23 Mobile Things — Thing 1

This is a somewhat different post for me, as it is not about writing or ebooks or the world of historical research.  My library is doing a project called 23 Mobile Things, which is a self-paced learning program involving apps and mobile devices.  As part of this project, I am supposed to blog about each of the things / apps that I explore during this project, and reflect on how I can use this as part of my work in the library.  Because this blog is shared by my writers group, I am also going to post about things that I learn along the way that might be good for writers to know.

Since this program is supposed to be 23 mobile things, I will talk for a moment about me and my current mobile devices.

My iPad

I have completely ditched my laptop and now do almost everything on an iPad 2 with keyboard.  I love my iPad, and find it a great all purpose device for computing, content creation, research and time-wasting.  I use it not only for writing my novel, but also for my library work.  I use the library’s iPad as a mobile catalog, and to demonstrate databases and ebooks to patrons.  In meetings, I take notes with it.  I also use it extensively for library storytimes as a digital felt board, music source, and early literacy tool.

My current favorite apps for library storytime are:

      • Fingerpaint with Sounds – I use it to write the letter of the day, and it makes R2D2 noises while doing so!
      • Felt Board – Finally, a way to instantly create new felt board stories without all that tiresome drawing, cutting and glueing!  I love old fashioned felt board stories, but all the ones that I use are inherited.  I’m just not crafty enough to create my own.  I’ve found this app to be a god send, allowing me to create tons of felt board characters and storylines without ever having to pick up a pair of scissors.  The kids love participating in the creation of felt board characters as well, making suggestions about changes of hair style, outfits, etc.
      • Endless Alphabet – I use this one for the “bonus” vocabulary word of the day.  The kids love it because we wind up spelling the word right there in storytime, with each of the letters sounding out their own sound as they move in place.  It’s very silly and very cute.
      • Animal Sounds: A Fun Toddler Game – What can be better than to play an animal sound, and then have the kids guess what animal it is?  I then “turn” the ipad around and show them the picture of the animal.  They love guessing, and its a great way to get sounds of more unusual animals like donkeys.

Since this is a writing blog, my single most used writing app is google drive.  I have yet to find a good offline editing app that I really like.   If anyone has suggestions, I’ll happily consider them.

My eReader

I have a kindle paperwhite.  I take it everywhere with me.  I read on it constantly.  It is my single most adored device.  Check out this post for more on how I use my eReader.

My Phone

I have an android smart phone, but I will admit that I do not love it.  I use it to make calls and do GPS directions, and that is about it.   How can someone as tech oriented as I am be so lame when it comes to smart phones?   Honestly, if I get anything out of this project, I’d like to develop a slightly better relationship with my poor, sad, lonely little smart phone.


What’s your book gateway?

Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, gave a talk last year where she discussed four different gateways to books: setting, story, language, and character:

One of the things that I found interesting about it was that it explained that different readers are looking for *very* different things from the books that they read. It provided me with an explanation of why books that critics might think of as “badly written” can be so appealing to such a large segment of readers.

I’ve discovered over the years that my primary two gateways are setting and character, with a slice of “language” on the side. If a book has a great setting and characters, and has beautiful language to boot, I will happily read for pages without worrying if the plot is moving quickly enough.

On the other hand, Da Vinci Code has a big-ass “story” (aka plot) gateway. I hated the characters, and the language sucked, but the puzzles and the setting (yep, it had a strong setting gateway — hey, look, here we’re playing in the back areas of the vatican) kept me reading to the end.

Several of the runaway youth hits in the past few years were nicely balanced between story, setting and character:
* Hunger Games — fast moving plot, interesting setting, fabulous main character
* Harry Potter — fabulous setting, fun characters, decent plot line once it got going.
* Percy Jackson — awesome characters, strong setting, fun & twisty plot.

I cannot explain Twilight, which in my mind did very little well, though I think that some readers really enjoyed Edward the sparkly and J (what’s his name?) the werewolf, but hey… Not every bestseller has to be comprehensible to me.

A lot of genre writers complain about plotless literary fiction, not realizing that language can be its own gateway. Several of the authors that I most love (esp. Neil Gaiman) have language as their largest single gateway. If you write beautifully enough, you can get a lot more leeway on one of the other gateways.

