Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Finding that elusive mid-point milestone

Last night my husband and I saw Leap Year. He's now sucked into my little game-- identifying the first plot point, the mid point milestone and the second plot point in the movies. Leap Year, besides being a wonderful romance flick (btw the chemistry between Amy Adams and the Irish dude is incredible!), the three points were a bit more challenging to identify. I won't go into it here, don't want to give away the film if you've not seen it yet! But if you do, try to figure them out. It's kinda tricky!

In my wip, I can easily identify the first plot points for both Marcie (main plot) and Cindy (sub plot). I think I even have the second plot points figured out. But I'm still confused on where the mid point milestones are. I have no clue where Cindy's is. In fact, I'm not sure there is one. I think I know what Marcie's is, but it needs further examining. I didn't get to it during this writing session.

I have a feeling it's there and I'm simply overlooking it. Brooks says that it's obvious, flexible, and easily overlooked by inexperienced writers, or those not accustomed to writing according to story structure. (ha ha, that's me)

He also says, "Before the Mid-Point both the hero and the reader experience the story with limited awareness of the real truth behind what’s going on. Because it reveals significant new information, everything after the Mid-Point carries new weight and dramatic tension."

Okay, this is good. I'm going back in for another look. But first, back to bed for my three hour morning nap lol! Meanwhile, something to ponder: What's the mid-point milestone in a story you're reading or writing? Did you catch it? Not sure? Me neither!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Following and Followers

That last post where the font got screwed up is driving me crazy whenever I look at it-- there's my lovely giraffe, (how I love my giraffe), then scroll down, and I see the stupid post with its funky font that I couldn't fix. So I'm writing another post to get past it! Good time to ask this blogging courtesy question I've been wondering about. Here it is:

How do you feel about following followers? Like if someone adds themselves as a follower, is it expected, to be polite, to return the favor and add yourself to theirs? I will often do this, not so much to be courteous, but because I'll go check out their site and really like it, and want to follow it. It's a good way to discover new blogs without having to work too hard at it. And I'm always on the lookout for new blogs to follow.

But then sometimes I don't pay attention, especially if the follower never leaves comments, and I don't go check out their blog or follow them. Is this rude?

Just wondering. Sometimes it's hard to know what common blogging etiquette is! And while we're on the topic, I must refer to the incredible Nicola Morgan, who posted about blogging etiquette last fall. That insightful post is here. But she doesn't mention follower etiquette. I already checked.

It's so good, but there's something missing

You're halfway through your novel, or maybe you're done with the last draft and something's just not quite right. There's something missing, you're not sure what it is. It could be the mid-point milestone. Go to Larry Brooks' for a detailed description of this crucial element in story structure.

Here's Larry's short definition of the mid-point milestone: new information that enters the story squarely in the middle of it, that changes the contextual experience and understanding of either the reader, the hero, or both.

Still not sure what this entails? Look at your own experience as an example, because these happen all the time in life, we just don't label them as such. Here's mine:

Once I worked at Costco. I was on the fast track for promotion in my department. I had been promoted fairly quickly, first to full-time (all Costco employees start out as part-timers), then to lead. (That fast, unexpected promotion to lead was my first plot point--it changed everything in my feeling about my job. I decided to move forward. It was no longer just a nice little part-time job for me. It would be my career.)

I had my eye on supervisor and/or manager of my department. My superiors seemed to like me. I felt like I was doing a good job. All was well in my world. The perfect opportunity opened up, and I figured I was a shoo-in. Then came the mid-point milestone. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but the curtain parted for me and I discovered that the warehouse manager disliked me intensely. I apparently had done something that upset him, and he was the grudge-holding kind who never forgot and always got his revenge. It was his warehouse after all, he was boss over all.

Once that realization hit, the stakes increased for me. And for him-- (the villain in my little story) I tried even harder to move forward, and he blocked me at every turn. But because I knew why, due to the "new understanding/mid-point milestone," it changed my understanding and experience of the situation. It was more emotionally-charged, other people got involved, it became a David and Goliath battle essentially between us.

