On to the next project…

A couple of weeks ago I started my next project. I made previous posts of things I’m trying differently this time. For starters, I’ve read two books on the craft to get my mind in the right direction. I’ve learned the free-form style of just writing is great for practice, but when I really want to create a story I need structure. Taking the time to frame out the plot, create characters, and do an outline so far has helped.

What’s also different this time is, well, time. I have less of it but I’m starting think that’s a good thing. I’m married, with a young son, and a mortgage. All take time and for good reason. My writing seems to fit in whenever it can. I seem to do my best writing in the morning before work. I usually get about thirty minutes (possibly more if I’m not checking emails or the news). I aim to get down about 250 words. Sometimes it’s more or less – usually depends what kind of flow I’m in. What I do know is that the time I do have I use it and make it work.  

As I’m writing, I realize I’m not getting caught up in the minutia of details. I can remember my first chapter of my last project. I painstakingly described the characters clothes, the room, the weather outside, etc. all of which detracted from creating a strong opening. I know my approach is different and time will tell if it’s better than my last effort.

My take on this novel already has a different vibe to it and I like it. I feel less pressure to get it done and really enjoy telling the story. I’m hoping it will someday transform into something tangible that I will get published. I can’t worry about that now as I’m only concerned about one thing when I’m at my laptop: writing.

Conflict

There is nothing more important in fiction than conflict. After reading the Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing Great Fiction: Plot and Structure, conflict is paramount. Whether you write genre fiction or literary, you have to conflict.

If it seems that, by reading this post, a light bulb (a compact fluorescent one) went off – it did. I look back at the first novel I wrote and immediately see where the conflict gaps are. According to the books above, there should be conflict on every page. Sounds hard but it’s not tough when you think about it. The main character of your story needs to endure something (save the world, marriage, self, etc) and that requires conflict. Without conflict, one is left reading about the ho-hum stuff of life. That doesn’t make for good fiction. I should know because a big chunk of my first novel has the main character getting out of bed, eating a sandwich, etc. It eventually leads to something but not always conflict.

Conflict supposedly drives the reader for more. It keeps them engage well past the first few pages and hopefully a hell of a lot more.

I’m done summarizing what I’ve learned from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. The book is worth the investment, and lately I’ve been trying to transfer it to my writing. So far so good. The feel of my second novel already seems different. I’m concentrating on conflict, throwing whatever I can at my main character. At the same time, I’m not trying to exhaust the reader but trying to make it difficult for a them to put down my novel. I should know how this all shakes out in a few months when I have a first draft.

Graphic Novels

I took the recommendation of someone who logged a comment on a post of mine from December. The post was about The Walking Dead television series. I knew of the comic but not necessarily into reading it until I came across it at my local library.

I brought it home Saturday and finished Sunday night. To say the least, it held my interest. As someone who considers himself an aficionado of zombie apocalypses, The Walking Dead holds up. The plot is interesting and so are the characters and there is lot of them. The artwork is solid and well done. I understand why this comic is popular. The zombies aren’t necessarily the focus as are the characters dealing with the new world they’re living in. The comic and the TV shows aren’t all that different. The difference is that the comic moves much faster and doesn’t dwell on too much.

Specifically, a few thoughts on graphic novels. While I did enjoy TWD, I felt cheated by not getting to know the characters. I didn’t feel as invested as I would for a novel. The dialogue is pretty crisp but it’s tiring after a while. There weren’t enough frames that allowed the action to move the story forward.

Keep in mind, I’m new to the graphic novel and my claims really should be taken lightly. I would also add that I read comics as a kid and then a time in my early twenties. But both of those interests faded as I left wanting more from the story. I guess ultimately that’s how felt Sunday night. I checked out book one of I don’t know how many. But, I finished feeling there would’ve been more to story.

The graphic novel is a unique storytelling medium. It allows the characters to tell the story which by no means make the art any easier. If anything, I have a lot of respect for those in the graphic novel arena. Although, I believe it’ll be a while till I jump into my next graphic novel. Until then I can get by without the pictures.

Plot

This is where I think I got my money’s worth out of Writing the Breakout Novel. When Donald Maass did a deep dive into plot, I felt like I finally started to understand how a novel works; what really moves it forward.

Plot equals organization. That was my first take away and it makes complete sense. Most people enjoy linear storytelling (I do) and this is where plot is most effective. By providing structure to a story it allows the reader to play along at home (so-to-speak). Readers have a map of where they started and where they’re going. Now, the literary fiction crowd might find plot too simplistic but the average reader craves organization. I know, it’s a blanket statement but anyone who’s not sure should look at the books on their shelf to decide if it’s an accurate statement.

