Keeping pace

Hands down, the hardest thing for most writers to master is pacing.  The pace of a scene can take an awesome sequence and turn it into mind-numbing drivel.  Likewise, too fast of a pace leaves your reader scratching their head, “What the heck just happened?!”

One of the most well-used and well-liked pacing outlines comes from Story by Robert McKee.  While he’s mainly writing from a screenwriting perspective, reading that put my novel pacing over the top.  Getting the understanding and flow of the Three-, Five-, or even Seven-Act Script helps us stay on track and answer the dreaded question “What next?”

Breaking into Acts

Think of an Act as a set of scenes that create a single part of a story.  It might be one scene, as you’d have with a short story, or maybe a set of one to three chapters in longer form.  The first Act is always the introduction of setting and characters.  The second Act introduces the Conflict.  The third Acts and on describe how the elements of the first Act respond to the elements of the second Act.

In the longer forms, the later Acts suggest a set of circumstances.  Act Three is the Main Character coming up with a solution against the Conflict.  In Act Four, the Main Character fails at executing that solution.  Act Five is coming up with a better solution, and Act Six is executing that Solution.  Act Seven, YAY RESOLVED – although not always the way you’d think.

This is only a rough outline, and many people split up their Acts and action points in different ways, but this is the one that I mostly use.

But what about the short form?

There are huge mechanical differences between writing short stories and longer length pieces like novellas and novels.  I can’t count the times I’ve heard writers tell me that they can write in one form but not the other, and it makes me crazy.

Look, they’re exactly the same.  I promise.  You’re using the same intro-conflict-resolution format for every story, no matter what the theme.  Sometimes that process will take multiple chapters, and sometimes it’ll take six paragraphs.  Regardless of how long it takes, though, that’s the foundation of a story, pretty much universally.

Really, anything you share is going to follow that.  Think about this very blog post.  I introduced the concept of pacing and identified the conflict of trying to figure out how a story gets paced.  Finally, I’m sharing resolutions on how to think about your action’s structure to help things flow better.

Writing as a Fractal Exercise

There’s a wisdom that says that “Every story starts in the middle.”  (More on this later in a separate post.)  What you’re really doing when you’re deciding on your pacing is identifying the action arc of a single story out of many.

Let’s think about a television show for a minute – say, the Walking Dead.  There are multiple simultaneous plots going on at a single time.  Yes, there’s the ever-present issue with the “walkers” (because Romero never coined the term “zombie” in this world).  That’s not the only (or even most interesting) conflict, though.

Okay, so we’re introduced to the fact of the walkers when Rick wakes up, and we establish quickly the nature of this environment.  The conflict, of course, is that anyone who gets bitten turns into a walker – oh, wait, everyone who dies turns into a walker.  Period.  Solution?  Don’t die.  Also, re-dead them all in the head so that there’s nothing for the pathogen to work with.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But, there’s also a bit of a cock-up (so to speak) with Lori, Rick’s wife, thinking Rick was dead, so she goes and hooks up with Rick’s best friend/former partner Shane, and much sexing-it-up ensues.  OH WAIT, someone got pregnant – right about the time she’s shtooping them both.  GREEEAT.  OH WAIT, she also has a history of extremely bad times having babies, in a place where dying makes you a flesh-eating monster.  YAY.

Plots within plots, as they say!  That’s what makes stories even more interesting.  What is a foil, really, but an intersecting plot that conflicts with the other one?

Likewise, when we’re planning the chapters of our novels, think about how each chapter can reflect the flow of the action heartbeats within the larger scale of the Real Plot.  New characters come and go, new circumstances are introduced, old ones are resolved, and it’s totally natural.

Keep those stories well-paced together, and your reader won’t have any problem keeping up.

Thoughts on super powers and flaws

I love comics, always have, but mostly I love super powers.  When it comes to character creation, nothing makes a character more interesting than having some kind of ability or quality that no one else has (or at least very few).

There has to be a kind of balance, though.  You can’t have your characters (main or otherwise) so completely broken that they overcome their obstacles too easily.  An interesting story is propelled by conflict, remember.

Rachel isn’t perfect.

Think about Rachel in “Middle of Nowhere“.  She has a super power in that she doesn’t age.  She has a more resilient body system and she seems to heal better and faster than others.  However, she’s also something of a product of her environment.  She was only 10 years old when civilization fell.  While she has the benefit of remembering the world before, she doesn’t remember much.  All of the really useful things like how to build a car or intensive biology studies were impossible for her to learn.

Now, in her story, we know that her family and their friends tried hard to preserve those piece of knowledge, but we don’t know what kinds of gaps in information Rachel has.  We see little pieces of it, but we find that her super power is both a blessing and a bit of a curse.  How do you fill in the gaps for what you don’t know when that entire world is gone?  What does she really understand about her technology?  How do you educate a child in a world where survival is more immediate than learning?

