Sunday, August 31, 2008

by Percy Shelly

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A confluence of events:

The third anniversary of Katrina.

My own halting efforts to finish the Serina trilogy are resumed.

A hurricane once again threatens New Orleans.

Any of these would be enough to get me thinking. All of them force me to acknowledge that while a city of New Orleans still stands, and will stand (and will rebuild again if necessary-- we're a damned stubborn species, and I love us for it), but that the city I loved, home for a powerful and seminal period of my personal history, is gone.

Likely, that particular city was gone before the storm. Much of the Minnesota I knew vanished under bulldozers, name changes and the cupidity of minor officials. Things change, life moves on.

I've lived in constant motion for a long time now. Full throttle, as it were. And I've had to accept the places and people I've loved being lost behind me. Fuck it.

My generation may well live to 120. Some of the more optimistic gerontologists put our life expectancy at 300 years or more.

It occurs to me that I will live to see a great deal more vanish beneath waves and sand.

Next post, I'll write about writing again. And of course, the work continues.

On Day 24 the trusty Wordcount-O-Meter stands at 25,200 words.
Full throttle and... you know the rest.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saggy Middles

As the ab-tastic Olympics wind down and one's WiP races to its Act I climax, a young man's thoughts turn naturally to the Great Saggy Middle.

You've got a great idea. You've got a slam-bang opening, and a slam-bang way to end your story. But somewhere between the first 50 pages and the last 50 pages, writers have a tendency to get lost. Plotting can get heavy and bog down. Characters get lost and wander aimlessly. That slam-bang finish might lay somewhere on the far side of this swamp, but will the story ever get there?

I think in part, the Great Saggy Middle is a difficulty with infatuation. A lot of folks think they have a book in them (usually way too autobiographical and way too derivative of their influences, but that's another story) and sit down one quiet night to FINALLY WRITE. They start in a big rush of emotion and excitement, because the start of a new book is emotional. And it's exciting.

More accurately, it's infatuating. And infatuation wears off. For most, that means a 50 or 100 page fragment in a drawer somewhere, never to be spoken of again. For those of us with more stubborn than sense, it means 'holding on when there is nothing in you, except the Will which says... "Hold on.!"'

It means we have to get through the Big Middle.

To that end, here are a few tricks I've cribbed from books and movies. As always here at Full Throttle Productions, take what you like and leave the rest...

1) Subplot Climax: To help cover that wide stretch between Act I and Act II, bring one or more subplots to a climax. The resolution of the Daniel Cleaver subplot in Bridget Jones is a good example, as is Jim Carrey's realization that he's a bad father in Liar Liar. Or Darth Vader putting a swift end to Han and Leiah's plans in Empire.

2) Tentpole Action: Putting a big, vivid, splashy bit of action or sex or excitement in the middle can provide a useful distraction. James Lee Burke often throws a colorful psycho or two at Dave Robicheaux right around the middle of the book, and many a pulp writer found a good reason for a fistfight to smooth the way through. The bar Shaft is in gets machine-gunned in the original (and still the baddest) version. The protagonist in High Fidelity has a sexual encounter that keeps his journey back through his exes from turning tedious, and in Ilsa leaves Rick as the Nazis conquer Paris in Casablanca.

(For those of you with more lowbrow tastes, y'ever notice the standard gratuitous sex scene happens just about halfway through every cheap 80's action movie? Just sayin'.)

Sometimes, these big splashes can form a mini-story of their own, complete with setup, complication, climax and denoument. Casablanca's a good example, as the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars.

3) Local Color: A variation on using action to distract, but with a vivid personality instead. Just trot somebody exciting or fun on stage, maybe have a joke or fun story.

My all-time favorite example of this is Mike Yanagita in FARGO. The guy's weird, random, funny, sad and creepy all at once. He practially steals the show, and he definitely distracts from the fact that Marge really doesn't do much in her time in the Twin Citites.

4) Multi-Act: Instead of trying to successfully navigate across three acts, your story may be better told in four, five, six or more acts. There are two ways to do this:

Set up a mess of subplots and set about resolving them. Quentin Tarentino does this in Kill Bill, as the Bride works her way down her laundry list of funeral-candidates. (Pulp Fiction *sort of* does this too, with seperate vignettes jumping back and forth in time, each supporting a theme of second chances, but Tarantino likes to get complicated with structure.) Four Weddings and a Funeral has five sets of relationships to resolve on its way to hooking up the sixth.

