Midweek Technique – where to start your story

How many of you answered “at the beginning – DUH!” ? 😀

Yes, it does seem obvious, doesn’t it?  But just where do you determine the beginning? Where your main characters first meet?  When your heroine wakes up?  When the killer is stalking his next victim?  Or when your hero is ruminating about this two-year old divorce?

As a contest judge, I see so many entries that start in the wrong place.  Definitely one, sometimes two chapters of slow, plodding narrative/introspection/description that really let a good story down.  Now, short of me reading your stories and saying “ah-HA!  Forget all that other stuff – here’s where you should start!” you’re going to figure it out yourselves.

So where do you start?  At a point of major change.

Chris Vogler (he of the awesome The Writers Journey), Michael Hauge (he of the awesome Writing Screenplays That Sell) and various other writing legends (Robert McKee included) call it The Call To Adventure.  It is your character’s ‘jolt’: some event or realization that shocks them out of their Ordinary World and shakes up their life.  They have to make a choice when confronted by this call – if they can ignore it and go back to their normal lives without a backwards glance, then it is not a true call.

To elaborate and get you thinking, here’s an example:

Your heroine is about to walk into an interview for a new job.  She’s sat in the reception area, thinking about how desperate she is for this job, how much this money would mean to her family, to her sick father who’s just finished another round of chemo and the bills are mounting up.  She wonders about her brother, who’s conveniently living overseas and unable to contribute.  Her dead mother who was a saint when she was living and would hate to see her little girl now working 24/7 to support her father.  She ruminates about her last few low-paid jobs, her terrible bosses and wonders what this new one would be like to work for.  She’s heard he’s demanding but fair – the same can’t be said for the man’s son who seems to be content spending his time surfing and partying.  Partying… she thinks briefly about last weekend, where she got to let her hair down for once, and ended up a little drunk and making out with the cute bartender in the parking lot.

This goes on for a page or two, until the office door finally opens and…. yep, the son aka cute bartender stands on the threshold.

So where would you start this story?  Hands up who said “where the office door opens”?

Why?  Because it’s our heroine’s Call to Adventure.  She has a choice – either step up and go right on into that interview (aka Stepping Across the Threshold) or turn and leave.  All that introspection, all that past stuff is past, and can be filtered in elsewhere.  You also don’t need pages upon pages of it because introspection tends to slow the pace – and you want your readers to jump right into your story at Chapter 1, not get bogged down with unimportant details.  A simple “She wanted this job.  No, she needed it.  More than she’d ever needed anything in her life.”  would suffice to show the reader her desire.  Then you can sprinkle in the whys later, through dialogue, deep POV and introspection.

Alternatively, if you do start with your heroine sitting there, waiting for the interview, this can be a good opportunity to get some brief backstory across, enough to whet the reader’s appetite but not too much that will have them skimming the paragraphs.  The key to this is smart editing: knowing when too much is overkill and just plain boring (see example above).

It’s important to note that in category romances, the sooner you can get your hero and heroine together at the start, the better.  Why?  Because it will throw your reader right into the story, as well as highlighting the conflict that will carry your story along.  Of course, this isn’t a rule, but you only have a short word count so you have to make every.  Word.  Count.

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Midweek Technique – From No to Yes: The Six Stages of Change for your Characters

if only this came standard…

I recently read an interesting article about the decision making process of people suffering from addiction problems and how they are motivated to change.  It’s not such a  gloomy piece as you may think: it gave me a fabulous idea for a brand-new article.  What I’ve done is taken those headings and descriptions and expanded on them, just for you.  So, here we go!

The Six Stages of Change are:

  • precontemplation
  • contemplation
  • determination
  • action
  • maintenance trials and failures – I’ve used artistic license to rename this!
  • termination – a new person – ditto

Precontemplation



This is the stage where your character is oblivious for any need to change.  They may think they are perfectly happy in their ordinary world,  or if they’re not, don’t see the issues as any major problem.

