A Creative Career Path

by Matthew Lowes

I was recently asked to speak to a high school freshman careers class about my work as a writer and independent game designer. This was at the school where I work, so many student were surprised that I had this other life writing fiction and games. I talked a little about my creative work, about The Labyrinth of Souls tarot card game, and about my novel, The End of All Things, which just came out. Then I answered a series of questions they had put together, which I’ll reproduce here. If there are any young people out there interested in pursuing creative work, here’s an inside look at how that’s unfolded for me … and few tidbits of advice.

1. How did you discover your love/passion for this activity or line of work? Is your career different than what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

I played with writing stories at a pretty young age, so that was there from early on. I read a lot of comic books when I was little. I also tried to tackle things way beyond me at the time. Actually my failure to read and comprehend The Iliad at around the age of ten may have turned me off from reading for a while. Nevertheless, at some point, everybody who loves books finds a book that really resonates with them at that moment in their life, and for me that was The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, which I read in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

My junior and senior year high school English teacher really helped solidify my interest in writing and literature. He was very demanding and a hard grader. He would never accept work even so much as an hour late and had the expectation that we would produce publishable quality writing. This really impressed upon me the importance of editing and always meeting your deadlines, which is incredibly important for a professional writer. But it was his love for literature and writing that helped me realize my own passion for the work I do now.

As far as games, that goes back a long ways too. When I was around nine years old my brother and I started playing Dungeon & Dragons, and I played a lot of roleplaying games right up until around middle school. A few years ago I got interested in games again, and since I spent the last twenty years or so working on writing, it wasn’t long before I was writing my own games. Games combine everything I love about fiction and narratives with math and logic. It’s a wonderful balance between creative and the analytical elements of thought.

2. How long did you consider turning your passion into an income before you went for it?

I wanted to be a writer, and really started writing with that in mind, when I was a freshman in college. I tried submitting a few stories almost right away, but got more serious about it a few years after I graduated from college.

3. What kind of schooling/training/qualifications is required in order to do your job?

There are no official requirements, but the unofficial requirements are vast. One must have passion, determination, and perhaps most importantly, vision. What I mean by vision is you have to have something to say, not in the sense that you have an opinion or a belief or a point of view, but more like you have an image of something you want to create.

I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master degree in teaching, but school is only a starting place for learning. A formal education and teacher can take you only so far. If you wish to excel, you must take it upon yourself to educate yourself about every aspect of what you’re doing. You must take complete responsibility for your knowledge and skills.

4. How long did it take to go through the training to do your job?

My whole life.

5. Is this career what you expected it to be?

Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. That’s what makes life so interesting. Everything you think you know about life and living now comes from a particular point of view that is shaped by the situations you find yourself in. Those situations and that point of view will change continuously throughout your life. Perhaps one day you will come to a place where you have no point of view whatsoever. But that is another conversation.

6. What do you enjoy most about your career? What is the best part of your job?

I enjoy pursuing my creative impulses. I enjoy taking an idea or vision and turning it into something concrete that others might find enjoyable, interesting, or inspiring.

7. What adventures/memorable moments have you had?

There is a wonderful satisfaction in finishing a large project you have invested a lot of time and energy into. I spent some twelve years writing a trilogy of fantasy novels, with a total of around 300,000 words, or some 1000 pages. When I finally got to the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book, there was an indescribable feeling of triumph. I hope everybody can experience something like that in their life. Those books are actually not yet published yet, but when they are that will be another memorable moment. Every project I complete, whether a short story, a game, or a novel, is like that to some degree.

8. What is the most challenging part of your career? If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

One must be prepared to work long hours, months, and years, potentially without any encouragement, validation, praise, or income. That has been a challenge. There was a long period in my life where I would have given anything to have the time and resources to devote myself full time to my creative work. But eventually you see that every aspect of your life is part of your creative work, is fueling it, and so there is no point in changing anything. In any case, things are constantly changing anyway. So one day I may yet have that luxury.

9. Are there any dangers in your job?

The biggest dangers for people doing creative work are psychological. We don’t live in a society that makes pursuing any kind of art particularly easy. So there is a danger of becoming frustrated, jealous, depressed, self-loathing, or bitter. I suppose there is also the danger of simply not being able to pay your bills, but that’s a part of the whole package.

10. How much stress is connected to your career?

Stress is all in the mind. Some situations are typically more stress inducing than others, but it is our response that creates the stress, not the situation itself. Whatever you do in life, you will encounter stress, but if you keep this in mind, it will be a lot easier to deal with.

