December 12, 2008

Help Me Write! - Character Development

Last post, I talked about what Nathan and I are attempting to accomplish with—the type of story, how we want it to play out, and a little bit about what kind of audience we expect it to draw in.

For this post, I’d like to focus on some of the potential pitfalls of our approach and ask that you help us find ways around those pitfalls. If possible, I’d love to look at case studies (current movies, TV shows, or books that do what we’re trying to do, and do it well).

The first pitfall that hits many hard-hitting, action-oriented, fast-paced storylines is a lack of character development. If the action is non-stop, and the point of view (POV) is third person omniscient, how do we understand the character and his or her development? Only through their actions and behaviors.

That makes things interesting, doesn’t it?

Let me point you to one of the more popular (and controversial) books of recent years, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Place your personal opinion aside for a moment, and let’s analyze the lead character’s development…oh, wait, the lead character doesn’t develop at all (unless I’m missing something)!

He’s the same as he was when the story began. The story is an action-packed ride, there’s no doubt about that, but do we really connect to the character? Or are we just drawn into the suspense, wondering what’s going to happen next?

Here, then, are my questions:

  1. What are some action-oriented, nail-biting stories you’ve read (or seen in a movie or TV) that actually had excellent character development? (hint: think of characters you love, generally those characters have developed at some point)

  2. Name your favorite fictional character and why they’re your favorite.

  3. Provide me with some bad examples of characters that don’t develop at all.

December 03, 2008

Help Me Write! - Casting a Vision

A vision is nothing if not cast. Give people the tactics without telling them what the strategy is and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. Al Gore would never have been able to get the Internet started if he had just said, “Hey, let’s connect a bunch of computers.” No, I’m sure Al, when he envisioned the Internet, said something like, “Imagine a world where a wealth of information is at your fingertips!” I have to stop the analogy now; the sarcasm is dripping off the keyboard.

Becky left a great comment on the last blog post. I’m going to paraphrase, but it went something like, “What you’re proposing is not a good idea unless you’re doing something that I don’t understand.” As the guy who wrote about applying a core strategy and supporting it by adding value, I’m feeling a little sheepish. This week, then, let me explain the concept behind Let me cast a little vision.

The idea for started a long time ago. My friend, Nathan, is an excellent illustrator. I write. We got to thinking (which is sometimes scary) and thought that we’d try something different. Our concept: to bring back classic newspaper serials, only this time, we’d use Al Gore’s miraculous invention, the Internet.

The synopsis? Science fiction adventure that felt like a television show (24, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, etc.). Brief and action-packed. It would leave readers wanting more. The storyline would be supplemented by e-mails delivered to readers who sign up to receive them. Readers could even comment on the blog and become more involved in the storyline and the characters.

For style, we would take on a more comic book-like approach to the writing (along with the illustrations). Packed with action. Internet readers, who tend to have shorter attention spans, would need to be able to read it quickly and move on. Illustrations would be a huge part of it. It’s a graphic novel supported by prose.

I’ll stop there for now, but I’m sure this raises some questions. Please ask! I want this to be a story that people get excited about, and I’d love to hear your ideas! Poke holes! Offer feedback! Give me your opinions!

December 01, 2008

Help Me Write! - Just a Little Off the Top, Please

Last post we discussed writing for an online audience. Writer’s Digest posted an excellent article on writing blogs. One of their main points was that a blog post should be less than 300 words (though I've heard others say 500). As I mentioned last week, our story segments were running from 450 – 1,100 words. The WD article got me thinking...what else can I do to shorten the story segments?

Obviously, shortening the segements isn't easy. I have to make tough choices (and, by the way, I really appreciate and value the perspectives shared by Sheree, Rebecca, and belle). Now, my task is to shave 100 – 750 words off my story segments to net out at around 350 words.

One thing I've been playing with is the way I describe basic elements of the setting (i.e. scene descriptors, time of day, the character’s surroundings, etc.). Rather than develop those items through the formal prose, I’m considering a different tactic: screenplay-like descriptors that introduce each scene. Here’s an example:



FRIDAY, NOV. 22, 1963 – 12:35PM

This approach saves time by telling readers where the characters are and what time it is (crucial when you’re jumping back and forth through history).

Now, it's your turn to weigh in:

  1. What do you think of this approach?

  2. How does this approach help the reader? How does it hurt the reader?

  3. Do you have any other suggestions that might save time? For example, should I add the character names to each title bar?

November 21, 2008

The New Series - Help Me Write!

Yes, it has been another long hiatus for me. Turns out wedding planning and house buying is time consuming. Who knew?

While I have a brief respite, I thought I’d start a new series on Constructing Stories. Some of you may know that I write (with the help of Nathan Scheck and my soon-to-be wife, Jessica), a free, online serial story. It’s science fiction adventure—fast-paced and action-oriented.

We released half the storyline (which is currently posted) before realizing that writing for the Web meant altering things even more so than we had initially anticipated. The story needed to be brief, hard-hitting, and compelling. We want people to keep coming back every time a new episode is released.

My next few blog posts are all about how to effectively re-write and re-concept First up: cutting the fat. Story segments have ranged from 450 – 800 words. That’s way too long for the Web. Each post will be 350 words, max. Here’s an example of a comparison:

Old Version:

Silence, then a faint buzz followed by static. Marcus Kline cursed, shaking the communicator. With all the technology infused into the operation such glitches were uncommon, hazardous, and incredibly frustrating. The side effects of molecular teleportation were as varied as they were dangerous. A poor connection through the communicator was last on his list of things to worry about.

New Version:

Silence, then a faint buzz followed by static. Marcus Kline cursed. The side effects of molecular teleportation were as varied as they were dangerous. Communications failure could mean disaster.

I would love to hear your thoughts. To get the discussion started, let me raise several questions:

  1. Do you miss anything that the first version had that the second version doesn’t?
  2. Which version do you feel would be easier to read online?
  3. Which version do you prefer?

August 31, 2008

Market Research

Finally…I’m Back

After a two-month hiatus, I’m finally back! What happened? In short…vacation, a missions trip to the Dominican Republic, designing an engagement ring, and proposing to my girlfriend (who said, “yes,” and is now my fiancée).

Continuing where I left off, let’s apply another business principle to our writing lives…

Market Research

You’ve defined your goals, strategies, and maybe even worked in a few tactics. For example, let’s say you’re primarily writing to entertain, but you also want to provoke thought. You’ve also chosen to write science fiction adventure stories (which is a tactic that we’ll get to in a future post). That’s your brand. Think about a brand as the answer to this question, “What do you think about (writer’s name)?” In the example listed above, we’re hoping that the answer is: “He writes fast-paced, action-oriented science fiction that will make you think along the way.”

With your core strategy and value proposition settled, it’s time for market research. How do you do market research?
  • Look at what your competitors are doing. Try to define what their strategy is.
  • See what publishers are releasing to the marketplace.
  • Determine a target audience (one that would respond favorably to your strategy and tactics).
  • Match audience demographics to published works.
All of that takes a lot of time, but the benefits are huge. You’ll know what other writers (your competition) are doing, which can enable you to differentiate and stand out in the crowd. And, you’ll be able to give publishers and your target audience exactly what they’re looking for, increasing your chances of being published. And, in the long run, you’ll increase book sales.

What are some ways to do market research?
  • Read. Books, magazines (The Writer, Writer’s Digest, etc.), websites, and everything else you have available to you.
  • Talk to other writers. Collaborate.
  • Visit publishers’ websites. Talk to editors and agents. Ask them what they like and dislike. Ask them what they’re looking for. Ask them what the market is demanding.
Market research takes a lot of time, but the benefits are worth it. I’ve had success in the past by researching what editors were looking for and then writing a story to match that. What are some valuable sources for market research?

June 30, 2008

Example: How to Define a Core Strategy

By J Sherer

Taking last week’s theoretical framework, let’s look at an example to showcase how it plays out. Theories are great, but if you can’t apply them to produce results, they don’t mean much.

