Posts Tagged ‘novel writing’

Two Sticks of Story Dynamite for Novelists and Short Story Writers

USED TO BE, I’D FIND GREAT STORY IDEAS in the newspaper that got tossed at my door each morning. Recently, though, I haven’t even had to get out of bed to gather inspirational goodness. That’s because a couple of bloggers have been delivering fresh literary fodder to my inbox on the regular. Here are two such ideas. Either could blast a humdrum story out of its complacency!

1) Inventing narratives

Hip biz guru Seth Godin wrote recently about inventing narratives. He said, That story in your head? It’s invented. It has to be. It might be based on some things that actually happened…. But it can’t possibly be a complete and detailed understanding of everything.

Seth sees this creative interpretation as problematic. That’s because Seth is not a novelist! Novelists are probably especially prone to inventing narratives—and probably particularly good at it! They might tell stories about everyday occurrences, family history, or the big issues life flings at us. For instance, a novelist could make up a story to explain the behavior of someone who snatched a parking spot from her, the reasons her parents favor her sister, or why one person got a terrifying diagnosis but she did not.

Which is actually pretty awesome! (Maybe not in real life—but in our literary lives, for sure.) That’s because it’s a short trip from misinterpreting a situation to taking misguided action on it—which, in fiction, can lead to exactly the sort of trouble needed to drive our story full speed ahead!

Got a dead spot in your plot? A place where not enough is happening? Play with this idea:

  • Your main character misunderstands another person’s motivations—believing them to be acting out of malice, when that is far from the truth!
  • Even worse, your MC takes vindictive action in response to the story she’s concocted.
  • What bad stuff comes tumbling down the hill to complicate her life as a result?
  • How the heck is she going to dig herself out of this mess?

2) Alter egos

Clever tarot writer Kate at DailyTarotGirl.com has been promoting the subversive advice of her “evil twin,” Veronica, for years. As I pondered a fresh approach to complicating a story I was working on, I thought about Veronica and realized the damage an alter ego could do to a plot!

Just imagine it! What if your main character had an alter ego? A persona she allowed to say, eat, or do whatever her daily persona was constrained against? That alternative personality might be braver, stronger, or kinder than she is in her regular guise. Or that other personality might be sneaky and underhanded. Or, if you’re writing a thriller, she might even be murderous!

And that’s just a start! What kinds of literary trouble might such a character generate? The possibilities seem endless—and fascinatingly, conflict-inducing-ly, complicatedly fraught!

So, that’s it for this week. Now, go forth and blow up your plot with these or any other trouble-inducing ideas. Just light the fuse and stick your fingers in your ears. After it gets over the shock, your story will thank you for it!

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of the Moon card from the EVERYDAY WITCH TAROT

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Giving the Wrong Character the Benefit of a Doubt: A Novel-Writing Tip

IN REAL LIFE, IT’S GREAT TO GIVE SOMEONE THE BENEFIT OF A DOUBT. (For instance, while you know Janice might be hiding your pearl necklace somewhere in her room, because she’s your best friend, you’re willing to give her the benefit of a doubt and accept her claim that she hasn’t seen it since you wore it to Sarah’s wedding.) Giving people the benefit of a doubt allows them the chance for a do-over or to make amends. (You know, like sneak your pearl necklace back into your jewelry box while you’re not looking.) But unless they actually change their (bad) behavior, the amends are pretty much null, right?

I think we’ve all met that person. Heck, we may have all been that person! Sometimes, a habitual way of being—however detrimental to self or others—simply overrides the impulse to change. In that case, no matter how many benefits of a doubt they receive, some folks aren’t going to head down a better path anytime soon.

This is tough when it applies to someone close to us—in real life. But what if the recalcitrant person is a character in your novel? Well, then! You either have an excellent, if weasel-y, antagonist. Or you might have a deeply flawed protagonist. In either case, you’re in possession of literary trouble of the most excellent kind!

So what could that benefit of a doubt look like?

  • allowing for the possibility that she didn’t really shove that boy from the monkey bars—maybe she was just reaching out to grab the kid when he fell
  • allowing for the possibility that his hitting her was a one-time occurrence
  • allowing for the possibility that the circumstantial evidence tying her to the murder is just that: purely circumstantial
  • allowing for the possibility that he really didn’t know the gun was loaded
  • that he really, truly, honestly didn’t know that the “gift” constituted a bribe

Pick one of these—or any of the myriad other benefit-of-a-doubt-eliciting situations that would give a character one more chance to “slip out the back, Jack”—and you’ll find yourself tumbling into a veritable rat’s-nest of plot development.

You see, giving the wrong character the benefit of a doubt can ratchet up your story to such a level that your beneficent protagonist will be forced take a stand. On the other hand, if it’s your flawed protagonist who has been handed one benefit-of-a-doubt too many—received yet another several-thousand-dollar loan from her parents; gotten a pass from his boss when yet another co-worker has filed a complaint about his sexist remarks; had the accusation about yet another nasty incident at the dog park waived—then it’s clear her story is going to back her into a stakes-filled corner and keep her there until she cries “uncle!” and makes a change.

