Monthly Archives: September 2013

That Elusive Thing Called Motivation

Robin LaFevers wrote an excellent post on Writer Unboxed on the three stages of commitment to the writing craft that writers must go through to reach the goal of truly becoming a productive and fulfilled writer. LaFevers identified three progressive levels writers must reach to achieve an ideal state: discipline, dedication, and devotion.

“At its most positive, discipline is the building of new muscle stage,” she wrote. “Discipline is the axle grease we apply to our flighty, frivolous, perception of what is actually involved in learning how to create something.”
The next level is dedication. “Dedication implies a level of mastery. It is the point at which you no longer need to apply discipline because your creative work flows out of your own organic desire to do that work…”

The ultimate level a writer should want to reach is devotion. LaFevers wrote, “Devotion implies joy and zeal and ardent affection…It is a process oriented stage. It encompasses dedication and can appear from the outside to look a lot like discipline, but its origins are very different. When we are devoted to something, there simply are few things on earth we’d rather do or spend time with.”

At some point, LaFevers wrote, a writer’s internal motivation should shift from discipline to dedication. Ultimately the goal is to get to the devotion stage. “The story becomes the most important thing—the characters, the truth, the world—are all more important to you than your publishing contract.”

I wholeheartedly agree with LaFevers. However, while devotion is what I strive to achieve, I’m stuck in the discipline bucket. It’s not that I’m not trying to get to the next level, but external factors keep getting in the way. The biggest obstacles are time and competing priorities. This may seem like a copout, but work is busy and my personal life has suddenly gotten active, which is good for me but bad for my writing habit.

While I have limited time, I recognize I must make the time to write. I do it every year during National Novel Writing Month, which begins in less than a month. It’s hard to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. It’s incredibly hard. It takes 1,667 words per day, every day, for 30 days. And yet I’ve “won” the last two years. Will I get to 50,000 words this year? I don’t know, but I am going to try.

One of the best points Robin LaFevers made in her post was that the writer must get past the discipline part to reach the devotion stage. The writer must master and live the daily writing habit. That’s where I need to get back to in order to reach the highest level.

What about you? Where are you on the spectrum from discipline to devotion?

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Book Review: Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, By KM Weiland

There are many fine books on how to structure a novel. James Scott Bell’s classic, Plot & Structure, comes to mind. Add to the list author and blogger KM Weiland’s latest book, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.

Weiland takes an analytical approach to the topic, but writes in clear prose and uses examples from film and literature to re-enforce her points. The book is divided into three parts: story structure, scene structure, and sentence structure. Like Bell, Weiland advocates the three-act story structure. She takes the reader through the various plot points that propel the story forward. She also covers topics like effective beginnings, opening chapter pitfalls, introducing characters, stakes and setting, and when to bait the hook and when to initiate the inciting incident.

One of the best aspects of this book is the detailed explanation how to handle the third act. This is where books succeed or fail. Weiland presents a comprehensive analysis of the climax, resolution and effective endings. “The Climax is where you have to pull out your big guns. This is a series of scenes that needs to wow the reader. Dig deep for your most extraordinary and imaginative ideas,” she writes.

She advises writers to set up the ending by foreshadowing it. “Inevitability and unexpectedness are the two key ingredients necessary in every perfect ending. And yet they’re incompatible…The trick to successfully combining inevitability and unexpectedness rests primarily upon two different factors: foreshadowing and complications,” she writes.

While the section on story structure is worth the price of the book alone, Weiland offers a detailed discussion of how to build effective scenes in the following section. Weiland breaks down the Scene (capital S) into two segments: scene and sequel. The scene is the action part and consists of three elements: goal-conflict-disaster. The sequel is the reaction part of the Scene: reaction, dilemma and decision.

Some of the insights I found most compelling included:

“Character and change. That’s what story is all about. We take a person and we force him onto a journey that will change him forever.”

“Readers love action (whatever its manifestation), and authors can’t create a story without it. But without character reactions, all that juicy action will lack context, and, as a result, meaning.

This book is an essential resource, especially for new writers.

KM Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction. She is the author of six novels and another excellent craft of fiction book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Her blog, Wordplay, is an excellent resource for writers.

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Beware the Dreaded MacGuffin

If you are an avid consumer of movies or books, you’ve heard the term “MacGuffin.” A MacGuffin is a commonly-used plot device in films and literature. A MacGuffin is simply something that the protagonist pursues. It could be an object or a person or something more abstract.

Here’s a good working definition from Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person. However, a MacGuffin can sometimes take a more abstract form, such as money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or even something that is entirely unexplained, as long as it strongly motivates key characters within the structure of the plot.

Here’s another definition from the website, TVTropes:

MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It actually serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t explain the ending, it won’t actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won’t even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

The term apparently originated in 1939 with Alfred Hitchcock, though some have traced its origins to Rudyard Kipling. One of Hitchckock’s screenwriters, Angus McPhail, used the term, relating an old Scottish tale:

A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.

