Over the last two weeks, I’ve discussed the story beats that make up the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise. Today, I’m going to introduce some original work on an archetypal story structure that I call The Sinner’s Redemption.
I don’t believe anyone has laid out the beat sheet for a redemption story, but I could be wrong. I haven’t done an exhaustive literature search for this. What you see below is a story beat sheet that I developed myself.
What is it about redemption stories? We love them. We tell them all the time. And like any archetypal story structure, readers recognize the structure. Classic examples of redemption stories include: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, A Christmas Carol (and the many spin-offs of it including It’s a Wonderful Life), as well as many sports comeback stories like Bad News Bears.
Like the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise redemption stories are perfectly fitted to a specific protagonist archetype. Theoretically a redemption story can be told about any person with any kind of archetypal behavior system, but usually redemption stories involve protagonists who are Misers, Addicts, Rakes, Harlots, Thieves, Villains, Vampires, Shapeshifters, Zombies, or Biker Boys with Tats. But for the purpose of simplicity, I’m going to call the protagonist archetype a Sinner.
In short, redemption tales usually begin with a protagonist who has already fallen from grace, or who, like the Ancient Mariner, commits a crime and falls from grace in the first few scenes. Unlike the Hero who start his story in an “ordinary world,” or a Virgin who starts her story in a “dependent world,” the Sinner begins his tale in a “miserable world.”
Here are the story beats for a Sinner’s Redemption, using examples from the movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Electric Horseman.
Example: Electric Horseman
Example: It’s a Wonderful Life
THE MISERABLE WORLD
The story starts in one of two ways:
The Sinner has already fallen from grace and is living in a world that is cold, bleak, dark, and divorced from all things spiritual. He is unkind, uncaring, craven, and values all the wrong things, just like Ebenezer Scrooge
The Sinner falls from grace. The Sinner is not a bad guy, but he (or someone close to him) makes a spectacular mistake that puts the Sinner into a miserable world.
Sonny Steele is a five time all around rodeo champion. At the end of his career he takes a job with AMPO, a giant corporation, to pitch their breakfast cereal. Now he’s trotted out in an electric cowboy suit and paraded around at rodeos. It’s a humiliating fall from his former glory.
George Bailey is a good man, but his bumbling uncle has lost the Savings and Loan’s money and a bank examiner has just arrived to audit the books.
WEARING THE ALBATROSS
There are three possibilities for this story beat: 1) The Sinner will assume the guilt and all the responsibility for his fall from grace. In fact he wallows in guilt. 2) He might be like Ebenezer Scrooge so far gone that he doesn’t even recognize how miserable he is, and he delights in being a real villain and ass, or 3) He will find himself in a state of utter despair.
Sonny is so humiliated by his life that he takes to the bottle. He drinks all the time, and is often so drunk that he can hardly stay on his horse when he has to do personal appearances.
George assumes the blame for the missing money. He knows he’ll be sent to jail the next morning because he has no way to replace the missing money. He despairs.
REJECTING THE MESSENGER
In redemption stories, there is a benevolent force at work behind the scenes determined to redeem the Sinner. The Universe of Goodness will send the Sinner a messenger, designed to shake him out of his misery. The Sinner usually ignores or misses the message the first time it’s delivered. But like Scrooge encountering Marley’s ghost, the message often makes the sinner uneasy or angry.
At a corporate wide event in Las Vegas, Sonny is late to a press conference. Reporter, Hallie Martin, out for a good story, asks him a question that pierces his armor. He dodges the question, but it shakes him up.
George is beside himself. He goes home to his wife and family only to discover that his daughter Zuzu is sick. She is there to remind George of what he holds dear, but George misses the point, and instead, he yells at Zuzu’s teacher when she calls to see how Zuzu is feeling. Zuzu gives George a token of goodness in the form of the petals from her broken flower. He puts the petals in his pocket before he dashes out of the house desperate to find a solution to his problem at the bank.
THE VALLEY OF LIFE AND DEATH
About ¼ of the way through the story, the Sinner leaves his miserable world and enters into the Valley of Life and Death. In some redemption stories, like A Christmas Carol, this is a paranormal purgatory where the rules of physics do not apply. In other redemption stories, it’s a metaphoric valley. This place may be divorced from society, or it may be more akin to a secret world. Scrooge is allowed to visit his past and future life in a dream world. The Ancient Mariner is stuck on a death ship with the souls of his shipmates. In Les Miserables, the Sinner is sent to jail.
The PR department introduces Sonny to their new corporate symbol, a million dollar race horse named Rising Star. The company has sedated the horse and done other things to it jeopardize its health and wellbeing.
Sonny, who has been happy to take money in return for being demeaned, is suddenly unable to let AMPO do the same to Rising Star. So Sonny steals the horse and rides him off into the Nevada desert, a metaphoric Valley of Life and Death.
George tries to raise the missing money from Mr. Potter, who only points out that with George’s life insurance policy, George is worth more dead than he is alive.
George enters the Valley of Life and Death by contemplating suicide.
A GUIDE WILL APPEAR
The Sinner will not face the Valley of Life and Death alone. He will either be guided through it like Scrooge with the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, or the Sinner will journey with someone whose main story purpose is to make him review the choices he’s made during his life.
The police and Ampo are on Sonny’s tail, but they have no clue where he’s gone.
Hallie, the reporter, is way smarter. She talks to Sonny’s cowboy friends, learns something about Sonny’s past, and goes off to find him.
When she finds Sonny, Hallie discovers that he plans to release Rising Star somewhere out in the wilderness. She talks him into letting her tell his story. Hallie and Sonny team up and begin a trek across the wilderness together. In this redemption story, both Hallie and Sonny will review their respective lives while they travel cross-country on foot.
