Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Building a Book: Part 4, The End

So here we are, at the very end. The last 25% of your novel. Congrats to everyone who's made it this far, whether it was for NaNoWriMo, or has been years in the making. So, in the first three parts of this little series so far, we've gone over the introduction, and we've split the middle into the first half and the second half. This part is going over the very end.

The nice thing about reaching this point, is that compared to the rest, this should be easy. At this point there are three main sections to fill out.

First is the last burst of rising action. By now, your characters know what they're facing, have prepared for it, and baring a few attempts to slow them down by the malign force, they're on their way to confront the villain. In Fantasy, this is usually where the last big battle with the monster army starts. The heroes have to fight their way through all the small fry to get to the mastermind. Or maybe they have to storm the castle-base. You get the idea. There's no reason to jump right to the climax right at the 75% mark.

We've been over rising action and escalation in the previous two posts, so I think you know the routine by now. Top what happened last, but make sure you're not overshadowing the climax itself. Easy-peasy.

Is everybody here? Let's get this over with, then.

Now we get to the final battle. The inexorable question. Who wins, and who loses. Now, in some genre's it's almost a foregone conclusion, but I write horror, so it does apply. The hero doesn't have to win every time, you know. There is one major problem that occasionally happens though with the grand climaxes in a good novel. 


Yeah. It can sometimes be over that quick.

All that work leading up to the grand finale, the final confrontation, the apocalyptic battle. And suddenly, it's over in one page, maybe two. Sometimes it happens. I mean, in Fantasy it happens that along the journey, the heroes discover the villain's weakness and embark on a quest to obtain the one item which will defeat them. Then, at the end, all they have to do is use it. The villains powers are nullified, he becomes mortal, and off with his head. Of course, things don't necessarily have to be, or generally are that easy, but it does happen. When it does, don't panic. After all, this is your book, and it all comes down to what you want to happen. Maybe the item they quested for doesn't actually work, and the heroes have to try to win the hard way. Maybe the quest to get the item was a ruse all along and the point was to make the heroes stronger on their own to overcome the villain. Maybe the heroes or the villain makes an escape, setting up a sequel. You're a writer, you're creative. YOU figure it out. 

Now, I'm not actually against plotting, per say, but I greatly prefer letting the characters lead the way. When this happens, you may not reach the climax exactly how you envisioned it to begin with. If you had previously envisioned your finale working out a certain way, it can cause havoc when your characters arrive in better or worse shape than you had planned. In my current work "Hannah", I envisioned the beginning of the climactic scene, where the beast returns to the family's house in the middle of the night. I honestly have no clue what happens next. Already the story has surprised me with the additions of characters I hadn't planned on and twists that weren't in my list of scenes to write in. It also allows me to enjoy writing it more, as I get to find out what happens as I write, instead of having hoops set up and knowing who does what, when, and how effective it is.

In my opinion, the climax should come somewhere between the 80 to 90% of the book. After all, people generally wouldn't appreciate it if you chopped off the monster's head and then had "The End" as the next two words. After all that time getting to know the characters, we want to know how things work out. How do they deal with those lost along the way? Do their relationships remain strong? Does Uncle Benny move to Alaska? That kind of stuff. People want to know if there is the final, happy ending.

There are two types of endings, really. The immediate, and the Epilogue. The immediate ending is the conversation between the characters about what happens now, as they walk through the castle back out the front door and travel home again. This is the ending which follows the climax without a break and is mostly telling the reader what the character's plans for the future are now that this villain has been vanquished. It commonly includes taking home their treasure, and settling down.

The other ending is the epilogue. Usually, with one of these, there is also a short immediate ending, to let you know that, yes, the main story is over and there's no more big monsters in the way. The meat of the epilogue happens a fair bit of time afterward. Anywhere from weeks, to months, or even years later. It shows the lives the characters are living now, along with commonly having them looking back on what has happened since as well as plans for the future, and it is generally a more satisfying ending.

