Friday, October 18, 2013

New-old interactive storytelling

I am really interested in how we can change the "shape" of storytelling to take advantage of all the new media. Here's a good example of an update of Pride and Prejudice which uses Twitter and Facebook to develop the story and interactivity.

I once designed (on paper, how retro) a story-in-a-website. It was going to be set in a small town on Lake Michigan (I'm still planning on using this invented town somehow), and this was the town's website. So I'd planned that you could click on, say, the hardware store link and get the story of that family, and click on the pizza parlor link and get a conversation between a boyfriend and girlfriend who were breaking up, and the mayor would have blog, and there would be legal notices and of course the police reports, and...

Well, great idea, but all the story parts I came up with were boring! Now I'm thinking maybe I'll have short stories associated with each link, not sure what now, and they'll all be connected through the website and town. But they'll be pretty traditional short stories.

Anyway, is this something you've thought of? Any fun (and abandoned) ideas we could empathize with?


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reinventing Your Story: Part 1: Why reinvent?

 Why reinvent?
It used to be that you had one chance to sell a book to any given publisher, agent, or customer. If the book you wrote wasn't the book they wanted, well, you took the battered manuscript out of the SASE envelope, sighed, and went back to Writer's Market to find another possible market. (Anyone else remember those days?)

Once in a great while, an editor would send a "revise and resubmit" letter, and you might get another chance... but usually that wouldn't work out as a sale either. Publishers often had pretty strict guidelines for genre books, and no matter what they said about wanting "fresh voices," they really wanted "more of the same, only better." Or they wanted something quite specific, or what they wanted one year they didn't want the next, and if you didn't hit the bull's-eye on just the right day, you were probably out of luck. (I speak from long experience of just barely missing many sales....)

But things are different now. The market has changed so rapidly, we're all scrambling to catch up. And the publishing industry, always so slow to learn from their mistakes, is at least becoming a bit more wary of wholesale and arbitrary rejection. No one wants to be like one of the nine supposedly smart editors who rejected the first Harry Potter book. They are starting -- some of them-- to look beyond and consider what might sell in the long run-- a wonderful series idea, a great imagined world, a compelling voice. An author with one or more of those might be worth talking to, even if the offered book isn't quite right.

Agents too are realizing that the easy sales they had gotten accustomed to aren't so easy anymore, and that their captive clients are feeling more liberated and expecting something more than just another sale to the same old place and the same old contract. Agents have always talked about longterm partnerships with their clients, and some even meant it-- but now that's getting to be a necessity. Authors have other options now, and agents are having to think of ways to make themselves useful, including helping to manage an independent publishing career. In this case, they also will need to consider more intangible aspects of an author's craft, including the ability to self-promote and use social media. Again, the book might not be "just right," but the author might be.

Finally, even those authors who have decided to forego the traditional route and don't have to hit the mark with publishers and agents still might have to face the most discerning of all critics, the reading public. Readers now are much more likely to choose an AUTHOR rather than a single book. (If they like the book, they want more from the author.) But readers can be capricious, turning away from a book because of a single word in the description, or because the book seems too dark or not dark enough or too derivative or too innovative, or… That's one reason they can be so loyal to authors they like, and why they are often willing to take another chance if the "problem" has been fixed.

Problem is -- authors have to find the readers/publishers/agents who will want these books... and sometimes that will require making major changes in a book with an agenda of getting that longterm relationship.
So the good news is: We're getting more second chances!
The bad news is: We have to take advantage of those second chances!
Let's talk about ways to take an existing book and reinvent it to take that second chance.

Reinventing Your Story: Part 2: Types of Reinventing

2: Types of Reinventing

Let's talk a bit about types of reinvention.
There are three big categories, and we can deal with them each in new topics:

1. Reinvent the book. This happens when something has changed and the book that seemed just great no longer works. For example, my last book was written as a women's fiction, but sold as a mystery. Big surprise! The mystery plot was pretty lame. Why? Because I wrote the main plot to be the heroine's life journey to recover from a divorce. Sure, she had to solve her ex's murder along the way, but the big triumphant climax was her getting over her fear of disappointing or losing her son. Cough. I had to beef up the whole mystery thing, put in clues, motivation, suspects. All that stuff mystery novels usually have.

