Plotting

WHERE DO IDEAS COME FROM?

 

As a professional writer, I get offers for partnerships all the time. Which is one of the reasons I don’t advertise what I do in my public life. Most people think I’m unemployed or that my wife has a good job. (She’s a school teacher, modest income, but the benefits are fantastic and it — knock on wood — appears to be recession proof at the moment. Plus, she loves the kids.)

My ego sometimes takes a hit when people think that I’m a bum, but that generally comes from people who don’t know me. So I’m okay for the most part. Strangers are going to think whatever they think about me. Since I started teaching at the University of Oklahoma, things have gotten better. I’m a professor. Everyone can understand employment like that, and it’s much simpler for my wife to explain what I do. People that actually do get to know me find out I work very hard, generally seven days a week because that’s all the days there are in a week, and usually pretty close to 168 hours of that. (Seven times 24, for those of you who struggle with math, is 168.)

However, once people that don’t know me find out that I’m a writer, all bets are off. Well, after they figure out I’m a PUBLISHED author. Makes all the difference in the world. Then they figure I’m rich (not true) and wonder why I’m not off living in Hollywood (many, many reasons, folks, not in the least of which I’d never have been able to coach my kids in sports).

The next thing these people do is MAKE AN OFFER I CAN’T RESIST because we could all be rich that way. Namely, they tell me they have an idea, but can’t write, but would love to give me the idea to write — for half. Always interesting. I politely take a pass on the opportunity to listen to their ideas in detail and tell them that their idea has already been done (it usually has), or that it’s not really that compelling (you should have to listen to the arguments regarding that).

I explain that I’m quite capable of coming up with ideas on my own. That, in fact, I’ve got hundreds of ideas I’ll never live long enough to write. (That’s sadly true, by the way.) Or that I’m partners with my agent (true to an extent).

You see, writers are idea people. Sooner or later a writer realizes that he or she has got the greatest asset any independent businessman could ever wish for: imagination, ingenuity, and true desperation. Writers aren’t looking for product to sell, people to sell it, or servicemen to service it. We don’t have to have warehouses or tons of equipment.

A writer is the product. The writer’s mind, the writer’s knowledge, the writer’s emotions, all of these are part of the package. Now a writer has to exercise these skills in order to be at the top of his or her game, and that exercise has to take place on a daily basis.

Thankfully, for a lot of writers — and I count myself among them, writing is intuitive. Creating ideas, characters, and situations for me is just as natural as breathing.

I rely on stimulus to get my creative juices churning. If I simply sat at home and did nothing, I’d have no ideas. Maybe a few, but a lot of them would tend to get repetitive. If I did the same things every day, again with the repetitive.

As a writer, I know that part of my work every day is to feed my brain, my muse, my whatever -you-want-to-call it. I use my subconscious mind like a garbage disposal. I dump in everything I can get my hands on and trust that what the subconscious trucks out will be usable.

The subconscious mind, as I understand it, can be a cesspool if you let it fester. The subconscious mind has mighty powers and it can work against you. Or it can be as friendly as the garbage disposal I referred to. You know what you get from a garbage disposal if you only put in organic things? Compost.

As every gardener worth his salt can tell you, one of the most important ingredients to have in the garden is compost. That fertile material that heats up the garden and causes all the chemical reactions to take place to produce another wave of organic product that can be eaten again. Nothing wasted, see?

So, given that your subconscious is a garbage disposal yearning to churn out compost, how do you feed it? A subconscious mind can’t just feed itself, you know. You gotta give it the raw materials.

You, the owner of this magnificent compost processor, have to ingest organic materials on a regular basis. Those materials are new experiences you get from getting out of your comfortable bubble and going places you haven’t been. While you’re there, you have to learn to talk to people you’ve never talked to.

I know that a lot of writers are shy, but you have to get over it if you’re going to be successful. When I was in high school, I wouldn’t talk to anyone. Never went anywhere with other people. Didn’t join in all the reindeer games. I was shy and backward, and too aware that I wasn’t as financially well off as my class mates. At least, I didn’t think I was. As it turns out, since I’ve talked to some of those kids I went to school with much later in life, all of us were insecure to a degree. Some just wore it better than others.

Since then, I’ve learned to talk to anyone. I have had to learn stuff to put into books, and I’ve had to pursue that knowledge. I’ve also learned that I’m an ADHD person. I can’t learn everything from a book or from simply being told. My wife tells me I’m a concrete learner: you have to give me something, let me play with it for a while, then I’ll get back to you with questions. That’s how I learn. Most writers aren’t like that. They can learn from books and from lectures. Me, I gotta make mistakes all on my own.

In addition to new experiences and people, I also read. All the time. Novels, nonfiction, magazines (science, technology, news). I cruise websites for information, opinion, and pure paranoia just to stuff into my garbage disposal.

