Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #12-The Perfect Draft, Part II

Rule #12 relates closely to Rule #11. You need to seriously consider The Concept before you start drafting.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

My super cool “list of 10″ trick applies well here. I talked more about this and gave examples in the post for rule 9, but here’s the general idea: when you’re working on your concept or trying to figure out any problem in your story, make a list of 10 things that could occur. Don’t let your critic get in the way here, just list 10 options. The first 3 or 4 that come to mind need thrown out. Since you thought of them first, most likely everyone else did too. A concept that low down on the list isn’t going to be original enough to carry the story. Push yourself from the very beginning to explore original ideas, motivations, and fixes in your story concept. If you’ve got that covered, you’re in a great starting place. You can write your draft and trust yourself to make it everything you want it to be in revisions.

But first, the draft has to exist.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #11--The Perfect Draft, Part I

Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

I’ve been thinking about my current WIP for months. Granted, I want to be more thorough in the planning stages with this one, and I’ve been querying, interning, and revising as well. But I will admit a small part of me is nervous  my draft won’t live up to my expectations. It can’t possibly be as good as it is in my head. It can’t be as impacting or engrossing as I imagine it.

If I don’t try, I can’t fail, right? Sure. In a sense. But (you knew there was going to be one, didn’t you?) I can’t succeed with this story, either– not until I put words on paper.

So maybe you’re thinking I’m going to tell you to knuckle down and bulldoze through. Trust yourself! Be inspired! Take a risk! You can do it!

More helpful than that, I think, is taking the pressure off drafting. A draft isn’t a book. A draft is just a starting place. Here’s my rule about drafts:

All a first draft has to do is exist.

A perfect first draft has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s it. Is that a perfect book? Of course not. A draft isn’t the same thing as a book, though. Don’t expect to hit your literary goals with your first draft. Good writing is rewriting. Second and third and tenth drafts are for adding layers and subtlety and poetry. Don’t expect too much from your first draft. Don’t burden it with your visions of grandeur to the point you’re scared to write it. An unwritten book isn’t a book. So take the pressure off drafting, don’t expect perfection, and trust yourself to improve it and make it what you want in later drafts. That is what they’re for. All a first draft has to do is exist.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #10-Learning from What You Read

Rule #10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

I’ve read this way since I was twelve years old. At least, I’ve tried. When I love something in a book, I’m automatically curious why. I wanted to know why I loved that scene, that line, that character, long before I realized I wanted to be a writer. When a person loves something about a book, usually that means the author did something well. Pull it apart to see why it worked. If a scene just gripped you so thoroughly you couldn’t put the book down, look at why. Clipped, backloaded sentences? High personal stakes? Action where the timing was just dead-on?

I cannot get over the voice in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s funny, sarcastic, intelligent, and humble. I’m still working on breaking down how John Green did that, but frankness is a part of it. Hazel is honest with the reader about both love and death. I had no idea honesty about difficult things could be that impacting.

What Alice Forgot paints a relationship with effortless, breathtaking strokes. A tiny detail here, just a glimpse of an early scene in their marriage there. Liane Moriarty pulls together a complete, gorgeous picture of a marriage with tiny heartbreaking details. This book takes showing not telling to a whole new level. Seeing which details she uses, and how effective they are even without the summary and lines of telling that so many writers use to ground the reader, is such a powerful way to explore that concept.

In Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution, I connected particularly with the main character. She’s skeptical and introspective, which I enjoyed, but after thinking about it, what drew me so much to her is her passion for music. I love music, but it’s particularly the way she talks about it, thinks with it, needs it, that gets me. The way she feels about music, I feel about writing. Giving your characters passions is a powerful thing. We all have deep desires. Giving them to your characters opens up a strong connection point with your readers.

So when you love something in a book, pause to think about why and jot it down. Process it. Use it. Doing so will change how you write- and how you read.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #9--Using a List of Ten to Solve Everything

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

I can see the sense here. This rule requires you to think through the situation, what’s plausible and what’s not, and sometimes by exploring the opposite of what you want, you’ll trigger a thought that will bring you full-circle. I’ve never tried this particular tactic, but it seems like it could help. The nuts and bolts of it, though, is getting figured out what has to happen in a scene when you’re stuck.