Question #1: How can my writing add value to my readers?

Starting at a very high level, I’m going to use my own writing as an example. Notice I’ve numbered the value-added criteria. That’s important, because those numbers will help define your priority. That said, I add value by:

1. Providing entertainment.
2. Inspiring others.
3. Provoking thought.

Priority is essential. Imagine me sitting in front of my computer. I come to a place in the story (whether I’m writing the first draft or editing) where I have to decide what’s more important, entertainment or inspiration. If I can’t pull both things off, I have to strategically choose between the two. The choice may be subtler than that. In any given story arc or passage I may have to choose which element to emphasize. My core strategy should define that.

My core strategy defines whether or not I should write an action sequence or a heated argument, use simple sentences or complex, it may even help me choose a genre and define the story’s characters or its focus (especially true in journalistic writing).

Question #2: How do I want my readers to respond to my work?

Take yourself out of the writer’s shoes for a moment and place yourself on the opposite side of the page. Become your audience group. What does your audience expect? Do they want to be introduced to new ideas? Thrilled? Pushed into action?

Look at Dan Brown, writer of the bestselling The Da Vinci Code. While his primary purpose is to entertain, he definitely writes to provoke thought as well (though, in my opinion those thoughts are totally bogus...but at least it's interesting). His audience expects that from him. That’s his core strategy. That’s how he adds value.

Start at the core strategy, because it’s going to affect everything else you choose to do through your writing. If you have questions or comments, I’d love to hear them. Also, I’m headed out on vacation for a couple weeks (and doing some research for a novel I’m working on), so it may be a little while before you hear from me again, but I’ll be back soon to finish out the series. Thanks for reading!

June 28, 2008

Adding Value

By J Sherer

Last post I asked all the readers to consider the question: why would anyone want to read my work? As a business must consider how to add value to its customers, so too does the writer. As a business chooses a core strategy, so too can the writer.

Let’s dig a little deeper. First, take the concept of added value. What options exist for adding value? Here are a few (I’d love to hear your thoughts as well):
  • Provide entertainment
  • Provoke thought
  • Relate common experiences or emotions
  • Develop an understanding or teach
  • Inspire (or maybe depress)
  • Offer social commentary
  • Express creativity
There’s a variety of ways to add value. Those are just a few. To compare, businesses add value through: excellent customer service, cutting-edge products, reliable service, etc. Either way you look at it, the writer/business is providing a product that is consumed by a given audience.

Many works of art include several levels of value-added material. The writer might provide entertainment while simultaneously provoking thought and offering social commentary. The key is to strategically choose your main focus. Don’t choose too many, because you will dilute your purpose. Let’s use a popular writer as an example.

Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and Congo, writes first and foremost to entertain, but he also weaves in scientific facts and things he has learned about his subject. His strategy? Primarily to entertain, but in a way that heightens the readers knowledge.

When defining your core strategy, answer two questions:
  1. How can my writing add value to my readers?
  2. How do I want my readers to respond to my work?
These are two simple questions with millions of possibilities. Start at a very high level. Prioritize your answers. Maybe you want to provoke a new thought process with your readers, but is that more important than entertaining them? Don’t get too detailed just yet, that will come soon enough.

In the next post I’ll walk through this exercise in detail to show you how it works at a functional level. In the meantime, answer questions one and two (and if you feel up to it, post your answers in a comment).

June 25, 2008

Core Strategy and the Value Proposition

By J Sherer

Four generic business strategies exist in the modern business environment:
  1. A complete customer solutions strategy encompasses providing many different products and/or services in tandem in order to meet multiple customer needs all in one place (e.g. Starbucks, IBM, Micrsosoft).
  2. Following a product innovation strategy means that an organization will constantly release the newest and/or best products in its selected category (e.g. Apple, Google, etc.).
  3. Being the low cost leader involves providing products to a mass market at a very low cost to the consumer (e.g. Wal-Mart, Jiffy-Lube, Amazon).
  4. Taking on a lock-in strategy means tying consumers into your service offering and keeping them there (e.g. L.A. Fitness, etc.).
These strategies can be combined, but are frequently used in singular (organizations can’t be all things to all people). Great. So…what does this have to do with writing?

Organizations have learned to define themselves through their core strategy because doing so allows them to clearly articulate their value proposition. What’s a value proposition? Simply stated, it’s what a company will provide consumers that will add value to their lives. Every company needs to ask itself that question. Why would consumers pay us money for this product?

Now, writers, take a step back. Ask yourself this: why would anyone want to read my work?

Let’s take one of the businesses listed above to explore possible answers. Starbucks. What does Starbucks provide its customers so that they’ll pay an absurd amount of money for coffee? The answer? Their value proposition:
  • Excellent coffee.
  • Friendly baristas (that remember your name and drink of choice).
  • Casual, relaxing, and inviting atmosphere.
  • Complimentary products (muffins, music, etc.).
We know how Starbucks gets people to pay for coffee, but do you know why people should read what you write? Think about it. You’re going to spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen. What is it that you’re going to provide that will add value to the reader’s experience, and what core strategy are you going to utilize in order to get there?

Let’s explore that together.

June 23, 2008

The Business of Writing

By J Sherer

Profit. Shareholder wealth. Net income. Growth. Terms you might hear tossed around a table by a couple businessmen in khaki slacks polo shirts. Business has become increasingly significant in today’s world. Because of that, it has been studied, analyzed, and critiqued on a massive scale. That means there’s a wealth of resources regarding how to be successful in the business world.

In the writing world, though, “business” quickly becomes a dirty word. How many times have you read a novel and scoffed, “This guy has no talent! How was this published? He must have a great agent.” Or, maybe you’ve seen the rejection letter that states, “This is a good story, but it’s not right for our audience.”

Poor writers get published and make millions. Great writers struggle for years with little or no success. As writers, we shake our heads, frown, and blame a fairly generic term: “business.”

Are we being fair? Yes. Business principles will help or hurt your writing. But, they can go even one step farther: they can help you hone your craft.

There are two sides to the business of writing:
  1. Getting your work out on the market for consumption. The final product. Business principles apply directly, because publishers are looking for customers. Money is exchanged. It’s a business transaction.
  2. Developing our craft, polishing the art, and letting our creativity loose on the page. Business principles apply here? Yes, but far more subtly.
My intention is to analyze both sides so that you can look at your writing from another perspective. Hopefully, it’ll cause you to think about things in a new way, and maybe it’ll even help improve your writing.

Business is a lot more than just money. There’s a science to business that can be replicated across job functions and industry types. Writers can use the same principles executives use to drive success.

As I dive into this series, I would love some feedback. Is there anything that you’re interested in knowing about business? Maybe you’ve heard some buzzwords but you’re not sure they relate? Let me know and I’ll integrate that into this series. Should be really fun.

June 21, 2008

Disappearing Characters - On Being a Professional Amateur

It’s with great sadness that I present to you the last of Maya’s series on being a professional amateur. I’m sure it’s not the last time Maya will appear on Constructing Stories. Besides, I do need to start righting my own posts again at some point, right?

Disappearing (or Uni-tasking) Characters
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Waldo appears in chapter three and has an epic encounter with the villain, saves the day and endears himself to a female protagonist. He then promptly disappears for the rest of the book, while the reader is left to wonder where he went.

This is such a familiar scenario in the manuscripts I see that I begin to suspect the "Where's Waldo?" fad was started by a college level creative writing instructor or a convention workshop coordinator.

Characters are not widgets. By this I mean that they are not convenient objects that you can invent, use, and then discard by simply forgetting about them—sort of literary uni-taskers. Once you've written a character he or she has a certain reality in the reader's mind and in the world you created for the characters to function in. Your reader will think of Waldo as a person, even if to you he is just a convenient way to "off" the head troll.

