Monday, March 16, 2009

Conflict Boxes

Scene Level Conflict Boxes

This month (March 2009) over on the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum in Writer's Exercises, we're talking about scene level Conflict Boxes. If you want to participate by posting an exercise and commenting on the work of others, hop on over there. Here is what we're working on:

One way to increase tension in a scene is to ensure there is an appropriate conflict lock between the scene protagonist and a scene antagonist, obstacle or opposing force. In other words, in every scene your protagonist should have a goal, and there should be some person or thing which is working in opposition to that goal.

Jennifer Crusie and Michael Hauge refer to this as a Conflict Box, and it looks something like this:

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on scenes where there is a protagonist and a scene antagonist operating in conflict. Recognize that in some scenes it may be a non-human obstacle or opposing force, but let’s ignore those scenes for now. Also note that the scene antagonist may not be the same as your story antagonist. A scene antagonist may be your protagonist’s best friend, side kick, mentor, ally, etc… or a complete stranger. The scene antagonist is simply the person who is preventing your protagonist from meeting his or her immediate goal.

Tension in scenes is increased when there is a conflict lock between the protagonist and the antagonist – when the protagonist’s attempts to achieve his/her goal directly blocks the antagonists attempts to achieve his/her goal.

In the Protagonist's row, the conflict should be the ACTION the PROTAGONIST takes to block the antagonist. In the antagonist's row, the conflict should be the ACTION the ANTAGONIST takes to block the protagonist.

Using a story we all know (and a story level rather than a scene level conflict), in the first Indiana Jones movie, the conflict lock looks like this:

You could replace the word "Conflict" with the word "Action" to show the dynamic nature of the conflict box. Conflict occurs when two character's actions block the goals of the other.
Indiana Jones’ goal of obtaining the ark is in direct conflict with the Nazi’s goal of obtaining the ark. The actions of the protagonist block the antagonist from achieving his goal, and the actions of the antagonist block the protagonist from achieving his goal.
There are a number of things to keep in mind when determining if you have a conflict lock in your scene:
  • Conflict locks are best used when the protagonist’s goals are external, concrete and specific. If your protagonist’s goal is internal, try to find a McGuffin, something physical, to stand in as the external symbol of the internal struggle. A concrete, external goal is something that the reader can visualize. It may stand-in for an inner emotion.
  • The scene antagonist should also have a goal he/she is willing to fight for. In other words, the antagonist is not just there to block the protagonist, but he/she also has something he/she wants.
  • The protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals must conflict. There is no obvious way for both to win. For one character to obtain their goal, the other character must loose. Their goals are mutually exclusive.
  • What the antagonist is doing to obtain his goal is also what he is doing to block the protagonist. If the antagonist wins, the protagonist fails.
  • The protagonist and antagonist do not have to have the same goal. For example, imagine there are two teenage siblings who share a car. The conflict lock might look like this:

  • So, either both characters have the same goal (the ark), or they have different goals which are in direct opposition (both teens want the car).
Remember, in terms of storytelling, your protagonist has a goal in the story. Each scene in your story provides either progress or a setback. Your job as the writer is to set up barriers and obstacles, through the use of antagonists, to make your protagonist’s job harder. This adds tension to your story and your scenes.
Examples:As examples of conflict lock, let’s look at some scenes from fairy tales – since most people are familiar with these.

Example 1: Goldilocks and the Three BearsSet-up: After a vigorous walk, and a filling breakfast, Goldilocks decides to take a nap.

Analysis: Papa Bear prevents Goldilocks from meeting her immediate goal – getting a nap. Goldilocks prevents Papa Bear from his goal – keep his family safe by keeping strangers out of the house. Goldilocks cannot meet her goal of getting a nap if Papa Bear won’t let her stay and sleep.

Example 2: Hansel and Gretel
Set-up: Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods. The children are hungry when they stumble upon the witch’s gingerbread house and begin to nibble.

Analysis: The witch prevents Hansel and Gretel from eating her candy house by locking them in a cage. Once locked in the cage, Hansel and Gretel have no immediate way to satisfy their hunger.

Example 3: Jack and the Beanstalk
Set-up: Jack finds some magic beans and climbs the resulting beanstalk to the giant’s home in the sky, where he steals various items of value in order to keep his mother out of poverty.

