In the process of outlining next month’s novel, I’ve been paying a huge amount of attention to the basics of structure. By which I mean I’ve been working my way through my copy of Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel, which is itself a rendition of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat which was written specifically on how to structure a screenplay. Both books are utterly brilliant and thoroughly helpful, and are basically expansions on the best writing advice I’ve ever received: “The three most important things in writing are structure, structure, structure.”
First off, I’d like to say that I’m a little embarrassed at how long it took me to start figuring out even the most basic structure. And by that, yes, I do mean grade school beginning, middle, end type structure. Oh, sure, I could have told you that stories needed all three, but beyond that… not much. And I was (and am still more often than I’d like) categorically bad at actually including all three of those oh-so-important parts.
Look, I said I was embarrassed about it.
But! I’m also getting better. Way better! And following a proper beat sheet is a part of that, which is part of why I’m so excited about this upcoming month. It’ll be the first time I go in with a complete plan instead of trying to implant structure afterwards. Which might– might— mean I come out of this with a usable first draft, instead of the glorified planning phase I usually end up with. And I have nothing against the glorified planning phase! It’s fun! It’s often helpful! It’s part of why I’ve been doing NaNo for so many years. But I think going in with an outline is the next step. And I think I’m ready to take it.
SHIP LOG >> 2322.214.171.124.43.15 entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)
We found the derelict exactly where Crand told us to look for it. Always nice when the client is telling the truth. I’m sending Wolfe and Perez in to do the initial sweep, and we’ll go in for the real work tomorrow. It’s a big ship, but we should be able to clear it out of anything worthwhile in two, three days at the most. Add in four days to get back to Epsilon, and that comes out to a week before we pull in the best haul we’ve had in years. Assuming Crand holds up his end of the bargain. But what the hey. I’m feeling optimistic. Might as well enjoy the feeling until someone proves me wrong.
SHIP LOG >> 2348.10.26.06.18.40 entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)
Early start today. Initial sweep found the cargo bays intact, and it looks like the ship itself is in decent shape. No bodies, but it looks like a few of their escape pods were launched. Don’t know who would have picked them up this far out, but that’s not our problem. I’m just glad we don’t have to worry about the gore. Plus, with everything they left behind, this is a really good haul. Even if Crand tries to hold out on us, we’re going home rich from this one. Our biggest problem is going to be how we fit it all in our own hold.
ADDENDUM >> 23126.96.36.199.37.46
Haul is going well. The six of us have been doing this long enough that we’re nothing if not efficient. But we’ve also been doing this long enough that we’ve heard every ghost story out there, and they’re all set on a ship exactly like this one. The crew is hiding it, but I know they’re jumpy. Hopefully the feeling wears off with time. Because it looks like it’s going to take us the full three days.
ADDENDUM >> 23188.8.131.52.22.32
There was… an incident. Wolfe was in the hold prepping the salvage. She was working alone, so we’ve only got her word on what happened. Problem is, she’s saying there was a ghost. Not in so many words. The woman is too steady-minded for that. But she may as well have spelled it straight out for the affect it’s had on the rest of the crew. And on me, though I have to hide it. Because if Wolfe thought she saw a ghost, my first instinct is to believe that she saw a ghost.
What she actually said was that she thinks there’s still some crew onboard, because someone jumped her in the hold. And we can’t really argue with that, because she’s got the bruises to prove it. Apparently it happened when she started prying open one of the secure boxes to see if it was worth our time. She said the temperature dropped by ten degrees and someone came out of nowhere to clock her across the back of the skull. By the time she got back up she was alone, and the box had slammed back shut.
Avery tried to suggest that it was just a malfunction in the ventilation system, but he couldn’t get the words out. Not with Wolfe sitting there with a bleeding head wound. I sent them both back to the Hyena to get her patched up while the rest of us shut things down for the night. I’d been planning on working later, but I didn’t need to get my crew any more spooked than they already were. We’ll get an early start tomorrow to make up for lost time.