What is simply unacceptable behavior in real life can prove invaluable in turning up the heat in your fictional world. So, go ahead. Give that questionable character the benefit of a doubt and let the good (story-telling) times roll.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Swords from the ANNA.K TAROT.

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5 Fabulous Tips for Plotting Your Novel

PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL CAN BE CONFUSING. If you don’t have a guidance system to help you navigate, you might find yourself asking questions like these: Where do I start my story for greatest impact? What events will force my main character to undergo the change they so desperately need to make? How do I construct stakes that are high enough to keep my main character engaged with their quest all the way to the end?

If you, like me, need some help to deal effectively with these and other pressing plot questions, read on. I’ve compiled a short list of tips, approaches, and resources that demonstrate ways to successfully traverse the rough terrain you and your main character must travel to create a compelling tale.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #1: Explore a myriad of plotting methods.

Fortunately, for those of us who are writing novels, novellas, short stories, screenplays, or memoirs—basically, anything that tells a story and develops a character arc—many writers have gone before us and have generously blazed a trail through the wild woods of plot for us to follow.

So which of these many plotting methods is the best? I think that depends on your learning style.

When I immersed myself in the mysteries of plot, I read book after book on the subject. But I always felt I was missing something. Then Joyce Sweeney and I started developing the plot clock—and everything fell into place! The plot clock’s approach made perfect sense to me. Suddenly, I saw how exactly how plot can create a character arc—and what steps to take to make that happen.

For years, Joyce and I taught the plot clock at workshops, writing conferences, and to our clients one-on-one (which I still do).

But now, we’ve also written the book! As you’re browsing Amazon looking for good books on plot, check out our PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK. It’s short—just seventy pages! And yet it explains how to accomplish the two most important tasks you face when writing a novel or memoir: 1) relating a dynamic set of story events and 2) making your character changes in response to those events.

Of course, as I said, this is just the method that works best for my brain. You might love any one of a number of other more linear takes on plot, like SAVE THE CAT  WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody. Or you might enjoy diving really deep in story theory with a book like THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler.

This choice is personal. Take the time to find what plotting approach works best for you—even if you have to experiment with several styles to do so. It will be worth it. Because once you find what fits, that method will be your trusted guide through the rest of your story-writing journey.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #2: Start with the basics.

Here are five quick, handy reference points to help you think about how to get your story started and where you’re going to take it. Considering your plot in these simple terms allows you to see if your basic idea has enough oomph to carry the story to the finish line.

Once upon a time there was … (Describe your main character.)

Every day … (This is a glimpse at your main character’s “ordinary world,” before the inciting incident changes their life.)

One day … (Aha! Inciting incident!!)

Because of that … (Here, we see how the main character responds to the inciting incident—and we establish stakes [see Fabulous Novel-Plotting Tip #5, below] that propel them forward into the main events of their story.)

Until finally … (This actually takes you past most of what happens after your character commits to their story—their trials and challenges; their low point; their lessons learned—and brings them to the climax, the battle to end all battles, the inevitable high point of your tale!)

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #3: Let the three C’s catapult your plot.

Raindance, an independent film festival and film school that operates in major cities, including London, Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Budapest, Berlin and Brussels, offers up a helpful article on the “The Three C’s of Plot (and how they help you get through Act II).”

The “three C’s” of this approach are conflict, choice, and consequence. Having a handle on these major story drivers will assure that your plot has the traction it needs to keep readers deeply engaged.

Further, in the above-mentioned article, writer Jurgen Wolff says, “{While] you can use these [the three C’s] to develop your main plot … they are equally useful in constructing the smaller components of your story-–the individual scenes. This is especially true in helping you construct the hardest part of any story, the middle, or Act II.”

Learn about this concept at the Raindance site.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #4: “Yes, and …”

This improv acting tenet offers an easy-peasy way to allow your character to engage dynamically with the events of their plot. Every time the plot makes your character an “offer,” be sure she “accepts” that offer (says “Yes” to it), and then adds to the situation (or, better still, complicates it!) by adding an “and …”

For example, let’s say your character is walking down a crowded street and notices someone running from a store, having just robbed it. In improv, we’d call this an “offer.” In other words, the story has brought something to your character’s attention that she can act upon. Taking action in response to the “offer” is your character’s way of saying “Yes, and …”

Rather than allowing your character to just ignore the commotion—which can slow the story and make plotting more difficult—consistently require she make a “Yes, and” response to whatever happens in her story. In this case, she might give chase (the “Yes” being her acknowledgement of the thief escaping and the “and,” her taking off after the person). Alternatively, she could rush into the store to try to help anyone who was injured in the incident—or she could rush into the store to take advantage of the confusion and steal something herself!

In any one of these examples, your character’s active response to a situation raised by the story allows more and increasingly complex interactions with other characters to unfold. These interactions will drive her character arc and her plot forward.

This technique is particularly useful when you’re writing your first draft, as it keeps you from stalling out in the shallow waters of character ennui and unwillingness. Once you’ve “Yes, and-ed” your way through the entire plot, you can always revise to rein in or eliminate any excessive reactions on the part of your main character.

