Story Engineering: Getting Down to the Story Mechanics

Larry Brooks is a published author that has writing classes/workshops. In Story Engineering, he shows us what he teaches his students about writing fiction. Apparently, writing a screenplay is very easy in comparison. Books out there detail the rules required in an acceptable screenplay. Larry Brooks has brought that over to fiction writing. If you ignore the condescension of organic writes, the book brings a needed insight to novel writing.

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Story Engineering starts with an argument against the formulaic nature of planning out a story using his components. The difference between art and putting matching things into a formula is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant while reading it. That’s one of the few things not explained in Story Engineering. I figured out a possible explanation. The various story elements, concept, story structure, character, theme, writer’s voice, and scene construction have a synergy between them. Each element builds on another. For example, first person, solitary confinement, weak mental state, and being alone is inhumane. With first person, we are with the inmate at all times. There’s minimal interaction with other people. Add the weak mental state and there’s a compelling story. Add examples of what other inmates in solitary confinement come out as. That makes a pretty good story right?

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Concept is the central question of the story. Story structure is the pacing of the story. The author does a really good job of getting this point across through the book. What plot event should happen at certain points throughout the story? Several movies and books are discussed as examples. Every book and movie I remember follows the plot events. I’m not sure about the timing yet.

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Character is presented as a personality selector you would use in The Sims. Different characteristics that can be tweaked to show the universality of humanity. Figuring out how each characteristic affects the others is where the art part comes in. Then the character arc. That was completely new to me.

 

I use a few lines of research to understand how characters operate. First, observing people and imagining what goes through their heads. Talking to people and looking for the motivations. Deeply analyzing my psyche through meditative practice. And method acting in my head. What would this character do if that happened?

 

Theme is the meaning behind the story. The story can give an opinion or explore a question. Figuring out what to say helps put it into the novel.

 

Writer’s voice is something that needs to be discovered through writing and trying different things. Scene construction states each scene has a mission. The scene needs to be short enough to accomplish its mission.

 

Reading Story Engineering will forever change my novel writing. I was already close, and now I get it for the first time. Larry Brooks knows his stuff. Great book Mr. Brooks.

The Forest for the Trees: A Way through the Mess of Being a Fiction Writer

Betsy Learner is a writer, editor, and agent. In The Forest for the Trees, she offers a collection of sage advice for any writer, especially when you’re questioning your ability as a writer. Reading this book helped a lot. I’m on the right path and need to wo4k more before I get there.

 

The first half of the book identifies several different types of writers. There’s something in there for everyone. I identified with several things that matched. When I’m the most truthful and unafraid, my writing is at its best. Very few writers are naturally successful. The vast majority need to work really hard to get in and become something. The process of writing and getting good is a long process. Write, get feedback, make improvements, write, and repeat until you arrive. Throughout there are many examples from a ton of successful writers and how they got started.

 

The second half of the book is about the publishing side of things. Betsy tells us how she started and moved through the publishing world. These are my biggest takeaways. Sometimes you find a person that can voice your inklings about something you wrote. A good editor should also alight on those things. Query letters are replied in several ways. The first stage is a form rejection letter. Then a form letter with a little personalization. Third a personalized response and finally an acceptance letter. Seeing the process of traditional publication was like witnessing someone else living your dream. One day, that’ll be me. I’ll get there.

 

Later guys.

Editing as a Necessary Evil

Recently, I’ve been editing Remember. I don’t really like the editing process, but it’s a basic requirement of writing anything. It’s the antithesis of the writing. Editing is a nearly brainless activity in comparison. Editing something over and over still missing some errors is frustrating and motivation crushing. Typo blindness is troublesome. The writer knows the words they intended for the page. Not seeing a few typos each page isn’t really a hindrance for the person that wrote it. This WIRED article does a really good job explaining it. A novel is much more susceptible to typo blindness than say a 10-page research paper. A novel requires a lot of investment. Investment leads to seeing what you want to see, instead of what’s actually on the page.

 wired typos

That’s exactly what happened with Remember. A beta-reader pointed out several typos throughout the book. Unfortunately, I’d already put the ebook and paperback on Amazon. Exactly how that worked out is in an upcoming blog post. I quickly took off those listing. It wasn’t until a few months ago, but I reposted the unedited versions. I’m working on the edits as you’re reading this.

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After the discovery of numerous typos, I worked out an editing plan. I’d already edited through four drafts at that point. I read slowly through each page twice. Once through a page and then again. Finding typos was easy. The work was time-consuming. I hadn’t yet found a method to stay motivated through more than an hour or so. Two or four pages a day. In a month of doing this, I lost all the motivation I could muster.

