On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Persistence


George Herman Ruth Jr., or *Babe* Ruth (1895-1948), is arguably the greatest baseball player of all times. He was the first player to hit 60 home runs in one season (1927), and this record stood for 34 years until it was broken by Roger Maris in 1961. Ruth's lifetime total of 714 home runs at his retirement in 1935 was a record for 39 years, until broken by Hank Aaron in 1974. His lifetime batting average was 0.342, and he made 2873 hits, and 714 home runs.


I find this quote inspiring:


Don't let the fear of striking out hold you back. -- Babe Ruth


The Babe only connected with a little more than 3 out of 10 pitches, and yet this is the 10th highest average in baseball history.


You do not need to do the job perfectly. Just keep persevering, without even looking at what is accumulating, and you may be surprised.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fun with Language




This poem made me smile.
**

Asylum for the Verbally Insane

Author unknown

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,

But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,

Why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and three would be those,

Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Study with the Story Template Part Two



The "hidden need" of the protagonist is an emotional lack that he solves during the course of the story. I first heard this term from Angela Hunt and Nancy Rue at a writing conference where I attended their first "NANGIE" instructional class in 2005.

The hidden need not only hurts the protagonist, but most ideally it also hurts those around him or her. Some examples of this hidden need might be someone who is afraid to confront others, or who loves money more than family, or who is unconsciously arrogant.

The hidden need triplet describes 3 specific stages in which this flaw is actually solved in your protagonist:

1. Demonstrating the hidden need

2. Solving the hidden need

3. Demonstrating that the hidden need is solved

These stages normally occur in the second half of act two, right after the midpoint, and often form a "mini-story" to give a break from the excitement and story ramifications of the midpoint.

Let me use the movie U571 to demonstrate. It's a movie made in 2000 about a submarine crew in WW2 that wants to capture a Nazi Enigma machine (story goal). If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it! It's very exciting and beautifully done.

Stage One: Demonstrating the Hidden Need

Tyler is the second in command who likes to be a "big brother" figure to those under him, but is afraid to lead. Right after the midpoint disaster in which the captain is killed, he finds himself in command of a crippled ship. The men are worried. Tyler admits to them that he doesn't know what they're going to do. This scene starts at 55.1% of the whole.

Stage Two: Solving the Hidden Need

The chief petty officer takes Tyler aside and privately tells him to never, ever say to the crew again that he doesn't know what to do. The captain, the chief petty officer says, is an awesome figure, and must always present a strong presence in order to give courage and inspire loyalty and confidence in his men. Tyler listens carefully. This scene starts at 58.9% of the whole.

Stage Three: Hidden Need is Demonstrated to be Solved

The Americans surface and see a small Nazi plane flying overhead. Since they're on a German Uboat, Tyler tells his sailors to wave as if they are also Germans. One of Tyler's sailors orders the one manning the guns to strafe the Nazi plane, but Tyler orders him not to. There is hesitation but the gunner holds his fire, the sailors wave, and the Nazi plane seems to be fooled as he flies past. Then Tyler turns and punches out the sailor. "This isn't a democracy!" he growls. This scene starts at 60.5% of the whole.

Near the Darkest Moment when the Hidden Need is again Demonstrated

Close to the darkest moment, Tyler needs a functional torpedo tube, but it's underwater and for anyone to fix it will be dangerous and likely fatal. Tyler orders one of his crew to go in there and FIX it, darn it, and do it now! This scene starts at 93.2% of the whole.

*

I could show you this same pattern in story after story after story. I included the percentages not to be rigid and say your hidden need triplet MUST occur here, but instead to give you an idea of the natural reliability of its placement. My student Emily was amazed to verify how closely different points of a story (not just hidden need triplet) tended to fall. This is another subject, however.

The hidden need triplet is a specific sequence of actions that solves the hidden need. Just having a protagonist with a hidden need suddenly acting better at the darkest moment is not the same, and will not have the same resonant effects.

When designing or editing your story, make sure that your protagonist has some sort of flaw that needs to be healed. Then, demonstrate clearly exactly how it is healed. By doing this your story will carry a strong emotional punch.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Study with the Story Template Part One



One of my high-school students, Emily, did a school project using my story template algorithm. Her goal was to examine classic and non-classic stories to find any differences in the story structure. She decided to use just movies since the analysis is quicker, although still not trivial: for each story she broke it into a list of scenes, timed each scene, then calculated percentages of whole for duration and placement. Her definition of a classic was a film that had been adapted from a novel, had one or more sequels, and/or was recognized as the epitome of its genre. Furthermore, the original novel or film must have been made at least 25 years ago (1985 or earlier), since it takes at least about a generation to be recognized as a classic. Non-classics were films in that same time period that did not fit the "classic" criteria. She tried to choose films from a variety of genres.

