Archive | February, 2009

Three Purchases and a Deadline

I was on a tight deadline last week, which is now mercifully past. I made it, just barely, but I was working on it until Saturday afternoon before I finally got it done. I don’t love deadlines, but they do make me awfully productive.

Today, I made three purchases, two of which were intended and one of which was not.

Purchase #1: The first purchase was the new Amazon Kindle 2.0. I actually paid for the Kindle awhile back, but it wasn’t available just yet. I got an email from Amazon this morning telling me that my Kindle has shipped. I know there is a lot of debate about whether the Kindle is a good deal or not. I think it will meet my needs, one of which is to allow me to read Word documents away from my computer. I find it uncomfortable to read Word documents on the computer for long periods of time. I’m told by my many Kindle-owning friends that the Kindle is very easy on the eyes and it allows you import Word docs easily. So I bought one. This way when I read manuscripts for endorsement, I can just have them email me the Word doc and I can read it anywhere.

Purchase #2: A few minutes after I got that email, the UPS man knocked at the door with a box containing something I ordered last week. It’s a small monitor stand that holds my iMac up just high enough that I can slide my keyboard under it. I wanted this because I often need to get the keyboard out of the way so I can write something on paper or pull my laptop over. I got this on the Macessity web site. It took minutes to install, and has the added virtue of having a powered USB dock with 4 USB connectors. The monitor stand looks great and is exactly what I wanted.

Purchase #3: The third purchase I made was accidental. A year ago, I signed up to receiving a paper newsletter by a marketing genius named James Brausch. James is the guy behind a number of unique and excellent products, such as MuVar, RaSof, and Glyphius. I have bought all of these and I think they are terrific. So a year ago when James ran a special on his new Testing Newsletter, I signed up for it at a reduced price of $100 per year. The only problem is that I only ever got 2 or 3 issues. For whatever reason, most of the issues never arrived. I’m a busy guy, and I basically forgot about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But it’s an annual $300 subscription. So this morning, I got an email from PayPal to notify me that I had just spent $300 on a renewal of a product that I have not been getting. Dang! I hate when that happens! I got on PayPal and cancelled the subscription. Then I emailed the current owner of the Testing Newsletter (James Brausch has rebranded his business under the name “Diego Norte” and it now is run by employees) asking if they would refund my subscription, given the circumstances. Will the folks at Diego Norte do the right thing here? I expect they will. James always treated me well, and I expect that the systems he’s left in place at Diego Norte will continue to do that. I’ll keep y’all informed.

Tomorrow, I’ll pick up where we left off last–our analysis of the characters in STAR WARS.

The Secret of Creating Characters

In my last blog post, I claimed that there is ONE thing that you must know in order to create good characters. I challenged my loyal blog readers to tell me what that ONE thing is.

Rob nailed it:

Every character is the hero of his/her own story.

Randy sez: Correct! This is absolutely fundamental to getting three-dimensional characters. When somebody tells you your villain is “cardboard,” the problem is almost certainly that you don’t give a dang about that villain because you cooked him up specifically to be the villain in your hero’s story.

The solution is Xtremely simple. Ask your villain what his story is. If you ask, he’ll tell. And if you give him a little time to explain, you may find that he has a point. In fact, it’s only when you realize that he has a point and start believing that he has a point that he’ll become a real character.

Ditto on all the other characters in your story. When you quit thinking of the hero’s sidekick as a sidekick, and start thinking of him as having his own story, that’s when he’ll come alive in your mind. If he’s alive in your mind, then he’ll be alive in your reader’s mind.

It really is that simple.

Let’s illustrate this by looking at Han Solo in STAR WARS. We’ve already worked out the one-sentence summary and one-paragraph summary for the movie, which essentially tell Luke’s story:

“A young farm boy joins a princess in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.”

“Luke Skywalker meets two mysterious droids who lead him to an old Jedi master, Obi-wan Kenobi. When Obi-wan asks him to help rescue Princess Leia, Luke refuses — until he finds his aunt and uncle murdered by Storm Troopers. Luke and Obi-wan join forces with Han Solo and Chewbacca to rescue the princess — at the cost of the old man’s life. Luke and his friends escape and journey to the rebel planet, where they learn that they have been tracked by the Death Star. In the final battle, Luke uses the Force and some help from his friends to destroy the Death Star.”

Notice that Han Solo doesn’t play at all in my one-sentence summary, although he gets some air-time in my one-paragraph summary. From Luke’s point of view, Han is the bus driver to get him to the action. And he’s a pretty irritating and selfish bus driver, at that.

But how does Han see things?

From his point of view, he was minding his own business, trying to earn the money he needs to pay back Jabba the Hutt, when in came this snotty kid Luke and this pie-in-the-sky old man Kenobi, offering him money for a ride off the planet. They’re a bit of easy money, but to be honest, they’re kind of flakey. Luke thinks he’s a hot-shot pilot, but he’s a farm kid with too many hormones clogging his brains and no experience in the real world. And Kenobi is clearly a quack.

So Han gives them a ride to the place they want to go, which unfortunately no longer exists when they get there, because the Death Star has inconveniently shot it to bits. Before he can react, the Death Star is pulling Han’s precious ship in with a tractor beam, and now the old coot has some whackball idea about how he’s going to get them out. Oh yeah, right.

And once the old guy has gone off to try his little magic tricks, this idiot kid Luke wants to go off saving the princess from under the noses of about seven billion HEAVILY ARMED Storm Troopers. Where’d this kid study logic? Against his far superior judgment, Han gets talked into making a stab at rescuing the princess, but only because she is rich and rescuing her would solve Han’s financial problems.

