It is always interesting when you see a new writer who hasn’t really read or written much fiction complaining about their stuff not getting many sales. I don’t care how much you polish it, how much editing you get done on it, it probably is not very good.
But hey that is not telling you to give up, it is only telling you that you got a lot more practice before you get decent. One artist said, you have a million crappy pictures in you, the sooner you get them out of you the better.
Writers have often said that we all have a million words of crap in us. And that is probably true to a greater or lesser extent. Of course that is dependent on how much reading we have done and how much writing we have done.
Ray Bradbury gives a guaranteed formula that will turn you into writer. Write a short story a week and read a short story every day. That’s it. Now, I am going to dedicate my next year to doing just that. Beginning today, I am going to follow Bradbury’s plan. A year from now, I should be a decent writer.
I am really enjoying Sanderson’s course. He systematically goes through the elements of fiction and provides a solid foundation for understanding each component. In this lecture he goes into Character. He centers his understanding of character around three components. Your protagonist should be Active, Competent, and Likeable.
The components of a well rounded character, according to Sanderson are:
Likeability means that the reader sees something of herself in the character. It includes giving real life concerns to the character. So if your character is a student then give them the desire to get homework done or something from real life.
You should also give the character something that she or he really wants that is not connected to the story. He wants a raise or she wants a new car. Whatever it is, this provides a realness to the character.
Give the character fears, kindness, and friends. Finally, when all else fails, make the character get picked on. This helps to provide an instant connection to many of us who have felt such things in our lives.
The character should be active and not passive. If the character is not active, then things will not get done. Make them have something that they are passionate and capable of doing.
Make them competent about something. If they are not competent in anything than the character will not provide the wish fulfillment that is needed by the reader.
How to Make a Round Character
After talking about these three components, Sanderson then moved on to talk about how to make a character “Round” versus “flat.”
You do this by giving them flaws. These are things that the character must overcome in the story. This is in contrast to handicaps which are not going to be solved in the story.
The character must have passions that are greater than the story world. You also might give them some quirks, but be careful about this. Do not let their quirks define them, they should always be greater than their quirks.
Also you want to give them experiences.
Finally, Never let the role that the character plays define them. In addition remember to ensure that every character is the hero of his own story. He or she is on a quest to do whatever that character wishes to do. Always give a sense of that even though you cannot delve into it.
In short, you make a great character by making it appear that that character has a life outside of your story. And that character is active in the story.
Ray Bradbury gives writers some rules to follow to become a good writer. His first rule is reminds me of Heinlein’s rule.
1. Rule One Write One Short Story a Week
Bradbury says it is impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row. If you keep it up, you will eventually write a great story.
In addition, Bradbury believes that short stories are better than novels for you to start because you will have a sense of accomplishment that propels you forward.
2. Go on a 1000 day reading program.
Bradbury suggests that you read 1 short story, 1 poem, and 1 essay from various fields every day. He suggests essays from Aldus Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, and Lauren Eisley. In addition, he suggests poems by Pope, Shakespere, and Frost.
Short stories should come from pepole like John Collier, Edith Warton, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Mattheson, John Chever, and others.
He says that at the end of the 1000 days your mind will be full of metaphors which is the stuff of great writing.
3. Get Rid of friends who do not believe in you.
You do not need want any negativity around you. You will succeed so why have people around you that will tell you the opposite. There is no place for Frenemys.
4. Watch Old Movies
5. Write for joy
Do not write for money. Do not write what you think will sell. Write what you want to write. He says that the solution to writers block is writing what you want to write not trying to make a statement or trying to write something that is deep and profound.
Write what you want to read and be true to your own fears, hopes, and desires.
6. Make a few lists of 10
Make a list of 10 things you love and write about it. Make a list of 10 people you love and write about them.
Make a list of 10 things you hate and write about it. Make a list of 10 people you hate and write about them. Bradbury suggests that you kill them.
Make a list of 10 things you hope.
Make a list of ten things you fear and write about it.
7. Type out anything that comes to your mind until the page starts to take characters and they take over.
Do not ask what will I do. Ask who am I. Use word association and just start writing.
The point is to write who are you.
8. Surprise yourself what you will write.
To summarize, Bradbury’s suggestions to writers is write what you want, read plenty of good literature and seek joy.
In this lesson Holly Lisle attempts to connect us with our muse. She tells you to speak to it, ask questions of it, and write down what it gives you. It really seems pretty mystical and maybe it works. I have had some difficulties with it this time and in other attempts at going through the course.
However, this time, I am not going to allow issues to hold me back from continuing the course to completion. I have completed 2 graduate degrees and one undergraduate degree and I have learned that you will not get everything that is taught to you. So I will simply finish the lessons as if I did it her way and move on.
I know, I know, some folks have told me that that is not the thing to do, but I know me, and I will either be stuck here and never complete it, or I will move forward ignoring the parts that I just can’t get into.
