Saturday, June 18, 2011

Newton's Three Laws of Motion

Newton's First Law of Motion:
Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to stay in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

Newton's Second Law of Motion
The relationship between an object's mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F is F = ma.

Newton's Third Law of Motion
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Okay - I know what you are thinking.  I thought that this was a blog about writing, not physics.  Why are you talking about Newton's three laws of motion?  Well, if you stop and think about it, you will realize that Newton would have made a great fiction writer.  He figured some of the basic requirements of great phy-ction writing (okay - bad joke, I know).

So how does physics apply to fiction writing?  Let's take a look.  First - an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.  So let's assume that the object is your reader.  In theory, you want your reader to start at the beginning of your book and keep reading through to the end.  You don't want something to detract from their reading experience.  So what might this external force be?  Well, unfortunately, the reading universe is littered with them.  Poor grammar and spelling seems to be one I am seeing more and more with the advent of self publishing.  Another is back story - or rather, too much back story (yes, I have a hang up about back story because it has been a problem in my writing that I am trying to stop!).  Lack of structure is another outside force as is poor character development.  There are many more, too many to list, but it is imperative that you become aware of these potential landmines which may draw your reader out of the story and fail to allow them to come back in.  Remember, an object in motion stays in motion....

Newton's second law is F=ma.  So what does this have to do with writing?  This represents the conflict in your story.  If you don't have conflict, then you have no acceleration in the story.  A story must have F (conflict) between the objects (characters), in order to have acceleration.  Okay, that's F/m=a, but still, you get the idea.  Conflict is what moves the story forward.  It's what makes your reader want to keep reading through the next chapter rather than turning out the light.  Each character has their own conflicts with which they need to deal.  There are external conflicts which occur between the characters, but internal conflicts that the character must battle within themselves.  Often, the external conflicts and external conflicts work against one another.

Finally, Newton's third law - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  This is an easy one.  When you are developing a scene there are two basic types of scenes.  Proactive and reactive.  For every action (proactive scene) there is an equal and opposite reaction (reactive scene).  When something happens, the character needs time to think about what happened and decide what his or her next move is going to be.  Every scene though, should move the story forward (this brings us back to Newton's first law - once your story is in motion, it needs to stay in motion).  For the most part, your scenes will be proactive/reactive alternating - constantly carrying your story forward and moving it towards its climax.  Look at each of your scenes, determine if they are reactive or proactive.  If they are neither, ask yourself, should this really be here.  Sometimes the answer may be yes.  It may actually be a proactive or reactive scene that just needs a little tweaking.  Or it might have significant back story (not too much!) that is building up to something happening.  But if your scene does not fit into the proactive or reactive mold, it needs to be looked at carefully.

So, moral of the story - if you remember Newton's laws of motion, you are moving in the right direction.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Information Dump

Recently I went through a critique session with some of my new colleagues from the RCRW.  I must say that it was an eye opening experience.  First of all, I'd like to mention that I've found myself among a group of extremely talented people.  The pieces of work that I read were positively amazing!  While I think that everyone in the group shows promise, there is one writer in particular that I honestly believe will be among published authors within the next few years and I will be happy to say that she slashed my work to shreds :).

Having other people critique your work is incredibly helpful.  I gained incredible insight into my work that I would have never seen myself, and this has helped me to improve upon what I have already written.  Besides many annoying quirks that I have that I can now avoid, thanks to their comments, I have also found that I am prone to information dumps.  A few people have pointed this out, but I think now I get it. 

Now here's my thought on information dumps.  They aren't bad.  Okay - WAIT!  Before you start getting your panties in a twist, let me finish.  If you are a pantser like me (someone who writes by the seat of her pants and then goes back and figures out what to do with it), they are akin to the character interviews that more structured individuals like to partake in.  The information dumps are a great way to learn about the characters pasts.  To really get close to the character and understand what your characters think and what motivates them.  However - it is also important to recognize them as information dumps.  My information dumps have become very structured (yay W).  Thanks to the many books, conferences, and classes I have participated in, I have learned how to structure a scene.  My information dumps have a goal, they accomplish what they should, the characters are doing what they are supposed to be doing - but here's the key, they contain information that the reader does not need to know.  Sure, the information may be interesting, it may be some of the best writing in the book, but if it doesn't advance the overall goal of the character (not the scene goal - the overall goal), then the reader just doesn't need to know.

