The Long & the Short of It

I’m sitting here this morning, a week and a half from the debut of The Curse Merchant, overwhelmed with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. I’ve had some of my Facebook author’s page followers take me up on my offer for a free digital ARC, and thus far the feedback has been very positive!

I have several special blog events planned for the first weeks of the book release, one of which is a free bonus short story set prior to the events of The Curse Merchant. It’s a bite-sized narrative in the same universe, offering all of my potential readers a chance to sample something more than just a portion of the novel.

Returning to short format fiction has been something of a homecoming for me. When I first dabbled in writing, everything was a short story. It took years before I attempted my first novel length work… uncharted territory for sure! It wasn’t long until all of my projects began to expand into novels. Every idea compounded into something wider and more sweeping, requiring a more thorough narrative structure. I was creating worlds, not just stories.

Writing a short story is different experience than writing a novel. Fundamentally, storytelling is storytelling. A short story should have the same recognizable rise and fall as a novel. There should be a protagonist, an antagonist, a recognizable conflict, and a resolution. The point of view should be limited at some level so that the reader feels immersed. There should be a point to the story… some single take-away that justifies the story’s existence.

So, what’s different?

Whereas novels and short stories outline a rising and falling of action, a short story does this in one single motion. A novel can chart its plot arc in several individual narrative “peaks.” A short story is a single movement of a symphony, standing alone, interesting in its own right. A novel is the whole symphony, often composed of individual movements, each one a conflict and resolution in its own right, the sum of which creating a grand crescendo to the climax.

A short story has to be concise. A novel has the luxury of taking its time with character development, introducing more aspects of the greater supersetting, perhaps even lacing in elements of future novels. A short story has to get right to the point. It’s vital to choose when to start the short story. One must strive to begin the story as close to the climax as possible. The throw from opening to climax needs to be brief. Granted, one can’t simply begin with “Arturo pulled his gun exclaiming ‘That’s right! I did it! I killed the nuns!'”

I take it back. That would be a great way to open a short story.

The point is that there is precious little room for exposition in a short story. It must be all story, all the time. The short story must be a single-sitting experience. It’s an individually wrapped slice of narrative cheese, meant to be consumed in one literary lunch break.

Another difference between a short story and a novel is that, while a novel has the option of multiple points of view, a short story must have exactly one protagonist. There is simply no room for POV play in a short story. I state this dogmatically, and it’ll fall apart the second someone points out a brilliant piece of experimental fiction. It’s a rule that may be (rarely) broken, but a good rule nonetheless.

What is most eye-opening about this experience is how very damned difficult it is to write a short story when I’ve grown accustomed to long format fiction. My mind wanders down the history of each character. I feel compelled to paint a more detailed setting. The implications of the plot call to me, and I want to explore how this affects the novel itself.

But I can’t.

It’s a story. One story. And it must stand on its own legs.

This isn’t easy. It takes a razor-sharp editing sensibility, and a tight focus on the tale that I’m telling. And a tale is all about conflict. One central discrete conflict. As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” Good point there. Writing a novel is like pouring out the entire bucket of paint, then mopping up everything you don’t need on the canvas. Writing a short story is an exercise in short, intentional, calculated strokes.

That said, be sure to watch this blog in the month of November, when I give details on the release of the short story “Good Fences.” It’s a prequel to The Curse Merchant, and a fine introduction to the mind of Dorian Lake.

Tools for Pre-Writing: Character Worksheet Part 4

And now we come to the finish line of this marathon of character-creating industry. The fourth page of my character worksheet is dedicated to backstory, the history of the character. This page acts as a kind of resume, a curriculum vitae if you will (assuming the position being applied for requires a bizarrely intrusive exploration of relationships and motivations).

Here’s the page:

Fair warning: of the entire character creation worksheet, I skimp the most on this particular section. All of the information is achievable, but I find that though this information truly rounds-out a character, it most often fails to make the “final cut” of the manuscript. Not that it isn’t worth pursuing, but if you’re going to cheat, this would be the place.

