By the Numbers

Formula
By now you’ve heard about the big budget summer movies that supposedly tanked at the box office. Maybe you’ve seen some of them and wished you hadn’t. Or, maybe you loved them and can’t understand why they didn’t do as well as predicted. (Or, perhaps you have no opinion at all on the subject.) I haven’t seen any of the ones critics placed on the “tanking” list, because I haven’t seen very many movies at the theater this year. But the issue is, other people haven’t either.

If you follow Nathan Bransford’s blog, you read his post on the subject and the part formulas played in the perceived failure of some of the summer blockbusters. Apparently famed director Steven Spielberg predicted something of the sort. But Nathan discusses an opportunity formulas provide for exercising your storytelling muscle. If you haven’t read that post, you might click on Nathan’s name above and do so. You might also check out the Slate article on Steven Spielberg’s predictions or the Suderman Slate article, which discuss the formula issue. Both are mentioned in Nathan’s post.

Formulas. Aren’t they a guarantee that something works in a certain way? That’s the way formulas in math and science behave. I find the subject of formulas quite fascinating, because I’ve never been very adept at following them. Oh, I could swing a mean Pythagorean theorem if I had to, or whip out the formula for sulphuric acid (H2SO4). But formula writing usually did me in.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post (and I can’t find it right now, just take my word for it) that when I was a teen, my goal was to write Harlequin romances. A friend and I read a good hundred or so one summer to get the formula down before trying our hand at writing some. Crashed and burned we did. All we wound up doing was parodying the romances. I later tried writing a teen paranormal romance. Here’s the formula I worked with:

One hot guy who is special (not exactly sure how; something paranormal) + one girl who thinks she’s plain, but is secretly beautiful + one not-so-hot guy the secretly beautiful girl loves + one girl who thinks she’s hot and the guys do too + some big plot point = ???

Couldn’t make it work. Failed miserably.

I even bought Save the Cat, the book at least two of the above articles mention, hoping to discover some good advice for producing commercially successful fiction. Now I can admit I’d hoped to find a shortcut—an easy way to success.

I love what Nathan said in his post:

First, it just goes to show that while you might follow the market and cash in on the short term, following your own vision will win out in the long run.

Following your own vision. Guess that means doing the hard work of birthing that vision. Hmm. Perhaps I’ll finish reading Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream. . . .

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Better still, I think I’ll work on my book and stop searching in other people’s books for a way to do just that.

What about you? Like formulas? Dislike them? What do you think of the summer movie situation?

Formula from wpclipart.com.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Yes, the title is an overt reference to the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the 1987 movie starring John Candy and Steve Martin. But this post isn’t about that movie.

Amtrak_train

My parents once told me that our family took a long train trip when I was a baby. Funny. I don’t recall that excursion. But since they never mentioned a second train trip, perhaps taking my older brother and me on the train filled them with such horror, they couldn’t bear to take us again.

Recalling some of our antics during long car trips to visit relatives, I can see why they would wish to avoid being on a train with us for days on end. They were forced to live in the same house with us, but were wise about not inflicting us on the public very often.

Now that I’m an adult, I can take myself on a train trip across the country. Alas, I’m too type A for a leisurely train trip. I like to get where I’m going as fast as possible, you see, which is why the airplane is my favorite mode of transportation next to my car. Unfortunately, some airport security lines are about as slow as taking a leisurely train trip these days.

Now that I’ve mentioned all of the means of transportation in the title, I can finally get to point of this post: pacing. I’m cutting paragraphs and scenes out of my work in progress for this reason.

As I pondered the problem of pacing, I asked Nancy, another friend from VCFA, for her definition of a well-paced novel. She had this to say:

A well-paced novel never loses your interest, but is not a constant roller coaster either. But even in the quiet moments, the story and characters are building and growing.

That makes sense to me. How about you? What would you add to that definition?

While you consider that question, I’ll mention a novel that YA author and Nerdfighter John Green described as “brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced” in a review written for The New York Times. It is

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You can read Green’s review here. If you read the book, perhaps you agree or disagree. I’m on the side of agreement. As I followed the journey of heroine Katniss Everdeen, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, even in the slower moments. The action and the quieter moments worked like a waltz—the rhythm perfectly measured.

Another book I consider well paced is Sabriel, a young adult fantasy novel by Garth Nix, book 1 of his Abhorsen trilogy. You can find out more about this book here.

