I met Craig Bartlett in 1980 on the The Evergreen State College Cooper Point Journal, where he was staff cartoonist and photographer and I was production manager. We were young, barely 20, and following in the footsteps of Lynda Barry and Matt Groening, who’d been running the Cooper Point Journal not too many years before—it was a wonderful, exhilarating time.
Craig had studied art in Portland, Oregon, and Italy before switching to cartoons at TESC. He went on to be on the forefront of pioneering claymation at Will Vinton Studios in Portland (California Raisins) before moving to Hollywood to work on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Sesame Street, Rugrats, and Ren and Stimpy, among other projects. He made two classic claymation shorts, Arnold Escapes From Church and Arnold Rides his Chair for the International Animation Tournee. In 1994 he developed Arnold into a full-length animated TV series, Hey, Arnold!, which ran on Nickelodeon until 2002 and culminated in Hey, Arnold! The Movie. Craig is also the author of a line of children’s books based on episodes of Hey, Arnold!
Now Craig has just launched his second cartoon series as creator/executive producer, Dinosaur Train, a preschool animation on PBS for the Jim Henson Company. It premiered just a few weeks ago, on Labor Day, 2009, and immediately became the number 1 series on the PBS Kids website, averaging 5 million streaming requests per week.
V: Thank you for joining us today, Craig. Congratulations on Dinosaur Train!
C: Thank you. It’s so nice to hear your voice after all this time.
V: Yours, too. Wow, it’s been a lot of years.
C: I just found a picture from back then, the other day. This friend and I were in Safeway, in Olympia, and there was a polaroid camera display, you know? a demonstration camera—and we had just grabbed these huge geoducks shrink-wrapped in plastic, and we were clowning with them.
V: [laughing] That’s right—geoducks! I didn’t know they sold them in Safeway.
C: I know! I forgot too!
V: That was such a terrific job on that newspaper. I’d sit there every Wednesday, people coming in and out, and at some point you’d walk in and throw a bunch of brand-new cartoons on my desk. Every week, I tried to talk our editors into running a whole edition of just your cartoons. Seriously. They’d say, “We can’t!” and I’d say, “We’re a student paper. Of course we can!” But they wouldn’t. So I’d get to sort through what you’d brought and pick out just the ones I absolutely loved best. I wanted your originals because I knew someday you’d be big. I loved Norm Normal.
C: You know, I think I do have all those original Norm Normals. Drawn on that hilarious blueline paper. Remember? And when we shot them with that big camera to make copies for the newspaper, the blue lines would drop out?
V: The process camera. Yes. That’s what I did after I left Evergreen—I did typesetting and ran a process camera up in Washington for years. But you, you got out. How was that?
C: Yeah. I’ve been in LA for, let’s see—has it been twenty-one years now? I came down to work on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. That was such a great introduction to Hollywood. We were making the Penny cartoons at two different locations in the two years—two seasons, I think, that was it—one was a warehouse out in Chatsworth, and one was a warehouse at the beach. It was a little neighborhood in Marina del Rey, a bunch of warehouses just a few blocks from the beach. We were happy to go there! By that time I had moved to LA, but it was kind of you-can’t-get-there-from-here, that awful cross-town traffic. But I loved going to the beach. The beaches were empty, it was November when the LA winter kind of starts, the sky in the winter gets softer and prettier. I loved being there.
V: I remember when you moved. I wrote and asked your permission to run something of yours that I had, and you said yeah, sure, we’re moving to LA, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on there.
C: Wow. Yeah, there was. It’s an interesting thing about life. It’s long. You make decisions. . .A lot of my goals I had when I was younger I’ve had to revise.
V: Do you like LA?
C: I do. I went up to Washington and visited my dad recently and took my daughter to the University of Washington in Tacoma and really liked it. You know—there’s that train station that’s now a courthouse, there are all these Victorian buildings. Have you seen that? The University of Washington has built a campus there. I was like, “What?”
[laughing] I have it in my DNA to love that climate. My kids, even though they grew up in LA, have the DNA to like it, too.
But I really do feel like Southern California has worked its voo-doo on me. I love the life, I love the people.
V: What about Hollywood, what everyone says about the shallow Hollywood life?
C: Most of my friends are extremely cynical about Hollywood, so we keep a healthy contempt for the whole thing. But if you’re going to do the work I’m doing, you do kind of have to be here, you have to be in people’s faces, they have to see you from time to time.
There’s a really interesting phenomenon we had with the Canadian actors on Dinosaur Train, because PBS didn’t have the budget, the Jim Henson Company didn’t have the budget, to pay the residuals (all my old stuff was with SAG [Screen Actors Guild] actors), so it was like, you had to go to Canada.
Before, you’d just pop down to the studio half a mile from the office. “But now I’ve got to go to Canada? It’s going to be insane!”
But it turned out the actors from Vancouver were so great, and the whole process was made such a lovely experience for me by the Canadians, and now I love it. I think, you know, I could move and do the production just to be there.
V: I remember when they were making the X-Files in Vancouver, but I never knew why.
C: It’s union. Actors can be in a union in Vancouver, but Canada offers a buy-out, one fee for the performance, and it includes their scale fee, but also an additional amount so you don’t have to pay residuals ever. Which works really well for the producers, and the actors like it because it pays better. To be contracted to do eighty shows like we did for Dinosaur Train—my god, the Canadian actors love us, of course! “That‘ll pay the bills!”
It’s a fun relationship to me—to have that kind of out-of-town aspect being part of the job description, to go up there for part of our gig. It’s fun!
V: And you can see your family in Washington.
C: Yeah. I can just hop in my rental car and zoom down.
V: Do you see a new Hollywood maybe appearing in Vancouver?
C: They’re always trying to. Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, they all think, “How can we make it so we can permanently have production going on? To live here full-time and do work for the entertainment business?”
V: I’m working with an Indian author on a novel about Bollywood right now, and I didn’t realize before how big Bollywood is, what serious money there is there. I thought it was supposed to be kind of silly.
C: They do! They make more features a year than Hollywood does. So of course they want some respect. It’s amazing—a lot of those theaters in India are stand-up, there are no seats, so they can dance when the inevitable dances come up. A Bollywood movie has like six or eight songs, and they know, “Oh, here’s the song, it’s time for us to dance.”
There’s animation going on in Mumbai, too—Bombay. A ton of the world’s animation has moved, from first us, then to Korea and Japan, and now more than ever Bollywood, in Mumbai.
V: It’s incredible what’s going on internationally these days. The computer industry has relocated a huge amount of their documentation departments to India because of all the computer stuff going on there now.
C: Start up production in India? Maybe.
We’re using an animation company in Signapore for Dinosaur Train. My producer and art director and storyboard artist, all, right now have just left Singapore to look at the Philippines. They’re meeting with people in Manila about possibly doing production there.
