My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.01 – Hero, Protagonist, Main Character

A new year, a new season of Writing Excuses. AndΒ this week’s episodeΒ got my soap box nerves tingling. Hero, protagonist, and main character – which is which and how to know which to use.

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Usefulness to me right now:  🌟🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

What a great episode! And it hit on one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to craft books for fiction writing – a determination to fit all main characters into a particular label.

One of my preferred craft books on structure is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, which I love for its many insights and approaches to developing the bones of a story. But I HATE his use of the label “hero” when talking about the the character of the story. Perhaps I should explain.

I don’t write stories about heroes, at least, that’s not how I think of them. I’m much more interested in the stories of everyday people thrust into extraordinary situations. Sometimes that lets a person’s heroic side show. And often, it doesn’t. So as Truby used the word “hero” to describe how the story theme gets built and all of the way that the structure ties back to desire and need and ghosts and all these things that tie into the character driving the story, I felt put off, like his words weren’t for my story.

Until I changed my brain to substitute protagonist every time he used hero. Then it all started to gel for me.

For the pod-casters, there is a difference between a hero, a protagonist, and a main character, and Mary described them as being in sets that overlap. Hearing it that way made me change my thinking on this a little bit. For them, the main character was the person through whose eyes we see the story unfold, the protagonist is the one making choices and actions that drive the story forward and changes through story, and the hero is the one that makes the heroic action or who we admire.Β  Sometimes those are all one character and sometimes they are three different characters and sometimes any mix in between.

And that’s where things really made sense for me. I’m currently working through a cut revision of my first novel and my main character is my protagonist, but he isn’t the hero. That role goes to another, and in my story, that ends up being a trope subversion, which I really like.Β  But being able to better separate the roles lets me see just how I can mix and match them to make very different kinds of stories.

 

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 12.53 – True Confessions

My podcast app didn’t download the episode from Christmas Eve, so I’ll have to play catch up on that one. However, while driving to attend a write-in with my writing group of amazing people, I was able to get caught up on this week’s episodeΒ and it was a humdinger. (I’ve been rewatching Psych on Amazon Prime, so my language may be stranger than normal).

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Usefulness to me right now:  🌟🌟 🌟 🌟

True Confessions was all about things that the hosts have attempted that they failed at, and not just old trunk novels from the starting days of writing, but more recent. For most of them, that was within the last year.

Listening to them postmortem their way through these failed project was inspiring and hilarious and made me feel in much closer company. These are all people whose works I have read and admired. And having just completed another novel where I pushed myself to do something I’ve never tried before (multiple POV), I can say that I also failed.

That story is a bit of a mess plot-wise and interest-wise (boring start and plodding), but as I have already mentioned in past posts, I learned a ton from writing it. That failure showed me what to fix the next time I work on a multiple POV story.

Learning to be okay failing at something is a challenge for me. I’ve been a perfectionist my whole life and frustration is my natural response when I don’t get something right within the first few iterations. I’m used to figuring stuff out quickly. But in the last decade or so, I’ve been getting better. Having a child who has a similar frustration response certainly helps make me more aware of it in myself as I try to remind and support him when he doesn’t get something right immediately.

Dealing with failure also has helped me work on my self-compassion. I recently read an article from Kristen Wong on the New York Times about self-compassion and how it can help with being confident.Β I am definitely one that needs to better learn good self talk; failure gives me a chance to see my weaknesses and acknowledge them within the context of my strengths. Yes, my story may have been a hodge-podge and not very good, but my story structure and plot-weave were so much better in this book than previously. And I tried something new that I also succeeded at – I balanced several story threads and gave them all appropriate weight and tied them together well. So, yes I failed to make something that I would publish (at least right now), but the bones of the story are correct.

So in the same spirit as the podcasters, please take my true confession to heart – you can and should fail frequently.

And as Howard Tayler’s Maxim #70 of 70 Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries states:

Β Failure is not an option – it is mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 12.51 – Constructed Languages

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟

Usefulness to me right now:  🌟

Perhaps is because of how much I enjoy the whole crew, but when it’s just some of them doing the interviews, those are the episodes that I find be the least satisfying. And I don’t think this has anything to do with the hosts, but my own expectations.

