Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and young adult fiction. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series — Penguin/ACE, and the forthcoming School for Sidekicks: The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman Jr. — Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star — part of an NSF-funded science curriculum — and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited — funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Kelly on Twitter, Facebook, G+
May 18, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging
Give in to your hatred, Luke.
How many times do we have to tell you you’re not Darth Vader?
How can anyone care about that movie anymore when there’s a new chair on the porch?
Couch over porch any day. The toes know, the toes know.
The toes know? Is that like a zen thing?
No, but I am a Zen thing. The Zen of behind the radiator.
So in response to a question Sean M Murphy posed on the Wyrdsmiths blog about how to write funny, I have this to say: Use your toes.
More seriously, this is a really tough question, and I’m not sure there is a satisfactory answer. Humor is incredibly subjective and the line between funny for me and funny for you is thin one. There are jokes that I find hysterically funny that my wife barely laughs at and vice-versa. Likewise, delivery matters.
There are jokes that are funny when told by a master that aren’t funny at all when an amateur tells them. There are jokes that are funny only because of very specific cultural contexts and jokes that are only funny when one person tells them. There are jokes tuned for gender, for age, for military experience. There is, in short, almost no such thing as a universal joke.
Medium matters too. I know people who are very funny in print but who aren’t often funny in person, and vice-versa. That has a lot to do with context and subtext. When you tell a joke or make a funny comment in person, you’re using a very different set of tools than when you do the same thing textually. Things that could sound quite mean or hurtful on the page can be delivered in person with the appropriate tone and body language to convey that the whole thing is really good natured. Just as something that might seem flat and overly subtle in person can be hysterically funny on the page.
None of which answers the question. I write humor almost as easily as I breathe. Even in my very earliest attempts at fiction I could often generate an out loud laugh from my readers. How do I do it?
Some of it is a talent for the funny in text, and I don’t have any idea how to transfer it. Some of it is by creating characters with a long term friendly fencing relationship, so that the reader know that even the mean jokes are in the spirit of fun. Some of it is always directing the harshest jabs at my protagonist so that the reader gets it filtered through the (unhurt) eyes of my main character. Some of it is by making a lot of the humor self-directed. You’re allowed to say awful but funny things about yourself that you would never consider saying about someone else. Some of it comes from always making sure that the characters are aware of the absurd in their situation–not by breaking the 4th wall and talking to the audience, but by realizing the inherent humor of being chased by a 600 foot firebreathing woodchuck.
Oh, and at least in my case, humor tends to be very very dark. A moderately funny bit in the midst of the world coming apart can be much funnier than the best joke ever while your characters are having a happy tea with no danger in sight.
Finally, a lot of it is hit and miss and fearlessness. You put the joke in and see who laughs. If you’ve got beta readers or writers group readers they’ll tell you when you’re funny and when you’re not. You also understand that sometimes you fail with some readers, that something that’s funny for one reader won’t be for another and you accept that you can’t make everybody laugh all the time.
For the intro, see part one below. I’m going to move on to models for thinking about plot in this and the next post. All of these can be applied to either internal or external plot.
Model 1-Plot, what, why how: Plot is confusing in part because when writers and readers talk about it, they’re talking about several different things, and we rarely differentiate explicitly.
Plot the what, plot the why, and plot the how. Very often we focus on plot the what, the sequence of events that take us from the beginning of a story to the end, and talk about it in great detail.
The what of plot can be anything and everything and is easy to overthink and to worry about to distraction.
The why of plot is the most important thing for the writer to think about. And, fortunately, it’s much simpler. Why do the things in a story happen? Fiction is the art of crafting stories with a purpose. That purpose can be as simple as crafting a ripping yarn, or as complex as, well, pretty much anything you can conceive of.
The key to a well plotted story is mapping the why onto the what. The how follows naturally after that. Why are you telling the story? What do you want out of the story? Once you have an idea of that you can move on to the how.