Maass goes into the elements of plot which are the sympathetic character, conflict, complications, climax, and resolution. I’m not going to dig into these elements but would like to focus on the sympathetic character element. My last post on characters hit on this. Sympathy goes a long way when it comes to a reader connecting with a character. As I’m developing my next project, sympathy is in the back of mind. How can I create a main character that readers can relate to and feel for? This connection will allow readers to root for the character and invest themselves to a whole book. Without this vital element it’s tough to read on.

One of the other takeaways on plot is that high stakes, complex characters, and layered conflict result in breakout fiction. This is what separates the wannabes from the professionals. Constantly raising the stakes in a story with characters that aren’t vanilla in multi layer conflicts breaks open an engaging story. I finished The 39 Steps by John Buchan recently and this book was written all the back in 1915 and was able to hit those breakout marks. Buchan put his main character thru the ringer and constantly tries to kill him. Each chapter, page the stakes get higher, the conflict intensifies, and the characters are anything but skin deep. What I liked about the 39 Steps is what Maass preaches in his book.

The Mad Scientist

This character type is prevalent in a lot of science fiction. It’s a stock-pile character that is a misnomer because we often associate them with doing evil things. Creating a dangerous weapon, a poison, an army of the undead, etc. But they’re also notable for creating things like time travel. OK, that’s the only good thing I can come up – so maybe it’s correct that all mad scientists are evil. Good topic for discussion…

I have yet to use a mad scientist in any of my writings yet but this clichéd characters still offers up some opportunities. Good or bad, I like this character in science fiction to describe or introduce new technologies, weapons, medicine, etc. without going off the deep end and then have them exit – like a good supporting character.

Some of the more memorable mad scientists include: Doc Brown, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Moreau, and Dr. Herbert West. If none of these names are familiar, then I suggest you look them up. They’re not the complete list, but I would think they would come up in conversation when discussing popular mad scientists – how often would that happen anyway? If it does, let me know!

Characters

All stories are character driven. That’s the first thing Donald Maass calls out in this chapter of Writing the Breakout Novel. It’s a no brainer but worth emphasizing.

When I wrote my first novel, I really tried to have my main character be the focal point which was part of the problem. The character wasn’t driving the novel but just had a big spot light on him. My character wasn’t engaging enough; meaning he was too ordinary. Folks are not reading novels for boring characters – they want complex characters that are larger than life. My approach was a try not a do. I missed the mark here; my character was interesting but not breakout interesting.

Another key point on characters Maass makes, goes back to the larger than life concept. These characters do whatever they want  and say whatever they want. We, as people living in reality, can not. Or we can but not get very far in life. Characters are supposed to be conflict driven at all times – if they’re not who’s going to read about them? The conflict the character is involved in is supposed to keep us  engaged and turning the pages.

And to keep the pages turning, Maass recommends that characters be deep and many-sided. Have supporting characters that create contrast in order to achieve balance but also to create more conflict. These factors can create rich, complex characters that should produce a great novel.

One other note on characters; I’m fan of the anti-hero. He’s not a bad or a good guy but does his own thing. While I like these types of characters, they can’t be indifferent all the time. They have to have redeeming qualities in order to gain sympathy from a reader. Maass discusses this in his book and I’m glad he did. It completely makes sense. The anti-hero can be viewed as a selfish jerk sometimes but during a novel or movie has a few moments that allow you to sympathize for him. It’s this way for a reason. If the character was a complete bastard all the time, the novel (or movie) really wouldn’t have to many redeeming qualities hence not that interesting or engaging. Something to keep in mind if you’re like me and attracted to unique character types.

Artificial Intelligence

As I explore science fiction themes, I’m reminded how much closer fiction is becoming reality. Case-in-point, artificial intelligence (AI). Every once in a while (or more often than that) we hear how scientists get closer to developing some robot that can reason, play a game, instrument, or take orders.

Of course, the folks like myself that think of how this can all go wrong. Call it the Frankenstein complex. Basically, I usually link the creation of AI to something destructive (I guess it’s the pessimist in me). I think about the worst scenarios possible. Like, an AI apocalypse. Robots one day decide that humans are bad and destroy everyone – like in the Terminator series. Or maybe tone it down a little – how about an AI controlled society? Robots have a quest for power and control how humans live.

Then, there’s the more positive side of AI. Issac Asimov’s writing has focused on the integration of AI into society. I’m guilty of not reading any of his material, but I am familiar with it. I’m blown away at the level of hard science fiction that Asimov writes so it actually deters me from getting into his stuff. In most cases, this positive side of AI has the humans as authority over the robots. This weaves together some interesting stories. Think Star Wars and all the androids used to aid the humans. Fifty years from now, I think a future in AI will look more like Star Wars and less like the Terminator.

Wherever this genre of science fiction goes, I feel that in the not so distant future we will all be living with some form of AI. The day is coming when you walk into your front door and the lights come on, your favorite music is playing, dinner will be ready in ten minutes, and you’re being briefed by a hologram on all the days events…like the coming AI apocalypse!