A friend of mine right now is trying to turn an old manuscript aimed at Harlequin (that is, a "category romance") into a "single-title" romance, which means, at minimum, adding in a subplot or two and deepening the interaction with other characters.
Another friend wrote a young adult novel in third person and the publisher likes it... but wants it in first person.
There are, these days, many reasons we might want to perform major surgery on what is a pretty good book (and complete too).

2. Reinvent the author. We used to just have to change our penname, you know, to let go of the baggage associated with our author name! But now, everyone knows that Jane Romance is really Bill Suspense, so it takes more than a name change.

Why would you need to reinvent yourself as an author? First would be after a long series of rejections if you're unpublished. But even published authors might need to start over after a long dry spell, or when the market for their type of book has dropped out, or if they've somehow screwed something up so that readers have started a boycott, or they were caught up in a scandal, or had some serious health issue that derailed them, and "Amy Author" is no longer a good person to be in the intense new publishing world.

3. Reinvent the career. In some ways, this is the adventure of the new millennium. We're all reinventing our careers, whether we want to or not. All the old verities are discarded, and what used to work to make for a great career might not anymore. And all the street savvy you might have picked up along the way might not do much to help you avoid all the new pitfalls.

Reinventing a career might involve discarding an agent or the entire "legacy publishing industry." It might be about changing genres or learning how to navigate social media or how to do your own negotiations. It might mean going from being just an author to being a business. It might mean finding and fixing a brand.

We'll just talk about reinventing the book now. For the moment, what would you say is your current situation? Anyone need/want to reinvent? Are there other categories?

Reinventing Your Book: Part 3-- Type of Story

3: Changing the Emphasis of the Plot

Reinventing your book.
First, think about what isn't working.
I found that if you can define what needs to be changed, you're halfway to changing it.
Let's go over the major categories, and share with us if you have other thoughts.

Say the book is fine, but it's a romance with a mystery subplot, and the publisher loves your voice and your characters, but wants it to be a mystery with a romantic subplot, for example. Or you decide that you want to make it a mystery because it will be easier to sell that way. At any rate, you've decided you need to flip the plots.
Most books don't just have one plot. They'll have what they call in the films an "A" plot and a "B" plot.

The A plot is usually the one that reflects what genre or subgenre this book is in, so if you wrote the book as a romantic comedy, say, the A plot is probably the journey of the romantic couple to fulfilled love.
The B plot is usually an important plot, and might actually take up as much space as the A plot. If you, for example, have your romantic comedy couple solving a crime, the mystery plot would be the B plot. If they are trying to rid the town of zombies, the B plot would be a horror plot. Because the B plot is usually so important to the structure of the story, it's fairly easy to beef it up and – if you need to—make it the A plot.
So let's start just with plot structure, and then scene structure.
Plot Structure:

Sometimes it's just a matter of emphasis and sequence that determines which of two major plots is the A plot, and if you fix the sequence, you can go a long way to flipping the plots.
You have probably absorbed a whole lot of "story grammar" and have done this instinctively or by learning: Usually we start with the A plot. That is, in the first scene or first chapter, usually we'll have the couple meeting if it's a romance, or a body being discovered if it's a mystery. We might have a slower opening, but we're still hinting in the opening what the main conflict/plot will be (like heroine has decided she'll quit dating –romance—or she's talking to her mom about how much everyone hates the mayor- mystery).

So if you want to flip the A and B plots, start there at the beginning. Revise the opening slightly so that the first hint of what's to come is the plot you now want to emphasize.
For example, in my women's-fiction-turned-mystery, I originally had the first scene between the heroine and her ex-husband involve her complicated feelings about him and his hints that he wants to move back home. When I flipped the plots, I kept all that "divorce heartbreak" stuff, but punched up Don's confession that he was getting sued by an angry client, and moved that up first. It took a bit of rewriting, but now the opening has changed subtly to make it a mystery opening.