Everyone has to come up with their own way of packaging what they’ve got, to be in charge of it. Because if you’re one of the component parts, and your job is out-sourced, the packagers—LA is full of that, the marketers—they’re fine with it, they’re like, “India? Fine!”
Do you know about Skype? So cool! We’re doing our recordings from Canada via Skype, good ole free Internet connection. The important thing is you have to have a high-definition phone line to listen. And then of course the real audio is being recorded on a real digital line and being sent down to you. How cool is that? They’re even in our time zone! It’s nine in the morning there, it’s nine in the morning here.
I think that’s brilliant. It’s kind of the twenty-first-century promise that was made to us in the first place, what the US has to export to the rest of the world is communication. We’re not making cars anymore, but we’re making the latest cool way to communicate.
V: Craig, you’re a professional storyteller. Dinosaur Train is your second show you’ve created and produced yourself, in addition to all the shows you’ve created, written, directed. And you’ve got all those Hey, Arnold! books. What’s the most important aspect, for you, to telling a story?
C: In the case of Hey Arnold! it was more wide-open, it was anything that could happen to a kid. This show, though, Dinosaur Train, has a lot more rules. We know Buddy [the protagonist] will have to take the train somehow. I mean, we even did a few episodes out of the eighty episodes where they never got on the train. But we know kids have expectations: “I’ve got to get some train time in.” We know there are certain givens, but beyond that it ends up being about the characters.
V: So it’s the characters?
C: Yeah, it’s the characters. You’re trying to make an eleven-minute cartoon, so it’s not really long enough for three acts. We think, “What do we like about these characters that we want to continue to explore?” In the case of this show, who these characters are and what makes them go is still the most important thing. It couldn’t be simpler than the archetypical characters:
Don’s the funny, the kind of “dumb” one, like everyone gets it and then a second later he gets it and laughs. It’s really useful to have someone who’ll go along with anything, who has that kind of innocence.
I think the most fun characters are the two sisters, who are much more leaders, much more intelligent, shrewd. (I was the third kid after two older sisters, so I have the two alpha approaches to being a girl in these characters, like my sisters did). Like role-playing of who did what: one of them’s the alpha princess who thinks she’s always right even when she’s often not, and the other is more in-your-face, modeling kind of more kid behavior.
The advantage I have over people writing fiction is I have these real actors who’re going to come in and do these scenes. We were writing eighty episodes, just blasting them out, just blasting through the whole production in nine months, and I could hear their voices really early on. I could picture persuading the actors to do this or that. They were really good, just naturals. I would just think of those characters and their voices and how they sound. And we were off to the races!
It came out really fast and quickly, the storytelling was made very easy. We knew what we were doing.
We don’t base our characters on real people, but we might use things someone said, the way people speak. We did that in Hey Arnold! Even though there were human characters—they were a lot more realistic than the characters on Dinosaur Train—we sort of had particular people in mind.
V: That’s a huge issue in fiction: “How close to the bone can you cut in basing a character on a real person?” What’s the difference between, oh. . .
V:. . .exactly, authenticity and, you know, libel?
C: The first thing we came up with on Hey, Arnold! was premises of what could happen. Then we’d write up the premises and get them approved, and real often at that stage it was something that had happened to one of us as a kid. But then of course the characters got distorted all out of recognition. It’s not like you’re trying to change it to avoid libel, it’s that if we really played it like that it’d be boring. So we made it more interesting. Stuff like that.
And also, since Dinosaur Train is a preschool show, it’s even more formulaic. You know you have to touch on all these things in a certain amount of time, you can’t dilly-dally around. You’ve got curriculum. It’s got to be about something, kind of something really specific. And that’s real different.
Kids of today, there’s a really great term—what is it? I know—our audience for Dinosaur Train, the toddlers, are called Digital Natives because they were born in the digital era—you grow up with screens, you communicate by text, you multitask. You’re always doing more than one thing at a time.
We’ve got to get out of our kids’ way! They’re already there. If we say [old man voice], “Oh, these consarned devices,” you know, they’ll be gone.
V: [laughing] We’ve gotten even worse in our house, now, with laptops. We come down from our offices for dinner, and we’re both packing laptops under our arms. I mean—we work at home. It’s not like we had to pack them in from the car.
C: I know! The laptop’s on the dining room table, and it’s like, “How come you get to watch your computer during dinner?” So now nobody gets to say someone else can’t watch their computer.
V: I studied Computer Science almost twenty years ago with seventeen-year-old kids, these boys who’d been given computers when they were twelve and hadn’t looked up since. So they had the social skills of twelve-year-old boys, and here I was thirty, I was a woman, I’d already been to three colleges by then—they simply couldn’t understand why I wasn’t awed by their teenage accomplishments. It was bizarre. They lived in that virtual world.
C: We have a term for that: “raised by ducks.” It means they don’t know how to be with humans. That’s what we say when we’re talking about someone who’s just like ridiculous, but they don’t know it. They just haven’t learned how to be with people. I completely agree the technology stuff, the inventions, all are going to act as an impediment to people to be in society. It’s so easy for people to disappear into a computer.
V: I’m always looking over my shoulder for the Matrix these days.
C: [laughing] It’s exactly like that! The Matrix is really appealing to my son’s generation. They all go, “Yeah, that is kind of how it is.”
As a story, The Matrix really resonates with kids. The movies that influence kids’ ideas of how the world works, like the Star Wars movies, my son feels free both to be contemptuous of them—”What a bunch of crap”—but also to completely like parts—”That was a good episode.”
On a computer, human interaction is optional. So we say, “Oh, they were raised by ducks.”
V: You’re not on Twitter, are you? Are you going to go on Twitter? Or just sticking with Facebook?
C: I won’t do Twitter—I got spammed a lot on it. So I bailed. And the Facebook platform lets me put up albums and songs and stuff.
V: One of the things I always loved about your work was the surrealism. In the Arnold shorts—Arnold Escapes From Church and Arnold Rides His Chair—it’s totally surreal. My son and I watched them on YouTube, and he loved them! He laughed his head off! Norm Normal was like that, too. For years I’ve been trying to describe Norm to people: “He’s this normal guy, but he meets giant mutant rats at Three Mile Island, he winds up on a bus in Mexico, he carries a hole in his pocket, he comes up through the toilet, and his wife says, ‘Norm, where you been? I’ve been looking for you all afternoon!’” And they’re going, “Huh?” and I’m going, “It’s wonderful! It’s wonderful stuff!” If it were up to you, would you do more surreal work?
C: Norm was all about non sequiturs. Mostly because it didn’t have to be planned out, the early stuff I did was more improvisational—it was just me. I could take it wherever I wanted because I didn’t have to work it out with someone else. A TV series is going to be planned out with about fifty people, so there’s not a lot of room for improvisation, you’re going to pitch something that’s going to be made, and twelve people are going to come in and record it.
