Thursday, January 31, 2013

How to Publish a Book: Write a Book Proposal

This will not really be much of a lesson but more of a tutorial of how to write a book proposal. A book proposal is integral to getting the attention of a major publishing house and is what every editor or publishing rep will see before anything official happens. Think of it as a resume mixed with a sample of your work. The idea here is selling your book. You only have one shot, so make it count.

Here is an outline of a book proposal:

Cover letter: author name and title, and the agent who represents you at the bottom. Author name should be at the center of the page.

Pg 2 -

  • Sum up your entire book in 5 words: this will be how the book is marketed. If the editor is bored here, he throws out your proposal.
  • What's the hook? State the plot of your book in one sentence.
  • Brief Overview: Sum up the story's plot in three paragraphs. 
Pg 3 - 
  • Manuscript Details: Here you will describe to the publisher what kind of price point your book will be marketed at. If it's already been published elsewhere on a minor printing label, then it is here where you fill out the details. Here's a sample:
Manuscript Details:
  • Bookstore Section:
  • Book format:
  • Price point:
  • Book pages:
  • Word Count: 
  • Current Status: Completed
  • Special features: book club and/or chapter questions
  • Potential Enhanced E-book features:
    • Photos
    • Short video clips
      • Personal/Proprietary
      • You Tube clips
    • Website listings
    • Audio clips

Notice how there is and Enhanced E-book section. This is very important. With kindle this is where you would put the "special features" of the book that would make it special to buy online. 

  • The Market: Describe in 130 words what the market of your book is. I talked about this in the previous blog entry. I told you it was important!
  • Characteristics: The last section of page three is devoted to describing the kinds of people who would enjoy the book. It would include things like, "People who like The Matrix, Warm Bodies, and Sci-fi Horror." This section should also include a breakdown of the specific age demographic you are targeting. 

Pg 4 -

  • Author Bio: The big idea here is, "This is why I am important!" List notable contributions and  publications, along with affiliations to websites or columns that would strengthen your notoriety. Also, here you should list your education and your other books that you have published. This section should be at least 3 paragraphs.
Pg 5 -

  • Sales: What are the titles of your previously published works. 
  • Author Marketing: This is what you would find on the cover jacket of your book. Any book you read you can turn the flap over and find a picture of the author with a short blurb about who they are. Again, this is a marketing point so you need to make yourself sound interesting or like a big deal.
  • The Author's Tribes: This is where you list all the meta info for your internet presence. For example:  
    • Facebook Friends: 4,474
    • Twitter Followers: 2,791
    • Website: (# of page views/month) 1,700
    • Blog: (# of followers) 1,225
    • On-line columns or blogs you participate in:
  • Sequels or Future Novels: How will your legacy continue? Publishers really like to catch a good wind and serialize publications. The more you can create a universe the more you can attract interest in a publisher.
Pg 6 - 

  • Character Profiles: describe your main characters here in short, one sentence descriptions. Again this is your chance to show your possible publisher why your characters are interesting.   You should have no more than 10 characters described. 8 is an ideal number though. 
Pg 6 - (and beyond)

After this point, you should write a chapter outline for each chapter. Make it a small paragraph, and only describe the key plot movements. Don't bother with adding details that a character had a conversation with another character that was not plot related. The editor here simply wants an idea of where your book is going to go. 

Afterwards, you should then include the first 7 or so sample chapters of your book. If your book isn't completed yet, this is where you'll want just enough done to give the editor the gist of what your book will be about. If the book is finished then, obviously, you won't have to worry about that.  Make sure to format this section and have the beginning of each chapter at the top of the page.


And that's pretty much a standard book proposal sample. Generally you can find these proposals online. But I would say the number one concern here is making it look nice, clean, and not extravagant. No colored text. Be professional. Be a businessman! If you have any other questions about the publishing industry you can ask below as well. I'd be more than happy to give you a gritty run-down of the whole thing. 

Anyways, until next time class.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How to Publish: Establishing Your Market

It's very common when you see budding authors scrambling to get their material out, to see them fail. Just like starting a band, or starting a home business, many fail upon genesis because the people involved have no sense of marketing. You could be the greatest novelist the world has ever seen, but without a skill in marketing no one will be exposed to your material. I myself am learning from this right now, and I am looking to tweak my approach in ways I would have never thought about since discovering this process as a necessary precursor to publishing. Here I will give you the gist of my secret, and it is my hope that you leverage this to make yourself successful in the publishing game.

Establishing the Market Demographic

Who will read your book?

