Monday, September 30, 2013

The Mirror Image of Good and Bad

How a person writes their story is individualistic and one way is no better than another. Whatever works. Even before becoming a journalist I was telling stories from the hip—no notes, no outline. Stories appeared then as now as mental motion pictures flowing down my arms and onto paper. At first I used a pencil or pen, and then in eighth grade took a typewriter class. I don’t think my teacher ever thought I’d ever master that contraption, but over the next couple years my fingers learned to fly over Mr. Royal’s keys. By the time I graduated from high school and entered journalism those fingers were smoking at 70+ words per minute with 90% accuracy. That was important in that occupation. From notes taken in the field and during research there was a deadline to meet and an editor cracking a mean whip. Somewhere during those formative years of going to the movies, watching TV, and reading novels, I internalized the basic elements of a successful story so that after doing preliminary research and maybe jotting a few notes, putting down the story was simply sitting in front of a keyboard and pounding away. The result is that a novel-length, rough draft can be kicked out in ten to fourteen days which drives some of my co-writers in NaNoWritMo nuts. Does that mean the story is complete? Is bread done before it’s cooked?

The novel currently under construction is done drafted. (sic) Now, it’s time for the first of many edits, and that doesn’t mean spelling, punctuation, and grammar. In previous eFiles I put forward certain things a writer should consider, especially about creating characters. These first series of edits will focus on those and other points coming in future eFiles. Over the next week or so I want to focus on the two most important characters – the hero and the villain. In this story they are François (the pirate Dolphin) and Lord Chudleigh (the kidnapper). (Yes, I identified a second hero in the last post, but I am still waffling about his true role, and have put him on the shelf.)

Ideally, the hero and villain are a reflection of one another. The only thing separating them is their moral center or purpose. A villain isn't being evil just for the giggles. The Joker in Batman, Voldemort in Harry Potter, the Emperor in Star Wars, or Hitler in WWII didn't behave badly just because. They and every meaningful guy in the black hat thinks they are doing right, that they are the true hero in their own, twisted vision of the story. That is how a writer should approach the villain. We are talking Yin and Yang here, better known since ancient Greek times as the unity of opposites. (see: Dramatica: The New Theory of Story - 4th ed. available as a free pdf at This book and a whole lot more is available online at: Screenplay Systems.)

One of the most standout exchanges explaining this relationship between hero and villain appeared in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. This occurs between French archaeologist, Dr. René Belloq and Dr. Henry Jones, Jr.

How odd that it should end this way
for us, after so many...
stimulating encounters. I almost
regret it. Where shall I find a new
adversary so close to my own level?

Try the local sewer.

I know you despise me. We always
hate in others that which we most
fear in ourselves. And you and I
are very much alike.

Now you’re getting nasty.

We have always done the same kind
of work. Our methods have not
differed as much as you pretend. I
am a shadowy reflection of you. But
it would have taken only a nudge to
make you the same as me, to push
you out of the light.

There is a certain amount of truth to this; the recognition
of it flickers across Indy’s bleary eyes.

[Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Screen Play by Lawrence Kasdan, pg. 49, 1979]

This understanding makes writing the hero and villain much easier. The more you know about one, the more you know about the other. While not necessary, it would be nice to show that they created each other. For instance, look at Batman I. Young thug, Jack Napier, kills Bruce Wayne’s parents launching Bruce on a crime fighter career. In adulthood, the two meet and Jack falls into a vat of goo and comes out as the Joker. Toward the end we have this exchange:

You made me. You dropped me into that vat of chemicals, remember?
That wasn’t easy to get over.

You killed my parents. I made you? Well, you made me first.

[In My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, Jeffrey Schechter, Ch. 5)

In the story under development in conjunction with this eFile, that relationship has been accomplished. The villain of Order of the Brethren is Lord Chudleigh, son of Commodore Chudleigh who appeared in the preceding novel, The Urchin Pirate. In Urchin, the commodore lured pirates to a “treasure” island with phony maps in order to sink their ships and hang survivors. The Dolphin engages the commodore’s ship. That engagement begins François’ reputation as a pirate. In Order, we meet his lordship, the commodore’s son, who seeks to destroy pirates, but in particular reek revenge on the Dolphin for his father going insane and early death because of what happened. Indirectly, they made each other.