Now, at this point, I have to face reality and realize that there's no way I'm finishing "Hannah" on time for the end of the month. If I can get up the gumption to get back to work on it, I could probably get up to 40,000 by November 30th, but I'm not really all that concerned. Over half a book in one month is still a heck of an accomplishment and I should easily get the first draft done by the end of the year. So, expect this series to continue once I get to that point.

Anyway, my fellow writers, and anyone who likes this month's posts. Add in your email in the top right to get a notice and a link for when I do a new post. So keep writing, and Happy Thanksgiving to all!

~ Shaun

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Personal Rant #3: Support

In Stephen King's book On Writing, he talks about the early days, when he was still a struggling English teacher and his most lucrative work was a short story sold to Playboy Magazine. He talks about his wife, who also worked full-time and the glamorous trailer, dying car, and pile of bills they shared. He says at one point "If she had said to me, Steve, it's time to put the writing aside and take a position that can support your family, I would've put away the typewriter right then and there. But that statement never came." Of course, one thing that can be proof of is that if you love someone, then nothing else really matters as long as the bare necessities are covered. The other thing that is proof of, is how important it is to have people that approve of and support you in what you want to do.

I'm not talking about financially, although at the worst times, it can come down to the choice between keeping a roof overhead and food on table or chasing a dream. After all, unless you're a pokemon, you can't eat dreams. I'm talking about support emotionally and mentally.

Specifically, I'm talking about writing, but this applies to anything you want to do. A lot of things can be done solely on your own back, but a lot of things aren't that clear-cut. Writing is a very solitary business. Sitting at the computer, typing away for hours every day, sacrificing time that could be spent with friends, family, relaxing, or even at another job. For weeks, then months, it can drag on. And despite that it's not particularly physically demanding, it can be a very draining experience. People aren't meant to be solitary creatures and when doing something like that, they need the support of those around them. They need to be assured that the sacrifices will be worth it and that the parts of the life being sacrificed stand behind you to help you do what you want to do.

When you don't have support, it makes things that much harder.

When you turn down hanging out with friends to write. When you sit at home instead of going out to ensure you can afford the cover, editing, and marketing that your work will need to be professional. When you take your work with you to family gatherings to do. When you do all those things and people tell you that you need to put it all away and get a "real job", it is an incredible weight on it's own.

Now, I'm not talking about constructive criticism. Sometimes, people will want to do things they just aren't good at, and nor will they ever be. At some point, someone who is aware of the sacrifices made and that has objectively looked at the end result should probably sit down and talk to them about it, but honestly, and because it's true. Not because they just don't believe in them.

But when people who haven't looked at your work, who either aren't aware of or care about the sacrifices already made are saying things like "Get a real job" and "It's nice, but how long until you start making money?", it's more of a burden than having people say nothing at all. They might mean well enough, but all they're doing is making an already difficult task even harder with their own ignorance.

Three guesses which end of that spectrum I'm at, and the first two don't count.

My family isn't exactly the best at being supportive. Often they do it at the wrong times for the wrong reasons, and then don't when it is actually appropriate. Those comments I listed above: "Get a real job" and "You need to make some money" are both things I've been told multiple times, by people who have no idea how much effort, money, or time has gone into this. Nor have any of them actually read any of my work, despite a few of them buying the books. I can't even ASK them to support me, by something as simple as sharing posts to let their friends know my latest book is out or offer my book cards at their meetings or what-have-you. I tried that twice. Once, I was told sure they would and I gave them a small stack of cards. That stack was sitting untouched exactly where I had put it a month later. The second time, I got the full eye-roll.

So for those of you that are so oblivious, I suggest the next time you're going to whine about someone following their dream, do it in a mirror first. See how you look when you say it, and if you can, try to imagine what that might feel like to be on that other end.

For those of you who have to deal with family and friends that aren't supportive, remember, you're not writing for them. You're writing for yourself. You're writing for the people that actually READ your works. And, you're writing because for one reason or another, you just have to. Power on through it regardless, and all on your own if that's what it comes down to. The only person you should care about letting down in this situation, is yourself.

