Monthly Archives: September 2011

Lessons from ‘The Office’

We’ve discussed the main character and the antagonist in previous posts. Let’s talk about secondary characters. The novice writer will have some key decisions to make when it comes to secondary characters. How many do you need? What will they do? How will they relate to the main character? A solid number of secondary characters will enhance the story, but too many will detract from it.

When deciding about secondary characters, think about your favorite TV show. You have the star, the co-star and a supporting cast (your secondary characters). Let’s take The Office for example. The main character (at least until this season) was the hilarious, bumbling Michael Scott. His Number Two was Dwight Shrute, who might qualify as an antagonist. Then you have the under-achieving, but endearing Jim and Pam. That’s a pretty strong group of characters so far, but what really gives The Office its staying power is the wonderful oddball collection of secondary characters: Creed, Stanley, Andy, Toby, Kelli, Daryl, Ryan, Meredith, Phyllis, Kevin, Angela, and Oscar.

These characters have provided some terrific story lines. There was the story arc involving Ryan’s meteoric rise and fall at Dunder Mifflin that took place over several episodes. What gave that story line its strength was that the writers tied it back to Michael Scott, the show’s focal point. In subsequent episodes, Ryan returns and takes a low-level position at Dunder Mifflin and then shows his loyalty to Michael by joining him when Michael leaves to start his own paper company. It’s the same in fiction writing. Secondary characters add depth and diversity to your story, but you must be careful to tie their actions to the main character and the overall story. Like subplots, secondary characters become a distraction unless the author links them to the main story.

Here are some questions to consider when creating secondary characters:

  • How many secondary characters do I need to make the story work?
  • How do the secondary characters relate to the main character?
  • What is the purpose of each secondary character?
  • What does each secondary character add to the story?
  • Can the story do without a secondary character?
  • Does the secondary character improve or detract from the story?

In my first novel, there was a secondary character named Christine Farragher. The main character, John Sykowski, had two main love interests during his teen-age years at the summer resort where he spent a week with his family. Christine was his girlfriend back home. Her main purpose in the story was to show John some truths about his character flaws. That’s why she was in the story. When my first draft weighed in at 125,000 words, I needed to make substantial cuts. I could have cut out the Christine character, but I ultimately decided she was too important to the story. I did cut 20,000 words, but Christine is still in the story.

Too few secondary characters can sink a story. Unless you are an incredibly talented or seasoned writer, it’s difficult to develop and sustain a full-blown story with just one or two characters in it. When you come up with an idea for a novel, open your mind to as many possibilities as you can. Some sources of secondary characters include:

  • Siblings. Give your main character a brother or sister she doesn’t get along with and let the sparks fly.
  • Spouses, ex-spouses, lovers and ex-lovers. These can add spice to your story.
  • Teachers or mentors. These can serve a great purpose in any story. Think of what Professor Dumbledore did for Harry
    Potter.
  • Friends. Be careful here. Throwing out the names of too many friends bogs down the narrative and confuses the reader. A few colorful and well-drawn friends can enliven your story.
  • Visitors. This is another area where the writer needs to exercise extreme care. A visitor who pops into town and happens to fulfill a specific wish of a character will come across as contrived. A visitor who sees the characters and situation from her point-of-view can bring
    an objective, outside perspective to a novel at a key turning point.

A final word of advice: in your first draft, don’t be afraid to let your imagination run when creating secondary characters. You can always cut them out of your later drafts, but it’s harder to add a secondary character to an existing draft.

How do you approach the development of secondary characters? How many is too many? Too few?

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What Is Your Genre?

One of the most important decisions a novice writer must make is to select a genre in which to focus her work. Here’s an example of a query letter an author should never send to an agent:

Please represent me on my first novel. It is a thriller set in early 20th Century San Francisco that combines the best elements of romance, science fiction, and action/adventure, with a Young Adult theme. You’re going to love it!

