Tag Archives: playwriting

Progress of a sort toward publication

THE FALLOW PERIODS MAY BE INCREDIBLY PRODUCTIVE

I realized I haven’t written much on the blog recently, but it is NOT because I’ve run out of things I want to write about here, but because I have been so incredibly busy since writing ‘To Be Continued‘ at the end of the last scene of Chapter 20 in Pride’s Children.

I have 50 unfinished posts in one or another states of disarray! If you think my blog posts are all over the place, you should see the ideas files they are eventually pulled from to be cleaned up and thrown up here for public consumption.

I can’t afford to give them the creative energy I need right now to get ready for publication.

What I know – and what I’ve put off

Writing I know how to do. I proved it to myself by finishing Book 1, and being happy with the results (pending final editing tweaks).

I’ve made lists and abortive starts, and stored bookmarks and bought books – all for the OTHER part, the getting ready for publication and actually throwing it up there for people to find on Amazon, etc., part.

Now I’m reading and absorbing all that.

What has been going on chez Ehrhardt is that the reality of what I was putting off is HUGE.

And every one of those postponed list items takes the daily energy that I used to pour into the writing (which I can’t wait to get back to).

For a slow writer like me, there is a bittersweetness to the fact that I’m forcing myself to do a whole bunch of one-of-a-kind items with a steep learning curve – and I won’t use those skills I’m developing for a very long time after I finish getting Pride’s Children Book 1 published. So I’m learning things I will then forget to some extent before I need them again. And the world of computers and software moves into the future at light speed while I’m trying to master today.

But they have to be done – by me or someone else I pay – before publication is possible.

Collaboration isn’t possible for me right now

The more I think about having to interact with other people over control of my work, the less able I am to let someone else do it for me. Because the interaction itself will suck the energy out of me, and I will have no control of that timing with someone else. That is the reality of the CFS and the damaged brain.

It makes it very difficult to collaborate, say, with a cover designer. I had a brief experience of it on Wattpad where a very lovely designer did a new cover for Too Late (if you haven’t read it, it’s a prequel of sorts to Pride’s Children, here, Wattpad version including cover here). The amount of energy it took from me was unbelievable: I came to a complete brain-fogged stop for days, just trying to get my ideas across, because she was normal and had lots of ideas of her own. But she was doing me a favor, and so I had to work with her right then, while she was focusing on MY cover.

My profound gratitude to the friends I’ve made online

This inability to collaborate is not the same as not getting help: I have had wonderful email conversations with people who have read Pride’s Children, or who have created wonderful blog posts about how to do something.

This help – an answer to a question at the right time, an example of how they did something I’m just now learning, feedback about an attempt of mine – is the most amazing thing ever.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pay back the support, or even pass it on to other writers following, so it is disinterested and pure help. It has been the kind of help that my Mother would say, ‘got you into Heaven with your boots on.’

I’m not naming names here – though some of them will be very obvious if you check out the comments in some past posts – because I don’t want them inundated with requests for the kind of help they have given me unprompted. You know who you are, guys, and I love you for it.

But it’s one thing to accept offered help, and another to pay for work done. It’s the latter I can’t see myself doing, no matter HOW good the person is at his or her job. Because of ME.

So for now, while I LEARN what it is I might be asking someone else to do for me, it is DIY for me.

The current short list of overwhelming tasks being slowly mastered:

Book Description. Or cover copy, or back cover copy, or blurb. The words which go in the Amazon description box telling you what the book is ‘about.’ Where you get to summarize, extract, create your own best advertising, in your own (gulp!) words, that will make a reader decide YOUR story might be something they would read.

A reader’s NEXT ‘first impression’ (after cover, title, words under the picture on Amazon, and whatever led them to the place where they’re thinking about it in the first place). The words ‘above the fold’ on the page for the book BEFORE the reader clicks Show More or Add to Cart or even Look Inside!. To be followed, if Show More is clicked, by the rest of the description.

I’ve known forever that the descriptions I have up as placeholders on various sites, including this one, are inadequate. Cringe-worthy even. All over the place. Writing a hundred-word ‘description’ of a 150K word novel is by definition impossible. [For practice, try writing what Gone With the Wind in about in a hundred words. Good luck.]

I’m finally working on it, and have been fortunate to get help, real help, from several writers. Meanwhile, every reader who goes through one of these placeholders is still getting an inadequate version. And I’m not going to change that for now.

Elevator pitch. The short version of everything. Would you believe, that I, like many new authors, choke every time someone asks me, ‘What is your book about?’ or ‘What are you writing?’

