Monday, April 29, 2013

Laughter IS the Best Medicine

Remember third grade? Remember Robbie? Or Danny, or Mikey? It's usually a boy. You know, the class clown. And if he's any good at it, he stays the class clown all the way through high school, and maybe beyond.

Why would this person stick with clowning around when his teachers ARE NOT HAPPY with him and he spends way more time than is healthy in the principal's office? Well, obviously, because we love him, and he loves being loved. We might find him annoying sometimes, but really, we need him and his silliness and his risk-taking to get ourselves to stop taking other things so seriously: arithmetic, the sadness of WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, our own selves.

We need the release, the perspective, the visceral understanding of how important the joy that comes with laughter is in everyday life. It opens everything else up to us with the literal breath of fresh air we get from the act of laughing.

And then we can get back to our serious tasks with renewed energy.

As we become adults and take on adult responsibilities, silliness is often not only discouraged, but disdained, and our sources for laughter narrow, especially for the powerful belly-laugh type.

Thank goodness for the likes of Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and others who choose to entertain with intelligent, adult irony and yes, silliness. They are especially necessary when things are very bad in the world. But what about plain old boring every day when the threat of war and disastrous policy-making is not in our faces? Stewart and Colbert still play the class clown, but are they enough?

This post is dedicated to sharing laugh-out-loud sources of humor that we can indulge in to help us enjoy our lives and our work.

Below is my list of favorite authors, movies, tv shows and personal connections that allow me to let go and laugh out loud, but there are never enough! Please, please, please share yours.

Authors: Dave Barry, Janet Evanovich, David Sideris, Carl Hiaasen
Old Movies: The In-Laws (the one with Jack Lemmon), Airplane (Leslie Neilsen), My Fellow Americans (Jack Lemmon, James Garner)
New Movies: can't think of any—oh, jeez! Is it generational??
TV: 30 Rock, The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, The Big Bang Theory, The Vicar of Dibley, Doc Martin (help! what happened to all the good sit-coms?)
Real Live People: my son; my sister; my friend, Bob

What makes you laugh out loud?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Advanced Manuscript Revision (with 'Great Scene' Checklist)

Hello, Revisors,

Revising to polish a manuscript to its best self is an art, and an act of devotion. It takes a long time to get it right, for most of us. There are loads of anecdotes from famous authors about this—the one that pops into my head at the moment is Hemingway stating that he wrote the first draft The Sun Also Rises in a matter of weeks, then it took six years of diligent work to revise it to its finished form.

Revising can be a joyous process, though, and doesn't have to take that long, so long as we believe in our manuscript and in our ability to be objective and figure out what to do. Fortunately, there's no shortage of good advice on the subject.

Today I want to share a technique I've cobbled together from a couple of experts that makes sense to me as an advanced revision technique . . . one to apply when you've done all the basics and want to polish the high notes of your story to their utmost.

Once we have done the basics:
  • basic copy edit level—eliminate all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs (especially adverbs); edit spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and if you're not great at that let someone who is great at it do it for you, even if you have to pay, etc.
  • basic structural level—make sure the story arc elements are in place: inciting incident, major plot point one, midpoint, major plot point two, climax, and denouement.

. . . and the more advanced content level:

  • use of detail, strong sentences, when to tell and when to show, setting descriptions and character development, use of tension, etc.

. . . we are ready to look at our manuscript in a broader sense, to see if it is, in fact, a wonderful manuscript.

Let's say you've finished your second or third draft, but it's still not quite where it needs to be. Let's say you've hit the mark on the basics, though, including not only the copy basics, but you have a good story that unfolds quite well, and wonderful characters to make it come alive. And your writing style—the voice of your book—is good and strong. But there's something missing, because even though you and at least one or two of your beta readers love it, others whose opinions are important to you are not finding your manuscript compelling enough to give it a big thumbs up. What's missing?

You might need a spot check to make sure your key scenes are not just adequate, but outstanding.

Key scenes, or Great Scenes, are the ones that your readers will remember in detail when they close the book for the last time. They act as pivot points in the story, which everything else either flows to or from. They can make or break your success in writing a truly compelling story.