When I’m stuck, or brainstorming, or just want to boost the originality of an element, I use what I call “the rule of ten.” List ten things that could happen on a piece of scratch paper. Don’t think through them- just list. Don’t get bogged down trying to figure out if you’d actually want that thing to happen- just list ten things. So let’s try that. Pick an issue you have with your story right now- a character who needs a stronger motivation to do something, a twist or complication that needs ironed out, options for resolving the conflict-anything works. Try it with me. Yes, I’m serious.

Got your paper and pen? Let’s do it.

For mine, I’m going to say I have a contemporary YA where the girl is in conflict with her parents over a guy (I know, how original). What sort of conflicts could this be? I’ll be honest and draft this the same way I would all my other lists.

1) he’s a “bad boy”/has a record so they think he’s a bad influence

2) he’s a poor kid from across the tracks. Their princess deserves “better”

3) It’s a racial/cultural thing thing

4) He’s much older

5) they know a secret about his family that she doesn’t

6) They want her to go to college and are afraid local commitments will hold her back

7) She’s pregnant and they don’t think it’s appropriate for her to be dating right now

8) She’s been in abusive past relationships and they simply don’t trust her judgment; if she likes him, he has to be the wrong guy

9) The guy previously dated her older sister and broke her heart

10) They’ve been cursed to not like their daughter’s boyfriend, no matter who he is.

Ooh, look- that last one isn’t really contemporary. Interesting. Of course, some of these are silly, but that’s okay, because it’s brainstorming. Don’t let your critic get in the way at this point.

So here’s what happens with the rule of ten:

The first 3 things will probably be the same things everyone thinks of. Since they’re what your mind immediately went to, they are probably also what everyone else thought of.  Unless you’re certain one of them is genius, cross them off right away. The mid-list items might be more unique, so look from there down for something that has genuine potential.

Chances are you will have a much harder time than you think coming up with the items for 7, 8, 9, and 10. You’ll probably have to do quite a bit of thinking about how complex people are and how strange life can be just to finish out the 10. Even though some of these have problems with them, several of these really catch my interest. This is a great way to get inspiration and cross off the story ideas that have been overused. I never let myself settle on something until I have listed at least 10 things.

Having done 10, do you think you could do 20? Could you take the one or two that catch your interest, and fill that out into a list of 10? What 10 minor complications could option, say, 7

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Amazon Is Finally Setting Up Shop In Russia, Says Report, Expanding Its International Footprint Again