Not likely. Chances are the agent probably won’t even want to read it. If you want to successfully pitch your book, you must identify a genre. Agents cannot sell your book to a publisher unless it has a clearly-defined genre. Publishers cannot market books to readers unless there is a genre. Consumers buy books based in part on the genre. Walk into any bookstore and you will see the signs in the aisles: Fiction/Literature, Romance, Historical, Science Fiction, and so on.

Here are some of the more popular genres:

  • Young Adult (YA)
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Action/adventure
  • Crime/Mystery (includes murder/mystery,
    police procedural, detective)
  • Urban Fantasy

Other genres include:

  • Western
  • Historical
  • Erotica
  • Family Saga
  • Children
  • Inspirational (Christian)
  • “Literary”
  • Horror

A book can be focused on one genre and include elements of another, but authors should never pitch it to an agent as a combination
of two genres. How will you know what genre it is? You must answer the question, ‘What is the main focus of the story?’ Here’s an example. A story is built around the murder of a teen-age girl. It is told from the point of view of her former boyfriend, who is grief-stricken beyond belief. The action centers on the girl’s circle of friends and how they cope with her death. The genre is Young Adult. Now take the same murder and tell the story from the point of view of a burned out cop-turned-private investigator. The focus of the story is his quest to solve the crime and bring about at least some closure to the girl’s parents. The PI might be fighting his own demons as he grapples with the case. The genre is crime/mystery.

Should you choose a genre or write the book first? My advice is to write the book you want to write. Tell the story you are passionate about. Then take a look at it and see what genre it fits. If you start out with the idea you are going to select a genre you believe is popular and provides the best path to getting published, but you don’t have the least amount of interest in or passion about the genre, it will show in your work.

Should you write one book in a particular genre and a second book in a different genre? Agents and publishers will advise against this. The reason is that as an author you want to establish a brand identity. Focusing your work in a single genre is the best way to do that. However, I also believe writers should write about what they are passionate about (I’m repeating myself here). If you feel strongly about a story, but it’s not in the genre you normally write, why not give it a shot? You can always publish under a pseudonym, but that’s a topic for a whole different discussion.

In case you’re wondering, my genre is Family Saga. It’s what I like to read and to write. But I have this killer idea for a murder/mystery.

What is your genre? Why did you choose it? Or, did your genre choose you?

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Interview with Author Jamie Beckett

Jamie Beckett is the author of the novel, Burritos and Gasoline, and a non-fiction collection of  columns written for General Aviation News, known as, The Loose Cannon View. He is also a musician, a pilot, and a politician. Full disclosure: Jamie is a long-time friend who I
met during the early 1980s when he played bass guitar in a fabulous band called The Broken Hearts. Their album, Want One?, is available through iTunes.

What was your inspiration for Burritos and Gasoline? How did you come up with the idea?

Burritos and Gasoline came together as an idea in two parts, frankly. The first has to do with the fact that I live in a small, southern city that has no book store. Now understand, this was in the days before iPads, Nooks, and ebooks. The only place I could buy a book was at the supermarket. So I was browsing the aisle one night and realized that every single book they had was a novel that revolved around a murder.

I’ll grant you that I may not be the brightest guy on the block, but I don’t know too many people who have been personally affected by a murder. So I began to wonder about a story that might resonate with me a little more personally – and the idea of a failed musician who has issues with making close emotional connections with others became appealing over the course of a couple months.

The other aspect had to do with the simplicity of the story. As odd as it may sound, I had spent two-years working on a very intricate novel about domestic terrorists who hijack five airplanes in different cities, on the same day, in order to shut down the airspace over the United States. Then 9/11 happened. It would have been disrespectful to publish that book, so I put it away and started casting about for something else to write about. Burritos and Gasoline is the result of both those experiences.

The setting is a key part of any novel. Your description of the setting resonated with me. Having grown up in that region, I thought you nailed it. Why did you choose that setting and what was its significance to the story?

