steering the craft

Is your hero a couch potato?

passive hero May 26, 2022
 

Have you ever been told your protagonist is too “passive?” If so, please know that you’re not alone. The passive hero problem is one that many (and I mean, MANY) writers have to work their way through. 

What do I mean by passive? 

  • Your hero tends to spend pages ruminating about things from the past (“but I need the backstory!”)
  • Your hero tends to spend pages observing and interpreting what’s going on around them (“but she’s the viewpoint character!”)
  • One or more secondary or sidekick-type characters seem to have all the best lines and best ideas about what should happen next (“maybe I should make her the hero?”)
  • If asked what your hero wants in a particular scene, the best you can come up with is “to be left alone” (“but she’s anxious/shy/sad, that’s her flaw! Isn't she supposed to have a flaw?")
  • When confronted by problems, your hero suffers but does not spring...
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Plots and subplots

plot subplots May 11, 2022
 

 One of the principles I teach my Path of the Storyteller students is the virtue of structuring your story around a single, iconic protagonist on a single, well-defined “mission.”

You can think of the mission as an actively pursued and highly particular purpose. It’s a goal that’s sufficiently well-delineated that, once your readers know about it (which they will, by the end of the first act), there’s an end-of-second-act scene that they can anticipate so clearly, it's like we've made them a promise to get there. And get there we must. 

There’s a ton more to say about it, but for the moment, let's use that hero-on-a-mission principle as a simple working definition of plot. What's your hero doing for the whole book? That's the plot. 

But you know and I know that novels are not bare-bones affairs. Even highly focused, novella-length works (I’m thinking about A Christmas Carol ...

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Revision has a reason

revision May 09, 2022
 

Last week in the Storytellers’ Circle weekly coaching session, I offered a quick lesson in revision that was inspired, once more, by George Saunders’ marvelous book of essays, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. 

Saunders offers close reads of some well-loved Russian short stories with the intent of illuminating what good writing is and does. What’s not to like about that? I love the book and recommend it. But I did find myself stumbling over one section.

After offering before-and-after versions of the same sentence, one of which is clearly better than the other, Saunders explains how he knows it's better: He prefers it. 

Now, even as a kid I was never a fan of “because I said so” as a reason for anything. So this caught my eye right away!

And Saunders is not being glib, either. He’s reporting back from within his own writing and revision process, and urges other writers to be similarly observant and responsive...

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What makes it a “classic?”

 

Last week I raised the question of what makes creative work endure because I was thinking about Shakespeare. But did Shakespeare set out to write “classic” plays?

In his professional life he was an ever-hustling playwright-slash-entrepreneur, his time stretched (thinly, we can only imagine) between churning out the plays that kept his company afloat and the ceaseless daily business of running a theatre. 

Talk about slings and arrows! Shakespeare dealt with snide critics, box office receipts, actors who went off-script, not to mention the recurrent bouts of plague that closed London’s theaters for months at a time.

Creatively, he walked the fine line between writing from the heart while finessing the sensitivities of his royal patrons. His work had to engage the nobility at court and the commoners, too, including the “groundlings” who paid a mere penny to stand there,...

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Shakespeare’s birthday

careers Apr 20, 2022

Saturday is April 23rd, the day traditionally celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday. It may not be perfectly accurate but it’s close enough, as the first historical record of the man from Stratford is his baptismal record, dated April 26th, 1564. 

Given the usual practices of the era, to back-date his his birth three days prior to the baptism is as good a guess as any. There’s also the bittersweet symmetry of his death date, which is known to be April 23rd, 1616.

Shakespeare was 52 years old when he died.

He’d had a successful and prosperous career, but fully half of his performed plays had not yet been published at the time of his death.

That task fell to a couple of his long-time actors and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who assembled and edited all the scripts they could lay hands on and published them in 1623, in a volume we now call the First Folio.

Without the First Folio, the text of eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays...