There are several solutions to this. You might find another way to kill the troll that does not involve inventing a character just for that purpose. Let one of your main characters do it. Or turn Waldo into a multi-tasker. Give him a life. You might find he helps you write a better book. Better yet, back up and take a long look at the structure of your story. If you've had to invent a character for a specific purpose, ask yourself why that is and what it says about your story that once that purpose is fulfilled, the character has ceased to matter to you. Then address that issue.

You may find that the action involving the character:
  1. Is taking place at the wrong time in the story.
  2. Needs to be set up more thoroughly as part of the fabric of the story.
  3. Is not as central to the plot of the story as you thought and can be cut.

Have you enjoyed Maya’s series, “On Being a Professional Amateur?” If so, check out her website at In the meantime, I’ll be posting a series on how business strategy and writing craft actually may be related. Shocked? Sign up for the RSS so you don’t miss it. And, please let me know how you liked Maya’s series! Thanks!

June 15, 2008

Enter Stage Right - On Being a Professional Amateur

It’s been a little while since I posted! Business travel, completing my MBA, and deciding to travel to the Dominican Republic this summer have been taking up my time. But, I am excited to complete Maya’s series this week. Today is the sixth installment, and later this week I’ll post the seventh. Enjoy!

Enter stage right
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Many new writers I've worked with insist on walking characters into every scene. Literally.

It goes something like this: Van entered the house from the back door and set his lunch box down on the kitchen table. He walked across the room and opened the refrigerator where he took out a can of soda. He opened it and took a drink. Then he went into the living room and walked toward the bottom of the staircase. He entered the front hall and realized the front door was wide open. Someone had entered his house.

Cataloguing every move Van made when he got home from work before we get to the key Moment he discovers his house has been violated just softens the impact of that Moment.
To get off to a faster start, we might try something like this: Van was halfway across the living room, his mind on the can of ice cold soda he'd just opened, when he realized his front door was hanging wide open. He stopped and stared at it. Dear God, what if...? He realized he was holding his breath, listening to the house.

You may have heard the advice to start your story where it actually starts—that is where the action, suspense, conflict, etc. kick in. This is also true of individual scenes within the story. You don't have to describe your characters entering a room together and sitting down before they begin conversing. Bring us into their conversation as the first really important issue is raised or the first critical question asked. Bring us into the action the moment before something happens.

If you want the reader's heart to race, write the moment your character's heart begins to race. Whether it's the start of a book or a chapter or a scene, you want to get off to the most engaging start you can.

Thanks for stopping by! There’s only one more segment to Maya’s series, so please stop by later this week to check it out. After that, I’ll be starting a series on applying business principles to your writing to increase your chances of success! Sign up for the RSS feed so you don’t miss it!

May 31, 2008

Black Box Scenes - On Being a Professional Amateur

Balance. Under explanation. Over explanation. Somewhere in the middle the perfect set of words exists. That rule holds true for dialogue, description, history…and scene settings. This week, Maya discusses ways of ensuring our writing doesn’t tip the scales.

Black Box Scenes
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

I recently edited a manuscript in which two characters were described as being in a theater. A dialogue ensued and I visualized the duo sitting in the empty hall chatting. I was surprised when the writer mentioned someone nearby coughing. Suddenly, the hall was populated and I had to revise the picture in my head. A page later, I was informed that this pair was waiting in the wings to go onstage, that the cough had come from their stage manager who had the flu and that there were a lot of other folks coming and going backstage.

Every piece of new information was like a tiny electrical shock that forced me to reorient myself. As a result I lost the sense of where I was, both in the characters' world and in their conversation.

But aren't we supposed to avoid lumps of exposition aimed at setting scenery? Generally speaking, yes, and there is a delicate balance between giving the reader enough information and giving her too much. The key is in carefully choosing what information you give. Ask yourself: what cues will set this scene most effectively?

For example:

"Did you see Susan today?"

"Today? No, why?" Tony peered across the stage to where a knot of actors assembled in the stage-left wings. He checked, again, to make sure the stunt pistol he needed for the upcoming scene was in his suit pocket.

"She's dyed her hair pink," Eric said. "She says because it's your least favorite color."

The reader knows immediately that the characters he's eavesdropping on are actors waiting to go onstage in a play. Just the glance across the stage may be enough to allow the reader to visualize the place, and a quick mention of the other actors populates the scene. The reader may also suspect, based on the dialogue, that Susan and Tony were a couple who split acrimoniously.

Yes, you could also just front the dialogue with a lump of exposition, but what would be the challenge in that?

If you’re new to Constructing Stories or you just missed the last few posts in Maya’s series, you can see all her other posts here. Thanks for stopping by!

May 24, 2008

Character Acrobatics - On Being a Professional Amateur

Sloppiness, language abuse, mixed metaphors… what’s next? Character acrobatics. Maya gives us another element of craft to watch out for. Unlike the previous entries, though, this one isn’t about sentence and paragraph structure, but about visualizing and tracking our characters…

Character Acrobatics
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Do you know where your characters are?

No, seriously. In any given scene, do you know where your characters are and what they're doing? Does your reader?

In one manuscript I edited recently, our hero was walking, then he was on horseback, then he was walking again. First he had a rifle, then there was no rifle, then there was... (No, wait. Isn't that a song by Donovan?)

Will-o-the-wisp characters indicate the scene is not written vividly enough to fix such an important detail as where the characters are in the writer's mind. If you can't picture where your characters are, your reader won't be able to either.

How does it happen? Sometimes the writer induces errors in logistics during the editing process, unintentionally deleting a line and leaving the heroine sitting in a chair by the window when he meant her to stand and cross the room to confront the villain. It's a shock to the reader when she suddenly slaps the villain across the face. You can just imagine how the villain feels.

Sometimes the writer simply loses track of where the character is, either because he wasn't paying attention when he wrote the scene or because he wrote the scene over a period of time.
In any event, the problem is careless editing. The writer never goes back and carefully rereads the scene. I know a number of writers who hate rereading and editing so much that they will do almost anything to avoid it (even paying me to do it for them). Why? I don't know. Personally I find editing as much or more enjoyable than writing. It's where I get to mold the details of my story. It's where the characters develop nuance of personality and mannerism. It's where the plot takes on new subtlety.

The antidote to this is careful editing, visualizing the scene as you read it, rather than allowing the image in your head to set the scene. Remember, your reader can't read your mind—only the words you put on the page.

I better go back over the last short story I wrote… In the meantime, stay tuned for the next segment of Maya’s series (on properly setting the stage for a scene). Thanks for stopping by!

May 18, 2008

Mixed Metaphors - On Being a Professional Amateur

If you’ve read Maya’s books or even her interview here on Constructing Stories, you know she excels at crafting powerful metaphors. Today, she helps us figure out how to do the same. And, if you haven’t already, check out her posts about sloppiness and language abuse.

Mixed Metaphors
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: This seemed a long way from the moment in which Gregor clearly saw through me as a fish out of water, acting out an unnatural scene.

How many metaphors did you count? I got three:
  1. He saw through me (meaning, I was transparent to him).
  2. He saw me as a fish out of water (meaning, he saw that I was out of place).
  3. He saw me as an actor in an "unnatural" scene.
Mashing these three ideas together results in what's called a "mixed metaphor." Our hero is a window, a fish, and an actor all in one sentence.

When this happens, the reader is at a loss to know which metaphor to go with. While in this case he may not literally envision each of these, the use of three metaphors blurs the emotional "image" of the relationship between these two characters.

What's a good metaphor? One that gives you more than one tangible image to hang your observations on. For example, let's say you go with the initial image of the window. You might say: "This was a long way from the moment in which Gregor clearly saw through me, stripping away any pretense of curtain or color."

In selecting a metaphor, think about what the images that go with it mean—how they look, sound, taste. Chose one that sends a single message to the reader's mind, such that each image you add enhances or focuses it. In the sentence above, Gregor sees through our hero as if he were a window without curtain (concealment) or color (disguise).