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From the first page of the prologue (and Nix makes a good case for its inclusion) to the last page of the epilogue, the pacing never flags. Yet it’s not so frenetic that you feel exhausted at the end of the book (like I felt at the end of watching Bourne Ultimatum). Nix, like Collins, includes quieter moments as heroine Sabriel catches her breath or basically tries to survive during the harrowing search for her missing father.

My problem with pacing comes with my tendency toward the sagging middle. And I don’t just mean my own sagging middle as a result of quick pacing at the dinner table. (Now there’s an image you probably didn’t want.) As you know, many stories have a three-act structure (the setup; the confrontation; and the resolution). (For a great post on plot and structure, see Ingrid’s Notes here.) The action of the story rises toward the climax. But in the second act of my WiP, I included scenes that do little to advance the plot. In fact, they stopped the forward momentum. It’s like being forced on a long, leisurely train trip when what you really need is a quicker mode of transportation to get to the end of the line.

Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need, cautions, “It’s not enough for the plot to go forward, it must go forward faster, and with more complexity, to the climax” (150). As I read that, I went, “Huh?” until I realized what he meant: Make stuff happen. Keep raising the stakes.

Another friend sent me a link to a post written by another well-known YA novelist, Libba Bray. It’s hilarious, and I urge a read. But this quote from the post really struck me:

Thinking takes TIME. Thinking forces you to question everything you take for granted, to get past what feels too easy, too pat in order to get down to what feels real and right and true for your story.

I don’t have a magic formula for writing the well-paced story. But what Libba says also makes sense. Pacing takes thought and an instinct for “what feels real and right and true.” Even if a beta reader points out scenes that sag in your WiP (as my beta readers did in mine), you still have to know how to pick up the pace. For me trial and error works. For some of you, maybe you troubleshoot early on through an outline.

Regardless of how we define well paced, I think we can all agree that good pacing, like good taste, is something you sense right away, especially its absence.

What books do you consider well paced?

Train photo and book covers from Wikipedia.

A Common Thread

needle-and-threadWhen I read this post at John Scalzi’s blog where Guy Gavriel Kay discussed the overarching theme of his novels, my mind started racing. (If you’re not sure who Guy Gavriel Kay is, click here. For John Scalzi, click here.)

Anyway, if you don’t feel like reading that post, Guy Gavriel Kay mentioned that he was asked why all of his books have the theme of exile. If you’ve read his books (I read Tigana), you might be nodding at this point and saying, “Yeah, I see that.”

I love the notion of having an overarching theme, a thread connecting all of my novels. It kind of reminds me of the dog that pops up in the illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg’s picture books—a fun extra readers know will be there. But on a deeper level, having something that links all of my novels is a way of sharing a passion of mine.

Now, you might be thinking, if I’m working on four novels (a duology and two stand alones), how on earth could I have a linking theme? Okay, I’ll tell you.

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of the journey as teacher—the hero’s journey—and often gravitate toward books of that ilk: Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien; The Odyssey by Homer; Beowulf; Sabriel by Garth Nix; The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett; Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson; The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis; The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. (And by hero, I mean male or female.) Once that realization dawned during my third semester of grad school, I knew I had settled on a topic for my critical thesis, as well as a structure for the young adult fantasy novel I was struggling with at the time.

With a journey story, the emphasis is on movement. No stagnant pool here, but a flowing river with rapids and turns. As Joseph Campbell stated in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand. (Campbell 51)

A compelling journey story involves struggles beyond the daily “I ran into traffic” grind. Consider the journeys you find most memorable: rescue missions, mountain-climbing adventures, immigration stories, migrations (of animals too, if you watched the documentary Winged Migration). With journeys, character strengths and weaknesses come into focus.

Blake Snyder, author of the popular screenwriting tips book, Save the Cat, uses the term golden fleece in his discussion of hero’s journey stories. If you’re up on Greek mythology, you know that the quest undertaken by Jason and the Argonauts involved the search for the golden fleece. According to Snyder:

The theme of every Golden Fleece movie is internal growth. . . . It’s not the mileage we’re racking up that makes a good Golden Fleece, it’s the way the hero changes as he goes. (Snyder 28)

Reading these stories, some larger than life, makes us want to test our own limits, don’t they? The most powerful journey stories can inspire us to be better people—to do what we can to effect change in our world.

What journey stories inspire you? If you’ve read all or most of an author’s books, what theme, if any, have you noticed as a common thread?

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press/Bollingen Series XVII, 1949. Print.

Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat! Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions/Sheridan Books, 2005. Print.