Story Beats and Hooks that aren’t for fishermen: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

It’s Tuesday again, my fellow writing buddies! Time to talk about what we’ve accomplished this past week.

It was an interesting week for me. Most of it hinges on the Under Ground Writing Project meeting I wen to on Sunday.

Normally during the meetings we’re critiquing one another’s work – looking for stuff like plot, character, typos, that kinda stuff. This month we had a special guest critic, which we do from time to time, by the name of Jan CJ Jones. She’s a producer at a local production company, Forest Rose Productions. And again, under normal circumstances, the guest critics offer their expertise as part of the larger group circle discussion.

But this time we ran it like a pitch session. As a producer, Jones is one of those people who is sitting on ‘the other side’ of the desk, like editors and agents and, well, movie producers. She offered to listen to all of us pitch our stories and give us pointers on the logline, the summary, and the first three pages of our novels. We took her up on her offer.

It was tiring. It was long. It was emotional. All in all, a good shake-it-up experience.

Generally I try not to focus on the marketing side of things, preferring to keep my energies on producing good language and developing a good story. However, after Sunday, I’ve figured out that pitching, or writing a query letter, or summarizing your story helps with the writing itself. Because, guess what, if your story is no good, your pitch material will show that. If you see a hole in your summary, there’s a hole in you story. It’s just how it is.

A month prior to this meeting we were given a handout that listed what we were to provide and present for our pitching session. First we were to provide information about ourselves: name, rank, serial numbers, where we are in our writing now, where we see ourselves in ten years, our writing strengths and our writing weaknesses. Then we were to give the low-down on the work we were presenting: genre, title, slugline/logline, and the ‘back of the book’ summary. After that, we listed the beats of our story: hook, inciting incident, midpoint, major setback, climax, denoument). Finally we read the first three pages of the book.

Let me take you through the bits that really stuck with me:

The logline:

So a few of us were whacked  on the knuckles right out of the gate (how’s that for some mixing of metaphors?) with the loglines. It’s one thing to know intellectually that you should be able to ‘sum-up’ your novel in one sentence – it’s quite another to put it into practice. ***Nathan Bransford has a rockin’ post on his blog about One Sentence Summaries – aka the logline – definitely check it out. He’s right on the money.***

The one lesson I took out of this early section of the presentation: The Reader is Ignorant. This isn’t as harsh as it sounds. Put very simply: the reader doesn’t know what the heck your story is about. They are coming from a complete space of unknowing. It’s up to you, the writer, to let them know what’s going on. Seems obvious, right?

However, you the writer know your story inside and out – putting you into a high context relationship with your story. You can joke with your story. You can hang out and have coffee with your story. You know your story had a really hard time around chapter fourteen that you guys worked out together. How are you going to introduce this story to a person who doesn’t know?

For educational purposes only, I shall share with you the logline I presented. (Those of you who know nothing about my story will see the problem immediately.) (And my goodness, you have no idea how hard this is to type, but I’ll force myself…like I said it was kind of an emotional roller coaster of a day):

First: title and genre: “The Line. Dystopian.”

Second: logline: “Those who fall below the Line are never heard from again. When her sister falls below, Susanna Purchase must save her before their father’s actions kill them both.”

Dost thou seest the issue? What the hell is the Line? Some figure of speech? A physical thing? This logline says nothing much. *Jenny bangs head against presentation podium*

The other thing Jones talked about was the set up of the logline – and Bransford talks about it in more detail and more articulately at the link I’ve already given you. Logline must include: main character, the MC’s obstacle, and the MC’s goal.

I’ve had a little while to come up with something else and I’ll throw it out here so youse guys who haven’t read my novel can tell me if it A.) makes any kind of sense and B.) intrigues at all.

Jenny’s second attempt at a logline: “Susanna Purchase falls below the Line, a State developed system designed to hold individuals accountable to predetermined standards, when her sister is accused of treason. Susanna, held in a prison camp, must join an underground rebellion to save her sister before she is executed.

Meh. I’m not even done with the book yet, so I’ve got plenty of time to work on it.

The Beats:
Part of our assignment was to figure out the major ‘beats’ of our story. I’d never heard this concept before and during our discussion I thought that this was the most useful portion of the critiques. Since it’s kind of like a summary, this is really helpful for character motivation and story coherence. So I thought I’d share the concept with you.

Here’s what they are:

Beat 1: The Hook: This is the opening, what immediately grabs the reader’s attention.