First big question here is who will read your book? Generally this step is both the most challenging  as well as the easiest step. Here's why: It's easy (probably) to determine by the content of your book what age your book will appeal to the most, however you will find that particular cultures within that age range will be finicky on who reads what.

For example. Say you are publishing a science fiction book, that has a sex scene written into it and some scenes of graphic violence depicted. It's probably a given that the book will be 18+, but 18-65 is a huge range to work with. If the book is a coming of age book then it'll most likely be an 18-25 range. If the main character is male or female, this will change the target demographic of your audience as well. Also, if it is highly philosophical, with a balanced cast of players you might appeal more to 25-45 as far as the age range goes.

Another interesting example is the Jesus Storybook Bible. If you've ever seen it, the cover jacket screams, "this is for children 3-7" because of the art illustrations. However, unchurched converts without any exposure to the book also buy it, in droves! It's extremely popular, something that the publisher would have never figured. You'll find yourself feeling like Tobias on Arrested Development when he finds out his book is suddenly famous, though, unbeknownst to him, only in the gay community.

When will it be most likely read?

Time of the publishing date is incredibly important and here's why: it will greatly increase the likelihood of people to purchase your book. So explain what I mean, here is another anecdote.

A friend of mine is a publisher at EA games who once told my designer for my book, Spirit of Orn,  that when Dead Space 3 comes out, it will be in the coming month of February. Back in the holidays I was stunned to hear this. During the peak gift giving season why would you delay your product until after the prime purchase season has passed? Here's why. The market for gaming during the holidays is very specific. During this time game consoles and casual gaming games soar through the roof because all the grandmas out buying the games for their children's children, see a nice caricature of an Italian plumber tearing ass on a race track and think that it's very lovely. They wouldn't see a man ripping a space mutated zombie in half and say, "my that's lovely." No, they would be horrified. That's why most mature gaming AAA titles are released after the fact.

Therefore I suggest looking into the market purchase statistics for your particular genre. Are big scifi releases coming out in May? June? March? Pay attention to this, otherwise you will have a dismal release date. Here it's all about momentum. Run with it!

Each of these I would heavily consider before publishing a book. Knowing who will read your book and what time of year those people are buying is critical to a book's success  It also goes without saying that you must have exposure with these demographics prior to the release, otherwise no one will know who you are. That's for another day. Take these two ideas and go with it. Like always, feel free to as me any questions should you have them.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Preliminary Steps of Publishing

This will be a short lesson, but a very important one. There are two very important dynamics to publishing that are involved in both self publishing and brick and mortar publishing that you should be aware of. When writing any book, the author is responsible primarily for content, nothing else. So it's important for the issue of quality control for the author to have oversight in two areas before continuing into the marketing stages of the book. The first area is Editing, and the second is PR.

Get an Editor

Editors are extremely important, which goes without stating, but there are probably some nuances that you are not aware of when it comes to the editing process. Before any grammar checking is carried out, or anything like that, it's important for an author to get in contact with a Substantive Editor. Having an outside look on your characters by someone who is a trained professional in things like continuity and things like that is important. Not only that, these kinds of editors can help finish a book, create conflict in a book, and generally make the story more cohesive and interesting.  Needless to say, they are very important. After this step you should find a Mechanical Editor, which is the kind that takes care of all your bugs and spell checking. It is important to be aware of the fact, however, that these kinds of editors will not be responsible for designing the book. You'll have to find a designer for those purposes, and I highly discourage any authors attempting to take the helm of designing their own book. It's a disaster waiting to happen. The reason why, is that the author has no outside perspective on their material, and without one, the design job won't make sense, nor will it look good.

Get an Agent

Agents are important. Either self publishing or going straight to the brick and mortar company involve connections, consulting, or some variable of familiarity with the industry. Agents can help introduce a novice writer into this world, or at least speak on behalf of the writer. The good thing about agents are that they are paid solely based off of what you make, so if your material sucks then obviously you will be wanting of agents. There are usually flat fees just to see an agent however, so be mindful of that expense. My boss also happens to wear the hat of an agent, and rightly so. Agents know how to get inside companies to spread around your material. They also are aware of how to publish a book at the right time, or build a market base for you, or consult you on how to go about attracting one. I will go on about marketing in a latter lesson. Suffice to say however, it should only be your agent who does these things if you are lucky enough to have one. They are just more experienced.

So that's it. Pretty short. These are more cautionary tips than anything else. Do with them as you will! Otherwise I shall see you next Tuesday.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How to Publish: Self-Publishing or Brick and Mortar

So in the last few weeks we have been discussing how to write a book, and the process of ratifying the plot, building characters, and eventually closing down the book to it's conclusion. Now we are going to move into the publishing sector, probably the most dubious of things. I personally have been learning a lot about this recently from co-collaborators on Spirit of Orn so I feel confident that now of all times I can talk about the nuances of publishing with you. 

