Friday, May 27, 2011

What I’ve Learned From My Writing Critique Groups

Image via Microsoft Office
Writers groups.  Some authors swear by them, others dismiss them.  Some thank their writing groups for helping to bring about their novels' success.  Others regard such groups as social gatherings for opinionated people who try to rewrite your novel—their way.

I’ve experienced the best and worst of writers groups, and, for me, the pros far outweigh the cons.  At their best, each member of the group responds as if he or she were picking up your novel off the rack—the way a paying customer might respond!   

Valuable input from fellow reader-writers can expose problems in story logic, how your characters come across, and even mundane considerations such as grammar and punctuation—problems that might cause an editor to reject the manuscript you’ve spent years working on or cause the reader to put your book back on the rack.

I’m privileged to belong to two critiquing groups.  The first is a generalist group with writing interests ranging from fantasy to domestic violence, from horror to music.  The second group focuses on children’s literature such as picture books and mid-grade level fiction.  Both groups have given me broad insights into the publishing world of today as well as very specific feedback on what works and what doesn’t in my stories.

Here are some of the valuable pieces of advice or questions I’ve received recently on my novel-in-progress, The Power Club:

  • Why does a bordered section of town described as only a few acres long have a five-lane street running through it?  (I included the five-lane street so one of my characters could demonstrate his power—by leaping over traffic—but, as my reviewers pointed out, it makes no sense to have heavy traffic in such a small area.)
  • The people who live inside this area cannot leave it without government permission, yet the area includes a sporting goods store that sells guns and other hunting equipment.  (I included this scene to show two older kids bonding in a way that excludes my main character, Damon.  I relied on my memories of growing up in northwestern Missouri, where hunting was (and still is) a major preoccupation of adolescent boys.  I need to either find another way for the two kids to bond or explain why hunting equipment is allowed.)
  • Slow down the narrative so that readers don’t miss a character with a particularly cool power.  (The Power Club contains numerous kids with super-powers, some of whom are throwaway characters.  However, readers are often intrigued by such characters and want to know more about them.)
  • Why is it that some characters develop powers before adolescence?  Don’t they have to be teenagers for their powers to kick in?  (This comment was made by a writing group member whose main familiarity with super-heroes is the X-Men movie franchise.  I hastened to point out that the rules of my world work differently than the rules in the X-films.  However, it’s worth knowing that many of my readers will associate my characters with other familiar characters.)
  • How do the physics of super-powers work?  (I’ve pretty much ignored this consideration; to me, nothing destroys the fantastic world of super-heroes quicker than long-winded pseudo-scientific explanations (Treknobabble).  However—as one group member pointed out—if I’ve got a 30-foot-tall character leaping over traffic, there should be shock waves when he lands. )

While writing, it's easy to get caught up in a particular scene or character; after all, my focus in writing the first draft is on what this scene is about  What am I trying to accomplish here?  Therefore, it's easy to overlook "side" issues or to think they do not matter.  But when members of my critiquing groups notice them or think they're important, I know I need to look at the story again. 

Not all critiquing groups work for everyone, and it may take some digging to find one that works for you.  But when you find such a group, be open to every honest reaction you receive.  It’s better to make these discoveries about your story before it finds its way into the hands of an editor or a paying reader.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How Many Main Characters Should Your Story Have?

Image via Microsoft Office free clip art
The best answer is “one”.   

A story is usually defined as one character’s journey: how he got from Point A to Point B, how she solved the mystery, what he learned along the way, how she changed.  It's difficult to pull off this journey if a story has more than one protagonist or if the audience doesn't know who to root for.

Take The Wizard of Oz, for example.  This is Dorothy's story, and her desire to get back home is what the audience cares most about.  Other characters want things —the Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Man a heart, and the Cowardly Lion courage— but the story doesn’t end when they get what they want.  The story ends when Dorothy goes home.

Single Protagonists Vs. Multiple Protagonists

Writers sometimes like to experiment with multiple protagonists, however.  Recently, a friend asked me to review a script-in-progress for an online comic series he writes and draws.  After I read the script, my first question was, “Who is the protagonist?”  My friend responded that he wanted multiple protagonists, each with his or her own story arc.

I know what he means.  One of my early writing inspirations was the story telling style of St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues.  Both ‘80s TV dramas featured ensemble casts in overlapping story arcs that went on for several episodes.  Each of the dozen or so characters could be a protagonist or a supporting character (or even an antagonist) in various episodes.  I tried to emulate this writing style in my early efforts.