I take up new hobbies and listen to other people talk about their hobbies. I take up new friendships. I say yes to any opportunity someone gives me to go somewhere and do something — even if I’m sure I’m going to hate it.

Because, you see, I find nuggets all the time that emerge from that compost heap in the back of my mind that patrols my dreaming world. A lot of the time, the compost heap burps up an interesting object or a beautiful flower, and my conscious mind seizes hold of it and turns it into a story.

If my conscious mind had to scramble to create a story, it would hurt. I’ve tried to do that before. There’s a LOT of frustration involved. Conscious mind effort comes into play when you need to string together all the treasures you’ve gotten from your compost heap.

This is a classic example. A couple of days ago I was reading Stephen King’s Duma Key. I’d promised myself for a few years now that I would read it, but the novel is so big that it was daunting. Finally, I sat down with it. I knew I’d either have to force myself through it, or I’d be captivated. Either one of those things can be hard, because when I’m captivated, my mind won’t let me rest and I have to keep reading.

I was captivated. (See the review here.)

But I also paid attention to stuff. In novels and short stories, a writer can often pick up little stuff that the author of a particular piece threw out there, look it over, give it a good sniff, then kick it into something new.

One of the things that King alludes to in his novel is a boat with “rotting sails.” The whole “rotting sails” concept set off a fireworks display in my mind because the compost heap jumped to attention and demanded to be heard. I listened, and next time we’ll talk about what I did with that little bit.

SHADOWBOXING WITH AN IDEA

 

 From Don Brooker’s Blog. Click on pic to go there.

Rotting Sails.

What comes to your mind when I say that?  In the book, Duma Key by Stephen King, the rotting sails belong to an ancient boat that brought all kinds of mischief and heartbreak to his characters, and it had a deep history with all that was wrong on the island.

On the other hand, when I thought of “rotting sails,” two things immediately came to mind:  Pirates and zombies.  With the whole mash-up of zombies in everything, maybe I should consider combining the two.  But I like to start out an idea as pure as possible when I begin.

As a writer, an idea isn’t simply a through-line, a straight trip from Point A to Point B.  An idea is a diamond.  At first it’s rough and unfinished, true, but an idea — like a diamond — is multi-faceted.  Simply roll it over, roll it around, and you’ll find any number of possibilities.  Your job as a writer getting ready to bring a story to term is to start narrowing the possibilities into something you can work with.

I’ve seen short stories and novels that have everything but the kitchen sink thrown into them.  They’re a lot of work for the writer, and — ultimately — they’re unpleasant for the reader.  One thing to remember is that readers read in the expectation of having a certain kind of story fed to them.

I’m a guy.  I like things simple.  When I go out to a restaurant, especially a favorite restaurant with my wife, she likes to try different things.  I don’t even have to look at the menu.  When I go to a restaurant, I go there to have what I always have there.  I don’t want to interrupt my meal with trying to figure out what to eat.  I want to relax.  I want to order what I always have, then be surprised at how well it turns out that night.  My wife sometimes says I have no sense of adventure.  I say that my whole day has been filled with adventure as I’ve negotiated phone calls, writing, and other things I’ve volunteered for.

When I relax, I really want to relax and not be frustrated.  Also, I want to be focused on the company, not whether I should have ordered something different.

I think most readers are this way.  They go to the bookstore, look at the usual shelves filled with familiar authors (ie, bestselling), then pick one that’s known to them, or they pick one that at least promises to be the same genre they enjoy reading.  Today’s reader wants a story he or she can sink into easily and be carried away from the day’s events.  Favorite authors are like favorite desserts:  they deliver the same kind of experience over and over, and they can be trusted to be good.

Now that I have an interesting idea from my compost heap, I have to find a direction for it.

THE FIRST DECISION:  World:  Real world or fantasy?  (If I choose zombies, I still have a chance of remaining in the real world because the zombies might not be real and it’s only the fear of them that propel the story events.)

I could tell a story about international pirates (the ones in Somalia are big news these days), or about a lone incident of a family on vacation getting highjacked by a pirate crew that want to use their boat for some criminal activity.  Or I could even settle on a story about someone who’s found an old pirate treasure that has to deal with traps or other people to get to that treasure.

I could tell a story about some new biological weapon that burns out people’s higher intelligence functions and leaves them as homicidal vegetables.  (Not exactly zombies, but close.)  The weapon could be carried aboard a boat headed for a packed American harbor where the infection will spread like wildfire.

Or I could dig into the fantasy side of things and create a fictional world of pirates or zombies.  I’d just have to do the worldbuilding there.  (Worldbuilding is something we’ll talk about later in the Research section.)

Before I choose, I need to also consider THE SECOND DECISION:  Time:  Past, present, or future?  (Notice that choosing the fantasy route would seem to make the choice for you, but it doesn’t.  A story can take place in an alternate past, present, or future.)