Beat 2: The Inciting Incident: This may or may not happen simultaneously with the hook. Basically, the thing to keep in mind with the inciting incident is that the main character is set on a course of action different than their everyday life. This is where the world will never be the same and the main character has to act. They ‘gotta’ have something, do something, etc. They are motivated to move.

Beat 3: Midpoint: Up to this point the main character has been figuring things out, trouble has been brewing, but here is where the stakes are raised. What happens if the main character fails? I’d never heard this question applied to a story before. Sure, you think about what your main character wants, what drives them, but this is the first time I’d considered what happened if they did not get it. Coming at it from the other side is a neat-o thing. What are the consequences? If there is no change because of the main character…well, that’s just not a very interesting story.

Beat 4: Major Setback: Here is where the worst stuff happens. All the crutches are removed. The Bad Forces come into play. If the main character has some kind of character flaw, this is where it’ll show up – and the main character will be either overwhelmed or will overcome.

Beat 5: Climax: All actions lead to this point. I think most of us understand what the climax is.

Beat 6: Denoument: Classically known as the ‘falling’ action. Where things wrap up, calm down, and a new order is established to the character’s life.

…and that’s what I learned this week. Have I gone on long enough? What’d you guys do?

Good Omens/Collaboration

*This week’s Monday post is brought to you early by Really-Busy-Tomorrow Cereal!

In a post the other day, Jenny asked me what I thought of our new collaborative adventures. To Jenny, I say, Good Omens. Oh my, how I love when things sync up like that. The book in question is a delightful collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. In a copy I read, or maybe an interview, Gaiman reflected on the process of collaborating. It’s been a while since I read it, but the jist of what he said was that as they went along writing, their main goal was to write something that would make the other laugh. So, it was kind of like a game/conversation. I thought that was pretty cool

Now, to talk about me and Jenny. So far, we’re still early days, so a lot of the collaboration is focused on questions like, “How do we want this process to work?” Piece by piece, we’re working that out. For those of you who are interested, here’s how we’re tackling it:

In the book, we’ve got two timelines that relate to each other. I really liked the stuff and characters in the earlier timeline and Jenny had cool ideas about the later timeline. So, we decided to divide and conquer. We had an outlining/note making session to get on the same page about who the characters were and what our major plot points in both timelines would be. Now, we’re working on the drafting stage.

For our respective timelines, each of us is responsible for writing the rough draft. Then, as we get a chapter or two finished, we e-mail the draft to each other. The other person reads the draft and tweaks it, adding what they think should be added, re-wording, etc. Then, it goes back to the drafter to review and see what they’d change about the other person’s tweaks. I think the process should work well, and it’ll help with things like consistency of voice & character and all the other logistical things that get tricky when you have two people driving the boat.

The blog follows a similar process. We’ve got an outline of mentors and we’ve divvied up the posting schedule and features, i.e. Tuesday Accountability posts are Jenny’s domain, the Saturday Pages are my pet project. I think we’re getting our rhythm, and it’s fun to have someone to have a conversation with as I write. It’s all about that idea of the Ideal Reader, and Jenny fits the bill nicely.

Ready, Set, Leap

This week’s Saturday pages is all about figurative language and taking leaps. I’m also going to offer you different levels to try your hand at – depending on whether you a lighter writing exercise or if you’re game for some heavier lifting. The most important thing about today’s exercise is that you shut up your inner critic and just write. Embrace the process. Hesitations are bad for big leaps.

One writer who ties in with Neil Gaiman is Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s on the mentor docket, so stay tuned, we’ll be talking more about him later this year. I mention Pratchett in this post because I’m reminded of a comparison he made in one of his books which I have remembered, literally, for years. Because, when you write that Lord Vetinari, the city’s ruling official, is like “a carnivorous flamingo,” that’s memorable.

So, go get your jumping shoes on and let’s do this.

Level 1
Pick something to describe. It can be a person, an object, a feeling, or anything else you might be tempted to tack an adverb to. Feel free to use something in a piece you’re working on, or take a look around the room you’re in right now and do a little “eenie, meanie, minie, mo”.

Take out a blank page. Number it 1-20. Stretch your writing (or typing) fingers and, as fast as you can, write 20 metaphors and/or similes about your subject. Aim for the far-fetched, the odd, the unusual. Don’t over think it. Don’t pause. Keep your fingers moving.

Once you’ve written 20, take a look at your list. Find the comparisons that you’ve seen before and cross them off. Likewise, take off any that are too literal, too easy. Next, cross off the ones that fall flat. What are you left with? The most awesome comparisons you’ve ever written about that apple.