Thanks to Han’s great shooting (and no thanks to the dratted kid, who just hasn’t got a single brain cell more than necessary to support complex life), they do rescue the princess, who turns out to have a major league attitude. When they finally get back to the ship, they find out that the old man is duking it out with good old Black Sheet Vader himself. Too bad the old guy’s a little slow and gets a light saber in the gut, but that was his choice. Now the thing to do is get out of Dodge.

Once again, thanks to great driving AND great shooting by Han, they escape the Death Star. Yeah, sure, the old man did his part by shutting off the tractor beam. So he found a lever somewhere and threw it–big whoop-de-doo. The important thing is that Han Solo, the greatest pilot ever to fly the galaxy, got them out, evaded the chase, and took them safely to the rebel planet, earning the bucks he badly needs to pay back Jabba.

What gets weird is that Luke then thinks Han is SELFISH for wanting to go pay his debts! What kind of double-think is that? A guy needs to pay his debts. It’s the right thing to do. And anyway, right now, Jabba the Hutt has every bounty hunter in the galaxy out looking for him, so it’s also the smart thing to do. Han is never going to be free until that debt is covered. And Luke wants him to hang around and shoot up Imperials? That is just too stupid for words. What’s even more stupid is that Luke goes and gets himself in the thick of the battle, and ends up with one shot to take, Lord Vader on his tail, and no way out.

Han is a decent guy–ask anyone. He sticks up for his friends, even when they do stupid stuff. So he comes back, takes a shot at Vader, and knocks him into the next county with unbelievably great shooting. Luke squeezes off a lucky shot and takes out the Death Star. End of story. Except that, oh yeah, it’s pretty clear the princess has a thing for Han. Which is only natural, considering. Han’s not so sure he likes her. She’s kinda snooty in exactly the wrong sort of way. But he’ll think about it.

So that’s Han’s side of the story, and from his point of view, he’s the hero of it. Luke (quite literally) is a guy who just came along for the ride.

Given all that, here is Han’s one-sentence summary:

“A dashing young smuggler takes on Lord Vader in the battle to destroy the Death Star.”

16 words, and it makes clear who’s the REAL hero of this story.

Next time, I’ll work on Han’s one-paragraph summary, which makes clear what the REAL disasters are in this story–and here’s a hint: they aren’t what that snotty kid Luke thinks they are.

Top 100 Writing Blogs

My loyal blog readers will be gratified (and astonished) to learn that this blog has been listed in the “Top 100 Creative Writing Blogs.”

The rankings are divided into several sections. If you scroll down to the “Fiction Writing” section, you’ll see the Advanced Fiction Writing Blog listed at the top of that particular group. Part of what makes this blog special is my loyal blog readers, so I thank all of you for participating.

I’d like to continue our analysis of STAR WARS (Episode 4) which we began a few weeks ago. In our last few blogs on the subject, we came up with a nice sharp one-sentence summary and a one-paragraph summary of the movie. Those are good high-level analyses of the storyline, but it’s now time to look at the characters. Which raises the rather interesting question, who are the principal characters in STAR WARS?

Luke Skywalker is obviously the lead character. But who should go second on the list? Is it Leia (the love interest)? Or Han Solo (the buddy)? Or Obi-wan Kenobi (the mentor)? Or Darth Vader (the antagonist)?

Each of these four has a claim to be the #2 character in the movie. It all depends on what kind of movie you think you’re watching.

If you see the romantic storyline as very important, then Leia has a claim. This is of course before we learned that Leia is Luke’s sister. For sure in the movie, Luke had a thing for Leia, as did Han. Which made it convenient when Leia turned out to be off-limits to Luke so there was no need to have a goat-fight between Luke and Han in Episode 6. That would have been a little unfortunate, because everybody comes out stinky from a goat-fight.

If you see the male-bonding storyline as more important, then you might argue that Han Solo is the #2 character.

If you see the story as a Hero’s Journey kind of story, then Obi-wan Kenobi might have a claim, even though he dies halfway through the movie in a shocking disaster that forces Luke to grow up in the Force. Obi-wan does kind of hang around a bit afterward (or else Luke is hearing some seriously bad-news-for-your-mental-health voices in his head).

If you see the story as a Good-versus-Evil kind of tale, then Darth Vader is a good choice for the #2 character.

I think that the reason the movie had such broad appeal is that the movie was really all of the above. This is kind of risky in a movie, because people like to know what a movie is. When it’s a little of this and a little of that, then it better be awfully good at both this and that.

As it turned out, the movie was awfully good at all of the above. I’d say it’s about evenly balanced between the various kinds of story, so it drew in a broad spectrum of people. There was a synergy between the storylines that transcended genre. (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. I’m going to leave it there to prove that I can buzzword as horribly as anyone else.)

In any event, in the next week or so, I’d like to analyze the storyline for each of the 5 characters listed above: Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-wan, and Darth. What we’ll learn is something absolutely critical for the fiction writer who wants to create strong characters. There is ONE thing you must know in order to have some hope of succeeding.

What that ONE thing is, we’ll discuss next week. But you already know what it is, don’t you? You have it within you. Trust your feelings . . .

The Road To Heck

Today I’m working on the next issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, which will go out tonight.

In lieu of blogging today, I thought I’d just post a link to my latest humor column on fiction writing, in which Sam the Plumber decides to build “The Road To Heck.”

You may also be interested in a guest blog that I did which appeared yesterday on the “Routines For Writers” web site. The subject of my guest blog is “That Pesky Goal Setting.”

Have fun!