You should have a minimum of three of these scenes, but a novel-length project can have seven, eight or more. The climax is almost always a Great Scene, for example, and the early scene that incorporates the inciting incident (the event that turns everything upside down and sets the story on its trajectory) often is, as well. (James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers)

Think about your story. What are the key turning points for the protagonist and for the story itself? This will help you identify your Great Scenes.

Once you've identified what and where they are, it's time to make sure they qualify as Great Scenes on the basis of how they're written. Great Scenes must meet certain requirements:

A Great Scene must be packed with conflict, emotion, and surprise.* Passions run high; the stakes run higher. What happens in the scene affects the rest of the story, and in a big way. (James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers, p. 160)
*Conflict: Crank up the conflict through emotion. Make sure readers see the stakes to the inner life of the character. (Bell, p. 161)
*Surprise: the unexpected setback, revelation, or question raised by the events. (Bell, p. 161)

There must be a reversal of intentions and emotions on the part of the main characters in the scene. (Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Fiction). In other words, by the end of the scene, the characters' intentions and emotions must be different than they were at the beginning of the scene.

There must be setting details, physical sensations of the pov character; and the scene must end with surprise or disaster (Lyon).

So, your Great Scene Checklist is:

1. Conflict (built up through emotion)
2. Emotion (stakes to the inner lives of the characters)
3. Surprise (unexpected setback, revelation, or question raised by the events)
4. Reversal of character's intentions and emotions between the beginning and the end of the scene
5. Setting details
6. Physical sensations of pov character
7. Scene ends with disaster or surprise
8. Scene must affect how the rest of the story unfolds, in a big way

For a more in-depth discussion, including an example of a Great Scene and how it meets the requirements, check out this earlier post.

And here's a trick I was taught years ago that I've come to appreciate as essential. When you're choosing what particular actions are in the scene (remember, action includes dialogue), make sure the action is driven by the character's emotion, and not by your need to make a point or move the scene forward. This holds true whether it's a large or a small action. When the action comes from the character's emotion, the authenticity quotient skyrockets.

Best of luck with your final revisions. May you polish that manuscript to an irresistible shine!

Monday, April 15, 2013

What's Happening to American Authors?

I made a decision a few months back to focus on reading and writing fiction, both for myself and for this blog, which translates into blog posts about writing itself.  But once in a while I can't help feeling that some of the stuff coming out in the press regarding the literary marketplace—our marketplace—is too important not to take notice of and put out there for additional attention. Below are three of the past  week's articles that raise important questions and demonstrate trends.

Different viewpoints reign among writers about the issues raised in these articles, so please, weigh in—leave a comment expressing what you think about them!

First, a couple of things from Scott Turow, President of the Author's Guild, bestselling author of legal suspense novels, and attorney.

Slow Death of the American Author: Turow's article in the New York Times last week:

Among other points in the article, Turow says:

—a recent Supreme Court decision to allow the import and resale of foreign editions of American works (previously prevented by copyright law) means:
  • cheap imports, and
  • no royalties for the authors on those sales 
—this is just the latest on how the e-market is "depleting authors' income streams . . . (a)lmost every player—publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates, and even some scholars—is vying for position at authors' expense."

—constitutional protection of copyrights is in play, in that "the value (of the copyrights) is quickly being depreciated."

—hardest hit by this depreciation: new authors and mid-list authors, not well-established authors

Lest you think this doesn't affect you, because you might be an indie-only author, give the article a read, particularly the bit about what happens when all those players mentioned above get their hands on indie newcomers; and also consider the implications of one of Turow's concerns, as explained in his analysis of Amazon's acquisition of Goodreads, below.

Amazon's Acquisition of Goodreads

The acquisition has many people up in arms and many others trying to cool the flames with level heads . . . but do the level heads see the long term big picture? Scott Turow's take is that this is a clear step toward monopoly through vertical integration (i.e. through owning all the pieces that go together to make an industry. Traditionally, in the pre-internet world, that meant owning companies: that have the raw materials; that manufacture the product; that have the 'software' like replacement parts or functional parts like toner for a copy machine, for example; that do the advertising and sales; and anything else involved in making and selling a product. As you know, monopoly, which by definition prevents competition through 'restraint of trade,' is illegal in our country and in many others. Vertical integration can allow major cost-cutting to production and sales, some or all of which is passed along to the consumer, creating a company that beats out all the competition so effectively that it's the only real game in town—a monopoly. Smaller companies typically just can't survive trying to compete against it.) 