To learn more about improv and how “Yes-and” creates lively story-telling and a lively life, I suggest YES, AND: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration—Lessons from The Second City.

To learn more about how to apply this improv precept to life off the stage, take a look at this MEDIUM article titled “Saying ‘Yes, and’—A principle for improv, business and life” by Mary Elisabeth.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #5: Create compelling stakes.

Stakes. They’re what gets your character off her duff and involved with a plot that, let’s face it, is likely to end up being a pain in her butt!

According to the Institute for Literature, “One of the most important questions to consider when developing a story is ‘What is going to be at stake for my main character?’ By this, we mean, ‘What is the cost of quitting?'”

These are great questions!

If your character can quit the demands of your plot with few or no consequences, you’re likely to lose your reader early on. You see, we readers like to see a character struggle with conflict. It helps us understand better how to do so in our own lives!

So, how do you make sure you’re getting your character into a situation that has sink-or-swim urgency? Consider my four-question “stakes squared” approach.

Jamie’s Stakes Square: Your character is faced with a significant choice. You’ve backed her into a corner. She MUST say yes or no, not delay the decision—because her decision will set a significant plot point into motion! To establish the stakes inherent in the choice, ask yourself these four questions:

Question 1: What might your character GAIN if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 2: What might your character LOSE if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 3: What might your character GAIN if she says NO to the choice on offer?
Question 4: What might your character LOSE if she says NO to the choice on offer?

If you make sure that all of these potential outcomes create problems for your character—problems that are in proportion to the overall intensity of your story—you’ll be well on your way to creating plot-driving stakes that will hook a reader and not let them go!

(Be sure to consider how this stakes-setting technique impacts the perhaps-impulsive choices your character makes when you require that she say “Yes, and …” to everything the story offers her!)

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

Writing Young Adult Fiction? A YA Author Invites YOU to Connect!

I WANT TO INTRODUCE YOU TO SOMEONE! YA writer Alina Smith and I have worked together since November of 2017—three awesome years and counting!* In that time, I’ve seen this committed writer dig in and learn how to plot the heck out of a story … then dig even deeper to find truthful motivations for her characters. Those motivations, in turn, lead to powerful arcs that give her stories real guts (and will deliver true satisfaction to her readers!).

I count myself lucky to be on Team Alina and am so happy to pass on her invitation to connect with you. So, without further ado, I give you Ms. Alina Smith!

What’s up guys! I’m Alina. Although I have a pretty sweet day job—I’m a songwriter and producer in a music team LYRE, which has worked with artists and bands across genres, from Fall Out Boy to K-pop girl group Red Velvet-–over the past few years, I’ve gotten excited about writing stories. Particularly futuristic YA stories with chilling twists on current technology: think BLACK MIRROR populated by hormonal teenagers.

I started writing my first YA novel three years ago and got about two-thirds of the way in before being pulled into a new direction, one which merges my music career and my literary passion. You see, in the last few years, LYRE has become known for working with digital creators: influencers with millions of followers across all social media platforms. As my music partner, Elli, and I wrote songs with these YouTube and Instagram stars, I felt myself getting immersed in their world: a world where your worth depends solely on the numbers of likes and followers on your socials. It got me thinking: What if this world was exacerbated further? What if the numbers on your socials meant life or death? That’s how the idea for my latest book was born. It’s called “Influencer.”

As I’ve been writing “Influencer” (one-and-a-half years and counting!), I’ve done plenty of Google searches. I’ve checked out writers’ blogs, advice columns, and YouTube channels. It’s been fun watching published authors share bits and pieces of their journeys. But it got me wondering: Are there any not-yet-published writers sharing their process with the world? Their aha! moments and their blocks, their triumphs and fails, their I-just-finished-this-act underwear dances, and the moments when they just wanna throw their laptop through the wall? I poked around, but there didn’t seem to be much: no hungry new writers diving into their process and allowing others to snorkel beside them.

That’s when it hit me: I should share my own writing process! My struggles with beat sheets, my ever-evolving characters, what it’s like to find time for writing alongside another creative career—and all the other myriad aspects of the novel-writing process that I find fascinating. Whether I become a hit author or end up throwing my story in the trash and setting it on fire, I want to highlight what it’s like to be a first-time novelist. And I hope to connect with anyone else who’s going through the same thing.

So, please join me on this fun (and slightly terrifying journey) on my YouTube channel: Alina Writes a Book.

And if you’re writing YA fiction, too? Please, drop me a line on Instagram or Twitter. I’d love to hear about your story and your journey creating it!

Writing coach

* Alina’s loving our collaboration, too! She recently wrote, Jamie is such a fantastic coach! Her approach is very intuitive. No matter what I’m working on, from plotting to character development, she always has an intelligent, unique perspective. If you’d like to take your writing to another level, I strongly recommend Jamie!

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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An Author Shares Three Tips for Plotting Your Novel (with Tarot!)