HISTORY

Current Address/Hometown: This is the basic information, useful in nailing down the exact location of your character, as well as the character’s built-in filter of the world. A protagonist from Iowa will have a profoundly different view of the invading alien fleet than would the protagonist from Dubai.

Description of Residence: This is useful in keeping the details straight throughout your story. Does your character’s home have two stories and a basement, or just one story and a basement? Is it a red brick or a white siding home? Is it a mud hovel with a thatch roof, or a log cabin?

Family: Here, I progress through the basic family relationships, asking for names and professions. Names of family members, even those who do not appear in the story, become useful in keeping the character’s full history alive.  In The Curse Merchant, my protagonist had an Aunt that become so compelling that she worked her way closer to the front of the plot, until she managed to find a place in my plans for a sequel.

Schooling: So many of our early relationship are developed in school, as is our world view. Is the character a high school dropout? Did she receive parochial schooling? Does he have an advanced degree, and if so, is it appropriate for the story?

Employment: Likewise, the character’s skill sets have been honed in some manner prior to the beginning of the story. If the protagonist is school-aged, this many be left largely untouched. But what kind of biases come with having held certain positions? Is the antagonist averse to tipping? Does this annoy the protagonist who put herself through college as a waitress? This is a quick and easy way to build empathy and antipathy.

Relationship: Here I explore the character’s recent relationships. Assuming there is a Significant Other of some definition at play in the story, I’ll briefly define their status: girlfriend, fiancee, mistress, etc. The most recent relationship often interferes with the current relationship in some manner, so it is worth defining here as well… and may even provide an interesting secondary character. Then there is the Best Friend, however that character defines it. Some characters (villains, in particular) may not have an entry for Best Friend, as they are horrible, horrible people. And yet, if they are people, what are the odds that someone considers them a friend on some level? It’s worth exploring towards creating three-dimensional characters.

Describe Relationship with Parents: The single most formative influence on our world view are our parents. They defined our views of the opposite sex, the same sex, and of how families interact. They give us our first creeds, our moral compass, our religion, and our political views. When these things change as we grow older and independent, we may find we view our parents in an entirely new light. Or, we may grow to become carbon copies of our parents. The relationship of your character with her parents (living or dead, which is also worth noting) is a tremendous source of character bias and emotional development.

Describe Relationship with Best Friend: Very often the protagonist’s best friend acts as a reflection character for the protagonist, a character which has similar views or upbringing, but for one decision or twist of fate follows a different path than the protagonist. Explore the “what ifs” between the friends. How are they different? How do they serve one another as friends? This character is likely to receive his or her own character sheet.

How Has the Places Influenced the Character: If the white cop grew up in the Deep South during the 1950’s, that character might have a different view of his new black partner than would a character that grew up in Detroit. Did Princess Rowena of Planet Lesbosia really just give Captain Sarah Womanshield a lingering hug because she’s just friendly like that? We are products of our environment. Define how the character’s various environments influences the character’s world view.

Fondest Memory: I particularly adore this entry. When the plot gets tough… and it will get tough (if it’s interesting)… the character will experience a transformation. What is the bright memory that your character clings to during the Black Moment of the monomyth? Why is this a fond memory? Is it a trip with her parents to the ballet? What does this say about her current relationship with her daughter? Is it the day the hero’s father gave him his first sword? What has become of that sword, or his father for that matter? So often as a writer, I find that the fondest memories are defined by darkness. A memory is cherished due to its absence. Explore this fond memory, the pain of the character’s present, and the connection between the two.

And celebrate, because you’re done with the character worksheet! Now, make one for each of the other major characters.

I was asked if I would share my Excel templates with others who may find them useful. Whereas the Character Worksheet is something I cooked up on my own, the Scene Worksheet is the creation of another author, Meredith Bond. And as she uses this worksheet as part of a writing course, I feel it’s largely inappropriate to share it.  I have however uploaded both the Character Worksheet to Google Docs. Here is the link:

Character Worksheet

Thanks for following along… this has been a long series of posts filled with writing theory. Thus, for the next few posts I fully intend on lightening the mood with a little personal discourse and some thoughts on the elements of my current projects.

