Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Plot & Structure Analysis - Notting Hill

When I come across a book or a movie that I like, I immediately want to analyze what they did right. I want to learn from it, but also appreciate the clever use of tried and true techniques. It takes creativity and ingenuity to write yet another love story, while at the same time keep the story fresh.

A tool I use to study effective structure is from James Scott Bell's best seller "Plot & Structure." Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, it's wise to consider the major scenes of your story and how they sustain the story starting with the first sentence all the way to "The End."

Quick Refresher

The foundation this model is built on is that stories follow the three act structure: Beginning (Act I), the long middle (Act II), and the end (Act III).

Mr. Bell argues that a novel's structure is held together with a well thought out initial disturbance and two doorways of no return leading to grand finale. 

Early in Act I, we come face-to-face with a disturbance. This is where the lead's normal life is altered (it can be a change, trouble, etc.)

Act I ends when we arrive at the first Doorway of No Return. This is the transition into the confrontation of Act II. The key is that it must be a doorway of no return. If the lead can say, "Screw it, I don't care anymore," then there's no real conflict. It needs to matter, greatly. And turning back needs to be impossible (physically or emotionally).

Throughout the second act, the stakes need to rise. It needs to build up to something drastic which makes the resolution or winning even more critical than ever before. Act II is the longest portion of the story.

This leads us to the second Doorway of No Return. Like the first one, it's a kick in the pants, with no choice but to enter the doorway. This propels us into the final battle, the confrontation, the do or die section of the novel. This second doorway drives us directly into Act III, the waging of battle.

Finally, with the end of Act III comes the final battle and resolution. Then there's the aftermath where the story leaves a lasting impression, or a resonance.

The book has plenty of samples and clarifying explanations. But with this high level refresher in mind (because I know that you've read the book and if you haven't you can win it -- see my contest), let's see how it works in the real world.

Applying The Model

I like real examples. I need to see it. More importantly, I need to do it on my own to internalize it. Although on the surface I get it, concepts never really sink in until I apply it to things that I understand. For illustration (and educational) purposes, I will apply it to a romantic comedy, Notting Hill.

Notting Hill -- Starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant

SPOILER ALERT -- If you haven't seen the movie, I will be giving away key plot points and the ending. You really should watch it. It's a fun movie.

The Hero - HG
The Heroine - JR

The Disturbance

HG is a not-so-successful book store owner (they only sell travel books--clearly, he has not been following the industry trends). In walks the biggest actress of the time. He immediately recognizes her, but does his best to be low-key about it. Is this the disturbance? Sure, a mini disturbance no doubt. But the real one is coming.

A couple of funny scenes later, she buys a book and leaves. He's a bit taken by the surreal nature of the experience, but moves on. HG leaves the store to buy coffee and juice. On his return he runs into JR spilling the juice all over her. Major disturbance.

First Doorway of No Return

She's a mess, but as luck would have it, he lives across the street. She needs to change so she agrees to go there. She changes, he apologizes, they laugh, she leaves. All's sort of back to normal, right? But you can see that trouble is brewing. They stare a little too long, smile a little too easily. But she's gone. Done... maybe not.

Doorbell rings. It's her. She forgot her bag at his home. She grabs it, they stare at each other and... she kisses him! No friendly kiss on the cheek. This is the real deal.

Is this a kick in the pants? I don't know about the rest of you, but if a world-famous actress, who's the hottest thing on the planet, kisses you in a passionate moment, chances are things will not be the same for you. You have slipped down the rabbit hole. THE FIRST DOORWAY. This is a key point. He's a regular guy, going through the motions of life and the biggest celebrity has suddenly kissed him.

Escalation of Stakes

We're in Act II now. She leaves but the very next day calls him. More funny scenes ensure (otherwise, it wouldn't be a romantic comedy). She joins him as his date to his little sister's birthday. This is a classic scene that you must see. After dinner they take a walk and enter a private park in Notting Hill when she has an emotional moment, realizing that people do sometimes love each other forever. They kiss again and they fall for each other.