One goal, many discrete obstacles. In The Quick Red Fox, Travis Mcgee pursues his quest through something like five acts, each as important as the last. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy does much the same thing. In pre-Daniel Craig days, the silver-screen James Bond often chased his villains all over the show.

In fact, the multi-act structure seems to work well with pursuit/quest stories. Anybody care to count the acts in Lord of the Rings?

For that matter, Shakespeare liked a five-act structure, too. His way of keeping the story from developing a Great Saggy Middle was to keep reversing the main plot. (Those kids won't get together. Wait, they might. No, they won't! Yes, they WILL! Oh wait, they're both dead.)

Anybody think of any I've missed?

And let's see... we're here at Day 16 of BURIED, and the Full-Throttle Daily-Wordcount-o-Meter stands at 17,100 words. This pleases me.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lazy, Frustrated Action

Working on the new effort (BURIED), I notice one of the problems I had in the first draft of the last effort. As always, it got me thinking...

1st Principle of Action:
Humans are lazy creatures. We don't want to work harder than we have to, even in pursuit of our heart's desires.

Or, in the words of the Red Dragon from BONE, "Never play an Ace when a two will do."

Every single character in your story, no matter their goal, will start by doing the least action to get the job done, as perceived by that character. To pump a guy for information, a barmaid might flirt. An affable detective might tell a disarming story about his wife's cooking while a hard-ass cop might start with 'you want to go to jail'. Marv from SIN CITY starts interrogating a hitman with a stab wound in the gut and the promise that death will be swift. For each of these, this is the quickest, simplest way to get the information they want. (In Marv's case, what's the point slapping a tough guy around for hours and making promises you both know aren't true?)

2nd Principle of Action: These actions will be frustrated. At least, they will unless you want the shortest, boringest (yes, boringest-- it's cromulent) story ever told. 'I tried something aand it worked' simply isn't a story.

Girl likes Boy. Girl casts shy glance at Boy in halls at school. Boy stops, asks Girl out. They date. The END.

Even The Little Engine That Could had more conflict and interest than that. Those first actions cannot succeed. If Boy walks past like Girl doesn't exist, she's going to have to do something else. You've got something started.

3rd Principle of Action: Action escalates. Both 12-steppers and business-seminar types agree, repeating unsuccessful actions is the very definition of insanity. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but it sure will kill your story dead.

Your characters want their goals, and they want them badly. Badly enough to do whatever it takes to reach them. In real life, we may take a few hesitant passes at shallow goals and quit. Those aren't the days you tell the grandkids about. 'Let me tell you about the time I joined a gym and went for three weeks' doesn't pack nearly the punch of 'Let me tell you about the time I avenged the death of the only person who was ever kind to me,' or even 'I remember when I was your age, I was crazy about this boy...'

As each action is frustrated, your character will make a harder, more difficult effort (as perceived by that character) to reach that goal. In comedy, those actions lead to farce. In action, to bigger and rougher fights. In drama, to difficult choices. And, of course, there's no reason a story can't be any combination of these, even all three.

But I digress. The point is, your character (heroes as well as villains) will keep plugging.

Boy ignores Girl's shy glances. She tells a friend, hoping to do that my-friend-likes-you thing. The friend likes him too and lies about Boy's rejection. Girl follows Boy, trying to figure out how to MAKE Boy like her. This creeps Boy out.

Will Girl get a makeover? Dive deep into Boy's favorite hobby so they have a common interest? Drink too much and make an ass of herself at a party? I don't know, not my story. But you can bet whatever she does, it'll top the last thing.

4th Principle of Action: In the immortal words of Less Than Jake, It Gets Worse Before It's All Over.

Your poor bastards are going to be stumped, stymied, blocked at every turn. Their best efforts sweep them farther and farther from their heartfelt desires. The poor, shy Girl gets teased for being creepy. Her lying-ass friend spreads cruel rumors. Boy thinks she's a stalker. Faced with rumors of stalking and possible Columbine-behavior, (how big of a bitch IS that friend, anyway?) school counselors get involved, and Girl is suspended.