Tools for Pre-writing: Character Worksheet Part 3

Page Three of my character worksheet begins to needle into the minor details of the character, primarily the speech patterns and physical trappings which help in forming a mental picture of the character.  At this point in the planning process, I begin to skimp to a degree if I’m not dealing with a major character. But for my protagonist and antagonist, I do my level best to fill in every blank. Remembering of course that none of it is immutable, and will likely be overwritten by the time the manuscript is complete.

Here’s the third page:

The value of the Speech and Mannerisms section is felt mostly in dialogue. Prior to making your choices for this section, go out in public and listen to real speech for a while. For The Curse Merchant, I actually filled out my character worksheets while sitting in the middle of a crowded community college cafeteria (I see the alliteration fairy is earning her pay this morning). Writing believable dialogue can be a challenge, but I find that filling in this worksheet can help keep my characters speaking at the level that I have intended for them.

SPEECH & MANNERISMS

Three Favorite Idioms/Expressions: In your prose, you should absolutely strive to limit the use of cliche and idiomatic expression. However, in your characters’ dialogue, idioms can and should present themselves. Define three idioms or expressions that the character tends to use, even over-use. Consider the personality of the character when making these choices, as they can serve to subconsciously remind you, and the reader, of the character’s mindset.

Three Favorite Words: I am a big believer in the psychological component of speech. Our diction carries hidden clues toward our personality. Choose three weighted words, keywords if you will, that may or may not pop up repeatedly in the character’s speech. Again, choose your words carefully, with respect to the character’s personality.

Most Used Vocal Pause: I don’t condone heavy use of vocal pauses within written dialogue. Even though dialogue is meant to be organic, it should never become distracting. Beginning every spoken sentence with “Uh, yeah.” or “So, um…” can become tiresome. However, this shouldn’t preclude the occasional use of vocal pauses, particularly during moments when you, as the author, have pulled the rug from underneath your character’s feet. In an effort to keep the characters distinct and identifiable within your manuscript, attempt to keep the chosen vocal pauses unique to each character. If your protagonist says “uh”, be sure the love interest says “hmm.”

Describe Vocal Tone: Just as knowing your character’s appearance helps to solidify the character for the mind’s eye, knowing the precise tone of your character’s voice will be equally formative for the mind’s ear. The description of vocal tone may often enter into the manuscript upon first hearing the character speak. Hint: I often cheat and describe a vocal tone simply by typing in an actor’s name. Wilford Brimley and Gilbert Gottfried have very different vocal tones.

Nervous Tic: Here we enter the realm of mannerism. Everyone has some type of “business” that is subconscious, yet often obvious (even annoying) to those surrounding us. Tapping a pen, clicking teeth, playing with hair, cracking knuckles, clearing the throat… these are actions that communicate anxiety, boredom, impatience. All by showing instead of telling. They also help to pace out a dialogue-heavy scene to give a moment’s pause for the reader.

Bad Habit: Beyond physical business, everyone has at least one bad habit. Poor dental hygiene, dirty laundry, bad accounting, procrastination. Go ahead and define a bad habit for each character. This is especially useful for virtuous protagonists or love interests who have a tendency to sublimate beyond the reader’s ability to empathize.

Good Habit: Not everything is nose picking and knuckle cracking. Just as virtuous characters require some manner of grounding, the more nefarious “heavies” in our plots often benefit from a humanizing element. Let them keep a spotless kitchen. Keep them on top of their bookkeeping. These habit entries are a kind of reflection of the Vice/Virtue entries in the previous page of the character worksheet, the distinction being that these habits should be mannerisms… mundane physical activities.

WARDROBE

Casual Attire/Work Clothes: For no particular reason, I tend to obsess on character wardrobe. Define a “typical” ensemble for day-to-day wear, and work attire. Whether these details enter into your manuscript is entirely up to the story itself. It must benefit the story, forward the character, or otherwise be beneficial to the reader. Otherwise it becomes verbal chaff. However, there is something to be said for implying a character’s personality via wardrobe versus straight exposition. The difference being “she was a quirky undergrad” and “she wore a poodle skirt, combat boots, and a Flogging Molly t-shirt”.