This week’s episode is an interview/panel with Dirk Elszinga, an associate professor of linguistics, and focused on using constructed languages in fiction.

The biggest take away I had was that it is worthwhile to consider language background and usage if doing secondary world fiction (which most of mine is). Even down to how names behave. While I think this is something that I should consider, I’m not certain how far the rabbit hole I’d need to go – i.e. how much is anyone really going to care?

And this is probably where I would need to examine my own biases. Small tangent here – recently, I started re-reading a debut novel from a favorite author and noticed just how much my own critical eye has changed since I first read this book. I first read it just before I was starting to consider being an author and novelist. What I’ve noticed on this re-read is how much the author uses simile compared to now where he uses metaphor. And just how much more effective the later is.

As a reader only, that first pass didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story at all and the “limitation” of using similar vs. metaphor was lost on me. So I wonder how much of that really matters for the general populace.

This is similar to the discussion that is ongoing in the film space – critics have the things that they look for in movies, and in some very high profile cases recently, the critical opinion has diverted strongly from popular opinion.

I think constructed languages could very well fall into the same category of things – those in the know might really appreciate it while others may not care at all. So, how much effort should a writer expend? Brandon Sanderson has talked about this in his world-building lectureΒ and I think I’ll echo what he said – Do enough to make people think you’ve done it all, but don’t do it all. Pepper little things around your story and world-building that at least let people know you’ve considered something, but don’t solve all of it.

And that’s where I think constructed languages is going to go for me right now. Maybe that can be a place in the future for some more craft building.

 

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 12.50 – Form and Function

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟

Usefulness to me right now:  🌟 🌟

(for the rating obsessed types out there – these are out of 5 stars)

This was a great episode, mostly for the content and the interplay with the Chicago hosts. I really like Wesley Chu and Mary Anne Mohanraj as additions to the hosting crew – Mary Anne especially. I love her insights and I get a lot from the perspective she brings from her experience outside of speculative fiction. Tangentially, it’s likely my humor metric above will track with Howard’s appearance on the episode – we’ll see.

This week’s episode is about how form can dictate function within the realm of writing. It covered everything from writing for audiobooks to long form writing using a quill and ink to Eric James Stone’s business card flash fiction (which is a TOTALLY awesome bit of self branding – yes, I have been watching vids about marketing; why do you ask?).

My first paid project as a writer (woot woot) was writing a series for a stage production of radio plays for local theater group Main Street Radio Players – which allowed the troupe to perform a live show without the need for elaborate costumes and sets. I did a four episode crime thriller.

I LOVED doing this project even though it was so incredibly hard. Everything in that story had to be reflected through dialogue and sound effects – and even then, the sound effects got cut. Trying to tell a story that way when all my previous experience had been to only pepper dialogue through out was most challenging. Getting mood, story tone, description, BLOCKING (for crying out loud), through just dialogue was such a powerful growth experience. In that case the form of medium dictated entirely HOW the story could be told.

I couldn’t rely upon tricks like exposing a character’s internal monologue or letting silent “glances” or “looks” convey beats. I did use a narrator, but limited it to episode introductions and scene transitions. It was a fabulous experience.

Back to reflections on the episode – the gist was to use these different forms as ways to experiment, to break out of ruts, and to break through blocks. While I could see doing a different “form” for a scene just to try something out, a lot of the growth from my experience came from doing a finished work.

Do I think every writer should try a complete work in a different format than their norm? No, absolutely not. But I think there may be many writers who will treat this idea as just one more writing “gimmick” and miss out on a beneficial experience.

So, if you’ve done things like this before and didn’t find them useful, give a little more thought to doing something larger or more complete. That said, it’s not the kind of thing I think a writer should worry about. If you want to expand your craft and your flexibility – go for it.

Writing Excuses 12.49 – Nonlinear Stories – Reflection

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Usefulness to me right now:  🌟 🌟

This week’s episode about nonlinear storytelling was intriguing thanks to the way the episode plays out (which is really more enjoyable for fans who are familiar with the the show), but then also in all the examples they used to talk about nonlinear approaches to storytelling.