What’s your gateway, either as a reader or as a writer?


Once Upon A Time In The West – 1968 Sergio Leone vs. The Lone Ranger

The alternate title of this entry could be: I Sat Through Two Westerns So Now You Have To Read What I Think About Them.

I am not a fan nor a follower of Westerns as a genre, but I don’t dislike them either. As a kid, I saw plenty of them – as most kids growing up in the fifties and sixties did. My first love was The Lone Ranger, so I also saw the recent remake with Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp.  The stories couldn’t be more opposite in style and structure, although they share a couple common elements (particularly in how marginally the female characters are handled.)

Many, many people have written that Once is the pinnacle of Westerns and clearly enjoyed watching it. Leone did do some ground breaking work in the cinematography, his use of sound effects, and the almost anti-plot structure. I had no problem with any of that, in fact, I was quite mesmerized by the film for the first hour or so. My problem was the pacing and Leone’s love of looooong slooooow close-ups that apparently pass for character development. The shots were magnificent and the art direction superb – the sets were probably the most authentic of the era before and after, at least until DEADWOOD.

The frequency and length of lingering face shots turned the film from tense drama to annoyingly lengthy and finally into a parody of itself. Those were some steely blue orbs when Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson finally (and I do mean finally as in when-the-fuck-is-this-going-to-end) confront each other for the last time -the really last time, not all the other times – for many slow seconds of squinty staring as the camera panned between the mens’ eyes. By this time, I had seen so many face and eye close ups that the movie was beyond flat. I no longer cared and beside, I had a really good idea who was going to win. In spite of all its innovations and anti-hero attitudes, the outcome was utterly predictable.

See how bad he is? Not as bad as his brother though.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with The Lone Ranger as a hero and the recent remake is a classic hero-in-the-making plot structure. Act One: a young man wants nothing more than to uphold the law in the courtroom and abhors violence. Oh, and he’s crushing on his brother’s wife who has full pouty lips. By the end of the act he is forced to pick up a gun and swear to protect his brother’s wife against the band of evil outlaws, led by Butch Not-Cassidy who we know is really, really evil because he is Ugly and Deformed with Really Bad Teeth. As the story progresses, we learn that the real villain is the Railroad Tycoon who is hellbent on building laying tracks andplotting against the local Cheyenne to acquire their land.

I’m not going to go There as far as Depp playing Tonto goes. The movie is paced to perfection with nicely staged action scenes that logically follow the storyline so the whole thing is as enjoyable to watch as something like Jurassic Park. Which I do enjoy watching, so I enjoyed The Lone Ranger. Ultimately, the protagonist becomes the hero he need to be to stop the bad guys and save the damsel in distress (possibly the only female character with lines in the movie and not that many.) There is no surprise in the story since it is an old and familiar one, but the tension is maintained with excellent stuntwork and Johnny Depp’s impeccable comic timing.

Back to Once. Boiling it down to the storyline is very unfair because it is built on atmosphere, sound effects, silence, and as I mentioned, long and lingering close-ups of the characters. The main villain is introduced almost immediately although not by his presence but by the dialogue. Frank is not present but sends his men to “take care of things.” Big mistake, as the man they were sent to kill is played by Charles Bronson, a character who is only known by his nickname: Harmoncia.

Harmonica earns his nickname as you would guess, playing a dirge-like tune on his mouth organ to taunt his enemies. And let me tell you, he plays it loudly, usually with orchestral back up to enhance the effect. While Harmonica is playing tunes and shooting it out with bad guys dressed in flapping dusters after a brutal ten minutes of staring at one another and listening to sound effects, there is mayhem going on elsewhere. Henry Fonda as Frank shows up at the ranch of a Good Family, the McBains who are preparing a wedding feast for the widower father, who is sending his son off to the train station to collect the future Mrs. McBain.

Frank is so evil that he smiles and spits a lot. Ok, that’s unfair because actually, Henry Fonda is a gifted actor and he is chillingly creepy as Frank. This is a spoiler so if you think you would rather watch the movie someday without knowing all the facts, you should have stopped reading a few paragraphs ago. One by one, the members of the McBain are shot down. The last one to go is the youngest son, about eight years old, who stares imploringly and beseechingly at Frank (and this exchange of looks goes on and on) until Franks spits, grins, and pulls the trigger. It is a shocker and the movie seems like it is now going to pick up and start speeding down the rails.

