My vacation time with the family is almost over; which at my wife’s suggestion I took a break from everything, including my day job and creative writing. I don’t miss the day job but I miss working on my novel(s).
Creative writing hasn’t been a grind for me but it gets intense. I’m one of those who works towards a weekly quota and it’s time to produce again.
Thought I would provide a quote to start the week and hopefully inspire a few of you as well.
I was out this weekend for a family event. Had a great time and took a break away from writing. That was strange for me, since I have not taken off more than a two days in a year from producing.
I realized that I’ve been going hard at my writing for a very long. I’m drained and thought I would take a break for a while to enjoy a two week stretch and give my work in progress a breather. I’m also waiting for beta readers to comment on my finished novel which I’m nervous about.
It felt wrong to me and somehow necessary all the same.
Not only is Mr. Bell a talented novelist and writing teaching—he also has taken the time to help inspire his followers. In thanking Mr. Bell for doing that, I didn’t offer a favorite quote of mine, like he asked us to do. Normally if I comment, I do what the contributor in TKZ is asking. Instead, he bantered back. “We all need that little kick in the pants from time to time, Ben. Cheers!”
Strange how someone so far away and online could flip the thinking switch in my head. Not sure Mr. Bell knew I needed a little jolt, but I will safely assume he did not.
As I was driving us back home, I realized that if I straying I needed to do two things.
I’ll allow myself some room to breathe. Yes, my enjoyment of writing has been stressful to produce over 2021. Not good.
I’ve kept up a healthy quota and tracked my progress. I have written almost 200,000 words in 2021 which includes my second drafts for my work. That is two novels worth of work.
BTW, I have too many favorite quotes. I use a new one each day as a post on my social media. But the one that would apply right now is the above which I might post up on the wall in front of me. The words should always be simple and natural, which is how I want to be remembered.
I’ve been reading a lot about Hemingway the last few weeks and I’m amazed how simple he kept his writing.
One of thing that I found out is Hemingway wrote to a flesch grade level scale between 4 and 6. I’m not sure that’s entirely true but I had to check it out—and have confirmed that Hemingway had his preference for two syllable words.
If you stick to short words your work will be much simpler to read. So it’s possible, even though the content is adult in its nature.
This is inspiring because it shows how simplicity might be better than being complicated.
Hemingway had the Iceberg theory as well. It’s another well know style to hold back. At the core The Iceberg Theory is another way he kept it simple. More on that in the future.
This all started last summer (2020), I fell headfirst into this idea that plot is driven by fourteen signposts. I actually heard about this method when listening to James Scott Bell on Great Courses and was blown away. Then boom, I’m buying up his books on writing and learning all I can. It felt like he made writing simple and easy to do. This is not the experience, (up till then), that I had. Not by a long shot.
In the back of my head I keep saying to myself that it couldn’t be that easy. There was no way. Come September 2020, I had a novel outlined using Mr. Bell’s formula to outline a plot and the first daft was nearly complete.
I want to be clear that this wasn’t my first novel that I wrote but it was the hardest project I ever wanted to get off the ground. The Smoke Eater has three POV characters and follows a journey of someone who fit’s the anti-hero title. I failed to get this done after trying for 12 years because I didn’t know about plot development.
I owe the missing piece to Mr. Bell, who had a line that I heard over and over again. This (signposts) can work like recipe and if followed you can be successful. The biggest takeaway is that I proved it myself but i wasn’t sold.
Short answer to the above—I think so. But here’s why I’m going to embrace this idea more.
Even though I’m nearly done with what felt like writing an impossible book, I was still on the fence about plot and structure. Over the next year I was resistant but felt open to exploring and studying this idea. I’ve looked at dozens of the books and movies and have yet to prove to myself that the 14 signpost CAN’T be used like a Swiss Army Knife.
A few days ago I went with my two sons to see Black Widow. I enjoyed the movie but fell into a trance. No, I wasn’t fixated on Scarlett Johansson, but I saw the plot structure throughout the move. It’s been happening more often now where I see the elements making up the story. On one side things are getting more predicable but I appreciate it more that I understand what fellow writers are doing to paint their pictures.