Superman’s a jerk.

Similarly, we can look back at a more popular example, DC’s Superman, and see a trend there.  As time has marched on, they’ve stacked Kal-El’s powers like cord wood.  He’s got heat vision, super strength, super speed, x-ray vision, and some kind of weird mind control thing.  (That’s the excuse for Lois Lane not being able to see through the glasses disguise of Clark Kent.  Seriously.)  There was no enemy he couldn’t defeat, no threat he couldn’t pummel to a greasy stain.

Readers didn’t really like him.  He was way too Boy Scout, and not enough Hero.

Somewhere around the mid-90s, a few writers started playing with this imbalance.  There was a Superman-Xenomorph crossover where Kal-El is on a planet without the yellow sun and gets impregnated by the Xenomorphs.  (That’s the “real name” of the monsters in the Alien/Aliens franchise.)  It’s one of the rare times that we see Kal-El in real danger, and additionally presenting an even bigger problem.  Can you imagine a Xenomorph with Kryptonian attributes on Earth?!  It would be beyond catastrophic.

More recently, writers have been acknowledging this “infallible” aspect of Mr. Kent by including notable personality flaws.  In both “Superman Returns” and “Man of Steel“, Kal-El is kind of an arrogant jerk, but why not?  He’s literally the most powerful man on the planet.  The only reason he hasn’t razed our entire civilization to the ground is that he was raised by Kansas farmers.

Our gods need flaws.

Grant Morrison observes that our modern-day superheroes are filling our cultural need for relatable gods, as he describes in Supergods. The Big Three monotheistic religions try to depict the One God as being perfect and ineffable, but that doesn’t speak to our need for experiential truth.  If you compare Jehovian persona against, say, the Greek pantheon, which do you think is going to give you more usable advice?  It’s a chaste and guilt-driven story versus “Zeus put his dick in it, lol” story.  Who are you going to relate to more?  (Hint: dicks.)

Those stories don’t speak to our current modern imaginations.  We need super heroes (or at least characters with super powers) that we can relate to so that we can find our own super powers.  And beyond that, we need to see how those characters cope with the flaws and trouble that their super powers can bring.

Hands down, one of my favorite superhero movies is Hancock.  Here’s a guy who has powers, but he doesn’t know what to do with them.  He uses them to try to be a good guy because he doesn’t have it in him to be a villain, but that’s not enough.  He has to really work hard to use those powers and not accidentally hurt people – but still try to be something of a real person.

Another really good one (that got cancelled, dammit) is Powers.  (Here’s Season 2, and you can get the comics as well.)  It asks the questions about the line between heroes and villains, about what is an acceptable boundary for those flaws.  How human is a hero allowed to be?

I love writing about super powers because I firmly believe that we all have them.  We each have a genius that we can do better than anything else, but it has to be nurtured, explored.  We have to find the flaws and maybe not necessarily fix them, but certainly understand them.

On craft monogamy

I like to put “writer” as my main vocation, but it’s a little bit of a lie.  I’m actually an artist, and writing is one of my many media.

I also paint, sculpt, sketch, knit, sew, build furniture, work on cars, cook, work in digital media, and sometimes I sing.  I like to imagine that I can maintain a certain amount of “project monogamy”, but that’s not always possible.  I’ve certainly failed at craft monogamy.

My greatest confession: I do not understand people who are craft monogamous.  It blows my mind.

What?  You’ve never heard of that?

Craft monogamy is where you do exactly ONE crafty thing at a time.  You’re into scrap-booking for a while, for instance, before switching to quilting.  This is considered “serial monogamy”.  It’s different from “pure monogamy”, where you only ever do one thing, forever.  Your regular go-to activity is crochet, and you would never consider embroidery – you crochet, and that’s all there is to it.

I can’t do it.  While I’m working on a story, I’m also knitting some kind of big project (or two).  I’ll put that down for a minute to build a jewelry display or maybe sculpt a doll or perhaps design and print some cards for a game I’m inventing.  And I’ll even work on multiple projects in each craft.

Right now, I have a two fairly large knitting projects going on.  The first is a bath mat made of t-shirt yarn, and the second is another Reflection Line.  I have two more projects patiently waiting in the wings once those are done (I need the needles they’re using).  I also just made a framed necklace display, with at least three more waiting for construction, as soon as I get another box from Amazon or FedEx for the backing.  I’m toying around with a board game idea, making sketches here and there, and I’m teaching myself all about Arduinos.

As though that weren’t bad enough, I’m also working on three (four, maybe five) stories right now – Shooting Blanks (the sequel to Middle of Nowhere), “Lost Ground” from the anthology All the Moons of Petrichor, “Long As There Are Violets”, and reviving the Twitter Tales.