V: But little kids love surrealism. Is that just the general genre of cartoons—it’s surreal up to a point, but then it’s realism?
C: There’s a lot of stuff that’s kind of a given, and everything else is going to be a lot more. . .yeah, you start off, “Okay, we’re in a fantasy world.” And the funny thing is the normal rules that apply. Like they’ll still want to have lunch. That’s what’s fun about it. There’s all this crazy fantastic stuff going on, but now they’re having lunch, or something makes someone irritated, all this domestic stuff. They’re really recognizable human characters, but at the same time it’s a really cool combination of made-up fantasy and the way people always behave.
The nature of TV is way more collaborative. You have to have a blueprint all along the way. The nature of this work is not improvisational. Within the blueprint, there’s room for a little bit of improvisation, but not a lot.
V: So let’s get into the nitty-gritty of professional storytelling. In fiction, if you’re smart, you at least scribble something like a rough outline on a piece of paper before you start. Most unpublished writers don’t even do that. But for a TV show, you need storyboards, which are a heck of a valuable tool. In the context of storyboarding: what’s your first step in creating a plot?
C: Plot before starting storyboard. The plot is the “what’s going to happen” that turns a premise into an outline.
V: So what structure do you use (standard three-act or something else)?
C: I’ve stuck with the three-act structure for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I’ll not think about it, and realize that I’ve come up with a two-act or something, but three is usually the best way to approach it.
V: How do you pick your “hook”?
C: I refer to it as “the inciting incident,” I think from Robert McKee. What makes the story start? Something upsets the status quo.
V: Your act breaks?
C: This is pretty much planned out in outline. First in Act 1, the status quo is upset by the inciting incident. The protagonist then makes a plan and starts to do something about it, and that is Act 2, with all its complications, usually the longest act. Act 3 is the climax. This can be the shortest act, depending how long this takes to unfold. Sometimes this act is very short. And it needs to be funny and memorable, because this is what is remembered by your audience.
V: What about cause & effect—how much do you rely on it to move the story forward?
C: Actions must have consequences. They are very important to character development. Otherwise it’s all fake and no one cares.
V: How do you get from your original ideas to a finished storyboard?
C: I often have plenty of help. People who are better at boarding than me take it on. The important process for me is to “hand out” the script to the board guys. That means the edited dialog track is played and I describe—sometimes sketching—the action and staging.
V: So what’s the essential ingredient to telling a really good story, particularly the one it took you a long time to learn about?
C: I would say that the characters have to be believable, that their emotional connection to the story must seem real.
V: Given that you’re always working with basic archetypes—the two approaches to being a girl or boy, the mother, the father, the grandmother or grandfather, the boss, the underling, et cetera—how do you design conflicting traits, strengths and weaknesses, for a character?
C: This has to be based on the personalities you know—obsessed people, cowardly people, charismatic people, et cetera. Mostly the people whose actions make for funny stories—why do they do the things they do? And why is it funny?
V: I’ve read you especially like Helga from Hey, Arnold! Who are your favorite characters you’ve created? What makes them attractive?
C: Helga is attractive to me because she has layers: a deep inner life, big secrets—right there, she’s fun to write for because there is great subtext. She says one thing and means another. Other times, she’s way out front with her feelings. A private self and a public one. She’s very creative, so she can be a poet and an artist. Tragic and funny, Helga is often humiliated for her instant karma and our amusement.
V: [laughing] For our amusement. Now, TV is different from fiction—even novels—in that a series can be short or long, and if it’s long you don’t necessarily know how long until it ends. How does the longevity of a long-running show affect digging deeper into character? Is there always more to learn, or is there a point at which you just run out of things to say?
C: I guess I could run out of things to say, but usually we run out of [network] orders for episodes before that happens. I love series TV because the characters get deeper and deeper. It’s like a book with many, many chapters.
V: You’ve talked about how you based the characters of the sisters on Dinosaur Train on your own older sisters. Do you see yourself in Don, the silly, innocent younger brother? Or are you Buddy? Or are they really just separate characters from you entirely?
C: I’m more Buddy than Don, I think, because Buddy is very much like Arnold. But I really enjoy how the two boys have developed into sweet little goofballs, with their simple needs right on their sleeves, compared to the more intelligent, moody, bossy, and conniving girls. It cracks me up. I don’t think there is anything very radical there, but the boy/girl differences are very funny to me. The best thing about Dinosaur Train, in my opinion, is what has happened in the character development of the four kids, and I credit the kid actors who play them a lot.
V: Screenwriting is, basically, dialog. But dialog’s also a basic staple of fiction, and there’s a lot fiction writers can learn from people who write dialog all the time. What are your basic guidelines for creating good dialog? Subtext—hidden agendas?
C: Yeah, inner lives. Characters who say one thing and mean another. I try not to be too on the nose.
V: How do you approach the problem that real-life dialog is actually pretty boring?
C: I try not to over-think it. I prepare careful, detailed outlines that show what happens in each scene, then when I actually write the script—when I come up with the dialog—I try to get into a kind of trance and write as fast as I can and not get fussy. Then I reread the pages and edit for sense and humor and brevity.
V: The Arnold shorts are very focused on a particular time and place. (Arnold actually just sits in a chair in one.) But with an on-going storyline, you need a setting. How do you pick a setting for a particular gang of characters and their stories?
C: Arnold’s city was an idealized version of Seattle/Portland, so it was meant to evoke my childhood/early years. Warm and grungy.
V: What about “telling details”—how do you find them to bring a setting to life?
C: I love architecture as character. But the Mesozoic was a completely different challenge. In Dinosaur Train I try to make it like the coolest playground or vacation spot imaginable to a kid.
V: Do you, over time, branch out and take the characters into different settings to see what will happen, or do you keep the characters and setting integrated to keep your premise focused?
C: A TV series gets to grow new characters, and that just makes it better. You keep coming back to the main characters as you go, then back out to the new ones.
V: Writing and editing fiction is pretty much sitting in a chair hunched over a keyboard all day long. What’s the weekly schedule of the creator/producer of a TV animation?
C: Now I’m in post[-production], so that’s very different from the writing/recording part. But in a week, I have days when I do certain things. We meet internally on Mondays, meet with Hensons on Tuesdays, and I was recording Thursdays and Fridays, so the week built up to that, preparing scripts. Now I mix Thursdays and Fridays, and spot music and effects on Mondays. And Wednesdays are calm centers to do stuff like this.
V: Do you have funny or interesting or poignant stories to tell about working with some of the other really talented people in your industry?
C: I have really loved working in VO [voice-over] these last twenty years. You meet the most talented actors, who don’t have to sweat how they look, so they focus completely on creating this animated character for your amusement. They are yours for four hours and sometimes bring real magic.