How is she going to get Boy? I don't know, but you can bet she's going to have to dig deep, and do something she never would have though possible at the story's start.

It's going to be a time to tell the grandkids about...

Day 9: The Full-Throttle Daily Wordcount-O-Meter stands at 10,500 words.

On track and, actually, not working too hard. We'll see how I feel in Act II...

Monday, August 11, 2008

One Leg at a Time No Longer

or, Oops, I'm doing it again.

I held off as long as I could, but frankly, I'm addicted. And it's time for the next fix.

I'm writing again.

This time, though, I'm not flying by the seat of my pants. I've got notes on the forces at work before the heroine shows up. As promised before, I've got my Golden Spine (also known as the premise or Story Question):

The loss of her brother forces Kera Slade to the one thing she swore she'd never do: return home. Can she find the truth about his death when two gangs of murderous thugs and a tough-as-nails sheriff all want to make sure the past stays buried?

I've even... I've even got an outline:

Those are my heroine's two plots (conscious goal and unconscious goal) and the main subplot on the left, Act climaxes and approximate word count along the line. Easy.

A new leaf? A strange experiment? The next 90 days will tell.

This time through, I'm writing 1000 words a day, and no internet access until I do. So far, so good.

I've even dusted off the trusty old Full Throttle Daily Wordcount-O-Meter.

At Day 3, we stand at 4200 words.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Conflict and the PPK

Not that kind of PPK. Sure got your attention, though, didn't it?

I seem to be growing heavy with book once again, so my thoughts seem to be turning more and more to craft. And the ways craft goes wrong.

Conflict is the heart of story. It's the heart of life. From cradle to grave, we fight. We compete for attention, for resources, for love. We fight to be better people. Even given everything we could ever possibly want, we quest for the next challenge.

Small wonder that every moment in your story should contain conflict.

. Moment.

The only reason to have two characters in a scene together is if they want different things. Enemies, sure. Detectives and suspects or star-crossed lovers, of course. But even best friends, if they're going to share a scene together, will have goals at odds with each other.

Since I'm reading them at the moment, take Travis McGee. He and his best friend Meyer share one of the most memorable friendships in literature. But notice how often Travis is motivated by anger at the preditors and Meyer is hanging along because he's concerned about his friend. In most of their conversations, Travis's goal is get Meyer to help think up a way to get the bastards. Meyer's goal is keep Travis from going off the deep end or help my broken friend to heal.

Early on, McGee's main buddy is the Alabama Tiger. They're close enough for the Tiger to lend Travis a speedboat in The Deep Blue Good-by, yet the Tiger never once shows up on the page. Why? No conflict. As drawn, the Alabama Tiger's needs are simple: booze and women. He has both on his boat, hence no need to leave. And no way to meaningfully interact with the tormented, hedonistic half-hearted Puritan, that reluctant hero Travis McGee.

Or consider Itchy and Scratchy. Remember when Marge got to make them 'just get along'?
EXT./DAY, a front porch.
Itchy and Scratchy rock together on the porch, a pitcher of lemonade on a table between them.

SCRATCHY: Lemonade, Itchy?
ITCHY: Thanks, Scratchy.


Any conflict-free moment in your book is just PPK: a Pointless Pace Killer. Dead weight. It doesn't matter how prettily it's written, a moment without conflict isn't worth the paper to print it.

This doesn't just count for moments between characters. This is also the *real* reason that we don't spend pages watching characters brush their teeth, pee, balance their checkbooks, etc.

No. Conflict.

Two apparent exceptions actually serve to prove the rule.

Lonely Tension: this lovely heroine is all alone on those slippery stone steps. Even though I painted this, I don't know where she's going, or why, or what she'll find when she gets there. The point is, her lonely midnight walk is fraught with tension. Like any burglar prowling a night-dark hall, or a lonely and bored housewife eyeing the sherry, the tension between the apparent quiet and the understood threat is a form of conflict.