There are two choices that you are dealing with when publishing. 

Brick and Mortar

The first of these choices is the most familiar traditional way of publishing. It is analogous with getting signed, or getting drafted into sports, or something like that because it's more rooted in the spirit of discovery. I'm talking about the Brick and Mortar publishing houses, like Zondervan or Penguin or Harper or Bantam, etc. We will go into further detail down the line, but it's safe to say now that with a Brick and Mortar House the idea is that most of all the publishing process is taken care of for you. The dimensions the publisher will look for as criteria when finding you are your Market Affinity, Story Quality, and Existing Tribes. Market affinity deals with your book matching their mission statement. Obviously a Non-Fiction press is not going to publish a Science Fiction title, so when your agent is looking for publishers that's major criterion they are working with. Story Quality is a given. If the Editor-in-Chief  isn't grabbed by your book proposal then you don't have much going for you. Lastly, if you have Existing Tribes, like say your a professional athlete or an established, but well known, journalist, and you want to write a book about something, you are more likely to get a book deal simply because people already know you, and you have a base that can be marketed to on the get go. The bottom line with Brick and Mortar houses is that PR, Marketing, and Distribution are all handled through the company network, so by selecting a particular author they are taking a risk on the Author and the content's success. 

Self Publishing

Originally back in the old days, if someone was going to self publish, they would take a story, bind it with a cover illustration and a back jacket, and go off to a printing house to get about 12,000 copies made. After that, they would have a garage full of books and the author would go on tour, much like a music group, to self promote and sell books at local book signings at coffee shops or libraries. Obviously, without the oversight of a publishing house it was really easy for the self publishing author to make mistakes and not go about it the best way. That is why, up until the recent decade self publishing was a bit of a fopa in the publishing world. But now with Kindle it's all changed.

You see, it's not bad to self publish. Very soon I too will be going into that world, and I am ready to blab about all the stuff I'm going to have to deal with when that happens. But essentially the way self publishing works is that you have to take care of all the PR on your own, build your tribes on your own, and do everything from a grassroots perspective. I'll talk more in detail about this at a later time, but suffice to say when you self publish the most important thing to do is build a base of readership. It is from this base that you will sell your books. Amazon Kindle for instance, takes care of all your book distribution based off of aggregate counters and statistics. There's no printing aspect involved either because it's all digital. So when you have a base readership on a blog, such as this, of say 300 followers, about three percent of that are going to actually buy your content. So you advertise from your blog and refer them to amazon, and then hope to God you have something!

Which One?

Between the two, both are just fine. Lately though, Brick and Mortal houses have been under a lot of pressure in recent years because of the financial crisis. They can not push out books because of the success and marketability of Kindle and other grassroots type publishing methods. Really, where the advantage lies in the Brick and Mortar houses are their ability to PR and Market your book. Interestingly enough, many publishing houses now have people called Acquisitions Directors. At Scriptorium International I work for one. His job is to go out and find authors who have the salt and meet the mission statement of the publishing company, Authentic Publishing, and extend to them offers of getting a book deal. Most of the people he signs now are self published authors who saw commercial success of their books also. So really it seem that self publishing is the way to go. Getting an agent helps of course, but it's very informative to self publish these days, as it teaches you more about how publishing works in general. 

Anyways, I hope that was a helpful first look into the second branch of our series. I'll see you on Thursday to discuss the next step of publishing in a Brick and Mortar house. Regards, and see you then! 


Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Manuscript - Drafts One, Two, and Three

Right now I am in the third and final draft of Spirit of Orn, and so far it's been a grand adventure that I wouldn't pass for anything. Ratifying drafts are apart of the writing experience and, therefore, should be taken seriously. I say this because drafting helps to catch a lot of things (obviously) but also teach you about your writing process. For instance, early on with Spirit of Orn I noticed that the way I drafted my characters was very reactionary, meaning they performed actions but didn't think very much about what they were doing. So in my second draft I made sure to change that and give them more body. Likewise, in the third draft I'm taking a look at the structure and plot, taking care of idiosyncrasies. So-on, so-fourth. So here I've attached three milestones of what I've learned from my drafting process. Like all good things, it comes in threes. I hope you enjoy!