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Better writer, better person?

change conflict morality Apr 14, 2022
 
The truism that reading makes us better people is well explored, but does writing make us better people? I argue yes. Here’s why.

I’ve been reading George Saunders’ terrific collection of essays about Russian short fiction, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It’s a book about what makes writing good with an interesting limitation, which is that the work held up for analysis is offered in English translation and Saunders doesn’t speak Russian. 

Saunders notes the shakiness of the project when he describes the day a Russian scholar visits his classroom to explain how the tale currently under examination reads in the original Russian. 

Saunders and his students are flabbergasted to confront just how much of the author’s intent has been lost to them. The jokes! The wordplay! The voice! None of it survives intact. The version of the story they’re scrutinizing for clues about good...

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Creative overwhelm! The struggle is real.

 

We writers are a funny lot, aren’t we? We spend half our time worried about not having enough ideas, and the other half worried about having too many!

Fear of the blank page gets a bit more attention, and understandably so. Who hasn't panicked at the specter of “writer’s block” (which is not a thing, in my opinion—we’ll discuss!), or skidded to a halt mid-draft because you just didn’t know what to do next? 

But creative overwhelm is an equal, if opposite, problem. We keep coming up with ideas. Characters. Potential scenes. We try writing in first person, then third, and now we can’t decide between them. As our cast gets bigger we waffle about who our main character is, and start wondering if we should try to include multiple viewpoints. Is two enough to cover all bases? Is twelve?

And what about the backstory? It feels important too; what if we weave it in as a subplot that takes...

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Are you in, or are you out?

writing craft Mar 31, 2022
 

One of the tricky tasks we take on when writing fiction is finding the just-right balance between depicting our viewpoint character's inner life versus the external events of the scene. 

By inner life, I mean what your character is feeling and thinking, including the sensations in their body. This is the stuff other characters cant see, but your reader can, if you choose to share it.

External events are just that—what are characters actually saying and doing in the world of the story that’s perceptible to others? 

Finding the perfect balance can be elusive. Too much inner life, and we get bogged down in an endlessly ruminating protagonist. Not enough inner life severs the connection with the very character our readers are supposed to be rooting for. 

In this livestream I talk about this concept of inner life versus external events, and offer some tips on how to find the...

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Lights, camera...fiction!

writing craft Mar 24, 2022
 

As the movie buffs among you know the Academy Awards are this weekend. As ever, the categories featuring celebrities and jokes and musical numbers will be featured in the television broadcast, while the “technical” categories—in other words, the actual movie-making part—will be rushed through or skipped altogether. 

Film is a storytelling art form just as fiction is, but it sure takes a village to accomplish! It's so different from the solitary work of the novelist. From cinematography to production design to musical scores, movies rely on a collaboration of elements that we novelists can only dream of—or can we?

Words can accomplish a lot, you know! I'd argue that we fiction writers have our own way of making use of these same elements, if we know how and take the time to do it. It's all part of giving our readers that vivid, "lived experience" feeling. And there's stuff we can do that movies can't, too.

Today, let's grab...

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The perfect process

process Mar 17, 2022
 

My earliest association with the word “process” is processed cheese.

Kraft American, to be precise! Those individually wrapped, unnaturally yellow slices were as plastic as their wrappings, but they made the grilled cheese sandwiches of my childhood legendary.

I loved those sandwiches. I mean, they were my absolute favorite thing to eat. 

Ah, for the pleasures of simpler times, right?

Now, when I use or hear the word “process,” it invariably refers to creative work. Normal work we just do, but our creative work seems to require a process. A special way of doing it, planning it, approaching it, managing it, measuring it.   

Why are writers so preoccupied with process? Why can't writing just be a simple and occasionally gooey pleasure? Something we can just do, without timers, spreadsheets, color-coded calendars, self-imposed deadlines and “accountability" partners?

It’s a contrarian question, but a...

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