Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Even Character Driven Fiction Needs Plot & Utopia, Iowa GIVEAWAY


PLOT IN THE CHARACTER DRIVEN NOVEL & GIVEAWAY

Just listed this morning (Oct. 15) on goodreads—I’m giving away 5 signed ARCs of the very novel I use as an example in this post (what a coincidence!)—Utopia, Iowa. Sign up for the giveaway and add the book to your reading list if you’re so inclined. Thanks.


When I sit down to write a novel, I try to think of a situation for a character to be in. I don’t usually get it right the first time or even the second or third but I get some of it right and then a little more on the next draft and a little more and so on. The way I develop my situation is by writing my way into my main character. First drafts are always hideous and my main character—if I were to visualize—would be this monster, half-formed and everything out of proportion. Dr. Frankenstein and I have a lot in common.

But as I write, I start to know things about my character because of how he/she speaks and how he/she reacts or creates actions in the scenes and the situations he/she gets into. I have to be patient. This awkward stage is very hard to get through.

My character is driving the story—particularly what my character needs and wants within a specific situation. Scene by scene this might be small things. He/she wants a cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate or to have sex or not to have sex. But in the marathon of the novel there will be something deeper that he or she wants, something I think of as desire (and Robert Olen Butler calls yearning) in order to distinguish it from all the other many, many wants a character has. This will help direct the entire novel’s plot.

So one connection between plot and character is that what the character desires, believes they need, will cause them to act and react in certain ways and this will cause things to happen in the novel. Keeping the link between the two helps me focus my story.

Again, character driven fiction will rely heavily—surprise, surprise—on the character(s). So in addition to this desire, you need to understand primary characteristics of your character. For me, character is where it all starts. BUT we still need plot in character driven stories, we need narrative drive, and the connection between plot and character, a symbiotic relationship, is going to power the story forward. It can create opportunities for depth and excitement. Plot and character, linked in a symbiotic relationship, can help you make those connections that are so important in writing a novel and in the finished novel.

In Utopia, Iowa, my main character, Jack, has many things he wants: he wants to write for the movies but is afraid to follow his dream; he wants to leave his small town of Utopia, Iowa, but at the same time doesn’t (he loves the quirky little town and its people but he also has the desire to see more of the world); he wants to be more than just best friends with his best friend, Ash, but is afraid that trying to make this happen will destroy their relationship as best friends. You can see the conflicts these “wants” of my character will create. You can probably imagine different ways these wants might play out in the novel. But, in addition to all of these, there’s an underlying character trait in Jack that pushes the story along—he likes to help people. In his case, because he, like many in his family, happens to see dead people, some of these people he helps are ghosts. Essential to this particular story is the fact that a dead girl comes to him, one who has been murdered, and asks him to help her find who killed her and how she died (she has death amnesia which, in case you are unfamiliar with this particular condition, is very uncommon among the dead). He should ignore her—he knows trying to find answers for her could get him into trouble-- but…he can’t.

I love character driven fiction but I think sometimes writers who say their fiction is character driven decide this somehow means they don’t need plot. Au contraire, the connection between plot and character is what makes for good writing and good reading.

Happy Writing…

Saturday, September 27, 2014

HOW SETTING BECOMES A CHARACTER


       


Setting is the poor relative in the fiction-writing craft family. We give character, language, voice, plot, a lot of attention. Rightly so. But setting also deserves some love. 

So here are two ways to think of setting. The first narrow. The second broader.

Narrow-- character development: where your characters live. Her house or apartment. The places your character goes to have coffee or eat dinner or work. All of these are an interaction of character and setting and the setting helps reveal character. Maybe think about this in revision and use setting to develop and deepen character.

Broader picture: For some writers, in some manuscripts, setting becomes a character. This can be a very powerful and distinctive characteristic of a writer's work. From the reader’s side—they can be drawn to a certain writer because the setting creates an atmosphere. Think Philip Marlow in LA; Raymond Chandler’s noir atmosphere comes , in part, from his evocation of setting in his novels. There are many, many examples, including the  many examples in fantasy and sci-fi where the worlds need to be clear and present in the story.

One way to think of setting is as a character. I know that I did this in my novel—out early next year--http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22747808-utopia-iowa. The town of Utopia, Iowa, became a major character. I loved the eccentric people that lived there and the mystery of its past and the threat of dark forces drawn to the town because of its past. I began to think of the town itself as a character and that (I hope) helps build an atmosphere in the novel and contributes to the overall tone of the story. But it also helped me develop a connection between setting and character and plot. To me, so much of the process of writing a story comes from making these connections.


Here's an exercise on the importance of setting in a more focused way—to build character.

Describe the place where someone lives just by the details. The details that you choose reveal the character.

An actor

An obsessive mother.

A foster child.

A police detective.

A man who has separated from his wife and family but wants to go back to them.

A man who has separated from his wife and family and doesn't want to go back to them.

A high school student's room—he’s lost and partying too much.

A high school student’s room—she’s an A student.

A girl or boy who doesn’t have a place to live.

A boy and girl who are seventeen and have a child.