posted yesterday
Image (1) russia.jpg for post 364461
E-commerce giant Amazon looks like it is gearing up for the latest chapter in its international expansion: an operation in Russia. According to this article in Forbes (in Russian) the company has opened its first office in the country, headed by Arkady Vitrouk. Vitrouk is the former general director of ABC-Atticus, a publishing group owned by media baron Alexander Mamut.
Forbes cites unnamed sources but notes that the appointment, and the office opening, have not been confirmed by Amazon itself. However, we’ve discovered that Vitrouk’s LinkedIn profile does confirm him as director of Kindle Content for Amazon in Russia.
Looking a little closer, Amazon is hiring for at least three other positions for Russia specifically for its Kindle business and the sourcing of local content: a senior product manager for Kindle content pricing, and a principal for content acquisition for Kindle Russia, and another content acquisition manager.
A visit to currently redirects to the company’s main page for Europe, with links to other countries’ local sites, including the UK, France, Spain, German and Italy. The Forbes article also notes that Amazon has applied for patents in Russia around some of the activities we know it for already: storage and delivery of goods; the storage of electronic texts and media files; and book publishing. We have contacted Amazon and Vitrouk himself for more detail and will update this story as we learn more.
The news comes in the same week that Amazon announced that it would take its Appstore business international — extending it to nearly 200 countries, another sign of how the company is gearing up for more scale. It also follows reports (again unconfirmed) that Barnes & Noble is also preparing for more Nook activity in Russia.
Russia is currently Europe’s largest internet market, according to a recent study from comScore, with an online audience of 61.3 million users.
That, combined with Russia’s rapidly rising middle class, has led to a boom in e-commerce. Morgan Stanley believes the Russian e-commerce market will be worth $36 billion by 2015, up from $12 billion in 2012.
Russia has been a noticeable hole in Amazon’s footprint, but that has spelled opportunity for local and other international players, too.
Ozon — commonly called the “Amazon of Russia” — has raised $121 million in funding and has been building up a very Amazon-like business, complete with a logistics network.
As we’ve pointed out before, this is especially important in a country like Russia, which doesn’t have a solid, extenstive pre-existing delivery infrastructure that spans across the whole of the huge country.
That, and the lack of credit card penetration, has meant that companies like Ozon and fashion/home goods site KupiVIP (itself flush with $120 million of funding) have built out fleets of their own delivery trucks, with drivers who take cash on delivery for goods (KupiVIP, focusing on clothes, willeven wait until the recipient tries something on, so that the item can also get returned on the spot if it’s unsuitable).
Meanwhile, eBay earlier this month, during its analyst day, called Russia the “number-one priority” for expansion for both eBay and PayPal. In 2012, people in Russia bought over $400 million of goods on eBay.
Ozon’s business has been built on its extensive logistics network to deliver a soup-to-nuts range of goods, but it has not ruled out doing more in cloud services. However it seems less interested in Kindle-style products like tablets, e-readers and digital content.
This is where Amazon could come in. In another BRIC market, Brazil, Amazon has been building out a business based on its non-physical goods — Kindle books and Kindle devices.
This could be one route to how Amazon decides to tackle Russia, at least in part. In that sense, it’s interesting that the Forbes report specifically names as the head of Amazon in Russia someone whose immediate experience lies precisely in publishing, rather than e-commerce or retail, and that he’s already heading up business for the company there in that vein.
P.S. I write “at least in part,” because it turns out that Amazon is also hiring for other Russia-related expansion plans. Fashion e-commerce site Shopbop, owned by Amazon, is seeking a marketing manager for a new rollout in Russia. Amazon has also been headhunting in Moscow for software engineers — although these would be for relocation to Seattle.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #8--Be Honest With Yourself About Revising

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

A number of principles are wrapped up in this one, and it covers some tough stuff:

1) Finish the story. That’s so important. If you finish it, you’re already ahead of a lot of writers. Be determined and see it through. Don’t get bogged down revising the first 50 pages if you haven’t finished it. Finish the draft, then revise. Losing determination is easy if you start revising before you’ve finished.

2) After revisions, let it go. Let it go out to beta readers and let it sit on your shelf while you gain some distance. Of course, revise thoroughly, but keep in mind there’s a point where you can’t really do anything more to your manuscript. When I finished my adult fantasy novel, I knew there were areas that probably needed work, but I wasn’t sure if my feeling was accurate, I couldn’t see how to make the changes or even if they were necessary, and tinkering with minor changes weren’t going to help. I had done all I knew to do. I let it go.

3) Move on and do better next time. Why? Because a writer needs to build his skills. He needs to try something new, get out of the box he’s been in, and use what he learned writing story 1 to write story 2. I drafted MOON RIVER, and it was such a joy to start something completely different. Thinking about new characters, new plotlines, new themes, and all these new possibilities was inspiring. And guess what? Moving on had an interesting side effect. I gained the distance and some of the skills necessary to see the issues with my adult novel. With another set of revisions- ones I’m excited to make- I think it could be unique enough to make it in a crowded market. Moving on isn’t giving up, and sometimes it’s best for everyone.

4) No book is perfect. I’d argue some of them are, but that’s just me being the enthusiastic fan I am. Obviously, make your story as close to perfect as you can, never query anything less than your best work, and don’t use this rule as a crutch.  If you suspect the beginning is too slow and your antagonist is flat, they probably are. Don’t leave those things, because your book probably won’t make it with them and you’ll just end up taking longer to get where you want to go. Do the work, learn the skills, revise, get critiques, revise, get tougher critiques, revise. Just keep in mind endlessly scrolling through 300 pages to pick over word choice and changing sentence structures three times may not be making anything better, and it can actually become a reason to delay querying. Sometimes, revisions don’t make a book better, they just make it different.