Favorite Shoes: There are entire schools of thought dedicated to the connection between personality and one’s shoes. If not, then there ought to be.

Sleepwear: Clearly important for steamy romance novels, but very often a middle-of-the-night scene will present itself, and should the character go sprinting into the night, it would be beneficial to know if she sleeps in the nude before the police catch up with her.

Underwear: Boxers or briefs. It may seem silly, but one’s choice in underwear can communicate elements of personality. When you find the woman wearing a leopard print bra-and-panty set undressing in front of the tax accountant wearing tighty-whiteys, the sexual dynamic rather presents itself.

Make-up: Bold emphasis on the eyes? Blood-red lipstick? Nothing but foundation? No make-up at all? Create in your mind a firm impression of the character, and as she develops throughout the story feel free to play with the choice of make-up, as the face she puts forward to the world tells a lot about the character.

Typical Accessories: The bracelets, necklaces, earrings, watches, wallets, belt buckles, and even the glasses frames find their way into the business of dialogue. Be sure to nail down exactly what the character is wearing, and keep it consistent within the scene!

Next time, we will conclude this exploration of character worksheets by creating the character’s personal history and resume.

Tools for Pre-writing: Character Worksheet Part 2

Today, let’s take a look at the second page of my character worksheet, which outlines the character’s personality and the character’s journey within the story. Here’s the sheet:

Let’s pick it apart.

PERSONALITY

Zodiac Sign: I know what you’re thinking. Seriously? Astrology? Views on whether the planets literally influence the lives of mortals aside, the traditional signs of the Zodiac break human personalities down into twelve archetypes… and that ought to get any writer’s mouth watering. I like to choose an arbitrary sign of the Zodiac, not to force the character to conform, but to give me a quick and easy star by which to navigate the character conflict.

%Extrovert/Introvert: How outgoing and proactive is your character? I choose a number to represent this, and try to keep it in mind as I wander through dialogue. I find this especially useful for secondary characters.

Greatest Fear: Name the one thing that would most devastate your character. Armed with this knowledge, you are poised to brandish this fear at your character. Repeatedly.

Greatest Hope: Similarly, the character’s ultimate dream should be something the character continually strives for. Tempt the character with this hope. Dangle it in front of her to urge her forward. This makes motivation much easier to define.

Greatest Vice: Keep this mundane. A vice is chewing nails, smoking, gambling, picking one’s nose, or picking others’ noses. It is thrown into the regular business of the prose between lines of dialogue and scene changes, and helps to ground the character in the mind of the reader.

Greatest Virtue: This is something that is utterly redeemable about the character, which the character doesn’t necessarily work at. It’s a constructive element of the personality that comes naturally. Does he always drop coins into the cups of beggars? Does he tip heavily? Does he mow the lawn of the old lady next door? Does he invest? These are the things that help balance antagonists. That is, unless you’re shooting for a perfectly cartoonish villain.

How Character Wants to be Seen by Others: This goes hand-in-hand with Greatest Hope, generally speaking, and defines the total package of character in the light of his hopes and ambitions, and helps to define the character’s “filter” from reality.

How Character is Actually Seen by Others: Here’s where the filter falls away. This entry combined with the previous entry can arm you with truckloads of dramatic irony for your character, as well as empathy (or antipathy) from your reader.

Minor Phobias: Do spiders give her the creepy-crawlies? Is he afraid of heights? These minor phobias often steer the character through the mundane business of life, and often present very real complications at the worst possible moments.

Minor Fetishes: Unless it’s integral to the plot, this is something that might not manifest in the story. The question remains, however, what turns your character on? This need not be sexual in nature. Does the character get a thrill from eating a triple chocolate sundae? Driving too fast? Dressing up in animal suits and playing tic tac toe on the kitchen table with a can of aerosol cheese?

Religious/Political Affiliation: We as human beings adore labels, particularly within a plural society. We carry within each of us a bevy of bias founded upon one’s own philosophies, be they political or religious. Depending on the story itself, this may be a very key, fundamental element to the plot. The more specifically you define their political and cosmological beliefs, the more concretely the character will present herself to the reader.