I encourage you to read Superstructure, a book on writing by James Scott Bell. Mr. Bell says that his fourteen signposts can fit into any story. I used to take that with a grain of salt but quickly used it again to develop my current WIP, The Expatriate.
Yes—Grain of Salt!
There’s another structure called the Hero’s Journey. I won’t go into details, but it’s a well-known plot structure that has been used countless times to develop classic books and movies. One of the best-known uses of the Hero’s Journey is Star Wars.
I’ll go into more details about the Hero’s Journey and the plot structure another time.
The problem with the Hero’s Journey is you’re not writing with purpose like you would with the Superstructure outline.
Superstructure – Is there a better tool?
I don’t think so.
When I went to school, we based our stories on the Freytag’s Pyramid. That was fine, but there were no signposts to write to. With the Freytag’s model we were supposed to write our story to a climax and then resolve what we could.
In my later years, I found my ideas failed because they went nowhere. I always felt there had to be a better way to write. And of course the one that has struck with me is the work by James Scott Bell.
When watching Black Widow I could see the signposts coming at me. I was able to define the disturbance, the care package, and the point of no return. It was all there.
My epiphany is this—you can lay out any scenario with superstructure or find the signpost in 90% of the stories we have in film and books. I can’t go in full 100% because sometimes it doesn’t cover work that is abstract or experimental.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
I don’t want to spoil the Black Widow movie, but I did re-watch another Marvel film this summer with the family. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 has every signpost. Here’s the examples. (BTW will reference the movie below as GGV2).
1. Act 1: Disturbance—This is where the story starts. It’s also supposed to grab the reader and start their engagement with the plot and characters.
Before the disturbance in GGV2, we have a prologue. As per Bell’s teaching we’re not technically at the major disturbance yet, but we’re getting there.
Prologue—Set before the protagonist is born, Star Lord’s parents are having a good time. But evil dad has planted his so-called seed of destruction on earth.
The real disturbance comes shortly when the team is doing battle with a monster in present. This starts the chain of events for the story and the journey begins. There intent is to defeat the monster and get hold of Nebula.
2. Act 1: Care package – There has to be a relationship between the main character and someone else. The author is supposed to setup a relationship(s) so the reader can relate with the lead on a personal level.
In GGV2, Star Lord has a crush on Gamora. This sets up a love interest to the story. Care package is set.
3. Act 1: Argument against transformation—The main character is supposed to change or transform, but we have an issue. It means that the main character has something to learn about themselves but might be resistant to change.
Star Lord is having daddy issues. He seems to be rubbed the wrong way by the High Priestess in the first act that he has strange genetic codes.
4. Act 1: Trouble brewing—This is when the antagonist enters or there is something going on that present a challenge or danger to the lead.
In GGV2, we see this when the High Priestess send her fleet to kill the Guardians of the Galaxy. We also see Yondu a bit later on being brought into the fold.
5. Act 1: Doorway of no return #1—The lead is in it to win it. It also means that the lead has something to solve or overcome. James Scott Bell describes this as death stakes. Death stake can be psychological death, physical death, or professional death.
In GGV2, Star Lord has at last met his long-lost father. The offer is made to go with Ego to a different planet and here the second act can begin.
The death stakes are two-fold – someone is trying to kill them as always – Star Lord is fighting psychological death and is struggling with the appearance of father since he never knew him.
6. Act 2: Kick the shins—just like it sounds. The lead has to feel challenged and it should relate to the death stakes.
In GGV2, this one’s tricky. But Star Lord doesn’t get the kick in the shins in person. The High Priestess has hired Yondu to kill the Guardians of the Galaxy. Essentially, the High Priestess will not give up kill them until the deed is done.
7. Act 2: The mirror moment—The reflection by a character or by someone close to get the lead to see themselves for who they are. This can also be a call for change/transition.
In GGV2, Star Lord has a moment alone with Gamora. At the midpoint of the movie there’s a scene between the two of them when they are talking. Peter tries to woo Gamora with his dance moves. The scene is doing a few things, however, the main one is Star Lord is flirting with a larger concept of being more mature.
I think Star Lord wants Gamora as a lover, but he’d have to grow out of his Playboy ways. She senses that and is waiting for his transformation to show before she commits.