I could write about pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy.  I could write about Jamaican men that masqueraded as zombies to scare off European invaders.  We’ve discussed the present-day scenarios.  How about a future post-apocalyptic world after the ice caps have melted and the world is covered by water?  The movie Waterworld covered a lot of those themes.  Or I could write about nanobot-controlled troops used by an evil empire to overthrow a stronghold of rebels on another world.

These decisions immediately curtail the directions the story can go and give you as the writer something more tangible to work with.  In order to move the story forward, you have to choose the world/time you’re going to deal with in the fiction.

I’m choosing zombies because they’re popular right now (never a bad reason to write something) and because I like the idea of a shipful of undead chasing after my hero (always a good thing to like your story idea!).  The thing that tipped my imagination this wayis the whole “rotting” thing.  To me, “rotting” just speaks of undead.

So I choose to write a story about zombies pursuing my hero (because having my hero pursuing them would be weird, although now that I think about it, I could probably find a way to make that work, hmmm — obviously that will be another story at some point).

I also choose the fantasy world because I want to use “real” zombies and that means magic!

Choosing a time is harder.  I like the appeal of doing a present-day story with magical zombies because using .50-cal machine guns and flares on them would be special effects nirvahna (writers don’t have a SFX budget, you see, we’re only limited by our imaginations).  A futuristic thing could be fun, but the juxtaposition of the future and magic can be a delicate thing.  Remember:  readers usually want things simple, and making those two worlds fit together would take time and a patient reader.  I want to write something that’s immediately fun.

I grew up reading a lot of Robert E. Howard fantasy stories, and having a hero trying to outrun a zombie horde through a fog-covered sea is seductive.  All the ocean to run through, but no place to hide.  To add a little firepower to the story, I’m going to add blackpowder pistols and rifles into the mix.  That way I can make things go BOOM! when I want to.

See how simple this is?  Child’s play, really.  It’s just as adults we’re expected to put away our toys and think “sensical” things.  Right now I’m thinking if I can sell this story somewhere, I can cash a check.  Pretty sensical, if you ask me.

THE THIRD DECISIONAdult or juvenile?  Yep, publishers can be real sticklers for the age label at times.  As for myself, I prefer to write stories that can be enjoyed by adults and kids.  That means no unduly harsh language (you really can tell stories without it), no sex scenes (those are by choice unless you’re writing for a specific romance line that requires them), and — generally — a single POV.  Kids, as a rule of thumb, don’t like dropping in and out of people’s heads.  They like to hang onto the coattails of one character for all their thrills and chills.  Adults I’ve talked to lately are starting to feel the same way.  The want to get inside one person’s skin and hang out, not keep dealing with identity crises from scene to scene.

Adult and kid readers all want the same thing:  an entertaining story that takes them to a different place for a while.  Never, never forget that.

THE FOURTH DECISION:  Length:  Novel, novella, short story, or flash fiction

A fantasy novel these days usually runs from 90,000 to 120,000 words for adults, sometimes smaller for the juvenile market, but not always.  Harry Potter showed the world that kids aren’t afraid of big books.

A novella is usually defined as a piece of fiction between (opinions vary) 10,000 words and 70,000 words.  This length is often hard to place in today’s magazine market, and even a lot of on-line publishing venues will balk.  However, with the advent of the Kindle and other e-readers, and the ability of a writer to “publish” works himself or herself at Amazon.com and other places, the novella can be an enjoyable length for a writer and a reader.  Writers and readers both can finish the story in less time and still get all the action they want.  (Personally, I love short novels and often read private eye novels and romantic suspense novels for just this sort of reading experience.  Many of Harlequin’s category fiction line would fit this definition these days.)

A short story is described by many as a story between 1000 and 20,000 words long.  You can see we already have some intrusion into the novella territory.  At present, the most popular length for a short story is around 3500 words.  Many magazines and on-line venues cap the length at 5000 words.  Fantasy and science fiction stories generally go long because there’s so much worldbuilding that has to be introduced.

Flash fiction — also known as microfiction — is  relatively new in popularity (especially since we have so many texting devices capable of downloading these stories from any number of sites), but it’s been around for a long, long time.  The word count is generally accepted as being from 1 (REALLY tough to pull off) to 750 or 1000.  According to legend, Ernest Hemingway wrote (and got paid for) what is supposed to be the SHORTEST short story every published by a major magazine.  It goes like this:  FOR SALE:  Baby shoes, never worn.

Yep, that’s a story that will stick with you for a while.  I’ve talked to students in my professional writing classes that have come up with explanations that run from the baby dying to the baby being born with no feet to the shoes being football cleats when ballerina slippers were needed.  One student even postulated that the real biological father was Bigfoot and the shoes simply didn’t fit.

