After the Writer’s Conference

You returned home energized after attending a writer’s conference and you know that feeling will fade, but you wish it wouldn’t. Are there any techniques for maintaining your enthusiasm level?

Of course there are, and you happened onto the very blog post that reveals them.

Post-Conference ElixerLet’s backtrack. After months of laboring in solitude, coming up with ideas all by yourself, and typing away at manuscripts alone, you go to a writer’s conference.

While there, you attend panels and hear published authors discuss tricks of the trade. You hear editors and publishers talk about current trends in your genre. You hobnob with writers and readers, bounce book ideas off other people, discover websites and software that might help you with your next story.

Heady stuff! Your mind is abuzz with plans and notions. You can’t wait to put all that information to use. This conference has revealed to you the hidden secret of getting published, and you’re convinced that this time, at this moment, and armed with this knowledge, you have finally cracked the cypher and will write your masterpiece and the world will stand in awe of the miracle that is you.

Back at home now. Sitting at the computer, your fingers are hovering over the keyboard. You’re ready for greatness.

Really ready.

Any moment now.

But something happened. Someone opened a mental drain valve and the fervor has flowed away. The passion has ebbed and leaked out.

It isn’t fair! One moment you held the key to immortality in your hands, and the next it’s gone, and there’s only you and an unhelpful blinking cursor again. Along with a hungry cat, or a dog that wants its walk, perhaps.

Sadly, there’s no concoction you can drink to restore the zeal you had at the conference. There’s no Excitement Elixir, no Talent Tonic, no Passion Potion. Top scientists are at work on the problem and may someday achieve a breakthrough, but for now you’re pretty much out of luck.

Except…

I have some ideas for—at least partially—restoring that feeling:

  • Review your conference literature and notes.
  • Write descriptions of your favorite conference moments, and what you learned.
  • Using those descriptions, notes, and brochures to write down an action plan of things you’d like to try out.
  • Whenever you get stuck, blocked, or depressed about your writing, review your conference notes and descriptions.
  • E-mail any contacts you met at the conference, and engage with them.
  • Join a critique group.
  • Join a writer’s group.
  • Take a course in creative writing.
  • Read a book about writing.

If all of those fail, well, you can always register for the next writer’s conference. That will at least restart the cycle, beginning with the thrill of anticipation.

It was a great conference, though, wasn’t it? We can’t bottle the feeling, but we can at least recall it and relive it in our minds, and try other things to rekindle it. Though I’m no Snake Oil salesman, I hope you derive some benefit from the ideas you get from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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I’ll Never Write As Well As They Do

It’s easy for your favorite authors to intimidate you. When you grow up enjoying reading, and when you study fiction by the world’s best writers in school, it’s natural to put them on a pedestal. They are geniuses, titans, specially gifted demigods with an ability beyond your understanding.

At some point, you might be tempted to try writing fiction yourself. Immediately you reject the notion out of hand. In your mind, you compare yourself to those great authors and dismiss the idea of creating any fictional work. Impossible. Laughable. Pretentious. You’ll never write as well as they do.

I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before, but I’d like to explore the problem in greater depth.

Just for fun, let’s give our intimidating scribblers some names. You have your own favorite, famous novelists in mind, but we’ll say that you idolize Bes Werdsmither, Gray Trighter, and Rhea Noun Dauther.

Okay, not the funniest puns, but they’ll do.

When I mentioned this issue in a previous blog post, I made two points:

  1. You can’t know today, before you begin writing, how you’ll eventually stack up against your imagined pantheon of Bes, Gray, and Rhea. Remember, all three of them started out as unknowns, too, like you are now.
  2. Even if you’re right, and you never end up writing as well as Bes, Gray, or Rhea, remember that there’s room in the world for lesser-known writers. You don’t have to aim for eternal fame or a mansion on your own island. You can still write your own stories, reach some readers, and make a little money.

Great writer comparisonEven though you worship Bes, Gray, and Rhea, I’d advise you not to try to imitate them, anyway. For one thing, why should readers read your copy-cat stories when they can purchase the real thing? Also, it’s best to allow your own inner voice to emerge, rather than attempt to channel some famed author.

Sure, you adore the characters, style, settings, and plots of Bes, Gray, and Rhea, but I suggest you strike out in a different, but related, direction. Write in their genre if your interests reside there, but make up your own characters, style, settings, and plots.