I'm willing to bet more people fail to achieve their dreams because the people that should have been supporting them turned their backs on them instead, more than any other reason.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Building a Book: Part 3

Congratulations, if you're working on a book for NaNoWriMo or just as you read along with my series here, you should be at the halfway point, or just past by now. To remind you of where we are and how a book generally goes, I'm going to start with this image again.

Now, as we discussed last time, the middle of the book is usually the hardest part to write. The first 25 - 50% being the worst of the section. Now that we're getting into the meat of the story, things get a little bit easier. From 50 to 75% is where things start to get fun and hell starts breaking loose.

Now, to start, part of this is a continuation of what you did in the first half, with rising action, and worldly and character reactions. However, a lot of what came before should be done with unless you're aiming for some unexpected twist.

Characters that we first met in the introduction should be fully fleshed out by this point, with backgrounds explained, as well as character flaws, hopes, dreams, and partially why they find themselves in such a predicament as the story suggests. Minor characters that we met later on, can have a bit of time devoted to them to help explain their impact and so that we care when something happens to them, but that should be kept to a minimum for the most part. After all, characters we're meeting this late are likely to be victim fodder or there to give us an insight into how the main characters are starting to appear to the outside world. Things akin to "Oh my, Anne said something living under the Rhododendron bushes ate her dog. I think she's going crazy."

The main focus at this point is the rising action and the escalation. It's generally about this point that the main characters start putting two and two together as things get more and more out of hand and the story almost changes to a race to reach the climax. Now, while, depending on the story, this can be fairly smooth sailing at this point compared to the first half of the book, it can also get confusing and often, things fall short of what we expected. When it happens that scenes don't seem to stretch as far as we want, it can be easy to get lost and not know what else to add. Also, escalation can become an issue when you have between several to over a dozen separate scenes to add suspense and move things along.

Pictured: One form of escalation. (Ok, break's over.)

Now, for a suggestion of how to tackle these issues. I'm going to talk about how I tackled the issues for my work for the month. Before I even started to write, I made out a list of a dozen scenes and ideas I could incorporate into the work. I then organized that list into the order I thought worked the best in terms of escalation (and there were a few that were pretty close in terms of the suspense and fear they provoke), and then had a few friends look it over and put them in the order they thought the list should go in. Now, granted, most of them were looking at the list with no idea what the characters were like and had little to go on other than the very basic ideas on the list, but most of them came out the same I had envisioned, so I'm pretty sure I got the order right. 

You'll commonly find though, that things change as you write, and that tends to be a good thing. It's one thing to have a plot and pre-set events, but forcing characters along from one to the next just to jump through the hoop usually leads to characters making unbelievable choices given what we know about them and how much they're aware of the situation. (Really, is there anyone out there who hasn't watched a horror movie and screamed "Don't go in there!!" at some point?) I've found in the writing that while the order of some things are intact, some have been switched up as the story progresses more organically. It's also something to keep in mind that the story usually lends itself to suspense when done right, and it's not just an issue of "How suspenseful is this scene?" but an issue of "How suspenseful is this scene in the current context of the story?". When things take off on their own, it can occasionally happen that by the time you reach a certain scene, the suspense has already been ratcheted up so high that the scene doesn't add anything more to it. When that happens, you need to look at it objectively and ask if you can change things realistically so that it works, or whether the story is better off without it. For NaNoWriMo though, we're focused on quantity over quality, and cuts like that are made for revisions anyway, so for now, add it all in, figure out what works and what doesn't later. 

Then there's the climax. The ultimate high point you've been reaching for this whole time. You have to make sure every scene escalates, and reaches for it, but that nothing eclipses it before you get there, or gives away a final plot twist. While some would include the climax at the tail end of this section, I think if your story maxes out at 75% or less, you're probably moving too quickly. Despite the graph above, the falling action and resolution shouldn't take up another 25% of your book. If things need that much explaining after the final confrontation/reveal, it's another hint that you might need to go back and take another look. That's more a topic for next time though. 