Favorite Music Style: If you answer Country/Western, and the story takes place in Renaissance Italy, then you might need to be sure that time travel is a core plot element.

CHARACTER JOURNEY

(this is a vitally important section to complete for any character)

Character Transformed from (what) to (what)?: This is a fill-in-the-blanks question. For any novel, you must have character development. Otherwise what was the point in the story? Most writers accept this on some level, but how deeply have you defined it for your character? Break it down simply. Your character began as a Blank, but has transformed into a Blank. Just fill in those Blanks. John transformed from a bigot to a compassionate husband. Judith transformed from a victim to an independent woman. Ughfrak transformed from a fifth-level demi-imp to a sixteenth level Demon Lord.

What Does Character Now Possess?: Your character may win or lose. When you get into the secondary characters, particularly the antagonist, you will have to deal with at least one character coming out on the bottom. Win or lose, however, each character will possess some knowledge, understanding, or even an item which represents the transformation the character has undergone. John now has a Korean wife. Judith now has a blue belt in Jiu Jitsu. Ughfrak now has the Greater Turning Stone of Beelzuboom the Filthy.

What Does Character Wish She Knew at Beginning of Story?: Part of the character’s journey should be painful. There should be failure, loss, even regret. And though our trials and tribulations define us and often make us stronger, we can’t help but to succumb to speculation. “Had I only known…” Define this speculation for the character. When the dust settled, what could have avoided all of this? Remember to keep this entry “filtered” through the eyes of your character.

Next time we’ll discuss Speech, Mannerisms, and Wardrobe!

Tools for Pre-writing: Character Worksheet Part 1

Time for some more red meat!

Previously I discussed the plot structure outline I use to create a skeleton of my story, and the scene worksheets that pad out that skeleton with muscle and sinew. I have several entries in my scene worksheets dedicated to primary POV character, secondary character, and motivation. This provides a very poor space to flesh out a character, however, and towards that end I have created  a second spreadsheet dedicated entirely to character development.

They aren’t small. In fact, they’re embarrassingly large.

You can see the whole sheet from Nevada, if you squint...

I’m going to take four blog posts and walk through each page of my character worksheets, because it’s simply too much to tackle in one go. I’ve pieced together the information on these sheets from various sources: classes, teachers, websites, theory books. The information is somewhat exhaustive, and to be honest, I don’t always fill in every blank, particularly for secondary characters.

The first page is dedicated to the vital stats and the character’s role within the story. Here’s a close-up:

I suddenly feel like I'm playing Dungeons & Dragons again...

That image is a little hard to read, so here’s the breakdown:

Character (Name:) This should be pretty self-explanatory. In fantasy and science fiction, this might merit some consideration. I like to try to avoid pulpy character names such as “Dirk Masterson” or “Stafford Manchisel”. My secret weapon for finding realistic character names? Online phone directories for public servants.

Book Title: In case you get confused.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

Age/Gender/Eye Color/Hair Color/Hair Length: The minutia of your character’s physical description may seem trivial, but specific concrete details only help to ground the character in your mind, and the more real the character is to you, the better chance the character will materialize in the mind of the reader.

Race/Complexion: Not only do I specify my character’s ethnicity, I narrow it down to the skin tone. I like to strive for diversity in my casts of characters, mostly because the world is diverse, but also because it makes for a more interesting story.

Build: There are endless ways to describe a human body, and usually the words we have chosen indicate our subconscious views of the character. If we describe the protagonist as “thin”, we must stop to ask “as compared to what?” Are we implying some kind of deficiency? If we choose “emaciated”, we hint at illness or weakness. If we choose “trim”, we hint at vibrancy and athleticism.