In Lecture four Brandon Sanderson talks about another element of fiction. Here he zeroes in on plot.
Sanderson begins by describing what he means by plot. There are two fundamental pieces to Sanderson’s idea of plot. These are: Promises and Sense of Progress. Beginning as soon as possible the author makes some promises to the reader about what the book is about.
In addition, The author provides the reader, as the story advances, a sense that the story is progressing to these promises. In addition, that the story is advancing towards the character’s goals.
How do you give this sense? Well Sanderson provides some pretty common plotting techniques, as well as some techniques that may not be as common.
The Three Act Structure is the first methodology that is provided. The three act formula is broken up into three components. There is the setup which is approximately 1/4 of the book. There is the Worsening Action phase which is approximately 1/2 the book. The final phase is a Triumph phase that is approximately 1/4 of the book.
Another approach is Heroes Journey. Here you follow a number of well defined steps as the hero goes step by step from her call to the action and finally to returning home changed.
Sanderson emphasizes that this is not a checklist, but a description of plots. You simply write the story you want to write and do not worry about these artificial structures until maybe later in the writing process.
Progress by Yes and No
Another means of progress is the yes-but and no-and structure. You take a problem and you have the character attempt to solve the problem. The solution will be yes-but or no-and. Yes-but means that the character succeeds but it unleashes another problem that is worse than the original one. No-And means that the character fails and this causes more problems.
Every scene is one or the other until you get to the final scene and simply answer yes or no.
Now Sanderson provided a helpful mechanism for putting together a complex plot. He talks about how any story can and should consist of a number of interlocking plots. These are:
Mystery – Your story may include a mystery component. This is a plot about information. You show progress by the discovery of information and clues.
Relationship – This is the romance, or bromance component. This is a plot about two people learning to like each other. You show advancement here by showing moments together and demonstrating the changes in the relationship.
Travel-log – This is simply following points on a map. The plot is advancing simply because of the steps. You will probably have a map in the front of the book.
Big problem or heist – Generic plot where you are simply conquering a problem. Break the problem into clear components to provide the sense of progress.
Episodic – Just a number of disconnected episodes. Might be difficult to provide the sense of progress, but because it is open ended it could go on indefinitely.
Here are a couple other plots he didn’t go into, but spoke of briefly: Apprentice and Rebellion.
So How Do you Create A Story Plot?
Sanderson provides what seems like a cool method for creating a story plot. You take a number of these plots and define them step by step. You then weave each one together to create a story.
I am in the middle of using Sanderson’s method right now. It seems like it will provide a more complex plot than I usually create, which is cool. I will let you know how it goes.
I purchased the “How To Think Sideways” system from Holly Lisle a couple years ago. Now it is time to actually finish the system. Holly Lisle is a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Author who has been both in traditional and self publishing. This 6 month course is supposed to get you ready to actually have a career in writing.
I paid for it, so I probably need to go ahead and work my way through the course. Here I will provide updates of my progress. In previous attempts, I got to lesson 6. But now, I will skim lessons one and two and then start in lesson 3.
This lesson seems to have three goals. The first goal is to get you acclimated to the course. Something it doesn’t do too well because the course is totally unlike the next lessons. If you buy this course, don’t leave after lesson one, it does get more practical as time goes on.
The second goal is to give you tools to get started writing. She provides a couple of exercises that in my mind just can be reduced to “Sit down and start writing….ANYTHING!!!” I don’t really have a big problem with the issue of sitting down to write and nothing at all comes, but if you do, these exercises may or may not help.
The third goal appears to be to provide the student with something to help her overcome procrastination. While I do have an issue with procrastination at times, this help kind of hit me the wrong way. I do recognize how they can be helpful to some, but they really didn’t help me all that much. Maybe because I don’t have a problem with perfectionism or some of the other issues she directly attacks in this part of the lesson.
In the end, lesson one is a theory intensive lesson that I realized if I didn’t skip this time, I wouldn’t go very far in the course, so bye bye lesson one.
Lesson 2 essentially takes the mind map concept and has you apply that to 6 questions. When you brainstorm answers to these 6 fundamental questions you will gain an insight to what you need to write.
This is a very helpful concept to me. One of the most common questions many people ask on writer’s forums is “What should I write?” And the answer often given is “Write what you like to read.” That is a good answer but often it becomes reduced to genre.
For example someone might say, “I like to read Urban Fantasy, so I should read Urban Fantasy.”
OK, but what parts of Urban Fantasy appeals to you? What elements of Urban Fantasy turn you on? And if those elements are in other genres what hinders you from writing in those as well?
The cool thing about Lisle’s application of the Mind Map methodology to determination of writer’s interests is that you learn the “elements” that need to be a part of all things you write.
I’m excited about finally finishing this course, and along with Sanderson’s Videos, hopefully start moving towards the dream of becoming a writer.
This lecture is the first one on Prose and Style. Sanderson talks on such issues as viewpoint and conveying background and setting information smoothly.