Heaven sends Clarence, an angel-in-training, to stop George from killing himself. Clarence who knows all about George’s past, decides to show George what the world would be like if George had never been born. Together they take a tour of an alternate Bedford Falls, where the villain, Mr. Potter, is in charge of things.
MEETING THE AVATAR OF GOODNESS
While the Sinner is wandering in The Valley of Life and Death being forced to review his life and the choices he’s made, he will encounter at least one Avatar of Goodness whose fate rests in his hands. Scrooge had Tiny Tim. Jean Valjean had Cozette. Often this Avatar of Goodness is innocent, naïve, and even Christ like.
As they trek across the wilderness, Hallie digs deeply into Sonny’s past life. She meets some of his friends along the way and comes to realize he’s a better man than the drunk she first met. Sonny learns a lot of about Hallie ,too, and makes her reevaluate the reasons she wants Sonny’s story. For Sonny and Hallie, their Avatar of Goodness is Rising Star. As they tend to the horse, he gets stronger, and their motivations for setting him free gets strong as well.
George Baily encounters himself. Oddly, in this redemption story, the Avatar of Goodness is the protagonist, whose life and choices have changed the course of history in the small town of Bedford Falls.
HE SEES THE ERROR OF HIS WAYS
At the close of the Sinner’s journey through the Valley, he has come to see how his past choices may not have been good ones. And he wants to save and/or help the fate of the Avatar of Goodness.
For a while it looks as if AMPO and the police are going to get the drop on Sonny, because, early on, Hallie gave them information about the place Sonny intended to set Rising Star Free.
But at the last minute, Sonny reveals the release point for Rising Star, and its hundreds of miles away from where the cops think it’s going to be. Together Sonny and Hallie release the horse, and agree that the true location doesn’t ever need to be disclosed.
George is shocked and horrified by what Clarence has shown him. He comes to understand that his life means something. Suddenly George finds himself back on the bridge where he’d been thinking about ending it all. He reaches into his pocket and finds Zuzu’s petals.
It’s not enough for the Sinner to see the errors of his ways. Only an act of true repentance or forgiveness will allow him to move on. Scrooge wakes up from his dream and immediately buys a turkey for Tiny Tim and his family.
Hallie comes to realize that there are some stories that are not worth telling to the world. She gives up her story, and she asks for Sonny’s forgiveness. Sonny forgives Hallie, and as she gets on a bus to return to New York, we know that Sonny’s days of selling himself to corporate America are over. He’s ready to face the penalties for having stolen a twelve million dollar horse, and he’s moving on with his life.
Even though George is facing prison time, he knows the answer isn’t suicide. He must go home and face his problem head on and accept the punishment.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE MUNDANE
The Sinner’s world remains the same as it always was to everyone living in it except the Sinner himself. When the Sinner sees the error of his ways and repents, his miserable world is transfigured and becomes holy. The Sinner emerges from the Valley of Life and Death into a world that is as close to heaven as any world can get.
Hallie has seen things a girl from New York never knew existed. Her view of the world has radically changed. She sees beauty in things she never saw before.
Like any good Cowboy, Sonny heads off into the sunset with his head held high. He’s no longer a puppet of corporate America, but even more important, he’s preserved a piece of sacred nature by releasing Rising Star into the wilderness to run free.
George runs through Bedford Falls like a mad man, even though he knows that tomorrow he’ll be charged with bank fraud. It’s almost as if George is seeing the town for the first time.
When he arrives home, he discovers that all the people whose lives he’s touched have banded together to raise the funds George needs to replace the missing money.
So there you have it –The beats for the Sinner’s Redemption. I can think of many other stories like this: Crime and Punishment, The Family Man, The Shawshank Redemption, The Mighty Ducks.
And – wait for it – the first book in my new series, A Christmas Bride, that will be available this coming September. In that story, a widower is living in a miserable world, no longer able to hear the messages that this eight year old daughter is trying to send him. . .until the his deceased wife’s best friend returns to town, gets all up in his face, and forces him to take a good long look at his life and the mistakes he made during his first marriage. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s a redemption love story, set during the holiday season. And it was during the writing of this book that I realized that most redemption stories have a structure to them that is repeated over and over again. And while the character arc for my heroine is probably more of a Virgin story, the much bigger character arc of the hero in this book is definitely a Sinner’s redemption. In fact, the first comment my editor made in her revision letter, was “wow, the hero’s arc is the biggest one you’ve ever written.”
Yeah. Because it’s a redemption story.
Next week, finding the story beats when your story isn’t a Hero’s Journey, a Virgin’s Promise, or a Sinner’s Redemption.
Human beings have been telling stories since the dawn of language. Some stories have been told so many times that their structure and main characters have been hardwired into the human consciousness.
A smart writer can use this to advantage. Knowing the most beloved characters and their story patterns, can be a huge time saver when you’re sitting down to brainstorm your latest novel. Today’s blog, and the blogs that will follow on the next three Thursdays, will explore the nexus between character and story, by looking at some of the story patterns that have been with us since the dawn of time.
Before I start, two definitions are in order.
Story beat is a term that comes from script-writing. A story beat is scene or collection of scenes that moves the narrative from point A to point B. All the action occurs during story beats, and scriptwriters start plotting their stories with something they call a beat sheet, which is nothing more than an outline of the scenes in the movie and the action that occurs in each scene.
Character Archetypes come from the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who postulated that certain human behaviors are hardwired into our “collective unconscious,” because we’ve encountered them in life or in fiction over and over again. The King, the Warrior, the Magician, and the Sidekick are all familiar character types that have built in behavioral traits that readers immediately recognize because all human beings recognize these characters.