(For some strange reason I cannot fix the italics on this post!!!!???? So sorry about the font-weirdness here.)

Anyway, moral of the story: Mid-point milestones happen to us constantly in life, and it must happen in our fiction. Without it, the structure is flawed and your story will collapse. Which is why I suggest it may be that "something missing" one might notice on a read-back of an otherwise really amazing piece of writing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

THE most important scene in your novel

Back to writing posts, or is it writing writing posts? How about, back to writing about story structure? I've discussed the hook, the set-up, and what your characters have at stake. What comes next is the most important scene. Everything coming before builds up to it, making this scene plausible and believable when it happens, while everything that comes after is a response to it.

It is called The First Plot Point, and it is what Larry Brooks calls "the most important moment in your story." (Link is for his series on story structure.) Brooks says, "Because the First Plot Point is the moment when the story’s primary conflict makes its initial center-stage appearance. It may be the first full frontal view of it, or it may be the escalation and shifting of something already present. In either case, nothing about the story is the same from that moment forward. "

Brooks suggests watching movies to see this story structure displayed before our eyes. Really, really good advice. Especially considering that a novel has so many things happening and going on, and in a character-driven story, the first plot point may be subtle and nearly hidden. Since a movie only has 90 minutes to get it all in, story structure can be obvious once you know what to look for.

Here's how it goes in movies-- you're seeing the main characters in their normal lives, you "meet" them and you find them interesting and likeable. Think of Ghost with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. They're moving into this great loft apartment, she's an artist, he's a corporate guy, they're in love (not married), but you recognize this incredible chemistry between them and so of course you want them to be together. You want her to say yes to his repeated marriage proposals.

First plot point: They're mugged late at night in a deserted street, and Patrick Swayze is killed. Everything changes for our two main characters. The rest of the movie is based on this one incident. It is the first plot point.

In my current wip, there are two sisters, with Cindy's story as subplot and Marcie's story as the main plot. When they find out what's wrong with Cindy's baby, that changes everything for Cindy. Marcie is affected and touched by the news, but it's not the first plot point for her story. Marcie's turning point is much later in the story, and it happens so subtly that a reader might miss it. I won't tell you what it is. But it's my job to make sure that this event becomes the single most important moment for Marcie.

If you're having trouble identifying what the first plot point is in your story, here's my advice. Take a break and go to the movies! My husband and I just saw 2012. It was more difficult to identify the first plot point, probably because there are so many characters and the main character doesn't come in until later. But we did it--we identified the point in the movie where everything changes for the main character. Of course, then we had to identify the mid-point milestone and the 2nd plot point as well. 2012 was a challenge, but we figured it out!

Next post I'll discuss the mid-point milestone-- where the curtain parts, new information is revealed, and everyone steps up their game.

Oops! I forgot my question, which is: What book or movie can you recall where the first plot point is either a) so subtle you almost miss it, or b) so obvious you can't miss it?

Monday, February 15, 2010

What's at stake here?

We have to write our characters so well that when the stakes are revealed/understood/hinted at, the reader cares. And cares enough to keep reading. Ever toss a book aside because the author didn't make you care enough about the main character to keep reading once the stakes were revealed? That's usually when I would scream in jealous derision, "And why was this crap even published!? I can write better than this! Why aren't I published? Why is this stupid book published and not mine?!" Well, anyway, you get the point. People have to care about the characters.

All this is established in your set up. If you fail, you will lose your reader. You won't get published. Your manuscript will be rejected before it even has a chance to become a book that annoys a frustrated reader who checked it out of the library thinking it might be good. So that's what's at stake for us writers. Now what's at stake for our characters?