11. What are your typical weekly hours?

I work four days a week at the school. For my creative projects, often I will work about two hours at night, and twelve to twenty hours or so over the weekend. It varies depending what projects I’m working on and where they’re at.

12. Is family time restricted due to job duties?

Yes. Because I essential work two jobs, a lot of my would-be free time or social time is taken up working on creative projects.

13. What is the expected income for an entry level position? How often do you get paid?

For someone doing independent creative work there is no expected entry-level income. It all depends on what you do and if people buy it.

14. Salary or hourly position? Do you make enough money to be comfortable?

I support myself through my job at the school. As an independent writer/game-designer, my income has increased over the years, but I don’t make enough money to support myself doing only that. That job has no salary and no hourly wage. I make something, and if people buy it I get a percentage royalty after production and distribution costs.

15. What benefits are offered with your job?

My job at the school has good benefits, like health care, holidays, sick leave, and so on. My job as a writer and game designer has no such benefits. If you take a path like this, you have to find a way to sort out life’s logistical details, so you can continue to do your creative work.

16. What is retirement age?

What is retirement? What is age? There’s plenty of time to think about these things later in life. Focus on what’s happening now and you can never go wrong. For someone in a creative field, there is no end to creative possibilities.

17. Is there possibility for promotion/movement within the career?

There are always possibilities. Opportunities are abundant, to take good actions, to better yourself, to learn and expand your sphere of influence. These opportunities appear every day for everyone. You need only notice and embrace them.

18. Are you happy with your career choice?

I am very happy with the course my life and my career has taken. Sometimes things in life choose you, but if you embrace whatever happens, you will find happiness.

19. What advice would you give this class as they start their career search and preparation?

Here’s some strange advice, but it might work well for the right person.

Pick something obscure and learn absolutely everything about it, become the best at it. For example, if you want to play in an orchestra, don’t become a violin player, unless you can’t help it because that’s what you love or you just have extraordinary talent for that. Instead, if you become the best bassoon player in the world and you will always have an interesting job.

A while ago, I was doing some research on mummies for a story I was writing. It turned out there was one guy who was the world’s most renown expert on mummies. He knew everything there was to know about it. He had a mummy-related job and whenever something mummy related came up, he would be consulted. That’s the kind of possibility I’m talking about.

Beyond this interesting idea, I would say take responsibility for your own education. Read widely. Learn everything. Follow your interests, but don’t forget to take care of practical matters.

Finally, stop complaining, and simply take good actions.

20. What would you have done differently in high school?

This is a strange question, since I could not have done anything differently than I did. I was who I was at the time, and I am who I am now. But if you’re asking me what I think you should do while you’re in high school, I would say you should take advantage of the great opportunity to learn and better yourself and your situation. Study hard, learn as much as possible, but don’t worry too much about the future, other than to consider it and make some appropriate plans for what you will do after high school.

If you feel overwhelmed or depressed, ask for help. You’re not alone and people care about your well-being. Finally, don’t do anything foolish, like taking up drugs or drinking alcohol. Your brain and your body are still developing. Don’t risk messing yourself up for life. Maybe some of you are already doing these things and are thinking that it won’t mess you up, but you could be terribly wrong. You don’t even really know what messed up is, because you don’t really know where you’re at or what your true potential is.

Try to find out what your true potential is. It’s way bigger than you can even imagine.

Buying Craft at Conferences, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Buying Craft at Conferences, by Eric Witchey

First, the gratuitous ad. The new book is available. It won’t launch until the World Fantasy Convention, but it is available on Amazon in hard and e-book forms. Please buy, read, and review. Here’s the link:

https://www.amazon.com/Littlest-Death-Labyrinth-Souls-Novel/dp/0999098934/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1506958090&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=Eric+Witchey

 

On to the blogging.

When a writer goes to a conference and pays for a fifteen-minute, private professional critique session with one of the presenters, what are they really trying to buy?

Some are trying to buy recognition.

Some are trying to buy discovery.

Most are trying to buy improvement.

Generally, the conference presenter who has agreed to read and do story analysis has little influence over the misguided motivations of the first two desires. The third can rarely be done in fifteen minutes. Sure, the conference presenter can offer one or two ideas. They may even offer an idea that lets the hopeful writer turn a corner in craft. However, those are rare moments.