SHIP LOG >> 2348.10.27.07.44.11 entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)
Wolfe said she isn’t going back to the ship. She said she’d coordinate things from the Hyena, but she won’t step foot on the derelict again. She never said so, but I could tell the woman was terrified, which worried me more than anything else. With the new day I’d convinced myself that the “ghost” was the product of a dark hold and a quiet, unfamiliar ship. It was harder to stick to that story when I could see the fear in Wolfe’s eyes. I’d never known her to be scared of anything.
I told her she could stay behind.
CREW LOG >> 2348.10.27.08.13.01 entry by WOLFE, REBEKKAH
I didn’t think she was going to let me stay on the Hyena. I know they don’t believe me, and I don’t blame them. But I know we scanned for biological signatures when we arrived and didn’t find any. And I saw the logs from the derelict. The last one was dated more than five years ago. There’s no survivors on that ship, and I don’t like where that leaves us. And if Avery tries to tell me it was the ventilation system going wonky, I’ll show him wonky. Idiot. At least he knows how to patch someone up.
Captain says it’ll take us two more days to finish up here, and she’s usually right about that sort of thing. I wish she wasn’t. It’s going to be a tough two days. I could make it go faster if I joined them over there again, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Maybe tomorrow. If nothing happens today.
ADDENDUM >> 23184.108.40.206.01.18
I hate being this jumpy. I hate being scared. Eight years in the black and nothing’s ever made me wild like this before. It’s been hours since I’ve heard from the rest of them, and my mind is bent on supplying me with mental images of all the worst scenarios. Sudden, catastrophic life support failure. Toxic miasma inside some compartment we hadn’t opened yet. Undetected hull breach. Ghosts.
At least I’m not worried about getting jumped by something here on the Hyena. Small blessings. I’d comm them and check, but I don’t need them thinking I’m more anxious than they already do. It’s only been a couple of hours. They’re not even overdue. It’s just that I’ve run out of ways to organize the hold to make sure we can fit everything.
ADDENDUM >> 23220.127.116.11.14.51
Still nothing from the others. I tried comming them ten minutes ago but the system spat out a connection error, which means that either their comms are off or the signal’s blocked by something. The latter makes sense if they’re somewhere deep in the ship. That’s probably what it is. No need to panic.
ADDENDUM >> 2318.104.22.168.52.14
It’s been six and a half hours since I’ve heard from the others. I’m trying their comms every ten minutes now, and nothing’s going through. I can’t even get a connection. The Captain said she’d check in by 1700 at the latest. That’s eight minutes away. I can hope, but I already know it’s not going to happen. I don’t know why they haven’t checked in. I’m worried.
ADDENDUM >> 2322.214.171.124.31.03
They’re officially half an hour overdue. Something happened. I still can’t get through. I think I need to go looking for them.
ADDENDUM >> 23126.96.36.199.12.30
I can’t do this. I got as far as the airlock and I froze up. Couldn’t get myself to put one foot in front of the other. Because as soon as I tried the wound on the back of my skull screamed and throbbed and my mouth went dry and my hands tingled. No feeling but blind terror. If my legs had worked I would have run, but my knees were so weak I just stumbled away. If they need help it’s going to have to come from someone other than me.
ADDENDUM >> 23188.8.131.52.04.55
They’re still not back. I still haven’t gotten the comms to go through. Right after I froze up I went up to the cockpit and did a scan for bio signs. The good news was that they all showed up, Our scanners aren’t good enough to do any kind of pinpoint work, but at least I know they’re alive. That’s good enough, right?
ADDENDUM >> 23184.108.40.206.13.21
I have to go find them. I have to try. I don’t know if I can, but it’s not going to happen if I stay here sitting on my butt. Time to suck it up.