It's a new form of monopoly that Turow is talking about—what he calls a 'modern monopoly.' My take on this is that this modern monopoly is based on a world of products (in this case, books) that incorporates the effects of the internet  revolution into the traditional model of monopoly.  This probably means the legal precedents that would normally be used to challenge monopoly are not sufficient now because they haven't caught up with the big changes in what constitutes production and software or services. I may be reading too much into Turow's statement, but I don't think so.

Here's the link to the article.

And then there's this:

Bestseller Lists for Print and Digital Are Very Different from Each Other

Finally, an article in this week's Publishers Weekly caught my eye. It's a report on the bestseller lists from the first quarter of 2013.

The Top 20 lists are taken from Nielsen Bookscan for print, and from Amazon Kindle for digital. Right there an issue arises, since we know neither of these sources represents a full picture of the market, given the constant changes and new efforts. But if we accept that these two sources represent the most significant sections of their respective markets, it is clear that there is a distinct parting of the ways for print and digital.

Print is the home of non-fiction bestsellers and also still includes adult fiction and children's fiction, while digital is pretty much all about fiction.

On the face of it, that doesn't seem alarming. If you dig in a bit, though, there are pieces of information that could be extrapolated to mean that there's a growing divide between the types of authors who can do well in print vs. digital, with only a few big names as crossover exceptions.

Here's the article, for your perusal.

What do you think? Are these issues of concern to you, and do you see opportunities that counteract the negative influences mentioned above?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Your Hero Must Suffer!

Warning: this post is for writers (and readers) who believe in suffering. They may not like it in their own lives. They may hate and revile it. They may resent its unwelcome but inevitable intrusion as they try to complete everything on their crazy-long to-do list; put in huge numbers of hours at work to make ends meet; or just get the children organized and reasonably clean and nourished and outside to play with friends so they can collapse on couch for just five minutes--gawd!! But they know, from personal experience and without a doubt, that suffering is what makes us appreciate what's real and important and good in life. Especially if the suffering is major, like losing a loved one or facing a potentially terminal situation yourself. It kind of sucks, but there you go.

In classic dramatic fiction, the hero or heroine of our story must suffer on the page, or the story is not compelling. Suffering is central to the protagonist's growth. We are told by writing teachers to make things continually worse for our protagonist from the get-go—worse and worse and WORSE—until, in the darkness, a pinlight of hope/possibility appears far in the distance. This happens somewhere around 3/4 through the manuscript, and the protagonist knows what she has to do. She plunges forward into the dark and aims herself toward the light, live or die. There will be peril along the way and every reason to believe she may have made the wrong decision.

The type of drama and suffering (physical, psychological, emotional, functional) can vary within or by genre. It's there not only to create powerful tension that keeps readers turning those pages, but to make the protagonist figure out what action to take:

                                          "The deeper my crisis, the clearer my choices"
                                                    Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions

As it happens, I was reading Andrew Boyd's book as a way to avoid my own work. I can't easily describe this little book. I bought it for moments of inertia when I needed a good, dark, ironic laugh. (If you don't have cynicism and irony smothering your soul now and then, you may not love Boyd's book, but if you're a writer, I think I'm talkin' to you.) The book offers a series of bite-sized but very chewy, and frequently hilarious, pieces of reflection on life and meaning. It's like daily affirmations, only it's afflictions.

But there's this amazing section in the introduction to the book that is not such a reflection. It is the telling of a near-mythical experience—a perfect example of the classic, impactful suffering of the hero/heroine. It's written about Boyd's thinly-veiled alter ego, Brother Void, who, we are told, is a mystic who earned his mystic stripes through suffering mightily. Brother Void has experienced personal tragedy, and been through "heartbreak, failure, confusion, and despair."(p. xx) But he's fully rounded, because he's also experienced "joy and victory." (ibid.) According to Boyd, these life experiences are what led Brother Void to write the book's "harsh little bits of wisdom."(p. xx)

Well, while the bits are fun, what I want to share with you is that section that is the vignette on what suffering does for our hero.