 

The blog has already featured the fruits of my procrastination. I feel too much guilt procrastinating on something completely useless. I have to justify it somehow. That’s how procrastination always starts, as a tangent that can somehow be connected back to the goal. I thought learning Photoshop would help me create book covers that I needed. Then After Effects to make a book trailer. Then 3D modeling for the book trailer. Then game development to practice 3D modeling. This happened in phases between more flawed editing.

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Through all this, my unconscious was entering the second epoch of my writing style. For some reason I can’t remember, I start thinking along the lines of clarity (an old blog post talked about a writer that showed me the way, Ella Dawson.) I recently read, the biggest mistake of a novice writer is trying to overcompensate for a perceived lack. Usually in the form of over-involved writing. That’s the symptom of Remember. Over complicated prose for confusing and difficult to understand writing. I reasoned if no one can understand what I’m writing, what’s the point. If it isn’t clear, there is no point.

 

I needed to simplify Remember. I decided to linearize it. Remember started out as two parallel story lines. One was six months ahead of the other. I jumped back and forth. The reader was getting lost. I cut out the boring stuff. Conor court trial and hospital stay were gutted (I’ll post them sometime). I moved the hook later in the novel. I needed a new hook, Conor’s life before the memory loss. What was Conor trying to remember? That should be up on here when I’m putting up the new version of Remember on Amazon.

 

I wanted the story to be more approachable and familiar. I started switching verb tenses to the past. Earlier in the editing process, I’d already switched out all the verbs for active ones. Tense switching would be much easier. I tried Find and Replace in Word. It was too finicky and took about as much time as the manual way. This verb switching actually helped in the long run. It sufficiently motivated me to cut more of Remember. Cutting from a novel has always been very difficult for me. This extra work of verb switching got me there.

 

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Everything I cut from Remember.

 

Remember is almost finished. I’ve cut 14,000 words plus, and the novel is better because of it. Listening to music is the motivation I need for editing and typing at times.

 

Later, guys.

The Books We Read Make a World of Difference

Reading will always go hand in hand with writing. Current reads are the tools we use to find what works for readers. Sometimes it’s easy to forget during the solidarity of the writing process that we write for others to read. The accepted content varies over time. For example consider a novel like Vanity Fair. In the 1800’s, extensive backstories and drab descriptions of settings were in good form. Exactly like Shakespeare. In the 1600’s, iambic pentameter or heptameter of George Chapman was popular. These days it’s concise prose without too much unjustified extra content, like backstory and description of the mundane. This will be about a few books I’ve read recently. I won’t keep you in suspense. They are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Sharp Objects and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and Storm Front (Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher.

One of my writer friends recommended The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a Pulitzer Prize winner. The story is nearly an alt. history of the heyday in the comic books, the 1940’s through 1960’s. Along with Stan Lee and Sam Kirby, add Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay. Kavalier is a Jewish refugee from Nazi-controlled Europe previously the apprentice of an escape artist. Clay is a misanthropic writer interested in comic books and becoming the next great American writer. Clay penned the inking and Kavalier did the illustrations. The story followed their lives for the next two decades.

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This book taught me a few valuable lessons. Literary prose works for established writers. Getting people to read literary prose from a yet unpublished writer is asking too much. Chabon used lots of words that were new to me like prestidigitation, opprobrium, and razz among others. A pre-collegiate vocabulary isn’t enough to write at a high level. Chabon frequently went on tangents, devoting page space to the stories written by Clay. Large parts of the book detail the fictional comic book heroes, The Escapist  and Luna Moth. I liked these parts a lot. Chabon made me wish to actually read the comics he described. The Escapist thrilled me. Luna Moth was perfectly hot and written with style. Going on tangents can work if done expertly.

Two books by Gillian Flynn taught me a lot. I’ll start with Gone Girl, the one I read first. The story started with Nick Dunne waking up next to his wife, Amy Eliot Dunne. We follow along as Nick left their house that morning. We watch the events as he discovered his wife is missing. Nick’s experiences through the investigation is chronicled. In the meantime, we read through Amy’s journal from the night they first met onward.

Gone Girl was amazing. Flynn found a way to justify an incredible amount of backstory. In Amy’s journals, we are looking for an evidence that Nick is capable of killing his wife. Amy left a series of limericks as part of this anniversary tradition they have. This allows Nick a chance to relive even more memories as he follows Amy steps before her disappearance. Throughout Amy’s journal, she wrote a series of multiple choice questions. After all, she was a quiz writer at some magazine. The story is allegorical to the dynamic within a marriage. Strong writing brought the story through easily to the reader.