She chose well-known movies:

Classics:

Charlotte's Web

Prince Caspian

Tuck Everlasting

High Noon

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Jaws

Rocky

Non-Classics:

Heaven Can Wait

War Games

LadyHawke

To analyze these movies, Emily studied the story template and then broke it down into 16 specific testable points. After doing her research, and contrary to all of my expectations, she found a real difference in structure between the classics and non-classics.

15 of the 16 points were present in all the stories. However, 1 of the points was present in 6 out of 7 classics, but in none of the non-classics. This blew me away. When she did a Fisher's exact t-test for binary data on the presence or absence of this one variable in identifying a classic, in a two-tailed test (which is harder to reach significance), she had a p value of 0.03, considered significant. (The p value means that if you did this test 100 times, in 3 out of 100 trials you would expect to obtain these results by chance. Scientific standards typically accept a p < 0.05 to be considered significant, meaning that the scientist is probably measuring a real phenomenon). This result indicates the presence of this one story point is highly correlated to having a "classic" whereas its absence means it is linked to being a non-classic.

These aren't clean statistics since the original project design looked for 16 variables. The likelihood with this many variables is that one might reach a level of significance with one of the variables just by chance. However, 1) none of the other points changed -- they were all present in both classics and non-classics; and 2) this point makes a lot of sense to me that it might distinguish the lasting stories from the throwaways. At the minimum, it seems to be important to remember to include this point. It sure can't hurt.

I'm sure you're wondering what this variable is? Well, this blog entry is already long, so I'm going to save that till Friday. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think it might be. Happy writing.

Friday, May 10, 2013

You Become Who You Wish to Be





I’m dating myself here. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was delighted to find after school a television channel that showed reruns of the original Star Trek series with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Yeah, they were cheesy, but to a young girl they were “fascinating.” Along with books and Star Wars, these were my first initiation into ideas of bending reality and alternate worlds. A few years later I was excited to watch Star Trek: Next Generation. This was objectively a better series, with more complex characters and occasionally a truly mind-twisting premise. The cardboard walls and Christmas tree lights were gone. Yes, maybe the Next Generation episodes were sometimes silly, but as in the first series, full of optimism and derring do.

I love to contrast the characters of Spock and Data from the two series. Spock is a Vulcan – a humanoid who prizes logic and rationality more than anything. Spock never showed emotion, at least until the actor complained and the writers built in a half-human side and a few episodes in which he could deliver a larger emotional range.

Data, on the other hand, is the quintessential Pinocchio: an android built by Dr. Noonian Soong who is incapable of experiencing emotion, although he desperately pursues this aim. Among other things Data learns painting, plays poker, and adopts a cat (Spot), but never quite gets it.

Interestingly, I think of Spock as less human-like than Data. Spock, who is human but wishes to be unemotional, is perceived as unemotional. Data, who is without emotions but “desires” to become human, is perceived as human -- although the crew never forget that he is an android, they always interact with him in a human-like way.

Of course, this perception on my part, as the audience, might be due to skillful acting and writing that imbues a limited character with greater depth. But assuming that this is a true observation, I’ve often pondered why this might be. I think it comes down to this: the characters are perceived, not as who they are or even who they see themselves as, but who they desire to be.

This is a powerful thought.

Who are you aiming to be? What do you wish to accomplish? More than many other factors, these goals will define who you are.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Length Matters




Many middle writers figure that their writing is so good it doesn't matter if their ms is a little long. "Those are just guidelines,” the writer thinks. “Everyone will love it. Anyway, look at Stephen King with those monster books he puts out all the time.”
Well, yes, Stephen King does get away with long stories. Stephen King is also a proven author who could sell his grocery list if he wanted some quick cash. As a never-published author, you, dear writer, are not Stephen King. You need to follow the rules.
Rule-of-thumb length estimates are as follows:
20-40K for a novella.
50-80K for some genres, especially romance.
70-100K for most novels. 100K is pushing it.
Unless you are going to a house that says it’s OK, DO NOT try to sell them a ms over 100K. They will laugh at you.
Before you submit to a house, look up their length guidelines so you have specific information, and then stick to these like glue. (And remember in your ms to avoid clich├ęs like the plague :-)  ).
There are two good reasons that manuscript length is a hard and fast rule. The first reason is that an overlong manuscript is typical of poor writing: passive voice, descriptive rather than active prose, too many adjectives and adverbs, imprecise story execution, and so forth. This is not to say that your manuscript DOES have these problems, just that a long manuscript will cause the editor to suspect your technique likely needs improvement. You’ll be starting out a reading with a strike against you.
 