I think the key is, knowing when to dump your dumps.  As long as you can distinguish when the scene advances the goal, and when it is something that you wrote for your own benefit - then information dumps can be a very positive thing.  One man's trash....

Friday, May 13, 2011

Picked up stitch....

Okay, so despite my review of Lynsay Sands book A Quick Bite in my last blog, I decided to go on and read another of her books, A Bite to Remember.  I *thought* this was her second book, but apparently it's her 5th in the Argeneau vampire series.  

This book was a huge improvement on the previous book I read.  Here, we have Vincent, the protagonist vampire, and Jackie, the mortal who fears vampires due to an experience when she was young.

The beginning starts strong, Vincent owns a acting production company where a saboteur is ruining his productions, progressively becoming more and more vicious in the process.  He wants to stop the saboteur so he can get back to work.  Clear goal.  Jackie and her partner Tiny are hired to find the saboteur.  Her goal, though the same as Vincent's, is for a very different reason.  She is a detective, she was hired to find the saboteur.  This is her job.  Again, clear goal.  Now, you might say - same goal, no good.  Not true.  They may have the same goal, but they have the goal for very different reasons.  This is good.

Now, throughout the course of the book, we discover certain things about the characters.  There is a little overflow of backstory describing why Jackie is not completely comfortable with vampires and why, despite her attraction to Vincent, she refuses to see him as a romantic interest (other than the whole employer/employee thing).  While the backstory is imperative to the plot, I felt that it could have been incorporated a little better rather than just one single backstory dump, but still.  Her characters are still a bit shallow, but better in this one, and I appreciate that she keeps the cast list small and easily manageable.  At the end of the book there was a large influx of seemingly unnecesary characters that I was unsure about, but due to their small role, I didn't feel that it really detracted from the story. 

This story also had a clear structure.  I have studied the W plot of Karen Docter, and the three act structure as described in Fiction Writing for Dummies.  Both run parallel.  The structure in this book works really well in that regard.  There is  a clear movement from one act to the next and a clear escalation of circumstances.

There were some good complexities in this story as well - like the last one however, there was a sort of Deus Ex Machina ending - the "coincidence" that solves the crime that was a bit too fortuitous to be believable, but this book shows a great contrast in writing.  The story lines are similar, but I think to look at this book, and compare it to the one that I described before is really a great study in how you can turn a troubled manuscript into something workable.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dropped stitches....

Okay - So I haven't really been reading Pale Demon for all this time (for those of you who actually pay attention to my "reading now" books - and yes, I'm still reading Fiction Writing for Dummies because it's on my daughter's Kindle and she won't give it up!).  The truth of the matter is that I really wanted to post something on Pale Demon because it has a great W Plot and gives a wonderful demonstration of hero's journey.  So I thought, I would post that "review" and take it down.  The truth is, I have read The Other Side of the Grave by Jeaniene Frost which I loved because the big bad guy was a sniveling loser just like UBL - I thought it rather apropos, and then I read a hand me down from my sister - A Quick Bite by Lynsay Sands.

I think that it is important to have both positive examples and negative examples from which to learn.  I am a college professor and I routinely in class take student papers and shred them in front of the class.  We tear them apart, analyze them, figure out everything that is wrong with them, and then put them back together.  Now, this may seem heartless and cruel, but the truth is, I only do it for students that volunteer their papers for review, and I am never short of volunteers.  I sometimes have to have raffles to see who the lucky "winner" is that will get reemed in class.  And amazingly, the students consistently report that they learn more from ripping apart the bad examples, then from looking at the plethora of "good" examples that we, as educators give to them.