There’s four reasons to be in precontemplation, and they are “the Four Rs” —reluctance, rebellion, resignation and rationalization:

  • Reluctant precontemplators – lack knowledge or inertia to consider change. The impact of the problem has not become fully conscious.
  • Rebellious precontemplators – have a heavy investment in making their own decisions and are resistant to being told what to do.
  • Resigned precontemplators – have given up hope about the possibility of change and seem overwhelmed by the problem. Many have made many attempts to change or gain control of their situation before
  • Rationalizing precontemplators – have plenty of reasons why they don’t have a problem or why others have the problem and not them

Contemplation

Characters at this stage of change are willing to consider the possibility that all is not right in their world.  However, they are highly ambivalent to changing.  This stage is not a commitment for them, and many may be interested in seeking out scenarios to their ‘problem’.  For example, a heroine unhappy with her career may check out study opportunities or read the employment section, or discuss her situation with a friend or colleague.  But even with all the negatives, they still cannot make a decision to change.

They may also consider the pros and cons of their behavior, and the pros and cons of change. They may think about the previous attempts they have made to change, and what has caused failure in the past.

Determination (Commitment to Action
)

This is also what I refer to as “the Call to Action”.  Something happens that forces your character to want to change.  Changing may not be their choice, but to do nothing would be more painful, uncomfortable or unacceptable than changing.  Whatever forces your character to change is rooted in their back story – what do they want most out of life?  What do they fear the most?  What are they not willing to concede?

Whatever happens to change their minds, they are now fully commitment to doing something.

Action (Implementing the Plan)

Your character will put their an action plan into motion, whether it be a formal contract, a to-do list, a verbal agreement with another character, physical move or just a mental commitment to themselves.  This may also require help and/or encouragement from others – a mentor, friends, relatives, work colleague.  Even the memory of a person close to their heart may be the encouragement they need to get moving.

For those of you using the Three Act Structure, this is your turning point from Act 1 to 2 – the ‘opening of the door to a different world’.

Trials and failures ( learning from their mistakes and getting better)

Change requires building a new pattern of behaviour over time, and with that will come tests, challenges and obstacles for your character.  Of course, in order for them to succeed and deserve their reward, they will have to fail and learn from those failures.

This is also where the character gets to the “I hate this/I can’t do this, I want to go back to the way things were.” stage.  A very powerful pull indeed.  But of course, things have changed so much (or they have changed!) that they cannot.

The experience of failing, then regrouping, then trying again, often strengthens a person’s determination to stay on the path they have chosen.  They may get encouragement from others (a mentor, or an enemy who believes they will fail) and will think about why they originally chose this path, which in turn makes them stronger.

A new person 



The original article referred to this stage as the sufferer ‘terminating’ their addiction need.  Not so good when talking about the triumph of a character 😀

In romantic fiction, the ultimate goal in the change process is happiness for your character, whether it be a new job, gaining freedom, respect, finding the love of their life or simply being happy that they succeeded at an insurmountable  task.  The journey they took has had an impact on them, teaching them a valuable life lesson.  They will be a different person with a new life outlook, have gained greater understanding or simply achieved peace within themselves.

Midweek Technique – Nine Points of Trust

Welcome to my brand-new column!  I’ve decided to devote Wednesdays to writing-related issues, articles or links I’ve found that will (hopefully!) help all you writers (ALL writers, not just romance!) out there.

So here we go – my first topic.  I actually came across this issue as I was writing my seventh book (A Precious Inheritance, part of Desire’s exciting Highest Bidder continuity), and after I handed it in, wondered if other writers had the same issue.  Mainly, the two main characters (in my case, my hero and heroine) start off at the beginning of the story disliking and mistrusting each other, and over the course of the book, they end up trusting, then loving, to reach their happy-ever-after.  But just how do you practically write about that?  How do you show that gradual change of mind – in actual words on the page – that will be convincing to your reader?

This analysis warranted going to the movies, plus my trusty index cards, and I think I managed to pin down Nine Points of Trust.  For ease of writing, I have made the heroine the distrustful one, but this can go both ways.  Plus, for a point of reference, I’ll use one of my favorite movies – I, Robot  (featuring the fabbo Will Smith) – as an example.  So here we go.

1. MISTRUST (internal emotion)

Mistrust is formed either through direct deeds of your character or via others’ deeds.  This creates conflict within your character and arouses strong emotions.  Reasons for this mistrust can include:

  • opposites from different walks of life
  • he stands for something she hates (and vice versa)
  • opposing goals (she wants something and he stands in her way)
  • bad deeds done (e.g. he’s destroyed her father’s livelihood)
  • bad family (tainted by association)
  • tainted past
  • different beliefs

At this stage, there can be attraction or not, and your character can either acknowledge that or not. e .g. “Sure, he was gorgeous, but he also represented ten years of oppression and ridicule.”