As part of my commitment to the Write on the Sound Writers Conference where I’ll be teaching this weekend, I am reading and analyzing 10 manuscripts and providing a sit-down, one-on-one development session to each author. Having read all ten, I’m now working on my write-ups.

I don’t have to do written analysis for my conference clients. It’s not part of the contract. All I have to do is read then sit down with them for fifteen minutes and chat about their writing. So why write up my responses at all?

The first reason is to respect their work. The second reason is to show them their hope is valid. The third reason is that I can and should. It’s the right thing to do, and I have found methods of making it efficient and helpful.

For example, of the ten manuscripts I’ll be addressing this weekend, eight show no indication of understanding standard manuscript format. For some, that may be a result of rather vague instructions given by conference coordinators. For others, maybe not. For the two who obviously do understand manuscript format, there was clearly just no choice but to deliver pages in standard manuscript format.

Now, I’m not going to explain standard manuscript format here. I’m just using it as an example. In fifteen minutes of discussion at the conference, I might be able to get across the fundamentals of manuscript format and why it is important. Maybe. Fifteen minutes isn’t much time for show-and-tell. Certainly, it’s not enough time to help a client develop a couple of MS Word Template files that automatically provide layout and styles definitions that support manuscript format.

However, I can describe the problem, the reasons the problem is a problem, and the solutions to the problem in a short white paper that I can then include as part of the packet response for the eight clients who need it.

Over time, I’ve recognized that certain patterns of success and patterns of failure recur in conference manuscripts. In fact, they appear in slush I have read, in college classes I have taught, and in seminars I have led. I can easily list the most often seen issues in manuscripts written by developing writers.

Mind you, not all the manuscripts I read for this conference had these problems. In fact, one was clearly professional. However, experience reading in many venues has brought me to realize that this list of development issues is pervasive enough that I have developed white papers for each item and quite literally hundreds more. By handing each client a short, written analysis of their text and augmenting that analysis with supporting white papers, I can give the client a lot to think about and material they can come back to later. When they do come back later, they will discover a much more detailed exposition of the issues and methods for solving that issue. After all, aren’t executable solutions what they really paid for?

Here’s a simplified list of the most common weaknesses I see in conference manuscripts:

  • Absence of dramatic conflict or the belief that dramatic conflict means combat.
  • Failure to understand character transformation.
  • Failure to understand the relationship between character transformation and incremental emotional change in scenes.
  • Failure to understand character depth and how to demonstrate character psychology and change in dialog and narrative.
  • Failure to understand the difference between authorial voice, narrative voice, character voice(s), and the reader’s internal voice.
  • Failure to grasp core thematic(s) and how a story demonstrates it/them.
  • Failure to fully develop the psychological and sociological nature of the opposition.

The list could go on, but these are the things I see missing most often. I don’t have time here to develop descriptions of each of these, nor would I since I’m not being paid. However, some of the readers of this blog might be going to conferences in the future. Before you pay for an analysis of your manuscript, check it for the above. Before you pay for a sit-down session, see if you can find out whether you are buying a chat or a solution.

Interview with Alan M. Clark, By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Cover_ApologiesToTheCatsMeatMan_The Cat’s Meat Man” Copyright © 2017 Alan M. Clark

I’m delighted to be interviewing Alan Clark on ShadowSpinners today. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of knowing this talented author and artist for several years and have even taken a few of his painting classes. His very brief bio below, mentions the house full of bones where he grew up. Well dear reader, I have personally been in Mr. Clark’s current home, and I can attest that bones remain a prominent feature in his life, and in the macabre décor of his studio. Those of you who have followed my blog know of my own penchant for all things dark and twisted, so I naturally took an instant liking to Mr. Clark!

I’ve just finished his latest book and immediately gave it the five stars it deserved on Amazon. The book is Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man: A Novel of Annie Chapman, the Second Victim of Jack the Ripper (Jack the Ripper Victims Series). My interview will focus mainly on the book, while also touching on the series and Mr. Clark’s artwork.

Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. As a writer and illustrator, he is the author of sixteen published books, including 11 novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. He has illustrated books and stories by authors as diverse as Jack Ketchum, Poppy Z Brite, Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale and Ray Bradbury. Awards for his work include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards.

 

Alan, what first drew you to write historical fiction?

Thanks for the nice introduction. 

