What are a Focal– or any Character’s– Motives?

Heroes– focal characters if you prefer– do not sit on the couch or stay at home very much. They go out and DO all the things that most readers either WISH they could do, or could do, but don’t have the time/money/energy for whatever reason. Hence, we read about them. Now, while it may be possible in life that crazy people do things outside their houses for absolutely no reason at all, this does not keep a reader interested or make a good story. Actions not only must have consequences, they must have a motive. Consider this….you might…on a whim….go for a walk. Lots of people do this. However, you might make a rule that whenever you approach a fork in the road, you “flip a quarter” and heads you go left, tails you go right. Seems rather random, doesn’t it? Sure….but that’s not why we’re going for this walk. We’re going on this walk for entertainment– spontaneity even. Something fresh, different, and new. So for any good yarn to come alive….the focal character really needs not one motive, but several, both present and future.

To make a list of the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, gree, lust, envy, glutton, anger, and sloth) would be a good start and a list of “core” reasons as to why people do things, but it would be doing your characters a disservice…..for example….other motives are and not limited to…..

Revenge, Justice (see the difference there? To the extremes, the latter implies having someone arrested, the former implies vigilantism). Love, Power, (bare) Survival, Adventure, Boredom (and the want to alleviate that condition), Ambition, Romance, Sense of Security, Fame, Children, Cheap Thrills, Altruism (The simple desire to be good and live life to the benefit of others), Religion (or lack thereof), Patriotism, Self-Destruction.

With some soul searching or meditation, anyone can increase the list by asking him/herself why they do the things that they do. When a focal character has more than one motive (going to the diner to apply for a job and, oh, by the way, meet a member of the opposite sex at the same interview), that’s when things get more entertaining for the reader– and for you.

 

Elements of Scene– What are They?

I was rifling through some papers on my desk the other day and found one that I had written years ago– the “elements” or parts of a scene. Now bear in mind that in the 21st Century, readers don’t need (or want) to read about how something tastes in the middle of your scene about a traffic accident, and certainly not if the ice cream cone that the driver is eating doesn’t actually cause the wreck or become pertinent later in the story. As an example, the dessert happens to be rocky road and later in the story the focal character is eating rocky road ice cream– in a dish as opposed to a cone even– and that flavor reminds him or her of the auto incident days or years before. Without further adieu….the 12 elements of scene…..

  1. Time
  2. Place
  3. Position/Movement/Actions of the characters (focal and otherwise)
  4. Motives
  5. Attitudes of the characters (plural) toward those motives
  6. Light(ing), if any
  7. Sight
  8. Sound (including dialogue)
  9. Touch
  10. Taste
  11. Smell
  12. Body Awareness (Relaxed, Tense, Hungry, Exhausted, etc.)

As corny as this may or may not sound, another way to consider a scene is what we used to call a “salute” report. In other words:

  1. Size– How many soldiers/vehicles/whatever were involved?
  2. Activity– What were they doing there?
  3. Location– Where were they?
  4. Uniform– Who were they with? This is not necessarily confined to American/Russian/Mexican/Italian, it can also include Christian/Buddhist/Mormon etc. if that is pertinent to the topic at hand.
  5. Time– What time of day was it? The exact time of day during the scene may or may not be important to the characters involved, but that in and of itself can affect the scene in countless other ways. Is the sun up? Or is it down?
  6. Equipment– What were they carrying/using/possessing at the time of the scene or incident? This can be anything from an M-1 Abrams to a toothpick– if it’s pertinent to the yarn.

As an afterthought, right or wrong in the 21st Century things move faster than they did before. Elements of scene are all well and good but one of the fastest ways to get a reader to close your book is to– waste their time.

Writing and Soul Searching– How To

I’ve been doing some soul searching lately and it occurred to me that others may benefit from my pain (in a good way) and my travels. First, why does a writer know (or care) about self-examination? No, like most people in this life, the writer typically cares not for the ascension to become a better human being any more than his or her fellow homo sapiens do. Why would a writer want to practice self-examination then???