The future Mrs. McBain arrives on the scene and announces that she already married Mr. McBain, so she is his widow. Claudia Cardinale plays Jill, the now widowed McBain and as soon as she’s alone in the house (who stays alone in a house after a multiple homicide took place there?) she searches from top to bottom but comes up empty.  A third character arrives at the house in the morning, another bad guy played by Jason Robards, who gets all the good lines. Robards plays Cheyenne, an escaped outlaw introduced in an earlier scene that I didn’t mention because it is not possible to describe each scene in this movie.

Around this point, I started asking myself who was the protagonist? Who was going to be changed by these events? Which one had a goal that carried the plot? It wasn’t obvious – and that was a strength of the film in the first half but ultimately a flaw.

Cheyenne likes Jill’s full pouty lips and her other assets. As the only female with more than a couple of lines, Cardinale plays a vixen/slut, well-endowed and attracted to every man that pays attention to her. She presents herself as independent and strong and amenable to rape because “that’s never killed any woman.” Ouch.

Cheyenne is a mixed bag of murderer and morals. He’s been accused of killing the McBains and wants to catch Frank and his gangs, the real murderers. Meanwhile Frank hooks up with his boss — an evil railroad tycoon hellbent on laying tracks to the coast who hired Frank to remove all obstacles in the way. The Tycoon is slowly deteriorating from tuberculosis of the bones and so is physically vulnerable, wearing a brace and walking with crutches. But he explains to Frank that he is powerful because he has money and money is the one thing that can stop guns.

Tthe body count is high in both movies, but in Once, the killing is extremely casual, even the McBain family is immediately glossed past.  With its four main characters, Once loses focus and fails to develop those characters with anything other than brief dialogue and more long meaningful stares. Robards is another fine actor and the movie is always interesting when he or Fonda are present. Cardinale is not much as an actress and is not required to do much besides gasp and clutch. Eventually she displays cleavage full-time which marks her character’s development from Poser Lady to Real Woman.

Gun blaze, bodies pile up, more glowering and staring ensues. I had high hopes we’d reached the big gun battle between Bronson and Fonda several times. I suppose I should explain what Harmonica has been up to. He has been tailing Fonda around, avoiding getting killed by him and naming the names of men that Fonda has murdered. He also forms an attachment/alliance with Cheyenne in their common cause of protecting the damsel in distress: Jill (Cardinale) who is being persecuted by the Tycoon.

Frank starts a shootout (after the requisite staring contest) with Harmonica but his gang turns against him, having been paid by the Tycoon to turn on him. In a surprising twist, Harmonica comes to Frank’s defense and kills the traitors, enabling Frank’s escape -and adding a whole lot of minutes to the movie. Harmonica explains to Jill that he “didn’t let him die” which is different than saving Frank’s life. Then he rides after Frank to kill him.

Frank rides to the Tycoon’s railroad car, where he finds a whole pile of bodies that were shot up by Cheyenne. The Tycoon is barely alive, attempting to crawl to a puddle for a last drink of water. Frank points his gun, spits, grins, and then puts his gun away and rides off. Tycoon dies a slow painful death.

Cheyenne and Jill are in the kitchen of the railroad construction camp (I’m skipping major plot points, sorry) when Harmonica shows up. Clearly, Jill is smitten with Harmonica while Cheyenne is smitten with Jill. But Harmonica has to go and confront Frank so no time for romantic tension. Major spoiler coming but seriously, do you think that Charles Bronson is going to be gunned down by a child killer, even if Henry Fonda plays him? Even if the movie is anti-plot, anti-hero, chock full of symbolism and running roughshod over the usual Western tropes (while worshipping others)?

A lot of this

And even more of that

Extremely long staring contest ensues but this one has flashbacks that reveal the basis of Harmonica’s motive. Frank and his outlaw gang had visited his town when Harmonica was a boy. They put a rope around his father’s neck and made him stand on Harmonica’s shoulders, forcing him to keep his father alive as long as he could stand. During this torture, Frank pulled out a harmonica and stuffed it in the boy’s mouth. Eventually, his father kicked him away in order to save him from stumbling and becoming the cause of his father’s death.

