way on the “Road to Denouement” (BTW – good name for a writer’s book). This type of paragraph outline (not the kind taught in English class with all its Romans numerals, which to this day, I believe, no one understands!), puts the story back in front of me, gets me thinking again, keeps me on the road. And it can be continually updated!

Next week I’ll write about how I take this outline and put it into a graphic matrix that really helps to keep track of the story on a time line. It also helps to show the story’s flow and when characters are introduced.

More later . . . .

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Approach to the Inmost Cave

A bestselling author I know, Bob Dugoni, suggested in one of his classes, that the most influential book on writing, for him, is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers (now in its 3rd edition). Within its 400 pages is everything you need to know about story structure, character development, character interaction, plot, and even denouement. Yeah sure, and I’m from home office and here to help.
Christopher Vogler
I’m in the crazy and confusing misty fog of trying to concurrently write three books. I would use the analogy of trying to date three women at the same time but my wife would kill me. But you get my drift. The first is a sequel to Elk River set ten years later, the next (25,000 words done) is the next episode in the Sharon O’Mara Chronicles, and the last is a huge novel (in breath of scope, scale, and characters). As I said, trying to date three women.

Focus, focus, focus; it’s so easy to be distracted with so many stories bouncing around in your head. Which is the most interesting, which one do I want to be with for the next year or two? Can I cheat on one, will the others find out? Focus, focus. And that’s where Mr. Vogler’s dating service and match making skills come into play. Using his ideas on story structure (he’d actually say they are centuries old, he just explains them better than most), I was able to initially sketch out the overall storyline and put characters in their proper place relative to each other. It was easier to set the time frames and scope. In fact, within a couple of hours, a love affair started.

The Writer’s Journey is not a ‘how-to book’. It is more of a ‘here’s the possibilities book.’ Bob was correct in his assessment of its value; it can set you on the right road. Every trip has a start and most have a destination. It’s best if you know where you’re going. Vogler breaks the book into two parts; Book One: Mapping the Journey is about characters and the parts they play. Basically they are archetypes, but they often meld into each other and can change. The basic players are:
  • Hero
  • Mentor: Wise Old Man or Woman
  • Threshold Guardian
  • Herald
  • Shapeshifter
  • Shadow
  • Ally
  • Trickster
In Book Two he explains the stages of the journey. It's this construct that confuses authors. We don't know what comes first, second, or when does it become the road taken? The help found in these 12 steps is immeasurable:
  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Test, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave
  • The Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • The Resurrection
  • Return with the Elixir
Simple aren’t they. As I said, Vogler provides a map but you have to provide the towns and villages, you have to set the scenery, you have to put names on the streets. But the map is there, I strongly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Today Out In Paperback

Now Available!

Writers gush over the expectations in the world of ‘e’- commerce. Ebooks may be the future of the published written word, but to hold a real book in your hands, turn the pages, break the spine (the crack opens a new world), dog-ear the pages, and pulling out the highliner are just some of the reasons we love books. As an author I confess that, if priced properly, an ebook makes a few pennies more than a paper book, but the experiences are world apart. The buyer looks at the price: $3.99 for the ebook and $14.99 for the paperback, and then makes their choice. At this point the writer is no longer involved, it is a choice made by the marketplace. As a publisher we have to offer as many choices as possible.

The cost to produce an ebook is almost nothing, that is why the price is less. Microsoft Word is the basis for most conversions to Kindle and Nook (epub) and it’s relatively inexpensive. And with the usual hardware complement of computers and modems, you can be selling your work in a matter of hours. The split with the retailers is manageable and the exposure can be great. You can reach around the world in milliseconds.

But the feel of paper is another thing entirely. I would even suggest that we have now imbedded in our DNA the visceral feel of books in our fingertips. To peruse the stacks of books at the bookstore (or even Costco) is like a treasure hunt. What’s inside? Is the book as good as the author’s last effort? Which one? So many choices, so little time.