1st Draft:  Principal Content 

When I first wrote Spirit of Orn, it was awful. I'm not afraid to say it, but that's what most first drafts amount to. It spanned only 76 pages in my word processor, single spaced, barely passing as a novella. Yet despite being inconsistent, with cardboard cutouts for characters, what I had was principal content. Principal content, is the meat of your book. Sometimes this is only notes in book margins, other times it's fully completed chapters. Your first draft however is not an outline. An outline and the draft are two very different things, the reason being that in a draft all your characters are still interacting with one another. Generally the most important thing to get out of a first draft is the movement of the plot. Earlier in one of my posts I talked about Beats. Draft #1 is all about setting up your beats and overall structure of your story. Your dialogue may not be as fleshed out, but here is where you lay out the ground work of their full weight.

2nd Draft: Drawing Them Out

After getting things sorted out in your first draft you'll find that what you have to work with won't cut it. In fact, it'll almost look like garbage to you. Believe it or not, that's a very good thing because it shows that you are solidifying your conception of the characters that are in your book. No longer are they going to be these flimsy, undetermined husks, but now they have feelings, or less feelings if they were over reactive before. In the drafting process you are looking at about a 2-3 year process, depending on how long the novel is and if you are writing with someone else. It will be the longest of any drafting period, simply because you'll be adding so much material. Spirit of Orn nearly tripled in size after I finished my second draft, so don't worry if it gets longer. Also what you'll find is that the earlier material of your book will feature poorer quality writing, but this is only because in the process of writing, you will have gotten better and more comfortable with your character's expressions. Also, you yourself will have changed. Maybe if you wrote a section out of anger previously, when coming back to it you'll realize that it didn't fit your character. Embrace that! These are not your characters solely. Characters should be allowed to act on their own without your interference.

3rd Draft: Preparing a Manuscript

Finally, after the second draft is completed, My first suggestion is getting a second pair of eyes to read it, preferably a Substantive editor. These editors are trained at looking at a story, absorbing it's plot and characters, and finding in them the inconsistencies that will interfere with the book. This is not considered entering into the final editing stage however. After that editor gives you back your book, you then need to write in those changes. The key thing, the most important aspect of the third draft to consider is your time line. A third draft should be completed in less than 5 months. The reason for this is that all writers will be unsatisfied by their writing no matter how polished the final product is, so it's important not to dwell on the book too long. Setting milestones helps. If you can carve out say, an hour of your day, per day, each month and agree to do a chapter per two weeks, then you'll be set. Once the third draft is complete, you can feel confident that it can see a Mechanical editor. Once you get it back, sit down have a glass of wine...

You just finished your first book!

Now that you are done, get ready for the next step: Publishing. In the next few weeks I'll be starting on this, so keep your eyes peeled every Tuesday and Thursday for updates. I hope you've enjoyed this series as much as I have had writing it. See you next week!


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Closing the Door" - Ending a Book

More than writing a book, considering all the steps of the process, their idiosyncrasies and challenges, the hardest part of writing a novel, for me at least, is the ending. Establishing a beginning is easy, because in the beginning of things you are just throwing out ideas, and over time these ideas gestate into grand fantasies that will comprise the body of your book's text. Ending a book, however, is quickly problematic because now the arcs of the book must be considered. Characters must be reconciled, and kingdoms must be restored or overturned. Like all things writing, there is no proper, formulaic way to do this. What I have endeavored to do in this workshop is give a general outline of certain dynamics that must be drawn to a close at the end of a book. For the sake of simplicity I will offer three shades of my methods and I hope you find them helpful.

Resolution of Plot

This is obvious, but cannot be overstated. I think of all the dynamics this is the most challenging of the three dynamics I have to offer you today. When resolving a plot, what must be considered is that the Plot began with a conflict, and there must be conflict in order for the story to be a story. The conflict begins when the antagonist cases trouble for the protagonist, which subsequently forces out the protagonist into the open. By doing this the protagonist can begin to interact with foreign elements in the story that will bring him to Maturation, something that we will talk about in the next section. In the plot the protagonist must confront the initial conflict and use his talents that have been accrued over the journey to thwart the evil before him. For example, in Lord of the Rings, Aragorn the heir of the throne of Gondor begins as a ranger, defying his destiny. The establishment of the fellowship is the event that catalyzes his growth as a character, forcing him out into an environment where he must rely on the help of his fellowship companions. After the initial conflict is introduced, Aragorn will return in the later books to defeat the evil that has manifested in Middle Earth. If your plot is not resolved then the book will not work, or seem incomplete. This is not the same as a tragic ending, or simply seeing plot resolutions as something always ending in excess mirth. In Hamlet the plot is resolved through the final death of the antagonist King Claudius, therefore removing from the throne the unrighteous king. Though Hamlet dies, he dies fully realized as a character, complete from his development over the course of the play. Plots like these two books can be simple, where there is just a binary evil awaiting on the horizon. Likewise, books can be also full of intrigue and competing kingdoms, like Game of Thrones. However the book is meant to end the key is resolving the imbalance that is introduced at the beginning of the work. As long as this happens, the book's ending will make sense.

