Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tape Measure Tricks

Always remember: Everybody is good at something.

Link via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, December 28, 2009

If You Want To Be A Writer, You Must Write

In this post, Michael Hyatt said something I found interesting:
A study orchestrated by K. Anders Ericsson who looked at musical prodigies found the common denominator for mastery and success: 10,000 hours of practice. “The emerging picture from such studies,” says neurologist Daniel Levitin, “is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert--in anything.”
10,000 hours is 5 years' worth of full-time work, i.e. 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, with 2 weeks of vacation per year.

Thank freakin' goodness you don't need to be "a world class expert" in order to write a saleable book. Most of us can't write full time, never mind doing it for five years without seeing any financial return.

However, if you consider someone who is making a living with their writing, and who does do it full time, five years isn't very long--only five years to becomes "a world class expert". And really, I would agree someone who can make a living at writing for five years has valuable expertise they could share with others.

If you're serious about a writing career, you should probably be striving to become a "world class expert", but in order get there, you need to be saleable enough to get the luxury of time to practice writing for 10,000 hours.

How many hours did you write for today?

Every little bit counts and helps, so never beat yourself up over that number; just make sure you're making steady, daily progress. It's going to take some grit to get to 10,000 hours. Keep chipping away.

This is why the first rule of writing is "Butt in chair, hands on keyboard." If you want to be a writer, you must write.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, December 21, 2009

Meaty Mondays: The Need For Justice In Story Climaxes

In Jim Butcher's sadly-defunct-but-still-useful Livejournal, he has this post on story climaxes.

One of the things he notes is that a satisfying story climax includes poetic justice. The villain gets their comeuppance; the hero gets their reward.

This is interesting to me because I decided a while ago that one thing that typifies human beings is the concept of justice.

Think about the knee-jerk rage you feel when you see injustice. Almost nothing propels people to action faster than seeing someone hurt an innocent or destroy a public resource for their own selfish profit. This instinct is hard-wired into our brains, and human society would fall apart if it weren't. We're all programmed to fight for what's fair.

And because we humans are so sensitive to the idea of fairness, readers aren't satisfied with a book's climax unless all the main characters get justice, whether it be a punishment or a reward. Nothing nettles us worse than to see someone worthy overlooked or someone vile getting away with their crime. In the end, we want balanced scales.

In fact, arguably that's the reason why people get sucked into stories. The inciting incident is so often an injustice being perpetrated, and a great deal of the tension that keeps the reader hooked comes from their inner yearning to see that injustice made right.

When I saw the movie Sweeney Todd, the story delighted me. It was all so neat--as in tidy. Everyone who did evil got the perfect punishment for their crime; they didn't just die, they also lost whatever they had craved most.

If the title character's fate had been handled any less skillfully, however, it could have ruined the story. Sweeney Todd was driven to evil by his need for revenge--in other words, by his need for justice. If the climax had simply killed him off, I would have been dissatisfied, but I would have been even more unhappy if he had gotten away with murder unscathed.

In the end, Sweeney Todd gets both his comeuppance and his revenge. He is both punished and rewarded, and the story felt exactly right, because it was exactly fair--bloodthirsty and horrifying, but fair.

Sweeney Todd thus provides a warning to writers. If your hero does evil--even a small act--they should be punished for it. If your villain has goodness in them, they should be rewarded. Your audience is human, and that means they crave fairness. They aren't blindly cheering for your hero and hating your villain--they're looking for you to give them a solution that feels like justice.

If you don't give them that, you risk provoking a very primal and genuine anger in the reader that will poison their opinion of your book's strengths.


What do you think? Should serving poetic justice to your characters be a rule of fiction, or are there stories that work better when justice is not served? Real life isn't always fair, and there's a strong argument to be made that fiction should mirror life. At the same time, if you want your story to resonate with your audience, you need to care about what they will and will not stomach.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, December 14, 2009

Meaty Monday: The Road Map To a Plot

A plot can be anything; it can go anywhere and do everything imaginable to your characters.

That said, a good plot must accomplish certain things if it's to be satisfying to the reader. Thus, it is possible to outline a road map for a good plot, even though it's impossible to wrap a fence around all plot possibilities.

In this post, I'm going to talk about my understanding of what the road map is, but there are a thousand other ways to think about and describe it. This is just my opinion.

1) A satisfying plot is about change.

Your protagonist starts in one state. By the end of the book, they should exist in a different state. This can mean a changed world, a different mental state, or some combination of the two.

