A couple of weeks ago we talked about a technique used in manufacturing problem-solving that can be adapted to fiction writing, the fishbone diagram.
Another Six Sigma technique that can be adapted for fiction-writing is Five Why’s. With this technique, the problem solver attempts to get to the root of the problem by asking “why?” five times in succession. This technique is used to avoid declaring victory before really drilling down to the fundamental issue.
Manufacturing situation: a customer rejects a print order because it’s flawed.
- Why is it flawed? Because the press wasn’t set up properly.
- Why wasn’t the press set up properly? Because the operator set it up wrong.
- Why did the operator set it up wrong? Because he wasn’t properly trained.
- Why wasn’t he properly trained? Because that part of the training program was discontinued.
- Why was that part of the training discontinued? As a cost-saving measure.
If you stopped after your second “why?” you would assume the pressman was at fault, when in fact the root cause is a policy issue.
(Note: Five Why’s is particularly useful, in my experience, when you want to actually solve a problem, rather than just find someone to blame it on.)
In fiction writing, I find this technique really useful when I’m trying to dig down into my characters’ motivations. For example: Continue reading
Lately I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in romance–the physical torturing of characters–the heroines, in particular.
This may have always been the case and I just hadn’t noticed, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it because:
a) my imagination is vivid enough that it’s very unpleasant to read
b) Much like our bodies are constructed from what we eat, I think our psyches are constructed from what we ingest in the form of entertainment and
c) It’s lazy writing.
In my books, my characters undergo a fair amount of psychological torture (and some random, cartoonish physical torture if Satan’s feeling especially cranky) but I draw the line at detailed depictions of physical torture.
As I said, I just don’t like to read this kind of stuff. I also don’t watch movies with graphic violence. I saw the move Seven years ago and it took me weeks to stop flashing on the various gory scenes.
I’m a big fan of Dick Francis’s novels, especially the ones set in the world of horse racing, but one almost universal component of his books is that at some point the hero gets tortured. I always skipped those parts. Continue reading
On Sunday, Jilly talked about the class we’re taking, Inside Out: Crafting Your Character’s Emotional Conflict, with award-winning author Linnea Sinclair.*
One of the things that makes me such a slow writer is because it generally takes me 100 or more painfully typed pages to know my characters well enough to understand what they’ll do in any given situation. Up to that point (and sometimes, as with my current WIP, even longer) I head off in wrong directions and follow blind alleys and generally wander in the wilderness while I get to know them.
It’s not an efficient process.
Now Ms. Sinclair has given me a tool to (I really hope) shortcut that painful process–the Enneagram (pronounced any-a-gram). According to the Integrative 9 website, the Enneagram is an archetypal framework that offers in-depth insight to individuals, groups and collectives. Put more simply, it’s a psychological test that categorizes people into 9 different groups based on personality/character factors. Continue reading
Let’s talk about unlikeable protagonists. A few weeks ago, Jeanne did. I thought about what she said, and I wasn’t sure I agreed with her. Since then, I’ve seen Can You Ever Forgive Me?
For those of you who don’t go to the movies or haven’t seen this one yet, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the life of biographer Lee Israel, who reaches a dead end in her writing career after her agent rejects her latest project. Out of money and desperate to meet her rent and take her cat to the vet, the movie shows Israel first forging letters from famous, dead actors and writers and then stealing such letters from public libraries and research institutions and selling those, as well.
Movie-wise, I thought Melissa McCarthy did a terrific job playing Israel.
Character-wise, I didn’t like her. Continue reading
I’d really, really like to find a different form of address for the gentlewomen in my WIP, especially my heroine.
Lately I’ve been working on a sequence of set piece scenes toward the end of the book. The setting is a fantasy world, historical, before the invention of guns. Horses ‘n swords. Vaguely Tudor-ish, with a few creative liberties taken. The action takes place at the most important event in the city’s calendar. Everyone who’s anyone is present: royalty, aristocracy, military, and a lucky few gentlefolk. All the guests are addressed formally, even (especially!) when they’re hurling deadly insults at one another.
The problem is my heroine, Alexis Doe. She’s 25. Unmarried, but old enough to be a wife and mother. Of no acknowledged family (her name indicates she’s illegitimate), but invited as a guest of the Princess Dowager, scary and powerful grandmother of the Crown Prince. Alexis has no title, but her connections would carry a certain level of cachet and she would be addressed with respect. As far as I can see, she would be called Mistress Doe.
I did a fair amount of reading around, looking for possibilities, and I found a fascinating article describing research done by Dr Amy Erickson at the University of Cambridge (click here to read more about Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: untangling the shifting history of titles).
Apparently both Mrs and Miss are abbreviations of Mistress. Continue reading
This scene from Moonstruck packs a punch because we know these characters’ backstories.
In last week’s post, I nattered on about Lisa Cron’s message that backstory is the decoder ring for any story we write. This week, let’s take the discussion one step further. Let’s talk about putting some of that glorious backstory you’re creating into your current WIP.
Gasp! Egads! Not the Dreaded Backstory!