I’ll be brave: here is the current version:

“I’ve always been fascinated by how celebrities choose who to marry. Pride’s Children is about a reclusive best-selling writer who is irresistibly drawn to an Irish megastar, and thinks she’s safe because she will never see him again. To complicate matters, a beautiful young actress has already decided that she and the actor will make the ultimate Hollywood Power Couple.

“Book 1 tells the story of the development of a beautiful relationship – that can go nowhere.”

It takes 23 seconds to say the first part, and 29 for the whole.

It’s not finished.

I haven’t actually used it verbally on anyone yet.

I am trying to memorize it – and I feel like an idiot saying it. So? If I can’t open my big mouth and tell an interested (or polite?) listener what my book is about, I’m wasting an opportunity that will never return.

Think writing the book description is hard? Try accomplishing the same goals – to get someone to seriously consider your book – in less than 30 seconds.

Then be sure to whip out a card with all the information on it, and hand it over.

I’m sure this little acting performance will get more polished. I’m also pretty sure I’ll always have stage fright about it.

Cover. The all-important visual first hook for many people. Again, the placeholders are barely that – but allowed me to write first, and finish enough so that I know what I’m TRYING to do: evoke an emotional response (or at least not quash one) in a potential reader.

In my opinion, good covers do this, and meh covers don’t, while bad covers actively discourage me from reading your book.

I believe half the interest in The Goldfinch or the Fifty Shades books is due to their covers. That’s how important cover design is.

One way is to let someone do it. That’s how traditionally-published authors usually have to go. It’s taken out of their hands, and the web is rife with those traditional authors who dare speak out complaining about said covers. The ones who daren’t must be legion.

It’s one of the joys and pains of self-publishing that you get final approval of your cover.

And note carefully that writers are usually not also graphic designers. This is balanced by knowing our own book in a way no one else can. Me, I’m learning Pixelmator slowly and with the help of a wonderful video course I play over and over. And I’m making progress – with more of that aforementioned help.

Soon, I’ll SHOW you what I mean. Meanwhile, my head is exploding. But it’s all good, and I even created a font from my own handwriting (being tweaked). I have purchased my first image (of which I will use only parts), obtained the rights to another from a friend I will be happy to compensate if we sell more than 50 copies. But talk about ‘creative discomfort’ and the pre-learning tantrum. Sheesh!

Rights. To use the tiny bits I want from the King James Version of the Bible. From Cambridge University (who manage the permissions for the British Crown, who have granted themselves rights in perpetuity). Why? Because even though they don’t normally pursue violators, I won’t publish something I know I don’t have the rights to. And I want to sell worldwide, including Great Britain. And the punishment for copyright infringement in print is the theoretical recall of all the printed copies (or large fines) – an d all kinds of legal hassles.

I want to use these bits. I believe they fit the book. I believe I’m not being disrespectful (their opinion may vary). But I’m also capable of writing something entirely my own if they refuse permission. Which would be THEIR right.

I’m on tenterhooks, waiting, and it already took a month to get an initial response – and nothing since. Really. And even if you publish traditionally, and they assist (if they do) in getting rights, it is STILL the author’s responsibility.

[And yep, I obtained the rights to the cover images I will be using (see Covers, above). In writing.]

Copyright registration. Yup, did that BEFORE I published the final scene here on the blog.

Why? Because it is important to note that if you don’t, you may be able to win statutory damages from an infringer – but not punitive ones. Punitive damages require a registered copyright. For a book like Pride’s Children, it’s worth it to me.

Online registration is doable, though not perfect (I still don’t understand a few things). But because I had copyrighted the play I wrote (Tangled Webs), I already had an account, and had been through the system, and part of the pain was minimized. Another one of those things I don’t do every day.

All the rest. The fabulous TO DO list.

It is getting longer, but I’ve made decisions, and there is an order to the whole.

My intention is to get everything ready, but launch quietly and softly because I am still learning the ropes, and may have to take things down and redo parts as I go.

The one thing that is good is that I don’t expect major rewrites anywhere in the book itself. That part is due for minor tweaking only. I’m happy with the content, and I could not possibly attain the required fever pitch again for those scenes. What you have read here is basically it – the story won’t change in the tidying.

Mostly I have editing things to do like making sure the phones and answering machine in Kary’s house are self-consistent, and Andrew’s accent makes sense in how it waxes and wanes. What I call the ‘whole book’ edits. Which is probably why many people haven’t noticed these little deficiencies.

Consider yourself updated.

And I have gotten a few words out on the blog.

Pray for me – I have chosen a path and now must tread it.

