Tag Archives: Game of Thrones

#amwriting: advancing the plot

e.m. forster plot memeIn the previous post, I discussed the story arc, and how it relates to what E.M. Forster said about the plot: that plot is the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. The story arc is a visual description of where events should occur in a story. For me, knowing where they should happen is good, but it doesn’t tell me what those events are.

Planning what events your protagonist will face is called plotting, and I make an outline for that.

“Pantsing it,” or writing using stream-of consciousness, can produce some amazing work. That works well when we’re inspired, as ideas seem to flow from us. But for me, that sort of creativity is short-lived.

Participating in nanowrimo has really helped me grow in that ability, and one nanowrimo joke-solution often bandied about at write-ins is, “When your’re stuck, it’s time for someone to die.” But we all know that in reality, assassinating beloved characters whenever we run out of ideas is not a feasible option because soon we will run out of characters.

As devotees of Game of Thrones will agree, readers (or TV viewers) get to know characters, and bond with them. When cherished characters are too regularly killed off, the story loses good people, and we have to introduce new characters to fill the void. The reader may decide not to waste his time getting invested in a new character, feeling that you will only break their heart again.

The death of a character should be reserved to create a pivotal event that alters the lives of every member of the cast, and is best reserved for either the inciting incident at the first plot point or as the terrible event of the third quarter of the book. So instead of assassination, we should resort to creativity.

This is where the outline can provide some structure, and keep you moving forward.  I will know what should happen in the first quarter, the middle, and the third quarter of the story. Also, because I know how it should end, I can more easily write to those plot points by filling in the blanks between, and the story will have cohesion.

Think about what launches a great story:

The protagonist has a problem.

You have placed them in a setting, within a given moment, and shown the environment in which they live.

You have unveiled the inciting incident.

Now you need to decide what hinders the protagonist and prevents them from resolving the problem. While you are laying the groundwork for this keep in mind that we want to evoke three things:

  1. Empathy/identification with the protagonist
  2. Believability
  3. Tension

We want the protagonist to be a sympathetic character whom the reader can identify with; one who the reader can immerse themselves in, living the story through his/her adventures.

Also, we want the hindrances and barriers the protagonist faces to feel real to the reader. They must be believable so that the reader says, “Yeah, that could happen.” Within every scene, you must develop setups for the central events of that moment in their lives and show the payoffs (either negative or positive) to advance the story: action and reaction.

Each scene propels the characters further along, each act closing at a higher point on the story arc, which is where the next one launches from.

Some authors resort to “idle conversation writing” when they are temporarily out of ideas.  Resist the temptation—it’s fatal to an otherwise good story. Save all your random think-writing off-stage in a background file, if giving your characters a few haphazard, pointless exchanges helps jar an idea loose.

imagesDon’t introduce random things into a scene unless they are important. What if you had a walk-on character who was looking for her/his cat just before or just after the inciting incident? If the loss of the cat is to demonstrate the dangers in a particular area, make it clear that it is window dressing or remove it.

If the cat has no purpose it needs to be cut from the scene. To show the reader something  is to foreshadow it, and the reader will wonder why the cat and the person looking for it were so important that they had to be foreshadowed.

Every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary and irreplaceable.  In  creative writing, this concept is referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun,” as it is a principal formally attributed to the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov.

Finally, we want to keep the goal just out of reach, to maintain the tension, and keep the reader reading to find out what will happen next. Readers are fickle, and always want what they can’t have. The chase is everything, so don’t give them the final reward until the end of the story.

But do have the story end with most threads and subplots wrapped up, along with the central story-line. Nothing aggravates readers more than going to all the trouble of reading a book to the end, only to be given no reward for their investment of time.

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Dial-a-Plot

No matter how careful I am when building my outline, there is always a point where I am writing by the seat of my pants.  As I am normally rather a linear plotter, this can really change the direction a tale goes in.

I hear people whining all the time about this character or that one dying right and left in Game of Thrones. I don’t have HBO, so I’ve never seen it, but I have friends who seem to find this distressing.  I suspect that winging it and writing to a deadline is why people die  so frequently in George R.R. Martin’s world–it’s certainly how they meet a messy end in my world.

But how do we fly freely with our narrative, and yet not destroy the awesome story arc we have created? How do we avoid having to hide the mangled corpses of our beloved characters when they might be useful later?