Why is this?  Well, the truth is, we are all making these same mistakes.  We can see what the good example is, and we see that our bad example doesn't match the good example, but we don't always know why.  So, I think that it's important to share with you some examples that I consider to be bad examples (not mine :D )

***********  SPOILER ALERT  ***************

So this brings me to Ms. Sands novel.  This was definitely not a keeper.  It was okay, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't great.  Kim Harrison is great.  Adrian Phoenix is great.  Jeaniene Frost is great.  Why? Because their characters are well developed, they have clear goals, and they have clear structure.  So why don't I put Ms. Sands on my keeper shelf?  Well, to begin with, the goals are not clearly developed.  It would seem that, at the beginning, the hero is trying to get to his vacation spot (Cancun, I believe), and the heroine is trying to cure her phobia.  So far, so good.  We have some clear cut goals.  But then after a while, the hero's (Dr. Hewitt) flight is cancelled, and apparently so is his goal. 

Oh, but wait - then he has to convince the heroine that she wants to spend the rest of forever with him.  But that *can't* be the goal because we can't have love as a primary goal in a romance (now I know why).  So basically, we have the rest of the book with the hero trying to get into the heroine's pants (or panties).  Then, we have the antagonist.  Some floundering misled priest who thinks the heroine is a vampire (which she is).  But all of his tests to see if she is a vampire, fail.  And yet he still pursues her - subtly and silently.  The conflict is practically absent. Plus, it's so obvious throughout the book who the antagonist is and what's going on and yet the heroine is totally oblivious to it - DUH!  He does everything but smack her in the face ... that is until the end when he points a gun at her and accuses her of being a vampire. 

Then, when all seems lost (rug pull here), her family swoops in and saves her and her vampire lover (did I tell you she turned him into a vampire?) with barely an explanation of how they found her, staked out on the porch of a house in the middle of nowhere.  And everyone lives happily ever after (except that her phobia isn't cured, Dr. Hewitt never gets to Cancun although he does convince her to marry him, and the priest's mind is wiped so he doesn't remember a thing - how convenient - and he goes on ministering to the poor). Ugh! 

So, if you are looking for a book with minimal character development, too much back story and exposition (did I forget to mention the chapter exhaustively explaining where vampires came from, why she is afraid of blood *and* marriage?), and a weak, soggy antagonist, then look no further.  This will explain to you in clear detail why you spend hours and hours pining away at that one last chapter, and developing your story, and making sure it flows.  I strongly recommend it as an example of what *not* to do. (Definitely NC17 rating)

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Structuring a scene...

So it's all starting to make sense.  Don't get me wrong, I still have a lot to learn, but the pieces are staring to fall into place.  I think I'm starting to see the light. When you write a novel, it's not just about the finished piece.  It's about all the little pieces that make up that final finished work.  I grew up in Chicago.  I spent a lot of time at the Art Institute.  Its one of the places you can walk to easily from the train.  As a result, my friends and I would take the train downtown on the weekends and walk to the Art Institute to explore its many exhibits.  When you go into the museum, there is a stairway in front of you.  At the top of the grand stairway, there is a room that houses the most amazing piece of art I have ever seen.  It is A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte  by Geoge Seurat.

This piece exemplifies the idea of the parts making up the whole.  It also shows how important it is to choose the correct parts to ensure the proper flow.  Each individual point works by itself as an individual dot, each image working alone as a beautiful image in and of itself, but then, as you move further and further from the image, the whole picture becomes apparent as a masterpiece.

Likewise, in your novel, each scene should be able to stand alone.  Each scene in your book should have its own purpose for existing.  It should move the story forward.  It should tell it's own story.  It should have its own POV, and the characters should have their own goals.  If your scenes do not do this, then they either need to be rewritten, or they need to be deleted.  No scene, no line, no word, should exist within your book without a purpose.  Each piece exists for a reason and each works with the others to create a masterpiece.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Breaking the Rules

Okay, so I'm trying to resolve some conflict I'm having about some comments I've been making lately.  See, I read my little books about what all the good little boy and girl writers are supposed to do, and then I read my "fun" books and I go through my little analyses. 

