CSFF Blog Tour – The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead

I’m a writer, so no matter how much I want to look at books the way readers do, and to convey information I think readers care about, I can’t help but notice things like story structure, especially when story structure plays a big part in the reading experience.

Some while ago I read a novel I’d heard many good things about, but no one had warned me about the … creative story structure. It was told from two points of view — nothing special there. The thing was, in following one character, the story was moving forward, from “the beginning” to “the end.” In the other character’s point of view, however, the story was traveling backward, from end to the beginning. Creative, yes, but I felt confused for at least half of the book, and I didn’t care for it in the end (or the beginning … which ever! 🙄 )

On the other hand, I read George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon with its story within a story within a story approach, and I loved it. It was innovative and took a little getting used to. For stretches I didn’t know for sure what was happening on the outermost layer of the story, but that was OK. I was sure I would know and in fact kept reading in large part because I wanted to know.

I mention these two experiences to point out that I don’t think innovative story structure is a make or break deal. I don’t hate or love a book based on its structure. That it’s creative in how the scenes fit together doesn’t make a story better or worse to me. I don’t, however, want to be confused — at least not for long stretches.

And why am I starting the CSFF blog tour for Ross Lawhead‘s The Realms Thereunder with a discussion of story structure? Surely you’ve guessed it. This Christian fantasy for young adults and up is not your standard journey-quest story structure. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of his father Stephen’s latest, the Bright Empires series, with its ley lines and travel from one time/dimension to another, Ross tells his story from the front end and the back end, with some realm shifting in between.

Forewarned is forearmed, I figure. It’s undoubtedly better to know going in that the story you’re about to read is going to be a little different than a “Once upon a time … the end” sort of tale. Did it work? Abundantly so, in my opinion.

I’ve never been a fan of large numbers of point of view shifts, and the shifting from story past to story present added a dimension to those shifts, but not in a distracting way. Yes, there was more to keep track of, but all in all, I thought the unique story structure worked in the book’s favor.

Now we’ll have to see what others reading the book as part of the CSFF tour thought.

Here are this month’s participants with the check marks linking to specific Tour articles:

Published in: on February 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm  Comments (8)  
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Writers Writing Nothing New

Writing instructors constantly remind novelists that there is no such thing as a new story. All of them have already been told before. And why should we be surprised by that since there is no new thing under the sun.

A wife lured her husband into grabbing for power. Is that Macbeth or Eve with Adam? An innocent man is kidnapped and thrown in jail. Joseph, or The Count of Monte Cristo?

First, stories happened, then they became a tale someone told.

But why do writers keep on writing if none of the stories are new? I think there are several reasons. For one thing, the particulars of every story change.

The man-versus-man conflict has been told millions of times, for example, but in each one, a man is not murdering his brother. Perhaps he’s selling him to traders instead or setting his field on fire. Maybe he’s stealing the heart of his girlfriend or sleeping with his wife.

There are any number of details that can change — particulars about the characters, the location, the time, the events leading up to the culminating act, the motivation behind it, the resolution, and what it all means.

Writers continue telling stories, in addition, because each one of us adds our own touch. The story, in essence, becomes an expression of us — our personality, our outlook on life.

Painters have not stopped painting mountains because some other artist completed a landscape featuring mountains. Photographers haven’t stopped snapping pictures of sunsets because others before them have taken photos of the sun slipping below the horizon. These visual artists know that no one has captured their subject at that moment, in that way, and from that same perspective as the one presently holding a brush or peering through a lens.

So, too, writers bring their unique selves to each twice-told tale.

J. R. R. Tolkien said that writing is an act of sub-creation. Scripture says Man is made in God’s image. It’s not a stretch, then, to believe that the act of sub-creation is something humans do because of who God made us to be.

A fourth reason writers continue putting out stories even though we understand we are not writing a new thing — society needs them. For one thing, language changes, and some people prefer stories told in the vernacular.

In addition, society forgets. We need stories to remind us that there’s still a Big Bad Wolf in the woods, that a scorpion still stings because that’s what scorpions do.

Our stories anchor us to the truth, but they also serve as beacons looking forward. They fuel our imagination and make us look beyond ourselves. They attach us to one another, though we live across the globe or the galaxy or in a different era or world. They show us our commonalities even as they inform us of our uniquenesses.