Before you begin planning your story, you need to know what kind of length you’re going for.  If it’s a novel, you need at least 40 to 60 scenes to get the required word count, and that’s at 2000 words a scene.  You’ll need more scenes if you write compactly and with small action.

For a short story, I usually try to hit between 3 and 6 scenes and divide the action into interesting plot turns (even at this short length readers like to be kept on their toes!).

I want to do this story as a short story because I can sandwich in a few evenings to write it between the novel I’m currently working on.  (See?  I do work all the time!  But only because I enjoy storytelling so much!)

Now that I know what I want to write — a 5000 word zombie fantasy story about a ship on a foggy sea — I need to figure out other particulars before I begin writing.

I NEED TO KNOW HOW THE STORY ENDS.  A lot of writers begin writing with just a character or an event in mind.  My question is this:  how do you know you’re finished?

I’ve talked to writers that keep writing and writing (even worse, actually, than the ones that keep rewriting and rewriting) and don’t know when to stop.  Every time they reach the end, they find one more loose end to tie into the story and the hero is off again.

This zombie story is about escape.  So what’s the natural ending?  Well, when our heroes escape, of course.  Or they destroy the zombies, which is much more pyrotechnic escape.  Before I begin writing, I need to figure out how they’re going to get away or destroy the undead.

Let me think on that and I’ll get back to you in the next column.  In the meantime, look at the story you want to do and start making these choices about the idea.  I think you’ll see that it helps.

WHO IS THE HERO?

When we think about the ending to my zombie short story, some immediate endings come to my mind.  They probably come to your mind as well, so let’s compare notes and see if I surprise you.

1)  The hero can sneak aboard the zombie ship and blow it up (he’ll have to make sure he doesn’t get bitten!)

2)  The hero can fight his way on board the zombie ship and blow it up (you got fighting, you got biting, though)

3)  The hero can figure out a way to catapult the explosive onto the zombie ship (could be problems with flying zombies biting everyone in sight, though, not to mention almost zero excitement)

4)  The hero can commit heroic suicide by covering himself with explosives and walking on board the zombie ship (no sequels for the hero!)

5)  The hero can figure out a way to kill the zombie master aboard the ship (somebody’s gotta be telling the zombies what to do)

6)  The hero can make a noble sacrifice, offering himself as a happy meal so his crew can pull away during the devouring (I hate killing my heroes)

7)  Someone else aboard the hero’s ship can make the sacrifice (maybe the person the zombies are chasing, because we haven’t figure out that plot point yet, but that person kind of steals the limelight)

8)  Divine intervention (I hate when the hero gets out of something just because he’s lucky, but you could set that up as a character trait, it works better if it’s humorous)

9)  Divine intervention part 2, one of the passengers is actually a sea goddess and uses the zombie ship to see which captains she should let cross her cursed waters (and the plot point we’d have to invent there was that our heroic captain decided to take a shortcut no one else would take, but I don’t like that because I don’t like heroes that invite disaster — however, if one of his cargoes was going to spoil and he was gonna lose his shirt, that would change things — again, another plot point we’d have to develop early in the story).  When the captain decides to sacrifice himself, the sea goddess intervenes and sends the zombies away

10)  Through a fancy bit of sailing, the hero captain and his crew get the zombie ship to run aground on a hidden reef, tearing the bottom out of the zombie ship and sinking it.  The zombies might still be a problem to someone later but our sea captain has shown that he’s smarter than the average bear

11)  The heroic captain solves an ancient riddle/curse that put the zombies there and makes them go away (gotta figure out what the riddle/curse is, though, and that backstory will definitely add length to the story, which we don’t want if we need to keep it compact)

12)  The captain could jettison all his cargo and make his ship faster (don’t like that one because the hero still fails, unless we show him redeeming himself by caring more about his crew than the profit margin)

I don’t know what you’ve come up with, but if you think it’s interesting enough to mention, send it along.

I’m going to go with blowing up the zombies because that’s the most spectacular way for me to end the short story.  Plus, as a writer, I have an unlimited special effects budget and I should use it because I’ll reward readers with terrific imaginations.  🙂

Let’s re-examine those possibilities of blowing stuff up good.

1)  Sneaking explosives on board.  Are you kidding me?  This is a running sword fight between the undead and a ship’s crew!  There’s no sneaking here!

2)  Fighting to bring the explosives on board.  Are you kidding me?  A lot of sailors, probably including our hero, is gonna get bitten — and if he doesn’t you’re doing the story wrong!

3)  Catapult the explosives on board.  Okay, so after the zombies appear on page 1, we blow them up on page 2.  Folks, that is a really short, really boring story with no real risk.

4)  Blowing himself up.  This is just depressing.  I mean, it’s heroic and everything, but surely we can come up with a hero that’s got a little more on the ball than “I’m gonna blow myself AND THEM up!”  Dude, how did this guy ever get command of a ship?