This takes awhile to unfold so Frank’s stare is starting to falter as he ponders Harmonica’s identity. When the guns fire, there is no surprise that Frank is the one to crumble, but he is still wondering who Harmonica really is. Harmonica takes out his harmonica and stuffs it in Frank’s mouth. Frank dies with horror in his eyes as realization dawns. Dramatic ending, it just took too long to get there. Oh, and it isn’t the ending either.

There is a love triangle to be resolved, remember? Cheyenne is the noble sort, even if he is a mass murderer, and steps back to let Jill embrace Harmonica and declare her love when he returns alive. But Harmonica isn’t the type of guy to settle down and after they exchange longing looks while more minutes crawl by, he walks out the door. She begs him to come back and he mutters “Someday.” in a tone that suggests she will be long dead before that happens.

Cheyenne sees that Jill’s heart will never be his so he decides to follow Harmonica and be his comical sidekick. He’s thinking that Harmonica could wear a mask and he could dress up as…no, I’m making this part up. He does catch up to Harmonica though but alas, he (Cheyenne) has a bullet in his gut. No real good explanation of how that happened but he expires after exchanging meaningful looks with Harmonica. And the movie ends but not until some long lingering shots of Claudia Cardinale in a revealing dress, bringing water to a bunch of hot, sweaty, and bare-chested construction workers.

Left in the dust, pouty lips and all.

Also left in the dust, despite pouty lips.

Just like Once, the female love interest in TLRis deserted in the end, as the Lone Ranger must ride off to continue his mission of justice. Only the Lone Ranger as a movie is a throwback, in spite of it attempting to have enlightened views of Native Americans, while it unabashedly marginalized women. The sole female is weak and serves to be saved – and gets abandoned because the movie franchise needs sequels, so the hero leaves love behind. Both movies end on the same note, Harmonica also leaves the chance of love behind to continue something, we’re not sure what but it probably has to do with righting wrongs.

NOTE: I totally forgot that TLR does have an alternative female role. Helen Bonham Carter plays a woman with an artificial leg that converts into a gun. The whole apparatus takes so long to set up that it is more intrusive as a device than clever. I was so impressed by her part that I forgot it entirely until searching for images. Oh, and Carter is a Madame of a whorehouse, natch. And then there was Silver, how could I forget about the horse?

I will point out that cows did appear briefly in ONCE, qualifying this post for a cow tag. As for recommendations, I am ambivalent about either movie. LONE RANGER is a go-see it if you have a soft place for the old shows and predictable archetype characters (and brilliantly choreographed action sequences.) ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is recommended for anyone interested or passionate about the art of film, the western genre and so on. It would be great grist for discussion but maybe not worth watching in its entirety if you do find yourself bored and restless. It is far more interesting to talk about than to watch and I am sure I failed to do it justice here.

What makes you stop reading?

An interesting post from GoodReads:
What Makes You Put Down A Book?

For me the list would be:

  • Characters I’d never want to spend time with in real life.  A protagonist who is whiny, self-pitying, arrogant, or just plain dull tends to lose me in the first chapter, unless there’s strong indication they’re going to be forced to change. This isn’t to say that I require all characters to be likable or good. Just interesting. Three-dimensional, engaging, with believable motives.
  • Moronic plots with gaping holes. Nothing gets me to throw a book across the room faster than an “Oh, give me a break!” plot implausibility early in the novel. Plots that hinge on repeated coincidences fall into this category for me. So do plots that depend upon supposedly intelligent people leaping to conclusions and never checking their facts or comparing notes with one another.
  • Lousy writing. Stilted/artificial dialogue probably tops the list for me in this category, with clunky or juvenile prose a close second. If the writing style makes me wince, or if it’s so painfully experimental in style that the story gets lost under the artifice of the structure, onto the Return/Recycle pile it goes.
  • Glacial plots. Even in a character-driven literary novel, I prefer a plot that moves faster than your average snail. Even a comedy of manners or a formulaic romance needs conflict, rising tension, and a satisfying resolution. If I get a chapter or two into it and it’s still just people sitting around yapping, with no evidence of a plotline emerging, I’m outta there.
  • Offensiveness. This one is tough to define because it’s so individual. I’m not that easy to offend, but I’ve got my hot buttons like everybody else. I might read a novel that features child abuse or torture, but if the writer seems to linger too long & lovingly on the details–fetishizing it–I’m likely to opt out. A supposed good-guy hero who ignores issues of sexual consent is another dealbreaker for me.

