Write Wow!

Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Plotting Your Novel (Part 2)



When Bill and I set out to write The Dead Detective, we knew where we wanted to start-- with our main character, Budge, becoming a ghost by being murdered. We kind of figured that we wanted to end it by having Budge find out who his murderer was, but the stuff in between was still very nebulous.

First we had to determine who our characters were. We knew we wanted a female protagonist to go along with Budge, but other than that, we were clueless. Budge didn't even start out being Budge. He started out being called "Woody." Bill and I knew that we wanted our hero to actually be kind of an anti-hero-- or rather to be totally unlike the normal hero in mystery novels. There actually tend to be three types of mystery novel heroes: The tall, strong, masculine, sexy, hard-boiled type of guy (who almost always likes jazz music) and who generally has relationships with many women; the good looking, sensitive, caring, psychologist type who is often a family guy or is at least in a committed relationship (This guy is often the best friend of a detective who frequently consults with him for psychological insight); or the slob-- overweight, junk food addicted, surly, uncouth guy who is not particularly likable but has very close friends who work with him on investigations.

We wanted Budge to be totally different from any of these stereotypes. We already knew he wasn't going to have any type of relationship to law enforcement. At that time, Bill and I routinely spent weekends shopping at pawnshops because they were a great place for parents of school-aged children to buy inexpensive musical instruments, graphing calculators or DVD players. We also bought a replacement wedding band at a pawn shop one time after one of my daughters lost mine in the swimming pool. "Let's make him a pawnbroker!" I said excitedly one day when we returned home with a "new" flute for our younger daughter. Bill liked that idea, so there we were. We had a pawnbroker named Woody as our dead guy.

We really liked the idea of having Woody go against all the stereotypes so we decided to make him a real flake. Don't get me wrong; he's a nice guy as everyone who knows him tells CJ when she is investigating his murder. But he's not a real critical thinker. He believes in horoscopes, I Ching, ESP, and whatever other types of pseudoscience that are out there. People tend to discount him because of that, but he's smarter than they give him credit for. He's a chess player-- but more of an intuitive, Captain Kirk type of chess player than an analytical Spock type of player. And he's, how should I put this, physically unprepossessing. He's scrawny. The kind of guy that in high school walked around with a pocket protector. He wears thick glasses, has no muscles to speak of, and is very physically awkward. He's shy and nervous around women, but they don't notice him anyway because he is simply so unprepossessing.

So, we had our hero. Geeky, scrawny little Woody, who worked at a profession that many people consider to be somewhat seedy. Now we had to come up with our female protagonist. This was more difficult because we needed someone who was a counterpart to Budge. We decided, first of all, that she needed to be very rational and logical. She not only doesn't believe in ghosts; she doesn't believe in anything at all that is supernatural. No horoscopes, no pyramid power and definitely no ghosts. That makes it all the more fun when Budge realizes that she is the only living person who can hear him, for whatever reason.

We decided to make her a computer geek to give her a reason to be at a pawnshop after hours. We also decided to make her a junk food junkie in homage to all the slobby male detectives that are out there. However, we decided to throw a slight twist in things. At first we talked about having her be kind of unattractive, maybe overweight or with a really big nose or a receding chin or something, but then we thought it would be fun to make her a former beauty pageant queen- with a twist. CJ is a stunningly beautiful blonde (Nicole Kidman would be perfect for the role!) who absolutely does not care about her appearance. She hates her beauty queen past. i can't remember where we came up with the name CJ, but her real name is Crystal Janine and she hates that as being too frou frou.

At this point we had our two protagonists, and we were ready to start plotting-- but I'll save the details of that for the next blog, which hopefully will come along sooner than this one did.

Oh, and in case you are wondering how Woody became Budge-- we realized that there is an actual pawnshop in Arlington called "Woody's Pawnshop" so we had to change it. We had already decided his full name was Cecil Eugene Dirkwood, which we decided sounded sufficiently nerdy, but coming up with his nickname was a problem. Cecil? Eugene? None of those just seemed to fit. Then one day we were talking about one of our daughters and how difficult it was to budge her once she had made up her mind and Bill said, "That's it! We'll call him Budge because he's so stubborn!"

It was absolutely perfect, and Budge and CJ sprang into being.