All of this requires a good deal of being honest with yourself. Develop your instinct by reading great books and breaking them down to see what works and what doesn’t, and then trust your instinct. Are you done revising? Do you need distance to really tell? Do you need to move on to something new for now? Are you endlessly revising because you don’t want to jump into the query trenches yet? It’s tough, but be honest with yourself about all this. And find writer friends to discuss these things with- I promise you, there are thousands of us in the same situation, thinking and feeling and worrying the same things. Being honest with yourself and sharing the worries with others frees you to do what you do best: write.

Here’s a chance to get started- what’s your gut instinct about where you are with your WIP? What do you need to do to know if your instinct is right?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #7--Come Up With Your Ending

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Beginnings are important. They set the stage, draw in the reader, and present the problem. Often they have catchy first lines, hilarious boy-meets-girl moments, frightening she-might-die conflicts, and dozens of compelling questions we want answered. Middles have raising stakes, surprising twists, and character motivations revealed in ways that make us desperately wish they get what they’re after. But endings. Endings. They are the payoff.

We read for the journey, right? The complete experience. Following along after Augustus and Hazel. Watching Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy overcome their pride. Trying to figure out what happened to Jason Bourne before it’s too late. It’s less about where they end up and more about how they get there.

But that’s how we read. If writers wrote that way, we’d have a directionless path winding forever onward, and eventually, readers would bail. When we write- wait for it- we have to take aim.

As a farm girl, I’ve done my share of target shooting. Sometimes I’d use my brother’s .22, but most often it was an air rifle that fired BBs or this wicked little BB pistol I had. Not a real gun, I know, but that was kind of the point. I knew I wasn’t likely to accidentally kill anyone. Plus, BBs are cheap. So, sixteen-year-old me would tie a soda can to the fence and shoot away until I cut the can in half. When I took aim and pulled the trigger, I had a target in mind.

From the very beginning of the story, writers need to aim at their target. Sometimes the target changes, and that’s fine, as long as the writer adjusts for it. Aiming at the target gives the story a journey, makes it progress, and pulls the reader onward. They are going somewhere, not wandering.

When I started writing DINAH, I didn’t know the beginning. I still need to work out a chunk of the middle. But I’ve known the ending since I started plotting: a seventeen-year old girl standing in the town square, with a gun to the head of the man who took away her land and killed her family. (What happens next is top secret.) As I plot and write scenes, I’m aiming to get my characters there. Everything leads up to that moment and the aftermath, the echoes of the shot she does or doesn’t take.

Figure out your ending. Pick your target and aim for it. Chances are you won’t hit much of anything if you fire wildly into space. It’s rare to hit your target if you don’t take aim.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #6--Destroying Your Character's Comfort Zone

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Pushing your characters out of their comfort zones is a key concept in developing compelling conflict. If your characters are good at everything they’re doing and don’t have to push themselves, we don’t wait around to see if they’ll get the job done. We know they will. When the conflict challenges the main character, we see character development happening all over the place. So, yes, of course we want to throw something at them that challenges their abilities.

But here’s the twist, and really, the most important part: don’t just give them something HARDER, challenge them with something completely opposite of what they’re comfortable with. The pro assassin who has his toughest case yet might be interesting, but it’s not as gripping as it could be. What does Katniss not have time for? Impractical things. Where does she have to go? The Capitol– the height of impracticality. She doesn’t have time for entertainment and doesn’t understand people who do, but yet she has to not only participate in but BE entertainment. Even when her life and Peeta’s are at stake, she still has to be good entertainment, or they won’t get help when they need it. Seeing Katniss struggle (remember post 1 on character struggle?) with things that directly conflict with her ethics, in an area she can barely understand, having to develop skills she has never used before, is a gold mine situation for character development. How she reacts tells the audience a great deal about her motivation, intelligence, resourcefulness, insecurities, and compassion. It takes every bit of who she is to survive.

And that’s key to this whole rule. Gripping conflict should push your characters to the limits, especially in their weak areas, because when it does, we find out who they really are. When you do that, characters have to change. They become deeper, more complex, more relatable, more memorable, and even more compelling.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #5--Narrow Your Focus

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

That is no joke at all. The freedom you’ll feel after hacking off an unnecessary subplot or secondary character is incredible. But let’s break this particular rule down into a couple pieces.