See, I'm a college professor by trade so I'm used to grading things.  And as a general rule, I grade things "by the book."  I don't give a lot of leeway for creative thinking because you have to learn how to do things by the rules before you can break them.  Because I teach primarily 100 and 200 level courses, that doesn't leave a lot of room for breaking the rules.  Well, as a writer, I really fall into the 100 level course load (if I even fall into the college level courses - frankly, I think I'm still in Kindergarten and running with scissors, or maybe eating glue).

So here's where I'm going with this.  I read what I like, regardless of the "rules" and I find that this is true of *most* people.  For instance, I haven't reviewed my book on here because quite frankly I'm frightened of what I might say, but overall, the feedback from readers has been pretty positive.  That doesn't mean I'm not going to try to follow the rules on the next book and do better, but readers like what they like.

Another example would be Adrian Phoenix, she definitely breaks the rules - I mean talk about Queen of Backstory - but that doesn't mean I'm not jonesing for her next novel.  And then there are people who are very good at following the rules - Tom Clancy is a great example.  But really, I find myself nodding off whenever I try to read a Tom Clancy novel (though they do make great movies).

As a college professor, I know as well that there comes a time when you know the rules well enough that it's okay to break them.  And really, as a writer, I think that you *must* break the rules.  If every writer followed the same mold, there would be nothing new and exciting to read, it would be the same old story over and over and over again.  Well, okay - really it is, but the story teller is what makes the story unique and makes it come alive!  How do they do that?  They break the rules - or maybe they bend them a little.

See, that's the thing - how do writers do what they do so well?  Does every book on your keep shelf follow *all* of the rules?  Or can some of the rules be broken?  Are there some rules that are absolutely set in stone, and some that are mere guidelines? And if so, how do we know the difference?  How do we, as newbies, find our own voice in this world of rules and more rules?  The more I learn, the more I find myself locked in a prison of words.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Great study in goals, plotting and character development....

So, part of the reason I blog is because I'm trying to become a better author. In doing that, one of the important things to recognize the good examples when you see them. I'd like to offer an excellent example in all this goal, plotting, character development jungle.

Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is an outstanding example of not only goals, but plotting and character development. So, here are the main characters: first you have Carpenter, he died because he was drunk and fell out a window. He ended up in Hell, but not so much. You see, it's Dante's Hell, and well, Carpenter ended up in the outer circle, not so much because he's a bad guy, but because he doesn't believe in God. Then you have Benito. That would be Benito Mussolini. Yup - you read that right. We all know why he died, and can pretty much guess why he's in Hell. Then of course, you have the Devil and his Minions. These are the bad guys. Yeah, that's right, Benito is a good guy. (If that's not enough to get you to read this book, I don't know what is). So anyway, Carpenter and Benito want to get out of Hell. Actually, let me explain, Benito wants to help Carpenter get out of Hell, because that's what he does. He's not so much trying to escape as trying to get Carpenter to the exit. Now Carpenter on the other hand, is trying to get out - at least, that's how it all starts out. Of course, the Devil and his Minions are trying to stop them from succeeding at their goal. What He wants to do is put them in their proper place - that's right, Dante's Hell, seven rings, the whole shebang.

So throughout the book, we meet up with other characters. Some of them we know and love, like Billy the Kid, and others, not so much - like the catatonic woman, but they all challenge Carpenter as he makes his way through Hell to the Exit (yes, I capitalized that). But along the way, Carpenter has sort of an epiphany as he meets and gets to know people in each of the seven levels. And by the end, Carpenter has grown and learned something about himself.

Truly, it's brilliant. The goal is as clear as day. I mean, throughout the book Carpenter says several times that he wants to get out of Hell, but his emotional growth is where we learn about character development. And the obstacles that are put in his way challenge his morals and his beliefs and force him to look at himself. It's really a great study for anyone who is challenged in character development, goal setting and plotting. And for a great follow up, try Escape from Hell.

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