In the meantime, keep writing, let Hell slowly break loose in your world, and enjoy the ride, because if you aren't enjoying it while you write it, chances are readers aren't going to enjoy it as they read it either. 

~ Shaun

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Building a Book: Part 2

So you've got your characters, you've got your ideas, and you've done introductions all around.

Hi. My name is Jared, and I'm the antagonist. Although none of you know that yet.

This is where things start to get tricky. That funny little space between the beginning and the end commonly known as, The Middle. 

Now, for the purposes of this discussion, (and to make this little series last the whole month.), we're going to focus on the front half of the middle. Let's say, from 25% to 50%. A normal story, works like you see below. You have the exposition, or the introduction, where you introduce the characters, setting, and occasionally the beginning of the conflict. In a novel, you have a lot more space to work with, so you'll generally go about, allowing the readers to get a feel for the characters, while still trying to drop a hint here or there to keep things interested and to provide a little bit of foreshadowing. In current novels, this introduction section should never be more than 25% of the book. Older novels might stretch that to 35 or even 50%, but that's asking a lot from today's audience who are used to 15 second commercials, 24 hour delivery, and 2 gigabyte download speeds.

After the introduction, is the rising action part of the story. In a novel, this section can easily stretch upwards of 25,000 words by itself. This can also be the hardest part of a novel to write. After all, you've introduced the characters, the setting, maybe the start of the conflict, but it's nowhere near time for the bad stuff to happen and you've got a long ways to go to get to that point. So what do you fill the time with so that you can hold your reader's attention and lead them along without getting bored? 

Well, as the graph says, this is the start of the rising action. It's not like you can't do things here and there to keep things moving. In a horror movie, this is the point where you get the little things, like lights flicking on and off, maybe a door opens and closes when nobody's watching. A little further up the hill, the characters start to notice things themselves, but either nobody believes them, or they don't connect what happens to any impending sense of peril. 

This is also the part where you fill in the world around your characters, and you delve into any needed back-story. Things which are important to understanding the characters, but which weren't necessarily Introduction material. After all, on a first date, you wouldn't try to impress someone with stories of your weird uncle who keeps over 100 named cockroaches as pets in his bedroom, or that your ex got a two-year prison sentence for assault just under two years ago. 

So you've got relevant back-story, a few creaks and groans in the night, that isn't enough by itself to fill the space, so what else? Well, actually, that should do it. Remember, you're not just showing how the characters are reacting to what happens to them, you also need to establish the world around them and how the world reacts to the characters reactions. This goes a long way to making the story more believable, allowing it to better draw emotions out of the reader. For example, zombies are slowly making their way into a small town. The main character finds and kills one outside a local store. Obviously there are going to be witnesses, as well as no small amount of blood on the character's hands. The question is, if the rest of the town isn't aware of the zombies, how would they react to this otherwise bloody murder that just happened in front of them? Assume there was a good reason and go back to their business like nothing happened, or are they likely to call the cops? If they don't call the cops, either because they knew it was a zombie or some other reason, it better be explained and believable, and not something like; "Oh, the guy was a prick anyway, he had it coming."

The last bit I want to go over is escalation. Remember, this is rising action. Things need to be progressive. If you have a massive first scene followed by a long period of quiet, it better be explained and for a good reason. Having things escalate helps to create a sense that things are getting worse, as opposed to getting better. There's a reason you see movies like Paranormal Activity start with rattling pots and pans, move up to doors slamming, and then we see the characters getting flung through the air. If it went in the opposite order, it would be calming down to nothing, and there would be no final climax to worry about.

Sorry about the mix-up, I'll be back later, say, around 3 AM. 