Well here at Windsor Hill Publishing and self-anointed guardians of the Sharon O’Mara Chronicles, we offer it any way you want. Ebook or pbook, bits and bytes or paper, Kindle or book shelf, we have them all.

The first run of Toulouse 4 Death paperbacks has arrived. Sharon can be in your hands in less than a week (she’d love it) if you send an email to windsorhillpub@lmi.net or through Amazon (HERE). The book has received rave reviews and I have been told that a few more are coming in (will post here when they arrive).

This is a great series and is a delight to write. Sharon and Kevin are quite the pair, over the past year they have fought evil environmentalists, deranged developers, Chinese tongs and Mexican cartels, and Nazis – all were vanquished. Buy them today and get ready for summer vacations, really, its only four months away. Pitchers and catchers in less than two weeks!

More later . . . .

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Battle of the Indies – There is No Winner, Yet

Currently there is a quiet war going on between independents. No, not unaligned politicians, but between and among writers, publishers, and booksellers. Each is fiercely waving their banners over the smoldering pile of the old-line bookstores and publishers. I fully realize that the Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, and the other big houses won’t go away, but their power has been significantly diminished and in some genres, destroyed. The gaggle of editors and agents that feed their furnaces, are also reacting with predictable actions and threats, “I’ll tell you, if you publish independently, you’ll never work in this town again.” Kind’a silly if you ask me

What is more of a concern are the independent bookstores (Indies) that are turning a cold shoulder toward independent publishers (also called Indies). While they profess to be independent and are fighting off the remains of the national bookstore chains (where is Crown, Borders, et al?) to survive they seem to continually put up barriers to small publishers and independent writers. I hear “Your books aren’t up to our requirements for professional quality.” “You can’t supply my needs, sign up with Ingram or some other distributor.” “Don’t bother me, I want to go out of business on my own terms, I keep a low inventory.” “Okay, but you have to do it on commission.”

In an article in the current issue of Alive, a very well done local magazine here in the East Bay of Northern California, Anita Venezia (friend and author of a wonderful novel set in Italy) offers her thoughts on the mess were in (go HERE). We writers are all trying to find a voice and to be heard over the sturm and drang of the publishing world. Sure we all want Da Vinci Code numbers, Nora Roberts reads, and even the ridiculous advances someone like Bill Clinton gets. But to be turned down by your local bookstore, the one you supported for twenty years; is a serious kick in the butt. Good God man, didn’t you watch You’ve Got Mail, didn’t you understand the premise? I’m here to help you, not just to annoy you.

There are many independent associations of writers and bookstores throughout the US. Each region has its small chain of well-run local bookstores that offer not only well stocked shelves but book signings, speakers, and even some even battle with Starbucks and Peets with coffee and pastries. In the parlance of urban planners they become “Third Places,” where citizens come together to relax, meet, and read. Of course the bottom line is commerce, sit a while, buy a book, buy coffee. They claim to be Independents yet they seem to act like the big boys when it comes to independent writers and publishers. “Go away kid, you bother me!”

But there are changes in the wind, in fact in some quarters it’s a gale. Apple is trying very hard to recreate the school textbook market in their image (and you know, it might work!). Amazon is starting to get all “proprietary” with teases and new “opportunities,” see its KDP store. The number of ebooks being sold is climbing in a classic bell curve (but will they level off?). The number of eReaders (remember I claim to be its the inventor – GO HERE – for proof), is growing. Kindles, iPads, Nooks, eReaders, and on and on, pick your poison. If there is one sure thing, it’s that this thing ain’t over.

The opportunities for new models in marketing and selling ebooks is huge, (take that Indie bookstores). Currently there are many ideas flying around but with little proof of success. I know there must be at least one model that works across many platforms (if you have an idea – post below in Comments, let the world know!). 

We writers toil in the dark of early mornings and stolen hours from friends and family. We are certifiable and many of us should be committed. But we love to tell our stories (even the ones about mind reading zombies from Des Moines who own Prius dealerships so they can steal your credit card numbers), it’s just what we do. 

More later . . . . .