Before you go running for the exits, hear me (channeling Lisa) out. As the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius as well as a long-time writing coach and teacher, Lisa has researched lots of brain science to back up her theory that not only do we need to create our characters’ backstories for our own authorial edification, but also for reader enlightenment and, ultimately, bonding with our characters. Our brains use story to explore different aspects and possibilities of the wider world so we can learn lessons from those experiences without putting ourselves in harm’s way. (Lisa puts it much more elegantly in her books, and really, you should be reading her books!) And because our brains are incredibly efficient machines, they will use the same techniques to decipher fictional stories as they do real-life events.
Let’s think about that in the context of character for a minute. Think back to meeting someone important in your life, for example, your significant other or your best friend. Continue reading
Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA
Last week, when sharing some of the great wisdom imparted to me during the early November Writers Unboxed UnConference, I discussed the importance of theme as the heart of your book. This week, I’m going to discuss another essential element of your story: the decoder ring. Heart and a decoder ring. Makes sense, right? Er, perhaps I need to elaborate.
As Lisa Cron said many times during her workshops at the UnConference, when it comes to the story you are writing – the story your main character is telling – the character’s past is the decoder ring to the story. Quoting William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” OK, he wasn’t talking about your story or mine, in that case, but the famous line has been applied to the craft of writing by many writing teachers.
So how does this idea of the character’s past being part of the present-day story jibe with the admonition to stay in the now and not bog down your book with the dreaded backstory? Paraphrasing Lisa Cron, it’s not backstory that’s the problem; it’s poor usage of backstory. In fact, she argues, we not only want the pertinent parts of your characters’ backstories, we need them to understand who the characters are and why they react and behave the way they do. But how do you include backstory without throwing the reader (or the contest judge, in Jilly’s case) out of the story? Continue reading
There’s an important theme in Law and Order SVU season 12, episode 3. Can you spot it?
Okay, admit it. Your eyes rolled back in your head when you saw the word ‘theme’ in this post’s title, didn’t they? If so, it’s not surprising. Many writers, genre writers in particular – of which many of us here are – are often taught to disregard theme, at least in the early drafts. We’re told a story’s theme will emerge as we revise and dig deeper on later drafts, if indeed it need ever emerge. Who really needs theme anyway, other than your boring high school English teacher? After all, who wants a heavy-handed moral lesson or the author’s worldview shoved down her throat when she’s just trying to immerse herself in good fiction?
According to Lisa Cron, probably everyone.
As Cron discusses in Wired for Story, Story Genius, and workshops (for those of us lucky enough to attend one!), our brains are hardwired for story because story helps us decipher the world around us, and to discover ‘what would happen if’ without physically putting ourselves in harm’s way. In that way, stories are tied to our very survival as a species (sounds pretty cool to be a writer nerd now, doesn’t it?). Other cool things that happen to our brains on fiction are an increased capacity for empathy (through bonding with a protagonist and walking several miles in her shoes) and a willingness to challenge our own world views. And all that cool stuff happens because somewhere under all the scenes and character arcs and plot points and cause and effect trajectory, a story has a specific way of looking at the world, a message, a theme.
Instead of thinking about theme as some sort of moral imperative or high-brow statement to be made at the expense of good story, what if we think about theme as the beating heart of our story? Sound more appealing now? Continue reading
Have you had enough politics yet? If the answer is no, please check out yesterday’s excellent post by Michaeline, The Election and the Future of the US Writing Market. Plenty of insightful, positive, actionable food for thought there.
If you’re ready for a break from world affairs, let’s discuss creating quality stories to sustain us through the challenging times ahead 😉 .
Last Sunday in Storyteller v Smooth Writer I talked about judging contest entries and understanding the difference between polished writing and addictive storytelling. I said I’d decided not to take any more classes or buy any more writing books until I’d figured out how to make the storyline of my WIP as powerful as it can be.
Yeah, but no. A couple of days after I put up that post I bought a writing book and I’ve been glued to it ever since. I have not been this excited about a craft book, ever.
Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?
Longtime readers of the blog know I like to binge-watch TV series (I’ve posted in the past about Justified and The Killing). My most recent
obsession binge-watch has been the Netflix series Bloodline. Netflix has released two seasons of the show thus far and has ordered one more. The creators have said they have enough material for five to six seasons in total, so there could be even more coming.
Because I like to binge-watch series the way I like to read books – all the way to the end one time through, then returning to favorite episodes to analyze particular story arcs and writing techniques – it’s unusual for me to get sucked into a series so long before the ‘final chapters’ are available. But I’d heard good things about this show from different reliable sources, so I made an exception. The downside to this decision is that season two ended on not one but two cliffhangers, and I want to know All The Things right now! The upside is that there is enough crunchy writing stuff to review and digest that I can (almost) wait for the next season to be released sometime in 2017.
One of the crunchy writing aspects that has occupied a lot of my brain space for the past few weeks is the way the series has had two of the ‘good guys’ each do egregious things, pitted them against each other, and made us root for the one who did a Very Bad Thing over his now-antagonist who only did a Bad Thing. ***SPOILER ALERT***. To discuss what the writers did with this storyline and how they did it, I’m going to reveal some pivotal plot points. If you have any plans to watch the series AND you need to have your story come to you fresh and pure as the driven snow, you’ll want to take your leave now and go watch some adorable kitten GIFs. If you’ve already seen the series OR you’re willing to sacrifice some surprises in the interest of squeeing over good writing, join me for the rest of the discussion. Continue reading