I think nonlinear stories are by very nature different because so much of our memories and the way we tell stories in the moment mirror the linear fashion in which they happened. But I was impressed at the various examples they use during the show. The only one nonlinear story common enough to get its own category was the flashback, but the other examples were good in helping to flesh out the thought space of the episode.

I will say that for me, nonlinear stories have been a lot of fun. The ones I remember most are the ones where a story plays out multiple times, each from a different character’s view point. This has started to become a more common TV episode trope that I see being used more and more frequently. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets it own name soon like flashback. Maybe it already has and I just don’t know about it.

The other exmaple that I don’t think got discussed was the flashforward. The one I am thinking of is the TV show Dollhouse. No spoilers, but there is a moment in the first season where we flashforward in the story to a future date. The technology used in the show has been abused making for a future that is very different than then original story. In that show, I think the flashforward actually did help to frame the story that the regular show better.

Finally reflections: I don’t know that I personally will be doing anything nonlinear above and beyond the occasional flashback, but it was a good topic to consider to get me thinking of ways to use a different tool.

Coco (Film – 2017) – Review

Coco-movie-image-2
Coco – courtesy of Disney Pixar

Short, sweet, and to the point – I loved Coco.

I loved what it made me feel even thought I didn’t exactly love how I felt (WARNING: this film will cause feelings, especially if you have experienced familial loss).

I loved the themes, the animation, the music, the characters, and the voice acting.

I loved that it never felt as though the filmmakers were trying to “pander” to anybody or assume the audience was stupid. By that I mean that I, as a non-Mexican who has only limited understanding of what the Day of the Dead represents, never felt like I was being coddled nor that the subject matter was too precious that it couldn’t be shared with “outsiders”. Everything played straight.

But what I think I loved most of all was that this showed that two people/writers/groups/films can have the same story idea (on the surface at least), and yet tell completely different stories.

One of the first things that I learned from Brandon Sanderson via the Writing Excuses podcast was that often, the difference between a good story and bad story lay less in the nature of the idea and more in how that idea is implemented. To paraphrase:

A great idea written by a mediocre author will not be as good as a mediocre idea written by a great author.

The understanding that you don’t have to have the most unique, the most entertaining, the most transformative, or the most artistic “idea” to be successful was liberating.

On the surface, Coco could sound very similar to another animated film from the recent past – Book of Life. Both are about the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead. Both have music as a central theme, and how music relates to the protagonist. Both have the protagonists’ families as being VERY against music and trying to “force” the protagonist into the family business. Both feature visits by the protagonist to the underworld and a need to escape. Both discuss families and forgiveness. Both have prominent participation of Mexican directors, writers, and actors. Both are CGI.

But these movies are as different I think as one could get for having what seem like similar trappings.

And that’s what I love – both Coco and Book of Life are films worth seeing. Both are worth enjoying. And both have place in helping us learn to forgive our families and in teaching us to make room for the rising generations.

Go see Coco.

I’m probably going again.

2017 – Leveling Up

Now that I am nearing the end of NaNoWriMo again, I have been pondering on how I have been able to level up this year as a writer. Sort of a year-end review, a month or so early.

  • Found a local writing community that gets me and who I truly appreciate.
  • Purchased a domain name – personalized website, here I come!
  • Learned how to better write “scene by scene” so that I don’t so bogged down with figuring out transitions which further let me…
  • Learned how to move scenes around to improve flow and arc; not having all that transition baggage to carry helped me see scenes as more self contained.
  • Learned to write faster – I now am able to regularly achieve prose drafts of 1200 words per hour, which for me is blazing fast.
  • Achieve my largest day of writing ever – 3684 words in a day (which again, for me is huge).
  • Completed a second novel – rough draft only, but its a complete draft.
  • Written the most difficult book I’ve ever attempted.

It’s this last one that I feel has been the most interesting to reflect on. During this year listening to my favorite podcast Writing Excuses, something one of the presenters said struck me. He said that every time you finish a story, is should be the hardest thing you’ve ever done as a writer. That this was proof of continuing to level up.