There is an old saying– because I know me, I can know you. Similarly, because I know you, I can know me. What is meant by that is that most of us– by and large– are not all that different from each other. When one is honest with themselves, each of us must admit that “at one time or another”, we have done some/most/all of these things, for various and sundry reasons….

  • Shoplifted/stolen
  • Speed (operating a moving vehicle)
  • Lied
  • Cheated someone
  • Cheated on their taxes
  • Nude in public– drunk or otherwise
  • Assault/Battery
  • Public Mischief (TP’d someone’s house for example)
  • Cut class/work
  • “Re-Gifted” a present
  • Yelled at someone (even in public) even for no apparent reason
  • Gossiped about another in a hurtful way

These are in no real order….and anyone can increase the list. It is by self-examination that we as writers can better understand our villains– and our heroes– and the why’s of the things that they do. Am I saying that if your villain is short on cash and you are writing about him/her robbing a bank, you should go hold up a convenience store to better understand your plot? No, of course not. However, it is by examining those time that we did (as in past tense) steal something that we can better understand why we stole/cheated/assaulted/etc. and– more importantly– how we felt about the experience from beginning to end.

So, down to brass tacks. In this example I will use theft– I’ve been typing about for the last couple of paragraphs anyway. Any of the previous actions could be treated this way with some forethought.

  • Why did I steal (assault someone, cut class, etc.)?
  • Was there any reason why I chose that person to steal from? Answers could very well be “random” (some guy left his dark glasses on the counter while I was standing there) to something more specific (That guy called me an asshole because I bumped into him).
    • If anything, what did the other person do to me?
  • Could I have done anything differently to achieve my goal (bought my own dark glasses), or was my motive only to cause pain/loss/etc. for the sake of pain itself (“teach the other person a lesson”)?
    • In the end, did I enjoy the experience? Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here. Really, only you need to know the answer.
  • How can I apply this knowledge to my characters, current and future?

I have deliberately kept these questions a little vague, short, and to the point in the hope that they will be more useful “in a pinch” when writing a story. For deeper revelations and better insight into the human experience, I may write another post on this subject, or any good book on self-examination will be helpful. Until then, these and still other questions along this line that some thought will provide will better help us (myself included) to understand the motivations that drive us to do the things that we do, and we hope, help us become better authors.

Why– and How– Using a “Pen” Name….

In some small way I want to apologize for my absence. To get back to writing again I have resorted to using a “pen” name. A pen name is a pseudo-name that authors will take on when (for any of a number of reasons) an author does not want to be associated with his writings. As a couple of examples– political or religious opinions that would not be well-received by the author’s relatives or writing about plots/ideas that may be dangerous to the author (no, I’m not trying to expose the mob, as an example).

As a caution, before writing under a pen name one must assume that if it goes onto the Internet, it can never be taken back. Also assume that sooner or later, someone will find it. Remember that well. While said relatives may find the paper and pen version of your writings under the pen name, on the Internet a stranger will find it– and then next your writing will be either in the Tabloids or on YouTube….maybe both. Pen and paper is always better. Enough said there.

Why? Why else does an author want to write under a pen name? I’m not “penciled in” to a particular genre of writing but if I was, I might want to enlist a pseudo-name to avoid putting off my fan base. (BARF!) If I’ve been writing cheesy love stories and after investing the time and effort to read my next story, suddenly my fans are “forced” to wade through a foul-mouthed action thriller, they wouldn’t want to look for my name on the subsequent book…. Another reason I might want to use a fake name is to appear to be a “new” author– say my previous books had fizzled and sputtered out (To have fizzled and sputtered, my books must have gotten started. They have not).

At the moment, I’m using the “privacy” to practice my craft– writing with emotion, with feeling. My existing yarns are not getting me there in terms of truly relating to the characters on a deeper, more personal level. Thoughts and actions may drive a plot, but feelings make a story personal to a reader. Even if the reader doesn’t actually relate to or even agree with the focal character of the story, the fact that the focal character is actually affected by the events around him or her gives the plot meaning. Who wants to read a story where a character is stagnant?

Done correctly, a pen name can be a useful tool to avoid backlash of the writing that the author is doing, to appear to be a different (new) author, to switch genres, or even to switch techniques without fear of “being seen” in one’s true self.

What is the power of the PEN?