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This novel taught me a few important lessons. Great writing with a great story sells. Gone Girl was on the New York Times Best Sellers List for over two years, won two awards, and was made into a movie. A well selling book is relatable. Intense literary tendencies can work if done really well or above par.

Sharp Objects is about a young reporter returning to her hometown, to follow-up on a serial murder investigation. Going home, brings back a lot of old memories. Everything is creepy in a way that adds character to a small town. The end is nearly impossible to figure out.

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A few lessons saw me through to the end. There is place for complicated sentences in modern, non-literary fiction. Feel free to include introductory, dependent, independent, and concluding clauses as long as the coherence or smoothness doesn’t reduce. Details are okay if it adds something like a feeling you want to convey, hints, misleads, or does something to make the story better. It doesn’t matter who you are, traditionally publishing a first book over 200 pages is incredibly difficult, if not impossible without something else going for you. Gillian Flynn was a reporter for Entertainment Weekly and her first book is 200 pages long.

Station Eleven is a literary science fiction novel that redefined what sells. The story follows the creator of a small batch comic titled as Station Eleven. The comic was about a lone doctor on space station destined for destruction. We follow the comic author’s life through her relationship with a previously famous actor and beyond to death. The actor connected with a young girl on the set of a play. We follow this young girl after some type of apocalypse. Another character is followed through the cataclysm. Basically a literary novel without an easily defined plot but gives a feeling of actually being there.

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Emily St. John Mandel is a great writer that has a lot to teach. I remember this one sentence that, simply put was amazing. I read this one sentence that perfectly summarized the work duties of an executive assistant. This sounds boring but encapsulated in a richly complex sentence made it interesting beyond belief. After reading the paragraph, it was stunning to see it was all of three sentence. I have a ton of work left to be that good, especially that smooth. Literary novels follow characters, things, and places through a series of event to shed light on existential questions. Keeping the reader oriented can be difficult, but when it works, you can do anything.

The Goldfinch follows the young Theodore Decker after his mother dies in a tragic museum explosion. He spends a years with his gambling father in Las Vegas. Then we see years an apprentice and an antique dealer. Finally married to a beautiful woman. Through it all, we feel his emptiness and longing for what he lost all those years ago.

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This book is dense. For maybe the first time, a modern book required me or the reader to slow down and take in everything. I can’t imagine writing and editing a book for ten years. My motivation wouldn’t survive that long for one project. Literary novels create experiences with beautiful imagery. This can be done by making the ordinary pretty or choosing events that allow lavish imagery. Donna Tartt does this through a series of drug experiences and smoky, dark scenes with nothing happening very fast. There is literary and then there is great literary.

Infinite Jest is the longest book I’ve ever read. David Foster Wallace wrote a book that’s a traumatic experience to read. It incorporates a little of everything from drug addiction, depression, film theory, world diplomacy, tennis, and North American diplomacy among other things. The story follows a family that owns a tennis academy, a rehabilitation center just down the road, and a meeting between American counter-intelligence agent and a double agent from a Canadian terrorist group. That meeting got annoying with the frequency Wallace returned to it and its length. The use of parentheses to denote the antecedent of pronouns was frustrating. The ending left me disappointed. There was such a long build-up and the ending was outside the time frame of the prose. Wallace doesn’t hold our hand through to the end and shoves us to figure it out. The length made me really struggle to put the ending together. All that aside, Wallace gives us an almost unabashed look into the human psyche at its worst.

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Wallace gave me a few irreplacable tips. Merging different styles can slow a read down but you need literary clout to keep a reader in it. Infinite Jest uses ebonics, first person, third person, monologue, footnotes, and various other styles throughout. Detours are again okay. A grasp of words beyond most, makes a book really hard to read.

Then we have Storm Front (Dresden Files #1). A wizard/private detective investigates two different cases. The plot is rote. The two cases have to collide right? Add in wizardry, a police detective, a overseeing wizarding board breathing down his neck, a few rules about what’s allowed, and dark magic to get Strom Front. The language simple and easy to digest. The wording steps out of the way and puts the story front and center.

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I learned a lot that supports everything I’m getting into. Simple construction works really well. Readers like familiarity. The woman characters are femme fatales with a slight variation, usually. We have a hot reporter with a pen instead of a gun. A pretty detective with a badge and gun. A true femme fetale with information and no gun. I really liked a scene where the wizard questions the woman with information. Butcher does a really good job describing her smoky, contralto voice. I did something like that but not really well in my first book. I need to keep working on maintaining a feeling for an extended period of time. Keep the action coming and use the lulls wisely. Choose when to give exposition and what to say with care. Add something new to the genre like the present day, vampires, and sex as used by Butcher.