Some characters are so universal that they come ready-made with a series of story beats. The character archetype called the Hero (capital H to connote that we’re talking about the character archetype and not the male lead in a romance story) is perhaps the best known of these. His set of story beats was first outlined in the work of Joseph Campbell who studied the myths of many different cultures and discovered that the story beats in all of them were the same.
Chris Vogler, a scriptwriter for the Disney Studios, took Joseph Campbell’s work and turned it into a writing manual for Disney scriptwriters. The manual was so popular that he eventually turned it into a book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Vogler’s book should probably be in every fiction writer’s library of craft books, especially those writing action adventure stories, suspense stories, or science fiction stories.
Let’s look at the Hero’s Journey.
First of all, it’s important to understand that the standard story beats in the Hero’s Journey only work for a main character who is a Hero. The Hero of a Hero’s Journey story can also have the behavioral traits of a King or a Warrior or a Lover or any other standard archetype, but once you put a character into the standard beats for a Hero, he automatically becomes that archetype.
A Hero is a main character who leaves his/her comfort zone in order to face a series of tests in which s/he proves his/her mettle and quite possibly saves the world. You will find Heroes in all the myths of classic literature and in a lot of today’s comic book movies. Ulysses is a Hero. Luke Skywalker is a Hero. Dorothy Gale of the Wizard of Oz is a Hero. The clown fish in Finding Nemo is a Hero. While the word Hero is masculine, it is possible to write a Hero’s Journey for a female protagonist.
Here are the story beats for a Hero’s Journy for in short form, using the original Star Wars: Episode 4 as an example:
THE ORDINARY WORLD The Hero is introduced against the backdrop of his environment.
Luke Skywalker is living his life with his aunt and uncle on a backwater planet. His uncle buys two androids to help with chores around the farm.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE Something happens that changes the Hero’s situation.
While cleaning and checking the androids, R2D2 delivers part of a message from Princess Leia that is meant for Obiwan Kenobe.
REFUSING THE CALL The hero is afraid of this change in circumstance and tries to ignore it.
Luke suspects the droid is damaged. He doesn’t take the message seriously.
MEETING THE MENTOR Someone older or more experienced comes along and encourages the Hero to answer the call. The mentor will provide advice or training.
R2D2 escapes from the Skywalker farm, and Luke has to chase after him. This brings him into contact with the old Jedi Knight Obiwan Kenobe where Luke learns about the Force, and the fact that his father was a Jedi Knight.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD About one-quarter of the way through the story something happens that forces the hero to commit to leaving his ordinary world and entering a new world with new rules and values.
After his meeting with Obiwan, Luke returns to the farm only to discover than his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Emperor’s evil forces. He must answer the call now.
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES The Hero meets friends, battles enemies, and is tested.
Luke, Obiwan and the droids go into town looking for transit. They have adventures in the bar, where they team up with Han Solo and Chewbacca. It isn’t long before they are dodging Han Solo’s enemies as they take off in the Millennium Falcon headed for the planet Alderon.
APPROACH TO THE CAVE The Hero and his new found allies prepare for a big battle that will take them into the enemy’s or antagonist’s lair.
Obiwan teaches Luke about the Force during their voyage to Alderon. When they finally the arrive, they discover that the Evil Empire has destroyed all traces of the planet by using it’s latest weapon of mass destruction — The Death Star. The Millennium Falcon is unable to escape and is drawn into the Death Star.
THE ORDEAL Near the middle of the story, the Hero, enters the enemy’s lair and faces death. Out of this ordeal, the Hero will learn something important about himself. He may also come away with an important artifact or prize.
Luke and his friends hide from the Imperial storm troopers. Obiwan goes on a mission to disable the Death Star’s tractor beam. Meanwhile Luke and his friends go deep inside the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia. Obiwan has a final battle with Darth Vader and is killed. The rest of the allies escape.
THE REWARD The hero and his friends celebrate their victory. But the celebration is short lived.
Luke and his friends manage to escape the Death Star, perhaps too easily. They go to the rebel base but it turns out that Darth Vader has put a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon.
THE ROAD BACK About three-fourths of the way through the story, the forces aligned against the Hero make their presence known. The Hero must prepare for a final battle with his antagonist or his enemy.
The Death Star is gunning for the rebel base. A countdown to annihilation has begun. The only hope is if the small band of X-wing fighters can torpedo one tiny spot on the Death Star that it it’s only vulnerability.
DEATH AND RESURRECTION At the climax, the Hero is severely tested to the point where it looks as if he will fail and maybe even die. To get out of this, he may need to make a sacrifice. Or he may need to use knowledge that he’s learned during his adventures, particularly during the Ordeal.
The rebel forces mount an attack on the Death Star but their efforts are failing. Many of them die.
After Luke fails on his first bombing run, he decides not to rely on his fighter’s instruments. Instead he lets the Force guide him. Once he follows the Force, he is successful in taking out the Death Star.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR The Hero returns home or continues his adventure, but he is forever changed because he has proved his mettle and learned something as a result of his adventures.
In the final scene we see the rebel forces rejoicing and Luke getting medals for his efforts, but we know that Luke is different now that he’s learned the power of the Force.
The table above is a simple example of a beat sheet. If you want to use the standard story beats of The Hero’s Journey, create a spreadsheet or table like the one above, with the story steps on the left, then number your scenes on the right, making sure that the action in each beat, matches the standard story pattern.
Beware! Some people – Joseph Campbell himself – will try to tell you that every story fits this pattern. And that’s just not true. Not every story is a Hero’s Journey. In fact, if you write romance or are telling a Cinderella story, the Hero’s Journey is not particularly helpful.