SHIP LOG >> 23220.127.116.11.00.00 entry by AUTOMATED
SHIP NOT PLACED IN STANDBY MODE: DEFAULTING TO AUTOMATED LOGS>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON BOARD>> ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL>> SIX BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON LINKED SHIP>> LINKED SHIP LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM OPERATIONAL, ALL OTHER SYSTEMS IN FAILURE
SHIP LOG>> 2318.104.22.168.00.00 entry by AUTOMATED
SHIP NOT PLACED IN STANDBY MODE: DEFAULTING TO AUTOMATED LOGS>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON BOARD>> ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL>> EIGHT BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON LINKED SHIP>> LINKED SHIP LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM OPERATIONAL, ALL OTHER SYSTEMS IN FAILURE
SHIP LOG>> 2322.214.171.124.00.00 entry by AUTOMATED
SHIP NOT PLACED IN STANDBY MODE: DEFAULTING TO AUTOMATED LOGS>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON BOARD>> ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON LINKED SHIP>> ALL LINKED SHIP SYSTEMS IN FAILURE
SHIP LOG>> 23126.96.36.199.52.13 entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)
Never again. I don’t know how we got out. Wolfe came in after us when we didn’t come back, but she’s not the one who got us out, because she was just as stuck as the rest of us. The doors just opened up again and we ran for it. Don’t know why. Don’t care why. And I don’t care how much Crand is paying, it’s not worth dying on some cursed ghost ship. He’ll have to make do with what we already grabbed. I gave the order to blow the derelict. No one else needs to deal with that thing. Hopefully the client doesn’t mind too. Too bad if he does.
The Santa Anas have returned to Southern California. At the moment, they’re not particularly warm. Or they aren’t where I am. I’m grateful for that; it’s still eerily windy, but it isn’t miserably hot at the same time. Maybe that means that fire danger is a hair lower, too. Maybe.
Despite the potential trouble they bring with them, I’ve always loved these windy days. They make me restless, as if I need to join them. As if I need to leap and climb and run. Sometimes, the feeling would come even before I consciously realized it was windy, and everything would make a sort of sudden sense as soon as I saw the flailing tree branches through the window. In college, I spent a lot of those nights running all over campus.
It makes sense, then, that winds in literature are harbingers of change. Mary Poppins arrives when “the wind’s in the east”. In Greek myth, the Anemoi were the four gods of the four winds: north, south, east, and west, and they brought the change of seasons. And then there’s that whole phrase: the winds of change.
Maybe that’s why I like those windy days so much. Ironic, given how uncomfortable I am with change in general. But when the winds are high and the breezes playful, it makes one imagine that something is about to happen. A story is about to begin. Someone is about to go on an adventure. Maybe it’s you or me.
It’s that time of year! Already! National Novel Writing Month is right around the corner, somehow, which means that the planners are busy planning and the pantsters are (maybe) coming up with a launchpad idea to take them through. Normally, I’m one of the latter. Like, hardcore. I’ll have a vague idea of the story I want to write, and if I’m lucky it’ll include helpful things like important characters and a potential ending.
If I’m lucky.
And while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself for my past few NaNos, I’ve also recognized that there are some distinct weaknesses to that style. Especially for someone like me who has Way Too Many Projects going at the same time, meaning that I don’t really spend the time to fix the chaotic tangle I end up with on December 1.
So, this year, I’m doing something different. This year, I’m planning. GASP.
And this isn’t like all my half-hearted attempts in years past where I tell myself I’ll plan, and all of a sudden it’s Halloween night and I definitely haven’t planned. In fact, I’ve been actively outlining and organizing since the beginning of September, and even if November were to start tomorrow I’d already be way more prepared than I’ve ever been before.
Right now, I’m slowly fleshing it all out in Scrivener, starting with chapter titles (which I’m really liking) and all the way down to decent summaries of each scene. Basically, it means I’m spending all the time wracking my brain to figure out where the story is going now instead of when I’ve already started writing the prose. Frontloading the delays, if you will.
Or I hope so, at any rate; this is all a massive experiment, and while it seems right now like I’ve been a planner in denial all this time, it’s also possible that I’ll decide that I’m a free spirit after all and fly off the rails as soon as I start typing. But I hope not.
But anyway! Take a look below for a sneak peak! Or, if you’ve got a project of your own, swing by the comments and let me know!
(And yes, I’m still working on Tanner and Miranda. Both projects are up right next to each other. Because I can’t do anything the easy way.)
