More Q&A

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 20 ‘More Q&A’. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Question: How necessary are plot twists?

  • Don’t over-inflate the term ‘plot twist’ to always be the dramatic reveal which changes everything. This is not required in every book and if you’re not good at doing them then don’t do it. Small things going wrong are also plot twists.
  • There must be conflict and challenge for the protagonists; these are more required and important than dramatic reveals.

This is freeing, and correlates with my thoughts I wrote about in relation to the last episode plot twists. It isn’t always necessary.

  • The requirement for plot twists depends upon the genre: romance novels don’t really have plot twists because the reader doesn’t want it; science fiction it is more important; mysteries there must be multiple plot twists.

Question: How is the market changing with electronic media?

  • Speculation that the majority of future readers will want commute-friendly length chapters. The number quoted is 2500-3000 words long.

As someone who regularly reads on a 20 minute commute to work, I agree with this. It is much more satisfying to finish a chapter than to have to stop part way through a chapter.

I know that I am reading a great book when I consider stopping for a coffee (and a bit more reading) on the short walk to work. As an aspiring author I want to write books that completely mess up people’s schedules 🙂

  • Note the increase in the number and spread of audio books; becoming more mainstream.

I’ve never actually listened to an audio book. Maybe it’s because of my disability: I literally can’t walk and think about things at the same time. Sure, I can do some low-level thinking, but walking really does take up a large part of my active concentration. Some thoughts can distract me enough that I fall over. So multi-tasking is not something I do well… listening to a novel via audio book would make me feel as though I’m missing bits.

  • With the advent of the internet, e-books etc authors can now sell direct to readers. (The example is given that a $2 short story sold direct-to-reader gives the author more money than 2 sales of an $8 paperbacks, and the author doesn’t have to wait for 9-15 months for the publisher to send the $0.80).
  • Copy editing / editor can become contract services to individuals.

This is incredibly disruptive. As they describe in more detail in the podcast, this partially breaks the traditional publishing model.

The benefit with the traditional publisher is that they have experts in the fields of editing, marketing etc. You can do it all yourself, as many have successfully done, but it is an additional burden upon the author.

  • Could we see the return of the weekly serial?

I like the romanticism involved in this idea. I love the idea of the weekly radio broadcast where they tell a riveting story… I suspect though our attention span is not good enough these days. We are a binge-watching society, used to getting what we want exactly when we want it, on-demand. I think this would negate our ability to enjoy a weekly-released (or even daily-released) serial; we would find the wait too frustrating.

Yes, audiences tune into popular TV series season after season, grumpily enduring the between season periods… but that is entertainment that comes with visual and audio candy and multi-million dollar budgets. Broad-appeal literary serials: it would have to be exceptional material to work.

Question: How do you make your protagonists as interesting as your villains?

  • Blur the line between hero and villain.
  • Villains are more interesting because they often have better conflicts. Ensure your heroes have good/deep/interesting conflicts or they will be weak characters.
  • Protagonist should be competent but not overly-so.
  • Villains are more active, heroes are reactive. Try and make your heroes active. David Gerrold says that for the first half of the story the antagonist is driving, but for the second half the protagonist should be driving. (In the first half the monster chases the hero, in the second half the hero chases the monster).

Question: How much to sell a story for?

(This is obviously going to be the US-version of the answer, so factor in exchange rates and probably, differing markets).

  • Short stories – about $0.05 per word.
  • Novel – about $5000 advance for a first novelist is a good amount; at least $1000.

Additional Wisdom

 

  • Recommended way to break writer’s block: take the last line of dialog and make it the inverse…which then forces you to explain why they say that.
  • Ralan.com – resource.
  • The importance of networking (i.e. at conventions).

Plot Twists

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 19. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

I admire great plot twists. The go-to example of plot twists has to be the movies Sixth Sense and Snowpiercer. In the literary world, Isaac Asimov does a brilliant job in Second Foundation where the heroine succeeds almost by mistake in solving several problems at once.

I aspire to writing great plot twists. In my experience these have been a mixture of planned and unplanned events. When I wrote my short story The Captive I knew from the beginning that essentially the whole story is about the plot twist. In writing my first novel Vengeance Will Come I have plot twists which occur in the novel and twists that are only foreshadowed to be revealed later in the series.

What is a plot twist?

  • A plot twist should be something that surprises the reader (they weren’t expecting it), but makes total sense in hindsight.
  • Using plot twists correctly is about out-thinking your readers: fulfilling the promises you made, in a way they don’t expect.
  • Plot twists should be character- affecting, because otherwise there is no emotional investment for the reader.

How do you ‘come up’ with plot twists?

  • For the discovery writer it is an act of discovery, for the outliner it is discovering a conflict that can be used.
  • Sometimes its serendipity: you might not plan it, but it works out that way.

How do you do plot twists?

Surprising: The reader should not expect the plot twist. Throw away the first couple of ideas you have that readers would assume is going to happen.

In the podcast they say: “If you’ve seen it before in a movie or read it before in a book, then it’s not good enough.”

This statement stopped me. I agree with the following:

  1. A fresh plot twist is an excellent plot twist
  2. An overused plot twist is a bad plot twist

But what about those plot twists that sit in the middle; not fresh, but not overused? Surely there is room for some of those plot twists occasionally? To me books are not all about plot twists. I can enjoy a book with basic plot twists if it also has great characters or a solid plot. In all the books that have been written over the centuries, I think truly fresh plot twists would have to be rare. I think the statement is a little strong: or it could be the difference between being a writer and an amazing writer.

I wonder also whether it will get harder to write good plot twists. For example, previously killing off a main character might have been a good plot twist… after George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series (aka Game of Thrones) which kills of characters as regularly as most people take showers the wow factor is gone. Seriously, I think the man single-handedly saturated that technique, among others. So a good plot twist is going to require something more intelligent to do well.

Foreshadowing: Because a plot twists must make sense, it must be foreshadowed carefully. This is normally ‘added’ during successive drafts (retroactive foreshadowing). They suggest that for foreshadowing you should mention something three times, in a different context, to hint at it. Anything that you needed to use in the third act has a story of its own, told in act 1 or early in act 2.

Thankfully, this means you don’t have to get it right the first time. You can have many drafts over which to perfect the execution of it. (You may not even see the major plot twist until you have nearly written the entire story).

Misdirection: Make sure there is a lot going on so that the reader gets ‘red herrings’ and can’t guess what the plot twist will be. Think of a magician who keeps the audience looking at his left hand while his right hand is performing the trick, and aspire to that.

Research and practice: Analyse critically how other authors do it.

Other Tips

  • You don’t want to dilute the impact by putting too many plot twists in a single story.
  • Keep ideas for plot twists. It may not fit in this book but it might in the next.

Getting out of the Writer’s mind

I know the plot, but my character’s shouldn’t.

A character who is fated to die, should have the same level of character development (motivations, hopes and dreams, fears…) as a character who will live to the end of the novel, or through a series. In most cases you want the character’s death to be a surprise and jarring to the reader, and so you want to do the best you can to hide the plot twists before they happen.

I especially like the idea of foretelling a plot twist, but keeping it so obscure that the “signs” are only seen in hindsight (i.e. like in my short story The Captive). On a similar vein, it would also be interesting to have a character who shows all the “symptoms” of I’m-going-to-die-soon, but then lives on.

If the character is undergoing a personal crisis, that doesn’t mean that everyone else in the world is aware of it and leaves them alone. Life goes on, and those not aware of the plot would behave normally. However, this must be held in contradiction with “if it doesn’t move the plot along, cut it”.