Analysis: Jacks wants to save his mother from poverty and keeps stealing from the giant. The giant wants to protect his valuable items, but Jack keeps outsmarting him. Jack only wins when the giant looses.

If you’d like to post a good example of a conflict lock, either from a book you’ve read or from a movie, feel free to post as a reply to this thread! If you disagree with something I've said above, let's discuss it!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey

Wow! Sorry for my long absence from blogging. I guess I'm either on or off.

My son was home sick today and so I decided to rent a classic - 2001: A Space Odyssey. We've talked about this movie in the past, and I thought it might be fun to watch. I was right, but certainly not in the way I expected.

I've gotten in the habit of studying the structure of movies as I watch them. It's so much easier to dissect a movie than it is a book, particularly movies I've seen before. My apologies in advance if 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of your sacred cows - you may want to stop reading now - but IMO, boy was this a good one to tear apart as an example of what NOT to do in storytelling.

The film opens with almost 5 minutes of blank screen with strange music in the background. No title screen. No opening pictures. Just blackness. Okay, it's a space movie. But 5 minutes?

Next, the film shows 20 minutes, TWENTY MINUTES (no exaggeration), of footage of men dressed up in gorilla suits and going about their typical day, until one day when a monolith appears in their neighborhood and suddenly one of them gets the great idea to use an animal bone as a weapon and promptly kills an enemy gorilla. This is progress.

Cut to the future. For another 20 minutes (NO LIE!) we see footage of special effect models - various space vehicles moving and rotating about in space, culminating with an extended scene of a pen floating about in space inside a space shuttle/airplane, while its owner SLEEPS! Riveting. Really. Even allowing for the fact that in the late 1960's, the idea of space travel was new and perhaps needed a bit more set-up than current times (for those who weren't Star Trek fans), twenty minutes was a bit much.

At this point, my 13-year-old son is about to crawl out of his skin, and I'm about ready to end my repeated assurances of "just wait, it gets better". Forty-five minutes into the film, we get our first dialogue. After a brief teleconference with his 5-year-old daughter (presumably to humanize our temporary hero - as nothing else relevant seems to come out of the discussion), our MC of the moment, Dr. Heyward Floyd, speaks to an assembly of scientists on the moon explaining in his monologue that an object estimated to be 4 million years old has been found buried on the moon. All go to investigate and are presumably killed, including the man who until now has been the main character. So much for humanizing him with the daughter. We never really had a chance to care about him as a character.

More long, drawn-out images and we eventually meet our dual heroes, and the infamous HAL. They are on a mission they know almost nothing about. Neither of them seem to have known Dr. Floyd and feel no sense of mission to solve the question of why he had to die. In fact, with the exception of the monolith tie-in, it could be an entirely different movie. Almost all the dialogue is contrived to tell the audience information that needs to be conveyed, rather than showing it in an interesting way. The dialogue is stilted - a third grader could probably be more creative. At this point, my daughter has returned from school and the two kids are rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically at the absurdity of it all. I'm wondering how the film ever became a classic, but keep saying - "Just wait... it'll all make sense in the end."

At no point is Dave (the remaining hero) ever angry at HAL for killing off the crew, nor is he nervous about his ability to succeed in disabling HAL, nor does he run into any real stumbling blocks - HAL is ineffectual at doing ANYTHING to even slow Dave down, and his pleading attempts (in monotone voice) of "Stop Dave. Stop Dave. Stop Dave. I'm afraid Dave. I'm afraid Dave. I'm afraid Dave. The world is getting dark Dave. My mind is fading Dave." had the kids laughing so hard it was hard to hear the next line of dialogue.

Next comes an extended psychedelic tunnel (perhaps another 10 minutes? I don't know the exact time. It did seem to go on and on. We were laughing too hard at this point for me to keep track). The special features included with the DVD stated they spent a lot of time with glue and solvents building the models. This explains a lot!

At this point I tell the kids, "the scene explaining it all is coming up soon now. You'll recognize it by the famous Space Odyssey music?" So we sit through weird, inexplicable scenes of Dave growing older and older in some sort of drug-induced dream, until he comes upon the monolith floating is space. Cue music.

The "famous" scene I remember that explains it all - it was all in my head. It's nowhere in the movie. I must have dreamed it. I can't even blame it on drugs - I was only 5 when the movie was released.