What if… things could be better? What if this wasn’t the end?
When a shattered world starts crumbling faster, a woman must be willing to lose everything she loves for a chance to do the impossible and save it all.
Something a little different this week! My sister and I have still been exchanging writing prompts (albeit at a slower rate than in July), and this is a recent result from a musical prompt.
They had forgotten about the portal. The thin space at the valley, the one that had started all this horror. They’d known it wasn’t sealed. But sealed or not, it hadn’t been the one belching out monsters and bleeding them into the world for the past three weeks, and they had ignored it in favor of greater threats. And so there was no one to blame. Not really. Which didn’t change the fact that there was now something more terrible there than anything else that crept and prowled in from the other doors to Elsewhere.
Siana was only there because that was where they were going to take the wounded. It was supposed to be a safe place at the eye of the storm, an island of peace in the rising chaos. It was supposed to be somewhere they could, if they were very, very lucky, save a handful of lives. Instead, it became a jagged opening into depths of Elsewhere itself, and the thing that stood silhouetted against the weird light of the rift was like every monster that had ever tormented her in her worst nightmares.
It was huge. Ugly. Terrifying, and yet magnificent. It—he—stood fifteen feet tall from the soles of his two massive feet to the plated crown of his head, and thick battle armor covered every inch of him. His eyes, cold blue and baleful, stared down at her. Why he chose to take notice of her she never knew.
She had no choice. It would make no difference, she was certain, save that it let her keep her honor. Her pride. She lifted her gun, only a handgun, and fired.
Sometimes, you find a story that lodges itself somewhere deep in your soul. Maybe you know why, or maybe you just can’t figure it out. Either way, whether it’s something you watch or something you read, something about it resonates with you and grips you and won’t let go. And then, if you’re like me, you want to figure out what it is so that you can make your own stories do the same thing. Which then leads to the fear that you’re going to accidentally just rewrite the thing that inspired you in the first place.
Now, first. I know. There’s nothing new under the sun. So-called “originality” is an impossible dream. But that’s not what I’m talking about here; there’s a huge difference between writing a story that involves elves and halflings and an evil world, and writing one about a halfling called Fauxdo and his loyal friend Hamwise saving the world by throwing an amulet of power into a river lava. And unfortunately, when trying to capture the same sort of excitement that is caused by a specific work of fiction, it can be far too easy to fall back on the specific scenes that were your favorites. Or the specific characters who captured your imagination.
Then again, they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So maybe there’s a middle ground.
At the moment, my best answer is this: try to figure out what it is that captured your imagination in the first place, and why it is that this particular story seems to resonate with you the way it does. I know. That’s hard. REALLY hard. Because to do that, you have to get through to the heart of the story, past all the shiny stuff on the outside that you might also really like. But if you can do that, if you can figure what the story is actually about, at its core, then it becomes easier to tell a story about that same theme. For example: Fringe. Fundamentally, it’s a story about family, and how a family has to face truly terrible odds and dangers together. Yes, I’m still talking about Fringe. Because that’s the latest thing that’s lodged itself in my mind.
So if, to continue the example, you enjoy a particular story because it’s about a family and how they have to survive insurmountable odds, if you were to write a story about a different family and their own insurmountable odds, then perhaps it will create the same sort of soul-nourishing yearning that the other story created. And yet, it won’t be the other story. It will be your own, because you are answer the same question in your own words, colored by your own experiences and knowledge. And unless I miss my guess, that’s what writing is all about.
Writers are scavengers. We ought to be, at any rate. We pick out pieces of the world we live in and leave them in the words we put on the page like a magpie stealing shiny trinkets. Maybe it’s a word we like, one that means the same thing as two or three others but has the perfect connotation– such as exasperated; it’s like annoyed, and even more like vexed, but if your character is exasperated there’s a lighter note to it that’s missing from the others.
Or maybe it’s the emotions that well up inside us when we are reunited with a dear friend we haven’t seen in years. I imagine they’re the same feelings that surge in our characters’ bellies when they finally, finally return to their loved ones after the chaos of their story.