I’d like to go back to Rule #4 for a moment here: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Before revising or rewriting a manuscript, take a break, open a fresh document, and try to fill this out for yourself. Can you tell your story in six sentences?

This is your guidebook.

What is the story that you’re trying to tell? Imagine it like a red dotted line, dancing down the middle of your novel from the start to the finish. Now imagine all the other sub-plots you have. Search out other themes and character conflicts besides the main cluster.

Now, imagine destroying those with very tiny, heavy artillery.

What I’m trying to say is this: everything that diverges from your story—evaluate it carefully. Does it reinforce your main plot, conflict, and narrative? Or does it distract? Does it draw the reader’s interest and attention in a totally different direction?

Stories, in the beginning, are about possibilities. Remember the last time you started writing something, and you had all these grand ideas about how the plot would play out to reach your final destination? Each of those is a path you can take—and sometimes, we make the mistake of following all of them in a first draft, in an effort to wheedle out which one will suit the story the best.

Once play time is over, though, it’s time to focus. Pick one and scrap the rest. You need:

A main character.

A main story.

A primary conflict or need.

High stakes.

I’m not saying that you can’t have compelling secondary characters or sub-plots that tie into your story. What I’m suggesting is that you make your main character, story, and conflict a priority. Everything else should tie into it and reinforce it.

Combine characters.
Let me tell you a little story. This story is about a new kid in a new school, and some mean girls she meets there. Now imagine there are not one, not two, but three mean girls, each of them unique in their meanness: one is a pretty idiot, one is conniving and sly, and the third—well, she’s backup.

As you write this story, you now have three main antagonists. That’s right: three unique girls to keep track of as the story progresses. You have to know where they are at all times, what their goals are, their separate wants and needs and histories.

Suddenly, there’s no room left for your hero.

Can’t one mean girl have many faces? Couldn’t the pretty idiot also be conniving and sly when she’s on her own turf? Can’t she have minions, but we don’t really need to know who they are—just that she has them?

Mashing characters together is easier than you’d think. Once, I actually just replaced one guy’s name with another, and re-read the story as-is. It was, hilariously, perfectly fine, with a few clean-ups here and there.

Try it. Spend your story points where it matters—on your hero’s journey.

Hop over detours.
Have you ever heard this advice? It was intended for filmmakers, but really, it’s just as suited to writers:

“Never show someone walking through a door.”

Do you spend three scenes getting from Point A to Point B? “Well, there’s important character development happening here. And scenery. Don’t forget the scenery.”

Cut it. I know that look of fear—trust me. I really do. I’ve felt it. But just try cutting those three scenes. Start your journey, and jump-cut straight to the destination.

Your reader is smarter than you think. Your reader has a huge imagination to work with. Your reader can do the work for you.

In fact—readers like doing the work for you. We love imagining possibilities. Our imaginations are far more vivid and weird and interesting than anything that can be put on the page. So sometimes, leaving that open space for the imagination to play is just the thing that will speak to your reader.

And back to “focus”: cut out those parts that distract or detour from your main story, character, and conflict. Do your characters have a side quest that allows them to grow closer, realize their mutual feelings, and eventually get that first kiss?

Okay, awesome. Now cut the side quest. They can still kiss, you know. It’s fine. There are plenty of places in your story ripe for the kissing. It’s difficult at first to kill your darlings, I know—but when you allow yourself to slash and burn those unnecessary pieces, the freedom you’ll feel is so worth it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #4--A Plotting Tool

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This one is a bit different. It’s actually a formula for the spine of your story, and it’s a great one. Filling this out before you start writing your draft will help you think through where you want to go with your concept. The first two blanks establish character and situation. The 3rd is the initial conflict- bam, your protagonist has a problem. This problem intensifies and the stakes leap higher with 4 and 5. One of those should probably even be a twist we didn’t see coming. Finally, the main characters hit the do-or-die moment. Of course, you still need to fill in your resolution.