Now you might wonder what all this has to do with plot development-- which is supposed to be the topic of this blog, however you've got to have strong, well developed characters before you can plot your novel. Many of the plot points we put in there came from the fact that Budge and CJ are who they are. In my first blog on this topic I said that writing a novel is like planning a trip. The characters in your novel are akin to your companions on your trip-- the route you take and your mode of travel will depend on the type of companions you choose. When my husband and I moved from New York to Texas, we went separately. I took our two small daughters and traveled by bus to Florida to visit a childhood friend for a few days. I then went the rest of the way to Texas by plane. My husband, on the other hand, drove across country with our cat and our guinea pig in the back of the car. We both ended up at the same place but we both had vastly different journeys. He couldn't go to Florida with me and the girls because of the cat and the guinea pig, and the girls and I did not want to go with him and spend three days or so driving across country in a tiny compact car with a 5-year-old, a 2-year-old, a cat and a guinea pig. Do I really need to tell you why?

So developing strong characters is a very important part of plotting your novel. In my next blog I'll tell more about how Bill and I developed our plot.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Critique of Science Fiction comedy

On a nameless planet populated with pay by the hour motels where politicians and sports stars
took beautiful women to escape the public eye, Ug Lulank, President of the Universal Council,
sat on the bed in his motel room. He was a Quinikian, a race known for their elastic, hairless blue
bodies and flat faces. Ug contemplated the coffee stain on his yellow slacks while humming his
planet’s anthem, which sounded similar to a synthesized version of “Smoke on the Water.” Half
way through the second chorus there was a knock on the paint chipped door. “Come in,” he
answered.

Into the room walked a figure of legend. She was a short dumpy woman in a dark brown dress.
Her green eyes and facial features were sharp, and stringy red hair hung about her shoulders.
During her lifetime she had become known throughout the universe for many things, but the
thing she was most noted for was her artful practice of law.

“Ima Swindler, how are you?” Ug greeted his new guest.

“Alright given the circumstances,” the small woman said, sidestepping sticky spots on the carpet,
“thanks for meeting me here Ug.”

“No problem. Though I don't know why we couldn’t have met in a more conventional place like
the UC headquarters or my summer home on Survath 7?”

Ima hopped into a chair and looked solemnly at the president, “Because there’s too much
security in those places, I don’t want to be overheard by the wrong people.”

“Overheard? Ima, is everything okay?”

“No.”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s a long story, do you have time?”

“If I didn’t I wouldn’t have flown half way across the universe to meet you here. Now, tell me
what’s wrong?”

Ima sighed, “The universe is in danger.”

Ug laughed, “The universe is always in danger. Ever since God appeared and uttered the words
‘Let there be Chaos,’ danger has been part of it.”

“I know but this is not your typical mad scientist trying to blow everything up or a large space
worm trying to eat everything in existence, this is serious. A powerful force is at work that can
bring about the universe‘s destruction.”

“Really,” the president was intrigued, “what kind of force is it?”

“Galacorp.”

“Galacorp?” Ug cocked a bony ridge above his eye that served as his eyebrow, “What does a
supermarket chain have to do with the universe‘s destruction?”

The small woman reached down the neck of her shirt into her bra, withdrew a packet of papers,
and tossed them to Ug.

The Quinikan’s orange eyes scanned the words on the first page.

Galacorp Corporation Incorporated
Department of Superfluous Research Number 6
Experiment 13,742,334.257 ½
L.U.V. and its Effects on a Living Being’s Senses
Ug flipped through the first few pages of scientific jargon used to boggle the logical mind, and
got to the part that explained the experiment. A new essence was created by combining the
pheromones of a Pernorgian mongoose and a Norshikian wallagag, a ferocious 10 foot pink and
purple striped armadillo. If the essence, called Luperelemen Uoxenobop Vylotramadon (L.U.V.
for short), was applied to an individual, that individual would magically appear attractive to the
opposite sex. If the essence was fused into a garment and that garment worn, the same result would occur. The next several pages showed pictures of men’s and women’s designer clothing said to contain the essence. On the final page were plans to release the new line of essence treated clothing in one of Galacorp’s stores. When the location of the release was about to be mentioned the topic of the article changed to a scientific explanation of why polka punk was both a legitimate musical genre and fashion design.

“Interesting,” Ug said in mock excitement, “Do you think Galacorp is taking pre-orders?”

Ug’s guest looked daggers at him, “If you’re not going to take this seriously Mr. President, I’ll
take my leave.”

The president made a calming gesture, “I’m sorry Ima but none of this sounds dangerous. In fact it’s exciting. For a reasonable price everyone in the universe can look beautiful. Social stigma
based around looks would practically disappear. Most importantly, females won’t have to spend
hours a day in front of a mirror applying makeup. They could just throw one of these garments on and be ready to go. Something like this might hurt the makeup industry, but that’s business for you. Unless you’re worried about the well being of the makeup industry, I don’t see why you
dragged me out here.”