8. Act 2: Pet the dog—This is about a new relationship or the lead helping someone with no benefit to themselves. The intent is to make the lead relatable as a person with morals.
In GGV2, the Pet the Dog moment happened before the mirror moment. This is when the team has accepted Mantis as one of their own.
9. Act 2: Doorway of no return #2—Thrusting the characters into the third act.
In GGV2, Ego forces Star Lord into the third act. He is hatching his plan to eradicate life in the universe and so Ego needs to be defeated.
10. Act 3: Mounting forces—This means both sides should be getting readying for confrontation.
In GGV2, Rocket and Yondu show up to help. But there’s more trouble to deal with. The fleet of the High Priestess shows up to kill the Guardians of the Galaxy.
11. Act 3: Lights out—The darkest moment in the third act.
In GGV2, all seems to be lost when Ego takes control and nearly has everyone either been defeated or is nearly dead.
12. Act 3: Q Factor (based on Q in James Bond)—I plan to write a blog on the Q factor in the future to look at it. However, the Q Factor must be in place before or after the Lights Out and is revealed back in the first act. It can be anything: an icon, a physical object, the memory of a beloved mentor, or cool gadgets.
In GGV2, Rocket has the batteries. He uses them to make a bomb to destroy Ego. We saw those little doodads back in the frist act.
13. Act 3: Final Battle
In GGV2, Star Lord reaches deep down and finds the power to fight his father. This is their chance. Star Lord is using the same power his father has, with motivation from Yondu. Star Lords uses all that he has to beat someone potentially stronger then himself.
14. Act 3: Transformation.
GGV2, Star Lord takes a step towards more responsibilities. We’re led to believe that he might be a more mature and understanding adult when we see him with Baby Groot in the end. He has taken on some dad responsibilities with someone younger and vulnerable.
Also, the father Star Lord never had was there with all along. Star Lord might be grateful now, realizing that he had a good influence in his life, and Yondu admitted he considered him a son. Yondu sacrificed himself for Star Lord, symbolic like a parent would do for their kid.
For next time…
I’m going to write more post about structure in my upcoming posts. I also want to write more about character develop in the near future.
For now, what do you think? I would love your comments and challenges. All are welcome.
I came across a major issue with my current work in progress (WIP). I have a major plot issue. Some would call it a plot hole. In my second book of the Reid Harris series, I need to have this guy transform in a major way. I like to describe Mr. Harris as a bit of an anti-hero, however, Mr. Harris needs to grow up!
The idea I have for this book (currently called The Expatriate) is full of life-changing events for Reid. I don’t want to spoil anything, but my main character is going to have to grow a pair of balls or die.
What is a plot hole?
Wikipedia has a general definition, “plot hole or plot error is a gap or inconsistency in a storyline that goes against the flow of logic established by the story’s plot.”
Here’s the problem.
Reid Harris is about to do rather amazing, taking into regard he has some nasty mental issues. I’m imagining major change for him by the book’s end to explore his psyche in future works. But he can’t, if he has PTSD? Well, he needs to overcome and adapt. That’s the plot hole, he cannot transform unless he’s willing to change or showing that willing to look inside himself. Since this transformation could be radical, it puts Reid on a hero’s journey.
Reid doesn’t want to be the hero, but he goes away with the antagonist. He’s going to sacrifice himself in order to pet the dog.
Just so you know, when a protagonist goes and “pets the dog” they are potentially putting themselves at risk to help other. The pet the dog scene has major intention and is a way to show your main character’s humanity.
I have followed James Scott Bell’s superstructure formula. It applies to almost everything I do. Except this issue I’m having today.
I need to switch up the structure a bit and work on Reid’s hero elements. (Oh, how I hate the hero’s journey).
I’m pulling a few old tricks from my learnings. I hope this works but I hate relying on the hero’s journey which puts a story at risk of being redundant. In my experience I get something more unique following superstructure. However, I need my hero to journey back home with something to show for his deeds to make the story have a logical conclusion.
That end point is called the Rebirth on the hero track. Reid is potentially going through something similar to rebirth, which his supporting characters are anew after coming out in the end.