Most Striking Physical Feature: Now we start to dig into the meat. Most of the information I provide in this worksheet never actually makes it to the novel. It’s largely unnecessary, and serves mostly to provide the subtle backgrounds and biases that readers prefer to receive via titillating, subliminal methods. In a First Person P.O.V., describing the narrator can become a challenge. Some resort to cliche (looking at a mirror). I prefer to skip physical descriptions when the character is the narrator. For everyone else, there is one physical feature that stands out, and this feature is almost always how I introduce a character for the first time. It could be “Carmen with her waist-length raven black hair”, or “the salt-and-pepper stubble on Edgar’s broad chin”.

PURPOSE

Role: Is this character the protagonist? Antagonist? Reflection of the protagonist? Reflection of the antagonist? Love interest? Mentor? Mentor’s love interest? The pool boy that the antagonist’s reflection likes to diddle on the side?

Wound: One of the most formative tidbits of advice I received from Orson Scott Card was this: “Always give your character a wound that will not heal.” What is your character’s wound? Define that wound, and you will discover a wealth of conflict.

Character Flaw: No one is perfect. Find at least one specific flaw for your character. It could be a tic, a nervous complaint, a bad habit, a psychosis, or even a considerably destructive outlook. This is distinct from the Wound, in that a flaw is generally part of the character’s personality, whereas the Wound is something that was inflicted upon the character.

Character Goal (What Character Wants): And we’ve come upon the GMC… Goal, Motivation, Conflict. I like to define GMC as “What the character wants, why she wants it, and what’s standing in the way.” Every character must have a goal, not necessarily related to the plot (unless this is the protagonist, in which case it ought to be the plot).

Character Motivation (Why S/he Wants It): What’s driving the character towards this goal? This must be strongly defined and feasible, or the reader won’t buy it.

External Conflict: This should be a mechanical obstacle, the literal physical reason the character cannot achieve the goal.

Internal Conflict: Very often we are our greatest enemy. What is going on inside the character’s head that is creating a psychological obstacle to achieving the goal? The distinction between the External and Internal Conflict is the difference between “Sheila’s mother-in-law is driving a wedge between Sheila and her husband,” and “Sheila’s mother-in-law reminds Sheila of her own abusive mother whom she has never forgiven”.

Major Relationships with Other Characters: Here is the chance to quickly define the other major relationships with characters in the story. If there’s a love interest, list him here. If there is a mentor, here you go. Note: for every character mentioned in this spot, you should create a worksheet for that character as well.

That’s enough for one blog post. Next time I’ll go into Personality… hopes, fears, even fetishes!

 

Tools for Pre-writing: Dissecting the Scene Worksheet

I’ve mentioned before how I approach a novel in a hair-splittingly analytical fashion. Several of my Twitter followers have expressed an interest in seeing some of my pre-writing tools in greater detail. I am happy to accommodate. And since this post will be largely nuts-and-bolts, I thought I would lighten the mood at the onset with this photo of a puppy.

Adorable.

In a previous post, I discussed my method for plot outlining, wherein I chart the significant landmarks along the Three Act plot structure. These landmarks are our navigational beacons through which we pilot the plot ship (wow, analogies ahoy!).

So, what about the points between?

I feel it is absolutely vital that every scene along the road should forward the plot, advance character development, or both. One great quagmire of fiction is the “Act II Desert”, in which the initial intensity of the Inciting Event passes, and the protagonist embarks on the journey. Regrettably, this often leads to scenes of exposition, setting portraiture, and idle conversation, causing the plot to spin its wheels in the sand, and the reader to skim pages or put down the book.

However, if each scene has a clear conflict and a direct purpose towards the overall novel, then the Act II Desert becomes something more like an archipelago of plot points, propelling the reader forward. That’s the idea, anyway.

I received a fantastic tool for outlining the scene worksheet from author Meredith Bond, and I only gave it a couple tweaks, so credit goes to her for the format of this spreadsheet. Also, Regency Romance fans, go check out her stuff!

So, let’s discuss her scene worksheet.  Here’s a snapshot of a blank scene worksheet:

My God, it's full of... cells...

Let’s discuss each entry…

Scene Title: I give each scene a title, rather like a chapter title that is bland and descriptive. It helps me to capture at a glance what’s happening in this scene. An example would be “Jack Gets Abducted” or “Jill’s First Tag Team Match”.