So I’m gonna go with something a little more tricky, and definitely more exciting.  One of the things I always loved about old pirate movies was the way the sailors would climb to the top of their sails and hurl themselves onto the other ship!  Then stab their cutlasses through the sails and slide down, slashing the sails so the opposing ship would lose speed and maneuverability.

Remember, the zombie ship has rotting sails and magic, so there’s a potential stumbler:  No sails to jump onto that the guy can trust.

Potential stumbler number 2:  If the two ships are close enough for the captain to throw himself to the zombie ship, the zombies can hurl themselves onto the captain’s ship and infect the crew.  Odom’s law:  if you can do unto the bad guys, the bad guys can do unto you.

Solving these problems is easy — if you don’t have to do the physical struggle yourself.  I’m gonna have our ship’s captain climb to the top of his ship’s mainmast with a small keg of dynamite strapped to him (don’t need much to destroy a zombie boat).  He’s going to time the heaving of the ocean, the speed of the ship, and swing over on a rope, using a whip (like a certain archeological hero and a masked Mexican hero) to catch old of the yardarms on the other ship.

To amp up the suspense, I could have him succeed in getting across to the other ship, but lose the keg (which might get caught in those rotting sails) or lose the dagger he was going to use to open the gunpowder keg (gonna have to fight to take a weapon from the zombies) or lose the slow match (a burning piece of rope that was used to ignite gunpower in ancient rifles and cannons) which means he’ll have to figure out another way to set off the gunpowder fuse (draw lightning from the sky with a steel dagger?  use a small fire spell he knows?  use a magic rock that produces sparks?  bring along his pocket dragon, Sparky?).

I’m gonna have him lose the powder keg because I like the idea of him trying to climb through rotting sails and worm-eaten halyards while dodging/fighting zombies.  Just when he almost gets there, the sails rip or the yardarm snaps.  Can’t do too much of this or the reader will get frustrated, but enough is key.  Just to keep the readers on their toes and present some nice action sequences.  Problems are like spice in a meal — have enough of them and the meal is better, but have too much of them and the meal just tastes like spice and becomes basically inedible.

That’s also why I’m only choosing one of my potential problems to give my ship’s captain instead of dumping all of them on him.  In real life (if it was me), ALL of those things would happen.  Trust me.  And if you add a kid in, the situation only gets worse.  🙂

Now, we’ve got our hero in position to blow up the ship, finally.  However, we’ve got one really cool stunt left for him to do:  he’s gotta get back to his ship without getting bitten or blowing up.  Having him fail at this point might be a tragedy, but we ain’t writing no stinkin’ tragedy here.  We want people cheering at the end of this one because the character is so smart and daring, and because he gets away by the skin of his teeth.

So I think about this for a little while, and I think about what I know about sailing (which is a fair amount because I’ve written sea stories before and I love movies with tall ships in them).  I picture what this ship’s captain would have done when he found out he was being pursued by the undead:  he’d have adjusted the ship’s course and run with the wind, hoping to outrun them.  That means we have the wind blowing behind him, filling the sails.

Does anyone know what a spinnaker is?  I do.  It’s the sail pictured at the top of this entry.  How many of knew that when you saw it?  Show of hands.

Here’s your wiki-link:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinnaker

The captain is going to shout out, “Fly the spinnaker!  Drop speed!” and the crew will deploy the additional sail as well as cut other sails.  The fighting will become more desperate aboard the ships and the fuse is burning (of course, zombies won’t know to extinguish it and the zombie master can’t make them understand).  The spinnaker will fly like a kite, getting out in front of the hero’s ship while the zombie ship shoots by.  He has a narrow margin to save his life.  Even if he jumps from the ship, chances are good that he’ll be lost in the ocean and drown before he’s found.

Just as the gunpowder explodes and fire spreads across the zombie ship, our hero leaps for the spinnaker, manages to grab one of the lines, and slide down the line back to his ship just before the flaming vessel crashes into his ship.

Tah-dah!

Now that’s a Hollywood ending that I’m proud of.  Next, I have to figure out who my hero is and other problems he’s got in this short story.  Like, say, the stowaway he finds on his ship that turns out to be one of his biggest clients’ daughter.  Yep, the stakes have definitely gone up.

WHO IS THE HERO?

 

If you don’t already have a hero in mind for your story/novel, the best way I know of to create a hero is to look at the villain.  In every story I’ve read that’s enduring and seems to last forever, the hero is defined by the villain.  Where would Beowulf be without Grendel?  Where would King Arthur be without Morgan Le Fay?  Where would any of Louis L’Amour’s heroes be without battling guys bigger/faster than them, or being outnumbered by outlaws, murderers, or Indians (and generally L’Amour gives the Indian good press as well, because most of the ones in his books were outside the treaty areas looking for a fight)?