Check out Maya’s previous posts in this series, “On Being a Professional Amateur," and don’t forget to sign up for the RSS feed so that you won’t miss the next one!

May 13, 2008

Language Abuse - On Being a Professional Amateur

In Maya’s second post, she writes about some of the ways writers abuse language. How have you seen other writers abuse language? Leave a comment and let us know! And, if you haven’t already, check out Maya’s first post of the series on “sloppiness.”

Language Abuse
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: To attempt any consideration of Gaudi's life, he must be placed in his time and located in his place. To accomplish this, an overstanding of how he came to be is indispensable.

These two sentences have several problems:
  1. Bloat
  2. Word misuse
  3. Redundancy
Sentence #1 begins: "To attempt any consideration of..." When you see a phrase like this in your prose, deconstruct it. Try simpler synonyms for the words you've chosen. A bare bones rendering of this phrase is "To try to think about."

But that's not all. This is action once-removed. We are not going to think about Gaudi's life, we're only going to try to think about it.

The sentence continues: "he must be placed in his time and located in his place." This is a passive and bloated way of saying, "we must know when and where he lived."

Sentence #2 tells us what we must do to accomplish "this." "This" what? To accomplish trying to think about Gaudi's life, or to accomplish placing him? Oh, and don't bother to look up "overstanding" in the dictionary—it's not a word. The writer meant "understanding," but wanted something that sounded bigger and less ordinary.

Ultimately, he meant to say: "To understand Gaudi's life, we must understand the context in which he lived it." And: "To understand Gaudi, we must understand the forces that shaped him."

If you're thinking that the second sentence is virtually a repeat of the first, you're right. The writer used two sentences to convey what he might have done more clearly in one. In the end, he failed to convey the idea because he was overreaching. He was trying to sound eloquent by reaching for words and phrasings he wasn't at home with.

What to do? When you write, write simply. Get down the bones of your story. Use words that come naturally to you—words you don't have to look up. Go back later with your editor hat on and maybe look for nicer, more eloquent words and phrasings. But make sure you know your tools—words—before you use them. And don't repeat yourself—say it once; say it best.

This post reminds me of the old KISS philosophy: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It's true, though. There's no reason to say more than you need to. You're just wasting good words. What are your thoughts?

May 08, 2008

Sloppiness - On Being a Professional Amateur

Constructing Stories presents the first installment of Maya’s series, “On Being a Professional Amateur.” Please let me know what you think!

By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: Pausing for a moment to look over at the commander he noted the slight of approval who said, “besides, to obtain Washington approval could take months and we can’t have civilians interfering in our politics.”

What’s wrong here? Lots. In the first clause there’s a comma missing after “commander,” a word missing after “slight” (“nod”, I’m assuming), and a misuse of the word “who.” The phrase as written says that the Slight (Nod) of Approval is “who” uttered the rest of the sentence.

In the dialogue that follows, “besides” is not capitalized and should be, “Washington” should be possessive (Washington’s) but isn’t, and the sentence is run-on.

A run-on sentence is one in which there are two independent clauses that aren't separated by a semi-colon. In simple terms it means that there are two separate things happening here—the acting character (He who is not named) looks at the commander, the commander nods (we think) and one of the two men delivers the line (though we don't know which one).

How did this happen? The writer has not bothered to craft his sentences. He has thrown them down and just left them where they lie. It is, to use a cooking metaphor, a bad job of plating. This sloppiness fails to communicate clearly 1) who’s pausing, 2) who's nodding, and 3) who’s talking.

If a reader is patient enough and determined enough, she might realize that the soldier paused to look over at the commander, who nodded and uttered the dialogue. But it’s our job as writers to write clearly enough that that level of patience and determination isn’t necessary.

The moral of the tale? Your reader should not have to use a pickaxe to dig gems of communication out of your prose. Reading should be less like mining and more like picking shells off a beach. Reading your prose over carefully aloud can help find problem areas.

Do you agree? Let Maya and I know what type of “sloppiness” bothers you. What do you struggle with personally? Share your thoughts!

May 04, 2008

Introduction - On Being a Professional Amateur

When Constructing Stories started, I envisioned it being a place where writers could discuss how best to tell stories. Part of that vision was fulfilled when Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff became the first writer to be interviewed on this blog. Now, a little over a month later, she’s also the first to write an entire series of posts for Constructing Stories. It’s another way to bring different viewpoints to the table, and I’m thrilled to have Maya as a guest writer.

Having written six novels (with more on the way), Maya is uniquely gifted and full of valuable insights. Her series, “On Being a Professional Amateur,” starts today and will continue for the next 5-7 weeks. Tell all the writers you know to stop by and share their opinion, and be sure to sign up for the RSS feed so that you don’t miss a post! Enjoy!

On Being a Professional Amateur
by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Defining “Amateur”

To be an amateur in the original sense of the word simply means to do something for love, though our culture has added the rider, "not for pay." An amateur writer, then, is generally taken to mean one who’s not paid for her efforts.

“Amateur” has also come to mean someone who lacks polish, skill and craft. Synonyms for “amateurish” include: unprofessional, sloppy, inept, slipshod, clumsy, crude. That doesn’t sound good.

To me, truly being an amateur writer—a lover of writing—means you love your craft enough to have a professional attitude toward it, a desire to do it with the highest level of skill you can. So, how do you make your craft reflect true amateurism and not the other kind? By weeding out the signs of amateurism and cultivating craft.

In this series of short articles, I'd like to offer some ideas on how to spot the "weeds" of amateurism in your writing.

What do you think of Maya's definition? Leave a comment and let us know! Maya's next post (coming next week) will tackle the issue of "sloppiness" and how not to let it creep into your writing. Don't miss it! Sign up for the RSS feed before you leave!

April 28, 2008

Summer Preview

I hope you enjoyed the series on structure. It was a concise overview, but hopefully it added some value for you. Please let me know what you think.

There’s a lot going on here at Constructing Stories! Here’s a preview of what the summer is going to look like:

That’s just what's planned so far. What are you dealing with? What would you like to discuss with other writers? Let me know and I’ll address that topic so that we can facilitate some learning around it. And, if you’re a writer who has something important to say, send an e-mail to so we can talk about how you can post a series on Constructing Stories.

Thanks for reading! If you like what you see and you’re intrigued by what’s coming up, please take a minute to sign up for the RSS feed. There’s a lot happening over the summer, and I don’t think you’ll want to miss it!

April 25, 2008

The Beginning of the End

Act I set up the story. Act II fleshed out the critical elements. Act III should be easy, right?

Answering Questions

If you’re using a framework (I’ve been using Syd Field’s screenwriting paradigm), then you’ve actually been looking at the end of your story from the very beginning. You might not know specifics, but you probably have a pretty good idea how to answer the following questions:

  • Characters: How have they changed? What have they experienced that has helped them change? What critical actions need to take place in Act III that prove that the character has changed?
  • Plot: What are the outstanding plot elements? What needs to be answered for the reader to be satisfied? What “loose ends” need to be wrapped up in order to call the story “finished?”

Even if you’re not using a framework, these are still pertinent questions that must be answered for the reader to feel fulfilled. Now you’ve got a starting point.

More Questions?

That’s what you need to answer, but there’s also the how. Act III is your opportunity to showcase your character’s growth. Often times, characters are reacting to situations that arise throughout the story. The antagonist(s) is acting and the protagonist is reacting.

In Act III the tables change. It's the protagonist’s duty to act. Why is this so important? Well, for one, the protagonist’s actions should prove that she has changed. Two, it ends the story with a climactic event. This is where the protagonist resolves the problem! Up until now she has been fighting to get to this very place.

To sum up Act III: this is where you resolve all the reader’s questions, showcase how the main character has grown (through her actions), and resolve all the story’s loose ends. When you put it that way it sounds so easy, right?

April 12, 2008

Act II is...Long?

You made it through the first act. You focused on the main character, you setup the story, and you engaged the reader. Excellent.

Now what?