I’ve always liked history. Many years ago, in the early ‘80s, one of my first jobs was as a museum guide at Fort Nashborough, a partial replica of the first non-native-American settlement of Nashville, TN. I was in a position of having to bring to life for the visitors what existence was like for those who first settled the area. Using my imagination, I found I could sort of travel back in time to help the visitors get a glimpse of a time when the area was surrounded by wilderness, as well as hostile Indians who held those lands as sacred hunting and burial grounds.

What inspired you to write about the victims of Jack the Ripper, while so exclusively leaving the man out of the stories as well as any speculation as to who he might have been? 

I read the police reports of the killings, the transcripts from the inquests, and other material that gave a sense of who the victims were, what their lives were like. Knowing something of history in the nitty gritty of life, beyond significant dates, locations, and standout events, I became fascinated with what it took for the women to survived in London’s East End of the period. I found a parallel with the homeless of our time. We have the tech revolution marginalizing the less fortunate among us, and Victorian England had the same thing with the Industrial Revolution, the suffering at its worst in London, the richest and most technologically advanced city in the world at the time. Survival in that time and place was a tale worth telling. The more I learned about the women and their environment, the less interested I became in the endless, and often ridiculous speculation about the murderer. Because we don’t know who JTR was, the killer is mostly defined by his victims and what he did to them, while the women should not be defined by the circumstances of their deaths since we have some information about them and their lives. 

What do you feel are the ethics of writing historical fiction?

There are four novels in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series at present: Of Thimble and Threat, Say Anything but Your Prayers, A Brutal Chill in August, and Apologies to that Cat’s Meat Man. I state in the front of each novel that they are fiction and that is meant to tell people that I’ve made up much the story, the dialogue, and the motivations of the characters. I try to create characters that ring true in the imagination as human beings. They are necessarily flawed. I try to stick to what is known of their lives, their motivations, their feelings, but clearly I have to invent.

Popular notions about the victims would have us believe that they were prostitutes of little value. Unfortunately that is because that’s the way they were seen in their time. Those killed on the street, the first four, were casual prostitutes, meaning that they engaged in solicitation when they had to in order get by. The going rate for a casual prostitute at the time was four pence (pennies). If my calculations are correct, adjusted for inflation, that would be about almost 2 £ British currency today, or about $2.70 cents USD. The rest of the time, they eked out a meager existence doing what work they could find, mostly hard and tedious labor for little pay. Those four women had all lost their husbands and were destitute. There were so many poor, so many partner less women living in the East End of London, and so many of them were alcoholics, often struggling to get from one meal to the next, one drink to the next, that they were considered a nuisance by most people of the higher classes, and of very little worth. Yes, there was a rigid class system in place at the time.

Yet those women had lives, families, friends, emotional gains and losses, the controversies and dramas to be found in any life. My opinion is that giving a sense of life in that time and place to people of our time, and to those of the future, is a worthy endeavor. If people are so fascinated by the idea of an inhuman killer that they are drawn to material about the violence, why not use that to draw attention to something intensely human.

Do you feel you owe anything to the all too real victims in your books? In particular Annie Chapman the second victim of Jack the Ripper upon whom “Apologies to the Cats Meat Man” is based?

I owe her compassion as a fellow human being, and believe I have written something that depicts a character going by her name and having similar circumstances in a way that makes her more than a two-dimensional alcoholic Victorian-era whore. Hopefully, the story inspires others to imagine those times and circumstances and engenders compassion for the least of that time, and, by extension, the least of our time.

In preparation for this interview I delved more deeply into why your book resonated with me, even weeks after I’d read it. I realized it was because of what you touched on in the last sentence of your response above—inspires others to imagine those times and circumstances and engenders compassion for the least of that time, and, by extension, the least of our time. You see I had a daughter who—slept rough—the term used in the 19th century to describe having to sleep on the streets at night. My daughter was also an addict. Through her I learned of the lives of many of those considered—least of our time—those who slept rough, right along side her. When she died those same marginalized people were the ones who shared stories about my daughter’s compassion toward them. So thank you for humanizing those who are all too often invisible.

That is hard. You have my sympathy.

Compassion is in short supply in a world so full of people and dwindling resources. That was true in Victorian London, just as it is true today. In 1888, the Whitechapel district in London’s East End, where most of the Ripper killings occurred, had an average of 800 people living per acre.

There will always be those who stereotype the unfortunate individual as a loser. It’s easy and can be a comfortable way to temporarily pump up a deflated sense of self. But all of us make mistakes and suffer for it, and, at times, suffer through no fault of our own. Writing drama is all about the decisions characters make, the consequences of those decisions, and how they deal with adversity. If done well and the character’s motivations ring true, a story becomes an effective reflection of human life, a mirror we value because it gives us glimpses that help us understand ourselves and others.