This could go on and on. The purpose of the exercise is to focus on how setting can evoke and develop character. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How to promote Your Novel--one simple idea from the reluctant promoter



First my disclaimer—I’m a reluctant promoter. I try now and then, but I struggle with that part of being a writer. So I’m inexperienced. But I have been reading up on it a little, trying to know more.  One thing I keep reading is that writers have the opportunity to connect directly with readers, thanks to social media, in ways they never could before. So although the gatekeepers and influencers are still important, there seems to be a lot of potential to let readers know about your work without going through the middleman or woman. The problem is how do you make that connection?

There’s a much-quoted line from Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother and co-editor of Boing Boing, “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.” Yeah, that is a problem. I kind of have that problem. His point is a good one, I think-- you should give away as much content as you can because the worry shouldn’t be that you’ll give away too much; the worry should be that no one will read what you give-away or what you or your publisher sells.

Of course Amazon and now publishers give away the first few chapters of books to try to get readers interested.  The SAMPLE has been around for a while and I’m a big fan of it. I usually read the sample of a novel before I buy it even if friends have recommended the novel.  But the SAMPLE—in most cases-- isn’t available until around publication.  It made me think that it would be nice if that kind of experience or an experience like that could be available before the book was published.

So my idea is pretty simple (it may have been done before but I haven’t seen it anywhere). You give away a short version of your novel before it’s published. What I did was make a 2-minute novel that is something that a reader can read in less time than it would take to listen to a song. I took select lines from my novel that comes out on Feb.10, 2015 --Utopia, Iowa-- from the beginning to the end. I posted it to my website. Here it is if you want to take a look at the post: http://brianyansky.com/2-minuteUtopia.html

I was careful not to give away the secrets of the story, of course. I picked lines that I thought were interesting or funny or revealed a little character or plot. I wanted it to be fun and short. More than anything I wanted to give a feel for the novel so that if someone read the 2-minute version and liked it, they might be interested in the full 300+ page version when comes out many months from now.

So here are some reasons I think this is a good idea and something you might try with your novel:
*It’s easy to do.
*It’s kind of fun.
*It’s basically free.
*You have something you can show readers before publication.
* The 2 minute version will remain on my website through publication so it isn’t a one-shot promotion deal. I did put it out there when I got my book cover but I can keep referring people to it as time moves closer to the pub. date and I do other promotions.

Will it help? Who knows?  But as a reluctant promoter I’m all about small steps; if it makes even a few readers aware of and interested in Utopia, Iowa, I’m happy. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014








The cover reveal for my new novel. I don't know if this is the shortest novel in the world but it is certainly a quick read. I hope it gives a feel for the longer version.




The 2-Minute Novel: UTOPIA, IOWA by Brian Yansky

Here is UTOPIA, IOWA, from the first few pages to the last (with a few parts left out). It should take you about two minutes to read.  You can fill in the missing words yourself and/or wait to read the whole story,  300+ pages, which comes out February 10, 2015.

11.     I learned a lesson that day: Real revolution needs more than creamed corn.

22.     But I wondered if skewed priorities were a bad thing—which was probably just further proof I had them.

33.     I was already dealing with detention, the start of senior year, and all kinds of questions about my future. I didn’t need a dead girl, too.

44.     “What do you think, Mr. Bell, is true love real?”

55.     “Nathaniel says The Matrix is like Philosophy for Dummies…”
That sounded like Nathaniel.

66.     “Does the Banshee always mean death?” Whisper Wainwright asked.

77.     Penny was a fortune-teller. She also had a nursery. She was very good with plants and visions of the future. It was a small town; a lot of people needed more than one talent to get by.

88.     She had many gifts/curses but she didn’t like to be specific about what they were.

99.     “…something dead—dead and old and very powerful—was controlling her. But here’s the really spooky part.”
“That wasn’t the spooky part?” I said. “That sounded like the spooky part.”
           
110. He had a glass eye that saw much further than his natural one.

111.  Ash softened…”Just don’t take your dead girls out on me…”

112. She told me she needed a friend not another boyfriend. Numerically this was true, but…

113. Next to Ishi the king looked small and weak. All the same Ishi would be dead before he took one step if the king felt threatened.

114. “A dream,” the detective said…He reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive (1993…)

115. The next morning Mom and Dad didn’t fight. It was worse. They were polite.

116. She wasn’t fooling me. I knew she was using some kind of reverse psychology. Still it’s kind of disconcerting to have your mother advise you to hold up a bank.

117. The dead wanted to forget they were dead. It was best for everyone if they didn’t.

118.   “You must eat your mortal’s heart,” the king says.

119.  It was not at all The Breakfast Club (1985…)

220.  Love is madness.

221.  “The dead don’t bleed,” I said, trying to reassure her.

222. My fourth mistake was not riding away after I called the police.

223. I liked to think of myself as the loner-outsider type (See Cool Hand Luke and Juno and about a million other movies) but maybe I was just socially challenged.

224. “I’m so tired of this small town,” she said.

225.  Sometimes she could be a very irritating witch.

226. Gram drank her potion and gave a few drops to Captain Pike.

227. “A monster’s got her,” Amanda said.