During this first edit I am going to look closely at the villain. He must be the hero of his own story, powerful, ruthless, and committed enough to drive the conflict, a dark reflection of the hero’s wants, needs, and desires. A really good example of this is the sleazy, hateful villain, Lord Cutler Beckett from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. The writers and actor did a marvelous job. You want to slit that guy’s throat before he gets off his white horse.

While it might be nice to have the two face off during the story, in this case, each is going about their business hundreds of miles apart until the very end, and then may or may not actually come face to face. (I’ve drafted it both ways and weighing what to do.)
Next time, I’ll go a bit further into developing these two gentlemen and how to handle their long distance relationship.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Oops, said the Conductor.

Is your story headed for a train wreck?

This eFile is an exercise in how a successful novel can (and should) come together based on Jeffrey Schechter”s book, My Story Can Beat Up you Story. (If you are just joining this, start from the beginning. It’s not all that far back). Although Schechter is writing about putting together a screen play in three acts, upon looking closer at what he says I see a great deal of what should go into a novel and its organization. This eFile attempts to show how I am trying to implement his suggestions into a novel underway, A Pirate’s Legacy #6: Order of the Brethren which is building toward the climatic battle scene. 

At this point there are those who would scream "Formula! Formula!" My response? If you have a better way to write a successful story, have at it. Looking at every novel that has made it to the big time, they have incorporated the elements under discussion. That said, the "walls" are wide enough that a writer can experiment, and that is what I have decided to do in this novel -- add a second hero.

As a review from an earlier post, these are some of thing one should consider when creating a hero:

Act 1  Who is your hero?
   1.  Know what the central question is
   2.  Exploration, realization, and amplification of orphan status
Act 2a  What is your hero trying to accomplish?
   1.  Begins journey to find clues to answering central question
   2.  Acquires all helpers and material to answer central question

Act 2b  Warrior
   1.  Fights, bloodied, wins, loses, draws
   2.  His death and rebirth and/or death of stakes character(s), or near death.

Act 3  What happens if hero fails?
   1.  Must be willing to die and not reborn to answer central question
   2   By giving up what thought he wanted to be awarded what he needs.
   3.  It's not being successful, but doing what is right and necessary.
   4.  The martyr can be another character, and hero learns from or motivated by this other person.

So, who am I considering?

While happily writing along, I took a lounge break a while back (after a heart attack a year ago and pushing 70, I take naps.) Actually, these are an integral part of writing as it provides time to mentally work various versions of a scene until settling on the best approach. During this session it occurred that another character could be a hero -- the protagonist's son, Jean-Paul (or Curly to his pirate associates). Of course, all the basic needs must be developed and presented.

Schechter points out, all successful heroes are orphans or about to become one even if figuratively. In this instance, Curly’s father is departing on a dangerous mission and leaving him behind. He is fifteen, a young man nearing marriage age. His father was fifteen when he fathered Curly. They have been very close, perhaps too close. The Dolphin has a hard time seeing him as anything other than a child, not quite ready for adulthood. In short, Curly receives no respect for what he is, because he hasn't earned it. His reaction is to childishly swim out and board his father’s ship as it begins to sail away (not exactly stow away – jump ship in reverse?). The Dolphin is persuaded to let him stay so to learn to become a man, but he continues to treat Curly as a boy. The central question for this character is: What must I do for my father and others to recognize me as something other than a child?

The story itself could easily be written with either Francois (the Dolphin) or Curly as the hero and have a good story, but how about experimenting by having two heroes? A story within a story? That doesn't follow a formula. The question then, do I plow ahead as outlined with one hero (the Dolphin), re-write so that Curly becomes the hero, or re-write to experiment?