Dan Castellaneta (Arnold’s Grandpa and Homer Simpson, among others) and Maurice LaMarche (Big Bob Pataki on Hey, Arnold!) were my faves—sometimes I’d get them together and it would be miraculous. And of course the kid actors, from Helga to Tiny Pteranodon. What is poignant is watching the kids all grow up.
V: Absolutely. There’s that issue of time going by, again. Craig, what do you, personally, get out of the whole world of TV and animation?
C: My career’s in a good place now, because I can confidently say that I’ve had a follow-up to Arnold that is probably an even more successful idea. And I know that these Dinosaur Train episodes work for my audience as well as Arnold did.
I followed my ambition to LA to try to make this career. Long, varied, and full of different things I made. What seems to make the difference was this: did the ideas come from me, relatable to my own beliefs on a deep-down level? Arnold and Dinosaur Train both fit that description, so those have been the best times.
This is another golden age for animation. I am in the right place at the right time. And it’s fun!
Craig Bartlett is the creator and executive producer of Dinosaur Train, PBS/Jim Henson Company.
Boy, I’ve been sick as a dog all week and am just catching up with work. And guess what I discovered this afternoon? Some of you agents giving advice on Twitter? I really don’t think it’s such a good idea to insult aspiring writers in public.
Particularly a writer you’ve actually requested a manuscript from and are hoping will turn out to be a client.
I just took the heat this afternoon for standing up for aspiring writers and suggesting that advice can come without insults, and it was not a fun experience. I don’t like dealing with rude people, and I certainly don’t like doing it in public. But I felt sincerely bad for aspiring writers out there, who know less about this industry than I do, thinking, “Thank god that agent offered me that advice. Too bad about the sacrificial lamb, and yes, if it’d been me they were talking about, I’d know and I’d be feeling like crawling under a rock right now. Nothing like having your innocent hopes twisted in a knot by an agent who thinks they’re funny when they’re actually just mean. But I guess that’s the rough-&-tumble biz.”
No business is any more rough-&-tumble than the participants make it. The “thick skin” everyone talks about is about accepting the reality of rejections, not ridicule in the guise of snark. There is absolutely no need for discourtesy from professionals to amateurs.
No need at all.
Sure, I know there’s a kind of brat pack of young literary agents out there who are very visible on blogs and Twitter. I link to a lot of their articles and retweet a lot of their advice. They post some incredibly smart and helpful information. I also sympathize deeply with their problems with people who are neither writers nor aspiring to be, just nuts who want someone to pay attention to them. I deal with some of those people, too. And I know some of those agents are quite funny on their blogs and trade a lot of commiseration about their jobs among themselves. My editor friends and I commiserate about our jobs, too. Sometimes about nuts agents.
But Twitter is not the place to be snarky about potential clients. If you think they’re idiots, that’s your business. If you flaunt your opinion in their faces though, they’re going to take their business elsewhere.
Do agents not have competition in other agents? Um. Yes, they do. The world is full of aspiring literary agents. The big names—who are completely out of the snarker’s league—actually compete rather stiffly among themselves. And with current lay-offs from the publishing houses, there are more and more hungry literary agents every day, many of them seasoned professionals who know publishing insiders personally. People with long, illustrious publishing careers behind them, sometimes as the heads of whole publishing imprints. People also out of the snarker’s league. Hungry for clientele.
So here’s some advice for hopeful agents in these troubled times: Don’t expect writers to flock to submit to you and then sharpen your wit publicly on their mistakes. In my professional experience that is called, “Shoot self in foot. Repeat as necessary.”
The really successful professionals—with the great accounts and the brilliant authors and the big reputations—don’t have any need to publicly make fun of the writers who submit to them.
It’s a small planet, folks. We’re all in this together. And we all have feelings. Let’s remember to treat each other like human beings.
So today we’re linking to peace, because, you know, it’s all we’ve got that actually works.
And maybe some people just need to be reminded.
Shall we see if I can get through a whole post about dialog talking about. . .dialog?
I follow Twitter. Not enough, apparently, to see everything that goes by, because lots of people use it as a mirror they glance into constantly throughout the day assuming—I guess—the rest of us want to see what’s there. So while I’m scanning for links to articles on writing fiction with something fresh and new to say (very rare), I’m also wading through endless post-its about what people are eating, where, why, and what they think of what each other is eating.
Let me answer all those questions for you now and get it over with: chocolate, at their desk, because they just need a little pick-me-up from reading all those peeks into other people’s mirrors. And what they think of what others are eating? Yeah, they think it’s a good idea.
Is Twitter dialog?
No, it is not. Twitter is almost exclusively monologue, which is why it’s so often unbearably boring.
IM, on the other hand, is sometimes the only thing that gets me through the day. . .
Read the full post on Pulp Rag.
Do you ever wonder exactly what a full Developmental Editing letter looks like? How the conversation starts when you hire an editor to work over your plot with you—to make sure it tells the story you want to tell, in the most gripping possible terms, to keep a reader completely seduced by your imaginary world up to the last page?
Xavier is an imaginary client composed of a whole slew of real clients. His novel does not actually exist. But if it did exist, and I was just starting work on it, this is the letter he’d get:
I have finished a preliminary read-through of THE DECEIVER’S WIFE.
First, let’s talk about your theme, because it’s a profound one, it’s complex and intricate and full of enormous possibilities, and it matters a lot to a huge number of potential readers. Plus, you’re doing terrific work with it—extraordinarily slow movement (so much material in single scenes!), but so rich in detail and significant character development that it just pulses.
The parent-child relationship between adults is something every adult in the world deals with in one way or another. And the fractured parent-child relationship between adults is something that resonates deeply with the vast majority of them. Very few adults have their ideal relationships with either parents or children. This makes your target audience extensive and, more importantly, in great, sincere need of illumination and reassurance.
Lembarto is a wonderful father figure: he’s sick, he’s powerful, he’s smart and charming and vulnerable and emotional, and he’s HIDING THINGS.
Rachel is a great foil for him: she’s psychically strong, she’s deeply wounded, she’s her father’s intellectual equal, what she lacks in age (and experience in playing this parent-child game) she makes up for with sheer charisma, and she, too, is HIDING THINGS.
There’s a terrific deadline urgency to their situation in Lembarto’s illness.
And here comes poor, innocent, wunderkind Elwood with his butterflies and statuary and treatise on Freud. How can he possibly avoid getting entangled in this familial duel? How can he NOT cast his lot in with them, considering his own white-washed background and the whining, trivial, superficial secrecy he’s been raised to consider family norm?
So, okay, your premise is gripping. Your set-up is already teetering on the brink. Your characters are hot out of the gate on page 1 and moving at a fantastic clip.