Enter my home-made Dial-a-Plot (sustainably powered by dark matter).  It’s just your standard circular thingy that can be printed out and taped to your desk.  Whenever you have lost your way writing your epic fantasy, rather than resort to a sudden influx of something as far-fetched as cannibal fairies, feel free to refer back to this little gadget to remind you of those elements that really drive a plot.

Dial-a-Plot

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it can’t hurt to take some time to consider the central themes that inject true tension into the story, to keep the action moving and the heroes swinging their swords.

Hopefully you won’t have to resort to killing anyone you might need later, and cannibal fairies won’t take your tale in a direction you can’t recover gracefully from…unless…heh heh…Cannibal FAiries

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What I’ve learned from George R.R. Martin

George R. R. Martin photoI’m not a fan of George R.R. Martin’s style of writing, but I adore the man as a person. He has the courage to say out loud what many people would sweep under the rug.

Recently George R.R.  Martin told journalist Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times that although his books are epic fantasy, they are based on history. He said,  “Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day.” 

“To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves. We are the monsters. (And the heroes too.) Each of us has within himself the capacity for great good, and great evil,” Martin said.

According to Martin, “History is written in blood, and although Westeros – the fictional continent where the series is set – is ‘not the Disneyland Middle Ages,’ it is “no darker nor more depraved than our own world. The atrocities in A Song of Ice and Fire, sexual and otherwise, pale in comparison to what can be found in any good history book,” he said. (End of quoted text.)

George is right, and he is not advocating or glorifying rape, in fact just the opposite. If you want to inject realism into a work of fantasy you must address uncomfortable realities that human history has shown to exist. The worst aspects of human nature are portrayed in our everyday life—things I could never dream up. Society at large is blasé about it—unless it affects one personally, it may as well not exist.  Rape in the military is a fact, friends, not a myth, and that is just within our own forces. Not only does she live in a danger zone while in the military, a  woman soldier also knows she faces rape and torture if she is captured by the enemy—that is the first step in breaking her. Many men also suffer sexual assault and torture for the same reasons, whether we wish to acknowledge their pain or not.

Image courtesy of CBS News, and Getty

Image courtesy of CBS News, and Getty

Consider this disgusting item of current news that only rarely makes it onto the nightly newscast in our town: To be a young girl in Borno, Nigeria is an invitation to be kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. More than 200 young girls are living this nightmare right now, because an extremist group, Boko Haram, who is against educating women, goes door to door, breaking into their homes and boarding schools and taking the girls from their beds. This is done as a way to maintain political control and  keep their fathers in line. The families of the stolen children are powerless against these brutal thugs.

Do you think these schoolgirls are not being raped and tortured?  If so, you are living in a dream. The leader of these radicals publicly flaunts their intentions to sell or marry all of them, bragging to all the media that they do it because God told them to.  They loudly proclaim that they will sell all of these girls, and believe me, the world is full of buyers just waiting for such an opportunity. So far, 20 lucky girls have escaped their captors.

If I was writing modern literary fiction or political potboilers, I would have tossed out such an unbelievable plot–it would have seemed completely unrealistic–I mean, a religious cult of pedophiles and rapists systematically kidnapping 200 girls, claiming divine privilege, and no one is able to stop them? Come on, get real.

A 19th-century depiction of Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury image courtesy Wikipedia

A 19th-century depiction of Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury image courtesy Wikipedia

I suspect God would prefer we  humans didn’t give him the credit for our evil, thank you very much.

So what have I actually learned from George R.R. Martin? I have learned to be true to reality in my writing or my story will never hold water.  Draw from history, mash it up all you want, but don’t deny the roots and don’t turn away from the ugly truth. Also, we must  never forget that there is as much beauty to draw from as there is pain, for it is that contrast that makes an intense story compelling.

No work of fiction will ever be more horrific or glorious than the true history of our humanity and inhumanity. We authors will only scratch the surface, and if that small scratch makes a reader slightly uncomfortable, the reader can easily retreat to their ivory tower and read bland romance novels written by someone other than me or George R.R. Martin, where everything is rainbow perfect and happy endings are guaranteed.

If you were privileged to be allowed to learn to read, that is.

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Madcap Moments of Literary Mayhem

My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013This weekend I saw a hilarious post on Facebook, one pointing to an article at NYDaily.com that details the fatal-flaws in the eBook version of George R.R. Martin’s  book,  A Feast for Crows.