To be perfectly honest, I needed a starting point that can be seen as either bleak and depressing, or bright and filled with potential. Central
Connecticut fills that bill, and so it became the starting point for the story. Basically, Frank is having a crisis of perception. He has made such a career out of avoiding emotional attachments, he has completely disassociated himself from the world around him. It wouldn’t matter if he was in Maui, or Beverly Hills, Frank would be depressed and distraught. But I needed a starting point where his self destructive nature wouldn’t be incredibly obvious at first. The reader has to feel drawn in to Frank’s point of view and recognize on their own that the issue is Frank, not his surroundings. So East Hartford, Manchester, and Hartford, Connecticut became Franks stomping grounds – at least for the early portion of the story.

In the book, there are flashbacks to Frank’s experiences growing up in East Hartford. How did you draw on your own experiences in creating the flashback scenes?

My closest friend from the time I was three until I was in the seventh grade, was a kid named Mike. He lived in the house that backed up to
mine in our suburban neighborhood. That was in East Hartford, Connecticut. I lived on O’Connell Drive, and he lived on Burke Street. The characters of Frank and Danny are completely independent of Mike and me. There’s no similarity to our relationship at all. But the neighborhood,
and the proximity to each other’s homes is how I remember the neighborhood when I look back on it.

There is one exception to that, however. The character of Danny’s father is based on a family that lived down the street from us for several
years. The father had a drinking problem, and would disappear into his bedroom after dinner on a surprisingly regular basis. His wife would tell us that he wasn’t feeling well and had gone to bed, but his son, who was a friend of mine, let us in on the real cause of his dad’s tendency to hibernate. Like Danny, he truly loved his dad and clearly had difficulty with the situation that he found himself in.

They moved away before high school, and so did my family, so I have no idea how all that worked out in real life. The situation seemed appropriate to the story of Frank and Danny, though. So I used it.

The theme of Burritos and Gasoline focuses on the simple life lessons Danny shared with Frank on the long drive from East Hartford to Gainesville, Florida. Did you start out your story with that theme in mind or did it develop organically as you got into the story?

The life lessons actually started after a conversation I had with an old friend, who’s mentioned in the book, actually. Michael Mazzarella is a
musician and a good friend of mine from way back. We were talking one night about the meaning of songs, or at least about what people perceive to be the real meaning of their favorite songs. I made the point to Michael that I made in the book, that songs mean whatever the listener thinks they mean. The writer’s perspective is no longer pertinent to the experience of hearing the song once it goes out into the public. As I rolled that idea around in my mind a bit I began to reflect on the fact that almost all the really big problems we face in life have very simple, straight-forward solutions. So I incorporated that concept into the story. Because let’s face it, Franks got some issues to work on. At least early on he does.

How long did it take you to finish Burritos and Gasoline? How much editing/rewriting did you do?

That’s a really good question, and a tough one, too. It took something like three months to write the book. And when I finished it I put it away in a desk drawer for two weeks, so that I could look at it with a fresh perspective, or at least a fresher perspective before I started looking for a publisher. I’ve got to tell you, I was really excited about having finished the story, because it really had become an important part of my
life – and you really do start to think of the characters as real people who you have to help find their way to a resolution. So it was a huge shock when I pulled the book out and started reading it, only to realize it was a piece of crap. It was way too long, and it included characters who were entertaining, and colorful, but totally superfluous to the story. So I re-wrote the book, and I thought it got a bit better. It was shorter, and more to the point. So I re-wrote it again, and I liked it even more. That set me off on the editing process, rather than another complete re-write, and I whittled away at the story for a couple more months.

One person I really have to be openly thankful of is Joni Fisher. She’s a writer who I met by happenstance, and she was good enough to read chapters as I finished them. We’d meet at the local coffee shop, and I’d hand off a new chapter, while she’d return a previous one. Her willingness to walk down that very tedious road of reading, re-reading, writing, editing, and re-reading again was such a massive help to me. Burritos and Gasoline would certainly be a much less worthwhile story if not for the very significant contributions of Joni Fisher.

What were the biggest lessons you learned from your experiences writing Burritos and Gasoline?