What was the hardest, and in turn the easiest part of writing this book? 

What made it hard is that there is little information about Annie Chapman’s life, really just a bare-bones outline. The lives of each of the victims is most clear closest to their deaths because of the inquests. Those are investigations to determine the manner of death, much like a trial, with witnesses testifying as to their relationships, knowledge, and recent interactions with the deceased.

Because there was so little information about Annie Chapman, I had to pick up even the thinnest emotional threads and try work with them. I found a letter written by Chapman’s sister that gave some truly wonderful emotional context concerning love and loss and even violent suicide in the family—that was very helpful. The lack of information made it hard, but also gave me room to invent. The trick is to invent in a way that remains true to the environment, the circumstances of the characters, ones that seem consistent with what we do know from history.

You did an excellent job of making me feel the hardships, squalor and violence in the life of a working class woman in 19th century London. Were there specific reference books used to accomplish this?  

Thank you. Most of my research for the series has been done online. There are great resources for this, maps, documents, fiction, nonfiction, and government studies from the time period. Google books has a seemingly endless selection of material referencing the Victorian era, generated by authors, journalists, and social scientists of the period. The ability to search online for images using key words was also of great benefit.

For those unfamiliar—I was one of those and had to look it up—please explain what a “cats meat man” is.

A cat’s meat man is a street vendor who makes rounds of neighborhoods that have people with pets, selling meat to those who have dogs and cats. It was usually horsemeat not fit for human consumption, dyed green or blue to indicate that and stabbed onto thin wooden skewers. A cat’s meat man would have regular customers and and a beat so as not to compete with others in the same trade. Wearing a big, bright neckerchief, he’d wheel a barrow that held his merchandise in containers of brine. To draw attention, he’d sing a song or shout “Beep, beep,” as he proceeded to. They were often organized through someone who had access to the cast offs of a local slaughterhouse.

TheCatsMeatMan

“The Cat’s Meat Man” Copyright © 2017 Alan M. Clark

What is the one most important thing people think they “know” about the Jack the Ripper victims that’s a fallacy?

Many assume that the killer was a top-hatted gentleman slumming in the East End. I’ve seen depictions of JTR wielding a knife with a jeweled handle. All that is unlikely. The murderer would probably have been someone who could blend in, and that would have been someone of modest to meager means. Even your accent, your manner of speech, and vernacular placed you within that society.

I have shared in this blog how my own painting and writing both assist and hinder one another. Other than the creation of the art for your book covers, does your art inform your writing in any way? 

I have done numerous illustrations for the series. I approach the material as I would with any illustration job—the images are in response to what I’m writing. With the artwork, I try to add to the experience audiences have of the stories, while pinning things down as little as possible. Audiences respond better when they are given room to use imagination. In many of the illustrations, instead of depicting the character’s facial features, I concentrated on their hands, thus allowing the audience to put their own stamp on the characters.

StillInItsHidingPlace

“Still in Its Hiding Place” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark

I am anxiously awaiting a book on final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. Is it in my near future? 

Yes, next year—have begun it. Using some of the illustrations, I did an animated film less than 2 minutes in length to help promote it and the rest of the JTR Victims Series. Just finished the film and haven’t released it yet.

Other than the book mentioned above, what do your plans for future projects include?

As I’ve done in the past—not just with the JTR Victims Series, but also with The Door that Faced West, about America’s earliest serial killers, and A Parliamnet of Crows, about 19th century American Murderesses, the Wardlaw sisters—I’ll be looking for something in history that leaves me disturbed and wondering. All my historical fiction starts that way. I call it Historical Terror: Horror that Happened. Something in the past stands out to me because I have to wonder how those involved in the event found what they did reasonable. Writing the tales helps me provide answers. The novels are about crimes, the victims of crimes, or both.

Thanks for interviewing me on ShadowSpinners.

Thank you, and I look forward to many more great reads as you explore my new catch phrase—Historical Terror.

What’s a “MacGuffin” Anyhow? A Little Investigation of my Own

By Lisa Alber

Since the last time I wrote here, my third novel, PATH INTO DARKNESS launched. Woohoo! It’s always a fun thing, the culmination of at least two years of hard work. Along with the launch, come the reviews, which I try not to notice all that much … (yeah, right).