But all's not well.

Turns out, she has a boyfriend (another famous actor). And when he shows up in London, HG understands that he was silly and naive to think that an average bloke like him, would ever have a chance.

She leaves, he's broken hearted. Things are not the same for him. He is damaged. This is the escalation of conflict.

Second Doorway

Some months later, out of nowhere, she shows up at his house.

She's distrught. Pictures taken of her when she was younger have hit the rags -- nude shots. He takes her in and comforts her. She's a mess but in a short period of time, he gives her peace, comfort and more importantly friendship.

Later that night, they make love. The next morning, she asks if she can stay with him longer. He says, "Stay forever."

That's the SECOND DOORWAY. He's in love. He wants her to stay with him--forever! There's no turning back now. Impossible.

Lights Out

We're in Act III now. And you know what that means--something's got to go wrong. And that's when the Fit hits the Shan. The fairy tale doesn't last long.

In fact, it lasts, about 25 seconds in movie time. The paparazzi find her at his home and take pictures of them in their underware.

She pops a fuse, blaming him, saying that he will get all the benefit of the exposure, while she will regret it forever. This breaks his heart. She goes diva on him and storms out (typical celebrity).

It's all bad at this point. Months pass. He's in a state of depression. This is appropriate for someone who has entered through the second doorway. He had it all... for a few seconds, but still had it all, and now she's gone.

He then hears that she's been in London filming a new movie. He needs to see her (emotional death is at stake if he's not with her), so he goes to visit.

She's a bit distant but invites him in. As he watches them shoot, he hears her tell a co-star that she doesn't know why he (HG) showed up. HG finally gets it. He leaves without saying a word.

Final Battle

The next day, she shows up at his bookstore. This is another classic scene. He turns her down when she asks if they can try again. She explains that she didn't want her co-star to know what was really going on in her life. But as far as HG is concerned, his heart can't take it anymore. He needs to have a clean break, because he's certain that she will break his heart again. She leaves with a classic gut-wrenching scene. "Remember, that I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." She walks out and he's left there planted.

But a romantic comedy must have a happy ending, right?

He calls his friends and recounts what happened. As he explains the whole thing to them, it dawns on him that he was a "daft prick" and got it all wrong.

The chase is on.

They're trying to find her before she leaves the country. They finally find her at a press conference where she's explaining that she will take a break for some time and leave London immediately. The last question, goes to the gentleman in the pink shirt. Yup, it's HG. He asks her to take him back in front of the press, and of course, she does. A true knockout ending. Done with brilliance.

The aftermath

We see a montage of scenes from red carpet appearances together, to their wedding, to the final scene where they're in the same private Notting Hill park where she learned to believe in everlasting love. They're on a bench. He's reading a book. She's laying her head on his lap while caressing her tummy -- she's pregnant.

Everyone--even the mega-stars and bookstore owners--deserve happiness.

Final Thoughts

I hope this has been helpful. Try it. Pick a movie, TV show, or a novel and see if you can identify these scenes. When they're done well, they make the story world believable. And the more you do it, you'll get a better feel for what makes for convincing scenes that move the plot along.

I have a separate journal for this type of analysis.

Do you also analyze your favorite movies and books? Do you dissect them to see what made them great? How do you do it? What do you look for? Do share.

Fight the good fight!

Friday, August 26, 2011

I'm Having an Affair...

Francesco Hayez 008Get your mind out of the gutter! Not that kind of affair!

The thing is... *sigh*

The thing is that I'm developing a new story and... I must confess, I'm falling in love with her... *eyes get misty*

It doesn't mean that I don't love my other stories. I do. They're all special.

It's not them, it's me. It always is...

I'm pitching Aces, while giving Rocky Peak a make-over... but the new one is... you know. New.

I hope they'll forgive me. In the end, if I love the story, and have the talent needed to pull it off, then it'll benefit all of them.