Place: This is the physical setting. Often more than one setting is listed if it’s a “moving” scene.

Length: Not the word count… rather, the passage of time from the character’s point of view. For a simple conversational scene, this would be a matter of minutes. For a scene in Act II where there’s an 80’s training montage or a last minute study session in the college library, this would be longer. This helps to track realistic passage of time.

Time: On the clock, per the characters’ point of view. I often write this as 1:00pm – 1:30pm, for example.

Landmark: The role of the scene per my Plot Outline nomenclature, such as “Inciting Event” or “Salvo” or “Dark Moment”.

Date: Per the characters’ point of view, once again. This is surprisingly vital to keep the timeline from overlapping or becoming unrealistic.

POV Character: For any novel with more than one POV, this keeps track of whom the scene is centered on. A single scene can not change POV’s. It simply can’t. If you feel the need to change POV, start a new scene.

Weather: This is part of my pre-writing OCD. I like to nail down what the weather is like, which helps me more fully realize the surroundings of the characters, whether they’re going to run from the car or walk, whether they’re going to grab a coat or a pair of sunglasses. Keeping this in mind helps fully realize the world around the characters.

Character’s Goal: Ah, here we get to the real point. The POV character must have a goal for the scene. If there is no real discernible goal to be accomplished, then the scene isn’t strong enough. Every scene is a conflict between characters, an attempt to get something. Define each scene’s goal STRONGLY.

Prize/Stakes: There must be something tangible to gain, and if the scene is compelling enough, something to lose should the character fail. This basically makes every scene a microcosm of the overall piece. If the character doesn’t have something to gain and lose, then the scene isn’t strong enough.

Problem/What Happens?: Here I outline the very basics of what happens during the scene, which is usually a response to a problem. This problem is typically precipitated by the previous scene… a string of causality that serves as a motor for the pacing of the story.

Opposition: If a scene has conflict, then the POV character will encounter obstacles within the scene. The boring CEO is droning on about the shrimp cocktail while the spunky mail clerk is trying to keep the leggy receptionist from going home with the serial killer. The boyfriend wants to go to sleep instead of talking through the problem. I like to try and fit in at least three attempts towards the goal in each scene.

Strategy: This is the character’s response to each obstacle. The mail clerk points out the cheesecake to the CEO. The girlfriend locks the bedroom door. Don’t let the character give up!

Initial Conflict: Define the overall conflict at the heart of the scene… the mail clerk is trying to save the life of the receptionist. The girlfriend has to confront the boyfriend about his alcoholism.

Turning Point/Disaster: In each scene, there comes a moment when it is obvious that the character will succeed or fail. This is the miniature climax of each scene. Define this, and you’ll have something to write towards.

How does s/he feel at the beginning?: I like to establish the emotional condition of the POV character at the beginning of the scene, so that I can compare it after the scene is complete. If there’s no change, the scene isn’t strong enough.

Purpose of the Scene: Ok, here’s another biggie! Every scene ought to contribute to the plot and/or character development. Try to list three ways the scene justifies its existence. I try not to be too demanding here, because “establishing the protagonist’s relationship with boyfriend” doesn’t sound sexy, but may be vital to the reader’s empathy.

What does s/he have now that s/he didn’t have at the beginning?: If there is something to be gained, then define what was actually gained. It may not be the same. If the character fails in the scene, then that character has gained something negative, such as unwanted attention from the antagonist, or a shortened deadline. Maybe a black eye. Or, the protagonist might have gained something s/he wasn’t expecting, which is the essence of suspense.

How does s/he feel about it?: This charts the emotional impact upon the character, to be contrasted by how s/he felt at the beginning of the scene. Again, no change? Weak scene.

How does the scene move the character toward the goal?: This is more of an examination of character development, as opposed to Purpose of the Scene which is more plot oriented.

What is non-POV character thinking/feeling during scene?: In every scene, there ought to be at least one other character involved. An entire scene with only the POV character is possible, particularly if the conflict is protagonist vs. nature, or some other non-corporeal antagonism. However, too many such scenes can grind a novel to a halt. I like to explore the mind of the non-POV characters, which helps to maintain continuity of the minor cast.

