Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A long time ago, as stories go...

...I wanted to be Patricia Veryan, swashing my buckle as I rode around the countryside with dashing rouges and daring heroines (who could always pull off being a boy easily). After many rejections and an agent or two, I figured, ah--well, I was probably meant to be a Harlequin Romantic Suspense writer instead. And spent many years writing myself down rabbit holes so deep and broad even a metal fire ladder wouldn't have pulled me out.

Nothing panned out, but it did make me realize I needed help. I was so lost it wasn't funny, and everyone else seemed to have it together. It took me years to realize my interests were kind of skewed. I loved to write, but I also loved the mechanics of writing--the craft stuff. All the lines and squiggles, and arcs and do-giggys. I used to dream in text, and after I started editing, I started seeing diagrams. It was weird. Probably weirder because it's just not something copy editors do, being logical people like my friend, Laura.

I had a really bad year wondering if something was wrong with me, until I realized my strengths weren't in copy, but developmental edits. Thank God for Dr. Google and those people who stuck with me as I shifted gears and worked through my sea change.

I started doing workshops to get my head on straight and share my thoughts. Last year, my tidal wave of info all but drowned me and I'm still having problems finding things that used to flow like rain. I need to shift gears again, and this time, scale it back.

I have so much info and so many powerpoints I can't even remember where I put them or what they're about, and sometimes (to my surprise and occasional delight) will find things I did that startle me, or make me scratch my head. A lot of my older information is obsolete, evolved away in the progression of time and theories as they morphed into smoother, more elegantly usable things, like the hammering of a block of steel into a katana. And a lot of it isn't here, in the one place I consider my online home. I need to fix that and the damage left by my near drowning.

I have two more workshops left in the year, and...I don't think I'll be doing any more. At least, not for savvy or for pay. Maybe for free, if I can ever find a way to create some structure and hold myself to it. Or maybe I'll just hand out pdfs and stand around on a facebook corner, hoping people talk to me, I dunno. It's a question for another day. Right now, I'm a fingertip and a straw away from being swallowed by edits. My schedule has always been tight, but now it's back to back, and sometimes doubled. I wonder if dev edits have finally gained some recognition, or it's just a natural progression of the indie revolution. Whatever it is, hasn't left me much time. My contact info is current if you need to talk to me, want to check availability or have a question.

*pats blog* I'll be back, blog. I just don't know when.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

How to Insert Backstory without Info-dumps


It's been a weird few months. Cold, hot, cold again. It's currently 58 right now, with a nice breeze, and everything is covered in a sheet of fine, yellow pollen. My head hurts and my eyes keep watering despite Allegra. Everything is so beautiful I can't get over how fortunate I am to live in Eyecandyland. The mountains are green and snow-capped, the meadows are lush with grass and everywhere you look trees are unfurling new leaves and covered in flowers. It makes me wonder how early man got along without family-sized meds from Costco and a houseful of HEPA filters.

I was fortunate enough to get a question recently, all thanks to Margaret Carroll for letting me post it.

Hi Jodi, I have a question. You wrote: Backstory is important because that's where the motivation is. Backstory gets mined each time the protagonist slams into conflict, because conflict is simply two motivations fighting it out for dominance. Does this mean a good yardstick for when/how to insert backstory is little bits each time a character faces a conflict and has to choose how to act (or just after)? I really struggle with this. I am the world's most linear thinker. And also guilty of using backstory way way way too much. Thank you!

Yes definitely. I wouldn't do it each time, because then it would be obvious, but I'd consider it "an opportunity" to make the decision because it would add backstory in the most natural way. And for that think of peanut butter?

Maybe a kid is going to school and there's a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. He's new, and he's not fitting in even though he really wants to fit in. So there he is, sitting at the table with his classmates, and there's this peanut butter sandwich.

Maybe he doesn't like peanut butter (for reasons in backstory (that you aren't going to mention because it would be an info dump or you just want him to refuse the sandwich to further the plot which is that he's going to be alienated)), so he pushes the plate away and says, "I'm not hungry."

That's pretty simple and allows the story to move on.

But if you use it as an opportunity to show his conflict and motivation (his motivation to fit in by eating the sandwich)

versus

His motivation to avoid his brother's fate (his brother choked on a peanut butter sandwich that got stuck to the roof of his mouth and stopping breathing, now he has brain damage (his motivation to aoivd his brother's fate or self-preservation))

equals conflict

 ...which can be shown with a "little" bit of backstory, and a good rule of thumb here (not an "always rule" but just a general rule of thumb) would be "whatever triggers the conflict (the fight between the two motivations)" THEN a sentence or two of backstory formatted as internal thought.

e.g.,
The starting (understood) motivation, which is that he wants to fit in. Your reader should know this from how the story and scene is set up to this point.

