Friday, November 17, 2017

Word Cloud

 I've often thought that having a histogram of word use in my stories would be educational. Today I found a site that makes a word cloud out of an uploaded text. This is the hundred most-used words in the section I'm currently working on (section three of four total, about 25K words).

Hana and Mari are the protagonist's daughters; Jackson is the antagonist (who isn't even present in the scene so I'm glad he ranked!).

Warning signs of bad writing: looked, going, started, stop, maybe,thought, sleeping, walking... My critique group might be suprised to see that 'trudged' didn't make it in the list!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Parallel Universes

What would my life have been like if I had gone to a historically black university?

A radio segment on NPR a few days ago reminded me that I had been tempted as a high-school senior by a brochure from a college in Atlanta, simply it featured a beautiful picture of a window. During a college fair, I talked to their representative, an African American man who heard my GPA and said they would admit me for sure, they'd love to have me.  I don't know if me being white had anything to do with his reaction, but it gave me pause.  It was enough different from the reaction I'd had from other colleges I'd been talking to: that I shouldn't expect to get in unless I was a valedictorian, multi-sport athlete and had done a lot of community service. When I researched the Atlanta college and learned it was historically black, I may have entertained a romantic idea of adventure, and I still loved that window, but I knew it wasn't enough to base a college decision on.

There are three main reasons I wouldn't want to go back and change where I went to college. The first is that I met my husband there. The second is that I went on a study-abroad-turned-traveling adventure. The third is that, once I returned to finish my degree, my undergrad department gave me the chance to be a paid teaching assistant, which showed me what a great deal grad school was, and so I went to grad school, and subsequently found science to be one of my places in the world. But all of that aside, if there was one thing I would be tempted to change, given the chance to do it over again, it would be going to a historically black college.

One of the things I love about traveling is that its a lazy way to build character. All you have to do is put yourself in the country, on the journey, and things won't be easy. You don't have to choose every day or every moment to do the challenging, uncomfortable thing. You just end up doing them, often in order to eat, drink or sleep. The result is that deep, unique, satisfying experiences are delivered.

What a culture shock it would have been for me, a white girl who grew up in the mountains of Colorado. I'm sure I would have been uncomfortable. Probably miserably self-conscious and experiencing culture shock without even understanding what I was. Maybe it would have been too much for me and I would have used my privilege to run back to a majority-white world. If I had been rejected by other students because of the color of my skin, I would know what that feels like. If I had had to answer for the actions of every white person throughout history, I would know what it feels like to be held as an unwilling representative for my race.  If black students thought I was receiving preferential treatment (as indeed I felt from the representative at the job fair), I would have had to confront that possibility. If I had been singled out, or conversely ignored, what would that have done to my self-worth? Would I have laughed along with jokes that made fun of white people, just to prove I belonged? Would I even have gotten the jokes? Would I have a better idea what it means to be white, or would I have struggled to identify with my race and sub-culture?

Compared to my hippie travels, which I thought at the time had changed me a lot, it seems this cultural experience would have been much more substantial, and much more useful for living in the United States.

One of the advantages of being a writer is that I can explore those parallel universes in theory. The paths I didn't take.  I can talk to white girls who took that plunge and find out what it's like, and write a book. (Someday... after my current one is polished!) What better 'leaving the unknown' in the Hero's Journey, and what better way to explore race relations without trying to take over someone else's voice?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Words on a Page

"The pure artistic path is the one that's not too tied to the outcome but is tied to the transformation that happens." George Saunders

I just returned from another inspirational and informative RMFW Colorado Gold Conference , where two agents were interested enough in my novel to request pages. I'm eager to get back to work massaging my WIP into the shape I know it can be because although there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it is a very long tunnel indeed.

This time I attended with a long-time friend and on the drive home she said the main message she got from the conference was this:  In order to write, the most important thing is to write.  It doesn't matter how much, it doesn't matter if it's any good, it doesn't matter what the process is as long as it works. I use the phrase 'words on a page'  like 'boots on the ground': after thinking and planning and whatever, the thing that matters is to get those words on a page.

A post on the RMFW blog last week-- The Price of Our Dreams (Title Borrowed) quotes George Saunders in a podcast discussing the goals and the process of writing. In summary, he says that it isn't a negative to have a day job and still be a writer. I've personally felt this--working in science, I have an inside view that is envied by many sci fi writers.  Other jobs might not be so obviously beneficial, but everything can be used as inspirational material.

And now, back to that manuscript...

Monday, August 14, 2017

Adding Emotions to Fiction, without the beating of hearts

I've been searching for an article I read years ago about getting emotions into fiction without resorting to beating hearts or other physical reactions. Having just been told again (by the judges of the RMFW Colorado Gold contest) that my writing is lacking in emotion, I finally found it. So I'm saving it here, and figure I'll add other favorite articles to the blog, if only for my own reference.