Ima reached into her bra again and pulled out another packet of papers and handed them to Ug.
This packet was a scientific report that explained a side effect of the L.U.V. essence. If the
essence infused garment was donned by an individual, it caused the wearer and those within 10
feet of the wearer to become insatiably sexually aroused. In one experiment, a grandmother of 75 was asked to wear a dress fabricated with the essence, then was escorted into a laboratory where several male scientists were employed at different tasks. The end result was three million dollars worth of broken equipment, several disheveled, tired scientists, and one very happy grandmother.

Ug whooped with laughter, “I see how that could be a problem! But with approval from the
Intergalactic Exchange Commission and a proper warning label, there’s nothing in the books
against it.”

The lawyer reached into her bra again and procured another packet for the Quinikian to read.
This document covered the marketing strategy of the new product line. L.U.V. apparel would be
introduced on a planet where sex was constantly indulged in. The product’s release date was
during the sixth cycle on the fifteenth revolution, only five cycles away according to the
visiwatch on his wrist.

When the location of the release was about to be discussed, the subject of the document changed
to the use of sponges in intergalactic polo. Ug's face wrinkled in confusion, causing it to shrink to
half its size. “Why is it that every time the location of the product’s released is about to be
mentioned something completely random comes up?”

“Because Galacorp put an encryption program in place to keep someone accessing the
information on the outside from finding out where the product will be released.”

The president was utterly confused, “Why? How did you get this information anyway?”

The lawyer smiled, “Glad you asked, let me start from the beginning. A few nights ago I was
dreaming about a lovely day on the beach. As I was soaking up sun, the skies went black and a
small gray figure with red eyes appeared beside me.”

“The Oracle?” The president’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor.

“The one and only. She told me to come and see her on Zerkoz as soon as possible; my eyes
jerked open and within a few hours I was in her cave on Mount Veluspa. Over tea, she told me
about a vision she had a few nights back that had to do with the universe‘s destruction. She was
sure that some great power was at work to destroy the universe, but she didn‘t know what it was.

I thanked her and told her I would look into it.”

“I was about to leave when she fell into a trance and said the words Galacorp, essence, and
fashion in a deep voice, muttered incoherently for a few minutes, then came to and told me
goodbye. Irked by her outburst, I rushed to Galacorp's main headquarters on Robil 11 to
investigate.”

“I hacked into Galacorp’s data systems and found the information I gave you. I also found this,”
reaching into her bra, Ima retrieved a piece of paper and handed it to Ug. It was an e-mail that
company CEO Doogle McFard sent to the Vice President in charge of sales. It was mainly full of
last quarter's sales figures and a recipe for French onion soup. However the last few sentences
caught the president’s eye.

…Do not worry about the side effect of our new product, and the result that the side effect causes. I already have a plan to take care of that problem. Right now just worry about getting that product out! I can see big profits and a BIG raise in your future.
Your friend,
Doogle McFard
Galacorp CEO


Dindy's Critique:
One of the first things I note about this is in the very first line-- a bit of description that I
absolutely love: "nameless planet populated with pay by the hour motels where politicians and
sports stars took beautiful women to escape the public eye." This draws me into the passage, and
makes me want to read more, however then we run into some problems.

First we have some classic violations of Show Don't Tell:
He was a Quinikian, a race known for their elastic, hairless blue bodies and flat faces

If this is important to the story, it can be worked naturally into it somewhere else. As it is, it
seems to be there for one reason only-- to make the point that the president is not human.
Into the room walked a figure of legend. She was a short dumpy woman in a dark brown dress. Her green eyes and facial features were sharp, and stringy red hair hung about her shoulders. During her lifetime she had become known throughout the universe for many things, but the thing she was most noted for was her artful practice of law.

Most of this comes across as description just for the sake of description. Again, if it is important
to the story it can be worked in gradually as the story progresses.

And we have some info dumping (using dialogue to give a bunch of details that
may or may not be important at one time.):
The lawyer smiled, “Glad you asked, let me start from the beginning. A few nights ago I was
dreaming about a lovely day on the beach. As I was soaking up sun, the skies went black and a
small gray figure with red eyes appeared beside me.”

“The Oracle?” The president’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor.