Older, presumably wiser artists have told me that I should pick one thing and then pour my heart and soul into it.  That has never worked for me – at least, not for very long.  I have tried to just paint, but then I’m halfway through a great big piece and it gives me an idea for a story.  Or I’m working on a story and it gives me an idea for a short comic.  Or I’m working on a knitting pattern and… well, usually just listening to music and being in a gentle state of meditation, but I’m still thinking about making things.

Maybe my “true identity” should shift from “artist” to “maker“.  I am a maker, after all.  I make all kinds of things, from stories to dinner to humans to jumpers.  And makers fix things, too.  I fix cars and houses and plumbing and electrics and boo-boos.  I do adore the maker community, too.

But I always feel just a little bit guilty, being unable to maintain monogamy to any given skill, or even within the same skill.  I love them all equally, I couldn’t separate them if I wanted.  They feed each other.  Trying to stay purely monogamous to any one practice would be cutting away what makes the others brilliant.

I know I’m not alone in this.  Emily Wapnick did a great presentation on TEDTalks about how some of us don’t have one true calling.  It’s nice to know that other people like to dive deep and then move on.  It’s good to know that other people have had success in being craft non-monogamous.

I suspect that the thought pesters me because I wonder how much of my success (or lack thereof) is determined by this inability to be single-minded.  Don’t get me wrong!  When I’m in a story, I’m in a story.  My husband has to wander past and make sure that I’ve gone pee sometime in the last twelve hours.  As soon as the story is done, though, I’m on to something else.

The silliest part is that it doesn’t matter if this lack of craft monogamy impacts my chances of ultimate success or not.  (I define “success” in this sense as being able to write as my main income generator.)  I have tried to apply those rules of discipline, and I’m just not able to do it.  Maybe merely the act of wondering about it is enough to keep me on task, though, when another story winks at me before I’ve finished this one.

The first character is always the narrator

I love reading up on different philosophies and approaches to character development.  Some people roll them up like RPG characters, some people find pictures to use and then fill in the backstory.  I’ve used tons of different methods depending on the story, but one of the characters that gets the least work – and needs the most attention – is the narrator.

Who’s telling this story, anyway?

Take a look at this paragraph:

“The town spread before them, a festering boil of humanity too calloused to burst and too painful to tolerate. The decaying bricks were being eaten by voracious plant life, an unforgiving and unrepentant vengeance of Nature attempting to cleanse the stain of Man from that corner of the world. The sickly light of the streetlamps cast an even sicker pallor on the passersby, a portent of what awaited them in the smoke-filled bars.”

Okay, now look at this one:

“The insects buzzed their songs of lust among the rich verdant streets, moss and lichen lending an ancient feel to this ancient city. The dance of Man and Nature adorned every wall and fence, with thick vines heavy with honeysuckle pointing the way towards a boisterous and welcoming neighborhood. Jazz music beckoning the passersby with joyous tones, promising comfort, joviality, and maybe a touch of forgetting to weary souls.”

They’re both describing the exact same scene in roughly the same amount of words, but the former is very dark and derisive while the latter is hopeful and loving.  No action characters spoke, and yet we have a distinct tone with which we can now envision the scene.  We know what kind of story to feel.

The narrator has a distinct attitude and a distinct perspective.  The narrator knows more than he/she/it tells, and it can mean the difference between a crime scene and a mystery.  The gender of the narrator counts, the dialect, the slang…

Oh, yes!  Don’t think that slang is purely limited to your dialogue characters!  Your narrator has a specialized word-bag, too!

The difference between the writer and the narrator

It’s easy to think that the narrator is just the writer’s voice, but I’ve seen that actually get in the way of actual writing.  We are deeply concerned as writers with “finding our voice”, when in reality, it’s not about finding – it’s about deciding.

Samuel L Jackson is going to use a different turn of phrase when describing an action than Benedict Cumberbatch.  Felicia Day will paint a very unique verbal picture from Helen Mirrin.  None of them are going to sound anything like “you”.

Try this little experiment.  Read something that someone else has written.  Now, read out loud something that you have written.  Word usage variation was noticeable, wasn’t it?  Try this a few different ways with stories written from different perspectives – first, third, even second, if you can find it.

Now, try this:  Narrate your life for a little while, and record it so that you can play it back later.  Get your cohorts in on it and have them fill in their own dialogue.  Have fun with it, stage scenes to act out, improvise, but most of all, observe how you put the words together.  How are you deciding what to describe?  In what order is the action taking place?

With this tidbit of insight, you’ll never have a problem “finding your voice” – although you may have a hard time picking the best one out of many.