“What is that?” the first man asks.

“A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands.”

“But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,” says the first man.

“Well then,” says the other, “That’s no MacGuffin”.

Here is a further explanation from TVTropes:

To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin, check to see if it is interchangeable. For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it.

Therein lies the problem with the MacGuffin. Its interchangeability means it doesn’t matter what the writer chooses as the MacGuffin. In theory, I try to avoid using MacGuffins, but, in practice, it’s nearly impossible. A fundamental principle in fiction writing is to put challenges before the main character. There are only so many original ways to devise challenges. The Harry Potter series, which I loved, is loaded with MacGuffins. The same goes for the Steig Larssen series. Yet, in both cases, the authors made them work again and again.

Another form of a MacGuffin is the “plot coupon,” credited to film critic Nick Lowe (not the rock star). A plot coupon is something, or a series of things, the main character needs to obtain to cash in later. As is the case with the MacGuffin, the thing itself is not significant, but the character must have it. The seven horcruxes in Harry Potter are good examples of plot coupons.

So what are the guidelines when it comes to MacGuffins and plot coupons? I couldn’t find any in my limited research, but here are a few ideas. The MacGuffin must be:

• Appropriate to the genre. In science fiction, it is usually something mystical and powerful. In a romance, it might be a thing one of the love interests needs to obtain before a relationship can happen.
• Hard to obtain. If the hero comes up with the key to the treasure chest in the first act, that hissing sound is the tension leaving your story.
• Imaginative and original. Powerful weapons and secret formulas make good MacGuffins, but they are old and stale tricks. One of the things I enjoyed most about the Harry Potter series was JK Rowling’s use of inventive and imaginative MacGuffins. This is easier when the author is building a world, but authors of stories grounded in reality must challenge themselves to come up with original MacGuffins.
• Remember, the MacGuffin is not significant to the story. It is a device—an obstacle put in the way or a mystery to be solved.

My original intent here was to write a post cautioning writers against using MacGuffins. After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that MacGuffins are often necessary to create or sustain tension, but should be carefully considered.

What’s your opinion on MacGuffins? How do you use them in your stories?

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Writing “In Scene:” Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I outlined the basic elements of a scene in a novel: one or more characters, usually with the presence of conflict or tension, set in a time and place or moving from one place to another, action/narrative/dialogue, and something happens that must advance the story. Those are the basics, but an effective scene must go deeper.

One of my favorite bloggers, author KM Weiland, did a 12-part series on writing scenes. I highly recommend it. She devoted a lot of space to the concept of “scene and sequel.” What this means in basic terms is that the first half of the scene should contain action (goal-motivation-disaster) and the second half or sequel is the main character’s reaction to what happened. Weiland breaks it down into three parts: reaction (processing what has happened), dilemma (what does the character do now?) and decision (the character must figure out a solution).

Let’s look at the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene, because this is essential to a scene’s success or failure. The goal is simply what the main character wants. The motivation is why he wants it. The disaster is what is preventing the character from reaching the goal. Simple enough in concept, but getting the goal-motivation-disaster right is much more difficult in execution.

The reaction-dilemma-decision is frequently overlooked, but equally important. It is what gives meaning and emotional resonance to the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene.

Randy Ingermanson, who came up with the famous Snowflake Method of designing a novel, speaks about two levels of scene structure: large-scale and small-scale. He believes readers read fiction because the writer provides them with a powerful emotional experience. The large-scale follows the structure Weiland advocates (scene/sequel). The small scale consists of what Dwight Swain calls “Motivation Reaction Units, which alternate between what the Point of View (POV) character sees (motivation, which is external and objective) and what he does (reaction, which is internal and subjective). The writer should devote a separate paragraph to each.

Plot expert Martha Alderson, in a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, outlined the seven layers of a scene.

Note that Alderson’s final layer of the scene is its thematic significance. “The key to the theme lies in your reasons for writing the story and what you want your readers to take away from it,” Alderson wrote. “When the details you use in the scene support the thematic significance, you have created an intricately layered scene that provides meaning and depth to the overall plot.”

Another key element of an effective scene that is implied in each of these structures is stakes. Scene stakes must be meaningful, either on a micro or macro level.

This topic is impossible to cover in two blog posts. There is no single way to approach or structure a scene. There are, however, a number of questions a writer should ask before beginning a scene:

• What is the purpose of this scene? What am I trying to achieve?
• How is the main character challenged or changed in the scene?
• What are the stakes? Are they important?
• What is the proper pacing for the scene?
• What is the appropriate balance of action/narrative/dialogue? How does the setting, dialogue and action advance what the writer is trying to achieve?
• How does the scene advance the story?

While I cannot adequately cover the topic of scene crafting in so few words, I highly recommend Raymond Obstfeld’s excellent book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes.

It is a comprehensive and enlightening guide to writing effective scenes and I refer to it often.

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