Sequel: Lots of writers set their heroes alone with some stage business to get through the stages of sequel. A character may flyfish in an icy river, or sweat on a treadmill or do repairs on a houseboat as stage-business for sequel. But remember, sequel is emotions and thoughts, options and a choice. It's about frustrated desire and a fresh plan of attack. And that's a product of inner conflict.


SQT raised a good point in the comments: what about moments of apparently idle comaraderie? She cited John Sanford's detective novels, but other such scenes abound in literature-- the protagonist just sort of hanging out, shooting the shit with a buddy or two. What gives?

Three possible reasons come to mind:

1) Act II Bump: One way to keep that Big Middle of the tale from going all soggy is to introduce a bit of random color as distraction: a vivid but pointless character (think Mike Yamagita from FARGO), an exciting activity (Freefall in Crimson features a hot-air balloon ride) or mysterious encounter (Dean Koontz loves to use slightly unearthly animals) or a good story (Andrew Vachss uses examples either humorous or harrowing). My first guess is, if you look at the place Sanford's funny stories appear, they'll come right when the second act needs a little bump.

2) Pointful Pace Killer: Every now and then, a storyteller will have a *reason* to kill the pace of their story. That random color in Act II might be one example of this, though I feel that use of color should still serve the general tone of the story. Otherwise, you may have a plot hole that needs patching, or a 'natural' break in the pace that needs glossing over.

For instance, your sleuth's quest for the truth is faltering, but a big break falls in her lap. To keep the break in logical progression from being too jarring, you throw a little misdirection at the reader. Disney does this all the time with their song-and-dance numbers, and therein lies the danger: those numbers are boooooring.

3) Indulgence: Then, as now, some writers got away with any darned shortcomings they cared to. Everyone makes money, but once editors fear to alter, it's the stories that suffer.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Something Andrew Vachss said in an interview once really stuck with me. For any of you who don't know, Vachss is a man who has dedicated his life to exposing and punishing child molesters, and his authorship is one aspect of his mission. Unlike so many with axes to grind, he's actually damned good.

Asked about this, Vachss made an analogy to a steak: if you take a piece of meat without a bit of fat on it, the thing is going to taste like cardboard. You need a little bit of marbling to give the meat a bit of sizzle, a bit of taste.

This week I've read the first three Travis McGee books and The Little Country, an older work by another favorite, Charles DeLint. The first thing that struck me is sizzle.

A big chunk of what makes the McGee books so compelling are Travis's riffs on society, culture, our humanity and inhumaity and the strange, sad, savage journey we all make from cradle to grave. John D. MacDonald vents his anger and sorrow and love, his world-destruction fantasies and, ultimately, his pride as our frail and foolish species rages against the dying of the light.

A bunch of years ago, I thought JDM wrote his novels in order to publish his rants. Later, it seemed to me that he put those wonderful, compelling riffs in to flesh out his slightly skeletal stories.

Now, I'm not sure which is the steak and which is the sizzle.

MacDonald's writing is deceptively elegant. Like a well-marbled steak, his work is threaded through with entertainment and flavor. For example, both The Little Country and The Deep Blue Good-by follow the time-tested structure of scene and sequel.

Throughout The Little Country, the protagonists act, assess, then act again. This structure is unobtrusive, and it keeps us grounded in the believability of the characters' actions. It's well done.

The first chapter The Deep Blue Good-by, McGee acts: he refuses to help the damsel in distress. Chapter two, McGee goes to a party, drinks a little too much, has sex with a stranger, drinks a little more, riffs a little bit on the emptiness of his life. The whole chapter is all of five or six pages, and it does an amazing amount of work:

1) McGee's dissatisfaction and ennui is plain and convincing. We understand why he's going to take the job.

2) McGee is revealed as a complicated character: his conscious and unconscious desires are wildly at odds. He tells everyone, including himself, that all he wants is laziness and pleasure, and stealing from thieves is a way to afford this life. But faced with just what he professes to want, we see, even if he doesn't, how much he despises the prospect of endless frivolity. He *needs* to do a good deed in a bad world.

3) We get a peek into a hedonistic lifestyle that for most of us is alien and exotic.

4) We get one of those marvelous mini-essays, dripping with mid-60's angst.

And JDM does this kind of thing throughout the book!