This kind of 6-sentence synopsis is a great writing tool. Fill it out before you start writing- just one sentence for each step.  (To follow my own advice, I’m going to sit down and fill this out for THE BALLAD OF DINAH CALDWELL today, so why not do it with me?) Then revise it as you draft the first half, and revise again when you finish. Not only will this help the plot stay focused, avoid tangents, and progress at a good pace, but when you’re done, you will have your synopsis basically written. This is a fantastic starting point for both your synopsis and your query. Turn each sentence into a paragraph for the synopsis, and that’s a great start. Use the establishing and main conflict sections of the 6-sentence outline plus a few killer developing details, and you’ll have the bones of a query!

If you want to see a great article that expands each of these 6 ideas and adds in the resolution, go here.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule # 3--Allow Theme to Develop Itself

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

This rule strikes me as a complicated one with lots of “if”s, “and”s, and “but”s. A few “however”s should probably also be applied. The principle is a sound one, though. Forcing theme on a story makes it didactic and preachy, or at the very least, heavy-handed. At its core, theme is just an idea like justice or forgiveness or the trials of becoming independent. Theme becomes impacting and gains its depth when it is explored realistically through a character’s experiences, because then we’re experiencing it too. But here’s the rub: theme arises most naturally out of how the character handles the experiences. Forming the character’s actions around what you want the theme to say often results in heavy-handed ideas that aren’t organic to the story.

For me, characters take shape as I write. Characters gain an edge or a soft spot. I figure out things they would never, ever do, and realize what they could possibly do under pressure. Most importantly, I learn how they think. As how they handle their situation takes shape, theme follows along behind and develops as they handle and process what I throw at them. The interesting part is that the characters often get their biggest moments at the end of the novel- the do or die moments tell us who they really are and how they’ve changed. That’s hugely important for developing theme. I don’t always know how my characters are going to handle those moments until I’m writing it. In those final moments, theme becomes the strongest, whether it comes full circle or stays open-ended. Letting the story and characters play out naturally and then pulling on the ideas that arise from thorough world and character development is the best way I’ve found for working with theme.

In my WIP, a new theme practically fell into my lap as I wrote Johnny’s storyline: the high cost of loving severely flawed people. This wasn’t any element of the story before I wrote him into his situation, but now it’s there and it fits perfectly. I didn’t see it before, but it absolutely should be part of his story. When I’m done with this draft, I’ll go back and strengthen that element and see where else it can be developed and what subplots it might impact.

Theme takes careful, intentional development, and a heavy-handed one can turn off readers quicker than just about anything. The difference is the guiding force. Are the themes shaping the experiences, or are the experiences shaping the themes?

How do you develop theme when you write? How do you find it when you read? Tell me what you think!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #2-Flings vs. Soulmates

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

These rules were originally sent out on Twitter, so for those of you who don’t use Twitter, it has a 140-character limit. The “v” means “very.”

I don’t read much crime fiction. Sherlock Holmes is about the extent of my reading in that area. Writing crime fiction has an appeal, though- it might be fun. It might be fun to do a novel in verse, too, but I’m just not much of a poet. I’ve also thought it would be interesting to write something truly tragic, one of those novels that breaks your heart that you can’t ever forget.

With all the things I could do, it’s tempting to randomly pick one and just go with it. I’ve tried that before, actually, and one of two things happens: I love it for about 10 days and then discover the concept now bores me so I quit, or I love it for 10 days, get bored, and revamp and muscle through, desperately trying to keep the story interesting. Even when it’s finished, it’s just not something I love. It’s not what I hoped it would be.
So much about writing can be compared to relationships. Some of my ideas are exciting and I’m certain they’d be fantastic long-term… until I spend a few days getting to know them. They could be great to goof around with and I could enjoy seeing what’s out there. Most likely I’d even learn from trying it. But if I expect it to be something it’s not, making that commitment and watching it fail can be painful and depressing.

When writing a manuscript and seeing it through to the end is such a huge commitment and takes so much determination, it helps to be certain this concept is one I can stick with, that it’s right for me.
But how do you know? It’s important to stretch yourself as a writer, try new things, build new skills. Through doing all that, you might even discover you’re crazy good at something new. Do whatever you want, however you want, just for fun. Staying in your comfort zone as a writer is a good way to stagnate.