So, what does this movie have to teach about storytelling:

  • When the writing books say "make the beginning exciting. Draw people into the story." they don't mean you need explosions or car chases on the first page, but 20 minutes of gorilla footage may be a bit much. Gorillas get a paragraph, maybe two. Check your opening pages - are they full of gorillas?
  • Create 3-dimensional characters that your readers care about, doing things that matter to the story. A floating pen may be a cool feat in a 1968 film, but if it's not relevant to the story, nobody cares. Check your writing. Does it include beautifully written descriptions that don't really matter in the end? Either make them matter, or send them away.
  • Show your readers what's important in the story. If a strange monolith has been uncovered, take us to the archaeological dig. Letting your character tell the story in monologue is heavy handed and uninteresting. Showing takes longer than telling, but if you cut out the gorillas, you'll find you have more time to engage your readers in the story!
  • Give your characters a mission, something they want to accomplish, something they care about. Astronauts going about their daily business is not particularly exciting. Astronauts trying to solve the mystery of an unexplained monolith, and possibly save mankind - that matters. What is your MC character trying to accomplish? Is he or she simply moving through history, showing off the signs of the time, or is there a purpose to their actions?
  • Provide obstacles, real obstacles, for your character. Being shut out of the spaceship is not particularly frightening if your first solution gets you back in. Shutting down the main computer hardly seems challenging if all that happens is some useless background prattle that hardly seems distracting. What's at risk once the computer is shut down? If he can't get home anyway, what is he accomplishing by shutting HAL down - everyone else is already dead? If it's a suicide mission, should we care if the remaining character lives or dies? How about for your characters? What choices must they make, and what are the consequences of those choices? What are they giving up to reach their ultimate goal - i.e., saving the world.
  • What's it all about? Make the end matter. My mind has filled in all sorts of details for the end of this movie that just aren't there - vividly illustrated in my mind. Perhaps there was a "making of" show, or something similar, that provided the footage I so clearly remember. Perhaps the beauty of 2001: A Space Odyssey to it's fans is the ability to apply your own interpretation. In the story in my mind, new life, a new civilization, was saved from mankind to grown and prosper in its own way without interference. But in your story, make sure there is a payoff for the reader. Even if your message is big and important, give your reader closure on at least some piece of the story - a troubled character made whole again, some wrong righted, hope for the future. Don't leave the ending of your story untold.

If you have a different interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, feel free to disagree here! If you have a "favorite" movie that has illustrated well writing principles (both good and bad), do share! I'm always looking for examples.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ice and Snow

It's the third snowday - the third day in a row - and the kids are home from school. In some parts of the country, this may be usual. But in my town, where it often looks like they've cleaned the streets with a giant hairdrier, this is very unusual indeed.

Here in Ohio, we had 3-4 inches of snow, coated by 1-2 inches of ice, and topped with another 3-4 inches of snow. The various layers of precipitation have weighed down the tree branches, so that my car is now being hugged in place by the Hawthorne trees.

Three snowdays is really at least one too many. Day one I had eight kids in my house and yard, playing Risk, and videogames, and eating pizza, and building snowmen.

Day two there was sledding, and time just to relax (and, of course, more videogames).

Day three? After hacking my way through the ice in order to get into the car (and feeling a bit stir crazy myself - so the ice was certainly no match!) my son and I spent two hours scouring the city in search of a NEW videogame and its required accessories - it's awful when birthday money is burning a hole in your pocket!

It's starting to snow again outside. Sigh... Well, a fresh coat of snow will at least freshen up the slush.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On Becomming a Teen

My son turns 13 this weekend. Over the past 6 months we've seen many changes - the deepening of his voice, growth of some peach fuzz (which mothers, aparently, shouldn't rub), acne, and, of course, astounding growth. In the past month he's surpassed me in height. It's hard looking at "my baby" eye-to-eye.

All these things are both perfectly normal and call attention to the fact the the teen years are rapidly approaching. However, I became painfully aware this week that the teenage years have, in fact, arrived when my sweet, gentle, loving son not so gently told me "Mom, if you don't know the words to the song, don't sing it."

The sound you hear is my heart breaking!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Character Therapy and Charity Auctions


Just a reminder, character therapy has begun over at the Books and Writer's forum. The marvolous Beth Shoppe serves as therapist today and tomorrow. I'll be standing in the role for Wednesday and Thursday. And next week, Monday and Tuesday, the amazing Jen Hendron will take her turn delving into your character's secrets. And be prepared for a few suprise visits and twists as we proceed through this house party. Come join us!