What has YOU closing a book and leaving it unfinished?

Stuff They Get Away with on TV

I’m not a typical TV viewer. We don’t (choose to) have cable here or even an antenna; we only get Netflix. Coming at things as a writer, I’m maybe thinking about the stories in a different way than the general audience. And I’m really bothered by the total illogic of some plots.

I’ll use the show Alias as an example because it’s what I’ve been complaining to my wife about most recently. I’ve officially given up on this show; it’s just too stupid. I can’t understand how enough people like it for it to have run multiple seasons. Yet I understand it’s quite popular.

The premise is that there’s a criminal organization that recruits and trains “agents” to who believe they’re working for an ultra-secret part of the CIA. The whole idea is ridiculous, since any competent spy would certainly notice something fishy in short order, and their enemies could destroy their organization with a single email. But it’s no more ridiculous than most conspiracy theories that lots of people do believe, so okay, I can go with it. The protagonist, Sydney, has cottoned to this, but her partner is still ignorant. Sydney hasn’t told him she’s now a double agent working for the real CIA.

Of course, there are the usual silly notions common to programs of this type, such as: makers of electronic locks evidently design in a “you’re getting warmer” feature so that you can have a device that deduces the combination one digit at a time – each digit taking the same amount of time, even when there are only ten combinations left to try instead of 10 gazillion. And a smallish woman can take out numerous large armed thugs with her bare hands and never break any bones in her hands or have any bruises to explain to her friends.

That sort of thing is all in fun. I wasn’t expecting much in terms of realism. I notice it, roll my eyes, my wife and I laugh. We could have a drinking game, except neither of us wants to drink that much.

Where it stops being fun for me, is where the characters do stupid, stupid stuff, transparently to serve the needs of the plot or just as an excuse for more kick-boxing.

Here’s where I called it quits with this series: say your HQ has been invaded and everyone taken captive except for you. Unknown to the invaders, the vault they’re breaking into is booby-trapped to cause a huge explosion, killing everybody present. Do you (a) race against time to secretly disable all three bombs before they figure out the combination (one digit at a time), or (b) have your dad tell them about the bombs, reveal the location of one so they can see for themselves, and let them try to find and disable the others, removing the time pressure and freeing you to pick off more minions? I’m sure you can guess which option the scriptwriters chose. To quote Dr. Strangelove, the whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret.

Then, say you manage to free your co-workers, kill the guards and steal their weapons. The head bad guy is seconds from opening the vault and blowing you all to smithereens. Do you (a) take the guns and a couple of your fellow agents who are trained in the use of deadly force, and go shoot him? Or (b) leave your co-workers to tidy up the office while you run to fight him with your martial arts skills? Hint: option (b) not only gets you more kick-boxing, but allows the bad guy to more plausibly escape so your friends in the CIA can stop him and take what he was after.

You can get away with this sort of thing more in movies and (especially) TV, because the viewers don’t have as much time to stop and think about it as they do when it’s in written form. But surely there’s some limit, some point at which the public will collectively say, “Really? Really?” Yet, somehow, there are enough viewers to support dozens of shows of this type.

I don’t know. Maybe I should just try to turn off my brain and enjoy the kick-boxing in tight clothes.

NOTE: It would be refreshing to see a spy show that played with the conventions of the genre. For instance, the spy might stop at Best Buy to gear up instead of getting custom-made wizardry from the back-room genius (hey, product placement!). But that’s another post.

Ways Human Minds Systematically (and predictably) Misperceive Things

The article cited below is very interesting if you have an interest in how the human brain makes some of the decisions it does, and does so in incorrect ways that can be predicted. It was written from the perspective of how security systems ought to be designed but has a much boader appeal and a very good bibliography if you’re interested in human perceptions.