Sure, no story is new, but none of them has ever been told in exactly the same way before. So writers keep writing, and readers keep reading.

Published in: on August 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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Refreshing Fiction Continued

As most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer or their love conquers and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers—cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable differences (until they are reconciled – 😉 ).

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair. Those are obstacles! Who would even see the romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married—a union of convenience or position—and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

But now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else.

Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters) and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Another tack is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty and you have Shrek. Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history look like?

What would a romance between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack look like?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”—the ideas that present themselves when we writers first start contemplating a story.

Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 11:02 am  Comments Off on Refreshing Fiction Continued  
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What Makes a Work of Fiction Fresh?

Hang around acquisition editors and agents (or their blogs) for a while and you hear the oft repeated phrase, I’m looking for something fresh. What exactly does that mean? After all, isn’t it fresh to write a fantasy called The First Zepina of Xingkit? I bet no one’s written that one before!

Of course, there’s no guarantee, since we don’t know what a Zepina is.

The first rule of freshness would seem to be, it must be on a recognizable vine. In other words, “fresh” doesn’t mean something so unknown that readers aren’t curious.

When I ask someone what they do for a living and they answer that they transpose the digital data from the analog system in the xzgkrst imnblop wazseb, well, you can see where they lost me (though the process probably started after “transpose.” 😉 ) In these instances, I’m so lost, I don’t know enough to ask any more questions.

In the same way, if a story seems so foreign to a reader, he doesn’t know what questions to ask as it unfolds, his eyes will glaze over and he’ll put the book down.

“Fresh” also hasn’t been sitting on the vine so long that it’s started to turn black or mushy to the touch. In other words, it can’t be overdone. A story that is fermenting is one that has been done and redone in many, many ways, but a writer wants to tell it yet again sans significant changes.

These stories, some actually getting in print, are the ones readers and reviewers alike tag as derivative. They’ve been retold in a way that does not change or camouflage the source material. Take a look at these lines from some Amazon reviews:

  • I kept feeling as if I where reading a poor reproduction of Robert Jordan’s THE WHEEL OF TIME.
  • I find [the] plot more reminiscent of Star Wars than of anything else.
  • the events and ideas come from other authors.
  • These comments, by the way, are about the same book. (Any guesses which one?)

    So “fresh” can’t be too off the beaten path, nor can it be down Main St. Central. Then what IS it?

    The simplest explanation is, a fresh story is a familiar one told in a new way. Or a different story told in a familiar way.

    Here’s what’s hard for us pre-published authors, as I see it. Since we haven’t earned anyone’s trust yet, selling someone on the idea that our story IS fresh—not too weird or too stale—is hard work.

    I have a writer friend who had a test reader put down her manuscript because she thought she knew what was coming next. Never mind that the author had perfectly set her up for the surprise twist she wouldn’t see coming; the reader never gave the book a chance.

    Bottom line, agents and acquisition editors need to be convinced, before they’ll look at complete manuscripts, that they are looking at something fresh.

    Published in: on June 1, 2010 at 3:42 pm  Comments (7)  
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    Premise – The Heart of Stories

    From time to time I’ve said that “story” trumps all in fiction. In other words, the story is more important than the setting, the message, even the characters. It’s more important than the plot.

    Say what? Isn’t “story” equal to “plot”? Not really. The story is the essence of fiction, the “what happened” stripped of all the subplots and side trips.

    The plot, on the other hand, comprises the main events of the story.

    Avatar, for example, is a story about a paraplegic fighting against the military/industrial complex from Earth to save the native people on a planet devoid of modern technology. The plot involves the steps the main character took to accomplish this storyline. (For a simplified, and spoof-ish, look at the plot line, see this short rendition.)

    Here’s another one: A Civil-War era Southern belle fights society and her own wrong beliefs to gain the love of her life. Anyone familiar with Scarlet O’Hara will recognize that kernel as the storyline for Gone with the Wind. The plot for this thousand page story, however, would take considerably more space.

    While these “what’s it about” lines don’t give details, they quickly let a reader (or an editor) know what they can expect within the pages of a novel.

    Of course, an author must still write the story in an engaging way, but the first and foremost need for good fiction is a good story, or “premise.”

    I’ve read work from different authors that showed a textured world or had interesting, even fun or tragic, characters. But something was missing. The story wandered, and I didn’t have the feeling that the author was taking me anywhere. The result was, I stopped caring, even about delightful, well painted, quirky characters. And if a reader stops caring, chances are he will also stop reading.