I’m older and (I hope) wiser now, and I’ve come to realize the benefits of writing stories with a single protagonist.  For one thing, it makes my job as a writer easier.  I don't have to find something interesting for each character to do.  Supporting characters are free to serve the needs of the plot instead of having to grow and change themselves.

Single protagonists also make my job more challenging in some ways.  When a difficult scene or passage comes up, I can't simply avoid it by focusing on a different character for awhile.

But I’ve also come to realize that the genius of shows like St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues is that they followed the single protagonist model after all—each story arc centered on a single character.  
St. Elsewhere: A Model [Spoiler Warning]

St. Elsewhere’s pilot (which you can watch on Hulu) centers on Dr. Jack Morrison (played by David Morse), an inexperienced young resident at St. Eligius hospital in Boston, who becomes attached to one of his patients, a teen-aged girl neglected by her wealthy parents.  Jack mentors the girl as he seeks to find the cause of her illness.  However, in typical St. Elsewhere fashion, his efforts lead to nothing when the girl's mother transfers her to a more prestigious hospital.

Overlapping with Jack's story are several arcs that introduce us to other main characters, including:
  • Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel), who begins a sexual relationship with Dr. Cathy Martin (Barbara Whinnery), the eccentric pathologist.
  • Dr. Annie Cavanero (Cynthia Sikes), struggling to find her place in the male-dominated field of medicine, who turns the hospital upside down to find a patient who has disappeared.
  • Handsome Lothario Dr. Ben Samuels (David Birney), who learns he has VD and tries to warn his former sexual partners, even though he can't remember all of them. 
  • Outspoken Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels), who, eager to bolster St. Eligius’s reputation, schedules a press conference to publicize the hospital's care of a bank bomber and one of the bomber's victims.

These additional arcs tell us where the series is going.  Some take several episodes or even seasons to play out.  (And, notice how some are intended to be humorous, others serious.)  Continuing story arcs gave the audience multiple reasons to tune in next week, but if the show had featured only continued stories, it would have left the audience unsatisfied.  It is Jack's story which provides that all-important sense of closure.

Multiple protagonists can add variety and spice to a series, but every story arc should focus on a single protagonist.

What do you think?  Do you like stories with multiple protagonists?  Have you used them in your own stories?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gold Dust Revisited: Reflections of Self-Publishing a Comic Book

Next month marks the sixth anniversary of Gold Dust # 1, a comic book published by Golden Sleeve Productions.  Never heard of Gold Dust?  Or Golden Sleeve?  Few have.

Gold Dust was a self-published effort that was available at only a few bookstores and comic book shops in the KC and St. Joseph area.  Gold Dust was written by me, drawn by artists Mike Sullivan and Peter Cutler, and published by me under the Golden Sleeve name.

Last Saturday, I was a featured guest at Pop Culture Comix in Overland Park, KS, during the annual  Free Comic Book Day event.   I gave away copies of the ashcan edition of Gold Dust and sold copies of the regular comic.   If anyone who picked up a copy of either is visiting this blog, welcome!  I hope you enjoyed the comic.  Please feel free to leave your comments below.

In case you’re wondering how to go about self-publishing your own comic book, here’s how to do it in four (not so) easy steps.

First Step: Network 

In 2003, I joined the Kansas City Comics Creators Network, a rather loose organization of local comic book creators.  The KCCCN (or CCN, as it later became) held regular meetings, discussed comics, shared their work, and published three volumes of an anthology called Show and Tell (each one featuring a short story by yours truly).  Through the CCN I met talented local creators such as Travis Fox (the first artist I ever collaborated with), Shawn Geabhart, and my eventual Gold Dust collaborators, Mike and Peter – many of whom I am still friends with today.

The most important benefit of networking, though, was being around other people whose goals were similar to mine and who were actively pursuing those goals.  They encouraged me to make my dream real and showed me how to do it.

Second Step: Collaborate

I did not want to create my own comic by myself.  Comics have always appealed to me because it’s a collaborative medium, involving writers, artists, editors, production staff, and publishers.  I always wanted to focus on writing, which meant I needed at least an artist to work with.

Mike Sullivan had similar interests as mine.  We were both nurtured on the Marvel and DC heroes of the ‘60s and ‘70s (though he leaned more toward Marvel and I leaned more toward DC), so we saw eye-to-eye on what we wanted this project to be.

Mike turned out to have the skills not only to draw the comic but to assemble it on computer.  He also lettered it and designed the logo and all of the characters. 

Collaboration can be tricky for comics creators, many of whom are used to working alone.  In a separate article, I wrote guidelines for successful collaboration, but when you have the right person to work with, miracles can happen.  Mike’s enthusiasm drove my own and resulted in a finished product that far exceeded my expectations.