A writer must be mindful to develop a strong, readable story even if that means throwing out whole chapters. In the final analysis this boils down to the author’s desire to put together a worthwhile story – worthwhile to himself and worthwhile to the reader -- while experimenting and putting a personal, artistic touch to the story line. Unless under contract to a publisher, there isn’t any rush to publish (a serious problem in today's self-publishing business).

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Writing with Style

At this point let’s slide off topic for a moment to briefly discuss
formatting the story. This is more than margins, spacing, and fonts, a lot more, and much of this really needs to occur as the story evolves to save time, to make fewer mistakes, ultimately to produce a professional manuscript before handing it to an editor.

Differing disciplines use different styles. In journalism I adhered to the Associated Press Style Handbook (AP Style). Depending on the field, academia and professional publications generally use MLA or APA. Since 1906 when the University of Chicago Press published the first style guide, the Chicago Manual of Style has become the accepted template for publishing.

Unfortunately, many writers jump on their story and put it down any old way they want, and then submit it. Sorry, but that really doesn’t work. Readers have come expect consistency which translates into professionalism. Do you know when and when not to use italics? How to present numbers? Display names of people, places, and things? How to handle foreign words? That only scratches the surface of what is contained in the 1,600+ pages of the CMS.

You can see what the 16th Edition of the Chicago Manual contains by going here: where you will see the Table of Contents. After accessing this page follow links to look at the contents of various chapters.
  • Contents

Part One: The Publishing Process
  1 Books and Journals
  2 Manuscript Preparation, Manuscript Editing, and Proofreading
  3 Illustrations and Tables
  4 Rights, Permissions, and Copyright Administration by William S. Strong
Part Two: Style and Usage
  5 Grammar and UsagebyBryan A. Garner
  6 Punctuation
  7 Spelling, Distinctive Treatment of Words, and Compounds
  8 Names and Terms
  9 Numbers
10 Abbreviations
11 Foreign Languages
12 Mathematics in Type
13 Quotations and Dialogue
Part Three: Documentation
14 Documentation I: Notes and Bibliography
15 Documentation II: Author-Date References
16 Indexes
Appendix A: Production and Digital Technology
Appendix B: Glossary
Have you taken time to look at how a book is laid out from cover to cover? What sort of things should appear on the various pages leading up to the story? That’s in Part 1. And take a gander at Part 1, chapter 4. Beginning with the 15th edition the reader will find recommendations for producing electronic publications, including web-based content and e-books in Appendix A. 

Does it make any difference whether you follow this style? I recently reviewed a book produced by one of the smaller publishers that’s been around since 1866. Their printed works are very good, but the electronic reproduction was an unprofessional joke offered at an unrealistic price. What happened? Whoever set the electronic version was either new or incompetent, and their supervision lacking. If a professional publisher can distribute something like that, what about the thousands of books flooding the self-published market? It's your reputation that's a stake.

I’ve taken some heat for what I am about to suggest, but let’s look at reality. Self-publishers aren’t rich, so the 16th Edition (2010) might be a bit steep for the budget at around $40. The 15th Edition (2003) can be had for $4.50 (used) to $11.00 (new). This was the first edition addressing the electronic world. The 14th Edition (1993) goes for $0.01 (used) to around $10.00 (new). The 15th and 16th editions are available for online access at $35.00 a year. 

My heresy? I still use the 14th Edition while composing and for print layout because the writing formats really haven’t change. My suggestion to the self-publisher is to grab at copy of the 15th Edition, and then go to the library to look up the information on electronic formatting, and make notes (just like going back to school).

Whether self-publishing, or trying to attract an agent or publisher, you want to impress your target audience by looking professional. That means following the Chicago Manual of Style, and save time and headaches by doing most of it on the creative fly.

Anatomy of a Story is produced twice each month following the creation of a novel by Sean Patrick O'Mordha.

(copyright Sean Patrick O'Mordha 2013)