So here is Boyd, talking about the mystic, Brother Void's, first vision:

"It is fitting that his first vision occurred in the desert. It is fitting to the point of irony that the desert carried the name, Death Valley. There he was, a young man barely 20, tromping around the desert like a fool. It was getting late, he was trying to make his way back to camp. The desert air had cooled considerably. He was hurrying against the closing twilight, scrambling down a gully—fast, and then slow, and then fast again—sliding on his ass down a crease of broken sandstone, loose rock spilling alongside him. A narrow twist and the ravine steepened. He turned around. With his back to the dimming sky, he worked his way down. He was moving faster than was wise. He noticed his error too late.

Fear flicked up through his legs. He pressed his weight into the rock, instinctively, hands and feet needling deeper into their holds. The rock wall dropped down and away. There was nothing beneath him but empty air. For the first time, his life was completely in his own hands.

He held on to the rock for long moments. His past collapsed behind him; his future lay truncated on the rocks below, its head cut off from Time. There was only death, wafting under him in the empty air. Nothing before this had been real. It was as if, for years, he had been held in a protected field, a set-up life, and now death had cut away the false foundations. He had never faced death before, but he could feel now that it had always been there—a fearsome abyss holding life in its empty fist, just as the empty air held him now.

He had to move. He was excruciatingly in command. He had to step deeper into his terror and further out over the void. There was no other way. To his left was a rounded outcropping of rock and on the other side of it a means of descent. Make for over there. He let go of his left handhold and slipped off one strap of the backpack, then switched hands, then slowly the other strap. He let the pack fall down to the rocks below. In some far-off place, in some unreal time, he hoped the flashlight had not broken.

Then slowly, he began to inch his way left cranny by cranny, hold by hold. He made slow, careful progress. He was halfway across. With the toe of his sneaker he felt out the loose-fitting rock in the next cleft. He kicked away at the broken bits of rock. Nudging his way in, he tested its strength. It was okay. He transferred his weight over to it. It held. He trusted it, committed to it. All his weight, now. The rock slipped and gave way. His knee banged against the rock wall, his foot forced down violently, jangling in the air, weightless. I'm falling. I'm dead.

But he did not fall. He clutched even harder to the rock wall, clenching it, hugging it—and held on. And within the flow of that single motion, a remarkable thing happened: his face also reached closer to the rock and kissed it—in farewell or in thankfulness. I cannot say. It was a pure bodily reaction, yet it was sacred; it was an act of instinctive reverence. He was kissing his fate, kissing God, kissing nature, kissing the desert, kissing the moment, kissing the particular piece of rock that held his life and chose to spare him.

He continued moving left. Once again he lost a hold and thought he was dead. But again, he managed to hold on. Finally, he reached the edge of the outcropped rock. One last pivot and, throwing his weight over, he had it straddled. He held on for a moment, breathing. I'm safe. I'm going to be okay. He rolled over to the other side, clambered down the side slope, grabbed his backpack, and headed down the mountain.

He didn't bother to get out the flashlight. He was burning lucid, white hot. He pounded down the gully, invincible. Through the dark, his feet sensed every rock. His body was a beautiful machine; it moved with certainty, almost with an uncanny foreknowledge. He knew at each turn what he would find. He was flush, fierce, bewildered with his own reality, his own natural power. He felt like a warrior, welcome in the desert.
                                                                 (Boyd, Daily Afflictions, pp. XXI-XXIV)

The hero has survived and triumphed! How satisfying that is! It's what we want our readers to feel when our protagonist finally gets through the horrific rapids on her river of no return. She may be bruised and battered, but her victory is all the more sweet for that.

So, what do you think? If you check your protagonist's journey (the harrowing part of it, starting with the moment he or she takes that first false step) against this vignette, do you hit all the beats represented in Brother Void's harrowing experience as the tension builds and the stakes get unbearably high? Until we get to that last pivot, and complete it, we, like Brother Void, are doing our best to hang on and we are risking becoming dust in the wind. Something to think about,  :-)

Monday, April 1, 2013


Hi everyone, I'm on a mini-break for this week, but will be back here next Monday and hope to see you then. Meanwhile, I'll be checking in with your blogs. :-)

Back soon.