It is fun. Honest. Now that I’ve finally switched over completely from writing, and know that I won’t get back to writing until it’s done, I have accepted that and moved on.

I’m hoping it doesn’t take forever, and that God and the universe are not laughing at me because of my plans, and that I live to finish the trilogy (if it’s up to me).

But I’m happy, content, and working hard in my own way.

Though I may not blog quite as much as during the writing. For now.

Thanks again to supporters and helpers. I couldn’t do this without you.

Good wishes much appreciated here.

 

Beats: micromanaging the action – Scene template, Part 6

Fiction is not real life. There is purpose to fiction, order. Reproduction of reality is both impossible and boring. Things happen as the author arranges them to happen, and the author is in charge of selecting, out of the huge number of events going on every second, which will get chosen and which will be detailed.

If the author tells you the color of the bathroom fixtures, there had better be a very strong story reason for wasting words on such trivia when they could have been used to tell you about the main character’s childhood – and how it influences her choices right now.

Writing fiction is fundamentally fractal:
The book has a beginning, middle, and end – and tells a story.
Each chapter has a beginning, middle, and end – and tells a smaller part of the story.
Each scene is like a short story, complete in itself – with a beginning, middle, and end.

But it doesn’t stop there. One of my favorite tools is breaking up what happens in a scene into a series of beats, each beat a tiny chunk of the action with a purpose, and a beginning, middle, and end. In the scene template it looks like this:

First beat: Description of first unit of action
Purpose: Why beat is in scene
Introduction – How scene starts (evokes FIRST LINE)
New – What happens to get scene going
Conflict – Character vs. self, other characters, Universe
Resolution – How conflict is resolved

Beat: Description of unit of action
Purpose: Why beat is in scene
Transition – How scene continues from previous beat
New – What happens to get beat going
Conflict – Character vs. self, other characters, Universe
Resolution – How conflict is resolved

(repeat as many times as needed)

Each beat has a single nugget of information for the reader, a single piece of the puzzle: the Conflict. Each character in a beat has a goal – and that goal is in conflict with the goals of the other characters in the beat. And in each beat, one and only one character wins.

Why micromanage to this level? Because it is the most efficient way to get and keep the reader’s attention.

If you’ve ever fed a baby, you know how this works. Your goal is to get the food into the baby without taking forever and driving yourself crazy. (The baby’s goal is to play with his food and maximize the pleasant parts of the interaction.) The most practiced feeders keep up a constant stream of spoonfuls going into the little maw (along with patter – you have to have patter – Here comes the train!) so junior neither gets bored nor chokes. Anything missed is collected and re-offered. The next spoonful is prepared and ready as soon as the current one is swallowed, but not offered a moment before that – because that distracts the baby from the bite IN her mouth. An attentive parent keeps up just the right serving size coming, and balances out the favorite sweet potatoes with the required amount of protein, planning the experience so it all comes out even, and a reasonable amount of dinner ends up INSIDE baby.

In other words, the feeder PLANS and EXECUTES the delivery, a bite (beat) at a time.

The food (information) comes in right-sized chunks, at appropriately-spaced intervals, just as the baby is ready to swallow (absorb) it. This is the author’s JOB.

The more complex the story, the more the author has to control the delivery of the pieces to avoid confusion – and keep the story moving always forward.

In Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman calls these beats ‘Story Points’: he details Chapter 45 of Gone With the Wind, showing how Margaret Mitchell relentlessly keeps the story moving forward by delivering one blow after another, in pieces just big enough for the reader to grasp before being assaulted with the next one.

The experience of the reader is PLANNED. Which is as it should be: the writer already knows the story, and is trying to get it across to the reader in the most exciting way possible.

For me, planning a scene as a series of beats, each with its own internal logic and conflict, makes it easier to write, because I can hold a whole beat in my head, as a unit. Think flash fiction. Thing anecdote. Think haiku. Heck, think Lego building blocks.

If I know the goals of the characters in a beat, I can choose which character wins – and build up a scene out of a series of win/lose moments between the characters. I can deliberately alternate to create a scene that is an argument between the two characters, showing first one winning and then the other. I can create the impression of a cowed character – by showing the other character ‘winning’ all the interactions, one after another. I can escalate the conflict – by showing the ‘win’ getting more extreme in each beat.

Again, I find it helpful to write play scenes as a way to duplicate the experience of being constantly kept off balance by what comes next. Theatergoers are spoiled: they want SOMETHING happening every moment – or they get bored and start to fidget. And once I have the spine of the story, with anticipation going into each beat, conflict in the middle, and a tiny bit of resolution at the end followed by things getting even worse, all the rest of the story information (setting, theme, backstory, …) can be tucked in as decoration.