Sanderson emphasizes that if you can convey information naturally in your prose then you will probably eventually sell your book. He ignores issues of “voice” and says that it will come with time.
Sanderson begins the lecture speaking on the “Learning Curve of your story. How much information is needed by your reader to understand the story? In addition how fast does your reader need to get this information. He provides a number of ways to convey information naturally in your story.
How To Convey Information Naturally
Start Normal then Transition – Here you start in your character’s normal life. This gets the reader acclimated to your story. You then have the big transition into your “fantasy world.” An example would be the Matrix, where Neo starts in his normal life, and then after taking the right pill he goes down the rabbit hole into the new world. This method requires little information to get started. The reader is invested before the hard work of understanding a new world even comes.
Watson Character – Here you have a character that is there largely to provide a vehicle to give information to the reader while you are explaining things to the “Watson Character.” This allows the main character to tell things to the reader in dialog rather than as a narrative block of data from the narrator.
Limit Viewpoint Characters – The more characters there are the more information will need to be conveyed. Limit information by using first person viewpoint or third limited.
Start with a Familiar Event – The example given was maybe like a family dinner. Even though the dinner may take place in a fantastic world, just the concept of a family sitting around at a dinner helps the reader to become oriented to the story before tackling some of the more difficult components of the new world you have created.
Sanderson kind of reiterated these ideas by talking about how to handle info dumps. These are to put it in dialog. Another way to handle this is to show and not tell.
Sanderson moves on to issues of style by quoting a prominent writing teacher by saying that every sentence should do at least 2 of 3 things it should
I wanted to add in a thought from another writing instructor that I have listened to on this subject of style. Dean Wesley Smith said that every 2 or 3 pages we should hit all five senses in our writing. So we should talk about what the character sees, smells, hears, feels, and tastes.
Sanderson emphasized that “voice” comes with time and practice, but that following these points can help us become better writers sooner.
In this lecture Sanderson provides the fundamental elements of story. He breaks it up into five. First there is Plot, Setting, and Character. These elements are held together by Conflict. The final element is prose. After describing these elements he then gave an example of brainstorming for stories.
He defines Plot as a promise to the reader, questions, and some idea of progress. Setting is the laws of the universe that you are creating. You emphasize the things that are different about this world.
A good character is sympathetic in that she is like us. In addition, the character is active in the story. He “protags.” In other words he is active in forwarding the story. Finally the character is confident.
You find conflict in the interaction between character, setting, and/or plot.
Finally, prose includes how you tell the story. This will include elements of style, “floweryness,” and tense.
The course will spend a couple lectures on each of these elements.
Now here is the approach that he takes in creating stories. First, stat with a character and/or a setting. Then you just start playing with them. Here is and example:
First, what is the age and gender of the protagonist? What is his or her job? What is the genre of the story? Now, let’s give him something he is hiding. Now start filling in the details of the story.
Let’s say we have a 36 year old male preacher. Let’s say it is an urban fantasy. OK, simply a preacher might be boring so let’s liven it up. Let’s make him a wizard. Maybe he is a member of an ancient society of demon hunters. What is he hiding? Let’s say he is mad at God, or maybe he wants to quit, but can’t for some reason. Maybe he stole money from his church and he is going to get fired, but the only way out of the society is death.
OK, so now we have the beginnings of a story. Now we would move to setting and start to fill that in by looking specifically about what is different about this world. Let’s say this world is like our own only demons and angels are active in battle, but they need some help or aid from human beings.
Sanderson suggests that you start by getting 2 character and think about 1 plot hook and 1 setting hook. These hooks are big pieces that affect or cause the story to move forward.
Sanderson has provided a good way to describe story and how to put a good one together. I look forward to how he fleshes out his understanding in the lectures.
Brandon Sanderson has posted his lectures for his English 321 Course from BYU. You can access them on YouTube.Com. I’m gonna work my way through the 14 videos.
The first lecture was about administrative issues for the student’s of the course at BYU. I am not formally in the course so this information was not helpful. I will create a 35 – 50K word novella as I work my way through the course. Each week, I will watch one of the videos. I am not in a writer’s group so I can’t complete that part of the course, but I will post these documents to this website.
Sanders, in the first lecture gave an interesting metaphor for understanding writers and distinguishing between “Plotters” versus “Pantsers.” Sanders spoke of those who start writing with little planning as Gardeners, versus those who finish intricate plots before beginning as “Architects.”
The gardeners can have difficulty sustaining progress. In addition, they can have problematic endings. However, they have vibrant characters who are alive.
In contrast, the architects can have characters who slavishly follow the plot. But the architects end up with a strong under-girding of plot throughout the whole story.
Sanderson argues that we choose between the two based on the story’s needs. Many writers, according to Sanders, are naturally inclined to be either architects or gardeners.
This is a nice metaphor as we begin this course. I think I am somewhere in between as most of us are.