But then, last week, I got a nice surprise: my local alternative paper, the Willamette Week—bastion of Portland, OR, hipness and snark—featured a review of the novel. Color me shocked, to be honest. I’d never seen an actual full book review in the newspaper. Maybe it was a slow news week in the land of hip, I don’t know. I was hesitant to read the review. Snark doesn’t tend to be magnanimous, and, indeed, the reviewer had a nice way of coating what might considered a positive aspect of the novel with the glow of ambiguity.

But, it’s all good. I was thrilled to see the review and picked up about ten copies of the print version. 🙂

One sentence sticks out near the beginning of the review: “…the murder is just the MacGuffin, a hedge mower clearing the underbrush to look at the gross stuff underneath.”

Using the term “MacGuffin” in a book review interests me. That’s a writing craft kind of word, the kind of concept that the average reader won’t understand or care about it.

First thought: Really? Thanks for letting me know.

Second thought: What’s a MacGuffin again?

Third thought: Is that a bad thing?

I get what the reviewer is saying, maybe: The murder of Elder Joe at the beginning of the book is the least of the events and mysteries to sort out. One thing leads to another, and before you know it there’s a whole ‘nother thing going down that could be related to Elder Joe’s death, but maybe it’s not, and maybe there’s some more bad stuff brewing.

What can I say, this is the world of dark crime fiction — shit (or maybe “shite” since the story’s set in Ireland) happens. When you’re writing mystery, that’s pretty much the point!

I’m not sure the reviewer used the term “MacGuffin” correctly, so bear with me as I investigate. Review aside, I am interested in the MacGuffin concept anyhow.

Here’s what I know to start with: MacGuffins are plot devices. Too bad the term “plot device” always seems to come along with a sneer, like it’s a bad thing, like if you’re a writer using a plot device, then you’re basically a hack — so-called “literary” writers don’t use plot devices, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

We could mine that topic until the next eclipse …  To continue, looking around the Internet, I see that “MacGuffin” is typically defined as the object (person, place, thing) around which a plot revolves, and said object may or may not be all that important. The Maltese Falcon statuette, the Holy Grail, a lost manuscript, the lost city of Atlantis, and so on.

If you want to get all technical about it, I guess you could say that a dead body is an object around which a mystery plot revolves, therefore, a MacGuffin. But that seems silly. Might as well say that the love interest the heroine meets at the beginning of a romance novel is a MacGuffin.

On WikiPedia, the definition includes, “Other more abstract types [of MacGuffins] include victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.”

Well, huh. Every story, I mean every story ever written, has a MacGuffin then, which renders the term pretty useless. If a story doesn’t revolve around something, then what’s the point of it? So I reject that wider definition. I’ll remain a purist on the topic, which is more the Hitchcockian way of thinking of MacGuffins.

I have a go-to writing book that I dip into now and then for inspiration and reminders: Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY. Since she writes crime fiction, I’m curious what she has to say about MacGuffins within our genre. She considers MacGuffins a craft element that you can use to increase suspense. She says, “… it’s the race itself — the race to possess the MacGuffin in advance of the other characters — that creates the suspense.”

OK, yeah, that makes sense — a lot of sense.

My conclusion? I have a more purist definition of “MacGuffin,” so I don’t think a murder at the beginning of a mystery counts as one, even when said murder ends up not being the point of the story. (Like the Maltese Falcon statue itself not really being the point of the story.)

Did the reviewer misuse the term? Meh. Not sure. Kind of. You can argue either way. It’s just not fully apt, in my opinion. In my literary jargon, Elder Joe’s death is the inciting incident — the event that gets the plot rolling so that I can, as the reviewer so descriptively put it, examine deeper and darker territory.

What’s your take on the MacGuffin? Do you define it more in the Hitchcockian way? Or include abstractions in your definition? Do you even care?

The Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

Tennis PlayerThe Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

The four-day 2017 Willamette Writers Conference was last weekend.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a conference recap essay. It’s a craft essay.

Still, I experienced a lot of things in a very short period of time, so it influences my thinking on craft today. Two things I experienced are worthy of note in this little essay. First is my time with the Young Willamette Writers. Larry Brooks and I spent a lunch with the up-and-coming kids nurtured by Teresa Klepinger and the Young Willamette Writers’ crew of kind mentors. The kids’ ages ranged from 9 to 15 or so, and they are pure hearts made of equal parts imagination and sponge. Second is the sad death of the dolphin Rinaldo that was part of the discoveries we made during the Write a Story Now group brainstorm and story development class I taught on Sunday.