228. The bell rang.

229. Thanks to Silence of the Lambs (1991…)

330. Ash drove us over to the Cowboy Guru’s house…

331. “It’s a place that was and can never be again,” he said. “Now you be careful. The young should never want the past more than the future.”

332. The Princess Bride, I think.”
“That’s a great one,” I said.

333. “Hollywood,” she said.

“The stuff dreams are made of…” (Maltese Falcon, 1941)

3        THE END

UTOPIA, IOWA is about a small town where the supernatural meets the natural. There’s some murder and mystery and mayhem in this novel. Ghosts and other creatures and humans abound.  Some funny moments. Some sad. At heart, it’s a story about a boy who wants to write for the movies and his struggle with leaving all he knows (family, friends, hometown) to pursue his dreams. Long version-300+ pages available FEB 10, 2015: Candlewick Press.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22747808-utopia-iowa

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why I Write Funny/Sad Novels


WHY I WRITE FUNNY/SAD NOVELS

Hi, my name is Brian and I write funny and sad novels. This mix is at the heart of any story I tell, no matter what else is in the story.  I don’t write comic novels, though I want you to laugh when you read my novels. I don’t write sad novels, though  I want you to experience the emotional roller coaster of my characters as they struggle through their stories.  Both humor and sadness are in my novels and that’s a big part of what makes them mine.


I see the world as funny and sad. People laugh at funerals and cry at weddings. Sometimes they laugh and cry at the same time. We’re complicated, we humans. Surgeons make jokes when they’re operating on patients. Cops joke at crime scenes. Are they doing this because they enjoy other people’s pain? Of course not.  Are they less serious about their jobs than someone who never jokes about anything? NO. They have difficult jobs dealing with life and death situations and humor helps them handle the things they must handle. There are many moments in life when funny and sad are side by side like this. For me it seems perfectly natural that funny and sad can both be in a novel, sometimes in moments right next to each other.

I’ve written novels that are mostly realistic (MY ROADTRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD) and speculative novels (ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES) and realistic novels with supernatural elements (the upcoming UTOPIA, IOWA—February, 2015) and my last recently finished WIP told from the POV of a dead boy in a library between life and the afterlife (again, mostly realistic but with  supernatural elements), but what they all have in common is the mix of humor and sadness. Of course there are writers far more successful than I who also have this mix at the heart of their work:  Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gabrielle Zevin,  and Neil Gaiman, come to mind.  If you’re a writer who is forcing your writing to be either serious or comic because you think it must be one or the other, I’d ask you to consider the success of these writers.

 I know I didn’t really find the voice for my fiction until I began to work toward a balance of funny and sad in my work.  Now I can’t imagine writing fiction that doesn’t have both.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How to make the reader want to read on... create suspense


"Maybe because he has a laptop and a confident air, I’m not that surprised he has the gift of speech. Or maybe when you’re dead and you died the way I did, it takes more than a talking golden monkey with a laptop to surprise you."

This is from my WIP. It's just one paragraph out of context but here's the point I want to make. Along with all the other things you're trying to do at once--create voice, use language well, develop characters,plot, and so on and so on--creating surprise at all levels (sentence, paragraph, chapter) is helpful in engaging the reader. 

So here--yes, in my quirky way--there's the surprise of the monkey himself and the fact that he can talk and has a laptop. But how I make this particular paragraph create suspense is I want the reader to want to read on because there's something the text raises that makes he/she want an explanation for  "...maybe when you're dead and you died the way I did...". I hope the reader reads this line and wants to know more about my death, in particular how I died.

It's helpful to look at your use of language in this way during revision. With me--and I've noticed this in others--sometimes I word my sentence in such a way that I miss an opportunity to make the reader want an answer to a question--whether it's on the local level of the scene or a bigger question in the larger story.

Monday, June 23, 2014

How do you reveal character?

I suppose there are many nuances to the revelation of character but for me the two most present in any work of fiction are what a character does and what he/she say and how these things direct his/her emotional and intellectual world.

Sometimes we try to tell how a character is feeling and that is that bad kind of telling that writing craft books are always decrying. (There is a good kind and I wish those books made this distinction and I'm sure some of them do but I've seen many that don't. Good telling--info that doesn't need to be shown...but that's another post). Also authors might think something to the point of exhaustion for both themselves and the reader.

So revelation of characters, in my humble opinion, should be shown through the action they take in the various situations that the story requires them to move through. These will be choices they make and others that are made for them and that they react to.

But for me--I LOVE DIALOGUE Yansky...what characters say to each other can reveal just as much. Each character tells a lot about who they are both in the way they say things and the things they say. Again sometimes they're initiating the conversation, moving it along, and sometimes they're reacting to what others have said.

Also dialogue shows the voices of characters who aren't narrating the story.  It not only gives them their say but shows who they are by the way they say what they say.

For me, a lot of how I get my characters comes from how they talk.

 Elmore Leonard, in talking about writing dialogue, said that he would let his characters talk and he'd follow the interesting ones. He'd kill off the ones who weren't interesting. Harsh? That's a writer for you.

What characters do and say are most important for me.