Or it’s the cold gust of autumn wind that chills a warm day, reminding us that summer is over and winter is coming, and it’s the smell of wood smoke and fallen leaves beckoning us homeward before the early darkness shrouds our way.
Or it’s the aching exhaustion that clings to your bones after a long day of hard work.
Or the way you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can trust your closest friends.
Or maybe it’s just the last story you read, or watched, or listened to. The one that wrapped the vines of its tale around your heart, sharing with you some truth about being human in a broken world that resonated like a rung bell.
In some ways, even the best writers are anything but original, and the best pieces of their stories are made up of truth, and not whole cloth. Because that’s why we can connect with them the way we do. And that’s what makes them so important.
If you’ve watched a certain type of science fiction, you’ve probably noticed something: weird things happen on planes. I recently started watching the show Manifest, the premise of which is that a plane goes missing and then reappears years later, to everyone’s surprise and consternation. Fringe had at least three episodes dedicated to bizarre happenings on planes. I’ve never seen it, but I imagine the accurately titled Snakes on a Plane fits this mold as well, as I understand the title is an accurate description of the entire movie.
So the question is: why?
The simplest answer is that planes are a convenient box to put your characters in. No way on. No way off. If something happens, no help is coming. You have to try to deal with it by yourself. It’s the perfect setting for a Blake Snyder style Monster in the House story.
Another answer is that we recognize the madness inherent in climbing inside a metal tube and hurling ourselves across the world at ridiculous speeds. The fact that we do it so often that it has become normal doesn’t change that. Telling ourselves stories about strange things happening while undertaking this wild endeavor is its own sort of catharsis: an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this is a far cry from walking, or running, or even climbing on the back of an animal five times our size and riding it to get from place to place.
Or maybe it’s because of the opposite. Most of us have ridden in planes frequently enough that it is commonplace and accepted as safe. Having something strange, dangerous, or bizarre happen in such a familiar space immediately draws us in and heightens the tension. After all, if it can happen on that plane ride, why can’t it happen on the next one we take?
Whatever the reason, it appears often enough that I’ve noticed it while just casually watching. Out of blatant curiosity, I did a quick search over at TV Tropes (yes, yes, foolhardy, I know) and discovered that I had just barely scratched the surface. This is unsurprising thanks to the aforementioned casual watching. Which speaks to my point. If we write enough stories about things happening on planes that there is an entire list of them, then clearly there is something about it that catches the human imagination. Or. You know. Several somethings.
If you interact with other humans, chances are you’ll end up either hurting someone else or being hurt by them. Most likely, it’s both. Maybe it’s accidental. Maybe it’s not. Most of us try not to, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. And naturally, we are more likely to hurt those we interact with more often, meaning that when we do wrong someone else, it’s more likely to be a friend or a family member than the stranger we pass in the grocery store.
As with so many things in life, in part because of its inevitability, the most important thing ends up being not whether or not we hurt or are hurt, but how we respond when it happens. Does a harsh word or a thoughtless comment destroy a relationship? Or do we find a way to work through it and forgive? Do we accept that some friendships are not worth saving? Do we decide that this one is, no matter how hard you have to fight for it? There isn’t a single right answer that fits every situation. As a Christian, I am called to love my enemies–not to mention friends or annoying coworkers–and forgiveness heals much.
But that’s a topic for another time. Today, I want to talk about what hurting each other has meant in some of the relationships I value most. And then about how my writer-brain connects that to good storytelling, because we all knew that was going to happen.
Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but my closest friendships are the ones where we have hurt each other. More than once. Often deeply. We’ve said things, or made assumptions, or lashed out, or… the list goes on. I don’t have to continue it, because I know anyone reading this will have a list of their own, with specific events and particular people. And, I hope, anyone reading this will also know that the story doesn’t end there with the argument, or the silent treatment, or the unexpected ghosting.
Or it doesn’t have to.
Those same friendships I was talking about have thrived because when we did hurt each other we also forgave each other, and we worked through it. Love covers a multitude of sins. And thank God for that.