Cinderella is not a Hero. She’s not a character from out a myth. She’s a character from out of a fairytale. And if you think about it, you already know that a myth and a fairytale are two different things, even though they are both as old as storytelling.
Fairytale structure is next week’s topic, so stay tuned. In the meantime I’m happy to take any questions.
Dave and me, hanging out @ The Experience Music Project in Seattle
This is the fourth post in an occasional series about finding inspiration in other artists’ creative processes. Read the first, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the second, featuring Trent Reznor, and the third, mourning the death of Scott Weiland, at the links.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a massive Dave Grohl fangirl. (Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana, and founded and fronts the Foo Fighters.) So when I heard Dave was keynoting the South By Southwest Conference a couple of years ago, in 2013, I blocked out an hour on my (then) day job’s Outlook calendar so I could watch the webcast uninterrupted.
Dave didn’t disappoint. In an f-bomb-laden, highly personal speech, and sporting ridiculously sexy reading glasses, Dave brought us along on his personal artistic journey, one inspired by wise parents and a love of punk rock. He reveled in his independence, developing and nurturing what he later recognized was his individual voice.
Voice. It’s an aspect of art, of craft, that musicians and writers share. It’s a tone, or a worldview, that makes a piece of work – or a body of work – belong uniquely to its creator.
Some key takeaways from Dave’s keynote that resonated for me:
“There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s (expletive) gone.”
“Am I the best drummer in the world? Certainly not. Am I the best singer/songwriter? Not even in this (expletive) room. But I have been left alone to find my voice.”
“I am the musician, and I come first.”
This statement about creative control of one’s art, spoken with such certainty during a time when my traditional publisher and I were parting ways and indie publishing loomed on my horizon, shrilled into my very bones.
Somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten that.
I am the writer, and I come first.
I won’t forget it again.
I could quote from this keynote for hours – and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it since Dave made it 2013 – but I think I’ll just let the man speak for himself. Here’s Dave, being all hot ‘n wise ‘n awesome. The video is 49:32; it’s well worth the time regardless of how you write or publish, and the language is NSFW.
Listen. Learn. Enjoy. And remind yourself, if you need to: “I am the writer, and I come first.”
I realize fifty minutes is a significant time investment, and that comments might be few and far between at the blog today. But if you’re inclined to comment:
Do you think there are lessons writers can learn from musicians, and publishing can learn from the music industry, about the intersection of art and commerce?
Is there a writer whose voice you absolutely adore? Why do you like it, and which book do you recommend we read to get a taste?
I recently took a virtual workshop about writing multiple series from NYT and USA Today bestselling author Marie Force. Self-publishing trailblazer and author of not one but FOUR continuing series, Marie also owns the E-Book Formatting Fairies, hosts Reader Weekend events for her biggest fans, moderates one of the most useful self-publishing loops on Yahoo, and is a frequent conference speaker. In addition, the busiest woman in publishing generously shares her knowledge by teaching workshops. I suspect that, in her spare time, she’s either invented cloning, or discovered a way to circumvent the space/time continuum. 😉
All joking aside, it was an awesome class, and I highly recommend it for both published and unpublished series writers. Marie shared some great advice about anchor couples, mining connections between characters, world-building (particularly the factors she considers when creating vibrant fictional communities that stand the test of time), and of course, the biggie: how to write characters that readers care about. In the last class lesson, she advised creating a series bible early on—which made complete sense to me—but then she recommended doing something that, in hindsight, seems so completely obvious, but that never crossed my mind.
Re-read all the books in your series, at least once a year. According to Marie, re-reading your books on a regular basis reacquaints you with the details you committed to the page, and it also helps generate new story ideas.
Re-read my own books? Seriously? Study them, like I study the books on my keeper shelf? The very idea seemed…presumptuous. Intellectually, I know my books are decent, but for some reason the prospect of re-reading them with that level of scrutiny made me cringe as much as I do when my sisters haul out my seventh grade school photos.
Yes, really. Marie was serious. So I hemmed and I hawed, I bitched and moaned, but…I finally did it. I was gestating a new project, and…dang it, why take a class from one of the most successful series writers in our industry if I wasn’t willing to at least try something she recommended? Bottom line, I knew my series bible was woefully out of date, so even if re-reading my own books was excruciating, I knew I’d get something valuable out of the deal.
No pain, no gain.
So I sucked it up and started re-reading my first published book, TASTE ME, my 2009 Golden Heart finalist and the kickoff to the Underbelly Chronicles. And yes, there were a few winces along the way: Unnecessary dialogue tags. The occasional copy-editing error. The very rare head-hop that…worked, but that I’d never allow myself now that I’ve become a POV purist.
But…heh. Not bad, if I do say so myself. * buffs fingernails on shirt *
And the details I’d forgotten! The potential plot seeds I’d planted, but hadn’t yet cultivated. The nameless, sometimes faceless characters that walked onto the page for a sentence or two, served their purpose, then walked away again.
Story ideas flew at me hard and fast. OMG, she was right.
I re-read all the other books in my Underbelly Chronicles series over the Christmas holidays, and plot seeds are still sprouting left and right. A character who received two sentences’ worth of real estate in TASTE ME—such a minor character he wasn’t even in my series bible—has elbowed his way back onto the page of Book 5, where he’s a major catalyst for conflict. And an unnamed character in my TOUCH ME novella? Oh my, do I have plans for her. The garden of my imagination is over-run, and I’m still tilling. Still weeding, still cultivating. But I really like how things are setting up.
Another thing I realized? It’s what I didn’t commit to the page in those earlier books that allows me to re-purpose these characters, to expand their utility beyond their original walk-on roles. By not providing more information than was absolutely required, I didn’t box myself in.