See: http://www.computer.org/portal/web/computingnow/content?g=53319&type=article&urlTitle=security-and-cognitive-bias:-exploring-the-role-of-the-mind&mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRokuKvPZKXonjHpfsX56%2BwkWaC3lMI%2F0ER3fOvrPUfGjI4ITcZ0dvycMRAVFZl5nQ9XF%2FCAaIVS

One of the references in the article is to the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work challenging the rational model of judgment and decision making. He has many scholarly works, this particular book is intended for a general audience. The figure leading off this post is from Kahneman.
http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0374275637/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1355970136&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=thinng+fast+and+slow” title=”Amazon Link”

Checklist for Chapters and Scenes

I write in layers, like a painter working in oil. First comes the idea, then a very simple sketch. When I think I’ve got the makings of a story, I write an outline in broad strokes with no detail, no life. Then comes the scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter outline. I chart the chapters to show the rise and fall of tension, ensure that the pressure keeps mounting, place exposition appropriately, etc. Meanwhile I’m writing scenes or bits of scenes on the computer – random thoughts as they occur to me, fodder for the actual writing. When the outline is complete, I put the scenes or chapters in order on the computer, one page for each, with a header and a VERY brief summary. Then I go back to my “doodles” and extract those ideas worth using and plant them in the appropriate pages. Then I can begin the actual writing of the first draft.

The first draft is  stream of consciousness; fast, loose, disjointed, and full of ugly crap. I don’t worry about redundancies, characterization, dialogue, or anything else. No one is going to read this draft but me. In a sense, it is just a more detailed outline.

When I’ve completed the first draft, I print it so I can cross things out, draw arrows, make notes, write bits of dialogue on the back of the page, etc. The story has now been told.

Next I use what I consider to be a pretty exhaustive checklist to make sure that every scene works individually, and functions within the whole. I add detail, color, light, and shade.

When this is done, all that’s left is the character-by-character read through (to check for character arc, voice and story consistancy, etc.) Then it’s ready for my trusted readers to take their whacks at it.

So, here’s my list. Have I left something out? Are some of the questions out of order? Do I have unneccessary/redundant questions?

I’d love to hear your opinion.



My Checklist:

1  What is the plot goal of this scene?
2  Could the book/story be told without this chapter/scene? (If so, why is it here?)
3  Does this scene advance the plot with important new information?
4  What info (bit/etc.) ties this scene to other scenes or other key story elements?
5  What is the mood of this scene?
6  What is the visceral goal of this scene? (suspense, curiosity, sympathy, repulsion, etc.)
7  Does this scene tell its own story?
8  Does this scene have its own arc?
9  How does this scene generate interest?
10  Does this scene generate excitement? If so, how?
11  Why should the reader care about this scene?
12  What will make the reader turn pages in this scene?
13  Does this scene turn, twist, or otherwise alter the reader’s perceived plot trajectory?
14  Does the main character say anything interesting/unexpected/embarassing?
15  Does the main character do anything interesting/unexpected/embarassing?
16  Do other characters do anything interesting/unexpected/embarassing?
17  How does the POV character feel (excited, ill, tired, alert, etc.)?
18  How do other characters feel?
19  Look up, down, left, right, forward, behind – are the surroundings realistically described?
20  What does the POV character hear in the background?
21  What does the POV character smell?
22  What does the POV character taste?
23  What tactile sensations does the POV character feel?
24  Do other characters see, hear, smell, feel, taste anything different? If so, what?
25  What key detail is brought out through the senses?
26  What does the POV character learn in this scene?
27  How is the story theme addressed in this scene?
28  Is there enough dialogue? Can more dialogue be inserted?
29  Is anything “told” that could be “shown?”
30  Is any sentence passive that could be active?
31  Is any action/circumstance passive that could be more active?
32  What is the scene’s question that drives the reader to the next chapter?

How to Plot a Story: Back to Front

Back to Front Plotting

Jess Harris, one of our other members wrote up some notes on this plotting technique.  Following is a portion of his notes (used with his permission) and after that I’ve added some of my own perspectives. 

 UNDERLYING PRINCIPLE: The action plot is driven by the character development plot, and the character plot is driven by the character arc (growth/changes in the character – not her circumstances.) In other words, the character’s changes are defined by who she is at the end vs. who she is at the beginning.

 Start with the captivating idea that is the kernel of the story and develop the theme.

*What do you want to say with this story?

Now you must understand your protagonist.

*Who is she?

*What drives her?

*What are her strengths and weaknesses?