Larry Brooks at lists five missions for part 1:

1. A killer hook (most agree it needs to be your first sentence)

2. Introducing your hero. This is where we get to know the characters enough to care what happens to them.

3. Revealing Stakes. May be done subtly and gently in a character-driven novel, or whammo-all at once in a plot-driven novel. Either way, it boils down to this-- what have your characters got to lose?

4. Foreshadowing. Where we hint at things to come. Foreshadowing is incredible when it flows into place, annoying when it's contrived. So be careful with this one! Don't force it, let it come to you and reveal itself naturally. Once you notice what's there, you can make the most of it. Like in my hook where I talked about the baby's eyes not focusing, and one of you insightful, super-intelligent commenters said, "foreshadowing of things to come perhaps?" Yes, yes, yes! That was brilliant, and I didn't even do it on purpose!

5. Preparing to launch. Preparing for the plot points, the twists and turns, further character development and all the later elements of story structure beyond Part 1. (Not sure if I'll keep posting about structure beyond Part 1. This is exhausting. Although explaining it all in my blog does help me understand it better, so maybe I will, for purely selfish reasons.)

So back to #3 Revealing Stakes. In a plot-driven novel with life & death scenarios, an evil villain, and worlds that need saving, stakes are fairly obvious. In a character-driven novel, like what I write, it's more subtle. First my characters are revealed, (hopefully in an intriguing and fascinating way of course), and as they are, certain elements come into play.

Like, what are my characters' inner demons? Backstory? Attitudes, prejudices, fears? What defines these people? Their strengths and weaknesses? And finally, what's at stake for them? What have they got to gain or to lose as the story unfolds?

If I create believable characters worth caring about, and give them tangible stakes also worth caring about, then I'm on my way. It all has to be vital enough to keep people reading, to make my reader care. Otherwise, what's the point?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

There's something about critiques...

Having just read Old Kitty's flash fiction story (she has the link on her post in case anyone wants to read it, and you should), it brings to mind something about peer group reviews.

Here's the truth: the better your work is the pickier readers will be. Old Kitty's piece was excellent, near to perfect, and thus the responses were "don't like the ending, it's weak." (Yes the ending was a bit weak, but that's an easy fix.)

Reason being, if your work elicits an emotional response (which all good writing must do), the peer reviewers feel that response, thus noticing a section that's not producing the same response. It stands out against the brilliance of the other and is pointed out as the weak spot.

Here's the other truth: If your entire work is weak, you will get general feel-good praise rather than being picked apart. Your reviewers, not wanting to be rude, will say, "that's good!" and "I like the ________ part!"

So if you're getting a lot of the "pickiness" take it as a positive! And if you're getting the general feel-good praise, take that as a negative. It means your work isn't eliciting enough of an emotional response for anyone to care if you fix the ending or not.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"the seduction that is part 1"

We keep hearing over and over about the short attention span of the reader, that we have to get to the action right away. After all, we aren't writing 19th century Jane Austen or Henry James, where we have the luxury of spending copious chapters describing the character's homes, families, clothing styles, friends, hobbies, mealtime conversation, etc etc. The modern reader won't stand for it. Still, we need to be "properly introduced," as Lynn Price (Behler Blog) says in her post, Have We Been Properly Introduced?

Larry Brooks refers to it as setting up your story, acquainting us with the main character-- where they live, what they do, what their hopes and dreams are. This allows the reader to empathize, to care, and to want to know what comes next. The set up needs to happen before any plot twists, or before the "first Plot Point".

Brooks calls this set up "the seduction that is Part 1." (I love that phrase.) Your intriguing hook in the first few paragraphs captures interest. The set up does the rest, leading readers happily into the first Plot Point which takes them the rest of the way, securely entrenched in the story. Hooray! Mission accomplished!

There are 5 missions to be accomplished in Part 1, the Set-Up. First is the hook. I shared mine last post--thank you for your feedback! Second is introducing your hero.