2) Every scene must contain a turning point.

First, the definition: a turning point is a moment of irreversible change.

For example, if Paula and Mike fight and break up, kiss and make up, and then repeat that cycle, it's not a plot. It's only a series of events. Both characters are experiencing change, but it's reversible change. Nothing stops them from going back to their initial state.

If Paula and Mike fight, and Paula blurts out, "I'm seeing someone else anyway,"--a revelation that hurts Mike deeply--that's an irreversible change. The couple might still find their way to a happy ending, but their relationship will never be the same. It is impossible for them to get back to their initial state.

Every turning point is a point of no return, although some of them are smaller in scale than others.

A variety of story events can act as a turning point. These can include (but are not limited to):
- A decision (Harry Potter decides to enter the Chamber of Secrets)
- An action (Julia passes Winston Smith a note that says, 'I love you.')
- A discovery (Soylent Green is made from human corpses)
- A revelation ("Luke, I am your father.")

I would argue turning points fall into two main categories:

Self-directed Turning Points

These are turning points the character creates, usually by acting or making a decision.

In the wake of a setback, your character must decide what to do, and their decision and/or action constitutes the story's next turning point.

Surprise Turning Points

These are turning points inflicted on a character by outside forces. They're often due to reality not matching up with the character's expectations.

Most of your character's setbacks will be Surprise Turning Points. Note that your protagonist's Surprise Turning Point is often also your antagonist's Self-directed Turning Point, i.e. the villain acts, and the hero is surprised (in a bad way.)

3) The story's inciting incident is the moment when the protagonist's life first swings out of balance.

The story truly starts at the moment when the protagonist feels compelled to try to fix a problem. The problem is usually their own, but it can be someone else's if the protagonist is a person committed to helping others.

The protagonist's goal, initially, is usually to bring their (or the victim's) life back into balance. As the story progresses, the goal can become larger, more complex, or alter completely, but at the beginning, the character simply resists change and tries to get things back to normal.

4) A character acts (creates a Self-directed Turning Point) in hope of achieving their goal.

Within your character's mind, their decision/action makes perfect sense as a way to get to their goal. Your character may be honestly deluded, or may be in for a nasty shock, but Self-directed Turning Points need seem logical to the character creating them.

5) A story consists of a series of turning points that move your character irreversibly from their initial state to their final state.

Your scenes will seem like random events unless they progressively step the character toward a different state of being.

Even in stories whose plots are externally driven, your characters must undergo personal growth. Here's why:

When your character suffers a setback, they must make a decision or take an action (i.e. they must create a Self-directed Turning Point.)

These decisions should increase in magnitude, risk and cost. This is because stories are about change, and every time your character gets smacked with another irreversible turning point, that experience changes their world and hence the character themself.

And they learn from it. A story with no personal growth arc doesn't feel believable, because if the character already had all the skills they needed to succeed, why did it take them 300 pages to do it?

Your character may become braver, or more cruel, or absorb the lesson taught by their last bitter experience, but they must incrementally become a slightly different person. Every scene--every turning point--forces them into it.

How many scenes should a story contain? As many as it takes to move your character from their initial state to their final state. This involves both completing their personal growth arc and changing their world in order to bring back balance.

6) The most satisfying Surprise Turning Points are the ones the reader doesn't see coming either.

Surprise Turning Points shock your character. If they shock the reader too, you've created a worthy and memorable plot.

Note: You can end your story with either a successful Self-directed Turning Point or a fortunate Surprise Turning Point. The latter case is the trickiest, as you must be careful not to create a deus ex machina ending, but it also holds the most potential in regard to point (6), above.

When ending on a successful Self-directed Turning Point, your character acts--and they finally put enough personal grit into their action to achieve success.

When ending on a fortunate Surprise Turning Point, however, your character acts with the expectation of pain, loss or failure, but for once, events conspire to surprise them with success.

To avoid the deus ex machina ending, you need to adequately foreshadow that those surprise events could logically happen.

However, to make this type of ending effective, the events must surprise the reader as much as they surprise the character--you need to adequately foreshadow the shocking turn of events, but you also want your reader to realize that the signposts were there only in hindsight.


This post is already wicked-long, so I may as well append an example of how to create a plot using this road map. I'm pretty much pulling this out of my butt the air.