The point is that if a hero isn’t fighting a situation (as he is in this zombie ship story) then he has to be fighting a villain.  Believe it or not, but the villain is almost always the hero, just one step removed.

Think about Darth Vader.  Even before Lucas went back and revealed Annikin Skywalker’s past, we had clues in the first three movies.  Luke’s dad was supposed to be the bravest and strongest of the Jedi, according to Obi-Wan.  Although I really don’t believe everyone knew in the first movie that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, or that Luke and Leia were siblings (explain that kiss to me then!), I think Lucas found the seeds of his greatest villain and the redemption in framing the villain.

Darth Vader wanted to know the Force just as Luke does.  Only Annikin became afraid of losing everyone if he didn’t fully control the Force and the Jedi.  So — to protect those he loved — Annikin when over to the dark side.

Look at how easily Luke could have given in to that temptation as well.  The offer was there on the table the whole time.  So what was the difference between Luke and Darth?  What saved Luke from the dark side and made him the mortal enemy of Darth Vader?  What light did Luke shine so brightly that Darth joined him at the end?

Because a lot of people forget that Luke was actually losing the fight against the Emperor until Darth Vader stepped in.

The difference is this:  Annikin gave in to his fears, which makes him a great hero to redeem, which is how that turned out.  But until then, he was the ultimate enemy.

So should you have an enemy that can be redeemed?  Not necessarily.  And it won’t work at all if you don’t have some greater threat to take that enemy’s place.  In Star Wars, there was the Emperor that everyone could fight against in the end.

Think of the Grinch.  Yeah, that Grinch.  The Grinch that stole Christmas.  He’d won, hadn’t he?  His whole goal was to get rid of Christmas, to steal every present, grab every tree, make off with every ornament.  And he had.  Only — guess what?  Taking all those things didn’t get rid of Christmas.  Instead, Christmas without those things went on as planned, and the Grinch learned that Christmas wasn’t about things at all.  It was about love and family and being together.

The enemy was the Grinch’s own self-loathing and loneliness.  In that instant, with the sleigh balanced on the edge of destruction, the Grinch defeated his own demons and saved the day, becoming the biggest hero in Whoville.  We didn’t have a hero until the end of the story.  And, man!  What a hero!  Such a simple story so beautifully told.

Let’s go back to Star Wars.  The Emperor was the big baddie at the end.  But how different would that story have been if the Emperor had been on stage the whole time, doing the things Darth Vader was doing?  We’d have had the resistance and conflict we needed to make a story, but having Darth Vader there and eventually flipping him back to the good side was brilliant.  That’s what made the story so big in my generation and in the generations that followed.  Well, that and light sabers, Han Solo, Wookies, etc., etc.

If you don’t have a villain, as I choose not to recognize one more than cosmetically in my zombie ship story for the sake of brevity, then the hero has to combat the situation that is against him.

When you think about the usual plots:

man versus man (is out)

man versus nature (some of that with the storm raging around them)

man versus supernatural (definitely the one we’re going with because the undead are un-nature in a magical world)

man versus society (is out)

man versus self (nope)

man versus destiny (nope)

man versus machine/technology (nope)

— you can quickly figure out where this story fits.  As you plan a story, look at these basic seven plots (and yes, there is a lot of discussion on how many plots there really are in fiction).  Some people say there are only two:  good ending, bad ending.  Others say there are as many as 36, and those get complicated.

Ineed a hero that can battle the elements and the supernatural.  Igot one in this story.  Why did I make him the ship’s captain instead a simple sailor?

That answer is easy:  the captain is responsible for the WHOLE ship.  A sailor is just responsible for doing what the captain tells him and saving his own neck.  I could have made the character a first officer or a quartermaster or even a young sailor who’s the most capable of climbing through the rigging.

But what would those other incarnations of the character have won?  The first officer would still be the first officer, the quartermaster the quartermaster, and the young sailor just a young sailor.  But a captain?  He’d be a hero to his men, and his job is on the line if he fails.  If the other incarnations failed, they’d probably die, but if they lived nothing would be taken away from them.  The captain might certainly lose his ship.

Once I decided on the captain as hero, I took away some things and gave him some things.  I took away experience so he won’t seem immediately a champion.  Otherwise he’d just say, “Sally forth, lads, and let’s get me over to the zombie ship to blow it up!”  Nope, I wanted him afraid, with an uncertain crew that might not even like him much at this point because he is so much younger than them and doesn’t know as much about the sea as they do.  Yet he’s willing to risk his neck — for them.  And he wins their hearts at the end of the story.  I like that.  Feels right.

My guy doesn’t have experience, and he doesn’t have a crew that immediately listens to everything he says.  He’s a man alone, to a degree, in the middle of a frightened mob.