Act II is the most difficult act to write. It’s twice as long as Act I, which means it’s twice as hard to keep it on track. It is divided right down the middle by the midpoint of the story, so that helps, but it’s still easy to lose focus.

Conflict and Growth

Syd Field’s paradigm uses the midpoint to divide Act II into separate parts. That allows the writer to re-focus her efforts in story segments. Each segment of Act II should propel the story forward. And therein lies the key to writing a successful second act: concentrated conflict and growth.

In Act II, the writer must move the story forward. Do you know where your story begins? Do you know where it ends? What’s the critical path for getting from point A to point B? That’s Act II.

Think of it as a road trip. You start in Los Angeles, end in Orlando. You’ve got a beginning (the setup), and an end (the result of trip and how it changed your characters). The journey between the two cities is Act II.

The Road Trip

The analogy works for two reasons. One, Act II must keep moving. You’re not going to get to Orlando (or the end of your story) unless the car is going somewhere. Two, the story isn’t going to be interesting without conflict and growth. Something has to be happening that moves the story forward. Characters struggle, learn, overcome, and eventually change.

Here’s where Act II becomes painful.

What were the most critical stops on your road trip? What events on the journey made the most impact? When you reached Orlando and looked back, what really contributed to your learning and growth? Anything that may have been cool, but didn’t amount to much by the time you reached Orlando has to go.

Act II is about concentrated conflict and growth. The story becomes the focus. It’s intentional, and demanding.

April 05, 2008

Act I - Goals

Last post, I mentioned that when the writer works within a framework or structure, he or she has the ability to knowingly or intentionally break the rules. If, as a writer, you don’t have a set of rules or guidelines to play with, then you won’t know when you’re breaking the rules.

How, then, do you figure it out?

Press on…

Take Act I and focus in on what needs to be accomplished before we hit Plot Point I and dive into Act II. What are your goals for Act I? What do you want the reader to experience? When Act I is over, what is it you want the reader to think, feel, and understand?

Here are some possibilities:
  • Goal #1 - The Main Character: the reader understands and begins to associate with the main character (including the key obstacles that he or she needs to overcome).
  • Goal #2 – The Foundation: the story’s premise and plot are developed.
  • Goal #3 – Engagement: The reader is fully engaged in the story and can’t put it down.
These goals give us focus and hold us accountable. We now know what we want to accomplish in Act I. We can measure it. Take your goals and infuse them into your structure. Can you break some of the structural rules and still accomplish your goals? Try it. See if it works. Measure it.

Goals are important. They define how we will interact with the fictional world around us. The next time you sit down in front of the keyboard or notepad, write out your goals and intentions for Act I. Try it!

Did I miss any critical goals for Act I? Do you have a different set of goals when you begin to put words on a page? Let me know!

April 03, 2008

Jump Right In - Act I

Act I is one of the more enjoyable acts to write. Why? Because we start writing! We explore, test out our characters, and determine the setting and tone for the rest of the story. Act I is critical. If we want our audience to keep reading (or watching), we must engage them!


You’ve got an idea of what your story is. You’ve got a path for your characters to follow. How do you get this plane off the ground? Let’s keep examining the paradigm I use that was created by Syd Field:

Divide Act I into three distinct, evenly spaced sections. If Act I is 25 pages, then each section is 8 pages long. According to Mr. Field and his paradigm, here’s what those sections should look like:
  • Pg. 1-8: Present the main character and showcase her problem.
  • Pg. 9-16: Focus on main character and demonstrate how this problem is affecting her life.
  • Pg. 17-24: Identify exactly what the problem is (culminating with Plot Point I).
Dial into your main character. The character must grow throughout the story. Determine where the character is and how she’s currently interacting with the world around her in Act I. Build tension. Set the tone. Allow the reader (or viewer) to become entrenched in the fictional world around them.

Writing a Novel vs. Screenwriting

I break the rules in Act I. Screenwriting requires extreme brevity. The focus must be on the main character throughout Act I. Writing a novel, however, allows for increased complexity. While I still focus most of my attention on the main character, I also add elements (usually from other major characters) that will appear later in the book.

And that’s why paradigms are so effective. You can intentionally break the rules and get away with it.

What’s your initial reaction to Act I? What do you do differently? What do you do that similar?

Referenced in this post: The Screenwriter's Workbook by Syd Field.

March 30, 2008

Exploring the Storytelling Paradigm

I’ve been promoting Syd Field’s storytelling paradigm, and yet I haven’t explained any of the details behind the technique. Let’s examine the components, and please share your thoughts.

The Structure

I wrote previously that Mr. Field’s plot structure revolves around four distinct segments of a story. Take a story, divide it into four evenly spaced sections, and you’ve got the basic structure of the paradigm. For a simplified example, let’s say the story is one hundred pages long. Here’s what the paradigm would look like:
  • Act 1: pg. 1 – 24 (culminating with Plot Point #1)
  • Act 2a: pg. 25 – 49 (culminating with the Midpoint)
  • Act 2b: pg. 50 – 74 (culminating with Plot Point #2)
  • Act 3: pg. 75 – 100
Outline…Paradigm…What’s the difference?

Each of these segments (along with its corresponding plot points) has a specific purpose. This is critical because it sets the stage for the story and supplies the writer with intentional guidelines in order to move the story along at the right pace.

An outline allows you to be more creative, but it lacks direction. Syd Field has examined exceptional storytelling in an effort to give writers tools that build interesting stories that engage readers.

Next post, I’ll get into more specifics surrounding each act. Do you have any initial responses to the technique? Have you used it? What do you use? I’d love to hear from all the writers out there.

Referenced in this post: The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field.

March 27, 2008

Take Syd Field’s Advice

Why do I use Syd Field’s storytelling paradigm? Several reasons:

Modern storytelling is done through visual means.

Television, film, and the Internet have become primary entertainment venues. Audiences gravitate toward these mediums and are accustomed to this form of storytelling. Syd Field’s framework is perfect for the modern day audience, even when applied to prose.

It’s where the action is.

Action/adventure stories must move quickly. Engage readers from the first letter, keep them turning pages, throw in a few twists and turns, and then wrap everything up before the reader catches his or her breath. I write a lot of adventure stories, so keeping up the pace is critical. Mr. Field’s framework fits my style.

Outlines and blueprints don’t go far enough.

An outline, or a blueprint (as a recent article in Writer’s Digest) isn’t enough for me. There aren’t enough boundaries. Syd Field’s paradigm requires storytellers to think strategically so that the reader (or viewer) doesn’t get bored.

Yes, Mr. Field’s framework is prescriptive, very much so, but to me it gives appropriate guidelines that allow me to stretch and mold the story into something more exciting for the reader. The paradigm actually facilitates my creativity. It makes the writing tighter and forces the writer to think ahead.

I would highly recommend Syd’s approach, even if it is primarily for screenwriters. But what is his exact approach? That’s another blog post…

March 21, 2008

Constructing a Story

Storytelling is about choices, and there are plenty of them. I just started a novel, and now I’m sitting in the ever-present ambiguity that is “creativity.” Every writer approaches these decisions differently, but the general question becomes: Are you a planner? Or do you just jump in?

For every writer that scrawling out extensive diagrams, there’s another that just grabs some paper and a pen before going to town. I fall somewhere in the middle. A framework helps me remember where I’m going and what the reader will find interesting.

In college, I read a book by Syd Field called The Screenwriter’s Workbook. It has been one of the most influential books in my collection. Every time I sit down to write a story, I go through the process Mr. Field discusses in this book. Yes, it is a screenwriting approach, but it supplies the principles of good storytelling, no matter the medium.

The basic element in this framework involves evenly dividing your story into four distinct pieces. Then, you interrupt those segments with three critical Plot Points. Each of the four segments develops a piece of the story, and the Plot Point reveals something that keeps the reader intrigued and interested.