Similarly, the A plot is usually the one fully resolved in the climactic scene (which is usually the second-to-last scene in the book). Again, it might take some rewriting to get the murder plot, say, resolved in that scene. But if you can do that, you'll be sending the structural message to the reader that this is at base a mystery novel.
Scene Endings:

The great script doctor and workshop leader Robert McKee offered this invaluable tip for establishing the genre (or sub-genre, or just major plot): End the turning point scenes, particularly the "inciting incident" (first turning point), on a moment that reflects the chosen genre. Sometimes this just means extending the end of the scene and closing on a comic note or a horror note or a mystery note. That is, you don't have to rewrite all the turning point scenes… just the ending.
This is quite helpful if you have been getting rejections that say, "You're a great writer, but this doesn't fit our romantic comedy line," and you just know that it's a romantic comedy. Look to the end of the inciting incident scene (which is probably in the first or second chapter). Does that end with a moment that reflects the chosen genre?
Let's try an example:

Tom is fairly young. Under 30. Start the scene
however we want, couple paragraphs maybe of Ordinary World or whatever
works here.

Out of the blue he gets a call from a funeral parlor, saying that his
Uncle Walt has died and is there and Tom was listed as next-of-kin. (Keep
in mind that we're going to be making choices all along, and every choice
leads to another choice-- you make a million choices in every scene, and
only some are conscious. And some can be deferred, so we don't have to
decide yet whether uncle Walt is his blood uncle or an un-related
(We also presumably will have to decide at some point whether Tom knows
Uncle Walt and is grieved by his death, or barely knows him, or has never
before heard of him and can't figure out how Tom's name appears as
next-of-kin. In a cozy mystery, for example, usually the murder victim
isn't personally important to the sleuth. So if you're, say, switching from a suspense novel—which has intense emotions—to a cozy mystery—which does NOT have intense emotions, you might want to make Uncle Walt more of a distant relation so Tom doesn't have to grieve.)

So he goes to the funeral parlor. Here maybe some internal conflict--
maybe when he was 19, both his parents were killed in a car accident and
he had to handle all the details, and ever since ge's avoided funeral
parlors. Now notice-- if we go with that backstory, that heavy tragedy in
the past, we are immediately darkening the tone of the book.
If we go with the death, and if it's going to end up a comedy, it's going
to be a dark or black comedy. One of the issues that comes up a lot with
openings is what I call "inappropriate emotion", and I don't mean
actually the character's emotion, but the emotion that the events inspire
in the reader. The opening and backstory do have to be tailored to the
scope of the book-- and, as we're seeing, it's really important that you
know as you draft, or as you revise, what your story IS.

If you mean this to be a suspense thriller, sure, go with the tragic backstory, and also maybe
make Uncle Walt a real uncle and close to Tom. But if you want to make it a cozy
mystery, the "coziness" comes from detachment from the bad
circumstances-- the victim is usually someone not well-known by the
sleuth or is actively disliked. And the internal conflicts are minor,
more quirks or annoyances than traumas.

If it's a deep dark wrenching romance, go with the tragedy. If it's a
sweet romance, or a romantic comedy, see if you can come up with another
reason Tom hates funeral parlors.

Think about connecting the conflict-causing backstory to the type of
story. For example, in a romantic comedy or a cozy mystery, that might be
something kind of jolly but embarrassing, like when he pledged his
fraternity in college, one of the challenges was to steal a shoe off a
cadaver, so ever since, he's been squicked out by funeral parlors.

Just keep the backstory appropriate to this scope. I can't tell you how
many contest entries I've seen where the story is supposed to be light
and there's some huge tragedy in the past, or when this is a "serious"
story, maybe a romantic suspense, and it opens with a "cute meet" or
clever comic scene. It's just jarring, and it makes me wonder if the
author is actually INTO her story. If she were into it really, she would
feel the right feeling as she wrote and conceived that first scene.
She would be sensitive to the effect this whatever choice had on the
reader. Again, begin as you mean to go on! Don't bait-and-switch the
reader. So if you're switching MOODS here—like from a serious romance to a cozy mystery—make sure that the backstory is changed to reflect the new choice.

Okay, so there's some stuff that goes on that is consistent with his
backstory and the tone of the story and the scope of the story that
influences HOW he meets the funeral director and what they talk about.
But at some point, the funeral director takes him to "the chapel" and
there's the coffin, and the director discreetly leaves Tom alone to pay
his respects to Uncle Walt.

