Saturday, October 24, 2015

How To Write a Novel

What's Important, After All is Said and Done?

A Facebook friend was stuck with her novel. She had a good main character--a protagonist, a good setting and a basic premise. She'd started to write and then gotten stuck. She just had no idea where to go from there.

Novels and short stories all have something in common. They do need good characters, good settings, and good basic ideas, but the most important element is that they must have a plot.

If you ever studied English literature in school, you probably, at some point, ran into that infamous diagram of the structure of a short story. Here's an example:
All the elements are essential to have a real short story. The basic idea here is that in a short story, all the action is directed towards solving a problem of some sort--the conflict. Eventually that leads to the moment in the story where the problem is confronted and solved--the climax. 

So, the problem is introduced in the exposition. There is where the story setting is established, the characters are introduced and the potential problem is introduced as well. Then there is story action that takes place to develop the conflict and define the problem. The action continues to build until the climax. Usually, there are consequences to the solution and finally the story reaches some kind of conclusion. 

Here's a short example. Joe and Jim are students at a small high school. They are both superstar athletes and members of the basketball team. (Exposition)  They both try to outdo each other during games and practice. (Rising Action) This leads to a rivalry as during the games their selfish attempts to get the ball to score starts to undermine the team spirit and success. They both want to be captain and to be the heroes of every game. (Conflict) Despite the two, the team makes it to the championship playoffs. During the game, however, Joe's and Jim's actions start to cause trouble when the other team focuses on guarding them and they start to have trouble scoring. The game goes to the last quarter with Joe's and Jim's team down by two points. (Continued conflict builds as the stakes get higher.) Neither one can get in a shot but then Joe gets in the clear. Jim has the ball and is close to the basket, surrounded by defensive players.  At the last second, Jim passes the ball to Joe who makes a basket from mid-court to score three points to win the game. (Climax)  After the game, Joe is hailed as a the hero for scoring the winning points. (Falling Action)  He is named captain of the team. (Falling Action)  Ultimately, though, Joe declines the honor and tells everyone Jim really deserves the captaincy because he was the one who sacrificed his chance at glory for the team. (Resolution/Conclusion) In turn, Jim insists the two should be co-captains instead. (Conclusion) 

Sure, it's a cliche story, but it illustrates plot structure for a short story. 

Novels are basically short stories expanded. Instead of one line of structure, they often have many. The plot must still be there, with an overall problem that needs to be solved and, indeed, it too much reach a climax through rising action, but the action rises, falls and often reaches a number of smaller climaxes along the way. There are also likely to be several different conflicts going on as the novel progresses. The heroes might well need to overcome dozens of smaller obstacles--essentially finishing little short stories--along the way to solving the large, overriding problem of the main plot line. 

Lord of the Rings illustrates this well as each set of characters in the epic meet and conquer numerous challenges along the road to finally destroying the Ring and freeing the world of Sauron's evil force and returning mankind to peace. There are dozens of crises and conflicts along the way, any one of which could be a short story all its own. 

But here is the crucial difference. As novels, all of the side journeys and quests are linked to the one overriding conflict--ridding the world of the destructive dark magic of Sauron. While each novel in the series does have its own conclusion, all is not resolved until the final pages of The Return of the King. 

Drawing a plot diagram of the novel is an almost impossible task. I once saw a picture of the story board JK Rawling had created for her Harry Potter novels and it easily covered the entire wall of her office.  Conflicts, plot, and character connections abound. Each novel has its own structure and that needed to be carefully linked to the other books. Yet over and over, the essential structure of the story was repeated. 

Create the world. Create your characters. Create a conflict--a problem to be solved. And then, go about solving it.  Create tension for the reader along the way as he wonders whether or not the hero will win over the odds. And then, find that climax when the problem is faced head-on. 

That's all there is to it. I always hope the hero wins. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Work Ethics: Fantasy and Reality

Every Job Has Its Worth

This is not a political rant, but rather a human one. One of the recurring themes in my Saga of Magiskeep is how most men want to work for something in their lives. In a sense, some of the Magicians in the Saga are "the idle rich" who so depend on their Magic to meet all their needs that they have no need to work for anything. Their lives, because of that, have a certain purposelessness which leads them to seek ways to satisfy their needs.  This often leads to dominating others just for the sake of having "something to do."

Jamus, the hero of the novels, recognizes this need, and respects it in his role as Master of Magiskeep. While Magic might certainly be able to solve every problem with no effort except the lifting of his hand, more often he chooses a more human solution, both out of his own need and out of respect for those around him who lack Magic as an answer.