2. REITERATING MISTRUST (external/internal)

  • This can happen through observation, an event or dialogue.  Your character observes, or is told/reads about events that seem to reiterate their mistrust.

3. 1ST SEED PLANTED LEADING TO FIRST DOUBT (external/internal)

  • Something happens that the character either witnesses or experiences first hand that plants the first seed of doubt
  • The hero may be compared to another character in a scene, and the other character comes off worse.  For e.g. the way your hero treats servants, waiters, colleagues and the less fortunate will say a lot about his character.  If you have a scene where your heroine can see him interacting with others in a positive light, this will cast that shadow of doubt. Chivalry, politeness, courtesy are all good qualities in a hero.
  • Your character knows there’s something ‘not right’, but cannot put their finger on it.  The ‘not rightness’ can be acknowledged as attraction.  The body thinks ‘attraction’, but the head can think ‘just another reason not to trust him.’
  • At this point, if your heroine’s mistrust is founded, she can walk away from the situation with no qualms.  She is not emotionally invested.

4. OUTSIDE INFLUENCES CREATE STRONGER DOUBT (external/internal)

  • Your heroine is getting a stronger impression of who your hero really is, which clashes with her beliefs
  • Other people/events occur to create a stronger comparison.  This can happen via family, friends, work, exes and/or events in which they’re thrown together
  • Remember, others may also have a stake in the heroine’s mistrust of your hero, too

5. 2ND SEED PLANTED – EMPATHY AND TENTATIVE TRUST (internal/external)

  • This is a coming together of goals – familiar traits/past/events are shared and a sort of ‘kindred spirit’ is formed
  • The hero could inadvertently help the heroine with a problem here, or stick up for someone who is close to her
  • At this stage, it would create emotional impact if her trust was misplaced now

6. OPENING OF THE MIND (internal)

  • Big step forward, where the heroine must make a choice of opening her mind to the possibility that her impression is wrong
  • She may take stock of past events to ensure she’s doing the right thing

7. 3RD SEED PLANTED – MAJOR EVENT (external event)

  • Heroine is now committed.  If mistrust is founded now, she will be emotionally affected
  • She realizes the hero is not a bad guy, she may even rationalize and think through some of the prior ‘bad deeds’ and come up with a healthier scenario
  • At this stage, she can also sway either way ==> there can be another event where she places even more trust in the hero OR something could happen that makes it impossible for her to reconcile the guy she’s come to know with the guy she thought she knew.  She knows in her heart that he’s a good guy

8. BLACK MOMENT AND REVELATION ***

  • Major point where all trust appears to be unfounded – it’s her worst fear realized
  • This is plot driven, and goes back to your initial story question that sets up the plot of the book – e.g. will they solve the mystery/fall in love/find the killer?

*** Depending on your story, Point 8 may not be needed.  Why not?  Well, sometimes (in short category, especially) it could be a bit of overkill: you’ve spent all those pages getting from distrust to trust, taking your readers on that journey and now something happens to seemingly blow it all out of the water.  I’m not saying it never works, but it could throw the story prior to that point into disarray.  For e.g. if the heroine can believe the hero is still the awful person she thought at the start of the book from one action/misunderstanding/revelation, then what was the point of the journey?

Of course it’s up to you, the writer, to make the point 🙂  I do have one moment in  book # 7 where the hero thinks the heroine is behind something illegal but after he thinks it through, realizes that’s a stupid thing to think.  Then he consequently beats himself up about it, believing he doesn’t deserve her if he can automatically doubt her integrity.  It’s not a chapter or a long scene, rather a few paragraphs, but it was a logical thought for this character, so I kept this step.

9. TRUST

  • Your character is now totally convinced of the others’ integrity.  This doesn’t mean they are blind to flaws
  • She knows the hero is a good person – this may involve some verbal communication, an apology or talking over their previous mistrust
  • They can see behind the mask to accept them, flaws and all

At this total point of trust, it doesn’t mean that’s the end of your story.  You will also have to tie up loose ends in your plot/secondary characters/backstory/character goals etc.  But it does mean that your characters will be working together for a common goal.