There was a peanut butter sandwich on every plate. (this is the trigger that activates the conflict) His brother had almost died eating a peanut butter sandwich (this is the kid's backstory). He'd been brain damaged for almost five years now/he still couldn't sit up without a wheelchair/he'd been in the hospital ever since (this is why it's important to him)

With the implication being that he doesn't want to end up like his brother (his conflicting motivation)

...and then just go on with the scene. Maybe he pushes it away or looks around and notices everyone is looking at him and wants to throw up, or he gets up and runs away, or something. Whatever you'd like.

* the backstory didn't break the flow of the scene
* it was natural
* it put his conflict on display without explaining it.
* it draws the reader into the story (because they're trying to figure the kid out), so the story hooks them
*  and best of all, it keeps everything tight

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Wrap up from the facebook event, how to create understanding for your characters and a little bit more on reflection characters

...and if that's not a long title, I don't know what is. It's amazing sometimes how life will just be going along, and all of a sudden there's something like a clog in the whirlpool of everyday events. I'm slowly getting myself unclogged, but if somebody somewhere made a power snake for busting through backlogs, I'd be all over it.

The Facebook event was great!! I know I sound a little gushy, but it was sort of a cross between a really good workshop chat and an open house. It went so fast it surprised me to look up and find four hours had passed. We talked about making your heroine sympathetic (or not)...

I have a question Jodi. And thanks for taking them. I'm at the climatic Dark Moment in my wip. The heroine is a victim of child molestation. She ran away from home and is now 28. She's lived her life by the work hard play hard rule and take no hangers on. To her, any man presents a threat to her self-preservation so she prefers to luv em and leave em. She's met the hero who has his own emotional hang ups but sees something special in her and sticks around. The molester appears after ten years and is deranged enough to think he and heroine can make it as an item. She refuses him and tells him to get lost. He does, temporarily, but resurfaces after she's finally got her life together, her new business and an exclusive relationship w/ hero. But molestor resurfaces w/ a bang and tries to do just that with her ---by force. She's clever enough to dial hero on speed dial who figures it out and calls 911. All is well or so hero thinks after he saves the day but something breaks inside heroine, she feel unworthy, her fears come back w/ a vengence and she's disgusted with herself thinking , as she did as a child, that she did something to cause the attack & is not good for hero. She takes off for parts unknown closing her new business for the holidays. My question, sorry if it took so long, is how can create the right rationale for the heroine to not make her appear heartless, inconsiderate to the hero who'd saved her. I need make her sympathetic when she leaves without notice.

Thanks for asking! Going to be blunt here so forgive me, okay? Don’t get hung up on making the heroine sympathetic. Make her understandable. From reading your synopsis, it looks like the assault is part of the heroine’s arc. It’s…you’re right, her black moment. The moment when her motivation to heal herself and be with the hero runs right into her motivation to curl up in a ball and listen to all those people who say people who are molested and abused, invite their abuse. Look at your heroine’s focal motivation for the story she’s in? She ran away from home. Why? To escape, yes. But also to give the part of her that motivated her escape a chance to grow. She’s running from the motivation to sit down, shut up and just take it, because there’s something in her that is making her abuser abuse her—she’s running from being a headjob. “Toward” the goal her driving motivation wants for her—a chance to heal, stop the pain and be normal, because deep down inside, she “doesn’t” believe all the brainwashing and she’s fighting it.

When your story opens, that motivation is in control. She is “always” the one in charge of a relationship. The hero adds to that motivation (creates a layer) that adds the words, “with the hero”. Because she’s starting to open to love. He is consistent. And I’m sure no matter how much she tests him, he never leaves. And the great thing about this is that her motivation (her original motivation) is telling her that it’s all fake. How can he love/like/care for her when there’s “something wrong with her” (even though her motivation is telling her there’s nothing wrong with her, her first motivation is always there, telling her (subconsciously) there is)?? The more she pushes and the more he pushes back, convincing her that he won’t leave, that nothing is wrong with her. The stronger this part grows>>  All is well or so hero thinks after he saves the day but something breaks inside heroine, she feel unworthy, her fears come back w/ a vengence and she's disgusted with herself thinking , as she did as a child, that she did something to cause the attack & is not good for hero.