Coming up with a story

When I lead a writing group, there are always people who want to be writers but have no idea how to form a story.  They know they want to write, even without the tools, and I totally understand that.  The truth for many of us is that writing is its own motivation, like eating or breathing.  So many people with vivid imaginations feel stifled because they just don’t know what to eat (write).

Even seasoned writers have been there.  We get the “oh crap, what comes next?” moments, and days, and weeks.  A long story stalls, a blank screen mocks us… some folks call it writer’s block.  I call it “time to break out the cards”.

Story Creation Methods

My very favorite tools for coming up with really great stories are the Osho Zen tarot cards.  I like these ones specifically because the imagery on them is breathtaking and deeply inspiring on a number of levels.  You don’t have to know anything about tarot or divination to use them – just shuffle and lay out a few cards to see if they make a story.  They almost always do.

Tarot cards are based on the most common archetypes of humanity (and, thus, stories), so having a random generator with those elements makes sense.  For instance, I pulled these cards for my NaNoWriMo group a few years ago:

There was one other, but I don’t remember just yet what it was.  What I got out of it, though, was a space story.  People were alone out there in the universe, and they were slowing down from their destination.  That was the premise I needed to start “Lost Ground”, wherein a generational colony ship inexplicably starts losing speed and are thus going to miss their rendez-vous with their intended home system.  (If you love to science the hell out of things, you’ll enjoy this one.)  That spun into a few other stories as well – “The Last Monument of Imogene Fleeks” and “Quaylee’s Accord”, among others – that are being collected and massaged for a proper anthology.

See?  Nothing about the meanings of the cards, just the pretty pictures.

(If you want something with slightly more nudity and full-on wang, the Robin Wood deck is also gorgeous.)

Of course, throw a rock on the internet and you’ll find a website that offers prompts.  Writers Digest has thousands, and I like ThinkWritten’s as well for their year-long challenge, but those are really random.  When I’m stuck for ideas, I really want to see something with real dramatic potential.

This set of Story Cubes is another one I’ve used periodically.  Lists of obscure words are a good source as well.  Imagining how an alien or an elf or a person who’s been asleep for a hundred (or thousand) years would perceive and describe a Starbucks is another favorite exercise.

And then what?

Most of the time, the first part of a story concept will be the premise.  This is where we actively try to imagine a world without cars, for instance, or maybe how history would have unfolded if the Native North American Apocalypse hadn’t happened.  That’s a great place to start.  Write the history and background of this world, even if it’s a nearly-realistic place.  Okay, so your story takes place on Cape Cod in a normal neighborhood – why is that important?  What part of the culture speaks to the story?  How does that work?  In short, your first stage is the setting.

Next comes the plot.  What kind of adventures (or misadventures) happen within that premise?  What sort of events are going to be relevant to the setting?  This is where your genre actually comes in because that’s what determines what kind of plot you’ve got on your hands.

I’m going to take a short aside here and mention that I do not consider science fiction to be a genre – it is a setting.  Likewise, Westerns are settings, historical fiction are settings, because within each of those you can have any number of different types of genre plots.

What qualifies as a genre plot?  That would be Romance, Adventure, Horror, Action, Man vs Nature, Nature vs Man, Comedy, Satire, Politics… those are genres.  Any of them can be applied to any setting.  Got it?

Lastly, in this, the planning phase, we ask “Who’s telling the story and who’s the story about?”  In a first person narrative, these are the same person, but in third or other perspectives, it’s two different personalities.  Your narrator has an attitude.  What is it?

These are the questions that will get your creative juices flowing.  Fill in these blanks, and you can go from “wut r werds” to something downright entertaining.  Eventually.

Warnings About My Work

I’m going to put this right out front so that no one can possibly clutch their pearls in shock.

If you are a little squeamish, you might have a tiny bit of a hard time with my writing.  I write realistically about gay, trans, non-binary, poly, and pan scenarios.  I make up religions, take down belief systems, and topple governments.  People on the spectrum, with disabilities, and enormously disadvantaged are all featured in my work.  I do not shy away from sex or violence, but I also use neither gratuitously.

I also write with a distinctly progressive-minded bend.  What might the world be if we fail to make it better – and what if we succeed? I believe in imagining both the beginnings and endings, because I know that neither truly is – every story starts somewhere in the middle.

Sometimes, the good guys don’t win.  They get hurt, they die, and they fail.  Sometimes it’s the villains that get their comeuppance – or maybe we find that they were never villains at all.

Here, on this page, I will share with you my methods, thoughts, and reflections on writing as a passion and a career (in as much as I can make it one), as well as links to my work and events.  I look forward to hearing from you and sharing the triumphs and successes, failures and disappointments, because that’s what writers do.

If we cannot be honest with our audience, we have no business sharing our lies.