Now, I just want to say at the outset, the only book of his I’ve read was the book, A Game of Thrones. But that was a long time ago, when it first came out as a Science Fiction Book Club book of the month. I was not really that impressed with it. I found the book distinctly hard to follow, and nearly quit reading it several times.

But just because I don’t find his work to my taste does not mean I consider him to be a hack! On the contrary, Mr. Martin deserves every one of his many awards and good for him! This is a rough business, and I love it when people succeed as authors. There are many fine, popular authors out there whose books don’t ring my bells. My own work is certainly not to everyone’s taste, although I am sure it should be. (Insert Shameless Plug Here: buy my books, please.) (The buy-links are to the right, clearly labeled.) (Just sayin’.)

Needless to say, Mr. Martin’s publisher is one of the Big Boys (Bantam Books) and one would think  SOMEONE would have caught these wonderful bloopers.  The  author put his faith in the publisher, and the publisher let him down.

George R.R.Martin formatting issue 3 via book blog page views, margaret eby

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George R.R.Martin formatting issue 1 via book blog page views, margaret eby

There is the remote possibility these moments of literary mayhem could have been caused by a last-minute global change to the manuscript. If so, it is a good example of why we should never click “Replace All” when we discover a particular word we need to change. Instead we should take the time to see each appearance of the word, and determine whether or not to make that change individually.

But in this case, I don’t think that is the problem. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to the words the blooper replaces.  I think it is an OCR error (see number 5 below.)

George R.R.Martin bormatting issue 2 via book blog page views, margaret eby

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George R.R.Martin bormatting issue 4 via book blog page views, margaret eby

What these images of the book from the NY Daily tell me is that formatting issues are common and are a hurdle the indie must overcome. If the big boys have problems with this, then formatting is a real skill set that we must develop, because we all compete on the same field, only we indies have fewer advantages.

There are a few simple ways we can avoid some of the more common issues:

1. Do not put extra empty spaces between your paragraphs. If it is a section break, make sure to put something there to indicate it:  ***  centered in the empty space will do the task of indicating the section break, and will not look ugly.

2. Make sure your page breaks are “hard” i.e. NOT made by repeatedly hitting the “enter” key. You must limit those empty spaces to less than three, preferably only one. Go to the ribbon at the top of your WORD page and use the “Insert” tab. With the cursor next to your chapter heading, click on “Insert Page Break”.

3. Do Not Use Drop Caps to begin your first paragraph, no matter how pretty they look in the print edition. They screw the heck out of eBook formatting, causing all the paragraph indents to go away, making the book nothing but a WALL of words.

4. Stick to standard serif fonts like Times New Roman, and make it a decent size, like 11 pt. Use NOTHING larger than 16 pt. and use that only for chapter headings.

5. Random inexplicable letter changes can be caused by Optical Character Recognition (OCR) errors when the uploader for Kindle or Smashwords converts the manuscript to PDF format. Converting it to PDF yourself first does not help, because the errors are hidden in the PDF. Thus you may find  all the “p”s converted to ‘bl’s. (people becomes bleople.)  I am not very knowledgeable about the WHY of this, but I have learned how to avoid it:

I always save my eBook ms in Rich Text Format (.rtf) and I NEVER upload a manuscript to eBook  format that contains headers or footers. Remove the headers and footer BEFORE you upload to Kindle, Nook or Smashwords. I think this is what happened to A Feast of Crows. Headers and footers use OCR elements and this confuses the uploader program. My theory is: someone at Bantam forgot to remove the header before it was uploaded. But I could be wrong– this whole formatting thing is magic after all, and magic is an iffy science at best.

6. Comb your eBook ms for extra spaces at the end of paragraphs and remove them. I’ve been told this will eliminate the random “Words     Spread     Across     The    Page”  problem.

7. DO NOT USE THE TAB key to indent your paragraphs!!!  DON’T DO IT!  Go to the ribbon at the top of the page and use the paragraph formatting option. Set the indent to 3 or 5 pt.  But 3 is the optimal for me as a frequent eBook reader.

The bottom line is this:  the indie must spend many long hours combing the ms for the random extra spaces, removing all the possible error producing elements before we upload it. THEN you must use the option Kindle and Nook both provide and spend more time seeing what the book actually looks like BEFORE you hit the publish button.

Unlike George R.R. Martin, you won’t be able to blame the big-name publisher if your book looks like the dog’s dinner when your friends buy their downloads. This is our curse. We indies only have ourselves to blame for our less than perfect efforts.

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