By the end of her tests, she’s probably seriously unlikable, because what’s the point if she moves from being likable to being likable? She just needs to have signs of change. Have you ever had a really strict teacher or boss? They push you and push you, and make life hell. Then one day, after a really hard task, you look up—and they give you a smile or a firm nod and you know—this as a test, and you passed it?

He knows what’s at stake. She’s testing him to see if she can lower her shields with him. And…each time he passes a harder test, her shields need to go down more. Let your reader see how wounded she is on the inside and how difficult it is for her to reach out.

I would suggest that she’s not leaving because she’s not good for the hero, but because she’s afraid (after daring to open up and hope/love) that this will be the straw that broke the camels back and sends him away. And that…will kill her. 

Her earlier motivation (that something is wrong with her, all that conditioning, all those beliefs) comes back, like you said, with a vengeance. Something broke in her, something is telling her this is what will make the hero walk away from her, because he can finally see it.

She doesn’t leave for him. She leaves for herself. She leaves because she’s afraid that if he rejects her, her original (child) motivation will be right. There is something wrong with her. And that everything she was starting to feel with her and him toward her was fake, just when she was just starting to believe her childhood motivation was wrong. She leaves because she’s in so much pain and conflict, she can’t stay.

It’s your job to let people see the shields go down and what life has done to her, and what the chance of being with the hero is doing to heal her. And then—you take it all away.

And your readers won’t say, wtf????? When she leaves, they’ll cry right along with her, even if she smashes all the mirrors and tears up his picture before she goes, because…they’ll understand.

And how to use multiple villains as aspects of an all encompassing conceptual villain... (with a little help with an old post on reflections and a few thoughts from The Big Sleep)


Hi Nick, sorry to take so long getting back to you. I wanted to some time to think about your question  (I always think the best villains have a character arc too... my thriller has multiple villains (all part of one overarching conceptual villain) and it doesn't seem like they can have an arc (not even darker)... thoughts?)

This was a toughie. Basically what you’re looking for is called a reflection character. Hague says a reflection character is someone that “reflects” something about the protagonist and supports them in their quest. In a lot of ways I think that’s true, although Hague uses the word “support” in a very literal sense, and I think the usage is broader. A better way to say it would be to say the reflection character does what he or she needs to do to get the protagonist moving through his arc in the right direction. Even if the reflection doesn’t do anything themselves or is actively against the hero.

In Casablanca, Lazslo is Rick’s reflection. The guy Rick would have been if everything had worked out in his life. Lazslo doesn’t do much. He shows up, has a past and a potentially noble future—he encourages people to stand up for what they believe in, and sings the French National anthem. He also shows Rick two things Rick needs to know. 1. He loves Ilsa. 2. He values her safety more than his continuing fight against the Nazis.

In other words, Lazslo is very much a hero in the old-school, Dudley Do-Right sense. Good, kind, honorable, self-sacrificing, and the leader the resistance so desperately needs. To make him even better, he has a beautiful wife, who when push came to shove left Rick once she discovered Lazslo was still alive. Lazslo “reflects” all the good qualities dormant in Rick. A really strong transformational arc can be even stronger with a good reflection character to show your reader the potential in your hero. 

Reflection characters can also be used to reflect qualities (as in your multiple villains) and life situations or fears, and a good example of that would be a fear reflection.

What is your character afraid of?

Maybe your character comes from a background of domestic abuse, and has “fixer” tendencies. He wants to fix things and make them better, or protect others in his care. Maybe—because of his own abuse, or factors outside his control—he’s afraid of not being there, or being unable to help someone when they desperately need him. Maybe he has a mother or sisters, or a little brother who is being abused and puts himself in harm’s way and takes the abuse on himself—but what if one day he isn’t there and his mom and little brother are killed? 

A fear reflection would “embody” everything your hero is afraid of. All the guilt that he couldn’t be there, the fear he can’t protect his only remaining sister, and maybe—a very deep, very subconscious fear that he comes from the same genetic stock and might have abusive tendencies of his own. Therapy is a fairly recent thing, and even today people don’t always have access. Maybe he escapes and takes his little sister. That makes his sister the fear reflection. The one person who makes the hero’s fear real.

Fear for his sister, love for his sister—terror if anything looks like it might hurt her, and a desperate need to make sure his sister survives and lives happily ever after.

There are so many emotions and situations tied up in our feelings, and in a character-driven story sometimes you don’t want to spend a lot of time digging into internals. Using someone else as a fear (or any kind of) reflection (whether it’s fear, anger, love, etc) would help to layer change, show progress, and emphasize the struggles your character is going through.