I write a lot of non-fiction. And I like writing non-fiction, I always have. But I didn’t realize how much of yourself you can put into a story if you
use fiction as a way of weaving your value system, your sense of ethics, and your hopes for humanity into a story that you control entirely. As peculiar as it may seem, the author really does control the entire universe for those characters. The laws of physics only apply if you let them. People live or die, succeed or starve, all based on your sense of where the story needs to go in order to be told in the way that it should be.

I had no idea that I would enjoy writing fiction so much. But I do, and I’m pleased to find that I’m honestly proud of the story, the characters, and what Burritos and Gasoline has done for me, personally and professionally.

What was the most satisfying part of writing your novel?

You’ll probably think this is a little weird. But the most satisfaction I’ve gotten as a result of writing Burritos and Gasoline resulted from an
e-mail I received from a reader. A woman wrote to tell me how much she had enjoyed the story. But she was very honest in letting me know that she had completely misunderstood what was happening for the first half of the book. She thought she knew where I was going, and she thought she was enjoying the story–and then she realized that she had taken a wrong turn in her interpretation of the story and it opened up a whole new perspective on the story for her.

I thought that was the greatest compliment I could ever get as a writer. I still think so, too. She was so happy to have read a novel that had
completely faked her out, even when she was well into the story and thought she knew exactly what was going on. I can’t go into more detail or it
might ruin one of the twists in the story for someone else. But that was absolutely the most satisfying aspect of publishing the book. Knowing that
readers were really enjoying it, and truly being taken by surprise – that made me feel pretty darned good. It still does, too. I guess I have enough of an ego to be able to admit that I enjoy that part of the job quite a bit.

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“An Evil Veterinarian?”

In the first Austin Powers movie, Doctor Evil’s son, Scott, informed his father that he didn’t plan to follow his career path and embark on a life of crime. Instead, Scott said he planned to be a veterinarian. “An evil veterinarian?” Doctor Evil asked.

Doctor Evil was an antagonist—and a funny one at that. Antagonists tend to be evil, but that’s not always the case. The main purpose of the antagonist is to prevent the main character from reaching her goal. In certain genres, like crime/mystery and sci-fi, it’s important to have an evil antagonist, but many antagonists in other genres are more multi-dimensional and some even have admirable qualities.

There are many ways to approach the development of an antagonist. Antagonists have many of these traits. They are:

  • Powerful. A weak and ineffectual antagonist has no credibility.
  • Charismatic. The best villains are charismatic; they are able to convince people to follow them. Which brings us to the next trait.
  • Leaders. Antagonists are often leaders who have a devoted following. Think Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters.
  • In a position of authority or advantage over the main character. An antagonist may possess super powers, or maybe he just happens to be the main character’s mean boss at work.
  • Haunted by inner conflicts. Just as the best main characters have an inner conflict, even the most evil antagonists have a small conscience. An antagonist who is pure evil with no remorse is not as appealing as one who turns to evil because of a bad childhood and still possesses a glimmer of decency.
  • In conflict with the main character. This is what gives the story its tension as the main character must overcome the antagonist as she struggles to reach her goal.
  • Possessed of something the main character wants or needs.
  • Driven by the need for dominance, power and total victory. They don’t just want to win; they want to crush the opposition.
  • Complex. The same complexity that makes main characters interesting is often present in the antagonist.
  • Possessed with redeeming qualities. Lord Voldemort aside, an antagonist who has some redeeming qualities is more memorable than one who is all-evil. Even Darth Vader ultimately redeemed himself.

Although rare in fiction, the antagonist doesn’t even have to be a person. It could be a catastrophic weather event, or a towering mountain one must climb, or a crippling disease. In Ernest Hemingway’s classic, The Old Man and the Sea, the antagonists are sharks who feed off Santiago’s prized fish (or perhaps the sea itself or Santiago’s advanced age). It could be a life form from another planet. There could be multiple antagonists,
as we saw in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

What’s important about antagonists is that they must continually thwart the main character and present the main character with ever more difficult challenges as the story progresses. It’s also important for the antagonist to have an inner motivation. Just as the main character may be motivated to act for love, honor or a host of other reasons, so too must the antagonist have a motivation that drives him.