This works for plotters in the planning stage – and pantsers in the revision stage. In revision, I take all the good bits, number them, literally cut them into strips, and group them into blobs that somehow ‘go together.’ Then I organize a beat out of each stack of strips by putting them into some kind of order that makes sense out of them, leading up to, through, and out of a tiny piece of the story.

As a side bonus, if I need an outline or a synopsis, the fractal nature of writing fiction surfaces again: a list of chapters provides a one-two page summary. A list including the titles/descriptions of each scene provides a more detailed outline twenty to thirty pages long. And if I need an incredibly detailed outline, I simply add the beat descriptions within the scenes.

Thoughts?

For better dialogue in fiction: write a play

When you can’t depend on interior monologue to get your point across, you lose a huge advantage. As a writer of fiction, you can either be blatant (He felt like death.) or subtle (He remembered med school: learning all the ramifications of the vagus nerve, enervating myriads of gastric components and pathways, useless for pinpointing the source of trouble in his gut, useful only to prove something, somewhere, thought it was wrong. But he’d never expected to feel so many of them. Simultaneously.) when using interior monologue, deep or distant.

But you get to choose.

As a playwright, you work with action and dialogue. Period. And have collaborators – actors and directors – who may aid you or may fight you, but whom you don’t control.

Tradition in the theater preserves the playwright’s absolute control over the dialogue, the WORDS. Many actors and directors will routinely cross out stage directions and the author’s parenthetical instructions on HOW to say a line or move about on stage, but they will not change a WORD of the dialogue.

Even in an adaptation of the play ‘Mary Stuart’ in high school, in SPANISH (I was Queen Elizabeth I, the actual lead – whee!), our director limited himself to crossing out large amounts of dialogue (the play was too long for us), and making the tiniest transitions where absolutely necessary. He would not change the translator’s version of the WORDS.

This is an absolute gift for novelists.

I urge every novelist to go out and write a play*.

Buy yourself $100 worth of playwriting books (buy – so you can write in them). Swallow them whole. Pick a visual story. Write the darned thing (maybe I’ll get back to the how in a later post).

And learn to live within the constraints of the form: you tell your story in the DIALOGUE you give your characters.

Oh, all right. You also have setting, and choosing WHICH of your characters are on stage at a given time, and stage/dialogue parenthetical directions.

But DIALOGUE is your main weapon.

And your written dialogue in your fiction gets much better.

You shouldn’t do ‘talking heads’ or ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue, any more than you should do it in a novel – doing so demonstrates a distinct lack of technical skills.

It’s “I’m going to paint the Mona Lisa with BOTH hands tied behind my back, using only this paintbrush clenched in my teeth.” Because that’s what it feels like when you start.

But it CAN be done. It’s been done since the beginning of time. It can be done WITHOUT a narrator to gum up the works. And it can be done so the audience feels like eavesdroppers, watching something real happening right in front of them, right now.

Heady stuff. Ask full-time playwrights. Ask actors and directors.

Dialogue in plays is elliptical (not the shape – the punctuation mark), at cross purposes, full of innuendo and half-said things. And lies. Lots of lies. But it must tell the story or you are merely doing pantomime. It has to add up. The WORDS matter.

And that is precisely its value for writing the dialogue – and telling the story – in fiction: it has to add up.

Doing it with time constraints – on stage – leads to the most economical method of telling a story, the fewest words. Doing it on stage, intended for a live audience which gets BORED and restless within seconds if the pieces of story it is receiving do not add up immediately, is like boot camp for dialogue.

The audience can neither skip ahead nor go back to review something unclear. And it won’t like being bored. So you learn to leave nothing out, and put nothing extraneous in.

Audiences want stories to make sense, pronto, and continuously. So you learn to feed them the story in bite-size pieces, story beats, so they can put the whole thing together in their heads and follow.

It is an awesome discipline to acquire – and the results, in terms of the ability to do good dialogue in fiction, are equally awesome, so much so that stripping a scene I’m editing down to ONLY the dialogue, and walking through it as if I expected it to be performed on stage, is now one of the basic steps in my process, and a step that often shows exactly where the flaws are.

Thoughts?

—–
* CAUTION: Even though they share similarities, movie scripts and plays are ENTIRELY different beasts. I don’t recommend (unless scriptwriting is your form and dream) writing a movie script unless you are a masochist: EVERYTHING is up for grabs in a movie, and even the actors have no compunction about slaughtering your words.