Author Gemma Halliday is holding a charity auction to benefit one of her teenage readers, who recently became homeless and is blogging about the experience here. Here's what Gemma has to say about the auction:

"Katy is a sixteen year old avid reader and aspiring author and illustrator who has won local awards for her artwork. Just before Christmas, Katy and her mother became homeless. They were evicted from their apartment and have been living in hotel rooms (when they've been lucky) or their car (when they've not been so lucky) since then.

Katy has been blogging about life on the streets, and you can read all about how this incredibly sweet mother and daughter ended up in this situation here: As Katy states on her blog, "Homelessness has many faces. And sometimes it happens to have a computer." Both Katy and her mother seem to have very positive outlooks, but it's clear they're in some real trouble.

That's where this auction comes in. All proceeds will go toward helping Katy and her mother get back on their feet. This is a pair that are actively looking for ways to improve their situation, and just need a little push to help them get there. So, please bid generously and know that you're doing a wonderful thing to help two wonderful people."

Katy's blog is interesting to read, and she obviously has a talent for describing her life and what she sees as she and her mom travel through this difficult time.

I've donated a "Bling you Blogger Blog" package, and there are lots of other great items to bid on, including signed books, critique sessions, copy edits, artwork, handmade items, and much, much more. Pop over and check it out, and pass the word on your blog!

Friday, January 16, 2009

It's Cold Outside

Can I just say it is COOOOOOLD outside today? It was 6 degress F when I sent the kids to school today. And there is ICE on my office windows! My son is supposed to go camping tonight. IN TENTS! Are they nuts? (Yes, of course they are. Not only are they boys and men, they are Boy Scouts. Sigh...)

A bit difficult to see here, but that's not just condesation on my windows! But see my nifty new heater under the window? At least I have real heat this winter. The last few years I've had to make due with a space heater in winter, and a box fan in front of the barely-working AC in the summer. Who builds a house - even a 100-year-old house, and leaves one room completely off the heating system?

Here you get a better sense of the ice. It's so thick near the bottom I can't even write you a scary-scratched-in-ice-message-from-beyond without getting frostbite!

And while my ice photography may leave something to be desired, my friend over at A Novel Woman has no such difficulties. I'll leave you an ice picture from her blog back in December.

How's the weather where you are? And if it's warm, can I come visit?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bring Your Character to Therapy

Just a quick notice to those of you who don't hang out regularly at the Compuserve Books and Writer's Forum. Starting Monday, January 19 we're having a House Party hosted by your local fictional "therapists" (aka - the staff in Writer's Exercises) in the Writer's Exercises section. The theme of the house party is "Bring Your Character to Therapy". It's not too late to get registered and join in the fun. (Registration is free - it's just a place to introduce your character.)

You may be asking yourself - what's a House Party? The idea of this periodic activity is to have a theme party where you bring one or more of your fictional characters to interract with the characters of other writers in the hopes that you'll (1) have fun and (2) learn more about your character and how he or she interracts and reacts in different situations.

This month's "therapy" theme is about getting to know your character more deeply - delve into their inner selves, by having them interract with a "therapist" who will ask probing open ended questions that may even force the character to reveal secrets they've been keeping from you!

If this isn't quite up your alley, Jen Hendren is also running a Tension on Every Page exercise that's been very popular and well received.

Come play with us in the Writer's Exercises folder this month!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Author Ranked 93rd in Top Jobs List

Earlier this week, posted their list of the top 200 jobs in America. In case you're wondering what you're doing with your life, if you've chosen the right path, you can relax. Author ranked 93rd in the top 200 list. According to the survey, an author is defined as: "Creates fiction and non-fiction books, either on assignment from editors, or independently."

Among other writing/publising related jobs, Publication Editor ranked 31, Technical Writer ranked 60, Bookbinder ranked 83rd, and Newspaper Reporter ranked 140. Agent's didn't make this list - which either means it's not a job they considered in the ranking, or all you agents should give up your day jobs to become lumberjacks (rank 200), or dairy farmers (rank 199)! ~g~

Careercast looked at five major categories in order to rank jobs: stress levels, physical demands, hiring outlook (guess they haven't seen the stats on recent book sales!), compensation, and work environment.