Checklist: Here I tend to check off that I have accomplished Conflict, established setting, included the five senses, injected some emotional element (humor if the novel needs to break tension), ensured I haven’t needlessly ramped up to the scene but began it as close to the conflict as possible, and made sure I made a real palpable ending that will lead directly into the next scene.

So, there you have it. Please note that these are “scene” worksheets, and not “chapter” worksheets, as the two are not necessarily interchangeable. I consider a chapter to be a discrete package of prose that divides the overall novel into digestible bites, though there may be more than one scene in each chapter. A particularly powerful or long scene ought to be its own chapter. And I certainly feel that any chapter should fully contain at least one scene, less the reader be given a needless jarring.

Remember… each scene is a miniature version of the greater novel. They should have their own beginning, middle, and end. They should also interlock into a chain of cause-and-effect, any victory creating a need, every failure requiring new strategy. And most importantly, every scene should justify its existence.

Puppy image credit: nixxphotography

Why I No Longer Aspire to Be an Author

Until this morning, my blog bio described me as “an aspiring author”. I see this term used often on Twitter profiles and writer’s blog About Me pages. As I considered the meaning of this term “aspiring author”, I questioned its worth in describing me. And then it occurred to me. I’m not an aspiring author.

I am an author.

According to Merriam-Webster, an author is defined as “the writer of a literary work”. To aspire is “to seek to attain or accomplish a particular goal”.

Thus, what is an aspiring author? One who sits in front of the computer screen, hoping to finish one’s first manuscript? Once the first word is typed, one becomes the writer of that word, whether or not the work reaches completion.

"It was a dark and stormy night." HELL YEAH!

In my opinion, anyone who begins the serious work of writing a story, essay, article, or poem has begun to write, and thus has become a writer. He or she may aspire to complete the work, but they have made the transition from “thinking about it” to “doing it.” The next milestone would be “having done it”, and that’s no small task to be sure.

But what is the point in selling oneself short? It’s easy to talk about writing that novel, daydreaming, even discussing ideas with friends. But sitting down and making an outline, cranking up that word processor (does anyone even call it that anymore?), and braving those first few sentences has accomplished something real. They have turned “will do” into “am doing”.

So what about all of my friends in the Blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebookohedron who describe themselves as “aspiring”? Why choose to qualify their accomplishments? I feel it has a lot to do with a connotation of the word “author”, which implies that one supports oneself with one’s writing, or is otherwise considered “full time.” Considering the recent changes in the publishing industry, particularly independent self-published authors who take advantage of the online eBook revolution, I feel the image of the full time author is due for an update.

How many authors keep a day job? Lots. Thanks to Hurricane Irene, my day job was shut down for two days, giving me a taste of a full-time writer’s schedule. It was a writer’s holiday, for certain, and I took full advantage of it. Yet, however much I enjoyed the fantasy of sitting and cranking out word count in the serenity of my own home, I recognize that the responsibilities for my family and its financial well being need not sway my self-identity as an author. I can be an author and a draftsman and a brewer and a husband and a father, all at the same time.

I am not an aspiring father. I am a father. And I need not wait until my son has moved out on his own until I call myself “successful.” Creating a novel is much like child rearing, in that you invest your time and energy, and your manuscript grows and evolves to the point where you must one day release it into the world. You’ve begun the process; you’re an author. Own that identity without qualification!

In Curse Merchant news, my self-imposed deadline for finishing my first draft has expired as of midnight last night. Alas, I did not make my deadline. I’m sitting at roughly 74,000 words, and I am smack in the middle of my climax scene. I have two more chapters left in my outline after this scene… the Road Home and the Denouement. I’m expecting the first draft to finish around 78,000 words, and I do expect to complete the manuscript sometime this weekend. So, it’s not an unqualified success, but I’m not worried. By Monday, The Curse Merchant will exist in its first incarnation, after which I will take a deserved break from writing and begin first revisions to Omnipotence. I’m rather looking forward to it!

Image credit: graur razvan ionut