Reading is invaluable to a writer. It has always been a big part of my life and will continue to be. These books were read over the course of a year. Another year of reading will bring more lessons and interesting worlds. I look forward to it. Come back in two weeks for the next post. Until then, Graham Kar out.

 

Ella Dawson, A Letter from a Fan

 

(For those of you that haven’t heard: Ella Dawson is internet famous for various reason. Being an optimistic person, fighting for a better future, her writing,  and blog make her famous.)

Dear Ella Dawson,

You are a great person. You have an optimistic outlook for the future interaction between different people. Despite the opprobrium, you continue to fight for your vision of the future. There is no reason for the stigma against STI’s except personal fear.

I learned about you through a creative non-fiction piece you posted on Medium. It, put simply, was amazing. Your simple, clear language brought an extremely complicated concept into focus. It drew me in and gave me something to think about. A quote stuck with me. “it sits on my tongue like a sugar cube” That phrase so clearly depicts what was going on.  I knew from that moment, I had to learn everything I could from you.

I was only previously affected by heavily literary works like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. This pulled my earlier writing too far in the flowery, literary direction. This trend caused confusion and reduced my potential audience. For a relatively unknown author like myself, too much complex language becomes a problem. I needed a new goal. Didn’t Mark Twain say something about simple language?

I started reading your WordPress blog from the beginning. That Medium piece was too advanced for me to see the underlying technique. I needed more and earlier writings. The second blog post about your college thesis caught my eye. It was a definition of feminist sex writing. Basically, you were saying the feminist part comes in when the writing questions the social mores around sex. For example, what constitutes acceptable sex? What types of relationship work and how do they function?

A really surprising thing happened. I had been writing a book for the previous 6 months that started to ask those questions and provide what I believed were my answers. I have never tried to label anything. I find it extremely frustrating to squeeze myself into boxes. I stopped trying long ago. That definition you provided was something new, expansive and inclusive.

I also read a book you reviewed and liked. It gave me a window into your preferred genre. Reading helps me figure out what fits into a genre, the characteristics that make something good, and the established boundaries. Finally, I look for what works and try to incorporate those into my own writing.

The three short stories you guest blogged on Exhibit A gave me a chance to learn about your approach to writing fiction. I read Homecoming first. The relationship descriptions were so on point. ‘There was some Peter Pan syndrome to explain why she was here, lurking in the back of the library at just after midnight.” The story was real. There were the good things and a little grunge on the edges. The entire piece was about familiarity and comfort.

Camille was great in a different way. I left it with this picture of Camille through the eyes of another. I imagined a petite woman possessed with unbelievable strength. The true description of a character should be by someone that loves this person.  A couple of lines stuck with me. “She reached out with one of her tiny hands and brushed his hair out of his face, and she smiled as she poked some of the freckles littering his cheek. He grabbed her wrist and kissed her thumb.” That last line felt especially real to me. I suspect that originated from an actual experience. This story had a fierceness to it, paired beautifully with reverence.

The last one was Slush. It felt a little angry, frustrated, and wrapped up in itself, but isn’t that the way some relationships go. The two people are stuck between the end of psychological intimacy and the end of everything. The entire thing was evocative and filled with emotion. Your use of simile was superb. “Anger keeps them tangled like the links of a snagged chain. She knows eventually something will give and let them swing free with stunning ease but that day has not come yet.” I have yet to crack that.

A prerequisite to creative writing is going to different places and seeing ordinary, more importantly, relatable things. Having those physical experiences also helps. Consider those the raw materials for simile. Instead of loosely associating like with brainstorming, jump through ideas with an over-arching similarity. I can do that in social interaction but not yet in writing. Asking what could be a simile for things I’ve written about and things I feel, might be exactly what I need.

The metaphors were educational. It’s the precursor to the things that wowed me in that creative non-fiction piece mentioned earlier. “They used to love each other. The memory is a splinter driven too deep in her palm to dig out with tweezers: a dull and irritating hurt, worsened by the temptation to pick.”

Handy mnemonic device. A simile is like Red (Taylor Swift, Red). A metaphor is Clean (Taylor Swift, 1989).

Awesome writing. You are doing good things, not that anyone has to say it. Hopefully, everyone will see that soon. Keep fighting the good fight. Rock on!

Thank you for everything you’re doing.

Graham Kar AKA Girish Karthikeyan