Now, on to the practical application of I, Robot.  The interesting thing here is that some points are actually grouped together and are in a different order.  Lemme show you:

gratuitous shirtless shot of Will Smith

I, ROBOT

Susan Calvin is a driven scientist dedicating her entire career to building and integrating robots into human society.  She is logical, clever and literal, and also appears to be lacking in humor.

Detective Del Spooner is a cocky charmer, hates robots and suspects one of killing the co-founder of United States Robotics, Dr Lanning, even though his death was deemed a suicide.

TOTAL DISTRUST

  • Dr Calvin is assigned to show Spooner around the USR building to complete his investigation.  His charm and flippancy clashes with her literal, scientific mind right away.  Then Spooner suspects a USR robot of killing Dr Lanning but Calvin is convinced the Three Laws (that govern all robots and protect all humans) are perfect ergo, a robot killing a human is impossible.  When Spooner shoots Sonny (the robot hiding in Dr Lanning’s office) Calvin’s mistrust is reiterated.  Then when Spooner starts shooting other robots to draw out Sonny (“they’re just lights and clockwork”), it just cements her mistrust
  • Spooner is determined to prove Sonny is the killer.  Calvin is adamant a robot cannot kill and believes Spooner to be irrational

REINFORCING DISTRUST

  • After a malfunction with a demolition bot at Lanning’s house, Spooner goes to see Calvin, but she refuses to believe his ‘killer robot’ theory, rather she says he has a ‘vendetta’.  They argue and Spooner says she likes robots because they’re cold and emotional.  She says it’s because they are safe and can’t hurt you.

SEED OF DOUBT PLANTED

  • When Spooner leaves, he hands her a photo of Calvin and the Doctor that he recovered in Dr Lanning’s house, and says “the problem is, I care.”  She chokes back tears and realizes Lanning meant something to him, too.

OUTSIDE INFLUENCES (leads to) ==> OPENING OF THE MIND

  • Calvin discovers Sonny is a completely new version of robot, one that has no USR uplink and can override the Three Laws if he so chooses.  He is unique.  He appears to have feelings and dreams, which throws doubt on everything she believes.

2ND SEED PLANTED – EMPATHY AND TENTATIVE TRUST and 3RD SEED – MAJOR EVENT

  • She hears Spooner has been in a car accident and goes to him to tell him about Sonny
  • When Calvin notices Spooner’s scars he finally tells her Dr Lanning gave him a robotic arm and lung after a horrific car accident, and also reveals a robot saved his life but not the girl’s in the next car.  The robot had analysed the survival probability and deemed his life to be the logical choice.  Spooner says a human would have saved her, thereby revealing his deep emotional mistrust of robots.
  • Calvin and Spooner go to the lab to talk to Sonny, where more clues are revealed.  Spooner calls Sonny “someone” instead of “something”, thereby increasing Calvin’s trust.

BETRAYAL

  • When they’re both discovered in the lab, Calvin’s boss tells her Spooner was suspended from duty, which shocks her.  Then her boss plays on her commitment and passion for robotics and convinces her Sonny must be terminated for the good of the robotics program and USR’s reputation.  Spooner believes she’s betrayed Sonny and is not interested in getting to the truth: “Somebody gets out of line around here and you just kill them.”

TOTAL TRUST

  • Spooner follows the clues on his own.  He leaves a message on Calvin’s phone, saying the old robots (who would have protected humans) are being destroyed by the new ones, but her personal robot intercepts the call.  Calvin witnesses her robot’s deception and suddenly realizes a) Spooner was right all along and b) she’s trapped in her apartment with a possible killer robot.
  • Spooner rescues Calvin.  She tells him she couldn’t kill Sonny – he is too unique – and they both sneak into USR to get to the bottom of who’s controlling the robots

Now, I realize these points are not gospel 😀  There could possibly be flaws and things I’ve omitted, but hey, that’s the beauty of discovering a different writing method, right?   Love to hear your thoughts!

Craft and How-To Books

Reading: Time Riders by Alex Scarrow
Listening to:  Angry Birds (weeee!!! squark, squark.  OINK!)
Watching:  Winners and Losers

So, leading up to our 20th anniversary RWA conference, discussion on our loops turn to all the wonderful craft and how-to books available for writers.

