Time to Start Fresh

Empty PocketsHi, Folks,

I know that on Fridays you’re used to seeing thrilling acts of derring-do, or some other excerpt, from Thin Spots. Well, today, I finally got to the point where the rough draft petered out, so there’s nothing today, but fear not! Soon I’ll be posting the scenes from the new, hopefully improved, version borne of my work with beat sheets, descriptive paragraphs and what-not.

Thanks for your patience! Indeed, for visiting this space at all!

Cheers,

Carson

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Scene Templates Might Save Your Bacon

SignpostLast Wednesday, I wrote about the Beat Sheet and how great I think it is now. With that bad boy knocked out, I feel I’ve got a coherent, streamlined structure for a story that might even be worth reading one day.

So what’s next? Jump into writing?

I have to say I’m strongly tempted. Although I do love planning, I love the creative play of writing much more. But I am holding off for a few more days to complete scene templates for at least the first few scenes I’m going to write.

Why? Because whenever I have gotten stuck before, scene templates have saved my bacon.

I picked up the form and idea for these templates from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, a fine tome on the mechanics of novel-writing, especially when combined with Story Engineering and Outlining Your Novel. Since adopting Marshall’s original templates, I’ve tweaked them to meet my own purposes and temperament and am tweaking them still as I go along. Here’s an example, with descriptions of each part in [brackets]:

Scene Title: Mine! [Scene title. Like, duh.]

Scene # and description: Satan writing “Mine” all over his map. [I am not using scene numbers right now because the tools I use don’t support auto-numbering and if I rearrange things I don’t want to have to change all those scene numbers. I like using a nutshell description. One could also put the descriptive paragraph here.]

From # N/A [Title of the preceding scene; this helps you keep the dots connected.]

To # [Title of the succeeding scene, again for connecting those dots.]

Action/Reaction: [In an Action section, the viewpoint character for the scene does something. In a reaction section, the viewpoint character mulls things over and decides what to do next.]

Scene Viewpoint Character: [Three guesses what you put here.]

Where: [I use a nutshell description, but this could be as long as you want.]

When: [I like to use a date and time of day; however, I suppose you could use the relative timing of events, as in “after John gets a parking ticket, just before he trips over the coffee shop doorjamb.”]

ACTION [Use this part of the template if the scene is for Action.]

Goal from viewpoint character’s last section: [Here’s the concluding goal from this character’s previous section (just put N/A if it’s their first one), which provides motivation.]

Against (person or circumstance that brings crisis): [This is whatever is at the root of the conflict in the scene.]

Conflict (occurrence of crisis; section character’s reaction): [This section might just as well be called “Action,” except that would be confusing. Here’s a synopsis of what happens in the scene.]

 Failure (unless opposition) (inability to undo or deny crisis): [Because a good story requires the hero to be up against the wall most of the time, she is always failing on some scale at the end of a scene (at least until you get to the very end). The bad guys, on the other hand, mostly experience success.]

 New Goal (or go to a Reaction section) (character doesn’t necessarily have to devise, but describe it here; can devise here, though, or devise in Reaction section): [Having failed, the hero decides what to do next; you describe that here.]

 Cliffhanger: [At the end of most scenes, I like to have at least the appearance of a major disaster occurring for the hero. This is some kind of action, as opposed to thinking up a new goal.]

 REACTION [Use this part of the template if the scene is for Action.]

Failure from scene viewpoint character’s last action section (briefly describe; the section will restate it): [Pretty obvious, eh? This can be a cut-and-paste job, if you like.]

 With (other characters that share the section): [Often it’s good to have at least one other character, perhaps a confidant, in the Reaction scene so the hero can talk out his reaction some.]

 Emotional reaction (character’s gut reaction to the previous failure): [Describe the viewpoint character’s emotions here.]

 Rational reaction (character’s analytical reaction to the previous failure): [Describe the character’s more calculated thoughts about how to make things right.]

 New Goal (character devises): He/she will X in order to X. [The emotional and rational reactions work together to engender the new goal. Describe that here.]