To have your character sitting, thinking about how he’s been having these “feelings” of wanting to hurt someone when he’s angry might not work, depending on your story, “but” showing your character sitting around a campfire, rubbing his cold hands, staring at his sister—hating her, wanting to hurt her for one bright red moment, brings it all home in a way that connects on a visceral level.

Maybe the reflection gets sick, or hurt—and your hero can’t prevent it. Love, pain, and the fear he’s going to lose another person he loves is all there in the way his hands shake making the thin watery soup that’s all they can afford. Subtext yes--but also a great way to show your character's arc.

How does this work in a story with multiple villains?

Every character (at the start of their arc) starts out with focal motivation (a way to get a handle on the character). I’ve always called it a core event, because it’s usually an event that encapsulates the emotional state of the protag at the start of the story. There’s a lot of stuff going on—conflict and motivation-wise. Maybe your hero has anger, pain, frustration and determination going on, along with a healthy helping of fear, self-doubt and cynicism. Each of those emotional states is a “facet” of your character. In a movie/book like Chandler’s Big Sleep, there is no arc. Marlowe doesn’t change. What changes is the facet (of Marlowe) that we’re looking at. Need, greed, lust, cynicism, admiration. Each facet that’s revealed pushes a part of the plot. It’s less of a movement “along” the arc, than an exploration of a point “on” the arc.

Your protag has an arc, but I’d like to suggest each villain is a reflection of one of the protag’s less admirable facets, and a visible representation of the issues he needs to overcome to reach his goal. That doesn’t mean each villain is one-note, just that the most memorable part of each villain would visibly address an issue (like a proud peacock of a guy whose cockiness is his downfall. Something that would address the protag’s refusal to ask for help). To defeat him, the protag could bring in a partner, ask for help from an old friend, break into someone’s home, find them there and ask them to help him, the variations are endless. You can roll some issues together, focus on them one at a time, pump up some villains to make it screamingly hard to defeat them, or make them so easy the hero will be wondering what the big deal was.

And I rambled, so quick summary?

The villains don’t have arcs, they simply layer the protag’s arc by exploring facets of his character. But…with a little effort? I’d also suggest that you can have the villains create an overreaching arc, using different villains to stand in for movement on the villain concept's conceptual arc.

It was a really good morning. :)




Friday, March 7, 2014

The Transformational Character Arc Explained in Five Easy Spiderman Clips

Five masterful scenes from Sam Raimi, the same guy who brought you Evil Dead, Xena, Warrior Princess, Hercules, Spiderman, The Grudge, Spartacus Blood and Sand, and American Gothic

The inciting incident or what gets this particular story going


Peter's conflict:
Peter is changing and he’s angry that his Uncle Ben is giving him a lecture on responsibility. They’re not talking about the same thing, because Uncle Ben doesn’t know about the bite. But Peter does—and he’s fighting his subconscious motivation (the result of his upbringing) to listen, grow up and take responsibility for his actions.



Later, when Peter is ripped off by a shady wrestling promoter, he stands aside while the man is robbed, and during the getaway his uncle is killed

>>this is the climax that pushes Peter to the breaking point





It's all his fault. He had great power and great responsibility...and he dropped the ball. His actions lead to the death of the man he loved like a father. And it tears him to shreds.




Peter finally changes and takes action, telling Mary Jane he doesn’t love her (in order to protect her), and walks away. Into his destiny as Spiderman.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Come talk to me and enter a drawing for a free four hour block of developmental edits 2/28

I'm in this sale. It's my very first group sale, and I was (and still am) a little freaked out. Bryan has got to be the most gung-ho detail-oriented organizer I've ever had the pleasure to meet, which fits, since he does books on writing prompts. And, I don't. I've always wanted to be once of those writers with a tidy wooden desk, fancy green lamp and nice mahogany bookcase. The bookcase...well, one day I'll get one in IKEA mahogany, but the tidy desk escapes me. When I'm working, I have drifts of paper so high they stratify. Phone numbers, notes, candy wrappers and water rings. I'm lucky I don't have bugs because three days into a project I've got plates piled on my computer like I'm having a garage sale.

Today (Friday the 28th), in addition to my first sale (may it be the first of many) I'm also holding my first giveaway. It'd be great if you swung over and liked my "Hi! I'm Jodi" status on FB (you might have to scroll looking for it, I don't have anything direct yet although I'll try to get the link fixed once I do), but...yeah, well. I fought FB for years and I know what it's like to "not" have a facebook account.