In my case, the why is usually built around wanting people to come see my cool world. I decide what parts of the world I want to show off. Where in the world can I place the story for maximum tourist advantage? Then I map out a loose path through the set, and start thinking about what sort of character would follow that path, which leads me to conflict and another way to think about plot.
A note on cost: There is no plot without cost. If the characters in your story don’t have to give anything up (cost) there is no tension, and so no story.
Model 2-Plot as conflict: One writer, (sadly, I can’t remember who) said that all you need to know for plot is “things get worse.” Anytime in the story when you don’t know what comes next, make things worse. Done well, this is true enough. Done wrong, it becomes “hit the bird.” (Disney’s Alladin. Don’t know what to do, hit the bird.) As I said, done right it works. Things keep getting worse for your Protagonist until the end when they get better.
I prefer to think in terms of conflict. Plot is getting from point a to point b with the maximum amount of interesting and appropriate mayhem (conflict) in between. Your character wants or needs something (internal vs. external) and chooses to try or is forced to try to get it or to get away from having to get it. How that plays out, and what he or she loses or gains along the way is plot. This is a sort of hero’s journey model.
Model 3-Plot as conflict part B; internal vs. external: In most fantasy fiction you will have a protagonist and an antagonist, or hero and villain. In conflict type B, the conflict and plot are driven by the opposing needs of the hero and the villain, remembering always that the villain is the hero of his or her own story. This leads us back to internally vs. externally driven plots.
Model 4-Plot as motion: In normal life, long periods go by without anything of significance happening. In fiction everything is a significant happening, or should be. If it doesn’t move the story somehow, it probably shouldn’t be in the text. In plot as motion we start at a point of stasis, or immediately after a point of stasis has been destabilized. The story then revolves around getting to a new point of stasis which involves motion through the world and through time. Attempts to halt or redirect the flow of motion create the conflict necessary to interesting story-telling.
I’ve spent a good bit of time over the years thinking about plot and I thought some of those ideas might be of interest to y’all. I’ll start with a definition of terms today and then discuss four models of plot construction in the next part.
The basic equation of plot as I see it goes a bit like this:
Plot = How Conflict interacts with Cost to achieve resolution
Conflict = The difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be
Cost = Price of resolving conflict
That said, there two basic types of plots. Internally driven and externally driven.
Much of classic fantasy and most of classic science fiction revolves around externally driven plot. Sauron seeks the one ring. Either Frodo and co destroy it or are destroyed. No internal transformation has to take place in any of the characters. They have a goal. The trilogy is built around achieving that goal. In fantasy the external plot is usually driven by a BBE, or big bad evil. Sauron. The White Witch. Etc.
Most lit fic and an ever growing portion of F&SF is internally driven. Internally driven stories usually revolve around the problems of the character though many have explicit external villains as well. The protagonist is broken in some fundamental way, either some time before the action of the book begins, or very soon thereafter. They then go on a journey which either fixes them, or transforms them into someone who no longer needs to be fixed.
I personally try to write a story with both external and internal plot drivers, as I feel that a fusion of the two makes for a stronger story.
May 10, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging
Go way! Dreaming.
Dreaming of things she put on the shopping list perhaps?*
I is dreaming of the existential horror of being devoured by my own toes.
You are one strange neurotic little cat…
I’z dreaming of being a giant panther!
Good luck with that…
I am dreaming of the taste of your soul.
Bonus friday cat doggerel written about our late and much loved Spot.
Because: A) “cat doggerel” is fun to say. B) I found it in the glove compartment
*Shopping list art actually by Matt Kuchta—who left it there when we weren’t looking.
Not getting the Zach Braff Kickstarter freakout at all. Oh noes, popular people are using Kickstarter to fund popular things! And? The main thing it is going to do is bring new people in to Kickstarter. And, while they’re there, they may fund other projects. Sure, it will drive some hipsters away, but it’s also going to create new casual Kickstarter backers, and new backers is a good thing.