HOOK & BACKSTORY
The first issue, then, is the placement of their backstory.
It is a very common issue to want to get all your backstory into Chapter One. But it doesn’t belong there. It’s so hard to tell—when have you given the reader enough? when have you given them too much?—and this is what I, your editor, can tell you: hold your fire.
The character indications you give in the foundation scenes in Chapter One provide plenty of information to hold the reader until Chapter Two or even Three. What you don’t explain (never explain! only illuminate!) just serves to draw the reader forward.
Why do Lembarto and Rachel talk to each other like this? (Great cross-purpose dialog!) What’s behind their sudden switch to a united front when Elwood begins to ask his questions?
This is all fabulous, tantalizing material. Let it do its work, weave its spell on the reader.
Have faith in the characters of Lembarto and Rachel to intrigue both the reader and Elwood simultaneously. They’re rich and well-developed. The extensive background work you’ve done on them is clear in the telling details you use in just the opening scene: Lembarto thumping his cane over the words he doesn’t want her to say, Rachel walking behind his chair to pretend she can’t hear him interrupting her, the way both their heads swivel when the door opens and Rachel puts her hand on his head as if to reassure him but really to control where he looks. . .all subtle, powerful stuff.
Let it stand on its own. It has the strength to.
And when we cut out all the backstory, piece it together in one chunk, and put it into a subsequent chapter, what we find is that Chapter One reads like the pages are on fire. Lamberto and Rachel are at odds! Elwood interrupts and forces them to collude against him! Their internal conflicts are too much for them—the crack reveals itself—Elwood is sucked in—and the chemical reaction that flares up at the addition of him is suddenly, clearly, the pivotal Hook that sends them all three sliding and crashing downhill through the series of Conflicts that will lead them INEVITABLY (very important) to your Climax. Beautiful!
So let’s focus on that for now. Get all the backstory out, let it be chronologically-ordered (don’t confuse the reader if you can at all avoid it—you need them smart and on their toes or you’ll lose them with a really good plotline), and put it in its own chapter. They’ll follow you there and back into the story again in Chapter Three.
You have two protagonists: Lembarto and Rachel, but since Lembarto dies, leaving Rachel to the Resolution, Rachel is your main protagonist. Let’s talk about their character development.
You’ll hear a lot about character arcs among those writing about fiction. Narrative arcs. What this means is that a story is about something happening to someone. That’s all. It is not just someone sitting in a chair doing nothing.
What is Lembarto’s character arc? Well, he’s come to a crossroads in his life, the last one he’ll ever come to: years ago he made two decisions—colluded with Fatima—to hide her lesbianism from Rachel and her authorship from the world. And now he’s dealing with the cause-&-effect of that. For every act in life, we deal with the consequences. The consequences of what Lembarto has done are pretty big. Now he’s dying, which is a pretty dicey position from which to cope with big consequences. So this is all wonderful! Readers love characters facing nearly-impossible odds.
By the time Lembarto dies he’s dealt with the consequences of his decisions: he’s helped Rachel reconnect with her mother (he is the only person who can do this), and he’s promised Fatima the secret of her authorship dies with him (not knowing he doesn’t have that power anymore). That’s his character arc, the change he goes through. He has looked both death and his life decisions in the eye, agonized over them, and either reversed or reaffirmed those decisions.
Because he is the secondary protagonist, you can afford to let death take his last action out of his hands.
What about Rachel’s character arc? She has not made Lembarto’s original decisions, however she, too, is dealing with the consequences of them. The cause-&-effect of her parents’ decisions forms the decisions she is making now. It’s very important that she’s not portrayed as a victim. Victims are not interesting. Rachel, however, is not afraid to take her destiny in her hands, for better or worse. Readers love that in a character!
At some point in the past, Rachel decided to collude with her father in hiding her mother’s authorship. Why? For love of Lembarto? For fear of learning her mother didn’t love her? For some other reason? Right now this is unclear. But it would be terrific if you could roll that up in her decision to find Fatima—the more internal conflict you give the protagonist, the more exciting the story. And double internal conflict is excellent for a Hook.
Rachel has, at the moment your story opens, now decided it’s time to contact her mother—Lembarto’s terminal illness is the catalyst that triggers her decision. (You see how her decision, not Lembarto’s illness, is the Hook. It’s always best if a Hook involves decision or action of the protagonist; it shows the reader right off the bat this is someone worth following to find out what they’ll do next.)
How she copes with the consequences of her decisions—to hide Fatima’s authorship, to contact Fatima about Lembarto dying—is Rachel’s character arc. Hiding Fatima’s authorship leads her to engage with Elwood, which leads her to internal conflict over her beliefs about love and relationships, which gets entangled in contacting Fatima about Lembarto, the people who gave her the beliefs she’s now in such internal conflict over.
By the end of the story Rachel has faced the two-pronged complexity of this internal conflict, but not completely resolved it (it’s hard to completely resolve anything so complex without simply dying, as Lembarto does) so the Resolution is her epiphany, not Lembarto’s.
Keep this in mind as you work over this novel. This gives you your focus: Lembarto’s decisions and how he copes; Rachel’s decisions and how SHE copes. Whenever you’re confused and wondering where to go, ask yourself, “What does this have to do with Lembarto’s and Rachel’s character arcs?”
Next week we’ll look at what you’ve included and what you have yet to include in the outline I’ve made of your current plot:
HOOK: Lembarto and Rachel, in mid-crisis over Lembarto’s terminal illness, meet Elwood, who completely alters their agenda
hook scene: Lembarto and Rachel are arguing when Elwood arrives
conflict #1: Lembarto doesn’t want to tell Rachel where her mother is, but Rachel says she has to know, now, after all these years because Lembarto is—let’s face it—dying. And she’s certain Lembarto knows.