At this point, you might be thinking I am the most anal-retentive creature in existence and have devised a way to suck all fun and discovery out of story creation while at the same time putting off any actual writing.

I beg to differ. Crafting the scene templates, I’ll admit, tastes more of work than play, but it’s worth it. As you fill them out, new ideas will occur to you for nifty development or much-needed fixes. These things are not carved in stone—you can reorder them and rejigger them any way you like as you go along.

The best part is, once you have a template for every scene in your story—or at least enough to get started with—the writing flows through those blank pages like hot lava through a scrub forest. The “duh” moments, when you don’t know what to put on the page next, are few and far between. This means you can concentrate on the quality of the writing itself—the crafting of language, the drawing out of characters, the description of setting, the arrangement of action—all the truly fun stuff!

Scene templates may not be for you, but I invite you to give them a shot, especially if you’re a writer who has started several novels but never finished one. They could make all the difference in the world.

The Beat Sheet: A Revelation

Sometimes a simple thing can be a revelation. Thus it was for me with the scene list, usually known by its cooler name, the “beat sheet.”

Though I had heard it mentioned before, I really didn’t know what the beat sheet was until I happened on Larry Brooks’s lucid explanation of it in Story Engineering. It sounded so good I decided to try it.

The beat sheet isn’t a complex thing. It’s just a list of your scenes with the minimal information necessary—a scene name and maybe a nutshell description. Having assembled your list, you start fooling with their order, adding some, subtracting others, until you have a satisfactory skeleton on which to hang the flesh of your tale. You can use whatever you like to make your beat sheet: a word processor, post-its, index cards, scraps of tanned cowhide. The main thing is that you can rearrange, add and subtract scenes with ease.

The beauty of the beat sheet is that it removes detail. If you’re trying to sort paragraphs describing each scene, or scene-construction forms of some kind, it’s too easy to get lost in the information about each scene, rather than simply concentrating on where it should go in the story. With the beat sheet, you get a couple of crystalline drops of data for each scene. These info-chicklets are easy to hold in your short-term memory, so you can juggle several at once and better determine how they affect each other, which insight goes into your scene arrangement. (FYI, the average short-term memory holds about seven items at once.)

I was stunned by my results with the beat sheet. I had a big sub-plot and realized it wasn’t working at all, so I cut it to the bone. I figured out how to tighten up the first three sections and began forming an idea of how the concluding section would go. Most valuable of all, I found that events in need of foreshadowing and questions in need of answering  jumped out at me like clowns popping out of a miniature Volkswagen.

Valuable as it was, the beat sheet still left me feeling a little short in the coherence department. I didn’t have a good sense of whether all the beats made sense or not. Now it was time to bring back some detail. The next step, writing a descriptive paragraph for each beat, helped me take care of that. Writing a paragraph about each beat helped me analyze it to be sure it held up as a worthwhile part of the story and also fit well with the other beats. I discovered more plot gaps, more foreshadowing needs and even a few more scenes that needed adding.

I’m still working on the descriptive paragraphs, but they’ll be wrapped up soon and when they are I’ll be in great shape to plan each scene to the point where I can write it easily. Then – joy of joys! – I’ll actually write those puppies!

Bonus! Here’s a beat with a descriptive paragraph to give you a concrete idea of the process.

1.      Colin gets killed. The Dough(boy) is Flat Colin gets hit by a truck while delivering pizzas.

Colin is toodling along on his scooter with the music turned up. [Look up some real scooter/motorcycle fatal wrecks and base the scene on them.] A truck runs a light; Colin doesn’t hear it coming and gets hit. He sees the famous bright, white light beckoning him forward. [What about other people who are in comas? Why don’t they get the same reaction as Colin? And if there are more like him, why don’t they recognize the smell of someone still connected to a body? Maybe de Retz, in his eagerness to make good, broke the rules and snatched a soul (Colin’s) meant for Limbo, Heaven or some other area; that hasn’t happened before. Also, Colin is the only person ever to find out he is in a coma someplace and that affects his behavior.] [If Colin is meant for Heaven, why is his body still alive? Maybe Colin’s angel is the one to escort him to Limbo or coma holding area.]