Third Step: Patience

Mike and I were both working full-time jobs (and, in the middle of our collaboration, I switched careers), so it took more than a year to complete the comic.  This is slow by most self-published standards, but we were both feeling our way around the process, which was new to us (though Mike had already self-published his own comic,Virtual Infinity Presents).  Besides, we were in no rush.  We wanted to get it right. 

One advantage of taking our time was that I had the opportunity to write a second story to fill out the issue.  The main Gold Dust story is only 17 pages long – not knowing how long I wanted a self-published comic to be and using other locally published comics as models, I deliberately made it short.  But as the project evolved into a full-sized comic book, I knew it needed something else.  So, I wrote a second story and asked Peter Cutler to draw it.  The result is a comic with greater artistic variety and story depth than originally planned.

One disadvantage of taking one’s time is that it’s easy to get side-tracked.  Mike, Peter, and I all had other projects going on.  (In addition, Peter moved to Georgia shortly before completing his artwork.)  It would have been easy to let the project fall away, as I’ve seen many other projects do, but we were clear on our goals and dedicated to accomplishing them.

Fourth Step: Printing

There are a number of printing companies in the Kansas City area which can print comic books.  The trick is to talk to several of them, find out what they can do, their time frame, and – most importantly – the cost.  This is also where networking came in handy:  many of the CCN creators had already worked with different printing companies and could offer guidance.

In the end, it cost around $400 to print 200 copies of Gold Dust.  The price was actually reasonable since we wanted a splashy full-color cover and high quality interior paper so the comic would look sharp and last long.

So that’s how you turn an idea for a comic book into an actual, physical comic book that you can sell and sign at events such as Free Comic Book Day.  Perhaps in a future post I’ll discuss the next step—marketing your work and getting it into to bookstores and comics shops. 


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Letting the Fiction Take Over: How to Turn Your Reality into Fiction

reality (Photo credit: Loulair Harton)
When does a story become a story? How do you combine truth and fiction in a package that both entertains and enlightens the reader?
That’s a subject that came up recently at one of my writing critique groups. While discussing the young ages of the characters in my novel-in-progress, I admitted that some of the characters are based on real people I knew during my childhood. I’ve found that it is easier to write the story this way, as I have in my mind concrete images of what these people looked like. I have a sense of their personalities (or as much as I remember them), and it feels like I’m writing about real people. In a sense, I am.
So, what makes this a fictional story instead of an autobiography? Well, my characters have super-powers, for one thing.
But that’s not enough, as I’m coming to realize the deeper I get into the novel. The advice given to me by one of my fellow writers was that, at some point, you have to let the fiction take over.
This compelling advice came from a writer who knows what she’s talking about. She is writing a book on domestic violence based in large part on her own experience. However, there are many events in the book that never happened in her real life (though they may have happened to other victims of domestic abuse). One of the other writers in our group was stunned when the author admitted that a skillfully depicted scene involving a car crash never happened to her.
So, how does one go from reality to fiction?
I’m still working out the answer for myself, but here’s what I’ve discovered so far:
  • Start with a firm basis in reality. If you want to base your characters on real people in the first draft, it’s okay to do so. Bear in mind, though, that you may have to change them when you write subsequent drafts so the real people don’t recognize themselves too easily. The last thing you want is for Uncle Joe to call you up and say, “Why did you turn me into a drunken wife beater? I never did any of those things!”
  • Be clear on the truth you are trying to tell. What is the point of this story? Why is it worth writing? In a grad school screenwriting class, the professor recommended that we write the theme of the story at the top of every page to avoid getting sidetracked. If you don’t know your theme yet, that’s okay. Write at the top of each page what you hope the reader will get out of your story.
  • Revise, revise, revise. It goes almost without saying that you’re going to write more than one draft, anyway. In subsequent drafts, you get to know your characters better and have a firm understanding of what’s at their core, what you can change, and what you can’t.
  • Have others read your work-in-progress. They will point out inconsistencies that you would never think of or that make sense in reality but don’t in fiction. (Just because Uncle Joe has a lisp does not mean his story analogue should have one.) Good readers will ask the hard questions that you wouldn’t think of or may not want to ask.
  • Never get too attached to anything you’ve written. There’s an old axiom in writing: “Kill your children.” Everything you’ve written is subject to change until it sees print (and, given the possibilities of e-books and the like, maybe not even then).
All good stories have some basis in reality, some truth that lies behind the fiction. Begin with that truth, but be willing to change everything else so your story can have the impact you desire on the reader.
Tell me your thoughts: How do you let the fiction take over?
To leave a comment, click on the title of the article, above, and then scroll down.
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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...