It’s a pretty cool framework, and it works really well. Every now and again I revisit the book just to remind myself of how stories can be told effectively. I’ll discuss the concept more throughout the month, but in the meantime, how do you set yourself up to write? What methods do you use?

March 16, 2008

Review of Maya's Interview

As you can see, Maya is an experienced and accomplished writer. Let me summarize a few of her insights and share my reactions (I'd love to hear your's as well).

1. The writer’s skill set rests in the way they use the tools available to them.

Maya loves to interact with words. That’s her passion. Before plot, characters, setting, and dialogue (all of which she also mentioned), she talked about tinkering with words and language. All are important, and she excels at each, but the answer to that question is very telling, because it reveals so much about a writer’s style. Imagine Dan Brown answering the question... “The plot comes first.” Jane Austin? “Characters bring the story to life.” And maybe Jack London? “The setting must be realistic and believable.”

Each would answer the question differently and yet in the same breath tell you that the entire toolbox is critical to the overall story. But, when you read an artist's work, notice the details of how he or she manipulates each component, utilizing their unique skill set.

2. Creativity comes from everywhere.

Maya's first vision for The Meri came to her in a dream. Other writers eaves drop on conversations and watch people interact. Some tell about their own experience. Nothing defines creativity.

3. There’s a science to good metaphors?

I loved Maya’s advice on metaphors. How many of us sit in front of the computer wracking our brains for a metaphor? Now, sit back and follow Maya’s advice. Find parallels. Keep the parallels consistent (i.e. don't mix your metaphors). Be cautious with clichés. Don’t go overboard.

4. You mean...he didn't write that?

The Writer recently ran an article about ghostwriting. Does it hurt a writer’s brand? Help it? How does a reader feel when they learn that a book was ghostwritten? I feel like I would be reluctant ghostwrite or allow someone to ghostwrite for me. I would plant myself firmly within the “J Sherer” brand and stay there, but as Maya's experience has suggested, it can be a valuable process for both writers.

5. “Two heads are almost always better than one.”

After looking at the first point again (listed above under 1. The writer's skill set...) regarding style, it's easy to see why collaborating makes sense. Let’s say one writer’s skill is in crafting exciting, "can’t stop reading" plots. A second writer’s skill is in developing characters and defining the setting. Put those two together and you’ve got quite a combo. It's something that would allow the writers to encourage, strengthen, and learn from one another, but I think Maya's advice is well thought out: someone has to be the decision-maker.

I thoroughly enjoyed Maya’s interview, and I’ve got two more writers lined up for interviews, so stay tuned for more thoughts and discussion points. In the meantime, how do the points above hit you?

March 14, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 6

Well, we've reached the final segment of Maya's interview. It's been great to hear her perspective, so I'm glad she had a chance to drop by Constructing Stories. If you haven't yet, please check out the previous segments of the interview (one, two, three, four, and five). And, if you're a writer and would like to be interviewed on Constructing Stories, please send e-mail to me at

Today, Maya talks about what she's working on and the present state of the publishing industry.

JS: So, after all we've talked about, what’s next for Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff? What projects are you working on and where will we see your name next?

MKB: Well, immediately will be Books Two and Three of the Mer Cycle (Taminy and The Crystal Rose). Beyond that, I have a novelette in the eZine, Helix and I'll have one coming up in Analog Magazine in the future, as well. I'm afraid the next novel I get in print will not have my name on it. It may be a Star Wars novel or an epic fantasy or ... who knows?

Most of my writing these days is freelance ghostwriting or editing so while I'm usually juggling several novels, a memoir or two, and some editing jobs, they're mostly other people's projects.

My husband and I will also be music guests of honor for Duckon SF convention in Chicago in June. We have three CDs out and available through CDBaby and iTunes, and at science fiction conventions everywhere.

The CDs are Retro Rocket Science, Manhattan Sleeps, and Aliens Ate My Homework.

JS: Are there any questions that you wish an interviewer would ask, even though they never do? If so, what is it, and what might your answer to it be?

MKB: Wow, that's a toughie. Well, they could ask "Tell me, Maya, what do you wish publishers knew?"

I wish publishers knew that they can't "only sell bestsellers" (as one publishing executive was quoted as saying) because there's no formula for a bestseller. Bestsellers can't be predicted. Just look at Harry Potter. And I don’t think they can reverse engineer success by looking at sales figures. For one thing, there are two sets of figures involved: How much did they put into the book, compared to how much they got out of it? Instead of looking at numbers, they need to talk to readers and find out why they bought a particular book, and if it was a good read and if so, why did they think so?

What causes a person to pick up a book (cover art, cover copy, blurbs, word of mouth) varies. And what happens after they buy the book also varies. I've bought any number of books by popular authors that I found barely readable. I bought them, but ended up not reading them, or reading them but not enjoying them much. Yet I continue to see them on bookshelves. Conversely, I've found amazing books by authors who seem to have disappeared from sight, despite the fact that their books are critically acclaimed and have even won awards. The last time I went to a bookstore I searched high and low to find even one of five books by different authors that had been nominated for awards, or whose other work I had enjoyed. Not one could I find. Yet I saw multiple copies of books in my Bought It Never Read it box. I get ads for those BINR books in my email, even.

If I can't find the book I want, I'll buy what's available. I'll fall for the idea that if there are twenty copies of author X's book on the shelf it must be a decent book. That doesn't mean it is a decent book. It just means it was available and my first choices weren't but by golly, I was going to come home with a new mystery to read!

I also wish publishers knew that they don't need to spend millions advertising Dean Koontz's next novel, or JK Rowling's or .... All they need to do is have Amazon drop us an email saying the book is available, and put a display in the major bookstores. The authors who need the advertising bucks are the ones who aren't getting them right now. The authors who may have just written a bestseller that will never even go into its second printing because there was no budget for promoting it.

Okay, I'll step down off my soapbox now...

JS: I think we all know a lot of writers that feel that way. Where can readers discover more about you and what you’re working on?

MKB: They can go to my website or, if they'd like to read some of my short fiction, they can go to my page at Author's Den. All of my books can be purchased on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s online, or special ordered from a bookstore. I also have a story (A Cruel and Unusual Punishment) in the science fiction anthology Infinite Space, Infinite God and another short story in the Best of Jim Baen’s Universe, 2006. Those are also available from all the usual suspects.

It has been a pleasure having Maya drop by and take the time to give us her perspective. I love the insights housed in this interview, and I hope you've found it beneficial as well. As a writer and a reader, I highly recommend Maya's work, so please support her writing by purchasing one of her novels or support us both by checking out Infinite Space, Infinite God!

March 13, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 5

With parts one, two, three, and four already posted, there are only two posts left to go. In today's segment of Maya's interview, she talks about what it takes to collaborate with another author successfully, where she finds inspiration, and whether or not she intends to move into screenwriting.

JS: What was it like to collaborate with another author? How does that change the way you approach writing, both before and after you slap the words down on the page?

MKB: I love collaboration. Two heads are almost always better than one. I find it exhilarating to sit down with another person and brainstorm a plot arc. That's the biggest difference—that exchange of ideas, someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to give you a reality check.

Of course there are relationship issues to work out. One writer needs to be the "senior" partner in the mix—the one who makes final decisions if disagreements come up, the one who polishes the manuscript and deals with the editor. Although Michael (Reaves) and I have also made use of our editor at Del Rey to help us resolve issues when we're really not sure which direction to take, for example.

Those issues—who decides what, etc—need to be worked out before you start writing. When I write with Michael he's the Jedi Master and I'm the Padawan. I've worked with other people in which I was the Jedi.

Often, each writer will have some area in which they're expert. So you have to work out how you want to harness that expertise. In Batman: Fear Itself, I wrote some scenes knowing that Michael, with his more expert knowledge of martial arts and Batman's weaponry, would go in and make specific references to these things where I had drafted generic terms. That worked for us. Another team might simply have had the expert writer write those scenes or had the junior writer check each factoid with the senior one as they came up.