This seems like a variation of the whole fake geek girl/casual fans aren’t real fans, purity cooties thing. Which drives me crazy. Yes, some people don’t love the stuff you love with the same intensity and purity. Get over it. Them liking it casually means more funding. More funding means more of that thing you love. It means shows not getting canceled and book series getting renewed. Casual fans are good.
I make a more coherent version of this argument over at Apex Magazine in my I Married A Fake Geek Girl Essay.
This Real Life comic is also relevant.
The Final Installment--in which the book gets finished and a party is thrown.
Further Chapters: This happens concurrent with the following section. In essence it’s very simple, put in-scene the narrative you’ve developed. In practice it’s messy. You may find out that one of your clever ideas doesn’t work. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to find a good critic to read your working draft, they may point out things that need to be changed to make a better story. For one novel not all that long ago, I scrapped two chapters worth of working outline and started over. I kept some of the same events, but shifted the emphasis and removed the supporting characters entirely to emphasize the central role of the protagonist.
Advanced Blocking: This may or may not be necessary depending on your own individual process. I find that when I’m having trouble with a scene it usually means that I need to take a step back from the actual writing and figure out what I’m trying to achieve with a scene and how best to achieve it. So I might put together something like “Chapter 12, Scene one” with a description of what I want to happen and why, then follow with “scene two,” etc. until I’ve fully blocked out the chapter.
Finish/Clean-up/Ongoing Rewrite: Once the first draft is finished (if you haven’t already) it’s time to go back and clean up any messes made by the changes that will inevitably have drifted in from the initial conception and do things like throwing in foreshadowing for a scene not originally anticipated. A person can also do all of this as they go, going back and inserting whatever adjustments that need to be made as soon as they occur, and this is actually the model I follow though I don’t necessarily recommend it. For many writers what it leads to is a dead stall where they are continually rewriting their first chapters and never actually moving forward.
Celebrate: This is key. If you’ve finished a book you owe yourself a dinner out at the very least, and possibly a blow-out party.
A Final Note: I can’t emphasize enough that this is only one way to reach the goal of a finished book. I know writers who have no idea what’s going to happen with the story from day-to-day and who just “follow my characters around and see what happens” and who write excellent novels. I know writers who would be paralyzed by my model, sinking hundred of hours into blocking and outlines and not working on the text at all. Think of this as one possible starting point. Use the parts of it that make sense or help you move forward, discard those that don’t.
Part 2–in which I talk about actually starting work on the book. Okay so this is a bit of cheat because I do do some of the initial writing in tandem with the earlier stuff.
Three Chapters: At some point in the process, beginning as early as halfway through basic blocking or anywhere thereafter, I need to actually start writing the book so that I can get a handle on who my characters are and the style I’m going to use to write the story. I find that I am often surprised about some of the details of the story and characters both here and later, despite the fact that I have a very good idea of what the story will look like in overview. I typically start these chapters during the blocking process and finish them in tandem with the basic narrative outline as the two inform each other.
Note: Three is not entirely an arbitrary number, because the basic book proposal format is three chapters (~50 pages) and a detailed narrative plot outline. As a writing tool, three chapters is purely a suggestion as it may well take longer than this to really figure out where the story is going to go and how it will get there. In an adult-length novel ~100,000 words, I will usually nail this down somewhere between 15-20,000. First time authors would be advised to have a completed manuscript before submitting the proposal version in any case.
Working Outline: This is a very different critter from the narrative outline. Here my goal is not to tell the story to a third party reader, but rather to blueprint it for myself. It will include both the events of the story and the structural reasons for those events. So, it might include something like “Draft student into school. Establish teachers, also the student TAs.” This tells me that at this point in this chapter I need to write several short scenes showing my lead character in his classes. One of the purposes of these scenes is to establish some of my other characters and make them distinct. The depth of description in a working outline will vary widely from author to author, and should include everything that you think is important in the scene at the minimum level of detail necessary for you to remember it. This isn’t the story itself and all the time I spend here is time that I don’t have to work on the actual finished product. Generally, the more inexperienced the writer, the greater the detail they should put into this sort of outline.