How Fiction Writers Can Show Emotions in Their Characters in Effective Ways by C.S. Lakin

Here's my attempt to add emotion to the scene I'm writing today. Feel free to point out where I could do better (especially if you have a suggestion for how to improve!) I'd also love suggestions of books to read where the author is particularly good. s

I stopped short when a tall, brown house materialized from the whiteness ahead. It was probably a hallucination. A fatigue-induced dream. For hours—countless in the overcast, snowy night—I’d been watching fruitlessly for a shelter. At first, I’d been hopeful, scanning the hillside, barely noticing the snow deepening to cover the toes of my boots. It had crept up the ankles as I’d sang every song I knew to keep Hana distracted, to keep her moving forward. She had begged to stop and I desperately wanted to, too. Lay the tarp on the snow, fold it over to cover us. Slide into the warm, soft sleeping bags. Let our bodies rest in the cushioned warmth. But we’d have to cover our faces, somehow, to keep the snow off. Even if we could breathe under there, the hills were relentless—there was nowhere flat except occasionally right on the trail, where it hadn’t washed out. Not wide enough for three people to lie down, even if it had been a good idea to sleep outdoors in a blizzard.
Standing still allowed me to feel the cutting chill of snow inside the ankles of my boots. The snow was as deep as Hana’s knees now. It might keep coming. One spring when I was a kid, a storm had dumped eight feet of snow here in less than twenty-four hours. School had been cancelled and I’d joined with neighborhood kids digging tunnels through the streets. The memory of that joy froze like water sprayed into winter air, falling through me in icy shards. We’d had a house, back then. Not with just a fire but a furnace, with gas delivered by pipes under the house and lit automatically. A snowstorm like that, right now, right when I’d taken my girls away from the only safe place we’d known since the Collapse… we couldn’t even build a fire out here.
“Wait here,” I told the girls. I stepped one foot, then another toward the building. It didn’t disappear. I sniffed but only got frigid air. No smoke. There was no sign that anyone was in it. No footprints. No lights. Someone could still be inside. As I got closer, I could see boards nailed over the windows. The front door, up a short rise of steps softened by pillows of snow, was also boarded shut.
There was no way to tell if someone was in there without prying off the boards. I looked back at the girls, dark statues half-hidden by the thickly falling snow. If we didn’t go in this house, we’d just have to find another. It would be the same there. The only way to avoid the risk was to sleep outside. And that was risky in itself. I swallowed hard, wondering if Hiroshi would have gone in, or made camp on the tarp, snuggling together and making do on our own without the need for someone else’s house. If we did that, if we could find a flat spot, would we stay warm enough? Would we wake in the morning with five feet of snow on top of us? Or not wake at all, drifting off into a frozen sleep, hidden under the softly undulating surface until the snow melted and someone came across our bodies.

I slid my backpack to sit in the snow on the porch and extracted the hatchet. I pried the blade under a board. The nails squealed. I stopped, holding my breath for almost a minute. No sound from inside. I just had to go for it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Downsizing email, and writing an Origin Story (from Lisa Cron)

For the past few weeks, I've been down-sizing my email. I got tired of deleting (or, more typically, ignoring) dozens of messages each day from political groups, charities, retail establishments, community groups and yes, even writers whose newsletters I had signed up for more to support them than because I cared about the content.

The only one I kept was my subscription to Lisa Cron's newsletter. She's the author of Wired for Story. This fascinating book describes how humans have evolved to love stories because they helps us to survive. It explained to me why the negative character arcs that I've wanted to write are so unsatisfying to readers, it taught me why friends aren't the best critique partners and how useful story is in daily life.

Now, every Friday, its what I read before my morning writing, and somehow the topic is always exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. This morning's post was about writing an Origin SceneThe first line made me think she was referring to the opening scene or the inciting incident, but I quickly realized it was something else. Something new to me. It is what happened long ago to give the character the wound, or flaw, that the current story is going to resolve. 

I already knew that my main character believed she couldn't survive on her own, and had a vague background to establish this, including that her mom was disabled and ended up dependent on her husband. The post this morning, however, encouraged us to write the moment when the character first comes to this belief.

Here's my stream of consciousness, un-edited, first try. It's not first person (as recommended) but just brainstorming. As I wrote it, I realized that 'not being able to survive alone' was too strong, so I narrowed it to include a gender bias (because it comes in conflict with her husband).
As a teenager, Rosemary was out working on their farm, when a hard rain storm came in. A flash flood stranded her on a hill, and her mom came out looking for her. Early enough in her multiple sclerosis that she would still try to help (she just had a cane). Being scared that the water would continue to rise, her mother tried to wade in after her and got swept in, but immediately stuck in a branch on a side eddy. Rosemary's screams drew the attention of her step-father and he came to their rescue, fishing out the mother and finding a plank for Rm to walk across to safety. Mom got sick/injured and that was really the end of her functionality--was in a wheel-chair after that. She and step-father made it clear that she'd made a mistake and should have gone to him for help. Rm internalized that she should find a man to help, not try to save herself.