TERI ANPOWI SAVELIFF AND I WERE TAROT FRIENDS before we were writer friends. Many’s the evening we’ve spent on the phone throwing cards for one another or sharing images from our newest decks. Then I read her charming NaNoWriMo-inspired novel, SIGNATURES, and was delighted to learn we had a whole other dimension of commonality to explore!

In this post, Teri draws from both our shared worlds, offering three ways to use tarot—a system of evocative visual images—to develop your novel.

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Before I published my first novel, SIGNATURES, the main characters and the bookshop where they worked had been inhabiting my head for decades. But characters, and even settings, have lives of their own, and they may insist on telling their story in ways you might not anticipate. As an avid student of tarot, I knew the cards would play a role in my novel. And I was right. Once tough-talking, tattooed Paloma—complete with her tarot deck—strolled into the bookshop and insisted on joining my cast of characters, she and her cards played a very large part in my novel, indeed.

In the past, I’ve often used the images, symbolism, and divinatory meanings of tarot cards to illustrate a point or move a plot along. In SIGNATURES, however, I didn’t merely toss the appropriate card into the story at the right time—I conducted actual readings for my characters. If you have some experience with tarot, I highly recommend this strategy when you need additional backstory for a character, want to test a character’s mettle, or want to explore secondary themes in your novel.

You don’t need to be a tarot expert to find the cards useful, however! Here are three different ways you can use a deck of tarot cards to explore your novel.

1. Know a smidge about tarot? Conduct a tarot reading as part of a scene.

One late addition to my cast of characters was Hanz Lippman, an author clinging to past achievements. He enjoyed holding court in the bookshop and flirting with coeds studying his book in their literature classes. I didn’t anticipate developing his character, further, though, until Paloma conducted a reading for him:

“Don’t draw more than one card,” commanded Hanz. “I don’t think I could stand any more than that.”

Paloma made a face and drew a solitary card. It depicted a young man, a small dog nipping at his heels. The man was perilously close to the edge of a cliff, but seemed unconcerned.

“The Fool,” said Paloma. “You seem to be at the beginning of a journey or undertaking.”

“Ha!” crowed Hanz. “I knew these cards were nonsensical bullshit. Tell me, dear, what sort of journey am I beginning? What project am I undertaking?”

“Well, this is usually why my client and I work together,” Paloma answered irritably. “I’ve told you, I’m not a fortuneteller. I would also draw a few more cards to answer the question. One card doesn’t always say enough.”

“My sweet little dove,” Hanz said with a smile, “I am far too old to be a fool, at the beginning of a journey or otherwise. You should have drawn an old man … a man without even a dog to accompany him on his travels.”

“The Fool can also represent someone at the beginning of a spiritual journey … or an emotional journey,” Paloma added.

“None of this resonates at all,” Hanz insisted stubbornly. He turned the card face down and slid it back toward Paloma.

“Of course, you could also be getting ready to walk right off the cliff,” Paloma retorted. “Not looking where you’re going, too confident in yourself. The good news is, the fall won’t be fatal.”

“Good news for whom?” teased Hanz. “I have a feeling you wouldn’t mind if I broke a bone or two.”

Paloma smiled noncommittally and gathered the cards into a single stack.

This reading added some depth to Hanz’s character and inspired me to create for him a much bigger role in my novel.

2. Not a tarot reader? Just one image can add intrigue or foreshadowing

Even a single card can add dimension or reinforce a theme in your story. The card may appear very straightforward, such as the card of Justice, usually depicting a blindfolded woman with a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other, or The Tower, often shown with lightning striking its peak and people falling from its windows.

In the case of this little scene, Maggie, the main character in SIGNATURES, draws her own card out of curiosity, and that card adds a bit of foreshadowing.

[Maggie] spied Paloma’s tarot deck sitting on the low round table not far from the window. On an impulse, she shuffled the cards and then drew one from the deck. She had to laugh. “The Lovers,” she smirked.

It so happens that Maggie pulled this card just before she goes on a date!

3. Don’t know the first thing about tarot cards? Tarot is character-centric! Let the figure on a card suggest an attitude or trait for one of your less-developed characters. (P.S. The internet abounds with pictures of tarot archetypes. Just Google “tarot cards” for a free treasure trove of inspiring images!)

You don’t need any experience with the cards to put them to work as a literary aid! Since tarot’s visual language can be said to be universal, even the most random tarot draw can spark fresh ideas. For instance, If you are looking to add a character to your story, or describe a character you haven’t fleshed out, you could draw a card to give your character a face.

One of my favorite decks, the GAIAN TAROT, depicts people from numerous ethnic backgrounds and cultures. When I was looking for a bit more information about the character of Paloma after she barged unexpectedly into my book, the GAIAN Seven of Fire suggested her multiple tattoos and air of independence.

Whether you utilize a few captivating illustrations on the internet, purchase an intriguing deck of your own, or become a full-blown tarot enthusiast like me, tarot can enrich and add dimension to your writing endeavors. Above all, have fun exploring a new tool!