With all that, you shouldn't have any real trouble keeping things interesting for the second quarter of your book. And, if done right, you'll have characters that are fully fleshed out, believable, and that the readers care about by the mid-point of your story. At that point, as the author, you should be ready for all hell to break loose. 

~ Shaun

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Building a Book

It's November, which means National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. To jump right to more information on what that means, click here.

The jist of it is this. You have the month of November, or 30 days, to write a minimum 50,000 word novel. It means writing every day and has become a fairly widely known challenge that amateur writer and professional novelists alike step up to. I signed up last year, but was distracted by too many other things to really take part, so I'm giving it a go this year and through my blog here, I'm inviting you all to follow along. Hopefully this won't get too boring and will eventually go through the entire process of writing and publishing a novel, as I go through the writing, revising, editing, cover art, formatting, and finally, uploading and publishing to Kindle, Createspace, and/or Smashwords.

So, where else to start but the beginning?

When you sit down to start a book, it's a good idea to have a few things lined up already.

1. An idea. This seems obvious, but it is probably the most important thing. If you don't even have an idea, you probably don't have any business sitting down and starting a story. A basic idea doesn't really count either. You need something that will create conflict, and that will actually last and be entertaining for the length of story you want it to be. While it is possible to stretch a short story into a novel or compress a novel into a short story, the works will usually suffer for it, by focusing on things that don't matter, or by not giving people enough time to care about the characters, and thus, the story. Now, that doesn't mean your idea can't be simple. Lots of simple ideas have plenty of depth to them. For instance, the dead rising and attacking the living. It's a simple idea, but once you get into the real connotations of it, and what it means, you find there is so much more going on. The idea of the dead rising up and attacking the living is a simple idea, but in the writing of a story about that, you get into such themes as how people react to that in general, how they react to seeing dead family members, how they protect themselves and how they stop/survive/or die in the ensuing chaos.

2. Characters. Obviously, if you have an idea, you need people that that  idea happens to. The more fleshed out those characters are, the better. Even in short stories, caring about the characters means caring about what happens to them, which equals caring about the story, and that is how a lot of the best stories are made. So whether you have one character throughout the entire piece, a family, or even the population of an entire town, you need to show that these are real people, worthy of compassion. They need to have strengths and weaknesses, flaws, pasts, and hopes for the future. One point I want to make, when you have multiple characters introduced, you need to make sure they are all included in the story. If you have a family that all lives together, you can't get away with focusing on one member of the family and have everyone else walking around like everything is normal. Even if they aren't affected directly by whatever is influencing the main character, they will react to the changes in the main character, despite the way the world is sometimes shown these days; most people will not just accept the statement that nothing is wrong from someone they care about when there is obviously a change in their behavior, demeanor, or look. So even when a story is focused around one character, keep in mind there are people around him, reacting to what he does and however he expresses what's happening to him.

The Beginning 

The first chapter is one of the most important. First impressions matter, and in telling a story, it's no different. You need to establish the quality of your writing as something worthy of the readers time, in addition to introducing the major characters, what they look like, a sense of who they are and setting up the story to come. Then there is the Hook. 

The Hook is what gets people to read past the first few pages or the first chapter. It is the very beginning of the story, told in a way that makes people want to read more. It is the hint that things are about to go very, very wrong for the people you've just introduced. (Or, at the very least, that things are about to change for them, if you're not writing horror or some kind of action/thriller story.) This is important, people are used to instant gratification these days and books which take more than 25% of their length to really get in gear are going to lose a lot of readers before anything good starts. 

So, how is my progress coming along? 

My idea is basically Cujo meets The Exorcist (Horror, surprising, I know). Before November 1st, I sat down and hashed out a general outline, with a dozen plot points to hit through the story, in addition to the order I wanted them in. My main characters have been named and described, as well as some of their good points and their flaws. My hook is in place, and while it hasn't been set, I am comfortable the bait on it so far will tempt more people to bite than to not. This is still only the 5th, though, so there is still a long way to go. Hopefully you'll all keep up with me. 

~ Shaun