Matured Characters

Part of finishing a book also lies in the development of the characters that appear in the book. Generally a protagonist begins in a state of naivete, unschooled in the inter workings of the world. Like in a screwball comedy, the protagonist is comfortable, but living for the most part in a lie. Like in Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, Fat Charlie is set to be married and has a stable career, but the clockwork motion of his life is really crushing and unfulfilled. Over the course of the book, his wild living and the disruption brought on by Spider changes him, forcing himself to learn more about who he is and the nature of his family. Now this kind of maturation is to be expected. The trick is implementing it into the plot. The protagonist must be tied up intimately into the climax of the book, otherwise when the book completes the protagonist will be more of a tool than a person, and the ending will seem artificial. The way I did it in Spirit of Orn, my book, was that I took an event in the life of the protagonist and I spent the entire novel placing him in situations that evoked his failure to see the conflict come. Also the protagonist should leverage something that he did not possess before the incident occurred. In my case the main protagonist, Conn, leverages his intelligence, something that he lacked in before. If the character leverages a newly gained aspect that he did not possess at the moment of conflict in the beginning of the book, then it will show the reader that the character has come to a close. It will feel more real and finished.

Resolution of Setting

This is something people do not consider much so I think it would behoove a budding author to consider this aspect of resolution. In the heat of conflict, the setting where the book takes place can be put in jeopardy as well as characters. For instance, if a kingdom is involved then war is soon to follow. In the resolution of the plot where war is on the brink of threatening the kingdom, if the book ends but pays no mind to the defeat of the principal evil of the book that threatens the setting then the book will feel unfinished. It would be like watching Star Wars and seeing a planet ravaged and destroyed, and see the main characters dancing in the ruins. What happens to the planet? Will it descend into civil war due to the imbalance of stability? Will it be rebuilt by the heroic democratic order of planets? These are questions that must be asked when writing a book. The setting must be redeems for the sake of resolution. Even in Office Space, Initech is "resolved" in it's being burnt down, thus ending the stranglehold it had on the lives of the employees that worked there. Having this resolution is important because if the company didn't burn down, detectives would have been able to track down the payroll fraud perpetrated by Peter and his friends. Like I said, it's often forgotten about, but helps in resolving the main plot of the book.

As usual, I hope these tips were helpful to you in your writing. They are the basic parameters that need to be considered when writing a book that will help close down the plot successfully. Each of these categories are also the primary points of resolution in movies and plays as well, so they can be easily generalized to any medium of storytelling. Like always, if you have any questions feel free to contact me and I would be more than happy to clarify and counsel you in your writing.



Thursday, January 10, 2013

Pacing Narrative: Establishing “Beats”

If you have seen any TV show, where it's the season finale or it's an episode with a shocking ending, you've probably had to bear the anguish of getting through the episode waiting for the "good part" to come. Generally the reason why TV shows do this is because they are trying to get you to stick around for every commercial break until the end of the show as to maximize the commercial viability of the show. Alternatively, there are other shows that are easier to get through because they flow from one plot to the next, the result being a show that keeps us involved in trying to discover the "ah-ha" moments when all the plot is laid bare before us. The latter example shows us the effectiveness of pacing. Pacing will make the show go by faster, yet keep us involved because we want to know what happens next after each increment of the show.

I would say that in books pacing is important, but it is hard to get good at it because the technique itself is very difficult. You can't learn how to be better at pacing, it's simply something you have to work at. Something that has helped me get batter at pacing has been looking at comic books and how action translates into the outlines. I would say the plot of a comic is generally linear, and what I mean by this is that the plot moves very directed through a sequence of events. If you shake down all the glitz and "KA-POWs" in comics you'll find narrative units that comprise the plot. For the sake of simplicity I'll refer to them as Beats and Issues. Beginning with Beats, these are pockets of interchange that occur in a comic book. Usually there are between 6 and 10 Beats per issue, each beat being an action sequence or the main character having dialogue with one person. Each beat is like a puzzle piece fitting the progression of the Issue. The Issue is the product of these beats strung together. But an issue itself is a unit altogether, one that serves to comprise and build the narrative arc in a comic. I would say that an Issue is analogous to a Chapter, and when seen in these two lights, I think writing a book gets a little easier.