If this is the initiating event scene, something's going to happen,
right? And the END of a major scene is when the disaster (or "surprise"
if we want to be politically correct happens.
Disastrous things can happen all the way through the major scene, of
course-- after all, getting a phone call that your uncle died is pretty
disastrous- but THE disaster should come at the end of the scene, to
impel the reader to the next scene. Yes, it's the cliffhanger, but it
doesn't have to be all dire and scary. The point is to disrupt the
trajectory of the story, derail the scene protagonist, and start
something new going. So the end of the scene can be some kind of question
or mystery or puzzle or problem—and you can shift that to reflect the new choice of a plot.

Okay, back to Tom and Uncle Walt. Tom is alone in the "chapel". Soft
lugubrious music is playing on the speakers. The room smells like (choose
one that fits your tone/scope-- lilacs, disinfectant, death, Tom's own
sweat, expensive wood....). The light is dim. He approaches the coffin.
It is (choose what fits) an expensive mahogany and satin casket, or a
plain wooden box, or a ridiculously elaborate shiny white boat with
gleaming gold handles.
The lid is (choose what works for the new choice) closed. Open. Half-closed.

He goes up to the coffin. (Does he have to open the lid?) He sees....

Now here is where you delineate the scene ending – the
disaster/surprise-- which makes this a major scene, but also a major

Let's say this is a mystery. What would he see if this is a mystery?

Let's say this is a horror story. What would he see, or what would

Let's say this is a comedy. What's going to happen? (And what if it's a
black comedy? What would happen that's different?)

Let's say that this is an adventure story. (Tom, I suddenly realized,
could be a Navy Seal!

Let's say this is a thriller.

Let's say this is a family drama.

Let's say this is a suspense novel.

Let's say this is a romance. (You can have a woman come in if so... but
why? Who?)

What if it's a romantic comedy?

What if it's a sweet romance?

What if it's a dark romance?

Let's say this is a paranormal/occult story.

Let's say this is an urban fantasy.

Let's say this is a literary fiction novel.

Let's say this is a near-future s/f post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Now very probably in the original, you're ending that scene on the moment that reflects that original type of story. So say you end with Tom seeing his father's signet ring on the corpse's hand and grabbing at it and knocking the coffin over and spilling the body on the floor—a comic ending.
If you're changing the A plot to a romance, you might just move the romantic meeting to right here—he dumps the body out, and in walks the funeral director's daughter… who will become the romantic heroine.

Go through the major scenes, the turning points, and look at the ending moments. Can you change most of those to reflect the shift in A plot?
Questions? Suggestions?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reinventing your book. 4: Reinventing the Length