I came out of Marie’s class with not only an updated series bible, but with new ideas and a fresh, new energy for my work—a gift beyond price. So, that’s the biggest lesson I learned from Marie Force: that no matter how excruciating it might initially feel, re-read your work, at least occasionally. You never know the bounty your imagination might be ready to provide.
Have you ever re-read your own published or completed work? If so, why did you do it, and what did you learn? Did you find it exhilarating, excruciating, or both?
As writers we often find ourselves sitting behind our computers, tucked away, safe and sound. We send our heroes and heroines into battle, down dark alleys, to distant planets or on blind dates. While we wear fuzzy socks, sweatpants, and sit at our desks with our hot tea or diet soda. Comfort – it’s a good thing. Personally, I have a pair of sweater-pants that I wear all the time. They hug my legs in the softest material I’ve ever felt. Right now I’m writing before a lovely fire with a cup of English Breakfast tea within arm’s reach. There is nothing wrong with this.
And yet…if we limit our lives to comfort, only exploring our world through pictures on the internet and descriptions in reference books, our writing can start to become…well, too comfortable. Comfortable can become bland, and blandness is death to fantastic writing.
“Crap. Blandness? Is my writing getting bland?”
Don’t fear! You can do something about it. When your ideas start to come from other peoples’ ideas it’s time to get some fresh experiences to feed your characterizations and plot twists. Okay, so it can be a little uncomfortable, maybe a bit pulse-kicking, perhaps requiring more than bunny slippers and fleece pants. It means leaving the computer behind and stepping outside into the big, color-filled world.
Time for a field trip!
Feel free to grab a buddy, load the GPS and pin your return address to your sweater (However you may get a stalker following you home. On the up side, the experience would fit right into a suspense plot line!). Yes, it would be wonderful to travel to exotic locales (I did visit Scotland and England, which was fabulous), but you don’t have to spend a lot of money or go far to find thousands of details and entice your muse out to play.
For example, my 9-year-old just brought home a permission slip for a field trip to our local planetarium. The teacher is asking for chaperones. Yes, it means a morning away from the computer, but going also means sitting under the stars, watching planets and learning a thing or two about our universe. Not only would this first-hand information aid me in writing a sci-fi romance, but it could fit into contemporary romances too. My heroine could find herself in the dark next to a hot-bodied astronomer or executive chaperoning his niece’s class to the planetarium.
Ooooo, so much fodder for stories! So I signed up to chaperone, knowing that I will come away from my daughter’s field trip with all sorts of first-hand, all-five-senses details for future stories.
By trying new things and risking discomfort, we become like our heroines: brave, intelligent, open to new possibilities, willing to get out of our sweatpants (even if some of our heroines fight it).
Characters and ideas are everywhere out in the world. Here are a few suggested field trips:
Ferries and trains
Your neighbor’s party
One of those crazy, full-of-mud obstacle courses
Me in the Rugged Maniac in 2014. Yes, that’s barbed wire over my head!
On a Segway tour of your city
Paddle board class
Chaperoning a high school dance
Animal adoption event
While you are trying these new experiences, remember to be observant. Pay attention to what people do with their hands, eyebrows, postures, etc. when they are frustrated or happy or sad. Not every guy runs his fingers through his hair when he’s upset. What else can we say about a person’s eyebrows when they are angry? Or their eyes when they are surprised? Twirling hair, tugging at a bra strap, snapping gum, scratching the space between their shoulder blades on the corner of a building…
There are thousands of opportunities for you as a writer, for you as a heroine, to experience life and discover the details that will color in your scenes with authentic, first-hand descriptions. Bland will give way to writing that transports your readers to your world, sucking them into your books and the lives of your characters.
So kick off those bunny slippers, throw on a coat and get out there in the world. Sniff, touch, see, listen, and taste. Be a heroine, and then write what you know.
Have you ever gone anywhere to soak in details for your writing?
In the sprints, many authors have announced that they’ve completed their work, first draft or edits. Others are following their footsteps. I thought we’d take this opportunity to talk about endings.
We all know that our endings MUST leave our readers satisfied. The ending can be happy or not. Or, it could leave the reader completely hanging out there with a hundred questions about what happens next, if that is what the reader has expected and will want-think saga. However, don’t leave the ending up to the reader to draw conclusions. They are the reader, not the author.
Endings need to answer or allude to the resolution of the main character’s conflict. If you allude to the hero’s trumpet but don’t actually show it, this opens the door for disaster to happen in the beginning of the next story, if that is your goal.
As you head toward your end, ask yourself what was the main conflict? Did you resolve it? Remember the hero can win the battle (his priority) but the war can still rage on.
Make the main character the catalyst for the outcome. It is their battle and they are the hero of their story. Make them work to make the things happen in their favor.
Have you read a story where things just came together at the end, tied up with a pretty pink bow? Did you feel cheated, let down? You’ve worked too hard building characters, emotion, and tension, just to tell your characters, to kiss and make-up like children. Don’t come up with contrived details to end your story. Don’t be lazy now.
Don’t end the story using new information that has come out of the blue. Your readers have invested time, getting to know your characters and have racked their brains formulating theories about the outcome, don’t cheat them.
If your ending is going to twist, make sure you sprinkle signs throughout your story. That way, the reader will say the author did warn me, but I let the clues go over my head. They’ll look at the story in a total different light. A light that includes five star reviews. A great example of a twist ending was the movie ‘THE SIXTH SENSE’. If you haven’t seen it, do it. It’s a great study.
And finally, know when the story ends. The reader does not need to know what happens with every character. Once your main characters’ reach their goal, whether they won the battle on a blue star in a galaxy far, far away or lover’s pledge their undying love and go to sleep only to die in each other’s arms, the story is over. It’s time for the reader to feel. Tie up loose ends (brief anti-climax) before the grand climax.