Level 2
Now that you’ve got your list narrowed down to your best material, pick the comparison that seems the most far-fetched. Flip to a new page and write your comparison at the top. Your job is to take your oddball comparison and turn it into an extended metaphor. Now that you have something like, “Life is like a box of pickled sardines,” at the top of your page, you’re going to write a paragraph that really fleshes your comparison out.

Think of every possible point of intersection between the two things you’re comparing and write those down. If you were Terry Pratchett, you’d be describing how a carnivorous flamingo walks, how it sounds, how it looks at you with pink, beady eyes that see right into your soul. Like Level 1, the key here is write fast and write a lot. That thought that just flashed through your mind that made you think, “No, that’s too silly to write down”? Write it down.

Once you’ve filled as much of the page as you can, take a breath and look over what you’ve done. Right now, you probably have one of your most original descriptions. How cool is that?

Level 3
Now I challenge you to take your figurative language leap and build a short story, or maybe a poem, around it.

Happy writing!

Taking Leaps

Read a bit of Neil Gaiman and you’ll quickly realize that he has flexible ideas of reality. Yeah, I know his stock in trade is fantasy. I’m not talking about that. No, what I’m talking about is Gaiman’s willingness to take leaps, and his confidence that you’ll leap with him.

A couple of years ago, I got to go with some friends to see Neil do a book reading in Boulder. The featured book was The Graveyard Book. Now, there is an author who knows how to read his stuff. If you think you can hear his voice on the page, it’s totally a treat to actually hear him speak the words. The part of that reading that I especially love is when he was describing his inspiration. He described taking his son to the local graveyard to play, because a graveyard is practically the same as a park, and looking at his son among the headstones and thinking, “He looks so natural there.” Where other people might think of that as an odd thought to have, Gaiman embraced it and wrote a whole book about that image of a boy in a graveyard. Coraline gets the creepy factor from the button eyes, and Stardust is all about a shooting star that’s actually a woman. Because, obviously, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Pay attention to the language of the writing, and you’ll see a man who loves metaphors and similes. Everything is something else. During the book reading, it really stuck out to me how much he uses the word “like” in descriptions. And, for most of us, that “like” is all it takes to let us take the leap with him.

One of the things I’m trying to take away from Gaiman as a mentor is that confidence and that imagination to look for the comparisons that aren’t obvious. When we think of metaphors, there are the easy grabs, the “likes” that leap to your mind right away:

His face turned red as a tomato

The news fell on her like a ton of bricks

But, everyone’s seen those before. They might convey an idea, but they lack oomph. Take a bigger leap, travel farther from what’s easy, and you take a greater risk that maybe your reader won’t leap with you. Then again, maybe you get a bigger pay off:

His face turned red as the poorly-knitted sweater his aunt had cursed him with last Christmas

The news fell on her like a drunk polar bear

Okay, so maybe you went with me on those. Maybe you didn’t 😉 The point is, the second set is more memorable than the first. Say what you will about the great authors, one thing they’re not is forgettable.

Quick! Time to practice your leaping! Leave a comment with your own, leaping, versions of the figurative language examples above.

A Week of Almost-Not-Quite: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Ah, welcome to Tuesday comrades. Time to see what we’ve accomplished this week.

For me:

It’s the week of almost-not-quite.

1. Almost finished a new short story. I’m up to the climatic, near-end scene. The story sorta wrote itself, which is always nice, right? But it still isn’t finished. Just two more scenes.

2. Worked on the first chapter of the book I’m collaborating on with Ali. (Soon she and I are going to be joined at the hip we’re doing so much together.) But I didn’t finish the work I wanted to do on the second chapter.

This collaboration thing is interesting. It seems to me that a lot of the decisions you make while writing are instinctive. When you have a writing partner, you have to be able to articulate – or, at least, to show – to another person what and why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is true both for this blog now that we’re both working on it and for the fiction piece we’re doing.

Ali – what are your thoughts on this work together stuff?

3. Almost hit my scheduled weekly word count for my own novel. But not entirely there. Sad faces all around. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to hit the count again this week because I’ve got to prep for a presentation that my writing group is doing this Sunday. (More on that next week!) Also, I have to prep my submission to the same group – which means editing some of my NaNo pile instead of new writing. At least that is all on the same project.

4. Almost finished with a poetry chapbook on Ted Bundy that I’m going to submit to a competition. Need three more poems. I know the subject matter, it’s just a matter of finding the right words. Poetry is tougher than anything when you’re struggling with finding words. So it’ll probably take me right up to the deadline before I finish.