conflict #2: Elwood has scheduled an interview with Lembarto about his great, underground, cult novel of decades before, the 800-page opus, THE DECEIVER’S WIFE
conflict #3: Lembarto and Rachel must collude to keep Elwood from discovering it was Lembarto’s wife, the secretive and now fugitive Fatima, who wrote his novel, not Lembarto at all
faux resolution: Elwood is seduced into buying Lembarto and Rachel’s story of Lembarto’s memory issues due to his illness
climax: after Elwood leaves, Lembarto realizes he has, in the heat of the moment and the twilight of his failing eyesight, accidentally autographed for Elwood the copy in which Fatima made her handwritten notes for the revised and final edition
CONFLICT #1: Rachel must get that copy away from Elwood before he discovers the hoax and Fatima is exposed to Lembarto’s public
hook: backstory about THE DECEIVER’S WIFE (not yet organized)
conflict #1: Rachel follows Elwood to his own territory and tries to trick him
conflict #2: Rachel tries to reason with Elwood
conflict #3: Rachel tries to intrigue Elwood
faux resolution: Elwood is intrigued
climax: Elwood reveals that he’s already discovered Fatima’s authorship
PLOT POINT #1: Lamberto and Rachel now move forward inevitably involved with Elwood
CONFLICT #2: Rachel must win Elwood’s cooperation without falling in love with him, which she is loath to do because of what happened to her parents
hook: Rachel and Elwood have an electric moment (not yet written)
conflict #1: Rachel distances herself from Elwood, dealing with Lembarto
conflict #2: Elwood pursues Rachel, now negotiating about the book
conflict #3: Rachel proposes a wager with Elwood
faux resolution: Elwood accepts the wager (not yet written)
climax: Rachel loses the wager just as she is notified of Lembarto’s collapse
MIDPOINT: The scale has tipped, Lembarto is dying, Elwood must be accepted, Fatima must be notified
CONFLICT #3: Rachel must confront her long-lost mother with her beloved, Honoria (for whom she left Lembarto and Rachel when Rachel was a child), over the deathbed of Lembarto, who collapses before he can arrange an amicable meeting
hook: Rachel, with Elwood in tow, rushes to Lembarto’s side when he collapses
conflict #1: Lembarto admits he knows how to contact Fatima and lets Rachel send a message
conflict #2: Rachel can’t reach Fatima
conflict #3: Rachel reaches Honoria, whom she knows nothing about
faux resolution: Honoria brings Fatima to Lembarto’s bedside
climax: Rachel faces the mother who abandoned her long before
PLOT POINT #2: Rachel and Lembarto must move forward with Fatima
FAUX RESOLUTION: Elwood agrees to keep Fatima’s secret out of love for Rachel, and Rachel and Fatima strike an uneasy truce over Lembarto’s hospital bed
hook: Elwood charms Fatima
conflict #1: Rachel confronts Elwood on his intentions toward Fatima
conflict #2: Honoria confronts Rachel on her intentions toward Fatima
conflict #3: Elwood confronts Honoria on her intentions toward Rachel
faux resolution: everyone is reassured that they are not blackmailing or bullying each other (not yet written)
climax: Fatima confronts Lembarto on his intentions regarding her book
CLIMAX: Lembarto dies, and Fatima in her grief reveals that she never loved Honoria as much as Lembarto, but only ran away with her to prevent Rachel from growing up knowing her mother wrote such a novel of love about another woman
hook: Lembarto, not knowing Elwood has figured it out, tells Fatima that her secret (her authorship, which even Honoria doesn’t know) dies with him
conflict #1: Fatima collapses in grief
conflict #2: Honoria tries to comfort her and is thrown off
conflict #3: Rachel turns to Elwood to assure herself that he won’t blackmail her with Fatima’s secret, to distance herself from Fatima and Honoria, and secretly for comfort
faux resolution: Fatima pulls herself together when she sees Rachel with Elwood and realizes he knows
climax: Lembarto dies, and Fatima goes berserk, revealing the truth of her feelings to Honoria
You see how these sequences of events, especially in the Climax, must be arranged in just exactly the correct order so as to lead the reader to the greatest tension at the very last moment. We’ll talk about this more when we get to that point.
You also see that the real Resolution isn’t included here. We’ll talk about that when we talk about the Climax.
Once we’ve solidified this structure, we’ll talk also about how to layer in the subplot involving Fatima and Honoria, and I’ll show you how their existence repeatedly supplies the cause-&-effect catalyst that keeps Lembarto, Rachel, and Elwood ricocheting deeper and deeper into their crisis, until they fetch up against their Faux Resolution (“Thank god! We’re not going over the edge of the abyss after all!”) and are confronted there by the inevitable catalyst THEY CAN’T AVOID and there they go—over the edge.
Always be thinking in terms of, “How does this story illuminate the basic human conflicts inside these characters? How do these characters illuminate the way internal conflict causes and fuels story? What is the inevitable chain of cause-&-effect that forces these characters, again and again, to make the choices they make, which turn out, again and again, to be the wrong choices, which forces them, again and again, into more choices, worse dilemmas, greater crises on the way to their Climax?”
This is what fiction is: an unending exploration of the eternal predicament of being human, in all its complex, poignant, significantly-detailed glory.
Xavier, I offer a free subscription to The Art & Craft of Fiction Lab to each new client. Feel free to give yourself a login and password, and I’ll approve your registration.
And, whenever you’re ready, send me your thoughts on developing the characters of Lembarto, Rachel, and Fatima, along with Elwood and Honoria!
In the age of social networking, everyone is their own worst marketing nightmare.
—community manager and blogger, MontaVista, Embedded Linux Software & Development Tools
We have an extra Monday this month, which screws up my careful arrangement of monthly subject matter, so today we’ll look at an issue I don’t usually encourage aspiring writers to leap into too quickly: marketing.
Why do I usually leave this out?
Because there’s such overwhelming confusion these days about whether you’re aspiring writers or aspiring marketers, along with a whole lot of talk confabulating the two.
And no matter how loud the trumpets ring out, “You must market!” it does you no good—no good, friends—to learn how to market without a really good product to sell first.
Don’t put the cart before the horse! Being a writer is a lifelong passion, not a paying career you jump into one year because it looks easier than getting out of your jammies and going to job interviews.
I know—a lot of you really hate it that I keep saying things like this. But I only say it because it’s true.
And, anyway, nearly everyone in publishing agrees these days: the era of sitting alone in a room focusing solely on the written page throughout your publishing life is over. (Except, bless her heart, Molly Friedrich, who told Jofie Ferrari-Adler in Poets & Writers the Internet is a problem because it makes writers think they should be marketing rather than writing.) Nowadays, the accepted wisdom goes, writers must also market.
I mean, what changed? It wasn’t always like this. In fact, the reason so many of us (laughably) assume writers want to write, not market, is that we grew up in a culture in which this was normal. When I was a young adult, a writer who barged into an agent’s life announcing, “This is how we should market my book,” would have gotten the response, “This had better be a book on marketing, bucko.”
I hope you can hear the cash registers ringing from here.
Because it’s all about money. And, unlike Hollywood, not much of that money ever makes it to the creators of the actual product. Where does it go? Let’s make up some numbers in the general vicinity of correct (keep in mind—I’m a writer because I like to make stuff up; but you’ll get the point, and if you don’t there are folks out there doing this math with real numbers):
100 books published by one publishing house sell once for $10 apiece wholesale
25% (a big ole backloaded percent) of it goes to each author = $2.50
15% of that goes to each agent = $.375, reducing the author’s take to $2.135
75% of it goes to the publisher = $7.5 x 100 books = $750
FOR ONE SALE.