A great ending makes your reader feeling something, good or bad. It makes them think about the story a long time after closing it. It makes them talk about your book to their friends. And it makes them buy your next.
Does anyone have any other advice on writing a great end or examples of great endings?
Last week, I took a day off from security guards, sex demons and assassins (the WIP) and joined a group of undergraduate English majors, MFA students, and other writers on the University of Minnesota Mankato campus, where we had the pleasure of listening to the amazing Roxane Gay talk about writing difference.
Though Gay is both a fiction and non-fiction writer, my exposure to her work has primarily been through her eloquent, insightful essays (and her Twitter feed, @rgay), where she takes on race, gender, sexism, feminism, social class, sexual violence, homophobia, privilege, identity, corruption, and the intersectionality of these topics. While Gay’s non-fiction subject matter can feel fraught and political and scary and huge, the craft talk most emphatically was not—except for a comment about the need for publishers to be more inclusive about the writers they publish, and to expand the breadth of human experience published books present to the world.
Nope, this was a one-hour craft talk about writing difference in an authentic way. And unlike institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and the patriarchy, character development is a writerly choice, something I fully control in my own work.
Note the simplicity of Gay’s phrasing: “Writing difference.” It’s as inclusive as it gets. It doesn’t value any difference over another. It excludes no one, and meets every writer where they’re at. It’s about me, the writer, writing characters who are different than me. Hell, I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, straight Caucasian woman who writes about vampires, sirens, werewolves and sex demons—whose ancestors are aliens—and the phrase still works.
Here are some quick hits from my notes from Roxane’s session. Any errors or misinterpretations are, of course, my own:
Writing difference is about authenticity, about reaching beyond stereotypes and “lazy, half-assed assumptions.” Don’t merely write “the sassy gay friend, the fiery Latina, or the wise black maid. Dig deeper.”
People who are different than you are people first, and different second.
When writing difference, start with universal emotions. There’s natural common ground here.
“No one is any one thing, right?” No one is solely racist, or sexist, or disabled, or LGBT, or homophobic. We can’t assume that any person—any character—is part of any monolithic whole. People are multi-dimensional. Characters should be, too.
Research is important. READ difference. Read across genres. Expose yourself to others’ realities.
As a writer, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to simply try. Even if you don’t quite hit the bulls-eye authenticity-wise, your attempt means you’re acknowledging that humanity isn’t a monolithic whole. Acknowledgment is a move in the right direction.
“Writers write what they’re called to write,” but authenticity is key. If your story needs a character of difference, write one—but it’s problematic, and inauthentic, and perhaps an issue of ethics, to write difference as a marketing ploy, or as a way to hop on a bandwagon, or to fetishize.
Though Gay writes both fiction and non-fiction, she says that fiction writing is her “happy place,” a way to “self-medicate.” Soft-spoken Gay clearly relishes the power she wields when writing fiction. “I control my characters. I create entire worlds.”
Yes. And by writing difference in an authentic way, we, as writers, help create the world we want to see—one character, one book, one difference at a time.
To get a taste of Roxane in action, here’s her “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” TED Talk from last year. Bad Feminist is an awesome book, and I very much look forward to Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, coming in June 2016.
What are your thoughts about writing (or reading, or watching) difference? Can you recommend any authors who write difference well?
I’ve been writing novels for a long time now. I can say that I’ve learned how to write a novel and I’ve learned how to meet a deadline.
But I get stuck. I lose my way even though I have an outline. I have to rewrite. I struggle sometimes with imagery and just plain bad writing. And I sometimes lose confidence. I have accepted that these things are just part of the job.
I’ve also discovered over the years that when I’m feeling doubtful about my writing it helps to go read a book on writing craft, or storytelling, or character development and try out new techniques or new processes. Going back to basics and/or learning something new frees me from self-doubt and the writing doldrums.
So, since we’re in the midst of the Winter Writing Festival, and I figure lots of you are struggling with self-doubt, have lost your way, or are stuck on a scene, it might be helpful to provide a list of great books on the craft of storytelling and writing.
Below you’ll find a list of my favorite books on the craft of writing. Some of these books changed my life. Others are used all the time as I plot or troubleshoot.
The book discusses mythic structure and the hero’s journey as first outlined by Joseph Campbell. My take: This was the first book I ever read on story structure and it was an enormous eye-opener. It probably should be on every novelists shelf. But, a word of caution, romance authors will be left scratching their heads. The hero’s journey explains a lot of stories out there, and a lot of popular movies, but it doesn’t work for romance novels.
This book discusses fairytale structure and can be viewed as a companion book to the Writer’s Journey. My take: I’ve been waiting for this book for years. It was published in 2010 and it discusses stories that don’t fit mythic hero’s journey structure (like romances!) If you’re writing stories about characters learning to live a fulfilled life, then this book will help you understand that structure. I truly think every romance author should own this book and study it.
This book discusses scene and sequel structure. My take: This is a book that will help you improve pacing, regardless of what kind of genre you may be writing. The book focuses on thrillers and suspense novels, but romance authors can get a lot out of it as well.
This is a seminal book that provides hands-on help in crafting three-dimensional characters and understanding what people mean when they talk about conflict in a story. My take: This book changed my life. Seriously. I had no idea what conflict was, and I kept writing stories that got rejected with the words “no conflict” written all over them. If you have been told that your manuscript is lacking in conflict, you should read this book.