Here's a comparison of the results for jobs #1 (mathemetician), # 93 (author), and #200 (lumberjack - it's okay - I know you'll have that song stuck in your head all day!).

Rankings are great, but sometimes it's helpful to understand what they really mean. I mean, who says being an author is the 93rd greatest job in America? How do they know?

Here's the breakdown of the factors that went into the overall ranking:

  • Work Environment: A combination of the physical work environment and the emotional work environment. The scoring considered factors such as the energy requirement, physical demands, work conditions (fumes - do ink catridges count?, noise - the thrum, thrum of the printer?), stamina required, degree of confinement (this must be where authors start to fall off!), degree of competitiveness, personal hazards, and public contact. The raw score is then adjusted by the average number of hours worked per week. This higher the score, the worse the rank.
  • Income: The explanation of the income ranking is an eye-crosser, even to my number-loving heart. Suffice it to say, it takes into account both mid-level incomes and growth potential.
  • Outlook: This figure doesn't appear in the summary data, but does influence the overall ranking. Higher scores are awarded to jobs with promising futures. Factors such as unemployment rates, employment growth, potential salary growth, and potential for promotion are considered.
  • Physical Demands: Considers factors as how much weight a person is normally required to lift on the job (and those reams of paper do get heavy!) - and then jobs are categorized into five groups: (1) sedentary work; (2) light work; (3) medium work; (4) heavy work; (5) very heavy work. Factors such as whether a job is indoors or outdoors, and whether it involved stooping, kneeling, climbing or balancing are also considered. The higher the score, the greater the physical demands.
  • Stress: To measure stress, the survey looked at the typical demands and crises inherent in a job. A high score was awarded if a particular demand was a major part of the job. According to Career Cast: "Journalists, who often face daily deadlines, received the maximum of 9 points in this category." A partial list of factors considered include quotas, deadlines, working in the public eye, competitiveness, life of another a risk (do you think fictional characters count?), initiative required, outdoor work, confinement, and meeting the public.

If you have a day job, how does it rank compared to author? I'd love to know!

For me, I have piecemeal days! For part of the week I work as a Medical Plan Data Analyst (don't ask). Of the jobs on the list, this may be closest to statistician, or some sort of mathematician, which generally ranked high. For part of my week, I do web and blog development. Web developer ranked 23rd. Mother didn't appear on the list (probably due to the low compensation and high work-stress environment)!

How does your day job compare? Or if you're a full-time author, do you think the ranking accurately reflects your experience? Share your thoughts.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Get Writing!


Yes, I know I'm a few days late. But today is the day the kids went back to school, and so is the beginning of the new year for me.

I don't know anyone who doesn't start of the New Year with a few resolutions. Some people may keep them to themselves - out of fear of failure or some strange superstition that sharing the secret breaks the spell, but deep down somewhere, we all have them.

Along with exercise, eating better and keeping up with the laundry (all doomed to failure right out of the gate!), my plan is to move my writing back up to the top of my priority list and keep it there! Easy to say, possibly more difficult to stick with. As inspiration, I'm turning to my friend and author Vicki Pettersson for inspiration. For the past two years, Vicki's presentation "Get Over Yourself and Get Writing" at the Surrey International Writers' Conference has been an inspiration to a number of authors I know.

I originally included a summary of Vicki's talk in my Surrey notes, but in order to start my year off right, I'm going to go into more detail here, and get myself organized and inspired in the process.

If there was one message from Vicki's talk, it was this: "Be a mule. Do not quit. Do not stop. Do not ever give up." Her method: "How to work everyday." The outcome: "Finish the book."

First, she suggests identifying those pressures that make writing and finishing a book difficult. These come in two flavors - external and internal. For me, the list goes like this:

External Pressures:

  1. Demands of home and family.
  2. Volunteer commitments - Girl Scouts and Lego Robotics Team
  3. Demands of contract work - it's only 10 or less hours a week, and provides a predictable paycheck, but it seems to take a chunk of time anyway.
  4. Time commitment of web design business - I love doing this, but again, it seems to take a chunk of time.
  5. Commitments to Compuserve Books and Writers' Forum - I love sharing what I've learned with others in the Writer's Exercises section, but Vicki would describe this as a "pseudo writing" activity. It doesn't really progress my own book.
  6. Commitments to my critique group - on this front I have fallen sadly behind, but aim to get caught up and stay caught up. While this may be "pseudo writing" as well, it'll pay off in the feedback I'll get from my lovely partners in writing.