I feel that loving your story is critical. Your love and passion will translate into a story that will pick up the reader and take them through the roller-coaster ride you've written. You need to be head-over-heels with the story. You need to feel the ache, the longing to write more words. You need to feel justified when you don't sleep, or eat lunch. You need to feel it so strongly that time away from the story is time away from your once-in-a-lifetime love.

Am I being overly dramatic? Maybe.

But the reality is that from the day you start writing the first word of the story, to the day that it hits the shelves, you will have read your manuscript a few dozen (or hundred) times. Think of your all-time favorite book. How many times have you read it? Five, ten?

If you don't have a passion for your story, you'll get sick of her, before she's had the chance to evolve and shine into the beauty you know she will become. And that's not fair to the story that is trying so hard to break free from your head and onto the page.

What's your relationship with your stories? And how do you create separation between yoru "other" stories?

Fight the good fight!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

CONTEST- By Writers, For Writers

On October 1st, 2010 I started to blog about my writing journey.

On October 27th, 2010 I created my Twitter account.

Today, I have nearly 1,300 followers on Twitter, and 50 on my blog. And to each of you, I am grateful.

Seth Godin, in his book "Meatball Sundae," challenged me. He said, write a blog and see how it changes your life. And change it has. I have met more wonderful people than I could have ever imagined. I have learned more than I could properly account for. I am more excited about the future than I have ever been. And it's thanks to you (well... maybe not you. Yeah, you. The one over there, with the red baseball cap. You need to comment more often!)

So, in honor of these two milestone, I want to give away two -- that's right, TWO -- books to my friends.

Both books are by the guru himself, James Scott Bell. These books and Mr. Bell, have helped me in ways that I will never be able to properly repay. The books are:
  • Plot & Structure: This is a must for all writers. It has been a game-changer for me

  • Art of War for Writers: An inspirational and powerful book for all facets of your writing career

Did I mention that they are SIGNED by Mr. Bell?

Oh yeah. I'm giving away the kind of thing you'll add to your last will and testament.

The contest starts NOW and ends on Friday, September 30th, 2011 at 9 PM PST.

One day before my blog-a-versary.

The contest is open internationally. 

The rules are simple. I would love to hear your best advice for other writers. By Writers, For Writers. There are more people now than ever that are jumping into the world of writing. Each time I speak to a high-school student who tells me he/she wants to be a writer, I run through a bunch of things that I feel I need to share and explain. Why not go to the community of writers and ask them? Some of you are already published. Some will be published soon. Some, like me, are inching your way closer.

Your advice can be about:
  • What made your writing better? For example, was it something you read on dialogue, plotting, creating better structure, or character development. What made your stories better?
  • What helped you transition into a better or more effective writer? This could be a tool--like Scrivener--or an advice--like a writing quota.
  • Industry advice?

How will this work?
  • Write your advice directly into the comments below (preferred)
  • Or if you're really shy, then email me at araTHEwriter [at] gmail [dot] com
At the end of the contest, I will consolidate the feedback and bring it all together into the "Best advice: by Writers, for Writers" post. Each of you who contributed will be famous... sort of.

How do you win?

+ One winner will be picked by me and a two other secret people. We will debate and choose our favorite advice. Maybe Mr. James Scott Bell can be coerced into giving his opinion also... maybe :)

+ One winner will be picked by Random.org by a entry system:
- Each comment gets +5 entries (for your contribution)
- Follow my blog and get +1 entries (for your good taste)
- Already following my blog, you get +2 entries (for being a visionary)
- Spreading the word via your blog, Facebook or twitter +2 entries (make sure you tell me about it. For example including my Twitter account @araTHEwriter in the tweet is a fast and easy way)

Simple. Got it? Great. Now go and do it.

Just to kick this off, I'll be the first to share with two! ... I hope I win...