Written by a well-known literary agent, Donald Mass’ workbook provides advice and exercises to make your novel stand out in a crowd. My take: The exercises in this workbook are so useful, whether you are trying to fix a scene you’ve already written, or plot a novel from start to finish. The exercises are also very useful during brainstorming sessions with other writers. A lot of the questions I ask during the WWF brainstorming sessions on Wednesday mornings come right out of this workbook.
Beloved author and poet Ursula K. Le Guin provides her take on the craft of writing. My Take: If you’ve ever read one of Le Guin’s books, you know that she writes beautifully. Her book on writing craft (including such issues as comma placement) was utterly liberating for me.
These are my go-to books when I’m looking for inspiration or when I’m stuck. What books on craft or storytelling are on your shelves?
It’s been said that, in a courtroom, the man who represents himself has a fool for a client. Something similar can be said for a writer who does his or her own editing.
In an earlier blog, I mentioned fine-tuning my SFR and that it became a cautionary tale in and of itself. Here’s what happened:
Some of you know family obligations made it impossible for Cuz to relocate when his employer chose to move. With him facing unemployment, we decided to polish a manuscript that, although begun as a writing exercise in the 90s, would not die. Unsurewhether thoseold ideas still had merit, we entered the first chapters into a contest and—Hallelujah!—they did. To ice our little happy cake, while the story sat, SFR emerged as a viable genre. Whoopee!
Reality soon changed whoopee to whoop ass—with mine in its sights. Half the chapters remained in WordPerfect®, the program we had grudgingly abandoned when Word® rose to industry dominance. Some existed only on legal pads. The last handful were doc. and docx. files.
Have you any idea the garbage a story can collect over nigh eighteen years? Upon seeing the merged files, I darn near had a coronary. Over 120,000 words, huge gaps, duplicate scenes, missing scenes, more inconsistencies than I care to enumerate, and despite comprehensive profiles, the characters had morphed. Oh, and no ending. That’s right. At 120+K. It. Was. Not. Finished.
But wait. There’s more. Since we were having so much fun, circumstances added a smidge more crazy.
My CP, who planned to help us navigate indie publishing’s vagaries, announced her impending out-of-state relocation. In a strange twist, although they didn’t know each other, Cuz and her hubby worked for the same outfit.
With the deadline approaching and beta-readers waiting, we escalated to panic mode. I settled in to work. I kid you not when I say I gained about fifteen pounds because I did little but sit and type until I sent the story to the readers.
Nobody liked the hero. Too alpha. No evidence of a softer side. The heroine, while likable, didn’t fare much better. The villain . . . Well, you get the idea.
I returned to my chair and, comments in hand, knuckled down.
Many sleepless nights, pots of coffee, and PB&J sandwiches later, we had something viable but, given its age, realized holes we stood too close to see might yet exist. Both Cuz and I have solid general science backgrounds and experience within specific disciplines. Neither of us can claim more than a basic grasp of physics, however, and we had, of course, ventured there.
Pooling our resources, we hired a developmental Sci-fi editor who, we were assured, had experience with romance.
While he found several oopsies on the physics/space-science front, making him well-worth his hire, his comments and handling of the love story declared ours wasn’t the story he wanted to read. Unfortunately, what he wanted to read, we didn’t want to write.
We thanked him and parted ways.
I’ve done plenty of editing during my life. These days, it’s mostly for my CP, but in years past, I edited publications, ads, form letters—Yeah. Fun stuff—and books that eventually found place in traditional publishing. I could handle this. No sweat.
Thus, without fanfare, I donned motley and joined the fools’ ranks.
More eighteen and twenty-hour days behind the desk followed. My feet swelled. My hips spread. Each tick of the clock, it seemed, claimed another strand of hair.
Somehow, between midnight phone debates, sometimes-grudging compromises, incessant typing, and gritty eyes, time ran out. Cuz and CP made the long trip, squishing into my dinky office to navigate the publishing process.
After an almost nineteen year gestation, the book went live 25 January 2015.
It wasn’t ready. We knew it. We priced it high to discourage buyers, but like proud parents who refuse to believe they created an ugly child, kept the pictures on display.
People bought it. Our family and friends led the way, but we sold too many for just that forgiving group.
Instant panic—for me.
Cuz moseyed on to Book Two. I couldn’t make him understand Book One of a series carries the weight of every book that follows (we have three gestating), and ours didn’t have the muscle yet. Our developmental editor had become so fixated on the alien pronoun usage several discrepancies and plot holes evaded his detection just as they’d escaped mine—until I read the book in print.
Nightmares had nothing on this mess. The book bled red ink. Depression, a specter most writers battle at times, found a foothold. I republished over and over while fighting the demon (I forget how many print copies I bought. I can’t seem to see this stuff on the computer), enduring Cuz and Hubble’s jokes about how anal I was and their advice to let it be. No argument made either male understand why I persisted. The months that followed proved hellish.
On 1 August 2015, I downloaded The Sword & the Starship for the final—I hope—time, and can, at long last, say I’m proud of it. It’s sixteen pages and several thousand words leaner than its January incarnation. The bits that went nowhere are gone. The timeline issue has been resolved. The hero and heroine boast complete character and emotional arcs. As for the villain? No complaints.
AND (cue Angel Choir) Cuz has finally seen the light.
Here’s what we learned:
1.) Hiring a content or copy editor would have been wise. Despite determined attempts at objectivity, my knowledge of the story and characters led to ill-advised assumptions, skimming, and more reworking than there had to be.
2.) Nothing catches errors quite like the ear. Read the book aloud. Hearing it read works, too—if you can avoid zoning out.
3.) Not all editors are created equal. While grateful for the solid science, we would have been better served by an editor who shared our vision for the story.
4.) Trust yourself. If your inner voice is screaming, listen; it’s probably right.