Beats for Books

When writing a book, the Beats of a book are going to be conversation based. This is a hard thing to get good at and only practice will teach you the subtleties of this type of narrative. When you think of how characters move in and out of the narrative they are reactive and reflective, meaning they will react to events in the book by speaking, eating, fornicating, actively engaging someone in combat, etc. There are also reflective moments. Reflective moments involve the character thinking on an event that occurs. Beats, I believe, take place in these exchanges of dialogue, and other reactionary aspects of the characters. Reflective moments I think work best to bridge action and move from one beat to another. In a way it's teaching the reader to observe a scene, then analytically analyse it. When the beats are all written and lined up, you place a coda, or a final reflective thought, at the end and complete the chapter.

Chapters for Books

Chapters I'm sure you are all familiar with. Generally they will embody certain micro arcs that take place in the book, all amounting to a "finale" of sorts, but the key thing to remember in a chapter is that instead of building action to an inevitable conclusion, like a Beat, Chapters serve to build the development of a character. At the end of every Chapter there should be resolution in the Character, but not the plot. I've always liked doing this because the reader will feel a sense of movement in the narrative, and see the characters growing and discovering new things about themselves. And when you can do this, but leave the plot unresolved, it creates a beautiful tension. The character knows who he is, but doesn't know the world. 

The Formula

The best way to conceptualize the progression of a story is this:

Chapter =  Beat 1 -- Beat 2 -- Beat 3 -- Beat (N) -- Coda --

Plot Arc = Chapter 1 -- Chapter 2 -- Chapter 3
Main Arc = Plot Arc 1 -- Plot Arc 2 -- Plot arc 3

As you could tell this is all entirely up to you in how you employ this. Really there is no right or wrong formula. This approach works great for me, because as the story get more and more involved over time it helps me keep track of all the narrative units in the story. If I have control over the placing of each unit then I fell more in touch with the story as it unfolds. Consequently, I can also go to any part of the book and take a look, and see how it fits into the main structure of the story. I hope this helps. Next week will be a little more procedural, so I hope you can make it down to see what I have in store for you then!


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Establishing a Plot: "Kick the Baby"

You'll notice in movies or books or stories that the basis of every plot has some certain key moments that will move the character from one event to another to show development of the story.  A man by the name of Blake Snyder wrote a book called Save the Cat and he explains that in every movie the protagonist must perform some action at the start to make them likable, to make us want to "root" for them in the unfolding drama. If you write a book, this is true though slightly different. In movies the conflict must be introduced at certain times. The introduction of the protagonist is immediate and the introduction of the conflict that propels the protagonist forwards is soon to follow, generally 20 minutes into the movie. This is often why when people watch older movies like  those from the 50s and 60s that they get so bored. We are used to seeing the plot unfold much faster, and in movies back then this moment of plot acceleration occurred sometimes as late as 45 minutes into the movie. If you watch It's a Wonderful Life you will understand what I mean.

Now obviously in books this works a little differently.

In movies, the unfolding action and imagery is instant, and there's no real "world building" like you'd find in a book, so books unfold a little faster and slower at the same time. Books will often introduce an antagonist early on, but it's not until a few chapters later that the initial conflict finally happens. So at this point the reader understands that character X is "evil" or not good for the protagonist, but we as readers will not see this conflict unfold for at least a few chapters. So this blog will help to show you the pacing involved in producing conflict for the protagonist, with a more general plot pacing lesson to follow.

"Kick the Baby" / "Save the baby" 

Everyone roots for the protagonist, not because they identify with them but because they have evidence of the protagonist's good nature. Generally this good nature is externalized, resulting from a good action the protagonist does for someone else. For example, if protagonist Larry Penbrooke walks out of his Manhattan development project broke as shit and tosses one of his two quarters to the homeless boy that lives on his stoop the audience now knows that Larry is a "good person." If you wanted to make Larry an anti hero, you would then have him giving the quarter to the homeless boy, and then a couple of paragraphs later him strangling another homeless man for giving him bad drugs in a heat of passion. This is all rough exposition, but with the case of anti heroes the audience is first introduced to their good nature, but the weight of the bad nature never totally eclipses the nature of the first good action.