Let’s let those books sell 500 copies each, which is more or less nothing. No—let’s be kind. Let’s let them sell 2,000 copies each. Which, again, is more or less nothing. Two thousand complete strangers with names and lives, families and careers, hopes and dreams and heartbreak and sometimes flu or insomnia, willing to shell out for your precious words (imagine meeting and shaking hands with all 2,000 of them!), and they’re an almost meaningless drop in the bucket:
agent = $750
author = $4,250
publisher = $1,500,000
But what about advances? Oh, definitely, let’s do advances. Let’s give the authors $2,000 advances, a little more than the going bottom-of-the-barrel advance (which is rapidly sinking to $0), to balance out that backloaded royalty rate. We’ll even leave out the agents, to keep the math simple:
author = $2,000 + $2,250 more after the advance earns out = $4,250
publisher = -$2,000 apiece + $1,500,000 + $2,000 apiece more until the advance earns out = $1,500,000
Huh. No difference. What do you know.
Now, what does the agent have to do to make a living? Obviously, sign up lots and lots and lots of publishing authors.
What does the author have to do to make a living? Well, have a day job.
What about the publisher? Where does that nice, fat $1.5 mil go? Obviously, some of it goes to publishing the books, including returns, which are books that get published, distributed, and shipped only to be returned some months later ignobly shorn of their covers to indicate they’re destined for nowhere but the dump. Wasteful? Oh, yeah.
Some of the publisher’s money also goes to editing the books (yes, they all need editing). Some to acquiring the books, distributing them after they’re published, and other essential stuff required to run a publishing company, including overhead like warehouses, office space, desks, chairs (let them sit down), computers, travel expenses (the Frankfurt Book Fair isn’t actually held in New York), good stuff like that, most of which I’m forgetting. Some goes to marketers! I know—not for your book, but for somebody’s.
Some pays the CEOs. They do earn decent salaries. I’d like one of theirs.
And SOME goes to advances that never earn out.
Is that Dan Brown’s advance? J.K. Rowling’s? Mary Higgins Clark’s?
NO. Those people continue to get huge advances book after book after book because they earn out.
That’s probably, unfortunately, yours.
Now, granted, the current publishing system is absurdly complex and involves a certain amount of eye-popping waste, what with returns and advances that don’t earn out, not to mention the vast majority of books that are published and distributed without anything more than a dead chicken waved in the general direction of marketing them. (Publishers have meetings, you know, in which they decide which books to market and which not. I understand they hold them around craps tables in Atlantic City.)
It’s very much like my dad’s rather bitter reiteration of the sailor’s lament: “A sailboat is a hole in the water you pour money into.”
And it’s second, in my experience, only to the amazing waste of investment in the computer industry, in which a company like IBM actually assigns two completely different teams to developing the same product for several years to the tune of millions of dollars and then decides which one version to use and which version to simply throw out, cutting that whole team loose with a tiny little severance package. Yes, I’m speaking from experience. This kind of thing goes on all the time. (Although I believe IBM holds the title for that particular type of inanity.)
Was this publishing system designed by evil trolls? by lunatics? by the people who design income tax forms? (all the same people?)
Who can say? But what we do know is that when the economy gets bad—as it is right now—the purse strings tighten, and publishers start looking for ways to fix the system without actually changing anything that would require an entire overhaul (which none of their competitors will cooperate with). Jonathon Karp has started a publishing house that markets every single title they print. Wow! What an entrepreneur! You know how many books he publishes a year? Twelve.
The rest of them are doing things like trying to stop paying advances that never earn out, based on Bookscan’s computerized data on authors’ previous sales. Minimize returns by exploring e-publication. And also, unfortunately, jettison some of that overhead in the form of, um, editing, acquisitions editors, indexers (those have been history for awhile). . .oh yes, and marketers.
Guess who winds up holding the ball?
You are one very bright audience, I must say.
See Phyllis Zimbler Miller’s Misconceptions and the Truth about Marketing on Twitter on Tony Eldridge’s site.
See Christina Katz’s Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. (Note—she does not say, “get known before you have anything to get known for”!)
See Alan Rinzler’s opinion on why and how videos help sell books.
And if you really want your head to explode, see Nielsen’s (Bookscan’s) page on consumerism. . .I’m sorry, I mean Consumer Insight. Dig those nice, shiny, professional marketing photos of potential consumers, hey, not reading. . .
Today we’re linking to Mira’s List.
Mira is a visual artist, educator, and author with a list of MFA’s you could stack books on. She appears to have been everywhere and done everything, and I also like her because she was an adult in the eighties. (I have very specific interests, I know.) And because she’s been published in the Bellingham Review, from my hometown Bellingham, for whose annual poetry chapbook contest I was a semifinalist when I was 19. (That’s the only poetry contest I’ve ever entered. A few years later, I drew the cover illustration for another poet’s Bellingham Review chapbook, The End of Forgiveness by Joe Green.) Also because she likes bluegrass. We are very big on bluegrass at our house.
However, Mira is important to you, personally, because her website is entirely devoted to researching and publishing information on grants, fellowships, and other such resources for artists and writers. You heard me right—she does this free, just because she likes you. I suppose.
And, even more important than that, she’s an educational consultant for the Transcultural Exchange, whose mission is to promote world peace through an understanding of the many cultures that make up this amazing planet we call home and this human species we call ours.
I’m starting a children’s book from scratch today. And, in spite of what I said about NaNoWriMo, I have about three weeks to write it.
Am I MAD?
It sounds even worse when I elaborate: I do this every year. . .
Read the full essay on Pulp Rag.
Dashiell Hammett wasn’t the world’s greatest writer. But he had something vitally important: credentials. He’d been a professional private eye for the San Francisco Pinkerton Agency for years when he began writing his ground-breaking, gritty, realistic PI mysteries set in—you guessed it—San Francisco.
Ivy Compton-Burnett was told real families don’t act the way they do in her fiction: secretive, back-stabbing, prone to multiple marriages and bare-faced lies and theft and suicide and even murder by neglect. “Oh, but they do,” she said. She was herself one of the eldest of an enormous mixed family full of malice and intrigue. Her twin youngest sisters committed double-suicide in their locked bedroom on Christmas Day, while the rest of the family was home, and are now suspected of having been lovers.
Stephen King uses a medical expert.
What does this tell us?
KNOW YOUR SUBJECT. If at all possible, have professional experience in it. Failing that, find an expert who does. Interview (that’s right—even for fiction). Do the research. Read the books, watch the documentaries, study the reference material.
When an agent reads an author bio that says, “I don’t have any experience in this field, but I can picture it,” I’m afraid that’s a donation to the circular file right there. However, when they read one that says, “I’m a retiring homicide detective with the Chicago PD,” for a mystery about an unsolved series of murders in Chicago’s notorious Englewood neighborhood or, “I’ve been the head of ER at the Las Vegas Valley Hospital for eight years,” for a novel about a recovering gambler turned doctor who gets embroiled in a local casino scam that implicates the head of a fictional Las Vegas ER or, “I spent two years interviewing young streetwalkers in the red-light districts of San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and LA,” for a white slavery horror novel set in the underworld of West Coast prostitution. . .then they’re going to sit up and take notice.