5.) Chair time is not always time well-spent. Get up. Move. You can’t think very well with your blood cushioning your tush. You’ll accomplish more with it energizing your brain.
6.) Sometimes, in the long run, it costs less to spend. If you work best with print, then print. While shredded paperbacks are excellent soil-enhancers, and pages spread over soil stop weeds, they’re expensive alternatives. Your flowerbeds will be just as happy with computer paper. Better a garden than a landfill.
7.) Publishing sites have draft modes. Unfortunately, I noticed the option too late. We could have learned what we needed without risking our—or our book’s—reputation. Instead, we went all in, releasing it during its almost-but-not-quite-ready-yet, chrysalis stage—a decision we might yet regret.
So there you have it, my cautionary tale. If you take nothing else from it, take this:
Some things never attain their potential if they’re rushed, so don’t cut the chrysalis.
I started writing when my son was eleven months old. He graduates from Junior High this coming May. I wrote my first book in under a year, at least I count it as my first book, because the other two before it weren’t fit to be coasters for the coffee table. So I wrote this book, met with a popular rock band for the research and secured an agent within three months of sending it out.
I got a call from her one day telling me that a publisher in England had heard about this book through the grapevine and called my agent asking for it. They called her. This was unheard of I was told. A month later a producer asked to see it. He wanted to make a it into a movie of the week.
Through this experience, I learned that there are two types of people in the writing industry.
I belong to an online writing loop where pubbed and unpubbed work side by side answering each others questions. There was one women who was indeed, just one of us. She had participated in our discussions and been there just like the rest of us.
And then she sold her first book. A few months later I wrote her and asked her a question just like I had done with her a dozen times before, and she with me. This time the curt reply came with an ending sentence telling me that there were other people on the loop I could have gone to without bothering her. I never bought her book. Neither did anyone else in our critique group.
So what happened to my career? I mailed off the revisions my agent had asked for in January. When I hadn’t heard back by June, I finally called.
I was told that my agent had died that previous February and nobody had thought to notify me. To this day, I still do not know the specifics. My book was returned with a no thank you. I was released from the contract. No one ever knew what happened to the English publisher and the movie producer disappeared without a trace.
In one phone call I went from the cutting edge, being told that my book was so damn unusual that it would create a new sub-genre, back to square one. That was seven years ago.
And that is where the lessons began.
Not how to put a sentence together or how to submit in proper format. All that was in books. What I learned came from people.
The kind of person who glances down at your names tag at a conference, sees that there is no marking designating your masterpiece and their eyes wonder the second before they excuse themselves to go sit at the agent/editor table. I attended a conference with an someone I knew. We weren’t best friends, but we had spent some time together. When I hadn’t seen her the whole three days and finally ran into her, I asked her about it. “I don’t come here to socialize,” I was told. “I’m here to meet the people that will get my book on the shelf and that’s it.” I wasn’t one of the important people, not worth the time. At least not to her.
I met a particular multi-published author who shall remain nameless who was so important to herself she dismissed me with the wave of her hand while I was standing at her signing table.
And then I met the real people. The true giants.
I met Sue Grafton at a book signing. When I mentioned I was a newbie writer, she stopped the line for two minutes, crossed her arms over her chest with the most sincere smile and asked me how it was going.
Dean Koontz. When I didn’t feel as if I could go on with all the rejection letters, he sent me a personal note telling me ”For fifteen years most of my friends and virtually all of my relatives thought I was a bum … hang in there.” He even spelt my name right.
And Clive Cussler? I had been reading him since I was fifteen years old. He was the reason I got into writing in the first place. It’s why I write action romance. So what did he tell me when I finally, after eighteen years, met him at a book signing? “Send me a copy of your manuscript. I would like to take a look at it.”
These are my teachers.
These are the people that are not so impressed with themselves or their work that they will turn their backs on the person with the plain badge. They care. They remember.
I had a drink with an editor from a publishing house recently and we were talking about how hard it is break in to the business. When I recounted my history, she smiled sadly and said she was sorry.
And that’s when it hit me.
I almost had the instant success. I was almost one of the rare that sold their first book.
And if that had happened, where would my ego had ended up? What table would I have been sitting at and with whom would I talk to at the conference?
My lack of success in the writing industry, at least by some standards, put in the right places at the right time and showed me the people I want to mimic. The real giants. Not because they have sold more books or make more money or put their books in the top ten of the New York Best Seller List. They are giants because they cared enough to look back and see where they used to be.
It appears that my big break is a hair breath away. I have people who want to read my work. People with the clout to make the difference. We’ll see. I’ve been close before and have learned not to get too excited.
What goes around comes around. Karma. Ying and Yang. Two sides to every coin. With every action there is an opposite action. It doesn’t matter how you say it, it all means the same thing.
What we put out in the world will be what we get back. In my writing, as well as in my life, I want my second side to reflect my first. And it’s not going to be determined by how many books I have on the shelf or who I sat next to at that luncheon. It’s going to come from how I treated the person who has just finished her first draft of her first book and the person who just opened his forty-seventh rejection.
So whether or not my book sells and the deals start pouring in, don’t look for me at that front table by the podium. Look for me in the back with the real people, the people with the plain badges who realize the struggle and the reward go hand in hand.
ABOUT JACQUI JACOBY:
Award-winning author, Jacqui Jacoby lives and writes in the beauty of Northern Arizona. Currently adjusting to being an empty nester with her first grandchild to draw her pictures, Jacqui is a self-defense hobbyist. Having studied martial arts for numerous years she retired in 2006 from the sport, yet still brings strength she learned from the discipline to her heroines. She is a working writer, whose career includes writing books, teaching online and live workshops and penning short nonfiction.