Consequently, for villains the formula is the same, but only reversed. To make the reader immediately identify with the bad nature of the villain they must be introduced in the heat of a negative action, or some detail about them should reveal subtly a negative action or detail that will transpire later on in the narrative. In books the latter is what will happen with villains in most cases. Villain A will be introduced as a good character, but only without the initial action that externalizes their goodness. A few chapters down the road, the villain will then externalize his evil with an evil action, but in a way that the reader can plausibly backtrack the growing menace of the character. Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars for instance manifests his need for control and stability in his growing paranoia fed to him by the emperor, but much before that does Anakin illicit certain emotions that would bring us to believe that he his growing quickly more and more unstable.

As before, like anti-heroes, there can also be anti villains. These are characters that are externally established villains, but at certain points facilitate good actions. In American Gangster, Denzel Washington's character Frank Lucas is obviously entrenched in evil, but he also does things that are kind of nice. Like in one scene he builds for his mom a replica of an old dresser that she once owned but was lost in a fire. It's little moments of sentimentality like those that can cause healthy conflict in characters bringing the reader to ask themselves if the character is truly evil or not.

Plotting of Conflict

I'll be brief here, but I've attached a sample outline of what a solid character plot would look like in the drafting notes of a novel:

  • Chapter 1: Protagonist introduced.
  • Chapter 2: Exposition on the World. 
  • Chapter 3: Villain introduced, conceptually linked to the world as a detail.
  • Chapter 4: Protagonist and Villain Meet
  • Chapter 5: Principal conflict, associated/orchestrated by villain or circumstance.
  • Chapter N: Plot and exposition
  • Growing action to Climax: Protagonist and Villain interact in growing frequency.
  • Resolution: Villain defeated by Protagonist.  

As usual if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment and I'll be happy to answer!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Establishing a Plot: Comedy or Tragedy?

Historically  narratives have fallen into one of two categories, which could be restricting, but I believe, just like submitting to a discipline or any school of thought, understanding the two categories can help make your writing more clear and focused.

Comedy and Tragedy have ruled the scene for the span of all western literature, these two designations which you are probably most familiar with from Shakespeare  In Shakespeare we see very standardized plots. In comedies, the main protagonist falls from grace and must save himself before he succumbs to perdition. Likewise, in Tragedy the protagonist perishes in service of a greater ideal that supersedes all the 'wills' or motives in the subtext of the supporting characters, generally being framed as a sacrifice. Even as I describe these categories you can see that they are rather formulaic, but when you get a play like King Lear, and see how it very much sways in the balance between Comedy and Tragedy then the give between the nuances is more apparent. In this lesson we shall use plays and other books to describe these classical categories and how they can be utilized for your writing.


Starting with the lighter side of the spectrum is comedy. In books such as these we can think of such examples as Harry Potter or Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. Each title's plot is completely different  but each book follows a formula. In all comedies the formula is as follows:

Prologue  -  Conflict  -  Fall  -  Wedding

This may appear strange to see wedding at the end of this list, but this is an archetypal designation, more so today than before. I say wedding because a wedding is a joyous moment of unification. weddings solve disputes, align countries  and, occasionally, bring two people together. The archetypal analogue for this could be the main protagonist embracing a powerfully destructive aspect of themselves or maybe meeting someone that brings them out of their spiritual stupor. But we should start at the beginning and then you'll know what I mean.

Prologue - The prologue serves to introduce the main elements of the narrative involving the protagonist. Say our story revolved around a car insurance salesman. We would introduce in this segment the salesman being content or in a state of normalcy. Nothing has been shaken up yet. This might be also where you introduce certain quirks that consolidate who the character is, and what will persist in the character as the story unfolds. Also it should be notes that at protagonists of comedies are normal or mundane. The more so they are the more extravagant the conflict can seem in upturning the person's life. Obviously you can run into problems if your protagonist is too successful.  Nobody wants to read a story about a well to do stock broker who's life gets turned upside down simply because its hard to feel bad for them. This is why romantic comedies are so boring and transient. Its because they often feature protagonists that are very successful or well adjusted. Also they seem so unique and well to do already that it seems like adding love to their life is merely an arbitrary thing.

Conflict - The conflict is a moment or incident that occurs where a rogue element is introduced into the protagonists life. Here the protagonist begins to lose some comfort. In Anansi boys, Fat Charlie meets his brother on accident, who invades his life. (At this point bad things haven't happened and life hasn't spun out of control.) His presence is just an inconvenience, or obstructions to the order of things in the protagonist's life.  So in our car insurance salesman example he could come into contact with a car insurance fraud who is trying to extort him or is simply quirky and filled with undesirable habits.