Benjamin Franklin once said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Maybe he was right. So I’m driving down the street this morning and I’ve been wanting/meaning to get some windshield wiper blades– for cheap (we have two cars and a truck, six rubber blades are going to be expensive). I pass the local auto parts store and do I want to go inside? Of course not. I want to go home and play a COMPUTER GAME. You might have wanted to watch TV…no matter…. I don’t want to, but I turn the car around to go in to ask what size blades I need. I park the car and after I grab something to write on…suddenly I realize….I don’t have anything to write with (ACK!!! NO PEN!). Frantically I start rummaging around in the junk in the car looking for ANYTHING to write with (by now, I’ve already realized that I can walk in the store and borrow a pen, but that’s not the point). Miraculously, I find an old pen between the seats. I go into the store and get the information.

I come back to the car, and then after almost failing in my mission, I have an IDEA. I placed the pen in one of the cups on the dashboard and I named it the “double emergency” pen. By that I mean that THAT pen never leaves the vehicle for any reason (except to walk into the store and come RIGHT back), and it serves no other purpose…other than writing something down right at that exact moment.

Put the pen in my pocket? I’ll lose it…if I’m lucky. If I’m not, the pen goes through the clothes dryer and ruins my wife’s clothes (VERY bad). Leave the pen “on the counter” at the store? Someone steals it. I “steal” other pens so I try not to take it personal. Leave the pen on my desk? That’s great! That pen on/in my desk doesn’t do me any good when I’m in the car.

Now the pen is all well and good, but having boxes of pens in each room isn’t the same as that one pen– at the right time– to save what’s really important…THE IDEA.

How does this relate to the writer? Someone once said to the affect of: If you want to write better copy, go do something else. What was meant by that was the brain has a really cool place (probably the sub-concious) where good writing happens. It needs to “rest”. While it’s resting, it keeps working on that problem scene or character, then RIGHT in the middle of doing something else, the brain gives the writer that wonderful idea on how to fix that scene/character/problem.

No pen? No idea. It’s gone.

Now for you, the “double emergency” pen may need to be in the cup with your toothbrushes, or next to the bed for those 3AM flashes of light, or it might even need to  be between your ear and your head (if you can keep it there, I can’t). Where you put it doesn’t really matter– as long as the pen is “available” when you need it….and the pen does not move….from it’s special place.

Use your phone? Sure…that might work too. What if your phone is dead? Cell phones need…you know…electricity…. Leave your phone at home? No great ideas remembered that day….nope.

No paper? No problem. If the idea is THAT important, you can always write on your arm if you have to (it comes off eventually, promise).

The power of the pen is NOT in the pen itself, but in the IDEA that it records.

How To Get Started….Can You Dream?

So I’m sitting here working on my current yarn (that will get me fired if I publish it, but no matter) and something struck me about a comment a visitor made about never being able to really grasp– you know– writing. At the time, I was thinking about:

  • Hamburger           $1.99
  • Cheeseburger       $2.49
  • Fries                       $1.09
  • Soda                       $0.99

Okay, I’ve written something, a menu. I’m not going to make any money writing menus, especially without a restaurant to sell hamburgers with, but I have written SOMEthing. That’s a start. So who is my audience? If I want to make quicker money and I’m good at writing technical stuff, I may want to consider writing training manuals for a major corporation. Have fun– I could do that IF I wanted to or if I were hungry enough but– not my style. For the moment at least, we are talking about fictional writing….

What IS fiction? A fiction is just that– a fantasy– on your (the authors) part. You may never make a single dollar from your efforts, but unless you want that to be your sole aim then that’s not the point. The point is– through it all, the hair pulling, the deadlines, the needy relatives demanding your time when you really want/need to write– you want to ENJOY what you do for a living (currently, I don’t).

So the question becomes….how well do you dream? And we are not discussing that wonderful chaos that no one ever really admits to the contents of after we are awake again. In a way…I am referring to vision. Vision is that thing that allows a man to stand in the middle of a corn field growing crops to feed the hungry….and instead he “sees” the shopping center that he intends to build in five years time. He even sees this down to the janitors picking up the garbage that his store shoppers leave behind as they walk out to their cars.