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WRITING (AND TAROT) INSPIRATION

There are literally thousands of tarot decks to choose from. You might visit Amazon and search “tarot decks,” to get you started. However, the AECLECTIC TAROT site might be a better place to start. AECLECTIC offers decks categorized by art style, as well as sample images of all decks and even reviews of many decks.

Corinne Kenner’s TAROT FOR WRITERS offers many approaches to applying tarot imagery and meaning to enhance your creative writing project.

You’ll also find dozens of tarot-based writing prompts on this website. Just search “tarot,” using the magnifying-glass icon you’ll find in the top right hand corner of every page.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of The Fool, from the RIDER-WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.

Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of The Lovers from the LLEWELLYN TAROT.

Thank you to Joanna Powell Colbert for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Fire, from her GAIAN TAROT). 

And special thanks to Teri AnpoWi Saveliff for her generous sharing of a few of her tarot-centric novel-writing tips and tricks!

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If the Queen of Wands Were Your Writing Coach: Some Tarot-Headed Writing Advice

IF TAROT’S QUEEN OF WANDS WERE YOUR WRITING COACH, she would be your enthusiastic champion, your star-spangled cheerleader! She’d laud your literary talent and encourage you to hold to your creative vision, even when others question it. You see, she believes your pen is your magic wand—that it brings to life the imaginative worlds that live inside you.

An independent sort herself, the Queen of Wands would advocate for your independence. She’s not a joiner, so she wouldn’t necessarily suggest you find yourself a critique group. But she’s a hard worker and would expect you to be one, too. In her no-nonsense style, she’d tell you dig in—and maybe hand you a bullet-point list like this one to show you exactly what she means:

  • Read widely in your genre—especially books that have been published in the last three years.
  • Check out blogs and YouTube videos that feature literary agents weighing in on what makes a book attractive to them and what doesn’t.
  • Take classes—online (Gotham Writers has a good reputation) or at your local community college, no matter. Just open your heart to how others approach the craft. Then, take what you like and leave the rest.
  • Create a writing schedule—and stick to it.
  • Finish a draft, then get a good reader to review it (you might hire a pro, ask the smartiest smarty pants in your book group to take a look, or trade for pet-sitting with a neighbor who talks regularly and intelligently about the books she reads).

And after you’ve done all that, the Queen would give you a high five, pat you on the back, and tell you, in her heartiest voice, to go back now and revise, revise, revise.

Writing inspiration

For some fired-up examples of literary Queens of Wands who dig in, check out Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and Amy Tan’s “Angst and the Second Book,” from her essay collection THE OPPOSITE OF FATE (which I quoted in a post on surviving the writer’s winter).

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Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the Queen of Wands from the PHANTASMAGORIC THEATER TAROT.

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!

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Dublin Murders: 2 Novels = 1 Screenplay = Discussion Among Friends, Re: Is the Book Always Better than the Movie?

JILL AND I MEET EVERY SUNDAY TO WALK, talk books and life, and watch something on TV. Lately, our book chat and viewing choice have coincided as we’ve watched—and discussed—DUBLIN MURDERS. This eight-episode series is based on two Tana French mysteries: IN THE WOODS and THE LIKENESS.

Both books have powerful, intricate plots. So we were interested to see that screenwriter Sarah Phelps’s television adaptation has dovetailed their plot lines—creating a single interwoven narrative of the two stand-alone mysteries.

The novels (spoiler alert!)

IN THE WOODS: When Detective Rob Ryan was a kid, he and two of his friends went into the woods near their home in Knocknaree, Ireland, to play—but only Rob came out, and he remembers nothing of what happened that day. Author French flings wide a door on the possibility that the mysterious disappearance of the two other children had a supernatural cause. Certainly, the incident continues to haunt Rob twenty years later, its long shadow creating an enticingly spooky atmosphere for the present investigation, the murder of young Katy Devlin, whose body was found in those same woods.

Rob and his partner, Detective Cassie Maddox, are assigned the case, giving Rob the opportunity to reopen inquiries into the still-unsolved disappearance of his childhood friends. But what only Cassie knows is that Rob—who was once called Adam Ryan—is the same kid who emerged, alone, physically unharmed but profoundly disturbed, from the Knocknaree woods in 1984.

Having hidden his identity for twenty years, Rob is confident no one will associate him with young Adam. This identity sleight of hand is important because, if anyone besides Cassie knew who he was, Rob would be thrown off the case—and now that he’s back in the woods, Rob is not going to rest until he finds out what happened to his friends, and to Katy Devlin, and whether the tragedies are connected.

THE LIKENESS: French’s second novel, THE LIKENESS, picks up some months after IN THE WOODS ends. Although Rob is mentioned here, he is no longer a relevant character; it’s Cassie’s story entirely. While an unlikely coincidence pulls the trigger on this story, there is no hint of the uncanny in the book—only a healthy dose of psychological drama. Hoping to tease out her doppelgänger’s killer, it is Cassie, now undercover for “Operation Mirror,” who is playing cat and mouse with her identity.

The screenplay (spoiler alert!)