Fall - The fall is the moment when everything falls apart. This is the moment when Fat Charlie's night out with his brother ends with him sleeping with daisy, or when his brother spider stands in for him at work and thwarts his boss firing him. Obviously in Gaiman's work its a combination of several factors, but the simple the event the better. This is the stage where making the protagonist pathetic and weak really shines because now his fall makes for a better emotional impact. This is the moment the fraud causes the car insurance salesman to get fired or possibly in trouble with the law.

Wedding - Now at the end can we can  discuss  the nature of the wedding and its implications. Generally by now the protagonist has journeyed through the entirety of his/her story. This is he point of unification where the car insurance salesman through both fate and fortune can implicate the fraud and bring all things to right. Its a moment of unification. Though this blog has focused on the importance of structure in narrative, writing style is key to tying up all the loose ends. I can't go into detail here as far as that goes. My best advice is to read books that are comedies and see how the author finishes the story. Imitation, as they say, is the highest form of flattery, so don't be afraid to take things from books you like just as long as it's used for purely educational purposes.  


Now much of this has been focused on Comedy, so you are probably thinking, "When is he going to touch on that? I love dark stuff! How does it all work?" Here is where a lot of people miss the big picture. Tragedy is actually follows the same exact structure. All you have to do is replace Tragedy with the final step! Essentially what tragedy does to a drama is tease out the power of the fall. In King Lear, Lear's fall could have been avoided had fate not been against him. In Tragedy, the motif re-frames the entire story and characters. For instance in Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo and Juliet actually got together then their flaws and tendencies to make wrong decisions would have been seen as quirks and whimsy. Tragedy hardens the reality of character faults, and sets a weight on their decision making that the reader can feel. The narrative turns into a moral lesson, or an example of the costs of power and greed. In a Tragedy, someone always pays that price. Whoever does determines how the moment of Tragedy is amplified. 

Therefore in sum the formula of a Tragedy would be this:
Prologue  -  Conflict  -  Fall  -  Tragedy 
The implications of both influence your plot. Though this exercise has been more structurally oriented, I firmly believe that if you understand the basic structure and nuances of each step you can start writing really powerful stuff. In writing it's all about fundamentals, and once you have that you'll be set. Next week I'll spend more time on what is actually going on inside of a plot, so stay tuned! You won't want to miss it.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How to Write a Book Prelims: The Setting

In the last few posts we discussed the implementation of the protagonist and antagonist in the narrative. Also, we have established that the protagonist is the soul of the book, and that certain variations on this philosophy will create for your book the particular feel you are going for. That being said, the setting is the next big thing to establish, which I don't overstate enough when consulting writers. Having a gripping, real setting is extremely important, and it starts with realism and immersion. 


When building a setting it is important for the reader to feel at home in the location where the book transpires. Now of course there are variations on this, like with minimalist settings or surreal settings, but for building a modern novel having an interesting setting that is organic and filled with the things you would come to find and expect in that world is important. If the bulk of your book takes place in a library you must ask questions like...

  • What books do you see on the shelves?
  • Are they old? New?
  • Where is the library located?
  • Is there a homeless guy out front?
Seemingly esoteric things will establish the realism of your setting. I take this approach so that the reader will have a world to get lost in. I don't know if any of you have read White Teeth by Zadie Smith, but if you have you are very aware of the fact that the story takes place in a British society. The setting is filled with British mannerisms, characters, locations, social issues, etc. While this may seem a bit self explanatory, what I am getting at is that when writing a book all the minutiae must be stressed in your book, otherwise the reader will feel conned, or will feel like they are living in a stereotypical world. Again these themes can be manipulated to a certain effect. What if the world was supposed to be stereotypical? Then, naturally, you would insert objects, locations, settings, or people to emulate that feeling.


The aspect of immersion in a book comes after realism. I say this because immersion is the product of realism, and partly having to do with the characters. Good immersion in a book is what occurs when the characters react to the setting in a realistic way. The reader sees this and goes, "Wow. I would do the same thing in that situation." or something to that effect. Archie Jones is pathetic in White Teeth, so it would seem rational that he would interact with the setting at the onset of the book by trying to commit suicide by Carbon Monoxide poisoning in his car. It would be perhaps wrong to say that Archie would doing it by shooting himself, or throwing himself off a bridge because both those options do not fit with how the protagonist would operate in the world. This is incredibly important and can be lost on the writer because the writer is more concerned about making a character say or do certain things to make him more interesting, but would a character really do that, in that world? Maybe, but it still needs to be consistent. This is where establishing plots comes in, But more on that on Thursday. 

As a bit of homework, I want you all to read American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Read just the opening chapters and tell me what is going on. How does Shadow, the main protagonist, react to his environment and it's realism? Understand that question and you will be on the right track.

See you Thursday!