In return I gave him youth, a trim waistline (important for hurtling through the air to land in a rotting zombie ship), and a sense of daring that isn’t completely tempered with the thought “this is gonna hurt” every time he does something.  I gave him uncertainty to make the reader believe in him more, and to cheer him on as he risks his life to save his ship and his crewmen.

For this story, I think the untried and untested hero works well.  He’s just been given command of a ship and ship’s crew.  But how did he get that command?  If he earned it by coming from within the ranks, the men would immediately respect him.  But what if he’s a merchant’s son who’s always wanted to captain a ship?  A guy who’s crossed the ocean(s) several times while counting sacks of beans (not an altogether impressive feat to other sailors)?  But he’s studied hard, learned the trade routes, learned the currents, and learned how to haggle and buy with the best merchants.

Suppose this young, industrious captain sold himself to a merchant (not his father because that would make it all too easy and less chance of losing his ship) with the idea of combining a captain’s pay and a merchant’s pay all in one?  Cutting the overhead basically?  Because he wants to be a captain that bad?

As a result, this poor guy has been worked to death along the voyage.  He’s been counting bean sacks, off-loading cargo, hedging investments, and keeping track of shrinkage “employee theft.”  And he’s been heading up the ship, making sure all the stuff gets done because the crew has been goofing off when he’s not watching.

Feeling the love for this character yet?  Or at least a little sympathy?

All this, and I’m gonna smack him with a boatload of the undead!  Wow, I am truly most unkind.  🙂

At his core, this character is an idealist, a kid who wants to be a captain but has mastered all the skills of bean counting and haggling, who has also learned to be nautical but hasn’t won over his crew.  This moment, this encounter with the zombies, this is gonna define him as a captain and as a man.

So far I don’t have a name for him and I don’t even have a description.  But I KNOW who he is.  At one point in my life, I was young and naive and a dreamer.  I was this guy.  I just never had to fight zombies.  But I’ve been in over my head, stretched to thin to cover all my bases, and wishing I had just one friend.  We’ve all been there.  Every reader has been there.

And that’s why I think this short story will work with this character.

HAVE A PLAN: THE OUTLINE

 

NOTE:  IF YOU’RE NEW TO THIS BLOG, GO TO THE “PLOT” SECTION AND BEGIN READING.  THAT WAY EVERYTHING WILL BE IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER.  THANKS.  ENJOY!

Now that I have my fantasy story in mind, have a character that’s reasonably well thought out, and have a crackerjack ending in mind that Hollywood might not die for but would at least respect, I have to put the story all together before I start writing.  This is the most creative aspect of the story in giving the tale form, and the part that I love the most.

Assembling a story, which is what you’re doing — although the art crowd will probably protest that this is too pedestrian, is deceptive.  It takes a certain amount of imagination as well as recognition of rules and acknowledgement of reader expectations.

Let me address the art crowd first, the “pantsers” as they like to call themselves.  They believe in throwing characters into a conflict and sorting them out as they go.  They feel that they’re more organic this way, that their characters (all made up and put on the same two-dimensional paper) are somehow more “real” than someone that assembles the story arcs and action before sitting down to work.  (Personally, I think they’re afraid of the boring aspects of the writing, which is sitting down and finishing.)

I’ll illustrate the process in a way that may make sense for you.  Let’s say we want to make a pair of shoes.  We know we want to make shoes.  As a professional cobbler (I’m not, that’s why there are elves), I know the tools I’m going to need to make these shoes:  something to cut them out, something to sew the pieces together, something to punch the eyelets, something to use for strings, thread to sew, possibly color, etc.

Since I’m a professional, I’ll go to my toolshed and bring out all the tools I know I’ll need.  So (sew?) they’ll be close to hand.  Once I get started working, I don’t want to be interrupted going back and forth for things that I knew I needed before I sat down.  Once I’m sitting, I can work, I can give myself over entirely to the process, and I don’t have to figure out where anything is or what I’m going to need next because I already know from past experience.

Occasionally, there may be some surprises.  I may have to go back to the toolshed for some problem that crops up, some extra tool to polish up a piece of the work, a different kind of thread to hold things together.  That sort of thing.  But the point is, I’m limiting my trips back and forth to the toolshed and allowing myself to get fully immersed in the creative of the product (yeah, PRODUCT, not ART).

Pantsers I have known have started to work, then had to go back to the toolshed constantly.  They didn’t know the characters was going to need this bit of knowledge — have to figure out how the character knew that.  They didn’t know they were going to end up in Baton Rouge during the course of the story — have to go research Baton Rouge.  They didn’t know the character was going to need to repair an elevator — hmm, there are four different kinds of ways to move elevators (see TYPES OF HOIST MECHANISMS).

The point is, they have to get to the same place I am when I start.  Except that they take longer to finish out the piece they’re working on because they’re so busy running back and forth to figure things out.  (There are exceptions to this rule, but I’m speaking generally.)