Here's how I do it in my current WIP. It comprises two chapters:

Marcie McGill goes with all her kids to visit her sister Cindy who lives 2 hours away. They eat dinner and they talk-- about baby Jakob, about Cindy's husband Karl, a school teacher on strike. They interact with each other and with the children. In two chapters, here's what we learn about these two families during the course of this visit (above and beyond the fact that something is wrong with Cindy's baby):

1. That the teacher strike is bitterly adversarial, pitting teachers on strike against those who cross picket lines.

2. That Cindy is conflicted about using food stamps to help get by. She would like to, but Karl's against it. What does Marcie think?

3. That the McGill family has no tv in their home, because Marcie wants her kids to read and be creative instead of watching tv, but her children figure out ways to learn about their favorite shows regardless.

4. That Elizabeth McGill, the 10-year-old daughter, hates compliments because she feels singled out. "Nobody tells the boys they have pretty eyes and a pouty mouth! I hate it!"

5. That Cindy doesn't like where they live and wants to move back to Jacksonville near Marcie.

6. That Cindy had problems nursing her two-year-old when he was an infant and, due to La Leche League counsel, refused to give him formula thus almost starving him.

7. That while Cindy and Karl have serious problems to contend with, Marcie and Shawn on the other hand, are doing quite well.

These are a few of the issues, elements and background revealed in my first two chapters. Is it enough to engage the reader in the lives of these two sisters? Is it enough to keep reading on to Chapters 3 and 4 and beyond? Let's hope so. Next post-- Illuminating What is at Stake.

How do you handle set up? How do you like to introduce your characters? I prefer dialogue, because it's more engaging than blocks of explanatory paragraphs.

What techniques of set up and introduction of characters do you like to use in writing, or enjoy seeing in the books you read?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Establishing Story Structure--The Hook

A few years ago I wouldn't have paid any attention to a website about story structure. I'm an organic, trial by error kind of writer. Why else did it take me decades to get published? Trial by error, baby! Yes, and that wastes a LOT of time.

So when my friend M. Gray tossed out her challenge to follow the 10 steps of story structure, I decided to apply it to my current WIP. The timing was perfect. I had the bones of my novel written, why not analyze its structure based on the concepts of Larry Brooks at

First thing is the hook. Larry Brooks (along with Sol Stein's On Writing) emphasizes the necessity of writing the hook early. Brooks suggests the first 20 pages. Stein says the first paragraph. I tend to agree with Sol Stein on this one. Better to get it in early, before the potential buyer gets bored in 5 seconds of reading and puts down the book. Or manuscript (if your desired reader is an agent or editor.)

The hook isn't what the book is about, it's not the plot or the pitch, it's what engages the reader right off. According to Larry Brooks: "It gets our attention early. It tickles us. Intrigues us. "

In my WIP, here's my opening paragraph, my hook:

There was something wrong with Cindy’s baby. At four months, Jakob couldn’t lift his head or focus his eyes. Still, babies develop at different rates. Why should Marcie say anything to needlessly upset her sister?

What do you think? Are you intrigued? Do you want to keep reading? If so, then I've got my hook. If not, I go back to the drawing board. And if any of you want to throw your hooks out for us to look at, please do! Or possibly you have an opening paragraph that you're not sure is a hook or not. Here's your invitation to lay it out for feedback--honest but respectful, of course.

After the hook, comes the "set-up." Next post I'll discuss that.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Interview with an author's spouse

(author and spouse will remain anonymous to protect their secret identities)

What's it like being married to me-- I mean--an author?

Spouse: Rollercoaster, because at first she wants conversation to get the idea formulated, and there's lots of frustration for the writer because it takes time to get the ideas flowing. Sometimes irritability. So I'm dealing with many different emotions, lots of ups and downs.

(Hahaha, and you thought my pregnancies were rough on you!)

Then you have the first draft which involves a great push of energy and no contact with the outside world. We fix our own meals, make our own beds and leave a tray outside the door. (That last bit was just wishful thinking on my part lol).

