Thursday, June 30, 2011

Origins Game Fair: Writing Seminars

As I mentioned yesterday, I attended several seminars on writing at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio.  Several of these were given by Michael A. Stackpole, a published author of some repute who you can read about here and here.  Mr. Stackpole is a very knowledgeable man and a fairly good instructor, meaning that he has the knowledge of writing and does an average or above average job of imparting that knowledge to the seminar attendees.  His lectures are well organized and he's an engaging, articulate public speaker.  One thing that never fails to annoy me is a public speaker I can't hear well enough or that doesn't articulate, so that even if I can hear them I can't make out their words.  That said, Stackpole is egotistical edging into narcissism.  He invariably took time to extoll the virtues of his current work which is self-published on disk and had a stack of CDs conveniently located on a nearby desk.  Watching and listening to him lecture I was suddenly struck by his close resemblance to the fictional character Gilderoy Lockhart as portrayed by Kenneth Branagh in the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Professor Lockhart is the author of the (fictional) book Magical Me! and delivers a lecture punctuated by references to himself and his work - Getting back to something truly interesting - Me!  Branagh does a great job acting the part in the film and provides a truly annoying personality.

None of this is meant to devalue the seminar or Stackpole's presentation which I consider time very well spent.  I would not hesitate to repeat it or to attend other seminars presented by Stackpole or even recommended by him.  It is meant as both an insight into Stackpole's personality as well as to put things into perspective.  In dealing with Michael A. Stackpole you have to remember that in his own opinion there may be that sui generis occasion when he may not always be right - but he is never wrong.

The most useful seminar Stackpole gave was titled 21 Days to a Novel.  In reality this is actually twenty-one steps to the completed outline of a novel, including composition exercises.  Here are my notes on the twenty-one step program.

Step 1: Write one sentence about one character in five different situations or life areas.  You'll have five sentences upon completion.  This character will be referred to as C1.

Step 2: Write two more sentences about each sentence from step one.

Step 3: Write one sentence about the five sentences from step one, but each sentence must be in conflict with the first sentence (from step one).

Step 4: Write two more sentences about each sentence from step 3.  Upon completion of this step you will have five conflicts, and this is the engine of stories.

Step 5:  Create a second character and repeat steps 1 through 4 using the new character.  This character must have some relationship to the character in day 1, although the relationship may be non-obvious.  Avoid the antagonist - protagonist relationship.  This character will be referred to as Z17.

Step 6: Describe two short term and one long term life goals for both characters.  The goals will tell you where the character is headed.  If some of the goals are mutually exclusive, so much the better.  Note that goals represent the escape hatch for the character; here's where he is now and here's where he'd like to be.

Step 7: Chart the obstacles and fears that are preventing the characters from attaining their goals.

Step 8: Repeat steps 1 through 7 for a third character.  When you create the relationships between the three, remember that the three may well be in competition with each other, either inadvertently or deliberately.  For instance, we can't all be president - one person must win the election.  This character will be referred to as STEPEIGHT.

Step 9: Work on dialog.  Have C1 write Z17 a letter within which:
C1 asks Z17 for help or
C1 offers a warning to Z17 or
C1 apologizes and/or explains something to Z17 (Stackpole notes that women apologize and men explain - his fan club of two women howl in appreciation) 
Note that these topics are mutually exclusive.

During this letter C1 will reveal a vulnerability to Z17.

Write a description of the letter.  This isn't a description of the content, but a physical description of the letter - is it written on stationary, typed, hand written, illegibly hand written, etc.

Step 10: Work on dialog.  C1 talks to Z17 about the letter.  Write the dialog without attribution tags (no he said, she said) so that the characters will be recognized by their parts of speech.

Jack's Notes: I got into a 'discussion' with Stackpole and the rest of the audience about regional accents.  Stackpole's statement is that dialect is no longer used - the audience accedes to this and the fan club wants to crucify me for daring to ask the high priest a question.  Unfortunately for the fan club I'm a belligerent conservative, and so will not be swayed by overly sensitive emotions and the arguments based on same.  Stackpole dictates that cain't may never be used in place of can't and that regional accents must be represented by easily identifiable phrases.  This is equally true with various professions, all of which have a certain lingo that only members of that profession will use.

Step 11: Work on dialog. From the point of view of STEPEIGHT, describe the conversation between C1 and Z17 from Step 10 but STEPEIGHT cannot hear the dialog, only see the two characters.

When this is finished, slide the visuals as seen by STEPEIGHT into the dialog between C1 and Z17.