Difficult? It does take a little practice but no….not really…. You think about your day ahead of you, don’t you? If not, let’s pretend that you do. In that possible future that you are considering and how it may affect you later on that day, you are GOD. You control all the lights, the scenery, what your friends and enemies say….EVERYTHING. Rarely does any of this come to pass of course, but this line of thinking is in fact, a fiction. Unless you are already a famous actor, politician, or other celebrity no one will ever want to read it, but it’s a fiction. So let’s spruce it up a bit…..

In this fiction we have a hero (this is totally off the top of my head) and we will call him Jack….. Jack walks down the street and…..he makes it to the corner liquor store a block away. Mission accomplished– pretty boring, huh? Yep. Boring.

In terms of dreaming, there are five “W”s– Who, What, When, Where, Why. Now the Who we know– Jack. The When we know, that specific scene that we are working on. The Where we usually know (unless we want to change the scene itself)– the location of that we are writing about at that moment. The WHAT….now THAT is the question….

Readers LOVE conflict…it keeps them turning the page. Boredom will close a book or a web page faster than anything else– except the dog making a turd on the living room floor 😉 So in this context, road construction that happens to be blocking the sidewalk is a form of conflict. It impedes Jack’s progress toward his goal. Is Jack getting to the liquor store important to him enough to sprint toward the mound of dirt on the concrete and jump over it? Probably not. What about go around the block or take another route? Probably. Is the obstacle so great that he turns around and decides to go to the liquor store another day? Probably not…….

In real life, these decisions happen every hour of every day. Fairly often, a particular goal will wait until the next day or next week and maybe even with good reason. Readers don’t want to read about the boring lives that we live. The already know boring– they want to read ACTION. They want ADVENTURE….or at least something different. Otherwise, why read the book?

The other side of that coin is that there is always a point of TOO much action (all at once). That becomes confusing and difficult to follow for the reader (another closed book). As an example, if Jack were in a traffic accident and then he was in yet another traffic accident/gunfight/brawl before the first conflict had been at least reasonably concluded, the story typically loses proper continuity and flow.

Then there is the WHY of the conflict. In the traffic accident example, was Jack being inattentive? Not a very good story, but possible. Was he inattentive at that moment to introduce a critical character– his future wife– into the story? Much better. The list of possibilities is endless, but as a starting point there are always the seven sins– pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and gluttony (sloth). One might also add fear…as a possible motivation. Fear that a character will either lose something that they have or not get something that they want. Fear is a WONderful motivator for a character– protagonists and antagonists alike.

There is a Price to be Paid…..

In wanting to become a writer…a good one….there is a price to be paid….and I’ve been trying to come to grips with it. This is another reason why I’ve been gone for so long….trying to reconcile my want to become a writer and…..competition…..

If your brain is anything like mine is, I’m not referring to competition from fellow authors. That is the obvious high hurdle. The other hurdle is more insidious– the “could, should, would”s…..

I was watching TV the other night and at one point the whole episode of a particular space oriented serial was destroyed (I have since gotten over this and have gone back to watching the series as of today). In this particular show, the bulk of humanity is on a space station after an apocalypse and the oxygen supply is going bad. Within months everyone will be dead unless they go back to Earth. The engineer maintaining the equipment realizes this and threatens to tell everyone (thus likely causing a panic). The penalty for breaking any of the rules on the space station is death. Harsh, but that’s the situation. The slang term for the punishment is to be “floated” (out into space). So as I’m watching the first scene in which someone (the engineer in question) is “floated”, he accepts his fate and steps into the large air lock. They close the inner doors, throw the switch to open the outer doors, and off he goes flying out into Earth Orbit to his death. Instead of feeling sorry for the “good” character and enjoying the show, all I can think about is [referring to the author of the script for the TV show]….

.oO(You stupid fuck! That’s at least 1,000 cubic feet of AIR that you’re going to have to account for leaving the station. What ELSE are the survivors going to breathe??? What an irony! The punishment does NOT fit the crime!)Oo.