All the Surprise Turning Points (setbacks) in this example consist of reality turning out to not be what the protagonist expected it to be.
I'll use the following abbreviations:

Self-TP = Self-directed Turning Point
Surprise-TP = Surprise Turning Point
Self-TP 1) Bob is happy. He plans to ask his girlfriend Wanda to marry him. He expects her to say yes.
Surprise-TP 1) Wanda doesn't say yes, because...
- Why doesn't she? The best answer is the one the reader doesn't expect either, so avoid the obvious answers like lack of love or the presence of a rival.
...she has decided to go to Africa for a year to build water wells. (Note: This is the story's inciting incident; Bob's life has just swung out of balance.)

Self-TP 2) Bob has a goal: he wants to keep Wanda. He decides to dig within himself for the courage to tell her how much he loves her and wants her to stay. He expects her to change her mind.
Surprise-TP 2) Wanda doesn't change her mind because she gets angry. She says this is why she needs to leave; she doesn't want to live a complacent life where she is concerned only with her own happiness, and she knows living with Bob would lull her into it. To fulfil her own goals, Wanda breaks up with Bob entirely. (Note: Bob's Surprise Turning Point is Wanda's Self-directed Turning Point.)

Self-TP 3) Bob sacrifices his current life to go to Africa and convince Wanda he can live generously also. Note his commitment is still essentially selfish. His expectation is Wanda will take him back.
Surprise-TP 3) When he arrives, Bob discovers he's been sent to a different village than the one Wanda went to. He doesn't know where Wanda is at all.


This progression of Expectation/Surprise continues until Bob completes his personal growth arc. As each Surprise Turning Point clobbers him, he is forced to dig deeper within himself to overcome his obstacles, but the act of digging changes both his character and the nature of his goal, until...


Self-TP Last) Faced with either meeting up with Wanda again or helping the villagers he has come to care for save their livestock from a sudden flood, Bob chooses to stay and help. He expects to lose Wanda forever.
Surprise-TP Last) Wanda hears of sudden flood in a neighbouring village and blows off her meeting with Bob to go help. When she discovers Bob did the same thing, she realizes he is now the kind of man she wants to be with.

At this point, the couple can have their happy ending, but note they have not ended in the same state they started in. They may be together again, but they have both changed, and the life they'll build with each another will be very different than the one they would have had if Wanda had accepted Bob's original marriage proposal.

And this works, because stories aren't about events working out neatly; they're about meaningful change.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blogging Haitus

Jen's Early New Year's Resolution: Lay off the frickin' internet, particularly during this season of festive visitations and merry socialization opportunities.

In other words, I'm going to take a blogging holiday for the remainder of December. Meaty Mondays posts are canned and waiting for you in the fridge queue. I shall be back in January (because there's no way I'll keep my paws off the computer once I'm back at work.) Everyone play nice in the comments!

And if you see me skulking about, despite my best intentions, try not to razz me too hard.

Or then again, razz me super-hard so I go back to behaving. Your call.

Happy holidays to all of you, and I wish you peace, love, health and merriment, and a fantastic next year!

PS to Koalas, Dire and Feared: I'll be outlining the next WIP on paper, but resisting the urge to login and post my progress, since I haven't the willpower to keep my paws off the internet once I'm technically on it.

Consider me on post-WIP vacation, although I will still be working. Honest! Goblin's honour!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Light and Comfy: Ideal For Today's Arm-Chair Warrior

Chain mail made from the tabs off beer cans.

Oddly awesome and oddly dorky, all at the same time.

Link and image via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, December 07, 2009

Meaty Monday: SiWC 2009; Scenes That Can't Be Cut, by Donald Maass

This is the last of my posts for SiWC 2009! I hope they were useful to you.
On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Scenes That Can't Be Cut, by Donald Maass
This was a genuine workshop in that Mr. Maass would give us an exercise, then prompt the audience to spend a few minutes scribbling. This post summarizes the exercises and outlines the extra advice given. If you want the whole story, pick up Mr. Maass' new book on writing, The Fire In Fiction.
Workshop begins:

Middles are so often where a book falls down. How do you make every scene riveting?

Turning Points

Scenes that tend to fall flat are often travel scenes, aftermath scenes, and interrogation scenes (in crime fiction.)

In your scene, identify the turning point, which is the moment when things change. This can be a moment of recognition, discovery, or awareness. The scene can't exist without this turning point, so let's consider whether we could be doing more with it.
Exercise 1A: Start at the turning point, and imagine going backward in time with your protagonist by ten minutes.

Ask your protagonist: Who are you right now? How do you see yourself? Where are you in your journey?