Daily and weekly word quotas: For years I floundered. But when I read Plot & Structure I understood the power of the word quota. It immediately helped me create a writing structure that helped me write an average of 1,500 words per day and then up to 2,500 words per day. It enabled me to be focused on producing words on paper. There is nothing more powerful than seeing you inch your way closer to the finish line

One stinkin' rotten word: My mentor, Michael Levin, said every writer should write one page a day, every day. But he understood that sometimes, we were too busy or too tired, or too something else. He said, on those days, write one word. Write "The" if that's all that comes to mind, then walk away. But he knew something that little 'ol me was unaware of. Once I wrote one word, I wrote a sentence, then a paragraph... until I had written a few hundred words. One stinkin' word is all it takes to get things rolling sometimes.

As a bonus, here's The Word Quota advice by James Scott Bell... in his own words...

Check out his other videos on his YouTube channel.

Fight the good fight!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I'm Lazy

It's true. But don't assume lazy is bad.

I think our schools and teachers have taken this perfectly good state-of-mind and have applied all types of bad connotations to it.

At it's core, I suppose being lazy is being averse or disinclined to work. One of my favorite non-fcition books is Timothy Ferris's Four-Hour Workweek. He asks, "Are you being active, or productive?"

I've never appreciated people who work hard and produce nothing. I appreciate people who work smart, and work on the right things. Work in and of itself is meaningless. Work should produce something. The question is, what is it that you're producing by working.

The high school years
When I entered 10th grade, everyone was yapping about college, applications, letter's of recommendation, GPA, SAT, blah, blah, blah. I needed expert advice. And no, Google was not an option back then. I'm not sure if we even had electricity yet.

I spoke with my Math/Physics teacher who I greatly respected. I told him I thought engineering would be good for me. I liked creating things from nothing. I loved solving problems. And I had a natural curiosity for why things worked the way they did. So he told me to skip the big schools where I would be one of three hundred students in each class. He pointed to the local university--Cal Sate University Northridge. I thought this was brilliant. My older brother had just started there.

I grabbed my brother's CSUN catalog and flipped to the back. I wanted a shortcut. It turns out, any SAT score would do if you had a GPA of 3.00 or above (not the case anymore by the way, but this was during the Jurassic era--less competition). For my international readers, 3.00 basically means you're getting a B (85%) on all your subjects. Maybe an A (95%) here and there offset by a C (75%) somewhere else.

Perfect. I had the solution. I knew how to maximize the result by minimizing the work. If I maintained a 3.00, I wouldn't need to study for the SAT. Suffice it to say I graduated with a 3.01. Yes, I've always been good at doing just what I needed to get by. The thing is that high school was somewhat irrelevant. College mattered and so would graduate school. But seriously, high school? High school was the time to fall in love, play the guitar, go to the beach, and live life. Tell me, honestly, what would create better stories and memories? Junior-Senior prom or the mating patterns of squirrels? Okay, bad example. It would be interesting to learn about a squirrel's mating pattern, but hopefully you get the point.

Back to wasting effort. Some of my high-school friends had higher GPAs than I did. They also planned on applying to CSUN. But they, for some ungodly reason, were enrolled in SAT classes. They were nervous, they had flash cards, you name it. Why? I didn't get it at all. That was wasted work. They would produce nothing by doing that. This is what I mean when I say, if the work produces nothing of value or of consequence, then don't bother.

In fairness, I knew that I would do well in the math section of the SAT. As for the English section, since English was officially my fourth-language, I knew it would be a tougher nut to crack. So, I read close to 1,000 comic books and probably close to thirty novels the summer before 12th grade. In the end, although I didn't "study" for the SAT, I did something else that helped me indirectly. I did the things that helped fuel my imagination and more importantly, my passion for stories.


Fast forward to this past January when I completed Aces. My mentor was so excited about it, that when I asked him to give me some guidance with the query letter, he told me to hold off on that. He took my manuscript and approached agents that he knew--agents that he had worked with in the past.

My lazy-gene kicked in. Why work on this horrible thing called a query letter, if I really didn't have to. However, I decided that some effort would probably make sense. After all, as much as I appreciated the desire to help me, I didn't know what would or could happen. But frankly, beyond a half-hearted attempt at the query, the months of January through March were just that--half-hearted. Instead, I worked on a new novel.