Jack's Notes: When this was explained to me, I automatically assumed that STEPEIGHT would know what the conversation was about, but then I changed my mind.  I think a much more interesting approach would be to have STEPEIGHT see the conversation and guess as to just what the two were talking about.  Stackpole pushed this aside - he didn't respond or really acknowledge my suggestion - mainly because it doesn't fit his exercise.  I suspect that Stackpole doesn't really want STEPEIGHT involved here so much as he wants a 'fly on the wall' sort of person.

Step 12: Describe the roots all three characters have in the world.  These are the things that keep them in one place, such as religion, sports, etc.  This is a reflection of the environment the characters live in.

Step 13: Describe how the world or environment helps or hinders the three characters as they strive to achieve their long term and short term goals?  For instance, do they live in a nurturing world?

Step 14: Describe how will the world be changed if the characters succeed or fail in their life goals.  Will the other two characters be affected, etc.?

Describe how the world will resist or assist them while they work at their goals.  (Stackpole) Note that the world is actually a character in your story, and if a character is lucky he will remain beneath notice.

Jack's Notes: Stackpole uses a different approach here in that he presumes the world will always resist the characters.  I think he's coloring this with his own perceptions - Stackpole is absolutely intolerant of any authority except his own, and is likely the sort of man who will mouth off until he gets Tazered for resisting arrest.  One example of how the world is changed during goal achievement is shown in Charlie Wilson's War when Our Hero defeats his next door neighbor by offering free bus service to poor people.

Note Stackpole's comment about the world and remaining beneath notice.  Not necessarily true.

Step 15:  Write one scene for each character where that character is in the shared space or within close proximity of the other two characters.

Write one scene for each character where that character is in his sanctum / sanctuary, which will include a description of just what it is that makes this place special and makes the character happy.

Step 16: Write the back cover of your novel.  This is the blub that your personal patron of the arts and future fan club president will read when she turns over your novel and starts reading.

Note two definitions:
Scene: Things that characters do.
Events: Things that happen on the world timeline.

Step 17: Critical:  From conflict to resolution every problem in your novel goes through four or five out of these five steps:

  1. Scene that shows the problem exists
  2. Scene where the character realizes that there is a problem
  3. Show the catalyst for change, meaning that the character can no longer ignore the problem or allow the problem to continue
  4. Show the development of resources that allow the character to solve the problem
  5. Show success or failure to solve the problem.  This is where growth takes place; the character grows internally; applied characterization

Assignment: Using these steps make a list of the scenes you will have to write for all three characters.

Step 18: Look at all the scenes you just listed and write down the world events that are caused or affected by the scenes.  After the list is complete plot the scenes into the events.

Step 19: Reverse the process in Step 18; plot the events into the scenes.

Step 20: Make sure that everything is in chronological order.  This is the outline for the novel.

Step 21: Write.
  • Every word you write gets you closer to the end.  Pile up words.
  • Make a note - edit later.  You must have coffee in the coffee cup before you can see how hot it is.
  • Make copious notes about the characters actions and facts about them.
  • Make back ups of data when ever you take a break.
  • One chapter equals 2500 words.  Keep count of your words and remember that shorter chapters keep the reader's interest up.
And that's it.  Follow these 21 steps and you'll eventually have a novel.  There are, however, a few caveats.  As you write various scenes and events, you'll very likely have to change or edit things you've already written because you will need to keep things consistent or you've had a better idea.  Just do it.

Another point, which Stackpole carefully neglected to include, is that this is like anything else you stumble across in the world.  It isn't perfect and it may not be better than nothing.  However that may be, you pays your money and you takes your choice.  If you like it, by all means post a comment and say so.  Tell your friends and relatives.  Spread the good word!  If you or your wife is a hottie, send her over to Mad Jack's Shack with instructions to upload some naked pictures of herself.  If you don't like it, write your comments on the back of a $20 bill and send it to me.  I'll get right on the changes.


Stephanie M. Lorée said...

I met Michael Stackpole last October at World Fantasy Con. He had a number of good points during the panels I saw him in then, and I ended up following his blog. He discusses self vs. traditional publishing frequently and has strong views on the matter.

I've found him very informative.

Thanks for sharing this unique way to outline. I don't think it's for me as I tend to be a linear thinker and this seems rather chaotic, but it does make some good suggestions on how to develop conflicts and plotting.

Mad Jack said...

Ah, then you some familiarity with Mr. Stackpole. That makes a difference, doesn't it.

I didn't intend to be overly harsh in my observations of Stackpole's personality, but if you take a seminar or class with him I think it helps if you brace yourself.

I thought the exercises were interesting. I wouldn't have any trouble with them, nor do I think most writers would but several of the audience felt the exercises were overly difficult.

I may try it and see how it works out. I've got a general idea for a novel and haven't been able to put it together as yet.