And it’s true. I’ve found myself comparing that idea to my progression as a person, as an employee, as a spouse, as a parent – each year seems to get a little harder or more intense or more complicated. Each year there’s more to contend with, more stress, and just more…well, more. But like in writing progression, never in the same place and never exactly where you expect to find it.

For me, this book project was already going to be the “hardest” because I was trying to write a story with two POVs – everything I’ve attempted so far has been one, so trying to balance two character voices and all the threads that come with that has been a new and difficult experience. And I’ve found that it’s something I will be able to handle better in the future, a skill set I have, but can improve. But for the next story, it may not be that skill set, but another which will make that book the hardest ever.

So, for another NaNoWriMo done and another draft done – I say hurray! Now I’m off to the next one.

Writing Excuses 12.48 – Reflection

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now as a blogging idea.

I’ve wanted to do a “reactions” post for things I learn or view with regards to writing. Sometimes that will take the form of review or breakdown.

But I’ve also just wanted to do short reflections as well – less revised, more direct.

So, I’m going to try to do a reflection post every Monday after listening to the most recent Writing Excuses episode – mostly since that’s when I get to listen to them (commuting to and from work) and it’s an easy thing that will let me get my thoughts down. Not going to worry about summarizing the episode or even commenting on what was said, only insofar as how it made me feel and what it made me think. (I’ve already said more about this than intended, so here goes).


In contemplating a series and how to write them, I was heartened to hear all the presenters say to go find an agent AFTER finishing the first book in a series, which means I haven’t wasted all this time trying to get Betrayed in the best shape I can.

I like the interplay with the presenters about how to think about plotting or planning out a series. And about planning out a first book that is “complete” with series potential.

This episode, there wasn’t anything I found myself outright disagreeing with or thinking had been extensively covered elsewhere.

Also, I’m a fan of the new presenter setup with a “Provo Team” and a “Chicago Team”. The interplay is great and it’s nice getting new view points.

Writing Excuses 10.01 – Homework

From this last week’s Writing Excuses podcast.

Writing Prompt: Write down five different story ideas in 150 words or less. Generate these ideas from these five sources:

  1. From an interview or conversation you’ve had
  2. FromΒ research you’ve done (reading science news, military history, etc)
  3. From observation (go for a walk!)
  4. From a piece of media (watch a movie)
  5. From a piece of music (with or without lyrics)
  1. From an interview or conversation you’ve had:Β What would Spiderman do if he lived in Kansas? A question that came up during a conversation I overheard and I loved the idea of Spiderman standing in a field, looking around without any buildings to swing from.
  2. FromΒ research you’ve done (reading science news, military history, etc): Girls sci-fi adventure story (ala Heinlein Rocketship Galileo or Rolling Stones) featuring asteroid clumps held together by van del Waal forces. Was reading an Ars Technica article about van del Waal asteroids.
  3. From observation: Story of a girl who is homeschooled on a train. Her mother has died or left or wasn’t know or something, but she travels with her father on a train (conductor or engineer or coal man) but the nature of his life is such that they have no permanent home. He lives on the train at night, sleeping in a car, paying for his meals from his salary, and ensuring that she is educated. As they travel, she experiences in real life the locations she’s learning about. Like a personal tour of the historic site in Europe or the US. Haven’t decided which.
  4. From a piece of media: From BOM reading, the story of a man who survives the complete destruction of his people and had to integrate himself into the encroaching society. His people killed themselves off and the wanderer runs into a new civilization. Would he pretend he was mute? How would he survived?
  5. From a piece of music: Jack Johnson song “Situations” on the In Between Dreams album. I’ve always wanted to do sci-fi storyΒ that coincides with these situations. There’s aΒ race that lives in the Oort Cloud that does not like us that is directing comets at us to kill off our race. The way of writing the story would be to make it all seem like some natural occurrence (the situation that’s just begun, but is too late, only chance for you controlled by denizens of hate, the one that no one sees dismissed as fate.)