So what happened? From January until July of 2011, three amazing agents were considering my manuscript. The third agent sat on it for three months. I know it's easier to say no than it is to say yes. The maybes are the worst. But I got valuable insight from three great agents.

As I mentioned in my last post, I knew it wouldn't end well. None of them represented my genre, short of an author or two who were house-hold names. So to pick me up would be very very irregular.

In early Feb, the first one passed. In late March, the second one passed.

In April, when I finished the first draft of my new novel, I woke up from my lazy stupor and started reading on the topic in ernest. Some of my twitter friends, specifically @KatLovesBoho (Kathryn Sheridan Kupanoff) and @IamJPRoth (Jo Perfilio) gave me the type of feedback that helped me get it to a point that was closer.

In July, the third agent finally said no. That's when I got guidance from the great James Scott Bell, which got my query letter to the 90% mark. Then I reached out to Writer's Digest, 2nd Draft service. And finally, when I got more feedback from new agent Lauren Ruth, I knew that I was finally ready.

At this point, each and every word has been looked at, dissected, and washed with a toothbrush so many times that I can't imagine a query letter that would do a better job of capturing my story. And even then, it may not be enough. *Le sigh*

"Wait!" you must be yelling. "Nearly five stinkin' months on a one page letter. Five months to create 250 words? And that may still not do it? This sure seems like a lot of work for little value."

I think the math points to less than two words per day. Not very efficient. But this is a case where the work you put into the query letter is directly correlated with the improved probability of landing an agent.

Here's the thing about the publishing world. To get published by a major publisher, you need an agent. To get an agent, you need to query them. Each agent gets an average of 200-300 query letters a week. Some into four digits digits. If they like the query letter, they will ask for pages from your manuscript. No agent, no major publisher. So how do you get noticed by an agent? No, spraying perfume on the email query letter will not do the job. And even your keen insight into the mating patterns of squirrels will not do it.

The way you get noticed is two step process: (1) write an amazing query letter then (2) hope and pray.

I've got the hoping-and-praying bit down. And for once, I feel good about the query letter.

Fight the good fight!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Genre, Genre, Genre

I've been struggling with this "Genre" thing.

When I set out to write Aces, I thought of it as a contemporary romance novel. There was no doubt in my mind. And when I was done, I was still there. No doubt.

Now, after a few "professional" readers have gone through it, I have some doubts. Some will say, that it doesn't matter. But I have to disagree. I'll explain later...

My mentor sent my manuscript to three agents that he had worked with in the past. All three, awesome agents. All three, don't represent the genre. They represented Literary, or Children's/MG, or women's fiction, but not Romance. So when my manuscript went out to them, I knew how it would end.

And of course, I was right. I didn't expect them to offer representation. What I did get was two pices of information from each. One that encouraged me, and another that confused me.

Here's the basic reply I received:
"Thank you for letting me read this... loved/enjoyed the story... the characters are <<enter a nice phrase here>>... but... I don't represent <<fill in the genre here>>."

I was elated to see agents saying they liked what they read. But because I'm a bit of a scheptic, I also knew that they were probably being a bit nicer than normal, because someone they knew and respect had sent them my novel. So maybe they didn't love it... maybe they liked it. Maybe even liked-liked it... but probably not loved it. That's cool. At least they didn't voimit all over my manuscript.

That was the encouraging part. Now, for the confusing part.

You probably noted the little <<fill in the genre here>> comment.

Each of them said my novel was a different genre.

One said -- Romance (cool... she nailed it)
Another said -- Commercial fiction (oh, I see)
A third said -- Mainstream (okay...)

I'd like to think I'm reasonably intelligent. And with all my books on the craft, the market, and access to google, I would find the answer to this mystery.

After all, maybe all three are sort of the same, just a variation of the definition.

So I searched.

Nathan Bransford said on his blog back in 2008...