DUBLIN MURDERS: As I mentioned, for the TV production, the plots from these two novels have been twisted together to make a single story. This has been accomplished in several ways. Among them is the anticipated construction of a roadway, which originally threatened just the titular forest of IN THE WOODS, but now also touches the manor house at the center of the action in THE LIKENESS.

Also, in the DUBLIN MURDERS script, the plot from THE LIKENESS has been twisted to create a follow-up to a tragic childhood accident for Cassie—one that’s scarred her psyche every bit as much as Rob’s mysterious experience in the woods has scarred his. But while in the original telling of IN THE WOODS Rob’s backstory is as deeply entwined with the current-day tale as the vines winding among the trees of the Knocknaree woods, neither IN THE WOODS nor THE LIKENESS includes much of Cassie’s backstory at all. From them, we discover little about her that predates her time as an undercover officer, just prior to her partnership with Rob on the Dublin Murder Squad.

But, like author French does with the disappearance of Rob’s young friends, screenwriter Phelps imbues the tragedy in Cassie’s childhood with more than a hint of the supernatural—developing both a parallel to Rob’s mysterious backstory and giving the heretofore no-nonsense Cassie as tangled a personality as Rob’s by doing so.

With this addition, Phelps inflates an issue of identity confusion that’s at the foundation of THE LIKENESS’S murder investigation. In the TV version, when Rob’s and Cassie’s stories diverge, and Cassie leaves Rob alone with the investigation of the Knocknaree murder to go undercover on Operation Mirror, that now-sensationalized thread colors Cassie’s experiences, quite lividly.

Sensational? Or sensationalized?

Jill and I agree that DUBLIN MURDERS is a dynamic, suspenseful—often pulse-raising—adaptation. It was exciting to find ourselves in the midst of unfamiliar narrative territory, rather than just watching a stylish retelling of books we know so well. But for me, this retelling feels over-hyped, relying as it does on Cassie’s manufactured—gratuitous—response to an early tragedy. (In this opinion, Jill and I are not in absolute agreement.)

As much as the series titillated me as a viewer, as a reader, I leave it feeling overstimulated, as if I’ve eaten an entire fluffy cone of hot-pink cotton candy and now there’s too much sugar racing through my brain. (I’m planning an early 2020 re-read of THE LIKENESS to settle myself back down!)

Books vs. movie adaptations

When I discussed my concerns about DUBLIN MURDERS with ghostwriter/freelance editor pal Tom Wallace, he said, Reading a book is more active, and watching a movie or TV show is more passive. Books demand you be engaged. You’re doing some work, making more of a contribution to the story. When you read fiction, you have to use your imagination, bring something to the characters, the setting. This develops more intellectual muscle [than watching films], the ability and inclination to invest real thought and imagination.

Tom also mentioned the compression of story common in movie adaptations, citing Michael Chabon’s novel WONDER BOYS for example, saying, Reading the book is a much richer experience. If you read the book first, when you’re watching the film, you get to spots where you think, “It’s thin right there,” because the screenwriter [Steve Kloves] has had to connect two important plot issues with a very thin line. They’re under a time constraint. Everything has to fit into 120 minutes. Because the screenwriter doesn’t have time to fully develop the threads between plot points, those spots can feel thin. But when you read Chabon, nothing feels thin; he doesn’t write anything he’s not going to write in a rich way.

(Interestingly, where Tom finds Chabon “rich,” Jill finds him dense and says she connected more to Kloves’s WONDER BOYS adaptation than to the novel.)

Episodic

I’m glad to say DUBLIN MURDERS doesn’t suffer from this sort of compression. Too often, though, while film adaptations may be true to the events of the book, they end up feeling episodic—quick-juxtaposing one important scene after the next. Although they may hit every plot point, as Tom says, they tend to do so without creating enough space, enough context for those points to unfold organically. Instead, transitions from beat to beat may feel abrupt, making for a fractured, staccato delivery of the story.

For example, six-part British mini-series WOLF HALL, based on Hilary Mantel’s stunning historical novels WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES (screenplay by Peter Straughan) and 2011’s JANE EYRE, based on Charlotte Brontë’s novel of the same name, exemplify this rapid-fire approach. In both cases, the movies rush through the intricate emotional landscapes evoked by the books, leaving me less than satisfied. Like Oliver Twist, watching them, I wanted to beg, Please sir, may I have some more?

(Jill, on the other hand, loves the 2011 version of JANE EYRE and credits screenwriter Moira Buffini with creating both a beautiful translation of the almost 200-year-old book and one that makes the story accessible to a contemporary audience. Also, while Jill did feel rushed by the WOLF HALL miniseries, the authority with which actor Mark Rylance brings to life historical figure Thomas Cromwell made watching WOLF HALL not only a worthwhile experience for her, but, she says, an awesome one!)