Same show (it may have been a different episode), all the children sent back to Earth are delinquent or for whatever reason have broken the law in some way. That’s why they were selected to be the “guinea pigs”– to see if Earth is habitable again. As you may imagine, after crash landing on Earth, fairly quickly the children divide into two groups. There are the “good” ones who want to follow the rules and the “bad” ones who want to break all the previous rules that were back on the space station. So the leader of the “bad” kids rallies around the idea of “anarchy” and “no rules”. He wins the “election” handily and most of the kids side with him. The “good kids” go off pretty much to start a new life by themselves. Well, what bothered me in the next episode (or MAYbe the episode after that) is that the same character who styled himself after “anarchy” and lawlessness suddenly had organized his band of followers and had already built themselves a series of walls around water and other needed resources for the group. Effectively, they were finishing building a functioning compound for a worthwhile if not misguided society.

HUH??? What happened to “Mr. Lawlessnes”???

Now, in the author’s defense, TV shows have less time for the intricacies of plot and other dynamics that book/story authors do, but I think that you see my point. In becoming a writer, so it would seem I can no longer read or watch TV without becoming a full-blown critic…….

There is a price to be paid….and I’m working on it……

Feelings and Writing…..

I come here….troubled…. I have no desire to give up writing…no…of course not. By the same token however…I have “lost steam”. I have not written to speak of in weeks– probably longer. Disillusionment is only a small part of it– Kindle’s Draconian payment model (You don’t have an established fan base to bring to us? We don’t do ANY advertising for you. Period.) isn’t THAT depressing. There are other places to sell books I’m sure. To get this out into the open, I do know that at least a very small part of the problem is a four letter word in this life– work. It’s not something that I signed up for as I was coming out of the chute. Be that as it may…the other side of the coin is that the old adage is true: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

I was under the impression that reading the book that I may have hinted at before has been distracting. More to the point…it was not “Reader’s Digest”. To really absorb the material took full concentration such that reading the book again is so much easier the second time around. ….but still I don’t write. The book (and reading it) is not the issue either.

I think that the base problem is two-fold. The first (and more minor) issue is– fear of being wrong/disliked as a writer. To a certain point at least this is normal and must be
surmounted. I’m not all that worried about that….that’s at least fairly straightforward. Shut up and do it anyway (write the damn story).

this is it….this is why I came….. The base issue is that in order to write a story– any story– one must have more than an interest in but a raw FEELING about a given subject. If
people really wanted facts they would read the almanac or a technical journal. Feelings are messy…they are inconvenient in Peter’s sterile world…. When I really think about it…to
truly feel means that I have to “let go”. Ultimately, that is the problem. For in letting go, that means that I lose control.

Control is everything…..

Why?

After pondering the question for several moments, I don’t know. There are many other little reasons but this might be it…. I keep thinking that if I relinquish control, I will lose
who I am (who Peter is). I will lose my self just as those who talk too much believe that if they stop talking, they will cease to exist.

Time to turn feelings on.

Fear sets in…. In delving into feelings– what if I have a perfectly good feeling in the middle of rush hour traffic? I might lose control– of the car– and crash. ….maybe not….
Until proven otherwise– real or fancied– the fear exists.

To get where I want to go…I’m going to have to turn them on again (in stages I thing, but at this point baby steps are better than no steps). Time to turn feelings back on again– and stay away from Facebook. It makes me thing too much. How does the saying go? Paralysis by analysis…….

What to write about?

A new (or “between stories”) writer may wonder what to write about….and it would be too easy for me to say: “Whatever you like…..” Something that is interesting and/or entertaining to you goes without saying, but it’s more than that. Ideally, something that you are passionate about in some way or something that drives you to want to know more about it. Such motivation will also serve you well on those days when you really don’t want to write. They’re going to happen…. Either way, most good fiction is going to require at least some research, whether we enjoy the pouring over reference books and/or web pages or not. This is largely because as much as emotion and tension to find out what happens next keeps the reader turning the pages, at some point or another some facts need to be presented either as a basis for the story or to be later challenged before the end of the book.

