Jilly: Three Things I Learned at McKee’s Story Seminar

I promised to report back on last weekend’s craft marathon, otherwise known as Four Days of McKee—three days of the legendary Story seminar and a further day dedicated to the Love Story.

It was physically grueling. I can’t remember the last time I spent four eleven-hour days in a row sitting in a lecture theater, and it’s been more than thirty years since I had to take notes longhand. I treated myself to a new notebook and pen for the occasion.

It was mentally challenging. I had mixed feelings about Mr KcKee’s teaching style (to say he has strong opinions, robustly expressed, would be to understate the case), but no reservations about the quality of his analysis. Even though much of the material was familiar to me and I only made extended notes where I thought it necessary, I still filled more than sixty pages and went home every night with a head full of new ideas.

I could blog for the next year or more about the things that I learned, but three nuggets top my list of things to chew on, because I think they will be especially useful to me when I get on to writing Alexis’s prequel story. All three were superbly illustrated during the final session of Story—a six-hour scene-by-scene analysis of Casablanca and again during Love Story’s breakdown of The Bridges of Madison County.

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Michaeline: NaNo Special: Chapter Transitions

People who read Lois McMaster Bujold’s new novella, “The Prisoner of Limnos” in the first 24 hours of release got  bit of a shock when Lois announced on her blog that the early edition had somehow dropped the last lines of several chapters. (Links at the end; WordPress isn’t in a sharing mood today.)

As students of writing, we’re taught that these last lines are of extreme importance. Story, by Robert McKee, talks about how a scene can change the whole situation from a plus to a minus, or vice versa – and sometimes, it’s that last line in a scene or chapter that gives the final twist. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King also places importance on the final words of any scene. Compared to painters, we writers have it a little bit easier – we can put on as many finishing touches as we like, and all of them can be take-backs or do-overs with a simple application of the delete key or strike-out. In the editing stage, we decide, and the reader never has to know the anguish we put into those decisions to keep or to leave.

Given the importance of the endings, what’s shocking to me is that as an early reader of “The Prisoner of Limnos”, I only noticed one chopped-off ending. If endings are so important, what was going on here? I had had a great experience with the book as-is; had I missed an even greater book because the ending lines had been dropped?

Well, I’m happy to report my second reading was as rewarding as the first, even though I had to stop (!) and think (!) instead of ride the wave of story. From now on, we’re heading into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t read the Penric novellas, I highly recommend that you do, and come back. They are all fixed now, and you can update the old ones. (See second link below.)

In general, Lois’s last lines add Continue reading

Jilly: The Seeds of a New Story

How was your week? Did you learn anything new?

It’s been good news/bad news here. The good news is that after a frustrating few days when I couldn’t get a grip on my new story, on Tuesday things fell into place. A propos of nothing I had a flash of insight that gave me a premise for the book and the GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) for all the main characters. As a bonus, I even figured out who owns the story.

The bad news is, it seems farming and gardening are important to the new WIP, and I have a brown thumb. My mother and grandmother were excellent gardeners, but I don’t even have houseplants, because they take one look at me and give up the ghost.

It would have been great if the Girls had sent up a plot I knew something about, but I’m not complaining–I’m grateful to get a workable idea. The garden stuff is important, but it’s a vehicle for the characters and conflict, and as long as I get those right, everything else is fixable. My current plan is Continue reading

Jilly: Search and Destroy

Do you repeat yourself, waffle on, or over-use pet words and phrases? Do your favorite authors?

This week I’ve been cleaning up my WIP, which is due to my editor tomorrow (yikes). I’ve spent way more time than I would have liked down in the weeds, examining individual words.

I know some writers use editing software like AutoCrit to iron out their tics and foibles. I’m tempted to try it some time. For now, my chosen method is to teach myself better writing habits by working systematically through a checklist of problem categories and likely offenders.

Based on this week’s findings, I have work to do.

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Jilly: History on a Plate

Yorkshire Puddings

What recipes or dishes are entrenched deep in the history of your hometown or family or country? Like it or hate it, food that would transport you to a particular place or time before you could say Beam me up, Scotty?

After our adventures in Highgate Cemetery and at Shakespeare’s Globe, last week Kay and I spent a few days visiting Derbyshire. I wanted our trip to be a uniquely English experience, and I think I succeeded. I knew the pretty stone-built towns, gorgeous countryside and historic houses would be a safe bet, but I hadn’t thought about how much of what we eat is particular to our land and culture.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the judicious use of dialect, slang and cant can add richness and depth to a story world. Now I’m thinking I should pay more attention to my characters’ meals. I’ve given them food that’s appropriate to their time period, but I need to double check whether I missed an opportunity to make their meals local, distinctive or significant in some way.

For example, the Yorkshire Pudding, which Kay sampled for the first time last Sunday at a country pub on the edge of the Chatsworth estate, is history on a plate. Continue reading

Jilly: The Big Finish

Do any of your favorite books get wrapped up in a high-risk, high-stakes final standoff?

Michaeline and Elizabeth had opening scenes on their minds this week. I’m at the other end of my WIP. I’m deep in my writer’s cave, trying desperately to polish up the grand finale of Alexis Book 1.

There’s a dramatic setting, mortal jeopardy, the stakes are nosebleed high and there’s no obvious way out. All the major players are present—heroine; hero; scary otherworldly nemesis; powerful scheming old crone and her grandson, the heroine’s jealous, spoiled half-brother.

I’m trying to do the scenes justice, but I’m feeling a little out of my depth. I know what happens, and why. Stuff happens. Tension escalates. Somebody gets hurt. Somebody dies. The death is right for the story and I’m sure I want to make that choice, but I’ve never killed off a character before. This is a new challenge for me and I want to master it.

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Jilly: Five Great Writing Craft Resources

What are your go-to references for improving your chosen skill–creative, mechanical, sporting, whatever’s important to you?

I decided a while ago that I wouldn’t spend any more money on writing craft—no books, workshops, courses or conferences—unless I come across something exceptional. It’s not that my writing is so good I don’t need it, but that I already have a great collection of resources at my fingertips and I’ve only scratched the surface of most of them.

Even if I write for another 20 years (and I intend to), I bet I could find the answers to 99.9% of my craft problems on my current bookshelf or the internet. My challenge is to digest all that great advice, evaluate it, select the bits that I need most in order to power up my strengths, bolster my weaknesses, and widen my skill-set, and apply those lessons until they become second nature.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in this post that I was surprised to discover how much I’ve absorbed about the process of self-publishing. I’ve also learned that some craft resources hit the spot for me, while other famous names slide through my brain and out again, leaving no trace. I had fun choosing my favorite indie publishing resources, so I decided to play the same game with the writing craft references. I found it surprisingly easy to pick the ones I believe will support my writing journey all the way to the pearly gates.

Your mileage may vary (I’d love to know!), but here are my choices: Continue reading