When I first started writing, I craved genre-specific how-to books.  Sure, there were heaps of ‘creative writing’ books out there, but none that suited my particular needs.  For example, I really hate “let’s do a writing exercise!” books, and ones that reference literary fiction or authors I have no interest in reading.  I wanted practical stuff!  “If only there was a book on effective editing/writing love scenes/conflict/how to structure a story, etc.” was my familiar lament.   I went through a bunch (mainly from the library) that, although okay, didn’t give me any greater insight.

Then I picked up The Secrets of Successful Romance Writing by Emma Darcy and The Art of Romance Writing by Valerie Parv.  FINALLY!  Information specific to my genre! Sure, at the time I was writing sweeping historical sagas not category romance, but still, much of the information contained in those two small volumes hit home.   And slowly, more and more authors began to publish craft books.  And then I discovered Writers Digest.

It was a bit of an obsession, this burning desire to acquire how-tos, and for a few years I was blissfully caught up in the excitement of buying a book and absorbing every detail.  Then came my first sale, and looking at my shelves, I realized I’d moved on from the basics – writing a gripping first chapter, effective dialogue, what is tension/pace  – and needed something different to satisfy my thirst for information, like procrastination, juggling life and writing, better ways of plotting.

So below are a list of recommended books I’ve actually READ 😀

Craft Books

  • Writing Romance – Vanessa Grant (Self-Counsel Press) – a good overall book to start, which gives some great advice as well as practical ways to structure a synopsis
  • Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies – Leslie Wainger  (Hungry Minds Inc US) written by an Executive Editor of Harlequin Books, this book is an easy-to-follow guide to writing, pitching and selling your romance novel
  • Story – Robert McKee (Methuen Publishing) I started reading this book after I was fortunate enough to attend McKee’s Story seminar.  Sure, it’s aimed at screenwriting, but the wealth of information this legendary guy brings is totally worth it, from structure, writing compelling scenes, dialogue and turning points
  • Writing the Breakout Novel – Donald Maass (Writers Digest)  Love The Donald (one of New York’s leading agents) and love this book.  It gives you practical ways of improving your story, from layering in tension, to increasing the stakes for your characters.  Use in conjunction with his workbook.
  • The Writer’s Journey – Chris Vogler (Michael Wiese Productions) Vogler contends that “all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies” and his book details and expands on those elements.  A great book for both plotters (as a plotting tool) and pantsers (as an editing tool)
  • Writing the Fiction Synopsis – Pam McCutcheon (Gryphon Books for Writers) – if you’ve ever wrestled with a synopsis (okay, all of you??) this book breaks it down into easily understood pieces
  • Book In A Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days  – Victoria Lynn Schmidt (Writers Digest) – love the layout of this book: spiral bound with easily flippable pages.  It’s also a great way to plan out your first draft.

Editing

  • The Writer’s Handbook for Editing and Revision – Rick Wilber (NTC)
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Renni Browne and Dave King (HarperCollins)

Two fabulous editing books that give you practical examples on how to strengthen your writing.

Characterisation

  • Goal, Motivation, Conflict – Debra Dixon (Gryphon Books for Writers) – one of my writing staples.  If your characters don’t have GMC then your story will suck and you’ll lose reader interest.  Trust me.
  • The Sociopath Next Door – Martha Stout (Three Rivers Press) – fascinating study into sociopathic personality types
  • The Complete Writers Guide to Heroes and Heroines: 16 Master Archetypes – Tami Cowden, Carol LeFever, Sue Viders – brilliant for creating believable characters.

Motivation

  • The Productive Writer: Tips and Tools to Help You Writer More, Stress Less and Create Success – Sage Cohan (Writers Digest)
  • Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within –  by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett (Mariner Books)
  • The Procrastinator’s Handbook: Mastering the Art of Doing it Now – Rita Emmett (Walker & Company)

And of course, I have stacks of books on my TBR pile that look awesome but I’ve yet to delve into:

  • The Artful Edit: On The Practice of Editing Yourself  – Susan Bell (WW Norton)
  • Lights, Camera, Fiction!  A Movie Lover’s Guide to Writing Fiction – Alfie Thompson (Running Press)
  • Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need – Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese Productions)
  • What Would Your Character Do?Personality Quizzes for Analyzing your Characters – Eric Maisel (Writers Digest)
  • The Hero Within: Six Archetypes we Live By – Carol Pearson (HarperOne)

Do you have any favorite writing books?  I’d love to hear about them because you can never have too many books 😀