Exercise 1B: Now imagine going forward in time with your protagonist to the point ten minutes after the turning point.

Ask your protagonist the same questions.

This change is the inner turning point that accompanies the scene's external turning point. This gives the scene gravitas.


The following three exercises should help you increase the impact of your dialogue in the scene.
Exercise 2: Re-write your scene's dialogue as an exchange of insults between the characters. Have them say what they need to say, but confrontationally. Strip out all the attributes and description in your scene. Just include dialogue.

Audience question: What if one character is comforting the other?
DM: Have one person be impatient with the other.
Writing the scene as an exchange of insults helps you increase the level of conflict in your scene.
Exercise 3: Now rewrite what you have as rat-a-tat dialogue. It's okay if that means you need to add more lines, but keep the dialogue snapping out in short, taut sentences.

Writing the scene as rat-a-tat dialogue helps you streamline and get rid of extra words. It lets your dialogue do more work. The extras are what we write when we aren't sure what the characters will say next. That waffle should be removed when you edit.
Exercise 4: Now try re-writing the scene in such a way that one person speaks once, briefly, and the other person replies only non-verbally.

Writing the scene this way helps you 'show, don't tell'.
Exercise 5: Consider your character's goal--what do they want, need, need to learn, need to avoid, etc? Are they going to get their goal in this scene?

If they will, write three indicators that suggest the character won't.
If they won't, write three indicators that suggest the character will.

The reason for doing this is we want to contradict what the reader is anticipating. The reason why? It's dramatic.
Exercise 6: Write three details of the setting, but choose oblique things--things that are unusual or unexpected, things you'd notice only if you took your time to really look.

E.g. The pattern the carpet suggests, the quality of the silence, a small detail of appearance, the changing light.

The reason for doing this is small, interesting details will help the reader imagine the scene much more vividly than lots of description of mundane items.
Exercise 7: Write a new last line for the scene. What's the lasting image that you're leaving with the reader?

Write a new first line for the scene, with one rule: It can't address the character's arrival. Look for something intriguing, puzzling, wrong, unusual, disturbing or unexpected to focus on.

The reason for doing this is that the first and last lines of a scene are important tools for propelling the reader along. You should work as hard on the first and last lines of your scenes as you do on the first line of the entire manuscript (and we all know how important that is.)

You've now finished the exercises. Re-write your scene as you would like it to appear, but draw upon the best of what you've created here. Is the scene better? Tighter? Is there more tension? Is your dialogue doing more work? Are you getting more oomph out of your turning point?

Workshop ends.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Saturday, December 05, 2009

In Which Paris Hilton Is Deemed Wise

My favourite blogging literary agent, Janet Reid, has a very good post today about how an author's online self-marketing can lead to sales.
10 Things Crime Writers Can Learn From Paris Hilton
Don't let the title of the link scare you; Ms. Reid is referring to a funny post, also worth reading, on Do Some Damage (a crime writers' blog) wherein Brad Parks explains the wisdom of Paris Hilton (which, of course, would require translation.)
Faces Of the Divas
Here are my favourite bits from the latter article:
1. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: People need to believe your life is better than theirs.”

Out of the mouth of a babe comes great wisdom. Is there anything worse than hearing some mid-list author gripe about how their publisher isn’t doing enough to “push” their latest book? Let’s face it: For however far down on the list we are, there are still about a million people out there who would gladly swap places with us. We should act accordingly.

2. “Never have only one cell phone when you can have many. Lose one all the time. That way, if you haven’t called someone back, you can blame it on the lost phone.”

Now, I don’t care what line of work you’re in. That’s just good advice.

9. “Dance with no self-consciousness. You only live once.”

Substitute “type” for “dance” and you have some of the best writing advice ever given.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, December 04, 2009

So How Do We Explain the Inanity Of That "I'm Blue" Song?

Here's an intelligent article delving a little into the science of how mood affects your writing.

The punchline? A slightly negative mood leads to more careful and persuasive writing.

Is a Happy Writer a Lousy Writer?

Link via Nathan Bransford.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Want. These.

Image via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Neutra Face: An Ode On a Typeface

This is a funny and very well-put-together parody of Lady Gaga's Poker Face.

Link thanks to K. C. Dyer's Twitter, found via Sandi Olson.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Cool, but very weird.

Turn your sound off; someone swears rather loudly in this video, but the visuals are worth it.

This is from a beard-growing competition.

Link via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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