    Today over at Novel Matters, guest blogger Ariel Allison Lawhead from the online book club She Reads discusses “premise.” She makes the observation that too many books are warmed over retellings of existent stories.

    But some achieve a freshness that sets them apart.

    How can a writer know what ideas are “fresh”? Well, it helps to read, I think. It helps to move from the first idea that presents itself to number four or fourteen. In other words, at this very beginning stage, it takes work.

    Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 4:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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    The Value of Promotion vs. the Value of Story

    First, the announcement. After our first CSFF Top Blogger Award run-off, Rachel Starr Thomson garnered 55% of the vote to secure the April Tour honors. Congratulations to both her and Brandon Barr for superb posts during the Blaggard’s Moon tour.

    – – –

    In case you missed it, on Friday Novel Journey posted an interview with contributor Jessica Dotta and uber-agent, Donald Maass. Half way through, the discussion turned to promotion.

    Jessica noted that Mr. Maass is credited with saying that promotion and marketing play a small role in the success of a book. In fact, in Writing the Breakout Novel he calls these ideas about promotion and marketing myths authors continue to believe. When Jessic asked (in question five) if authors shouldn’t strive for the best marketing possible, Mr. Maass replied with a succinct analogy:

    Great stories are the engine. Promotion may be the gasoline but gasoline won’t propel a two-cylinder putt-putt very fast–or push a broken engine very far down the road.

    Jessica expanded the discussion, pointing to a handful of successful debut novels that snagged reviews in elite media sources and then went to the top of the best selling charts. But Mr. Maass insisted that great storytelling explained the success:

    Why does media get excited about a novel? What starts the bandwagon rolling? Publisher hype? That’s a prod, obviously, but media far more often than not take a pass. What gets them excited is the same thing that gets word of mouth going: a great story. It all comes back to that. Up and down the ladder it all starts there.

    As you might expect, Mr. Maass also believes that a writer should take the time to get the story right. Apparently this is a point he strongly makes in his new book The Fire in Fiction (which I am anxiously waiting to arrive from Writer’s Digest), prompting this exchange:

    [Jessica] One of the elements I loved about The Fire in Fiction was your encouragement to work until the book is right. As writers, we often hear that in order to survive we must be capable of producing one or more books a year—lest we lose our audience and future contracts. But what if it takes an author two to five years to craft a good book?

    [Donald Maass] Writing a great novel at a book-a-year pace is extremely difficult. I watch clients struggle with that challenge. One empowering thing to know is that the bigger the impact a novel has, the longer readers will wait for the next one.
    – emphasis mine

    I have to admit, that last line might be my favorite. Well, what do you expect from a writer of a four-book epic fantasy? 😉 I mean, isn’t it important for readers to have time to spread the word if book one gripped them? Even in this technological age, that doesn’t really happen over night. Or necessarily in three months. I didn’t read my first Harry Potter book until the third one was out, and they were not flying off the presses every six months.

    For the most part, the word builds and the promotion builds because the story demands it. Yes, there may be some mysterious exceptions. I think of G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer which burst on the scene in 2004 as another book coming out of the UK with a huge following. Americans dutifully lined up and bought the book, and it did indeed hit the best selling list.

    But today the lifetime sales on Amazon of the Creation House edition is over 450,000. What’s worse, the book that followed, Wormwood, is 250,000 places higher. Since I haven’t read Shadowmancer, I am going by the reports I’ve heard from writer friends (but the lion’s share of the Amazon reviews bear out their opinion)—this was not a good story.

    Maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. On occasion the media will jump on a book bandwagon built by hype not substance. The result may be great sales, but the public, when fooled once, won’t likely be fooled twice by the same author.

    The Art of Storytelling, Part 7

    This is probably the last in this series. The February issue of Writer’s Digest has fueled a lot of my thoughts and I’m reaching the end of the articles dealing with fiction.

    The one I read today reaffirmed some of the things I’ve learned about plot, but also said succinctly what I think inhibits some writers. From Steve Almond‘s Fiction column, this month’s article, “The Great Plot Test,” in which he discusses common problems he runs across in teaching fiction:

    The truth is, we often can’t see the bad decisions in our own work because we’re too narcissistically attached to it.