“The one and only. She told me to come and see her on Zerkoz as soon as possible; my eyes jerked open and within a few hours I was in her cave on Mount Veluspa. Over tea, she told me about a vision she had a few nights back that had to do with the universe‘s destruction. She was sure that some great power was at work to destroy the universe, but she didn‘t know what it was. I thanked her and told her I would look into it.”

“I was about to leave when she fell into a trance and said the words Galacorp, essence, and fashion in a deep voice, muttered incoherently for a few minutes, then came to and told me goodbye. Irked by her outburst, I rushed to Galacorp's main headquarters on Robil 11 to investigate.”

“I hacked into Galacorp’s data systems and found the information I gave you. I also found this,”

How much of the above info is really important? The bit about the Oracle talking about some
power about to destroy the universe is repetitious- we already went through that when Ima first
entered the president's room. (As an aside, I would use a name other than the Oracle as that has a strong association with The Matrix movies.) The whole purpose of this seems to be to give Ima a reason to hack into Galacorp's data systems and get the information.

More info dumping:
“No problem. Though I don't know why we couldn’t have met in a more conventional place like the UC headquarters or my summer home on Survath 7?”

Ima hopped into a chair and looked solemnly at the president, “Because there’s too much security in those places, I don’t want to be overheard by the wrong people.”

“Overheard? Ima, is everything okay?”

“No.”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s a long story, do you have time?”

“If I didn’t I wouldn’t have flown half way across the universe to meet you here. Now, tell me what’s wrong?”

This passage uses 7 paragraphs to tell us that the president has a summer home on Surgvath 7 and that he flew halfway across the universe to meet Ima. Assuming that either of these bits of
information is important to the story, taking 7 paragraphs to give us that info is wasteful and
boring.

There are also come continuity issues:
On the one hand, Ug is "a Quinikian, a race known for their elastic, hairless blue bodies and flat
faces" and on the other, he has "a bony ridge above his eye." (If he has a bony ridge above his
eye, then he doesn't have a flat face.)

In addition, when Ima enters the hotel room she is wearing a brown dress but when she starts
drawing papers out of her bra she has changed into a shirt.

I took the liberty of rewriting the passage. I tried to tighten things up a bit, remove some
of the redundancies and continuity errors, and eliminate the info dumping. I also tried
to show instead of tell. I tried to use the original words as much as possible although occasionally I did slip some of my own words in there.

Dindy's rewrite:
On a nameless planet populated with pay-by-the-hour motels where politicians and sports stars take beautiful women to escape the public eye, Ug Lulank, President of the Universal Council, contemplated the coffee stain on his yellow slacks while humming his planet’s anthem, Quinikia Forever. Half way through the second chorus there was a knock on the paint chipped door of his room. Running his fingers over his hairless, blue head, Ug stood up. "Open," he called.

Galaxy-renowned lawyer Ima Swindler clumped into the room, sidestepping a suspicious looking spot on the carpet and brushing aside Ug's proffered hand of greeting.

“Ima, how are you?”

“Alright, given the circumstances,” Ima hopped up onto a chair and squirmed to get comfortable on a seat clearly meant for larger bottoms.

"What circumstances?" Ug settled across from her at the table and tried to avoid staring at her bosom, which seemed larger than usual. "And why all the clock and dagger stuff? Why couldn't we have met at Council Headquarters?"

Ima sighed, “The universe is in danger.”

Ug laughed, “The universe is always in danger. Ever since God appeared and uttered the words ‘Let there be Chaos,’ danger has been part of it.”

“This is serious," Ima shook her head vigourously, her stringy red hair brushing across her shoulders. "A powerful force is at work that can bring about the universe‘s destruction.”

“Really?” Ug cocked the bony ridge above his eye and tried not to smile. “What kind of force is it this time? A mad scientist trying to blow everything up or a large space worm trying to eat everything in existence”

“Galacorp.” Ima pronounced firmly.

“Galacorp? What does a supermarket chain have to do with the universe‘s destruction?”

Ima reached into the scooped neck of her brown dress and withdrew a packet of papers, tossing them across the table at Ug.

"Department of Superfluous Research Number 6, Experiment 13,742,334.257 ½, L.U.V. and its Effects on a Living Being’s Senses," he read aloud. He lifted his orange eyes to Ima's face. "What the plipperget is this?"

"Keep reading."

"Who can read this? It's just jargon," Ug flipped through pages, stopping occasionally to read a word or two aloud. "Phermones? A Pernorgian mongoose and a Norshikian wallagag? What's a Norshikian wallagag?"

"It's like a Terran armadillo except it's ten feet high and has pink and purple stripes."