(A quick note: this, of course, does not meant that there is never a time to end things. David didn’t keep hanging out in King Saul’s court after a certain number of thrown spears; he left. He also straight up refused to hurt Saul, even when given multiple chances, which says plenty as well.)
As for how this applies to storytelling, if working through mutual injury in real life relationships can end up strengthening them, then the same is true in good writing, which aims to be an accurate reflection of the real world. Your characters, even your heroes, will not always agree. They might betray each other, or their values, or do any of another thousand things that create a rift between them. And they might realize it, or they might think they were in the right the entire time. Either way, it’s those moments that create the most compelling story: the ones where the characters end up going head to head in a conflict that can’t just be explained away, where it can’t be resolved unless something fundamentally changes.
Unsurprisingly, I noticed a particularly good example of this during my most recent rewatch of Fringe (shush, everyone’s allowed to be a fangirl every once in a while). There are a few episodes near the middle of the third season where a couple of the characters have to work through some things. The sort of things that only apply when you’re a character in a dramatic science fiction setting that involves alternate universes, but the point remains. And it hurts to watch. Because you understand both of their points of view. And you know that they both have completely valid points. And you also know that the harm done is real, and it’s not just going to vanish on its own.
And it’s resolved! The characters talk through it, work through it, and find a way to move on. They don’t just let their relationship float in whatever direction it wants, they choose to put the effort in to make it work. This could be it’s own blog post, but I can’t give enough praise for mature, intelligent characters. Conflict is so much more compelling when it’s not caused by one or both parties being idiots.
Now, I’m not going to lie. Despite knowing all this, it’s still incredibly difficult for me to work that into my writing. If several of my favorite characters aren’t getting along and are actually at odds, it make me sad. I don’t like it. I want it to stop. And it’s a lot easier to make it stop by not writing it in the first place than by putting in the work to figure out how those characters are going to have to get through it. I need to fix that. Because once I do, it’s going to make me a better writer.
In college, I was terrible at doing proper research. I mean truly awful, though I usually still managed to write decent papers. Probably in part because I really just wanted to do the writing, and not the researching. Or, since these are essays we’re talking about and not fiction, it’s possible I just wanted to get to the end and have done with it.
Fortunately, a fantastic teacher my senior year managed to explain what research actually is and how to do it in a way that clicked with me, and though I only had about a half a semester in which to actually make proper use of it, I now get it. Or I do enough to keep an interest in it, at least!
For me, it’s tied into the idea of writing what you know. I’m going to have a much better chance of writing an epic and believable sword fight if I know the first thing about how sword fights usually go. And not just what it looks like in various blockbuster movies, no matter how much fun they are to watch. If I know what it’s supposed to look like, then I know what I can tweak for the sake of the “cool” factor without running the risk of accidentally taking out something structural.
It’s also a great way to immerse myself in the world I’m trying to create. Instead of feeling like research is something I have to get out of the world before I can get to the actual fun stuff, it’s a way for me to get into the same world I’m planning to write about at a deeper level that will make it easier to write once I actually get down to it. I may not be a skilled sword-fighter myself, but if I know how long it takes someone to become a master in our world, and what weaknesses they might have, and what the strengths of their particular style are, I’ll be able to add those details in (or at least make sure that I don’t accidentally contradict them), and that’s only going to add to my writing.
With an essay or a research paper, the trick was to make sure I worked on a paper I was interested in. Which sadly, for research papers, was sometimes a lot easier said than done, or else the topic was specific enough that it was tailored to what we’d already read in class. But the paper that helped me figure out how to research was one that I was curious about but didn’t feel like I already knew the answer to, and that motivated me to go looking for them.
Or in other words, to do research.
Kind of on a side note, but that’s also what got me to start reading non-fiction for fun as well. If a writer is writing truth about the world, about people, about reality, then the more we learn about that same world, about psychology, history, life, death– everything– the better we will be at writing. And that takes a certain humility. It’s hard to look for answers if you already think you have them all. But if you know there’s everything you don’t know, there’s nothing at all to stop you from looking and learning.