Who are your favorite antagonists and why?

 

 

 

 

 

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Abandoned Projects: What We Can Learn From Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’

It took more than 35 years for Brian Wilson to record his classic album, Smile, released in 2004. From its inception in the mid-1960s, Smile was
the most acclaimed unreleased album in the annals of rock and roll. Brian Wilson abandoned the project in the late 1960s amid personal problems, negative feedback from The Beach Boys, and pressure from his record label. Brian’s fans were thrilled when he finally decided to record Smile. It’s an amazing album—a three-part suite of songs that showcase his abundant songwriting talents.

What can fiction writers learn from Brian Wilson’s experiences with Smile? Many writers have started a first novel (or even a second, third or fourth novel) only to abandon it. It might sit on a hard drive or a floppy disk somewhere. Maybe it wasn’t good enough or the idea was sound, but
the execution was bad. Perhaps we just were not mature writers. Whether we return to those early works or never look at them again, abandoned projects have value. If nothing else, the experience of completing a novel teaches writers how to structure a story, how to develop characters, how to place obstacles in front of the characters, how to build a story to a climax, and how to craft a satisfying resolution. Your first effort may be poorly structured or populated with flat characters. What’s important is that you learn from those early experiences. You may have a bad story, but it may include a compelling character you can use in a future novel. You may even decide to build a new story around that character.

As a general rule, I believe it takes two or three unsuccessful novels before an inexperienced writer finds his or her voice, learns to master the art of story arc, character development, dialogue, scene development and all of the elements that go into a successful novel. There are exceptions. Harper Lee comes to mind. To Kill a Mockingbird was her first and only novel. A number of authors have published a blockbuster first
novel, but the majority of inexperienced writers have to be patient and get the bad writing out of their system so they can learn and grow as writers.

I completed a bad novel in 1997 and I was 150 pages into a second novel before I abandoned it after two years. In my first novel, I made every rookie mistake: an overly complex plot, too many characters, florid descriptions, and a muddled theme. My second effort was better, but I ditched it. It was a political novel. While I was writing it I read Joe Klein’s novel, The Running Mate, and it hit me. This was the kind of novel I wanted to write, but I lacked Klein’s talent at that stage in my writing career.

I learned from both experiences. I stayed away from novels for the next six years. I wrote mainly short stories during that time, but I read a lot of
novels as well as books and articles on fiction writing. By the time I started my first real novel, Small Change, in 2007, I was more confident. I felt I knew how to write a novel. I wasn’t sure I knew how to write a novel others would want to read, but I knew how to structure the story, how to develop believable characters and how to write realistic dialogue.

What have you learned from your abandoned projects?

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Missing Borders

I promised myself I wouldn’t do it, but I did it anyway. When the Borders in our town closed in April, I made one last visit. It
was depressing. I didn’t intend to buy anything. There wasn’t much to buy. It now stands dark next to the bustling multi-plex theater.

This week, the last Borders in our region closed its doors. Each week, I’ve received increasingly desperate emails from Borders. The
discounts rose as the closing date neared. I didn’t care about the discounts, but I had to pay one last visit. It was like paying your respects to a deceased old friend.

There were rows of empty shelves. It looked like one of those Soviet-era stores that was out of everything. There was still a limited selection of titles in the Fiction section so I headed there. I found two hard-cover books: Northwest Corner by John Burnham Schwartz and Manhood for
Amateurs
by Michael Chabon. I bought both for a total of $10.

Much has been written about the demise of Borders. Some say it was the result of a series of bad business decisions, compounded by
the emergence of Amazon and cheap e-books. It doesn’t really matter to me why Borders failed. I love all bookstores: Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and especially those small, quaint independent bookstores. I made it a point to visit the legendary Powell’s bookstore on both of my trips to Portland, Oregon. What a place—nivrana for book lovers.