Reinventing the Length
The most effective length of books varies, of course, and you should write the book to the length you think the story needs. But if later you decide for whatever reason that the book would be more effective longer or shorter, here are some tips to make that easier.
Longer: Today's new adult readers read 700-page books (okay, all starring Harry Potter) when they were 10 years old. So they won't be intimidated by length. Whether a long book would be more marketable as one volume or two or three is a discussion for another time. And you never want to stretch a short plot into a long book—the threads get pretty frayed then!
However, you might be looking at an older category book (written for a line like Harlequin Intrigue or Berkley Prime Crime), and considering expanding it to single title length, which is generally between 75K and 100K words. You don't want to just add more words—that's like drinking milkshakes to bulk up your muscles. Add length by adding complexity.
One way to do that is to add an additional major plot. Shorter books naturally tend to have a single central plot (a romance will have a central romantic plot, a mystery a central crime plot), and any other storyline is generally reduced to subplot level, starting further into the book and being resolved earlier than the main plot. Rather than adding more subplots—a lot of subplots often leads to confusion—beef up the subplot that is most connected to the main character's emotional or psychological journey and make it clearly support the main plot.
For example:
Character journey: In this romance, the heroine's father died when she was a child, and her mother married again and moved her far away from dad's family. The subplot might be about reconnecting with the family—phone calls, setting up a visit—but it's resolved quickly because the original purpose was just to get her back to dad's hometown where she meets the hero.
What's her emotional journey? She's moving perhaps from a fear of abandonment to trust? That's a good journey for a romance, as learning to trust is a major step on the way to love. To lengthen the book, consider having that subplot of reconciling with the family take place over most of the time of the book. That will mean adding conflict—that is, to make it a full plot, you can't resolve it in Chapter 3 when she starts interacting with the hero.
If you want to have her start with fear of abandonment, you could have her—instead of reconnecting –before- she comes to town—keep quiet about her identity, come to town, and scope out the family before revealing herself. After all, if she's afraid of abandonment, she might think the family kind of abandoned her by losing contact. So she could come to town, planning to observe her relatives in secret before deciding whether to approach them. This would add a motif of disguise that could complicate the budding romance (is she open with him about her real identity and connection to the town?), and if you make him have some issue with the family (business or political rivalry, maybe), this would add a further conflict to the romantic plot.
That is, add conflict, not words. This will affect the entire story, of course, and require changes in most existing scenes and additions of new scenes, so this isn't a task to take on lightly. But it's a choice we witness a lot these days as authors go back to perfectly good category books that didn't sell back when category was king. Now they have a real option—keep it short and try to sell it as is, or add 10-30K words and sell it as a single-title.
Just as common these days is the decision to shorten a book. This is more the norm for me as I always write too much and have to cut on the order of 35K words just to get it down from "epic" length to "single-title" length. So I know there are different kinds of "too long." Take a few days and read over the book as it is. Is the plot too long and complex for the length you want? Or (as always in my case) are there the right number of scenes, but the scenes themselves are too long?
Diagnose the problem before you start cutting! You don't want to end up just cutting words when you really would do better to cut out a subplot or combine several scenes. It can really help just to boil the plot down to an outline with a line or two of summary for each scene.
See if there are some scenes where only one plot-important thing happens, or none at all. For example, I've edited books where the only really essential event is that the sleuth finds a clue. In that case, could that paragraph or page about finding the clue be moved into the previous or subsequent scene, so that one scene can be eliminated? What I like to do then is find whatever in that scene is important (either to the plot or to the author—you know what I mean, the perfect sentence of description, a great interchange of dialogue) and start stripping away everything else in the scene. What's essential and/or worth keeping? Move that into an adjacent scene.
Also look for scenes that basically do the same thing (like the hero twice encounters his prime suspect downtown) without any escalation of conflict. You might not need both those scenes. Another place you might find extraneous scenes is in the beginning. We often write long openings because we're trying to get to know the story and the world, but that might mean that we start a couple scenes before the story really begins. Leisurely openings can be interesting, but if you're trying to trim your book, you probably can't afford extraneous scenes.
Now if you're like me, you might have just the right number of scenes, but spend too much time on each. When I decide to cut the length of scenes, I start at the beginning. Often I can cut a couple paragraphs right from the first page of the scene. I also replace long explanations of motivation or action with a "narrative bridge" of a few words, like "She gave up, too exhausted to continue." I also look for redundancy, where I show something in the action, and then explain it again in introspection—I cut out the introspection unless there's no way for the reader to get the point of the action.
Trimming like this can really improve the pacing as there aren't pages of narration between important events. (By the way, it's always painful for me to delete my passages, so I just cut them and paste them into a "cut file," just so I'll have them if I need them. That makes it easier!)
To cut radically, as when you are trying to turn a novel into a novella, you probably have to get into the very structure of the plot and simplify, first by cutting out a subplot or two, and second by streamlining the conflict. The main conflict might have to be simplified so that it can plausibly be set up, intensified, and resolved in 150 pages. Think about diminishing the internal conflict. In a longer book, perhaps a man can get over being unjustly imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, but for a shorter book, you could diminish that to an unjust accusation without any imprisonment (maybe he got off because of a hung jury), so that he just has to vindicate himself, not deal with the ramifications of having been in prison.
Reinvention takes re-imagining. But I've found it much easier to do when I am clear about what the book IS and what I want it to be. Just asking the questions about whether I need to change the plot or just the scenes gets me half the way to determining what reinvention will transform this story and make it new.
What reinvention situations have you encountered? What did you do?