I know a lot of people who pick up the bible, open it to a random page, put their finger down, and read the verse. Then they contemplate what the verse means to them and their life, or pray, or maybe they try again because they didn’t like the first one!
Last year my son wanted to learn new words so he would open the dictionary and randomly pick a word and memorize the definition. This lasted, um, maybe a week. Or less. But he’s a smart kid. He has study hall for one hour on practice days where he’s supposed to do his homework. Other kids may groan, but not Luke. In third grade, they get their homework packets on Monday and they are turned in on Friday. Luke thinks, “Great! I’ll get all my homework done the first day and then I can play.” Well, he does get his homework done the first day, but he can’t play in study hall. Hence, the note I was sent home last week where he wrote, “I will not laugh or talk in study hall” twenty times.
I’ve suggested he read the dictionary. That didn’t go over too well. He now brings a book. Much better.
But I digress.
So since I’m a little punchy from lack of sleep as I’ve had a few late nights finishing ORIGINAL SIN, which goes into production on Monday (Yeah!) I thought it might be fun to pick advice from one of my favorite craft books and see if I can apply it to my writing life.
From SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder
I opened up to the section called “ALL IS LOST” and specifically to the line:
“And the thing you show dying, even a goldfish, will resonate and make that All Is Lost moment all the more poignant.”
The ALL IS LOST moment is supposed to come around page 75 in a screenplay of 110 pages. That’s roughly 70% into your story which is probably the end of Act II or the beginning of Act III. For my 580 page manuscript, that’s roughly page 400. So I glanced at that chapter . . . Yep. It’s a major “All Is Lost” moment. No one dies per se, but the beginning of that chapter two characters are in the morgue and they have a major revelation–a key clue that sets them on the right trail, even though they don’t know where it’s going to lead. The end of the chapter another character discovers that a very important character has been kidnapped–and the kidnapper leaves a disturbing message.
I suppose the morgue is my “death” (they’re studying three bodies, after all!) and kidnapping is pretty dang bad as well! Literally, they lost someone.
Yeah me! And I didn’t even plot it out that way. (My outlining buddies can go pound salt. Ha ha.)
What about you? Pull out the book you just finished reading or writing and multiple your total pages by .7 to give you the rough page number where your ALL IS LOST moment should be. Did the book achieve that? Did you plan it?
THE WRITERS JOURNEY by Vogler
I love this book, and no I don’t use it to plot, but I do look at my book as a whole after the fact when I’m editing and when I hit a rough spot in the manuscript I have a few questions I ask myself, usually related the the points of the heroes journey.
The page I flipped to (I used the 3rd edition because my 2nd edition is worn and creased and opens to very specific pages . . .
THE ORDINARY WORLD: CONTRAST
It’s a good idea for writers to make the Ordinary World as different as possible from the Special World, so audience and hero will experience a dramatic change when the threshold is finally crossed.
This has always been a hard one for me to conceptualize because when I think Special World, I think of the example Vogler uses: the Wizard of Oz. Black and white into Technicolor. But then I see that all good books have this distinction, though it’s not as vivid as the Wizard of Oz. In PLAYING DEAD for example, Claire’s ordinary world is being a PI and believing her father is guilty of murder. The special world is when she uses her PI skills to investigate something she never truly believed: her father’s innocence. It’s an emotionally different world for her. In SUDDEN DEATH, Megan Elliott physically leaves her security and authority as SSA in Sacramento and travels to Texas where she is not in charge and confronting different “rules” than she is used to, in order to find out who killed a homeless veteran.
Again, consider the last book your finished reading or writing, can you see the difference between the character’s ordinary and special world?
Stephen King’s ON WRITING
I’ve read this book twice and listened to it on my iPod. Great stuff.
Pg. 177 (trade version)
After King shares a writing sample about description, I randomly pointed to this sentence:
“There are plenty of details I could have added–the narrowness of the room, Tony Bennett on the sound system, the Yankees bumpersticker on the cash register–but what would be the point? When it comes to scene-setting and all sorts of description, a meal is as good as a feast.”
Great advice! Long descriptions bore me. At least now they do. Set the stage and get on with the story. But I know other readers who love meaty descriptions. What about you? Cut to the chase or spare no detail?
SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King
This was the only craft book I ever bought before I sold. I read it cover-to-cover before editing several of my books, and I could probably use another read. Here’s the advice I pulled out with my magic finger:
And, as you might expect, interior monologue is so powerful and easy to write (though not easy to write well) that many fiction writers tend to overuse it.
Aw, yes. Interior monologue. My editor is always asking me for more. Sometimes I overdo it, I think, and I try to edit this ruthlessly in the copyedits. Great advice. What do you readers think of interior monologue? Who does it really well?
THE FIRE IN FICTION by Donald Maass
This is the newest book in my craft book collection. I haven’t finished reading it, but I went to half his session at the RWA conference and it sounded intriguing, and writers can ALWAYS learn. Sometimes we get stuck doing things the same way, or we get pressured and stifled by deadlines that we forget the feelings the story is supposed to produce, not only in the reader but in the author. And I love the title.
In all the examples above, notice that what makes monsters scary is what makes them human. Indeed, the trick of frightening readers has always been to first make the world of the story highly believable, then gradually add what is weird. From Wilkie Collins to H.P. Lovecraft to Shirley Jackson to Stephen King to Joe Hill, what is scary is not the buildup of what is supernatural but the buildup of what is real.
Wow. I have a winner. Amazing, that is just what I needed to hear. Especially, the last line: “what is scary is not the buildup of what is supernatural but the buildup of what is real.”
Maybe this exercise is not a waste of time! Play along with me. Either answer my questions above or pull out a book on your shelf, flip the pages and point. Maybe the advice you point to is perfect for you . . . or someone else here at Murder She Writes.