Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Review, Part III: STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks

By Chris Mathews

I have been looking at the usefulness of Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering to the aspiring writer. We have looked at three of what he deems the six core competencies of storytelling: concept, character, and theme. Although I believe concept and theme could be combined into one category, I did find his breakdown of character very useful in identifying it as having three dimensions (surface, backstory, and character growth, or character arc). However, Brooks, I believe, takes too long to get to the most important aspect of writing from which the title comes, not beginning his explanation of structure in good storytelling until Chapter 22, almost halfway through Story Engineering. I have been using the story of Little Red Riding Hood to test out his advice(my choice, not his).

He breaks storytelling into “four boxes.” The first box is subtitled “The Setup.” In this section of the story, we learn what the stakes are for the main character(what he or she has to lose). There should also be some foreshadowing of the antagonist in this section. And empathy for the main character or hero needs to be created. In the case of Little Red Riding Hood, box one would include her backstory that her mother told her not to leave the path, and her encounter with the wolf. Here we see how naïve she is when the conniving wolf wheedles information about the grandmother out of her and tells her to pick flowers thereby leaving the path and we glimpse the wolf’s duplicitous nature. Box One ends with the first plot point when we sense what conflict is going to take place—in this case Innocent Red versus scheming wolf. According to 
Brooks this is where the story really begins.

The protagonist’s quest begins the second box, which should show the hero studying the problem faced. In Little Red, this section would include Little Red’s questioning of the wolf(“My, grandma, what big eyes you have”), culminating in the Wolf’s “…the better to eat you with.” Brooks calls this moment the midpoint of the story. For Little Red, her purpose is clear: the wolf is out to get her.

This third box, the attack, occurs in stories when the protagonist becomes proactive. At this point, the protagonist usually mounts his or her strongest attack against the antagonist or dies trying. In most versions of Little Red, it is the later. The hunter’s entrance on the scene would mark the second plot point. The final struggle now takes place in this box.

The fourth box is the resolution. In the Grimms’ Brothers version, the hunter cuts the wolf open and Little Red and Grandma are both freed, and after he replaces rocks for humans and sews him up the wolf meets his demise. According to Brooks, Little Red would fall into the category of “lame part 4 hero status” because she is not the primary catalyst in the story’s resolution, the hunter is.

In a final blog on this book, I will examine Brooks’ remaining structural component of structure, milestones. In addition, I will comment on his final two competencies, scene execution and writing voice.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Musings About a Music Mogul

By Kimberly Johnson

I had no intention of reading The Soundtrack of My Life, music mogul Clive Davis’ biography. I assumed it was a mea culpa about the late Whitney Houston. It wasn’t. It was a handcrafted tale of how a Harvard law grad working at Columbia Records in the late ‘50s, transformed the record industry by becoming the producer-manager-confidante to folks like Simon & Garfunkel and Alicia Keyes. I thought it was an industry insider’s regretful recount of a pop diva. It wasn’t. For me, it was about a storyteller (Davis) and a story writer (Anthony DeCurtis). Anthony DeCurtis, a 30 year veteran of Rolling Stone magazine, employs the simplest of writing techniques to recreate the venerable Brooklynite’s rollercoaster life.

Rollercoaster ride 1: ‘ 70s icon Barry Manilow. DeCurtis chronicled the music lawyer’s tempestuous “handling” of the songwriter. By infusing a casual tone, the author made me feel like I was there when Davis and Manilow slugged it out over Mandy, a song that Manilow detested. Davis won: 1974’s Mandy catapulted Manilow into the stratosphere.

Rollercoaster ride 2: American Idol runner ups Clay Aiken and Chris Daughtry. DeCurtis glosses over the producer’s “I know what’s best for you” attitude by portraying Davis as a veteran trying to mentor neophytes.

Rollercoaster ride 3: Whitney Houston. DeCurtis threads the needle on a sensitive subject: Houston’s career and untimely death. He helps the producer to combat the Svengali “handling” of Houston by portraying him as a father figure that was unaware of her demons.

I thought those rollercoaster rides were enough. They weren’t. Davis’ pre-Grammy parties and peccadillos added to the ride. I recommend you get this book.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Don’t Sell Me Your Book—Sell Me YOU!

By Len Lawson 

Much has been written in recent years about how the publishing industry and its consumers have changed. The gaps among the success of authors published through traditional publishing, small press, and self-publishing continue to be diminished. The difference in the success remains in the marketing of the product. Regardless of the means of publication, an author in today’s writing industry needs to have a clear marketing strategy for their own work. Publishers may even be more likely to consider an author’s work if authors submit their queries with some options for marketing their books.

The core of these marketing ideas exists in the individual author. Readers not only want to read a good book, but they also want to read from a good author and more books from that author. Then, they will tell their friends about this great new author whose book they read. The more readers can identify with their authors, the more likely they will be return customers. The key here is more transparency, especially for first-time authors. Authors that market themselves can turn readers into fans!

Below I provide some tips for how an author can brainstorm ways to impress agents and publishers how to market—and eventually sell your book.