There’s always a “however.” Like with most relationships, you’re more likely to build something stable and lasting if you know who you are first. Get to know yourself as an audience. What do you like to read? To what sort of concepts are you magnetically attracted? What ideas keep coming back to you, outliving the flash-in-the-pan inspiration? What makes you pick up a book in the book store? Pay attention to what you consume and why you made those choices, and it will likely tell you a lot about what you’re truly passionate about writing. Stories that the writer muscled through and wasn’t really invested in long-term are likely going to lack the quality, polish, and charm of a story about which the writer was passionate. What you consume the most, what consistently entertains you and sparks your imagination the most, is probably also the area you know best.

So, when you’re writing, ask yourself if the concept (or the style, the voice, even the characters) is a fling with that oh-so-charming man you just met, or if it has potential to be a long-term, soul-mate kind of deal.
Because, really, it takes more than passing interest or a fun idea to create a story that will impact other people. It takes passion. Get to know yourself as an audience, and you’ll develop yourself as a writer, too.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #1-Character Struggle

In 2012, a Pixar storyboard artist (Emma Coast) began tweeting 22 rules of storytelling in 140-character tweets. Though these aren't 'official' rules within Pixar, they are very helpful.

Recently, Kate Brauning (writer, teacher, intern at a literary agency and astute reviewer) began posting these individual rules with her thoughts on them. I have been reading her posts, and find them very useful, so I'd like to share them with you here:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

I love that this is rule 1, because I love, love, love it. Character struggle is at the core of so many riveting, impacting stories. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s struggles are endless and we’re never quite sure if she’s going to win. She struggles to feed and protect her family. She struggles to hide her practical personality and her hatred of the materialism around her in order to become an engaging tribute people will support– which is part of her struggle to survive. She struggles in a dozen other ways, too- surviving her burns and dehydration. Figuring out how she feels about Peeta.  Readers become involved in her struggles and care about what happens long before they find out if she fails or succeeds. In fact, we admire her for getting back up and trying again. Hard things happen to everyone, but it takes someone special to get back up and keep trying.

In the early seasons of The Vampire Diaries, noble vampire Stefan just lacks something. He’s not nearly as interesting as his brother Damon, and even though they know he’s the morally better character, many viewers (dare I say the majority?) root for Damon. Why? Damon struggles with his nature, while Stefan has already beaten it. Stefan really doesn’t have much of anything to struggle over in those first seasons. Later on, his character becomes more complex, but it takes a while. Damon is the one who is torn between his evil vampire nature and wanting to be a better man than he is. In season 2, we see one of the most impacting moments of his struggle in the middle of the road, as he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill the young woman who stopped to help him. This moment is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes of the show. Stefan lacks a significant struggle. He’s got it figured out, and since he’s so noble and always does the right thing, we prefer his far more interesting brother.

Character struggle taps into two very important things: 1) forward motion in the plot, and 2) human nature. Plots need things to happen. We all know that. Some specific goal needs to be present. The character has to WANT something- finding her self-identity, escaping the kidnapper, winning the election, putting his marriage back together. So all the things that happen, the events, need to build toward that goal- even if she doesn’t get what she wants in the end. But it has to be difficult to get there. If characters got what they wanted without hardly trying, stories would be much shorter and much less interesting. If Katniss so impressed the Capitol by volunteering to be a tribute that they granted her and her family an exemption from the games, the book would hardly be worth reading. The difficulties along the way, the struggles thrown at the characters to keep them working hard for what they want, maps out an obstacle course that tests them to the max. Struggle provides something for the characters to do, something to fight against, and an instigator of character change. Struggle moves the plot forward.

Struggle is also a fantastic way of connecting with the audience. It’s one of the things that makes readers care about the character. Interestingly enough, it’s also a significant character development tool, because it does (or should) change the characters.  Struggle, it seems, is intricately connected to human nature. We identify with someone who struggles because we know what fighting for or against something is like– even if it’s just yourself. Perhaps especially if it’s fighting against yourself. We can relate to it. It’s not the winning or losing that we’re after when we follow a character around for 300 pages. If the winning was easy, we’d barely care if the character succeeded. The emotion of the situation is all tied up in the character’s struggle.