Ug set the papers down. "So what is the significance of all this, Ima?"

"According to this report, if the essence, called Luperelemen Uoxenobop Vylotramadon (L.U.V. for short), is applied to an individual, that individual will magically appear attractive to the opposite sex, and if the essence is fused into a garment and that garment worn, the same result will occur."

“Interesting,” Ug said in mock excitement, “Do you think Galacorp is taking pre-orders?”

Ima narrowed her green eyes, “If you’re not going to take this seriously Mr. President, I’ll take my leave.”

The president made a calming gesture, “I’m sorry, Ima but you're going to have to explain why this is so dangerous. It sounds exciting to me."

She snorted and pointed at some lines on the report with a stumpy index finger. "Look at where they plan to release this."

Ug followed the print at her finger and then picked up the paper to look at more closely. The blue of his face darkened in puzzlement as he read aloud, "The new line of essence-treated clothing is scheduled for limited release in conclusion we can state that polka punk is both a legitimate musical genre and a type of fashion design." He lowered the report slowly. "What does polka punk have to do with-"

Without answering him, Ima reached into her neckline again and pulled out another packet of papers. She held them out to Ug.

"What's this one say?" he said wearily, his mind boggling at the thought of looking at more scientific jargon.

"This report tells about a side effect of the L.U.V. essence. If the essence infused garment is donned by an individual, it causes the wearer and those within 10 feet of the wearer to become insatiably sexually aroused." Her voice held a tone of self righteous indignation.

"Okay, so wearing the garment makes people horny. Really Ima, if this is all you've got, I've got better uses for my time."

Ima snapped, "In one experiment, a grandmother of 75 was asked to wear a dress fabricated with the essence, then was escorted into a laboratory where several male scientists were employed at different tasks. The end result was three million dollars worth of broken equipment, several disheveled, tired scientists--"

"--And one very happy grandmother!" Ug whooped with laughter, “I see how that could be a problem! But with approval from the Intergalactic Exchange Commission and a proper warning label, there’s nothing in the books against it.”

The lawyer reached down into her bra again.

"How much stuff does she have in there?" Ug wondered, looking at her increasingly flattened chest.

This time she appeared to have to search rather deeply, but finally she procured another packet for the president to read.

"Marketing Strategy," he read aloud. "The L.U.V apparel will be introduced on a planet with a high incidence of sexual behavior. The scheduled release date is—" Ug glanced at the visiwatch on his wrist—"Only five cycles away. Okay Ima," Ug tossed the final report on top of the other two. "So explain to me how this will destroy the galaxy."

"Look at the release location."

Ug sighed, but obediently looked. "It is recommended that the L.U.V. apparel be released at our conclusion is that sponges not be used in intergalactic polo." His face wrinkled, shrinking to half its size. “Why is it that every time the location of the products release is about to be mentioned, something completely random comes up?”

“Because Galacorp put an encryption program in place to keep someone accessing the
information on the outside from finding out where the product will be released.”

The president was utterly confused, “Why would Galacorp do such a thing? And how did you get this information anyway?”

The lawyer looked slightly nervous for the first time. "We-ell, the Orpacle summoned me to her cave on Zerkoz-"

The president's jaw nearly dropped to the floor. "The Orpacle?"

"Yes. She summoned me and while I was there, she had a vision-"

"She always has a vision," the president muttered. "She's two pickles short an aldorian maxleburger."

Ima resolutely continued, "I didn't understand most of what she said, but at the end of her trance her voice got real deep. She muttered for a bit and then I could make out three words, 'Galacorp,' 'essence,' and 'fashion.'" Ima sat back and waited expectantly.

Ug shrugged. "So she then spit out all these reports that you had stuffed in your bra?"

"No!" Ima snapped. "I warpedoed to Galacorp Corporate Headquarters on Robil 11 to
investigate. I had to place a few bribes here and there but it wasn't too hard to hack into their system and get those reports. And I found one more thing." Ima's hand went back down into the
front of her dress.

Ug rubbed his hand over his eyes and wondered how she had any room in there for her boobs.

Ima retrieved a piece of paper and held it out to Ug. Just as he reached for it, she changed her mind and snatched it away from him. She read it aloud. "To Blippir Cargledoo, Vice President of Sales.

"…Do not worry about the side effect of our new product. I already have a plan to take care of that problem. Right now just worry about getting that product out! I can see big profits and a BIG raise in your future.
From,
Doogle McFard
GALACORP CEO"


So folks, go ahead and critique my rewrite. How would you improve on what I did, or on
what the original writer did?