Although the Saga is a fantasy, its culture is rooted in reality. In this case, the reality that people do want to earn their way in the world. Several real world examples reminded me of this reality lately.

One was an encounter in my doctor's waiting room. A middle-aged woman came in to deliver something and then sat near me to relax for a few minutes. I soon struck up a conversation with her and found out she was a newspaper delivery woman. From what she said, she delivered papers all day long for several different distributors. She told me about a car accident she'd had recently, the problems it had caused with her truck, and of the financial issues she was facing.

Paper Boy Clip ArtI'm sure her job does not pay well--most likely minimum wage--and I suspect most people would think that it also requires very little skill. Driving, following a specified route, and tossing papers out the window certainly doesn't seem very high tech to most of us. But as I talked to this woman, I realized there was much more to it.  She explained, with certain pride, how she had mastered the technique of throwing the papers so they would hit people's driveways. "Papers today are much lighter than they used to be," she said. "You have to throw them flat instead of up in the air so they land where you want them to. I've figured out just how to throw them so they almost always hit the driveway where I want them to"

Clearly, her job was something special, both to her and to the customers she served. I know she worked hard every day with long routes and long hours. Then, as an even better revelation, I found out that she was the person who delivered a local free paper to my house. I told her I was delighted to get the paper, but apparently whoever was delivering it thought my two driveways were for separate houses, so I was getting two papers each week. Immediately, she asked me where my house was. I gave her my address and told her the driveway with the mailbox was the best one for the paper.

Sure enough, the next week, and every week since, I have been getting only one paper, delivered by special throw, right by my mailbox.

Talk about pride and a job well done.

More in the next blog.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Writing for Contests 2

So, Who Wins?
Obey The Rules Badge Clip Art

If you read my last post, you viewed a contest from the inside out, looking at the entrants from a judge's position.  Clearly, there are some lessons to be learned.

First and foremost, you must plan and complete your entry according to the directions. In the case of the essays, there was a 700-1000 word limit and essays were to be submitted as either MS Word documents or PDF files. There was a deadline for submission as well.

Some contests will be even more specific Perhaps an entry must be double spaced, paginated, with the document name on each page. Your identity information needs to be submitted somewhere. Is is a separate page, on an entry form, on each page? How long should your entry be? All the details for submission are important.

I recently entered a contest where my manuscript actually received scoring points based on whether or not I followed all the rules. The rules are there for a reason. Read them carefully and follow them to the letter.

Then, of course, make sure your entry meets the other requirements. If you are answering a question or posing a problem solution, as the students were, make sure you read the topic carefully and then address all parts of the questions posed.  If you are required to submit a short story, make sure what you've written really is a short story. Know the literary format you are offering and write an piece that suits the demands.

Clean copy matters. Check and recheck for spelling errors. Proofread and, if you can, have someone else proofread your copy. Spelling counts, and so does grammar. Don't depend on MS Words grammar/spellchecker or even such programs as Grammarly. I've used both and neither one picks up all the errors. They are good starts, but in the end, a good human editor does the best job.

An outside reader is always an asset. Quite often when we write, we think we are saying one thing when, in reality, our words are saying something quite different. When my students in class used to complain about how I graded a paper when their words just didn't make sense, they would say, "Well, you know what I meant."  I may have known, but my reply was, "I only know what you wrote."

As far as content goes, there isn't much advice I can give beyond, "Be true to your voice."  Avoid the cliche' and cherish your own original ideas. Don't try to copy someone else's style unless it's part of the contest. ("Write a Story in the Style of William Shakespeare") If you win, and the world expects more writing from you, then you will be expected to be able to write with the same quality and style again, so the more "you" the writing is the better. There's no reason to pretend you are someone or something else than you honestly are.

I think, especially for beginning writers, this is often a real challenge. Finding your "voice" is not always easy. That's one reason I usually read what I write aloud. Often, when I hear myself saying the words I discover what works and what doesn't. "Tell me a story. Write what you would say."  Flowery word and phrases don't score points unless they are essential to the story.  Don't be afraid to experiment with words, but use them wisely and well.

Will you win? That all depends on the judge, and, as you saw from my last post, a portion of judging is always subjective. Losing is never easy, but remember, there's always another contest, another judge and another opportunity. Just keep on writing.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Writing for Contests

And I'm The Judge

If you've ever entered a writing contest and not won, perhaps it's time to hear from the judge.

Recently, I was asked to judge a contest with essay written by high school students. The topic was: "A Solution to Conflict Resolution in Your High School."  The background information suggested that because of diverse culture groups in schools, there was often conflict among students with different beliefs and backgrounds. Contestants were asked to discuss the problem and then pose a program to adopt in their schools to resolved these issues.