Back to Dublin

But let’s return to DUBLIN MURDERS, which, as I said, doesn’t suffer from Oliver Twist syndrome. Still, watching the show as a writer, editor, and lifelong reader, I found myself wondering about this adaptation business. For instance,

  • What does Tana French think of the screenplay? And other authors whose books have been rewritten for the screen? How do they feel about the adaptations of their work?
  • Does preparing a book for the screen necessitate significant tightening, tweaking, and manipulation? Is that simply a function of adaptation? Or is such treatment a reflection of our heightened, hyperbolic times?
  • How often are the often contrived screen versions of novels all that most people remember of the original books? And if they are, is that a loss of some kind? Or does it just preserve the work for our fast-paced world?

And the big question

  • Is the book always better than the movie?

I think it may be. And so does Tom. At least most of the time. And Rick Riordan, author of PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS, among many other books for younger readers, agrees. In a post on his site titled “Books to Movies, Riordan, who is famously unhappy with the adaptations made of two of his novels, writes,

…. very few books … are turned into decent movie versions … [T]he vast majority are dreadful adaptations…. Still, hope springs eternal…. despite the fact that I have never walked out of the cinema and said, “Wow, the movie was so much better than the book!”

Jill, though? She says, “If screenwriters are mining the story in a new way for the their medium, I’m all for that.” And she found a 2013 FLAVORWIRE article titled “10 Authors Who Loved the Film Adaptations of Their Books” to back up her contention that at least some authors are happy with how the movie version of their work turned out!)

But despite our differences of opinion, Jill and I are proving Riordan right in one thing: Regarding book-to-film adaptation, hope does seem to spring eternal—demonstrated in this case by the Jill’s and my mutual very high hopes for Greta Gerwig’s new version of Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN!

* * *

Thanks to writer friend Teri Anpowi Saveliff for sending me looking to Rick Riordan for his thoughts on film adaptations!

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Bet You Can Do Better Than IKEA! (A Very Useful Writing Prompt)

WRITING CAN LIFT US TO FLIGHTS OF FANCY or, like a draft mule, it can pull the plow of practicality from one end of the field to the other. Here, we explore the mule end of the spectrum, with what’s called a “process essay.”

The process essay (which you might remember from your Comp 1 class) offers step-by-step directions to guide a reader through a task. Sure, it’s more about treading the well-tilled field of communication than lifting off into the wild blue of fantasy. But it can be a playful form as well as an informative one—and it’s a good exercise in organizing your thoughts on the page. (Sound too boring to even consider? Look below for some reasons you might want to give it a try!*)

Writing prompt: the process essay (which, with some clever packaging, can double as a holiday gift, if you’re well and truly stuck!*)

Start by identifying a skill at which you excel. It could be something simple, like writing an Amazon review, driving a stick shift, or grooming a standard poodle. On the more complex end of the spectrum, you might know exactly how to prepare for an Ironman Triathalon, paint the exterior of a house on the National Register of Historic Places, or outline a novel!

This is the stuff of YouTube video tutorials … but you’re going to slow it down, writing out each step in a way that a reader can follow. (Think IKEA assembly instructions—only with words … and humanly possible.)

*Why write a process essay?

Since ’tis the season, you might include a process essay as part of gift! For example, you could write out your mulled cider recipe and package it with the ingredients needed to brew up a pot. Or you might wrap up a few dreidels, with instructions about how to play the classic Hanukkah game. Or, if you’re a killer door-wreath creator, along with the wreath you give, share the details of how you fancy up those bauble-laden bad boys!

If you blog or teach or coach, you might want to use this opportunity to create written instructions for something your students or readers would benefit from, then use those instructions in a blog post or lesson. (Handouts, anyone?)

And if you write fiction, writing a process essay can take you deep into your main character’s area of expertise. Our fictional folks have entire lives gliding beneath the surface of the stories we tell about them. Knowing your stuff about what they do and how they do it will add depth and authority to your literary worlds!

Finally, if you really, really, REALLY like doing this exercise, you might have a calling as a technical writer.

Writing inspiration

Want some step-by-step directions to writing your step-by-step process essay? Check out this article on the BEST ESSAY TIPS website.

Travel essays often include aspects of process writing. For instance, the writer might explain how to get to a location, how to stay safe once you’re there, how to find the best bargains, or how to discover the most exotic meals. Check out the 2019 edition of the annual THE BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING, edited by Jason Wilson and Alexandra Fuller for examples.

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Backstory: Writing from the Rear View Mirror

YOU KNOW HOW THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR? A backwards glance can offer us a new perspective on where we’ve been. Like a literary rear view mirror, backstory lets readers know where we—or our characters—have come from. In doing so, backstory can reveal a character’s motivation, which, in turn, may elicit sympathy for that character’s present, less-appealing actions or attitudes.

What is backstory?

A definition
Whether we’re writing memoir, fiction, or a piece of literary journalism, backstory gives context to the story being told. It comprises events—internal (an anxiety attack, for example) or external (loss of a child, for example)—which have occurred before the story starts and are relevant to the story being told.

For example
In a story about a dissolving marriage, the loss of the couple’s child would certainly be relevant. If the child died before we meet the couple, then the death and the characters’ subsequent emotions are backstory—relevant past events.