"... commercial fiction is kind of an umbrella term for genre fiction (Mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, westerns, historical fiction, etc.). Chances are, if you're writing commercial fiction you're writing with some genre or genres in mind and are targeting readers of that genre(s)."

Okay cool. So according to this, romance fell into commercial fiction. One and the same. My theory was holding up nicely. At this point I hoped that maybe even mainstream could fall into that definition. I crossed my fingers (and a couple of toes).

So I jumped over to Agent Query.com under Genre Description, where it said:
"Commercial fiction often incorporates other genre types under its umbrella such as women’s fiction, thriller, suspense, adventure, family saga, chick lit, etc. Commercial fiction is not the same as "mainstream" or "mass market" fiction, which are both umbrella terms that refer to genre fiction like science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and some thrillers."

Say what? So, according to AgentQuery.com, commercial is not equal to romance. Mainstream is romance. Great.

I read more. It went on to say, "Commercial fiction uses high-concept hooks and compelling plots to give it a wide, mainstream appeal."

So, commercial fiction has mainstream appeal. But it's not mainstream. Got it? Sure you do.

Well... I was confused. Nathan can't be wrong. He was a super agent for a while, turned author. Highly respected... but... but.. there's that but again.

I knew what to do. I would check out Dummies.com -- you know them. They do all the "___ for dummies" books. I found "Exploring the different types of fiction." Perfect!

It said, "Commercial fiction attracts a broad audience and may also fall into any subgenre, like mystery, romance, legal thriller, western, science fiction, and so on."

Oh, for the love of--! So commercial does include romance...

The challenge is that depending on which genre is the accurate genre, it changes the agents that I would approach. More importantly, it also changes the manner in which the query letter would be written. Why? This is what another agent who read my query letter said: "It sounds like contemporary romance, not commercial fiction."

:) Well... I thought they were the same. But I knew exactly what she meant. I had thought of this book as contemporary romance when I wrote it. So naturally, in my query letter, I would focus on the relationship of the boy and girl. Of course it would come across as romance.

You may ask, "If you wrote it thinking it's contemporary romance, why don't you just stick to it?" Go ahead, ask. Good, I thought you'd never ask.

Because, yet another two insiders said, "I don't see this book in the romance section of the bookstore. No bare-chested guy on this cover. It will be in the 'General Fiction' area with a lot of great love stories."

It sure would be nice if we had an equivalent to the unifying theory of physics. Maybe we can call it the Unifying Definition of Fiction Genres.

Am I over thinking this? My wife, in her infinite ability to cut to the bone said, "You're the author. You choose." I hate it when she's right. Which, if you've been keeping count, is nearly always.

In the end, I think it comes down to researching the agent. Check the site, find interviews, read their blog. Look at what types of novels the agent represents. Then look and see what they call that genre. If that "type" of book fits yours, call it whatever that agent calls it and be done with it. Simple... I need another double espresso!

Fight the good fight!

Friday, August 12, 2011

What I've Learned About Myself

Here are some things that you should know about me:
    A black pearl and a shell
  • I have a high threshold for pain… although I will complain for effect
  • I have a low threshold for disingenuous people
  • I am not impressed easily… neither by myself nor others
  • I am impressed by ordinary people who do extraordinary things on a daily basis and don’t realize it nor expect recognition for it
  • I don’t react well to loud voices nor finger pointers… I put the volume down on the receiving end
  • I stand for making a difference for others… every day of my life
  • With integrity and courage I can face anything in life
  • And finally... Extraordinary changes occur when one sand is trapped in the oyster… the irritant that causes a tipping point
We all need that spec of sand in our lives. The one thing that caused us to do what we always knew we had within us but were afraid or unwilling to chase.

I leave you with a quote:
“To thine onself be true…” ~ Polinius - Hamlet, Shakespeare

This roughly translates to “Be true to yourself” 

I am very comfortable in my skin… maybe to a fault…  I hope you are too. Nothing worse than going through life being someone else.

I am a writer. I have stories to tell. 

Who are you?

Fight the good fight!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...