Colin Davis: Gladiator

Monster GladiatorHowdy! In this week’s installment, Colin pitches in at gladiator practice. (Note to the persnickety: This has not been edited, not even a little bit. Proceed at your own risk.)

Colin leaned against the dugout wall and watched anxiously as Stebbins stepped up to the plate and readied his bat. Stebbins, who had made a fortune in life bundling worthless loans into attractive mortgage-backed securities, was muscle-bound enough to deliver a wicked hit, but the art of connecting bat to ball had thus far eluded him. If he screwed up, Coach Dagon would be angrier than usual with the next few batters, of whom Colin was one.

Dagon flapped his red wings and spit into the dirt. “Elbow up, Stebbins! How many times do I have to tell you, you piece of damned soul scrap! Square to the plate, not the pitcher! You’re at home plate, not on the line of scrimmage, you criminal ass!”

Stebbins corrected his stance. The pitcher wound up and threw a fast ball, straight down the middle. Stebbins swung hard, but too early. The ball — actually a former dictator of a small island nation — smacked into the catcher’s glove and yelped.

“Strike one! You’re swinging too soon, moron! Watch the ball!” Dagon’s blood-red barbed tail snaked out and whipped Stebbins across the back of his naked legs.

Stebbins whiffed the next two pitches as well. “Hopeless! You’re hopeless!” Dagon raged. He grabbed Stebbins by the neck, flew him high to one of the giant torches that illuminated the arena during real competitions, and hung him there by the back of his loincloth. “Anybody else want to give me a sorry performance like that today?” the demon shouted. The assembled gladiators-in-training replied with a chorus of shaking heads and mumbled “no sirs.”

“All right, then. That’s enough baseball! Time for combat practice. Go fetch your equipment. Run! Last one back runs laps for a year!”

The students stampeded for the locker room, all except for Colin, who paused, looking up at Stebbins, who was swaying gently to and fro in a Hellish breeze.

“Master Dagon, Stebbins won’t be able to practice combat if he’s hanging up there.”

The demon fluttered over and came toe to toe with Colin. “Very observant, deadie. Don’t think because you’ve got a little talent in the sword department you can afford to be a smartass.”

Colin lowered his head. “Oh, no, Master Dagon. It’s just that he’s one of the best at combat and if you want Satan’s Sadists to win against Beelzebub’s Bastards…”

Smoke poured from Dagon’s pointed ears. “We’ll beat those Bastards with or without Stebbins! We’ve got the greatest team in Hell, with the best coach and don’t you forget it! Now go get your equipment before I decide to disembowel you this very instant!”

Colin sprinted away, knowing Dagon might well make good his threat. As he got to the tunnel leading to the locker rooms, he looked back and saw the coach flying upward toward the spot where Stebbins was hanging.

***

Stebbins came running in seconds after Colin arrived in the locker room. The big man was breathing hard, but otherwise seemed none the worse for the wear.

“I don’t know what you said to him, but thanks, Colin,” Stebbins said. “I thought I was going to be hanging up there forever.”

Colin cinched his sword belt and grinned. “I just told him we couldn’t beat the Bastards without one of our best fighters. I guess he agreed.”

“Isn’t that helping?”

“Nah, it’s ingratiating yourself to the coach. Totally self-serving.”

“Yeah, right. You ready? I don’t want to be running laps for a year.”

They ran through the tunnel into the arena, leaving some of the slower souls to worry about who would run 365 days of laps.

Though he hated to admit it, even to himself — especially to himself — Colin loved the arena, even though he had never fought a real battle in it. It was an enormous oval of sand, surrounded on all sides by a high wall perforated by various cavities. Some led to locker-room tunnels, others were reserved for the release of beasts and other opponents into the fighting space. From the top of the walls rose row upon row of stadium seats. Fastened to the top rim of the stadium was a ring of giant torches, each carved into the likeness of a different demon, with the fire bowl in the top of the skull. Standing in the middle of the playing field, looking up into the stands, Colin had a hint of the feeling that had come to him for the first time when he had fought Ragtagalog and that came to him now in combat practice.