There were a dozen essays submitted. Even though they were digitally submitted, I ended up printing them out as it was much easier for me to judge them on paper. (The teacher in me has old habits that die hard.)

My first read-through separated the top essays pretty quickly. How?  Grammar, spelling, and construction mistakes were a top priority.  One student, for example, wrote and entire two page essay as one paragraph. Another had repeated spelling errors. Another had sentences that simply did not make any sense.
One essay, impeccably written, only focused on analyzing the problem of conflict and its causes, never once proposing a solution or school program. Of all, that was the most disappointing, as the student missed the entire purpose of the essay.

Several of the essays I eventually rejected as top placers suggested similar solutions of assembly programs and rather ordinary solutions.  What I was hoping to see were some original and creative ideas.

Ultimately, I ended up with four essays in the top tier. All were extremely well-written, and all had fresh new ideas.  At that point, the judging came down to deciding just which ideas were the best of the best.  I finally decided on a Fantasy Friend program which set up a plan to pair students of different ethnic/social backgrounds based on mutual interests and a proposal for a Food Festival where students would share cultures through sharing ethic dishes. Of the group, these were the two most innovative and well-described projects.

It was not easy to decide from the essays presented. Surprisingly, the two winners were freshman students.  One older student wrote an impressive essay full of high level vocabulary that simply did not communicate its ideas well. Another simply proposed bringing in speakers from outside the school to present formal talks to students--not particularly innovative. So, in this case, the younger students had the edge in both innovation and communication.

All the essays were eventually published in a booklet presented at the awards ceremony.  I was unable to attend due to my recent surgery, but I did put a statement in the booklet, commending each contestant and charging students to put their words into practice by working to establish their programs in their own schools. "Words to have great power. Converted into action, they can change the world."

My only concern is that I found out later that one of the people who helped with the booklet had proofread the essays and made some corrections. This was not a happy discovery. As I noted before, some of the essays were judged lower because of grammar and spelling errors. If those were "cleaned up" for publication, then others reading the essays might well question my judgment in scoring them.

I stand by my decisions, as any judge must. Overall, it was a wonderful experience to read the essays and see so much good writing from our students. I wish them all well, and hope they do find a way to put those ideas into action.

Hands Shake Clip Art

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Writing Your Own Words

Document Paper Pencil Clip Art

Who Writes What?

I've been away for a bit, partially because I had some surgery to take the metal out of my repaired broken hip bone. I'm doing just fine and have several good blog topics in mind.

The first has to do with recent posts on Facebook regarding companies offering essay writing services to students.  College and some high school students can order custom written essays on line to submit in their own names for credit in school courses.

I cringe at the thought. Having taught for over thirty-eight years as a high school English teacher, I saw my fair share of questionable essays. Except for perhaps one case I can remember, however, they were essays largely written by the students who turned them in. The biggest problem regarding legitimacy was plagiarism.  With the development of the Internet, this became more and more common as students would "lift" good portions of written material right off webpages and add them to their essays.

I had limited means of checking on this and can remember one search that took me on a long research journey before I finally found the source of one paper a student had written. In that case, he'd lifted pages word for word from an obscure source. I only followed the investigation because this particular paper was far better and more complex than anything the student had ever turned in before.

Now, schools invest in websites that will do the searching for teachers to seek out plagiarized passages.

The "write your essay for you" phenomenon is a whole other story. In this case, the papers written are original, especially written for students by master academic authors who are paid as much as twenty dollars a page. (Double spaced???)  These authors do all the research, analysis, and thinking involved in creating the essay while the student simply pays the bill at gets the finished product to turn in for class credit.

There are lots of excuses proponents of these services make for students.  Heavy course loads and the need to hold down a job to pay for school expenses are two often offered. Students claim that essays are really not relevant to learning course materials, so they claim they are irrelevant "busy work" of no value.

Both parties are wrong. Work loads and jobs are a part of life outside of school, so learning to juggle schedules to still get things done is a valuable, and often exhausting skill.  Taking the easy way out when in school...where life, limb, and financial security are not a consequence of failure.  School is the place to learn, in relative safety, how to cope with the stresses and challenges of the real world.  And writing essays, organizing thoughts, finding ways to explain topics, insights and analysis of ideas are all essential thinking skills incredibly valuable in solving problems in the real world. Thinking a problem through is the first step, but putting it down on paper so others can understand it as well, is the cement holding knowledge together.
Feather Pen Clip Art
What value will a college degree or a high school diploma have if the student who receives it has not met the challenges of school but rather has paid someone else to do the work?