Bookstore closings hurt all writers, but especially those midlist authors who depend on “impulse buys.” I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into a bookstore intending to buy a particular book and walked out with a different book (or two or three).

Last August, my son and I took the train into the city and visited the huge Borders store at 59th Street near Columbus Circle in Manhattan. There were still plenty of books on the shelves and the place was crowded. Looking around, I felt a surge of optimism. There really are a lot of book lovers in the world. Business was brisk; you’d never have guessed the store was closing in a matter of weeks. I don’t even want to think about  what the place looks like now.

What are your favorite bookstores? What is the future of bookstores?

So many shelves, so few books

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Crafting Scenes: What’s Too Much or Too Little?

Crafting scenes presents the novice writer with a number of daunting questions: What is a scene? How long should it be? How do I know when to end a scene? How does a scene differ from a chapter?

Years ago, I attended a fiction writing workshop at a local library. Author Dan Pope gave a piece of advice that stayed with me. “Always start a story ‘in scene,’” Pope said. A story can start with a detailed description of a beautiful mountainside or a breathtaking castle, but you will
quickly lose the reader if there’s no scene or action taking place to sustain interest.

We talked about plot and story in the previous post. Think of a scene as the smallest unit of your story. Scenes have many purposes. Chief among them is to advance the story. Other purposes include:

  • Introduce characters
  • Define motivations or goals of the main character
  • Create suspense
  • Develop the theme
  • Portray conflict among characters
  • Relate important information to the reader

In his book, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, Raymond Obstfeld writes, “The word ‘scene’ comes from theater, where it describes the action that takes place in a single physical setting. This same principle holds true in fiction: A scene might begin when characters enter a location and end when they leave, or it may take place in a single location regardless of how many characters come and go. The emotional power of a scene depends on not distracting the reader from what’s going on.”

Regardless of the purpose of a scene, Obstfeld writes, “[w]hat’s important is that the writer (1) knows why that scene exists and (2) justifies its existence by making it memorable.” Obstfeld recommends writers ask themselves when they finish reading a scene, “So what?” Does it matter to the reader what happens? Is the scene really necessary?

Where do you begin a scene? Some favor beginning a scene in media res, that is, in the middle of the action, or the most dramatic part of a dialogue or narrative. Others take a linear approach; they begin the scene at the beginning of the action and carry it through to the end. Wherever you start a scene, the key is to draw the reader into the scene. Hook the reader. If the physical setting plays an important role, you can begin with that, but I am leery of long descriptions of setting. Keep it short and relate the setting to the theme. It’s a snapshot, not a photo album.

How long should a scene be? As long as it takes and not one word longer. Again, the purpose of the scene is a critical factor in determing its length. A suspenseful scene may need to be longer to set up the suspense and build the tension. A scene with the purpose of establishing a character can be shorter.

Another aspect of scenes is selecting a “point of view” (POV) character to relate what is happening. Unless you choose to write in the first person, every scene is told from one character’s point of view. The POV should be selected to maximize the impact of the scene. Let’s say you have a scene wherein everyone in the room knows a secret except one person. You could maximize the impact by relating the scene from that character’s point-of-view.

How does a scene differ from a chapter? There are a number of different viewpoints on what constitutes a chapter. Some say each chapter should end when there’s a shift in the story. Others like “cliff-hanger” chapter endings. Some structure chapters around POV characters. A chapter could
contain just one scene or multiple scenes. My first novel included a deathbed scene that continued over several chapters. My view on chapters is that they should contain a specific element of a story. Some writers don’t add chapter breaks until they complete a first draft. There’s no rule on the number of scenes per chapter, but when I read a novel where each chapter consists of just one scene, the story has a choppy, disjointed feel.

Crafting scenes is a topic too complicated to be covered in a single blog post. For more detail, I recommend Raymond Obstfeld’s Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes.

What is the ideal length of scenes? How do you approach crafting scenes?

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