Yes, these things are related.

Here’s how. In both situations I found myself on the verge of describing a little considered but terribly important aspect of story craft—characterization in particular. I call it the because-because technique. In both cases, time ran out. I walked away from the sessions feeling like I cheated my clients.

Many fiction writers, and certainly most selling writers, know that every character on stage at a given moment has an agenda they are trying to execute. How they execute their agenda “shows” the reader who they are. This is at the heart and soul of the vague and nearly useless writer instruction to “show, don’t tell.” God, I wish I had a dime for every emotionally empty adjective and concrete detail an aspiring writer put on the page and made me read.

Example:

She sat on the hot, beige vinyl of her twenty-year old, silver Toyota Camry. Squirming to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts and sticking her to the seat, she slipped the key into the ignition and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed her effort to start the car.

The old adage (show, don’t tell) biases the aspirant in favor of describing the perspirant, her seats, her shorts, her car, etc. She does have an agenda. Here, she wants to start the car. That’s her scene agenda, and that’s what I’m writing about in this essay.

In both the class and the meeting with the kids, we talked about agendas. We talked about how they bring character to life by creating opportunity for the character to demonstrate who they are by taking action on their own behalf. We talked about how opposition of environment (the heat and the starter) can force the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, experience, and a level of desire. Opposition by another character does the same and adds another agenda and personality to the mix. Opposition by internal moral and psychological forces also places the character in a position where they must demonstrate who they are. In the Story Now class, we even talked a little bit about how changes in tactics can allow the reader to feel and internalize character personality.

What we didn’t talk about is how every character on stage has a because-because.

Example:

She wants to start her car because she wants to get away from the tennis pro because she loves her husband and doesn’t want any rumors even though she hasn’t done anything wrong.

The purpose of the because-because is expanding the frame of reference for personal agenda two levels in order to allow for more complex and plausible execution of agenda in scene. It also allows the writer to connect character to risks, stakes, and consequences in the mind of the reader by making behavior specific in ways that imply psychological underpinning motivations that may or may not be explicitly stated.

And every character has a because-because. Even the ball boy has a because-because.

Example:

The tennis pro wants to bed the first character because he is running a blackmail/web porn site because he wants a new tattoo that will mark him as a captain in the Russian mafia on American soil.

The groundskeeper wants to reorganize his shed because he believes that having everything in order helps him care for his golf course because he believes a true groundskeeper’s soul is connected to the land he cares for.

The club manager wants to get a reporter off his property because he wants to keep the respect of his corrupt, high-end clients because he is skimming a percentage of dues into offshore accounts he’ll use to be rid of those assholes once and for all when he disappears at the end of the year.

The reporter wants to interview the club manager for a puff piece in the Sunday Supplement because she wants to investigate the club members for corruption because she wants a breakthrough story that will place her name prominently in the history of journalism.

You get the idea, I hope.

Now, a byproduct of because-because agendas is that the writer can tweak them around to make them increasingly about the psychology and sociology of the character. Here’s a rewrite in that direction for The Ball Boy:

The ball boy wants to give her a new can of club logo complimentary balls because he wants his boss’s respect and a raise because he wants to shake off the stigma of his family history by looking worthy to be on a date with the first character’s teenage daughter.

The more the because-because is grounded in character psyche, the more powerful the interactions between the characters becomes. Here’s a rewrite of our first character’s because-because:

She wants to start her car because she wants to escape the tawdry advances of the tennis pro because she loves her husband and protects his reputation from rumors because she wants him to have a model wife for his developing political career.

Now, she has three becauses and is getting more interesting because we want her to escape because we want her to develop a spine and aspire to be more than a mere political symbol.

Each because, if it is connected to character psychology, also connects to reader interest.

Given all these becauses, the “showing” of the first paragraph and subsequent paragraphs change radically because behavior becomes more important and adjectives and concrete details only have value relative to character behavior and motivations.

Squirming on the Camry’s hot vinyl to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts or sticking her to the seat, she ducked low to hide under the dash, slipped the key into the ignition, and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed the key. She let go of the key and pumped the accelerator with her hand.

A metallic tap on her window startled her. She ducked lower and twisted again. Two clicks.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Trapped, she sat up and reflexively composed herself by checking her melting makeup in the rear-view before powering down her window. Of course, the window works. She sighed and turned to face her captor while already planning to use the broken car and calls to mechanics to keep him at bay.