    Yep, the truth hurts at times. But he said what I bumbled around a few days ago. “Too narcissistically attached.”

    Years ago, in a long forgotten article or writing book, an author wrote a well-remembered statement that if we have lines in our story that we really love, those probably are the first we should cut. I disagreed! Vehemently! Why would you cut something you knew to be good?

    Finally, finally I get it. The lines themselves were standing above the story, and that’s backwards. The writing, as much as the characters, plot, setting, foreshadowing, description, symbolism, dialogue must serve the story.

    If I write a pretty line I refuse to cut, I am no longer serving the story with that line. That’s not to say I need to cut a line because it is pretty. But I do need to be willing to cut it.

    Lo these many years later, I’ve been lopping off favorite lines right and left.

    Writing fiction really is odd. I mean, it is a form of communication, so it’s me writing something I want to say to … an unseen and unknown group of people “out there.” And, if I do my job well, those people won’t think about me at all. They will feel attached to my characters, perhaps, and after the fact become aware of me, but if I intrude in the story, they very well may put the book down, or at best skip the pages where I am visible.

    The point is, those lines I love just might be the ones that intrude. At least, I need to consider that possibility.

    One more line from the article. Two of the common problems Almond finds in his students have to do with plot/character issues. The first is plot drift, in which the action is not driven by the character trying to achieve his greatest desire. The second is plot shallowness (my term—Almond says the author fails to push hard enough). Here’s the crux of this last point, and I’ll end here to let you mull it over:

    My point is this: Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forching him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

    Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 4:40 pm  Comments (6)  
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    The Art of Storytelling, Part 6

    Style, as I see it, is an underrated component of artful storytelling, and I hope to learn much, much more about it, but the key element, of course, is the story. Once upon a time, I equated story with plot, but I now understand that character is just as central, though some argue it owns the prominent place.

    Some might think there is little left to say about plot and/or characters. I might have thought this myself, except I read another article in that recent Writer’s Digest magazine that opened my eyes to More. I’m referring to “Your Novel Blueprint,” an excerpt of the book From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen Wiesner.

    The thing that grabbed my attention the most was the interplay between plot and characters that Wiesner clarifies. Here’s one example from the section entitled “Evolving Goals and Motivation”:

    Goals are what the character wants, needs or desires above all else. Motivation is what gives him drive and purpose to achieve those goals. Goals must be urgent enough for the character to go through hardship and self-sacrifice.

    Multiple goals collide and impact the characters, forcing tough choices. Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward it by believable, emotional and compelling motivations that won’t let him quit. Because he cares deeply about the outcome, his anxiety is doubled. The intensity of his anxiety pressures him to make choices and changes, thereby creating worry and awe in the reader.

    I love this section, but the next is just as good – “Plot Conflicts (External)”:

    External plot conflict is the tangible central or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way. It must be faced and solved. The character wants to restore the stability that was taken from him by the external conflict, and this produces his desire to act. However a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug of war with the plot conflicts. He has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not he should face, act on, and solve the problem.

    That’s probably enough to show how Wiesner interweaves plot and character, but it brings up one of the components of story I think is necessary—well, two actually. The first is that the character must have a want, need, or desire. More than one actually, and these can not be secret. The reader must understand from the outset what it is the character is after.

    The second is that the story is really all about the character working to achieve the goals, even as the goals change by growing “in depth, intensity, and scope.” Of course, to achieve these goals, the character must overcome the problems standing squarely in the way.

    Of late I’ve read a number of novels that don’t demand my attention until a third to a half way through. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a compelling reason to keep reading because I don’t see the character taking action to achieve some deeply felt goal. I don’t have a rooting interest in continuing to read.

    So now I have a new goal for my own writing, a deeply felt one, I might add. 😉

    Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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    Good and Popular—Are We Looking for Two Different Things?

    A couple weeks or so ago, I entered a contest conducted by agent Nathan Bransford. Over 1300 of us posted the first paragraph of our novel, and he selected six finalists, then had us vote for a winner. What jumped out at me were remarks he made in the post naming the winner. From the comments we made when voting, he could surmise what it was that we—readers/writers—were looking for, and he realized he was looking for something different:

    I think a lot of people read these paragraphs thinking, “Which book would I want to read?” and then gravitate to the ones that begin with intriguing plots, voices or situations that speak to them. Which is fine! Nothing wrong with that at all. But that’s not necessarily how I read these — I don’t need to know everything right away. When I’m reading a paragraph (or a partial), I’m looking mainly at the quality of the writing. Is it of publishable quality? Is it seamless, are the word choices strong, is the grammar proper, am I being enveloped in this world? If the writing isn’t publishable it really doesn’t matter how much I like the underlying idea.