Internal Pressures:

  1. That nagging feeling that most writers (even published) all seem to share - the feeling that I'm not really all that good. It's that internal editor sitting in my head blabbing away.
  2. I'm unqualified to write on my subject area - can I really write about another culture in another time and do it reasonably accurately? Do I have the right to try and represent a people I don't belong to?
  3. I enjoy writing, the process of writing, learning about writing and certainly the friends I've made. If I don't succeed, will I have wasted my time? What will people think about me?

If you're playing along, create your own list of internal and external pressures and put these aside for a moment.

Vicki's talk is full of quotables, like the following:

  • Agents and editors are your allies.
  • The work doesn't stop. Do the work. Take joy in it.
  • 99% of the time you get in your own way.
  • Doing it (writing) changes you
  • Successful people do not let their failures define them
  • Do something difficult while writing - it'll make the writing look easy

So, how do you commit yourself to getting this done? First, Vicki says you need hard number to keep yourself from lying to yourself. Set a goal. A NUMERIC GOAL. Time goals (e.g., write one hour a day) are a way to lie to yourself, and can be filled with pseudo writing activities (like reading blogs!). Make your goal something hard and fast.

  • If you're writing - your goal should be a word count, or a page count
  • If you're editing - your goal should be a page count goal
  • If you're submitting - set goals for the number of submissions packets sent

And to help keep yourself honest, write it down. Vicki uses an Accountants Notebook. So that I can't procrastinate today by running out to the office supply store, I bought my book several months ago -right after Surrey. I blew the dust off today!

Vicki sets up several columns: Days of the month, Goal, Accomplished, Notes. You could use any sort of notebook, spreadsheet or charting system that works for you. The important things are this:

  • Create a tangible way for charting progress
  • Keep track of distractions and interruptions that keep you from meeting your goals - are there patterns? How can you remove these for the future?
  • Be aware of pseudo writing activities. If you're not writing (on your wip), you're not writing.
  • Look back over your notebook periodically. Revel in your successes. Analyze your failures for opportunites to do better in the future.

So, how do you meet your writing goals? Here's Vicki's words of advice:

  • Be obsessive about creating and protecting time to write.
  • Keep the promises you make to yourself. You wouldn't break promises and commitments made to coworkers. Give yourself the same respect.
  • Use all the tools at your disposal.
  • Be careful how you define yourself ("this is the way I write"). Be flexible.
  • Start a journal. At the beginning of every writing session, write 3 pages in your own voice. This may lead into something for your WIP, but this isn't the point.
  • Find writing methods and exercise that jump-start your creative juices. Vicki finds flow charts and mind mapping (sort of free-form brainstorming) helpful
  • Study the methods of your favorite authors - google them, read interviews, discover everything you can about their writing process. Take what you think might work and try it for a month.
  • Find accountability partners - this may be critique partners, writing friends, or writing mentors.
  • Write everyday. E-V-E-R-Y-D-A-Y!
  • Cut back on psuedo-writing activities (e.g., internet, blogs, forums)
  • Take care of yourself- meditate, exercise, eat right

Although difficult to read, here is my entry into my writing journal. Day 1 (January 5), finish revisions to Chapter One and send to my critique group. (For those not aware, I spent a lot of time the last year - amid distractins - replotting my novel. For current purposes, I'm starting afresh!)

Oh, and remember that list of external and internal pressures from above? These are excuses. They don't have anything to do with the writing. Write them down, acknowledge them, then put them aside. Now, go write!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Nomadism and Social Networks

I'm currently reading a book called Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. I've been dragging this book around, periodically starting it, I think since the '07 Surrey Writers' Conference! There are three different colors of highlighter in the first 10 pages, and then nothing.

So, I had an hour yesterday while waiting for my daughter at a doctor's appointment, and I actually made it all the way to page 26. And somehow, along the way, I had an epiphany!