If you find some success as a writer someday, I assure you it won’t be because you copied someone else. It will be due to the separate and distinct course you charted, or the path your own muse led you along.

By the way, when your muse does whisper something outrageous (and she will), listen to her. She may implore you to write a story quite different from anything in the bibliographies of Bes, Gray, and Rhea. The muse might pull you in a strange and new direction you never imagined. Don’t ignore her. She’s your inner creativity, the voice of your soul calling you, so don’t hang up.

You can still enjoy novels by Bes, Gray, and Rhea, without dreaming of writing like those three. Your goal, one you should visualize, is to become the best author you can. It’s a process of continual improvement.

My personal geniuses, titans, and demigods are Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. As readers of my blog know, my stories aren’t like theirs at all. I’ve taken off in a different direction, a unique course steered by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Shifting the Narrative Arc

That adage about a picture being worth a thousand words really resonates with me. I like pictures and diagrams. It would be great to capture the structure of a story plot with a picture, wouldn’t it?

Luckily, I don’t have to invent one. That’s been done. And redone and redone. Search the web for “plot arcs” and you’ll see many, many ways to depict story plots. I even offered my own picture here.

Today I’ll pick a few representative plot arcs and discuss how they’ve changed through time. First, let me introduce various writers who analyzed plots and came up with their own terms for the various events and phases of a story:

  • Gustav Freytag: Exposition, Inciting Incident/Complication, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution, Dénouement
  • Mark Flanagan: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution
  • Nigel Watts: Stasis, Trigger, The quest, Surprise, Critical choice, Climax, Reversal, Resolution
  • Rob Sanders: Problem, Obstacle 1, Obstacle 2, Obstacle 3, Black Moment, Resolution, Change/Growth
  • H.R. D’Costa: Inciting Incident, First Act Break (25%), Midpoint, Point of Commitment, All Is Lost (75%), Climax, Resolution (applicable to movies)

As you can see, different people use different terms. I’ve tried to line them up in the following chart:

Gustav Freytag Mark Flanagan Nigel Watts Rob Sanders H.R. D’Costa
Exposition Exposition Stasis
Inciting Incident/ Complication Trigger Problem Inciting Incident
Rising Action Rising Action The quest Obstacle 1 First Act Break (25%)
Surprise Obstacle 2 Midpoint (50%)
Critical Choice Obstacle 3 Point of Commitment
Black Moment All is Lost (75%)
Climax Climax Climax Climax
Falling Action Falling Action Reversal
Resolution Resolution Resolution Resolution Resolution
Dénouement Change/Growth

It’s a rough alignment, I admit. What I find interesting is the shift from the way Gustav Freytag depicted the plot arc (his is termed a plot pyramid).

Freytag diagramNote the symmetry. That’s what he was trying to illustrate, that exposition is the counterpart of dénouement, inciting incident is the counterpart to resolution, and so on. His pyramid clearly depicts which terms refer to specific events, and which to time periods.

The weakness of Freytag’s arc is that it might lead a writer to believe these are equal chunks of time (if time is the horizontal (‘x’) axis. More, if Freytag meant for the vertical (‘y’) axis to represent excitement or tension, is it true that the story comes all the way back down to the low excitement of the beginning?

Modern attempts to correct these weaknesses are typified by this diagram of Rob Sanders’s plot arc.

Sanders diagramNote the shift to the right, indicating that you want to conclude the story rapidly after the peak of the action. Most of the time in the story is spent increasing the tension with a succession of obstacles. After the peak, end things quickly.

Also, note that the arc does not return all the way down to the same low level of tension and excitement present at the story’s beginning.

Finally, note the absence of any Exposition. The arc starts with a problem. Bang. No introduction of characters or explanation of their backgrounds. Today, authors hook the reader with a problem right away, and catch up with descriptions and backstory later, either through flashbacks or inference, or working it in via dialogue or character thoughts.

My advice is not to fixate on plot diagrams. Get the general idea of how plots work, then write your story. True, the best stories do adhere to these diagrams closely, but I’m betting the greatest authors didn’t spend much time drawing plot arcs.

A picture (of a plot arc) may well be worth a thousand words, but you’re a writer. Write the thousand words, sez:

Poseidon’s Scribe

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