The second reason is that long books are expensive to print. Although publishers bring provocative written works with valuable messages to an audience, ultimately for them a book is a product. Their ultimate goal is to make money. They are inundated each year with hundreds or thousands of unpublished manuscripts. 
Imagine that you are an editor and have two manuscripts before you. They are both written by newbies with comparable platforms, qualifications, and skill. The messages of both are strong. One is 80K, and the other is 110K. You figure with the longer one you will have to charge more money per book and/or accept a smaller profit margin. Your profit margin on any book is already small. Which one will you take?
As ebooks continue to take a larger market share, and print books become less popular, it’s true that cost for publishing a long book may become less important. Even so, readers tend to gravitate towards shorter rather than longer works. And don’t forget that poor writing tends to lengthen prose.
Drill this in: LENGTH MATTERS. An editor is not going to make an exception for you because of an amazing story.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Trick is in the Selling



Since I teach at conferences and other places, I run into many writers who want to be published. Their writing quality ranges from perfection to scribbles, but most fall into what I call the "middle writer" level -- good writers who are nevertheless missing techniques that will push their writing to a truly professional level.

These middle writers are, naturally, eager to be published, and frankly think they're ready to be published. In my opinion, they're not quite there. Rather, they're passing through a stage that all writers go through. This stage is fraught with danger with the easy availability now of publishing oneself.

I feel like a broken record with publishing advice, but can't stand to see good people taken advantage of. So here goes, one more time.

First, let me tell you my story and why I think I can give advice. A few years ago I was at the middle writer stage when I signed with my dream agent. Sadly he turned out to be a nightmare: he told me he'd showed my ms to a number of publishers, did not give me a list, then abruptly broke all contact with me. (I know he actually did show the ms since I had a telephone call from an editor asking questions). If you know anything about the biz, you'll realize I was screwed with finding another agent since I didn't know who'd seen the ms. Shortly after that I experienced a health crisis so was not able to write for a long time due to depression.

My options were to change the title and hunt for another agent, write another book with which to piggyback my ms, or self-publish. I put on my publisher's hat and looked at my ms with fresh eyes. Not only was it way too long and therefore too costly to publish with a reasonable book price, but it had many *middle writer* errors that needed to be cleared up. My friend Jane edited the durn thing and taught me through her critiques how this is done. Once she'd finished I took the next year  compulsively editing. I cut the ms from 117K to 89K, changed passive voice, got rid of adverbs, rabbit trails, and so forth. It took me five or six passes before I was  happy.

I hired a book packager (Archer Ellison, a fantastic company that I recommend without reservation) to design a cover, and hired my friend Chris to copyedit and typeset. Both companies did an outstanding job. Then I formed an LLC and put up Lever for sale in 2009. I've worked with a friend/consultant with my company but mostly do this myself. A year or two later, when ebooks started becoming big, I searched for someone to format my book but only found usurious places, so I figured out how to do this myself. I've since opened an epublishing branch of my company so that others can epublish their books without being ripped off.

By 2009 I was able to write again. My next book wasn't working out though so I took a detour to study story structure. After puzzling out story structure, then coaching would-be novelists in a class at the local high school and clients from the library, I was ready to write Template. I did this in three months (since I'd worked with this stuff for so long) and put Template up in 2011.

I have been amazingly blessed and gratified to hear from so many people who have found Template helpful. This has been so exciting for me. As a side benefit, Lever has also sold a few copies. I am happy to announce that I will be publishing another person within the year, and hope to soon develop Taegais into a full-blown professional publishing company. While I'm not yet officially looking for submissions, I always keep my eyes open for something *excellent.*

OK, so back to the middle writer syndrome. As I mentioned before, I believe 100% of people who continue to write go through this stage, and it is a noble place to be. The middle writer is a skillful writer who works hard and is beginning to see people (mostly critique partners) actually like their work. The downside is that it is tempting for the middle write to think he's better than he is. The middle writer typically sends queries and mss to agents, but has had disappointing results -- maybe a request for something, but it usually ends up in a dead end.

The middle writer then hears enticing stories about writers like John Locke and Amanda Hocking, self-publishers who have sold (literally) a million books. Come-hither advertisements for subsidy publishers in writing magazines tell this writer how he can take control to publish his book instead of waiting for the glacial pace of traditional publishers.

My advice: I am aware of only one subsidy company, my friend Chris' company Yav Publications, that will not rip you off. I've also heard good things about amazon's DIY company Create Space. You can read about what to look for in subsidy publishers in Mark Levine's book The Fine Print of Self Publishing. But if you MUST self-publish then consider forming a company to do it yourself. If you need help in getting started, please write to me and I'll set you on the right direction. It's not nearly as difficult or as complicated as you may think.

But here's some more advice: remember that it is relatively easy to package an attractive book. The hard part is selling it. If your writing is only at the middle level, your book will not give the reader as exciting an experience as he craves, and he will be less likely to recommend you to his friends. It is REALLY HARD to sell books. For middle writers I always recommend ignoring the outlier stories and keep working to make your writing fabulous. Don't prematurely publish your work, because you will damage both it and your writing reputation. Keep working till you jump to the next level. Then when it's time to publish, you'll be ready.