Which means if you leave a comment on my blog, you'll also be entered into my contest. I'm giving away a free four hour block of developmental/content edits, which you can use for yourself, give to a friend or giveaway in your own contest (must be used by RWA nationals). Four hours is a decent chunk of time and I can do a partial, show you how to fix whatever an editor wants you to fix (from a request and revision letter, although I'd have to see the letter), tidy up a project you sold on proposal (this doesn't mean full-blown track changed edits, but a nice solid editorial letter), or just fix something that feels off. Maybe people say your heroine is unlikeable, or your hero has all the motivation of a turnip--I'm there for you.

Or if you just want to talk? I'm here from 6-11 PST and 9-1 EST. I have no problem helping you trouble shoot your wip. And it's a lot easier to do here, rather than in a FB status.

Oh! And I almost forgot I had a picture. It's pretty and shiny, and I'm having this incredible urge to frame it. *sniffle*

Why yes--I "like" my foot in my mouth. The perils of backstory in real life

Do you have have that feeling like--oh, you're so passionate about something that it runs out of your mouth like uncontrollable word diarrhea when people trigger your hot button? And then it's too late because, yeah, there's a quote function and you can't edit other people's posts? *sigh* I do that all the time although I try not to.

I'm fortunate enough to have a friend who tells me the things I say aren't all that horrible and people will get on with their lives, regardless of whether I share my opinion, but...it's all a matter of backstory. Mine, theirs, other peoples.

I post things because some thing in my backstory drove me to react to something another person said (God, I hope politely and eloquently) and they react because of something in their backstory (which lead to the first comment) which is making them react to "my" comment, and it goes around in circles, with every poster reacting to our reactions depending on their particular backstory.

Decades ago, back in the days when I used to be a bookseller I remember talking to this famous regency writer, you know--picking their brain because I really wanted to be a writer back in the days when word processors were standard equipment, and I said, "Who are your favorite writers?" and she said, "I don't have any. I don't read."

And I was like--what?? And she went on to tell me she was a writer, she'd stopped reading years ago because she just didn't have the time. Looking back on it, I remember going through a period where I couldn't read because my internal editor wouldn't stop dissecting plots and stuff, but there's nothing I like more than falling into a book so good it makes me stop everything. The great thing (and the bad thing) about kindle is that I can buy a series one after the other until I'm done, and over the last few months, I've done that three times. I'm also fortunate that reading helps with my job, since I need to stay on top of trends and styles, but I'd do it regardless. I could tell at a glance which posters still read, which ones don't and which ones still have that 360 view even though the whole thread wasn't about whether you were a reader.

At my very first RWA conference, I had the displeasure of meeting one of my favorite writers. "Wow!" I said, going up to her (because I really wanted to tell her how much I enjoyed her books) "----! OMG, I LOVE your books!" I was totally fangirling her, and she said, "There, there (I kid you not! That's "exactly" what she said), don't worry. One day you too can be just like me." She patted her bouffant hair, straightened her jewelry and walked right around me, and when I got home--I threw out her books.

All she had to do was say "Thank you." Thank you for being a reader, thank you for being a fan. Thank you for being the reason I have all this heavy gold jewelry and can sit around at conferences telling other people how to write. I hope I am never like her.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Feel free to say I told you so

I unpublished Short Stories. It's my bane and Waterloo all rolled into one. I was fortunate--very fortunate, to be contacted a month or so ago by a woman looking for a review copy. I'd started to have this inkling that Shorts wasn't all I thought it was (the workshop should have given me a clue, lol)  and sent her copies of both craft books.

On one hand, I was kind of iffy about ES because it has typos. Not an overwhelming number, but enough to make me wince uncomfortably. It also has highlighters, and I'm greedy. The first time I re-read ES looking for typos, I was like..."People highlighted this??" And I got all teary. At which point I realized a kindle craft of writing truth; craft books have more typos than any other kind of writing (something I've noticed reading reviews). It's like the internal line editor checks out the minute Word turns on. But the reason craft books don't  get revised is because the people who wrote them don't want to lose their highlights.
 
Anyway, the woman was kind enough to send me a note telling me the reason Shorts wasn't doing well was because it lacked examples like ES *headdesk*

And I was like OM freaking GOD!!!

Duh.

She didn't say, btw get your structural act together and fix that too, but I am. I don't know what it says about me that it took four years to figure out the actual useable structure of a short, but at this point...it's coming in clearly. Once I upload it again (a week or so), I'll tell Amazon and it should be available for download at no additional cost.

I suspect I was too close. Feel free to say I told you so :)