You have to have a thick skin, be flexible and detached to be successful in a collaboration and you have to be realistic about your level of craft. If you've got all that going you can handle it when your partner points out a weakness in your plot line or a boo-boo you made in a scene. In fact, it's one of the things I love about collaborating—immediate constructive feedback. I don't have to wait until I've finished the book to find out that a plot element isn't working—my partner will catch it when he goes in to polish a chapter.

I think the single biggest concession I make to collaboration is that I let my writing be freer and "messier" in some ways. I don't sweat the details until my collaborator and I have reviewed the material and decided "it is good." Then I sweat the details.

JS: Where do you find inspiration?

MKB: Everywhere. I've written a number of stories based on dreams I've had, I've written stories because of overheard conversations, articles in trade journals or science papers, history texts, song lyrics, or just because I wanted to explore a particular idea that intrigued me, angered me, frightened me.

I read a lot in history, psychology, religion and science and have often had the experience of reading along and suddenly hitting a passage that seemed to leap off the page and proclaim: "Story here!"

Inspiration is so ever-present that I have to sometimes purposefully not "see" things because I've already got so many ideas rattling around in my head I don't know what to do with all of them. I have notebooks with ideas jotted down in them everywhere.

JS: I know you’ve written a number of articles and short stories in addition to the novels that you’ve published. Do you have any desire to pursue screenwriting?

MKB: I've actually written about half-dozen screenplays for an independent film producer in LA. Sci-fi and horror mostly. And I've committed a couple of my short stories to screenplay format just for hoots. I'd love to write a screenplay or teleplay set in the MAGIC TIME world that teleplay writer Marc Scott Zicree created. I wrote the second book in the MAGIC TIME trilogy, but the project was originally conceived as a TV series. It was Marc who first looked at my prose and said, "You should be writing screenplays. You're a natural."

To my knowledge I've only ever had one of my pieces produced, but not as a movie, but as a radio play.

There's only one more post to complete Maya's interview! Make sure you stop by tomorrow to check out the final piece. After that, I'll summarize some of the things we've learned from Maya. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

March 11, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 4

Maya's had a lot of experience, even collaborating with Emmy-winning writer, Michael Reaves. But, how does that affect the writer's work? What changes? What's more difficult? And how is it to write about Batman? Find out in the continuation of Maya's interview. And, if you haven't yet, there's still parts one, two, and three!

JS: The Meri and Batman: Fear Itself are easily contrasted and very different. Which story did you find more challenging to tell?

MKB: The Meri was my first novel, so it was a big challenge. I'd written other novel-length works, but they weren't ready for prime time, so this was the first one I'd written after I'd had some success with short fiction and half knew what I was doing.

The challenge for me was that I hadn't read that much fantasy (just Tolkien, really) and I was only writing the story because I'd dreamed it. I intentionally didn't go out and read a bunch of fantasy because I really didn't want to even be tempted to model on someone else's work. As I said, I had to make up the world, so it was tremendously challenging. I had never built an alternate world civilization from the ground up and I wanted it to be complete and realistic. In books Two and Three in the series I used the bulk of that research in the real world; in The Meri the challenge was building the magical system and religion. I've studied religion and religious history avidly, but magic wasn't something I'd dealt with before.

In Batman: Fear Itself, the challenge was in telling the story we wanted to tell without violating the publisher's sensibilities about the character. There were a number of "thou shalt nots" that I had to keep in mind as I worked. And I had to research the Batman universe. I think the best training for meeting that challenge is being an avid reader. If you can immerse yourself in someone else's universe then turn around and write in it as if it were your own, media tie-ins and shared worlds can be lots of fun.

JS: How did you prepare to write Batman: Fear Itself? Was there a lot of pressure on you to write a compelling story featuring such a famous protagonist?

MKB: Fortunately with Batman, my collaborator, Michael (Reaves), had a good first draft of an outline and has written so much in the Batman Universe (he has an Emmy for the animated series) that he's an expert. He also had written a prologue and some material for a first chapter. So my job was to learn the "language" of Batman, familiarize myself with the characters and "the story so far", and to absorb Michael's writing style.

The last one was a piece of cake—I'd already done one collaboration with him—but I did notice that there was a different ambience to the writing and I knew I'd have to adjust my style to fit it. I read a wonderful book on the forensics techniques used in Batman stories, which was of immense help, and did some additional science research on things like mass spectrometers and ballistics and neurotoxins. The next step was to nail down the outline. We brainstormed it and I committed it to paper, and then parsed the outline to get an idea of how the chapters would lay out and where key plot developments would occur.

I felt less pressure than I would have if I hadn't tried this before, but I had the benefit of having written a Riddick novel that will never see the light of day since the Chronicles of Riddick tanked. I learned a lot about working with an iconic character and discovered sneaky ways to develop new facets to a character that seemed to be set in stone.

JS: Fans have become very familiar with Batman. They’ve seen him in movies, on TV, and in the original comic books. Does that change the way you approach the writing?

MKB: Of course. As I said, you have to respect that. BUT—here's the cool thing—most people are familiar with Batman from a visual media. This means they're looking at him from the outside. Also cartoons and comics and movies are "short hand." That means I can flesh out what's behind the façade and in between the frames of cartoon or movie. I can write what the audience can't see—the thoughts inside Batman's head. So, I'll make sure he still looks the same on the outside, but inside his head I have some latitude. The fans seem to accept a certain amount of diversity of view and I think to some extent they realize that Batman and Bruce Wayne can't be on the inside what they present to the world. That would be boring. It's a challenge: How do you develop a character without seeming to change him?

There are just a couple more posts focused on Maya's interview. In the next few we'll see what inspires her, what she's working on, and where you can find her current works (and just in case you want to go buy them right now, they're on Amazon!). Don't forget to add the RSS feed for this blog!

March 10, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 3

In part three of our interview, Maya talks about her craft, something she's very passionate about. I love her advice on metaphors. If you haven't yet, please check out parts one and two!

JS: You’ve mentioned that you’re quite a “craft monkey.” When reading The Meri, I immediately noticed your exceptional choice and use of metaphor. Many writers (including myself) struggle with appropriate use of metaphor. How did you develop a talent for it?

MKB: I have no idea. The little suckers just roll off the tip of my pen. But it may have something to do with the fact that I also write poetry and lyrics, which are metaphor intensive. And my favorite writers are Ray Bradbury and WP Kinsella, who can sling metaphors like nobody's business. I do try to observe some guidelines (rules, whatever) for metaphors:

First, I choose a metaphor that has more than one element that works with my subject. Let's say I want to create a metaphor for an orator's speaking style. It's bombastic. He roars out his words and pounds the podium, growing red in the face. The obvious choice for voice is "roar." But now I get to the pounding the podium part and no leonine images come to mind. Okay, no roaring then. But what if I realize the guy is a windbag? What if I say "He was a storm in full gale—hurricane voice howling above the erratic thunder of his fist striking the podium again, again, again, his sharp, icy words falling like hailstones over the crowd." That's going overboard, but the point is a good metaphor is one that gives you all the parallels you need. What doesn't work is if you grab "roar" and, lacking animal metaphors that work, change partners in mid-dance. Or, to use a mixed metaphor, change partners in mid-stream. Then "He was a lion—voice roaring above the hammer of his fist striking the podium like an anvil, while he sprayed the crowd with word-bullets." Conjures images of a lion packing heat and wearing a combo-holster tool-belt.

Second, I try not to succumb to the temptation to go for something that's different but not apt in an attempt to avoid clichés. If a cliché is best, do something to make it fresh or just don't use a metaphor.

Third, I ration my metaphors and similes. Rather than use one in every descriptive sentence or paragraph, I try to use them when I especially want to create a strong image with emotional overtones—a moment for the characters and reader to inhabit. A lot of "young" writers just load them up—sentence after sentence. Metaphors are like perfume—a little can create a lovely ambience; a lot can overwhelm.

JS: What other elements of the writing craft do you enjoy? What do you struggle with?