I still have to figure all those things out, but I invest all that time up front.  I figure out what I need to know and I learn it before I need to know it.  That way all the research is quick to hand (internet links, printed pages, books I’ve read and marked for reference).

Let me bring this point home.  Let’s say you’re out on a date (doesn’t matter what sex because you’re the one trying to deliver on this fantastic date — which is what you’re doing as an author, by the way).  You want to impress this person, win this person over, show this person how good you can be at dating.  More than anything, YOU WANT TO ENJOY THE DATE YOURSELF.  Dating isn’t just for the other person.  It’s supposed to be good for you too.  If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.

So during the date, you keep discovering the things you forgot.  Dinner’s on the table, where’s the silverware?  Glasses are on the table, where’s the beverage of your choice?  You’re ready to eat, where are the candles?  It’s a special moment, where are the flowers or the card?

See?  The date still gets accomplished and the other person probably has a wonderful time, but YOU’RE NOT RELAXED AND ENJOYING IT.

When I date/write, I want to be able to concentrate fully on the experience.  Not the things I forgot or left out or could have done differently.  I figure that out before I sit down to write or put my wife in the car.  (I also work to keep things fairly simple in writing and in dating because making things complicated when there’s no reason to can lead to a whole new pack of woes.)

Either I’ve made my case or I haven’t.  Some people just love misery.

Since this fantasy story with the zombie ship is a short piece, I figure I’m going to need from one (no way to do less) to five scenes.  I’m either writing a straight 5000 word shot, or I’m going to break it down potentially into five 1000 word segments — generally for pacing and effect, but we’ll get to that.

So I take my seat (not writing the story yet, see?) and put on my director’s hat.  If I was going to film this story, what would I SHOW?  Not TELL, SHOW.  Very important to today’s readers.

Scene 1:  I’ve got to intro the hero and the setting.  Because I want to seize the reader’s interest immediately (to pay off on that snazzy title I’ve yet to come up with), I’ll intro the character with problems.  Here this guy is, down in the hold of the ship to count cargo because THINGS HAVE BEEN DISAPPEARING.  While he’s there’s, WATER SLOSHES OVER HIS BOOTS (this was kind of normal because boats weren’t exactly water-tight back in the day) and we’re aware that THE SHIP COULD SINK because there’s a STORM BREWING OUTSIDE.  While that’s going on, he has to WONDER IF HE’S GONNA GET STABBED by the crew.  Then he discovers THE SHIP HAS A STOWAWAY.

See?  That’s attention getting.  And it’ll make the readers wonder what’s going to happen next.  I hope.

Scene 2:  (I’m going to break when he has the stowaway at swordpoint, then bring the lantern in closer to discover that it’s a girl), our hero gets the girl’s story.  Her father had arranged a marriage for her and she had to escape.  The PROBLEM?  The father is one of our hero’s biggest clients on this voyage.  Do you see how his life is screwed?  Plus, he has to keep the crew from putting their hands on her and protect his reputation later because the girl could say he did THINGS to her so she’s not as valuable as a bride to her father’s business associate (pervert).  While he’s trying to figure out what to do about that, the MYSTERIOUS SHIP arrives in the SUDDEN FOG.  (cue spooky music.)

Scene 3:  Our hero (still nameless, notice) spots the ship, sees the ZOMBIES, and knows they have big trouble.  Intro the local legend of the zombies.  Haunted/cursed waters since the recent war.

Scene 4:  The battle begins.  The zombie ship pulls ALONGSIDE and the two crews FIGHT.  LOSSES happen.  They discover they can’t outrun the ship.  Our hero figures out his last desperate gamble.

Scene 5:  To underscore how screwed they are and explore the possibilities.  Throwing cargo overboard?  Not enough time.  Outrunning them?  Never gonna happen.  Hero comes up with his plan and reveals it.  Crew thinks he’s crazy, braver than they thought, but crazy.

Scene 6:  Hero swings over to zombie ship, has problems falling through yardarms and fights zombies, and DEPOSITS BOMB.  Swings back to his ship just as zombie ship BLOWS UP.   Hero survives and wins support of crew.

Notice that the first two scene descriptions are longer.  Had to have those to list all the background info I wanted to put in and how I wanted to add it.  Also missing:  the crew spokesperson.  I figure a harder, older man who believes he should have been captain of the ship.  As it turns out, he’s not as clever as our hero and learns that.  He’s a good follower, but he’s not good at figuring things out.

Try to keep your scene list short and choppy.  If you can get it all on one page, even a novel, you’re doing great.  You just want a laundry list.  You’ll have other documents to help pull all the pre-planning together.

So I’ll write this and send it in.  The beautiful thing is that it can also be the first two chapters of a novel if I decide I like the character enough and want to see what he’s going to do about delivering the cargo and dealing with the beautiful stowaway.  I’m already noodling that idea around.  🙂

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