    Plots are subjective — people have different tastes and interests. Good writing is less subjective. It’s sometimes hard to describe, pinpoint, and define, but good writing is good writing.
    (emphasis mine)

    I suspect that Agent Bransford is voicing what those choosing award winning fiction believe. My view is that there’s something seriously wrong with this perspective. Repeating an analogy from nature that I’ve used before, no great debate rages concerning what makes a beautiful sunset. It is self-evident. But apparently beautiful writing isn’t. Or should I say, good fiction isn’t self-evident.

    I’m not taking anything away from the award winners. Everyone who has read these books says the prose is masterful, and since I haven’t read them, I’ll happily take the word of those who have.

    But when I want to be entertained, I don’t pick up poetry. I pick up a story, and not what I call an angst-driven story, though there undoubtedly is an element of angst in it, given that the stories I like have less of helicopters blowing up and more of characters wrestling to do the right thing.

    Which brings me to characters and voice. Is writing really publishable if the story doesn’t open with an engaging character who has a unique voice? For that matter, is the writing publishable if the story premise is convoluted or cliche?

    Here’s what I’m thinking. On one hand, you have a story, with all the necessary elements—plot, characters, setting, theme—and on the other hand you have the way the story is communicated, that is, the writing. Can’t you have quality in both arenas? And if so, why wouldn’t such books reach the top of the NY Times Bestselling list and also be nominated for a Pulitzer?

    What am I missing?

    Published in: on December 18, 2008 at 12:14 pm  Comments (9)  
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    The Chief Means of Marketing – Part 5

    What makes a novel interesting? What makes a blog post interesting? (And don’t forget, interesting is one of the necessary ingredients if what we produce is going to be buzz worthy).

    I don’t think the answers to those two questions are necessarily the same. Fiction, I’m convinced, is interesting primarily if the story is interesting. Perhaps you’ve read here more than once Story trumps all.

    But even saying that, there may not be agreement about what makes a story interesting. Some will say it’s the characters. Others will say it’s the plot. Still others will say it’s the way the story is told—the language the author uses. A smaller minority might say stories are interesting if they take the reader to a new place or show them something new about the world, life, history.

    The main thing that each of these seem to have in common is the new factor. Yet writing instructors will say time and again, there are no new stories. I’ve read on blogs and in instruction books that there are ten basic plots. When I was in school, we learned there were five basic themes.

    Off hand, one might think science fiction or fantasy has the easiest road, for surely those of us writing in the speculative genres have the newest, oddest, strangest stuff with which to construct stories.

    But therein lies a danger. New for the sake of new isn’t interesting either. And new that is so odd it doesn’t seem to connect to reality isn’t interesting. In other words, readers want something new but familiar, and something different because the story requires the difference.

    In addition, I’m more and more convinced that readers will become attached to a story primarily if they become attached to a character. What, then, makes a character interesting?

    Again, if you brought in a hundred fiction writers, you might have a hundred different answers, but here are some broad brush strokes that I believe are needed to make a character interesting.

    1) He or she must want something. And the story must be about them going after what they want. Without that central something that the character is trying to achieve, find, win, readers have no reason to be in the protagonist’s corner, hoping and fearing with him or her.

    2) He or she must have some admirable qualities. It seems so much emphasis is being put on making characters seem real, some authors are forgetting to make the character likable or admirable. One of the complaints of the movie Prince Caspian was that the screenplay writers changed Peter from a noble character to one with angst. Fortunately other characters were still depicted with strengths, so movie goers didn’t seem to have a problem backing the side of good.

    3) He or she must have some weakness. This is the point that has become blown out of proportion, in my opinion, but the answer isn’t to swing the pendulum clear to the other side and depict characters that are unnatural in their goodness. Plots aren’t interesting if they have no conflict, and characters aren’t interesting if they have no internal struggle.

    OK, there are other factors, but I’ve gone on too long as it is. Your turn. What makes a character interesting?

    Published in: on July 15, 2008 at 2:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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