MKB: I love writing dialogue. Writing good dialogue is like riding a roller coaster (which I also love). When I'm doing it I feel exhilarated, tuned in, in synch with the universe. That's true of writing in general, but dialogue is especially exciting to me because it's where the characters come to life, where they reveal themselves.

I'm told I write very good action sequences, but that didn't come naturally to me. That was a struggle to learn. I had to think about it. I also struggle with holding a whole novel in my head while I'm trying to work out plot developments. Mostly this is because with my freelance work and all, I'm trying to hold four or five plot lines in my head all at once. I've only got so much room for information in my user-friendly warmware (brain) so I keep lots of notes.

JS: What writers have influenced you? What writers do you respect and enjoy reading? What are you reading now?

MKB: I have probably been most influenced by Ray Bradbury (especially Something Wicked This Way Comes) and WP Kinsella (Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa, which became the movie Field of Dreams) and Tim Powers (Declare and a raft of other amazing books). These are writers who do amazing things with words and who have, shall we say, unique ways of looking at things.

I enjoy reading Lois McMaster Bujold—especially her fantasy—Laurie R. King, Elizabeth Peters, and Mary Stewart. I'm a sucker for mysteries and detective novels and really wish that Mary Willis Walker would write something—anything. I also read a lot of non-fiction of all kinds. Mostly history and religion and the history of religions. Science is fun to read about, too.

Right now I'm reading Star Wars novels in preparation for maybe writing one. My last "joy read" was Son of a Witch by Gregory MaGuire. My non-fic reading currently is Jews, God and History by Max Dimont, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way by Philip Jenkins and The Secret of Divine Civilization by Abdu'l-Bahá Abbas.

Tomorrow, the interview with Maya continues. I asked her a little bit more about Batman: Fear Itself and what writing a novel about such a famous detective was like. Drop back by tomorrow!

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 2

In part two of Maya's interview we delve a little further into her specific works. If you haven't yet, please read part one, and then jump back into this post!

Interview continued...

In the Mer Cycle trilogy, you created your own fictional world, but for Batman: Fear Itself you wrote in the preconceived environment of Gotham City. How is the writing experience different? How is it more enjoyable? How is it less enjoyable?

MKB: It's very different. I chose what "facts" to put into the Mer Cycle books. I had to keep track of them, keep them consistent and work out every tiny detail from language to magic to religion to monetary units, and I had free rein to do this. The characters, likewise, were mine to move and shape as I wanted (insofar as they allowed it). That's the upside of an original fantasy work—and the downside. You're out there on your own, flying by the seat of your pants and you have to make it all up. You devise the rules of the world and you have to abide by them. There's more, broader research required for a fantasy novel than for just about any other genre.

Did I say that was the downside? Not if you love research as much as I do.

With a media tie-in or any "share-cropping" book, the world and the back story are written in stone. Batman is Batman and there are some things you cannot make Batman do, not because he won't let you, but because the story canon won't. That's the downside ... and yes, it's the upside too. You've got guidelines! You've got material. Your characters are half-built and the rules of the world are in place. But of course, you have to learn them all, and your research is less the fun "ooh, what's this!" kind and more the "What would Batman use to dig a hole" variety. In other words, targeted.

What I love about making it up is the freedom and the sense of accomplishment when the Rube Goldberg machine I'm tinkering with suddenly starts to purr like a well-oiled machine and the characters make me want to kiss them or kill them. What I hate about making it up is the second-guessing: Did I do that right? Should the character be this or that? And having no one to ask if you're doing it right. (Help me, Ray Bradbury!)

What I love about share-cropping is the sheer challenge of working with someone else's tools. It's like that TV show that was all the rage a while ago—Junkyard Wars. You get to be MacGyver. Hm. I have a piece of chewed pink bubble gum and a TV remote control—what can I do with that? Start the clock, I'll think up something...

JS: The Meri (the first book in the Mer Cycle trilogy) is a book about self-discovery, character development, and change. Where did the idea for The Meri come from?

MKB: Literally a dream and a line from a Robert Silverberg novel. I dreamed a vivid, movie-like dream and knew as I was dreaming that I wanted to write it into a story. I wanted to wake up and write it, but when I managed to get one eye open (we'd gigged the night before and I was exhausted) I saw that it was 6 AM and I couldn't make myself reach for the note pad in my head board. I was afraid I'd forget the dream, so in my dream, I magicked myself up a yellow note pad and a nubby little pencil and wrote down what the characters did in a pivotal scene (it has to do with amulets). I made my dream characters perform the same scene over and over until I finally woke up and could wrap my fingers around a real pencil.

The dream sat on its notepad for months before the final two pieces of the puzzle turned up. I knew the main character was a young teen on a quest, but I didn't know what the quest really was. I had two epiphanies. One came as I was rereading my notes and realized the character that had been a boy in my dream needed to be a girl. That gave me the central conflict. I cloned the boy in my dream—he became the main character Mereddyd and her close friend Leal. I started pushing ideas around, but the final piece fell into place as I was reading one of Bob Silverberg's Gilgamesh stories and came across a phrase that made chills race up and down my spine: He was as a man on dry land and as a selkie in the sea. I knew as I read it that this was the final piece. It gave me the nature of the quest and one further plot element that I needed.

I sat down and started to write. I wrote the whole novel longhand in pencil in a series of college theme notebooks and copied the pages on the Xerox at work (with my boss' blessing) every day just in case.

JS: Mereddyd, the protagonist in The Meri, begins the story as a headstrong, often impatient, and sometimes doubtful young woman, but she develops (quite drastically) throughout the story. Do you plan for a character’s development before you begin, or does it work itself into the story as you move along?

MKB: Both. I plan how I want my character to change overall and I plan pivotal points in the story where those changes will either be catalyzed or will be put to use. But then I let the character "find" the pace of change. I try to let the changes grow out of their environment, the things that befall them, and their personalities and beliefs.

A basic element of change for a character is the type of person they are and how they regard change. Mereddyd, for example, is a person who knows she needs to change and knows she should welcome change. She's just not sure what form those changes should take or if she'll have the ability to make them—and thereby hangs the tale. Contrast her to the old Osraed, Ealad-hach, a man so afraid of change that he'll do incredible mental contortions to avoid it. People like Mereddyd bend and adapt; people like Ealad-hach don't bend, they remain staunchly rigid until they break.

JS: Mereddyd changes significantly throughout the story. Batman, on the other hand, doesn’t change much at all (he rarely does even in the comic books). How does that effect the way you approach the storytelling?

MKB: Well, therein lies one of the downsides to episodic writing. The character really can't change. It's a challenge, because in a way it goes against nature. I wrote some obvious growth into Bruce Wayne in my first draft of Batman: Fear Itself and the "powers that be" said "uh-uh". It was mildly frustrating and it caused me not to go as deeply into the character as I might have liked. I couldn't have the character forge deep relationships with other characters—especially the ones Michael [Reaves] and I created—and I had to be careful about what I revealed about him. This can be exacerbated if you're in a situation where the "owners" of the world are saying they'd like the character to grow but aren't sure how much. Also, the character's life exists on a continuum—at first, Lucius Fox doesn't know Bruce is Batman, then he suspects he is, then he knows he is. Where are we in the continuum and are the comic book people happy with the revelations in the most recent movie? The cool thing about Batman in particular though is that you're really writing two characters: Batman and Bruce Wayne. It's the points at which they come together that are tricky.

It boils down to not writing outside of what's considered canon and it does cause me to write more carefully and with less abandon. My one-time agent told me that I wrote my best when I "use the Force." Which for me means that I close my ears and eyes to anything but the internal muse and, knowing my characters as a creator knows her creation, I immerse myself in the world and write. That's not possible to any great degree with a media tie-in. But I still enjoy writing them—as I said, it's a challenge.

That concludes part two of Maya's interview. Please stop by tomorrow for the next section, and if you haven't yet, please check out part one. Thanks!