While writing has more paradoxes than rules that are made to be broken, one must consider one’s audience at some point or another. There is an old saying– you can’t please everybody. Even if we could….the work to do so would require more effort than the copy is worth. Either we research (or pick) a select group of readers or (more commonly) we write what we want to write and then go find an audience to present to. Either way works, to each his own. That said, if we are writing science fiction to a church group or (worse) writing of gray-area heroes that swear like a truck driver to little school kids it’s not going to work. One of the biggest factors to consider is the age group of your target audience. Typically speaking….young adults read (and purchase) more copy than old farts. More importantly, they both have different interests and tastes. Write a story about teen age love and give it to an octogenarian and they will likely throw it in the trash before the end of the first page. Write a story about a hero fighting back aches, blurred vision, rising drug costs, and Medicare D and the teenager might throw the book back at you. It’s a matter of reader preference and audience.

Back to passion and interest….one must also consider how it relates to the story. For example, if you wanted to try comic book style fantasy or science fiction and you also have a love for crochet, the villain whipping out a pair of knitting needles as his final attack isn’t going to be understood (let alone believable). Now a villain– especially a like-able one– who just happened to use crochet to relax would make more sense. Another consideration is the setting of the story. As a precaution, “period” pieces have a limited audience the further back in history you go. Want to write about the life and times of the 1980’s? Sure. If you’re aspiring to write about the roaring 20’s, you’re going to have a very limited audience outside of (forced) college students as very few people remember that time, let alone relate to it. While you might find a smaller section of readers that like to read/learn about Roman times, this is going to be a hard sell not just because of market saturation as it is also somewhat of an acquired taste.

All in all, typically you can write about most anything– as long as there is enough conflict and interaction between the characters that drive towards a goal to keep the reader turning the page. The important thing to remember is that it is something that you want to write about– as much as we want to believe otherwise– books do not write themselves and no one has ever paid for a finished book that hasn’t been written yet.

Scenery vs. Scene

One of the greatest (and sometimes most daunting) things about writing fiction is that as long as your reader keeps turning the page….you are GOD…..as long as the reader keeps reading. As the author you control not just everyone’s actions (or inaction), but also the lights, the sound, the smells (good and bad)….everything. The hard part in writing fiction is remembering that. For example….your main character is in the bathroom and one of the supporting characters who is really not feeling well walking into the bathroom. The hero might say:

“You look like shit.” The new face might even respond:

“I think I have pneumonia.” And you the author would know that both are true statements. The reader doesn’t know that. He or she only knows what you tell them. Additionally, beforehand the author might have penned:

Sarah had coughed most of the night and had a fever when she woke up that morning.

On the one hand, unless you want that sickness itself to be the entire point of the story, you probably don’t want to go off onto a long tired of every detail of the medical condition– your reader will lose interest rather quickly because the action, the flow, of the story has stopped. If the sickness itself is not pertinent to the storyline, then that fact may need to be slighted or even cut altogether. On the other hand, to create the illusion and continue the fantasy of the story, you will want to SHOW the reader that the supporting character is having a hard time. In this example, it’s an integral part of the scene and quite necessary to the story (explaining why the hero wasn’t at the scene of the murder in the next chapter, for example)…..

Entering the bathroom, Sarah wheezed as she exhaled. Looking over at her, John noted the bags under her eyes from lack of sleep and continued brushing his teeth in front of the mirror. He knew that saying anything at that moment would only make his morning worse and that she was an uncooperative patient. Leaning over the sink she used the vanity for support and labored a coughing fit. Daintily, she spit phlegm into the sink and rinsed it down. John continued his brushing motions and Sarah breathed heavier than normal. Having finished, John lovingly placed his hand on her forehead and felt on fire. Annoyed, John couldn’t take it anymore. He surmised that his morning was probably going to be worse anyway:

“So, which clinic are we going to?”

To keep the reader turning the page, the movie that you are presenting to them (in their head as they read) must not stop, and certainly for any length of time. The trick is to work the scene into the action of the story by having the characters react to the world that you have built around each of them. You don’t want to overdo it– include only the descriptions insofar as they are pertinent to the story. In the above example, did it matter whether the sink had one basin or two? Not really…hence why I didn’t include it in the “story”. That said, it gives your reader the illusion that your story is real when you work the scenery (disease) into the story without actually giving too much information.

Try it 🙂