So yes, we admire characters more for trying than for succeeding. Writers, use this idea when you write to boost conflict, deepen the struggle, and change the characters. Readers, look for the character’s struggle when you read, because identifying that is a fantastic means of accessing theme and really understanding the characters.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Amazon’s Goodreads Acquisition Triggers Backlash

By Greg Bensinger and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg
A screenshot of the Goodreads app, one of the most prominent book review and recommendation sites Inc. AMZN -1.63%’s announcement of a deal to acquire Goodreads has set off a backlash among some fans of the popular site who treasured its independence.
Users of Goodreads–one of the most prominent book review and recommendation sites–can record what books they have read and see what their friends are reading. They can ultimately buy books through the service from various Internet retailers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble Inc. BKS -1.05%
Hundreds of Goodreads fans flocked to Twitter and other online outlets to complain about the purchase by Amazon announced last Thursday. Some of them expressed concerns that the Seattle-based online retail giant could mine data about their reading habits from Goodreads to seek to influence their book purchases.
In some cases, users vowed to cancel their accounts on the free service. “I wasn’t happy doing it,” said Michele Filgate, an events coordinator at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y. But she said called the prospect of Amazon knowing what books she buys and also what she reads as “just too much.”
Amazon hasn’t spelled out any details of how it may exploit Goodreads or any information generated by its users, which Goodreads said number more than 16 million. But an Amazon spokesman pointed to other cases where the company has let other acquired subsidiaries–such as–operate with few changes.
“Goodreads is enjoyed by readers of books in any format and on any platform, and we expect to keep it that way,” the Amazon spokesman said.
Goodreads Chief Executive Otis Chandler said in an emailed statement the company saw more people sign up for new accounts in the three days after the Amazon announcement than in any other three-day period in its 6-year history.
“Change always brings uncertainty and makes people nervous – we totally get that,” said Mr. Chandler. “Our job is to prove to our members over the coming weeks and months that we are still the Goodreads they know and love.”
The deal, expected to close in the coming weeks, will cost Amazon as much as $200 million, depending on whether Goodreads meets certain performance targets, according to two people with knowledge of the structure. The terms include $160 million to $170 million in cash upfront, these people said.
One of the people said Amazon will also create a more connected experience on its Kindle e-readers by integrating Goodreads’ social network into those devices.
While impossible to track precisely, opposition to the Goodreads deal seems to have taken root largely among those worried about Amazon’s broader impact on publishing and small bookstores. Many outlets have gone out of business since the Seattle-based company and other online and chain-store rivals emerged in the 1990s.
Katie Locke of Asheville, N.C., for example, said she takes pains to avoid buying books through Amazon because she preferred independent booksellers and is opening a bookstore of her own. She said she hoped to make “a statement” by closing the Goodreads account she has used to keep track of her reading list for the past five years.
Melissa Chadburn, a Los Angeles-based fiction writer, said she closed her account to ensure that Amazon didn’t have access to her book reading data. “It is really heartbreaking to have Amazon take over Goodreads,” she said. “It was great to have other readers recommending me books, but I don’t need Amazon using my information to sell me books.”
Not all Goodreads users were upset by the news. Rohit Bhargava, the author of self-help book “Likeonomics,” said he was hopeful Amazon would improve its social networking services with the acquisition and, ultimately, help him sell more books through the site. “The community aspect of Amazon is pretty dormant,” Mr. Bhargava said.
At least one fledgling book site expects to gain some Goodreads users in coming weeks. “It’s phenomenal for us,” said Joe Regal, chief executive of Zola Books, an independent e-books retailer that expects to officially launch this summer with a significant social media component. “There is a lot of concern about Amazon’s growing power and influence.”
Some, though, say a broad consumer backlash is unlikely over a new corporate parent.
“If the average consumer continues to enjoy Goodreads, they’ll continue to use it,” said Jamie Raab, publisher of Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group. “Authors and publishers may care, but this is a consumer driven site. If they get what they are looking for when they go on, the vast majority will continue to use Goodreads as a source to find out more about books.”
The Wall Street Journal.