Comment if you have an opinion!

By the way,  the other subscriptions I kept are to C. R. Hodge's blog (because he provides frequently updated lists of publishing markets), the publisher Tor's newsletter (because I have contact with an agent there) and The Nelson Literary Agency (because it is a local agency which provides insider tips to authors).

Monday, January 9, 2017

Internal Scene Structure: the Scene-Sequel Cycle

Scenes As Shapeless Blobs
For the first three years of working on my novel, I was never sure what to include in a scene. Usually they had some sort of a goal: to get the characters from point A to point B, to illustrate the nature of a character or a relationship, to introduce a piece of information. However much I worked on making the writing beautiful, the result was often a shapeless blob: characters wandering around aimlessly, having conversations that did nothing to advance the plot, doing nothing to raise questions in the readers’ mind. It was not uncommon for my critique partners to mark multiple pages with the question “What’s the point?”

Finding Structure
Often, I knew the point, but it clearly wasn’t intriguing enough to captivate a reader. Then I heard about Dwight Swain’s scene-sequel cycle at a class about emotion by Angie Hodap in the 2017 RMFW Colorado Gold conference. I researched the technique after the conference and it has revolutionized my writing.

Now when I write a scene, I still have my old goals, but I have a skeleton to shape the scene around. When I analyzed my first draft with this technique, I found that I had used a lot of the elements, because they really are the foundation upon which a scene is formed. But without the explicit use of the cycle, often something was missing or out of order. 

The Scene-Sequel Cycle
The cycle consists of six elements (Swain’s terms are in parentheses when they are different from what I use):
1. Goal
The character wants something. Not the global desire for the story but something in this scene. Ideally it is in line with her character arc and the story goal. 
2. Obstacle (Conflict)
Something stands in the way of the character getting what she wants.
3. Consequence (Disaster)
When she attempts to achieve her goal and runs into the obstacle, something happens. Swain calls this Disaster because a story gets boring if the protagonist always wins. However, sometimes she does need to succeed- but there needs to be a consequence no matter what.
4. Reaction
The character reacts to the consequence or disaster. This is where emotion comes in.
5. Dilemma
Based off of the new reality, the character has a dilemma. It creates the most tension when neither of the options are good. Jim Butcher breaks this element down helpfully into Reason + Anticipation (of the consequences).
6.  Decision
She chooses one of the options. Ideally, her choice is in line with her character arc again, showing where she started at the beginning, how she might be trying to change (unsuccessfully) through the middle, and how she achieves a change at the end.
This is the Goal for the next cycle.

Used well, the technique advances the plot with each scene, so that it isn’t a repetition of a cycle but shaped more like a screw, drawing the reader forward through the story with each turn of a scene.

Swain separates the elements into Scene (Goal/ Conflict/ Disaster) and Sequel (Reaction/ Dilemma/ Decision), which gives the cycle its name. I find it more intuitive to sometimes include all six (sometimes more than once) in what is classically referred to as a single scene.

As I was watching Rogue One, a cycle jumped out on me. (I will spoil one scene here, but not the rest.) In the second half of the movie, Rogue One is approaching a planet with an energy shield.
1.  Goal: to get through the only gate in the shield
2.  Obstacle: although their ship has an access code, it might not be current or accepted.
3.  Consequence: Their ship makes it through without a problem. This is an example of how a consequence is not always a disaster. Although it creates a tense moment, it could be interpreted as null or missing, but the real consequence of this conflict is that the Rogue One fighters were so focused getting through the gate that none of them thought ahead to what they were going to do after they made it through the shield.
4.  Reaction: elation at getting through… followed by concern about what next
5.  Dilemma: How are they going to achieve their overall goal on the planet, and finally get off of it?
6.  Decision: take it one step at a time. Keep going until they can’t any longer. 

As part of the Whole
One of the key things that I’ve learned is that these elements need to tie the scene to the rest of the story in order to make the scene worthwhile. In practice, this means that either the Consequence or the Decision have to impact the overall plot.

In the scene I’m working on in my novel, my protagonist wants to go up the last mountain pass before her destination (Goal) but a rushing stream is in her path (Obstacle). When she gets knocked over in the water, the dried food in her backpack gets wet and starts to rot (Consequence). This changes the rest of the story, because she can no longer search for her destination when she must forage for food.

In the Rogue One example above, the strategy that results from the Decision has ramifications for the ending of the movie (which I won’t detail in case you, like me, don’t get out to see movies right away!) The Obstacle—the gate in the energy shield—is also important for the later plot.

Tying each scene into the whole has been the most difficult part for me. Luckily, my critique partner Heidi Rose Kay gave me the key question to ask myself: What would change in the overall story if you took this scene out?  If the answer is nothing, then either the scene needs to go, or the consequences and decisions must continue into the larger story.

It is a formula, but using this structure, it is possible to build an infinite number of different scenes.