A working outline should at the very least lay out all the major events. In my case, I like to lay it out chapter by chapter. For Black School what I did was looked at my first three chapters to get an idea of what my chapter length was going to be (this can vary wildly depending on the story) and then mapped it against the max number of words. YA is short: 30,000 at the low end up to 75,000 at the extreme high end. I chose to shoot for 60,000 as a ceiling and to bring it in shorter if possible. That meant 16-20 chapters. Just getting in all the events listed in the narrative outline took about 14 chapters leaving me 2-6 chapters for unexpected surprises. I determined this by looking at the events in the narrative outline and seeing how much space they had taken up in my three demonstration chapters. This is an extremely inexact science, as one event might be a paragraph in narrative because of its importance, but only a short scene in text, while another might be a sentence in narrative, but a chapter and a half in text.
To Be Continued (As always YMMV)
How do you put together a novel? There are 1,001 and one ways, every one of them right. I thought I’d talk about how I do it in hopes that it might be of some use to others, or at least a good place to have a discussion of ways and means. So here’s the first part of my process using the book Black School as my model.
Before I start writing the actual book.
Conception of idea: What do you want to write about? This is question one. In my case I usually start with a world or magic system. Starting with a character or a scene or a situation all work too. It helps if you can articulate the idea in a sentence–I want to write about ___________. Or a pitch “World War II with sacrifice magic and dark fey Nazis” for example. That’s a gross oversimplification, but when I say it, my listeners will have an instant sense of where I’m going, and so do I.
Basic blocking: Write out the idea in some detail. Shoot for at least two to five single spaced pages. Put flesh on the bones of the one-sentence description above. Try and think through the ramifications of the ideas, i.e. How would a military magic school work when the magic is built around sacrifice? How big a school? How many students? How many teachers? Where is the school? What is its relationship with the local military? Etc.
By the time I reached the end of this process for The Black School I knew the number of buildings on the campus and what their purpose and design was, my total student body, student rank in relation to general military, class schedule, dorm arrangements, etc. That let me open the first day of the book knowing where my lead character had to be and when, if he followed his schedule. This is not an exhaustive list of everything I needed to know, but it gives the flavor. I come back to this and add to it all through the writing of the novel as more details become clear.
Narrative Outline: What is my actual story? In my case I started with a solid idea of where I wanted the story to start, where I wanted it to end, what kind of general transformation I wanted in my main character, and who that character was. That’s a good start for this model. Other models can work just as well and may mean knowing a lot less about the overall story.
For the narrative outline I typically end with a five page overview (standard length in 12pt Courier). In this case, a page on the school, magic system, and main character, to set the scene. Then I started with my opening scene and wrote a very loose description of events over the next four pages, introducing new characters as they came into the story.
The outline had to answer the following questions: What does the main character want? What do they need? What are they going to get? What obstacles do they have to overcome to get there? What do they have to give up to get what they need? How are they going to fail on the way? Failure is key to plot. If the main character doesn’t fail from time to time, then there’s no dramatic tension or payoff when they succeed.
The final version of the narrative outline should tell the main points of the story in a voice as close to the actual fiction as possible.
I build them.
I can’t say how tempting it is to end there, but I won’t.
This is one of those perennial questions that all writers get and it’s surprisingly hard to answer in a way that satisfies both the person who asked and yourself. But here goes.
The initial fragment of an idea for one of my stories or novels could come from anywhere: old research, a dream, a conversation at a con, two apparently unrelated words clicking together in my head. But that’s not a story, that’s a starting point. The real work happens when I take that moment, whatever it is, and start sticking bits onto it and asking, “well yes, but then what happens?” Or, “all right, that’s cool, what else can I throw into the stew?”
Goblin + laptop isn’t a story, but it popped up in my head as an interesting combination of concepts. Make it a laptop that becomes a goblin and is the familiar of a sorcerer and you start to get there. Add that the sorcerer is a hacker who uses code to cast spells and combine it with a parallel worlds story where the worlds are accessed as you would webpages, using the medium of the goblin/laptop and you have the seed of the WebMage books.