  • Be unique. To establish a brand, discover a quality that distinguishes you from the millions of other authors in this saturated industry. For example, if you are a teacher, start a blog that is unique to your subject area or to education in general. As a platform, you can speak at teacher conferences or write articles for teacher newsletters to build an audience. Share the story of your career path or your passion for your subject. Once again, the key is transparency. If you have a niche or a passion, then there are readers waiting to learn more about you and subsequently about your writing!
  • Be proactive. After you decide who your audience is, find the readers where they are, talk to them directly, and establish more settings to meet readers besides just book signings. Finding book clubs to join or market to is a good idea, but why not start your own book club? Rally other readers around you who enjoy your genre. This creates a built-in audience that can expand exponentially! Don’t just sit back and wait for readers to come after you write your book. Go out and get ‘em before the process starts!
  • Be enterprising. Some of the best partners for book marketing are in other industries. Someone you know with their own business can use your assistance in exchange for publicity. For example, a store owner may provide a space for your books in their shop in exchange for publicity. Partner with others who believe in your work. The key here is to be creative and to think like an entrepreneur.
  • Be diverse. Since your readers are diverse, different aspects of your book may appeal to different readers. For example, your romance novel may be set at the beach. During the summer, this would be a great read! Therefore, you could market to beach readers or readers going on a long trip. Once again, be creative.

The possibilities are endless for aspiring authors to market themselves along with their stories. Millions of readers are waiting for their next book to buy and read. They are also waiting for an author that appeals to them. Being transparent as an author can open the door to more opportunities with agents, publishers, and ultimately readers.  Don’t allow your book to be the barrier between you and your readers, and don’t wait for publishers and agents to have the last say in the marketing. Your readers are waiting; give them what they want. Give them you!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Drama in Everyday Life

By Bonnie Stanard
Human experience, especially misery, is fertile ground for writers. Misery is not hard to find, whether produced by our fellow man or visited on us by nature. Just think of the books written about cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. The criminal hardships we visit on ourselves, such as murder, slander, and theft inspire innumerable books. Governments, because of their authority, are capable of widespread misery, and writers like Stephen Ambrose, Elie Wiesel, and Philip Caputo have made careers of recording warfare’s toll on us.

I’ve just finished reading Mukiwa, A White Boy in Africa, a personal account of life in Rhodesia at the time of its civil war. Author Peter Godwin begins with his childhood, which is recalled with nostalgia and only the occasional hint that the indigenous tribes are chafing under unfair government policy. The pleasant life of the first pages is the quiet before the storm.

Black resistance becomes more organized and develops into guerilla warfare, and the winds of change ratchet up to gale forces. Godwin, in spite of his sympathy for the oppressed blacks, is forced to fight in Ian Smith’s army. Atrocities occur, and as we already know from history, the whites lose control and are defeated.

Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe. Just as there’s hope that the new black leadership will usher in a judicious government, the storm becomes a hurricane, exceeding in misery and death the former rebellion. The Shona tribe, which controls the government, attempts to wipe out the Matabele, resulting in wholesale slaughter of unarmed villages.

Zimbabwe’s government is able to make peace with its victims and survives with impunity in spite of the bloodbath, or perhaps because of it. From the Matabele perspective, peace is purchased at an enormous price.

Godwin’s story grew out of a background of insurgency and warfare. However, many good books are written about less dramatic challenges. Writers like Joan Didion, Bill Bryson, and Tobias Wolff call attention to everyday events in a way that allows us to see them in a different light. Some of our workshop writers are in situations that are mundane or exciting, depending on our way of seeing. For instance, here are titles for books they might could write (yes! might could—they might, they could):
My Worst Moment with Shakespeare (Leigh)
Mother is Funny, But She’s not a Joke (Sarah)
Dropping into a War Zone (Mike)
A Lightweight In the Ring with Fighters (Laura)
Lucifer’s Embrace—Friedreich's Ataxia (Ginny)
An Alien In Antarctica (Shaun)
I Had No Idea I Had An AVM (Debbie)

Sometimes the things closest to us escape our notice. We hardly think of writing about them. We wait for a lightning muse to strike us when the earthy one is with us all the time.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review Part II: Story Engineering, Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing

By Chris Mathews
For those writers looking for a sure-fire way to create a powerful story, Story Engineering, Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks illuminates some of the shadowy precepts of structure, while at the same time acknowledging that good storytelling can never just be a paint-by-the-numbers process. With a working knowledge of the tools and process which Brooks calls the six competencies of storytelling--concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and voice--, the writer can discover how to create a great story. Without these craft secrets, Brooks contends, great storytelling is just not possible.
As I stated before, I was very dubious of concept as a core competency apart from theme. However, Brooks does a credible job of making the case that the writer should write with an intention of theme, and not just let it emerge mystically. Theme is, of course, what a story is about, but Brooks expands the definition adroitly. Theme must be “relevant” to life itself; in a real sense, Brooks believes that theme is the launching pad for story in that it is what “makes us think and feel” about the plot.
As far as implementation of theme, he believes what the story means can be linked like the double-helix with character arc, the character’s growth.  It’s why the critics panned The DaVinci Code, he maintains. The main character’s growth was secondary to plot and therefore Robert Langdon appeared an empty suit. The character has to conquer both inner and outer forces to make a theme viable. Like the main character in Dan Brown’s novel, Little Red in Little Red Riding Hood does not change very much, remaining naïve until the wolf makes his “all-the-better-to-eat-you” speech. Little Red’s rose-colored world comes crashing down as she fails to grasp the wolf’s trick until it is too late…unless you buy the dues ex machina of the hunter. The theme could be: You have to see things for what they are or you’re going down. The wolf’s cross-dressing makes his character development much more intriguing than Red’s, but the story’s theme emerges. In defense of Dan Brown’s writing and in most best-selling novels, plot takes precedence over character.  
After spending half the book on other core competences, Brooks finally devotes the second half of his book to what he clearly believes should be the mantra for aspiring writers—structure.
To be sure, he qualifies his advice, constantly reminding the writer, that all of the other core elements need to be intertwined into the story to make it truly riveting. The hopeful note for the writer here, as Brooks points out, is that structure can be learned.
In a final blog, I will examine in more detail Brooks’ concept of structure, the pith of Story Engineering.