I also have another problem with this WIP. I’ve been writing a POV character that is a shapeshifter and failed to realize it. In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949)” by Joseph Campbell – defined the Shapeshifter as someone who blurs the line between ally and enemy.
I’ve heard the quote from several authors and writing coaches before—Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” I think I’m breaking or mashing up my rules for necessity—let’s just hope it looks like a pretty work of art in the end.
Fingers crossed and butt cheeks clenched for the next twenty to thirty days to get my last act done for the first draft.
What deep thinking for a Saturday morning. Nonetheless, I looked at Steve Hooley’s list of great fiction and was surprised how many of books I read or know about. Steve was asking a question in his post, but I feel the book list overshadowed today’s intent. However, Steve did ask, “What if you decided you wanted to write a novel that would join the 50 most influential books ever written?” Oh my gosh – that’s something other people will have to do without me. If I was forced to do it, my brain would crack.
There were two thoughts I immediately had. #1, I’m not setting my writing life on the track to be a great literary figure. #2, A lot of those books bore the hell out of me. There’s also a little gem called “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that was left out and “The Count of Monte Cristo” should’ve been there too. It was kind of sad in a way, the list seemed akin to judging the hotness of women on social media.
I look at great literary fiction differently. Literary books need to be written well, have a personal impact, generate discussion, and they must entertain/engage the reader. Many of those books I fail to engage with and I just tap out.
What surprised me from the list is J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It was nice to see that book being held in the same esteem such as works like “The Iliad and The Odyssey” by Homer or “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. This made me happy because there’s room for entertainment that can go with prestige. J. R. R. Tolkien books allow the reader to have fun and engage with the characters. I believe that is Bilbo and Frodo’s purpose. But most of the other books I saw in the list are not written with the same intent. Actually a few of them have great writing but poor story.
Hence, why I don’t want to be a literary figure or setup myself as one? I don’t have a message to drive out there. I have no morals to teach anyone, even if I do live by a personal code of ethics. I’m not the guy to preach to the mass public nor do I want to be preached to either. My books should be read with wine and/or popcorn.
Thought of the day. In addition to be an author I will now consider myself an entertainer. That’s just the biz I’m in.
Here’s an issue that I’m trying to better understand. Profanity in commercial fiction, or rather, trying to NOT swear in your novels. It’s considered best that you don’t let your characters swear in your stories.
I follow The Kill Zone Blog daily and have read many works by James Scott Bell to improve my writing skills. A few months back I bought his work, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, on Audible. I was in Safeway, listening along and absorbing as much as I could while buying bread.
Mr. Bell made a link between profanity and how marketable your book will be. He said using profanity could mean turning away readers. It could also mean that you get fewer repeat readers for your future work. This is a common statement also on the TKZ blog and other posting around the web.
I’d describe this revelation in the bakery section as a heartbreaking moment. I’m a guy writing stories that are set in oil and gas. Let’s just say that f’bombs get hurled between people for fun at oil sites—it was always going to be a necessity. But as I investigated the issue, it looked like Bell was right and I was crushed.
At first, I believed this issue sealed up my failure. I remember my head spinning. Although devastated, there was a major challenge ahead of me to overcome. Either I needed a solution or I had to give up on my ideas.
Being a good little problem solver, I had to define my challenges.
Problem Number One. I want to be taken seriously as an author and I want people to read my work. Also, I had a WIP in progress that had over two hundred uses of colorful language. Do I go clean?
Problem Number Two. How was I going to be realistic? Not using profanity appeared wrong, and not in the direction I wanted. I want my readers to have a genuine sense of what it’s like to be in my character’s world.
I also considered similar issues. There was one area I looked into which was violence. But what about violence? Why aren’t authors turning down the violent acts in their books? I didn’t really know what the answer was but there had to be a relationship. (BTW. Not going to bring up sex which I’m sure there’s a link as well).
As time moved on and I had a revelation that if people were comfortable with their supporting characters dying off in horrific ways, surely the reader should be okay with a potty word.
If profanity should be turned down then shouldn’t we tone down profanity and violence? I did dive deep into my reading and research to figure this out. What I was seeing made little sense.