Dagon’s whistle jarred him out of his reverie. “All right! Give me Colin, Stebbins, Episki and Fights-Like-a-Girl. To arena center. Now!”

The four souls obeyed on the double. Each of them had a leather-and-iron shield and a short sword. Other weapons were scattered around the arena for them to get to, if they could. They lined up in a rank and stood at attention. Dagon pointed to a spot about ten feet away and to the left of the group.

“Colin, over there.”

Colin jogged over to the indicated spot. He knew better than to argue.

“It’s time you kids started practicing something close to the real thing. Today, no fake cuts, no scoring for touches, no Dagon telling you you’re wounded, sit out. No. Today, it’s real cuts, real ichor, real limbs coming off, real heads bashed in.”

Fights-Like-a-Girl raised his hand. “Won’t that leave us in pretty poor shape for more practice or… anything?”

“You’ll heal well enough. Now then… it’s the three of you against Colin.”

“What?” said all for gladiator trainees at once.

“You heard me! Real combat starts soon and you need to be ready. Start on one whistle, stop on two. Ready…”

Dagon’s whistle split the air. Colin crouched into a defensive stance, sideways to the other fighters, shield raised in front of his body, short sword just behind it, ready to lash out at the least opportunity. The other three trainees circled him. Colin felt the battle fever creeping into his blood like wine. He grinned and faced Stebbins.

“Ready, Stebs?”

Stebbins rattled his shield. “Come on then!”

Colin raised his sword, shouted, and at the last instant spun and ran at Episki. Episki began to pivot sideways but Colin detected the move almost before it was begun. As Episki’s sword slashed sideways toward the spot where he expected Colin’s guts to be as he ran past, Colin vaulted into the air, twisted and landed so that he was facing Episki’s back. He swung his sword at the other trainee’s temple. The blade sliced neatly through the top of Episki’s skull. Episki dropped to the sand like a bag of nails.

The fighting stopped. All the trainees stared agape at their fellow student, lying quite still on the ground.

Dagon blew his whistle twice. “Time out!

“What happened to the magic for blunting the weapons?” Colin asked. He was shaking. “It’s just practice. Yesterday that would have only knocked him over and you’d yell ‘touch’ and call him out. What’s the deal?”

“Surprise!” said Dagon. “You’ve graduated from the kiddie-cars to driver’s ed. Real combat’s just around the corner. Plenty of bets on the line. You need to be ready.”

“But Episki…” said Fights-Like-a-Girl.

“He’ll heal! Here, watch!”

They looked. The crown of Episki’s skull was somehow dragging itself across the sand towards the rest of him. They watched as it reached its goal, shot out gelatinous tendrils that attached to the whole part of the skull and used those to pull itself back into place. Episki’s body jerked a few times and then he sat up on one elbow.

“Did I get him? Boy, my head hurts.”

“Gladiators are too rare to waste,” Dagon said. “So they get a little extra repair capability. Lose too many times, though, and it wears off. After that happens, annihilation.”

“What?” asked Fights-Like-a-Girl.

“Annihilation. Erasure from existence. No atoms. No ether. No quarks. No mind. Absolute zilch.”

“Swell,” Colin muttered.

“Spare me the editorials! Now, fight!”

They fought for the rest of the day without a break, always Colin alone or with a partner against the others. He leapt, spun, slashed, kicked, punched, bit and twisted, the battle fever burning hotter and hotter as he worked until he thought he might burst into flame. Blade edges wouldn’t cut him and he hardly felt thumps from fists, feet or weapons. When Dagon finally blew his whistle, the other three trainees were lying on the sand, healing from grievous wounds. Colin threw his sword and shield down and sat heavily on the ground.

Dagon prodded him with an eagle-clawed foot. “You love it, don’t you?”

Colin shook his head emphatically. “No. Absolutely not. If Hell didn’t make me do it, I wouldn’t.”