The face at her window confused her. The hard angles and piercing gray eyes she expected had been replaced by the full, youthful cheeks and soft green eyes of the ball boy, Dennis.

She searched the parking lot for Valentine, her lascivious tennis instructor. The only other people in the lot were Staniss Cavendish, the club manager, and a pert, bouncy redhead millennial who seemed to be in his face about something. Stan with a girl half his age didn’t surprise her. It should have, but it didn’t.

“For you, Ma’am.” Dennis held up a clear plastic can of tennis balls.

Confused, she focused on his earnest, freckled face and dimples. He was such a cute boy. Hard working and cute. If she had been twenty years younger…

Well, that was not a thought to finish. He was what? Seventeen, maybe. A year older than Laurel? That was just the kind of thing she was trying to avoid. She smiled and said, “…”

I suppose I could write the scene for you, but I’d really rather you write the scene in order to test the concept. All the players are available. Four are on stage. They all have their agendas. They all have at least a because-because.

If I’m not mistaken, you are already visualizing the scene that will play out. If you do write the scene, drop me a line and let me know how the exercise goes.

Hopefully, I have now made up for having failed my students at the conference.

Here’s one last thought about the nature of because-because. It doesn’t stay the same. It just gives depth to the scene. Once the scene climaxes, new becauses may or may not come into being. To get the full power of because-because thinking, the writer will need to connect the becauses to the stress the scene causes on the character’s Irreconcilable Self. Sadly, that’s another essay.

I’ll be teaching this technique and many others in a four-week Saturday novel seminar in September. The class is offered by WordCrafters in Eugene. Here’s the link to registration.

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/classes/fiction-fluency-seminars-with-eric-witchey/

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

Warning: Any product advertisements that appear with this post were NOT authorized or endorsed by me in any way.

Team Work

By Elizabeth Engstrom

About two years ago, Matthew Lowes, game writer/designer, asked me to edit the rule book for his new game, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls. I got the manuscript, but it didn’t have any of the charts, graphs, or illustrations of the finished book. I couldn’t really follow the instructions, so I just carried on, looking for typos, sentence structure awkwardness, etc. Much of it was repetitive, as there are the Basic Rules, then the Expert Rules, which includes the Basic Game. Then the Rules for Two Players, which includes the rules for the Advanced Game, which of course includes the rules for the Basic Game. You get the idea. So my work was rote, and gave my imagination time to roam.

In the game, the player delves into the underground Labyrinth, there to meet monsters (Really? What kind of monsters?), find treasure (Really? What kind of treasure?), and encounter and endure all manner of adventures. At some point, the player must weigh how many resources he has left in order to turn around and make it back out of the labyrinth before losing all his light, or his food, or his life.

It’s a fun game. While reading through the rule book without real comprehension, I started to wonder: Who would delve into the underground labyrinth, and why? Pretty soon I had an idea. And then I had an idea of what kind of monsters that particular character would encounter, and what kind of treasure he would search for and find, or not find.

I finished editing, and when I returned the manuscript back to Matt, I said, “I could write a novel based on this game scenario.”

benedictiondeniedcoverjpg

Fast forward six months. The game came out to great acclaim, the accompanying deck of Tarot Cards with art by Josephe Vandel is exquisite, and a small group of writers got together to learn to play. Within a couple of weeks, ten or so authors signed on to write books loosely based on the Labyrinth of Souls.

My book is the first one to drop, only because I finished it first. Published by ShadowSpinners Press, authors to come include Matthew Lowes himself, Christina Lay, Eric Witchey, Stephen Vessels, John Reed, Mary Lowd, Pamela Herber, Cheryl Owen-Wilson, Cynthia Ray, and likely others. We plan a big launch of the first five books at this November’s World Fantasy Convention in  San Antonio, Texas.

The best part of this experience has been being part of the team. We’re all stupendously supportive of each other as we encourage the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the promotion. We even had a memorable weekend away, where instead of partying, the great room was silent except for the quiet tapping of keyboards. We helped each other that weekend with plot, character, and setting, and talked about the unique problems of writing a book that takes place underground. I’m not much for collaboration, but if this is what it tastes like, I will gladly change my opinion. I’ve read three of the novels-to-come, and they are extraordinary, each entirely different from one another.

I invite you to join us in the Labyrinth of Souls, to read these books as they come out, one every month, and bask, as I have, in the astonishingly unique vision each author has for this world.

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-