I was reading books written by James Scott Bell and John Gilstrap after my mirror moment. Both authors are contributors on TKZ. In Bell’s Mike Romeo series there’s a lot of gunplay and fighting—but little profanity. John Gilstrap writes the Johnathan Grave series, a mercenary who kills dozens at a time but doesn’t really swear.
Before I go on—I want to be clear—I’m not calling out these guys. What I realized is that their books work well for them without profanity. Mike Romeo is a genius and Johnathan Grave is a hero. Both these lead character have a higher moral code they adhere to. Swearing might not be in their nature. My takeaway was that profanity can be used sparingly when done properly with the right characters.
After that I thought maybe I was going down the wrong road and I hit a dead end.
So, for problem number one above, I answered some of my issues. Yes, you can write a thriller novel and not swear on the pages. You can be successful and realistic about your character dialogue and at the same time, not offend people.
But wholly SH&T. The body counts are high in the world of fiction. The tolerance with the reader is also high when there’s a shooting or death in many best-selling books. Why isn’t there a higher correlation for tolerance with language?
There is a movement related to streaming services. There’s a lot of graphic writing out there that ends up in popular work such as Netflix and Amazon. That has led to my “AH-HA” moment a few weeks ago. There are television series that on Netflix that offer a more realistic story with realistic language than you can find on network TV. Maybe not quite an AH-HA moment, but there’s lots of writing and books that are used to make that material. Overall, maybe there’s some room for me after all?
I believe we are seeing is a shift in the media world. Grownups want to be treated like grownups. This is an observation on my part but it’s been my observation that stems back to my high school days. Two of my favorite authors back then were Stephen King and John Saul. It’s not because they wrote horror, but their characters were realistic. Another guy who brought a world to life was Jeff Lindsay when he wrote the Dexter series.
Let’s use Jeff Lindsay for example and Dexter as an odd leading character. Dexter is holding back and his dialogue matches up to the clean-cut image he’s trying to project. If he wasn’t a serial killer we’d like to be friend’s with him. But all the others around him, like his sister are all messed up and it comes out in the interactions. There’s an abundance of profanity but it worked.
Dexter is also a standout from your typical Thriller or Suspense story. I can’t ignore that there’s perhaps a different kind of reader who’s rooting for anti-hero. But I for one loved it.
Lesson learned—characters need to match their dialogue. Back to Jeff Lindsay, he used Dexter’s sister as the brash opposite with a mouth to match, and used her well.
My gut searching stopped when I realized the following:
I need to write dialogue that is real for my characters and their scene.
I’m going to treat my readers like grownups and let them decide.
I’m not naming authors or specific books, but I have stopped reading stories when I find the characters lack important engagement. When I see dialogue like, “Oh FUDGE,” “You FRIGGIN momma boy,” “I don’t give a CRAP what you do,” it’s even more disgusting to me than the actual profanity. If the author refuses to fully engage, you lost me and my cash. I tap out.
In relation to problem two above—I’m going to have to risk it. All along, I needed to have faith in my future readers. I have faith they will get through some awkward points. I’m going to take them on a life like journey and I hope everyone will be with me in the end.
There is a lesson, and I believe that James Scott Bell is valid in saying that excessive profanity is terrible for your writing career. I’m going to use the best judgement I can. Therefore, no, I will not swear in the books just because, but I’m not holding back when the tension demands the reaction.
When I was looking for inspiration, I came across the quote below. “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Steve Martin was such a powerhouse comedian in his early years that I honestly believe this could be his personal mantra. There are so few one-man shows that can sellout stadiums. Let’s not forget his movies, some which will be comedic classics for decades to come. I really believe he’s one of the best at what he does.
There’s a lesson for the rest of us here and I believe there’s a correlation to quality. No matter how good our intent to deliver something into the world is, there’s a chance it’s going to be crap if we don’t nurture the product.
My thought for the day – how do some authors put out 3 or more books a year? I’m not currently reading anyone who can do this. I’m very selective about who I read and go off of recommendations. Still, I’m wondering how you get the best story you can when the average author struggles to get thousand or two thousand words written in a single day. Hope to learn that one in the future.