5. Oh! I did finish one thing. I set up a page on Facebook for my writers’ group The Under Ground Writing Project (UGWP to those ‘in the know’). If you’re so inclined, you can go on Facebook or go to the website and click Like. Also, feel free to join the website itself, even if you can’t make the regular meetings. There are writing forums and blog posts and writing resources listed. The only thing you can’t do on the site is read the group’s documents. You’ll forgive me for protecting our work, right? I really want to promote writerly friendships.

Now it’s your turn! Tell me what you’ve been up to this week!

Story and Poetry – Why Aren’t They Together?

In Fragile Things, a collection of short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, there is a wonderful poem called “Instructions.” As Gaiman says in the introduction this poem is “Quite literally, a set of instructions for what to do when you find yourself in a fairy tale.” While he might not come out and say so, I say that the poem is also a pretty clear set of instructions for what to do in life as well.

It is also a mini-story. Even though the main character is ‘you,’ there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you follow the advice throughout the poem, you will arrive safely at the end…just like a character growing through a novel.

Reading this poem got me thinking about the disconnect I sense between ‘poetry’ and ‘story’ in today’s poetry. I’m no professional poet, I haven’t had poems published in any big name magazines, and I’ve only had a couple workshops but I am a reader. I love to read poetry and short stories and plays and novels. You name it, I’ll read it. (Or at least give it a good shot.) And what I’ve noticed in a lot (not all! there are exceptions everywhere) of contemporary poetry – which I’ll call poetry after the 1920s – is that there is a horrid tendency toward, um, navel gazing.

Oh yeah, I said it.

A huge amount of the poetry I have read made me go: so what? (Again, not all! No need to list ad nauseum the exceptions – if it made you feel something, then it wasn’t a poem of the navel gazing variety, agreed?)  The poet shot a deer. Big whoop. The poet watched a baby being born. Sweet, sure, but millions of women have babies every day. Again, I say big whoop. My reaction has run the gamut between “huh, that’s okay” to “why did the poet just waste two minutes of my life with his self-satisfied, political whack job view on a subject I care nothing about?”

Then I read Neil Gaiman’s “Instructions.” My initial reaction was of the elitist, poetry workshop variety. Enter Snooty Jenny: these line breaks are sloppy, there’s not a high level of ‘telling detail,’ and so on.

But, ya know. I liked it. A lot. And I told my snooty self to shut up and re-read the poem again.

I did.

And I thought of something. Contemporary poetry, in my general unscientifically-polled opinion, does not embrace story. Sure, something generally happens – a deer gets shot or a baby gets born or whatever. But there’s not a story within it. There is no beginning, middle, or end supported by the things that make poetry work: line breaks, stanzas, meter, rhyme. The genres of fiction and poetry have gone their separate ways and it seems like it’ll take a miracle to mush them back together.

It wasn’t always this way. Poetry used to be The Method for story, political essays and commentary, and a whole host of communications. Part of that is because meter and rhyme make stories, commentaries, etc., easy to memorize and repeat. (Thus easier to ‘go viral’ back in the day.)

While by no means an absolute certainty of the future of meshing the two, there are signs that story is returning to poetry with really incredible popular results – especially in the YA field. Ellen Hopkins, for example, with Crank, Impulseand her new adult release, Triangles. Karen Hesse with Out of the Dust. What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones. And the list is growing.

I think that’s good news. What do you guys think about poetry, just in general? Do you enjoy reading it or hearing it? If not, why not? Inquiring minds want to know.

Have you read any good poems that tell a story?

And now, here’s Neil Gaiman reading “Instructions” at Cody Books (Pay attention to the intro, the crowd’s reaction, and Gaiman’s questions – what do you think about that?)

Saturday Pages

“Somewhere in the night, someone was writing.” ~Neil Gaiman, Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire

Today I bring you the first of a new feature on the blog. From now on, we’re going to be giving you a writing prompt or exercise each Saturday. I hope you’ll take a bit of time to stretch your writing muscles and play along. If you have a blog of your own, and post your Saturday pages there, please let us know by leaving a link in the comments. We’d love to check it out!

Without further ado, I present you with a line from a story called Closing Time which you can find in Fragile Things, a collection of stories and poems by Gaiman.

“I should have run then. My heart was pounding in my chest. But the devil was in me, and instead of running I looked at the three big boys at the bottom of the path, and I simply said, ‘Or are you scared?'”

This is the start of your next story. Now, go write.