*How can she be excited, bored, impressed, etc. (Just a rough sketch, for now, but the basic nature of the protagonist character affects all that comes after.)

Visualize and describe the character ending.

*What is her personal discovery?

*What is her nature (most, least desired, etc.) at the end?

*How have her interests, concerns, etc. changed?

 Next, visualize and describe the character beginning:

How different can you make the character at the beginning from the character at the end without being absurd, or at least unrealistic? (Even in fantasy, the character’s development must be realistic.)

 (Jess has more, and I’ll push those comments in another post.)  Here come my editorial comments:

I don’t know if I can start a story with consciously thinking about what I want to say.  Unconsciously, it is there, but I’m not likely to have thought it through consciously.  Most likely, I have one or two critical scenes, maybe including an ending, which are the hints of a story.  Those hints tell me the nature of the story and its characters, and that takes me to the ending of the story.  The ending of the story is the ultimate definition of your protagonist’s character.  I don’t really know their character without knowing the choice they are going to make at the end.

Therefore I do agree with Jess that it is absolutely, positively, vital that you know the ending of your story before you start writing.  I know I’ve just lost a lot of people with that statement.  For those of you who are still with me, let me give a rationale:

Most people when asked to do any task will do it in stages.  Say you want to write a setting for a scary moment in a horror story.  The first settings that come to mind are almost certainly cliché, pulled from our unconscious pile of scary places (cemeteries, dark abandoned buildings, woods at night, undersea cave…).  Problem is, all of those are probably TERRIBLE and UNORIGINAL ideas.  You need to think about this for a while to come up with a really good one.  How about cheerful daycare center and a child’s bloody finger found on a sink?  (Yeah, that isn’t great either, but it’s not quite so cliché.)

A novel-length story is composed of many scenes.  Each one of them requires a great deal of thought to make them interesting and effective.  And, here’s the rub—those scenes need to link together in a coherent whole, culminating at a satisfying ending.  They don’t have to just be good, they have to connect, build off of each other, feed off of each other. 

So, if you agree that it is really hard to come up with a single excitingly innovative scene, when you hit that happy spot and put in a chapter break or a scene break, how likely are you to carefully mull over the many alternative options for the next scene?  Or are you most likely to go with what feels about right, and keep typing?

And, if you don’t know what the ending is, how likely is it that any given scene or any collection of scenes actually does an outstanding job of sending the reader on the roller coaster ride that ends in a perfect ending?  If you know the ending, you can think about what does it take to get to this place?  You can contrive to confront your characters with the escalating challenges that are necessary to culminate in a final, ultimate test.  And you are making those scene decisions before writing the scenes.  All you need is a couple sentences that describe what has to happen.  After due consideration, if the order isn’t right, or a scene is too much of a trope, or it doesn’t have the necessary impact—you fix it by crossing out a few lines and substituting the much better idea.

Most important—I think that we all are striving to do our very best.  We want to provide the most satisfying experience for the reader that we can.  I don’t think we can consistently come up with house-on-fire scene ideas, one after another, writing serially.  And I really doubt that most of us can string those powerful scenes together into a successful whole without knowing where we are going.  Without starting at the end, the story certainly can get written.  It will have satisfying moments.  But will it be the best story we are capable of writing?  Unlikely.

On the other hand, following this last shall be first scheme does not guarantee goodness.  There are abundant opportunities to go seriously wrong.  But for us mere mortals, it gives us a fighting chance.

Humans who really fly, and why time seems to stand still when you’re scared s***less.

This specatacular video, courtesy of www.sciencefriday.com, shows what Luke Hively sees as he executes a BASE jump, skimming along a rock cliff-face and through a misty waterfall.  Hively, veteran of thousands of skydives and over 150 BASE jumps, discusses what he sees and experiences.  Neuroscientist Chess Stetson talks about why we feel that time slows down when we are under stress and offers an explanation for the effect (and why time isn’t really slowing down).

If one of your characters pulls on, forgive me, a flying squirrel suit like Luke is wearing and makes good their escape from the Bad Guys, you’d best have set up that skill long before you needed it.  It’s like whipping out that magic wand at the precise moment you need it–quite unbelievable when it hasn’t been seen before.  But if your readers can see it coming, you could have lots of fun planning the route, anticipating the rush, maybe guiding your neophyte partner…