However
In a story about a woman wanting to break the World Land Speed Record, the loss of the main character’s best friend’s child would likely not be relevant to the unfolding of the main story thread.

How can we use backstory most effectively?

Wait, wait, don’t tell me!
Opinions (of course) vary about how soon is too soon to incorporate backstory. For instance, brilliant film-and-novel-writing guy Robert McKee of STORY fame says to avoid backstory completely for the first three chapters! He believes this gives readers a chance to attach to the forward-moving story, creating a reason for them to care about what’s come before.

Other quite successful writers, however, actually start with backstory. In fact, thriller writer Julie Compton and I created a backstory workshop based on her well-received novel RESCUING OLIVIA, which introduces a fairly lengthy backstory passage quite early in the book. (CLICK HERE to read a post that uses RESCUING OLIVIA’S opening for an example.)

It is typical, though, for writers to hit the ground running. They’ll often start a first chapter in media res (in the middle of the present action), and then, in chapter two, turn back to consider earlier events to give their opening context.

Just say no to the info dump!
An “info dump” is a big chunk of information—especially backstory—“dumped” onto the page all at once. Whether your dump truck delivers your backstory via dialogue, narration, or internal narrative, readers will have trouble processing, and thus, remembering, backstory given in too big a lump.

Breadcrumbs
Instead, think of backstory as breadcrumbs. Scatter small bits along the unfolding story path, informing your reader of what’s happened in the past on a need-to-know basis.

Ways and means committee
Among other techniques, you might deliver backstory via

  • flashback (a past experience given in scene—including sensory detail and a “real-time” unfolding of events)
  • dialogue (your characters simply discuss events that happened before the story started)
  • or as internal narrative (your character remembers events and considers them internally).

Light touch
No matter how you deliver it, though, use as light a hand with backstory as you can. Err on the side of less is more.

Novel-writing resources

Enough about me! What do other folks have to say about backstory?

I’ve already cited Robert McKee’s STORY, but it bears repeating—and reading.

Tom Farr of The Writing Cooperative has some good pointers in his “The Art of Revealing Backstory,” up on the TWC site.

You might also like this WRITER’S DIGEST article: “How to Weave Backstory Into Your Novel Seamlessly,” by Brian Klems

Finally, if you want to thumb your nose at my light-hand-with-backstory approach, here’s a super-successful memoir that shovels in about one full ton of backstory—in pretty large doses—and does so beautifully: WILD, by Cheryl Strayed.

***

Thanks to Caleb Whiting on Unsplash for Creative Commons photo.

Tarot Writing Prompt: Character Chess

AS CHESS PLAYERS KNOW, figuring out a strategy takes time. You need to contemplate all your options—and anticipate, as best you can, what will happen as a result of each.

In this way, the Two of Wands is a bit of a chess player. A successful merchant, he is sitting pretty in his villa by the sea, examining the opportunities available to him and evaluating their risks. Since he’s so comfortable, any move he makes must offer enough potential return to make gambling what he’s got worthwhile.

Will he? Make the move? Take the risk?

He doesn’t have to. After examining his alternatives, the Two of Wands could happily turn his back on the possibilities and just retire to his pleasant villa, where, no doubt, a wonderful breakfast has been spread for his enjoyment.

Which is why he’s not actually a chess player. An actual chess player doesn’t have a choice. She has to make her first move, and then another, and another—until checkmate (or stalemate) occurs. In professional chess, there’s even a timer to push the players along. But there’s no timer for the Two of Wands. No real urgency to make a move. Because of this, he’s only banked embers, only stored potential—unless he acts.

So, what will that delicious breakfast cost him? If he turns his back on his opportunities, he may simply never know.

Tarot writing prompt

Put your character in a hard-earned sweet spot. Her life is just right. Describe it. Have her revel in it. Then (because if we’re not growing we’re dying), offer her an option, one that’s almost irresistible, but would require her to move out of her comfort zone. Let her equivocate. Evaluate. Then dial up the pressure. Ratchet up the stakes.

Write about two alternative outcomes:

1) She holds. (What does she lose by not taking the risk? And what cascade of events occur predicated on that loss?)
2) She leaps. (What pushed her to take a chance? And what happens—next and next and next—because she did?)

Novel-writing inspiration

For further ideas on why a character might hesitate to act, check out this blog post on reluctant heroes.

And, even more to the Two-of-Wands point, there’s a fabulous scene in the film STRANGER THAN FICTION, in which the Will Ferrell character locks himself in his apartment trying to avoid his story—a story that finds him, nonetheless.

For an example of high-stakes choice-making, (re-)read the Frank R. Stockton short story “The Lady, or the Tiger.”

You might also enjoy checking out some of the Choose Your Own Adventure stories!

Finally, because the evergreen Lewis Carroll should always have the last word, when possible, I present, for your further inspiration when dealing with dithering characters, “The Mock Turtle’s Song,” from ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.

“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle – will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!”
But the snail replied “Too far, too far!” and gave a look askance —
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.

“What matters it how far we go?” his scaly friend replied.
“There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France —
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

***

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of the Two of Wands from the RIDER WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.

 

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