The NaNoWriMo was a good thing, because it jump started you and you forced yourself to write regardless. Rather than writing a page or two and getting frustrated, you just forged ahead.

Author: (Don't say you, we're trying to be anonymous here.) And? What else?

Spouse: Once the first draft is done, there's even more anxiety because now the story has to be elaborated on and filled out. Lack of sleep, periods of reclusiveness and isolation, the thrill of ideas and characters coming to life alternating with "this is crap, who will read it?" and "get me out of this stupid house."

Author: (Awww, he really has been paying attention.) Go on, tell me more

Eventually comes a draft worth submitting, and more anxiety waiting to hear from publishers. Haunting the mailbox, wondering what took so long, wondering how the submission will be received. And no distraction seems to relieve the pressure of wondering, "Was it any good? Should I have waited? Should I have worked on it further?"

(This author sounds like a basket case with no self-confidence whatsoever!)

Finally a letter comes, the great day of reckoning, another rejection. Despair, anguish seem limitless. Self-worth plummets. "What was I thinking? What made me think I had anything to say that would interest anyone?" A week for recovery, mail it off again, and the cycle continues.

Author: (Oh, my poor long-suffering husband. He thinks this is bad, wait til menopause.) How do you feel about all this?

It's exciting to see this work developed, honed, refined to where it can be accepted by a publisher. It's just like training up a child, you train up your little creation, your story, your book, and watch it go through all these steps. And I don't do laundry no matter what. I'm not much help there. Don't know why, I just can't bring myself to it. I should be willing to do that. (Clearly a guilty conscience at work here.)

Author: What about after it's published?

To finally see the book in print is like the birth of a baby. It's new and wonderful and you want everyone to love it as much as you do. Your author/spouse is totally consumed by it, by the interest in its welfare, will it sell, will people like it? Wanting to tell people about it. Feeling like it's a personal affront when a bad review shows up, even by some illiterate no-nothing on Amazon. I feel like a new father.

Author: Thank you, Spouse, for an insightful interview into what it's like living with a writer in the house. You deserve a medal.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Are you here for the writing or the reading?

In my six months of being here in blog land, I've come across quite a few categories of bloggers. Outside of the *experts* with their hundreds and thousands of fans and followers, there's a fairly common pattern that distinguishes blogger-types. Here's what I've noticed, have you any to add?

Some people sign up mainly for the reading. They have their favorite blogs, rush to the new posts and read every word plus all the comments. These reading bloggers write posts, which may be very good but quite short. For them, the reading is more enjoyable than the writing. When they find a new, intriguing blog they like, they're quick to add it to their blogroll, so they don't miss any new posts. They follow more people than follow them.

And there's the non-blogging readers who will never comment or subscribe. Like my mom, husband and son-in-law, who start by reading my posts, then all the comments, then all the blogs in the side bar, and all those posts and comments. My son-in-law came over one day anguished. He had spent 6 hours of his only day off that week reading blogs. Never again, he vowed. Ha, that's what he says.

Then there are the bloggers who are here to write. They post often, sometimes every day, sometimes quite long posts. Because they love to write. They're obsessed about getting new followers/readers, since writers need readers, writers crave readers. What's the point if there are no readers? That's like cooking dinner and no one comes to eat it. These writer bloggers have their favorites too, but they may skim over the reading of posts and still comment. After all, they're here for the writing-- posting, commenting, whatever.

Finally, there's a few blogger/writers who don't read, follow anyone, make any comments or respond to the comments that others make on their posts. A minority, since most bloggers like to interact with others. Some of these types might have followers and commenters, but not as many as they could have if they were more interactive. They're like a rare species of bird that no one ever sees outside its normal habitat.

These are the main categories I've noticed in the blogging world. What kind of blogger are you? Are your here for the writing or the reading? Or are you a nicely balanced blend of both? Or perhaps some entirely new species altogether?