The demon smiled and spit a sizzling gob into the dust. “Say what you will. I have been around a very, very long time. I can tell.”

“Well, you’re slipping, Master Dagon. That’s all I can say. Begging your pardon.”

“Pardon granted, deadie. Now off to clean up and then to food and rest with you. Go.”

Colin dragged himself off and limped down the tunnel toward the locker room. The battle fever was rapidly leaving his system, leaving him feeling nauseous and weak. More than that, he was disgusted with himself.

Oh, God, he thought. What’s happening to me? I think he’s right. I think I love it. I think I really do.

Book Trailers: Learnings from Viewing a Few

Book Trailer imageI ran across an article that mentioned book trailers a while back and was curious. Now I’ve finally had the chance to hop on YouTube and check out a few. The sampling I viewed showed me some things to aim for and some things to avoid when I do my novel trailer… which I will probably get around to in about 30 years. Well, a guy can dream, right? So here are some thoughts from my watching trailers and dreaming of my own.

BORN WICKED: The Cahill Witch Chronicles Book 1 by Jessica Spotswood book trailer

This is a good one. It’s just a little over a minute long, so boredom isn’t a factor, even for an ADD type like me. The production values are all top-notch—the picture quality, the camera angles, costuming, acting—the works. Best of all, the trailer gets right to the main character and the main conflict and it tells the story with moving pictures, not just with words. It ends with a still of the book and some related info, which makes total sense.

Lessons:

  • Keep it short
  • Get to the heart right away
  • Tell it with pictures
  • Make the quality as high as you can
  • End with a pitch for the book

Solitary Sky ~ book trailer

I liked this one pretty well. It’s about two-and-a-half minutes long, so it strained my attention limit—it’s a trailer, so I don’t go in expecting to invest much time—but it didn’t lose me. Again, the production values are high. The technique is different, though. This one intersperses title cards, which are used for narrative, and moving pictures. There’s haunting, atmospheric music that increases in tempo as the swaps between title cards and pictures get more rapid. The only problem I had with this trailer was that, while it intrigued me, it didn’t tell me quite what the deal was. The lead moves away from home, her boyfriend is a werewolf, they’re madly in love, she’s in some kind of danger. Intriguing, see? But a bit vague. I’m not sure it does the best job of making someone want to get the book.

Lessons:

  • Make the quality as high as you can
  • Use catchy, appropriate music
  • Title cards can work well
  • Be clear about what the central conflict is
  • End with a pitch for the book

2012 Book Trailer #2 (Escape 2 Earth)

The trailer for Escape 2 Earth is, I’m sad to say, amateurish. Let’s overlook the fact that the title uses the numeral “2” instead of the word “to.” And let’s overlook the fact that one of the title cards describes the book as a “fictional novel.”  The thing starts off with rolling Star-Wars-style text telling us the Mayans predicted the end of an era and that it’s Earth caught between a pair of rival alien groups. At about the end of this text, the techno music track stops and another techno music piece that doesn’t match in tempo abruptly starts. Then we’re treated to still picture after still picture of pyramids, Mayan symbols, crop circles, the book cover over and over, blabbity blah. To make things even more fun, all the trailer tells you about the book is that the evil Ontarians (aliens from Ontario?) are coming to do all us poor Earthlings some mighty wrong and the Mayans predicted it all. Characters? Never mentioned. Conflicts for said characters? Zilch-o-rama. One thing done right: There is a web site and the trailer gives the URL (but after watching the trailer I couldn’t imagine the site would be any good, so I didn’t go there).

Lessons:

  • If your book has a website, give the URL
  • Show the characters and their conflicts, don’t just tell about the book
  • Make the quality as high as you can
  • Make the visuals meaningful; don’t string together a bunch of them and expect the audience to get it
  • Be sure your grammar and usage is perfect. You’re supposed to be a writer.
  • Watch this trailer and don’t do any of the stuff that’s done in it

This post is getting long, so I’m going to stop now. Maybe next time I’ll check out a few more. It’s pretty fun. I just hope I get to make one someday.