Even Compton-Burnett, who wrote literary novels entirely based on inner-familial warfare, could have said, “After sixty years as the matriarchal eldest sister of a mixed Victorian family of twelve, four of whom died young and all of whom bear intense hostility toward certain others, I have accumulated a certain knowledge of human nature within the confines of the traditional Victorian family milieu.”
Of course, the quality of her writing also helped.
And for those who never get enough, Chuck Sambuchino has a whole post of author bio do’s and don’t’s.
Let’s talk about NaNoWriMo today. Because lots of people are confused about what it’s for.
NaNoWriMo is not about getting you a novel to sell.
It’s not. . .
Read the full essay on Pulp Rag.
“Knock me down, pick me up, knock me down again.
Break my heart, steal my gold, slander my good name.”
—Gordon Lightfoot, “Sixteen Miles”
You’re alone in a room with your keyboard. It’s 11:55 on Halloween. You’re about to start NaNoWriMo.
Your fingers are poised. Your heart is racing. You’ve never done this before. Actually, you have—you’ve done it once, or twice, or even continuously every year since the inception (except the year your cat died)—but you’ve never finished. You’ve finished but you’ve never finished the actual novel. You’ve finished the actual novel, but it was. . .oh, the agony in your gut. . .garbage. It just petered out.
The second hand jumps, the clock ticks over, your fingers descend.
And your mind goes blank.
You have no idea what you’re writing about.
Something matters to you more than anything in the world. Is it a relationship between two family members who love and hate each other simultaneously, beyond all reason? Is it the marriage you never got over? The pregnancy that came at the wrong time? The difference between your safe little armchair and the terrors of the mind that make your hair stand on end? A glimpse of someone trudging through snow—someone waving good-bye—someone standing at a window at dawn while a sleeper lies dreaming behind them?
Something in your heart is running your life.
Pick it out carefully and lay it on the desk next to you. You’re going to write about it.
To whom does this thing happen?
Maybe you find it easiest to write about a character of the same gender as yourself—the best choice for a beginner, anyway—or maybe you feel like exploring the heart of someone completely different. Maybe they’re human, maybe they’re fantasial, maybe they’re historical, maybe they’re futuristic. You share one essential thing with this person: whatever it is running your life, it’s running theirs, too.
Now you know what they need. They need to not lose this thing that matters most to them.
That gives you your Climax. You’re going to take whatever matters most to them away.
How are you going to take it away? Easy. You’re going to give them another need that’s simply and completely incompatible with the first need. And at the Climax you’re going to put them in a situation in which they can only have one. Which one will it be?
Now you know the path you’re going to send them sliding down. What’s at the head of that path? What’s the first step they take out of their usual life—the life that, up until now, has not included this terrible loss—the hole in the road they unthinkingly fall into?
That gives you your Hook. Let this one simmer right under the surface of your consciousness as you mull over the rest. By the time you’re done with the basic storyline, you’re going to need a really good visual of that moment to start your novel with. Plant a clue in that moment to the Climax. . .it doesn’t have to be obvious, but it must be something that will make sense when the character gets to the Climax. “Whoa, it really was about that all along! How did I get so involved in the rest of the story I forgot to see this coming?”
Now you know who your protagonist is, where they start, and where they end up. What compromise can you give them to lull them into a sense of false security? What can you hand them to pretend, “It’s not going to come to the Climax, honey. You’re going to get away with not facing your demons, after all”?
That gives you your Faux Resolution, which occurs right before your Climax.
Now you know how yourprtonagist starts and what Faux Resolution they’re going to get. So give them a push. Your Hook forces them to do something to protect themself, but that’s going to turn out to be exactly the wrong thing to do. Why? What are they going to bring down on their head by doing this?
That gives you your first Conflict. You’re going to need three good solid ones, and they’re going to need to get worse and worse and worse as you go along. You’re spelling this poor protagonist’s doom.
And as you spell it, you’re giving this protagonist the chance to show their stuff again and again and again. You knock them down, pick them up, knock them down again.
Be thinking, as you write, about:
What strengths does this character have, what weaknesses, what complex, contradictory, ultimately human mix of traits? What’s going to keep leading them into trouble and dragging them back out of it again?
Everything the character does makes something else happen. Whatever it is, it turns out wrong, and that forces them to do something else. How does the chain form? After the third major obstacle, how do you let up on them a bit, allow them a moment of thinking they’ve finally outwitted their fate?
“Tension on every page” is from literary agent Donald Maass, and it’s the best writing advice you can get. It’s also linked to Show, Not Tell. Exposition is not tense. Scenes are. Write scenes. Scene after scene after scene. Jump from the end of one scene into the middle of the next. Don’t bother with transitions. Just keep going, running along with this plot, pushing these characters into problem after problem, letting them bail out again, only to fall into even deeper water. As they work their way from one of the three major Conflicts to the other, give them plenty of little conflicts and reprieves. Push them away, pull them in, over and over again. Never apologize, never explain. Just scenes.
When in doubt, add more tension. Make characters misunderstand each other, make them uncomfortable, make them—likable as they are—screw up in little ways. If all else fails, drop a piano.
Readers read to learn something they didn’t know. Writers write for the same reason. Wherever you go with your novel, whatever you do to your characters, however inevitable the Climax, you’re writing this to learn about being human. Don’t plan the Resolution, the way the Climax shakes down. You haven’t written the novel yet. You don’t know how it all shakes down.
When you get to the end of the month, and you’ve finally written that outrageous Climax, and you’ve got your protagonist on the floor finally giving it up for dead—then you can think about your Resolution. What did you write this novel to learn about being human? You don’t know yet.
Most of all, remember: in NaNoWriMo it’s okay to cheat. It’s only 50,000 words. Novels run from 60,000 to 80,000 and more, and that doesn’t count the 25-75% you’ll cut when you go back to revise. (You’ve got to throw it on the threshing floor before you can see what’s wheat and what’s chaff.) If you get to a place where you know something has to happen, but what you really want to write is what happens after that, use a placemarker. I put mine in ALL CAPS so they’re easy to find later. Or a row of XXXX’s with notes on the missing piece. Keep moving. The best scenes, the keepers, are the ones you can’t wait to write.
From your Hook to your Climax. That’s what you’re up to. Characters in scenes. Forgetting about the reader. Just examining human life, in all its terrible, beautiful, significant details—examining it with a magnifying glass.
Take the ball and run with it.
The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual
by Victoria Mixon
The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual
by Victoria Mixon
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Scott regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his WIP Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.