My work in progress, current under reconstruction (and in a title flux) is about a young gypsy woman living in Poland in 1938. I have about a dozen starts for query letters and short summaries, but even after taking Janet Reid's Master Class, and helping to lead a query workshop in the Compuserve Books and Writers' Forum, I still haven't nailed it. Here's my current best shot:

In 1938, Poland is on the brink of war. Change is coming, and pressure on the gypsy people continues to mount. Zia, a young Romani woman, struggles to live a traditional life and preserve the culture she loves. But when her sister dies after being forced into a gypsy settlement, Zia decides to fight back, even if this means breaking the rules of the culture she treasures – a step that could lead to her banishment.

Branko offers Zia an alternative to fighting the establishment –work with him and the Gypsy King to create a
Romani homeland, where the Rom will be free to live as they choose. But when Zia discovers the betrayal from within, she must give up her hatred of the gadje and join with them, or watch her people be destroyed by the Nazi’s.

Well, something like that.

The conflict rests in pressure to change. One pressure comes from the Polish government, which wants the gypsies to give up their traditional, nomadic way of life and move into settlements.

So what's the big deal? Running from rain and cold...ability to obtain steady employment. What's not to like? In my story, why is travel, movement, nomadism so important? Why is preserving the traditional culture so essential to Zia? What does she stand to loose?

And then it occurred to me. The gypsies had large, extended families and social groups. In traveling from place to place, they crossed paths with various groups, passed along messages and invitations to important events (e.g., weddings), shared information about the political environment in various locals, and maintained ties. Without travel, they'd be all but cut off from their extended circle of family and friends.

Travel was their equivalent to internet social networking!

Imagine if you were cut off from your internet social network - all of it (e-mails, forums, blogs, facebook, twitter, myspace, etc...). Oh, and no telephone either. You'd miss your friends, sure (and possibly get more done on your wip ~g~). Maybe it wouldn't be a great tragedy.

Now imagine there is only a small group of people you have contact with outside your internet social networks - your immediate extended family. Beyond this small group, you have no contact with people who share a similar history, or interests, or culture with you. You'll almost never see anyone outside this group again.

As writers, I assume many of you learn about the publishing industry and writing craft through contacts you've made on the internet. Imagine if you had to figure all this out, this "writing culture", while sitting alone at your desk, staring at a pad of paper with inkpen in hand! (Scared now?)

Now imagine that it's not just you, but everybody you know who is cut off from the network, because the government decided to pick on your specific group.

Okay, the analogy isn't perfect. But the epiphany I had yesterday is that nomadism allowed the gypsies to stay connected over time and long distances, much like today's social networks. Without travel (and modern communication systems), the gypsies become cut off into small, disjointed groups. They loose the interconnectedness that has helped maintain a fairly consistent culture across political boundaries and 1,000 years.

Why is this a culture worth preserving? I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes about the gypsies:

"Perhaps alone among the people of Europe the Gypsies have been able to resist the temptations and vanities of power and the presentations of patriotism and ideology. Gypsies are known to steal chickens and to cheat when selling cars, but they have never organized a war, never persecuted others, never manufactured bombs, never perpetuated industrial pollution". W. Cohn, The Gypsies, 1972

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Book Promotion - Twitter Style

I'm totally fascinated by what authors do to promote themselves and their books -- What works? What doesn't? What's worth the time investment? Or the money investment?

My friend Linda Gerber has an incredible blog where she draws traffic not just by discussing her books and the writing process, and by calling attention to the writing of other excellent authors, but by running weekly contests and give-aways that generate a lot of traffic and loyalty for her blog.

As part of her New Year celebration, Linda has come up with an incredible idea (I think) that makes use of the latest and greatest of social networking. She's "publishing" a short story based on her popular YA "Death By" series in short installments on Twitter. If you'd like to follow along, here's the link for Aphra Connelly and Death by Deception.

So far, in her first day on Twitter, Aphra has 20 followers! The series is scheduled to run until April. Linda's next book, Death by Denim, will make its debut in May.

If you're not familiar with Twitter, it's a social networking site where all you see are status updates. Users are allowed 140 characters (that's characters - letters, spaces and punctuation - not words!) to provide an update. Your followers can comment on your updates, which will then appear on both your "page" and the friends "page". If what the friend has to say is interesting, theoretically their friends will come to your page to see the earlier parts of the conversation and, if they find your other posts interesting, will then follow YOU as well!

I think Linda's idea is an excellent one with huge potential, and harks back to the old days when Mark Twain published his books as serials in the newspapers. Free samples are a tried-and-true form of marketing that many companies use even today (ever been to the grocery store on Saturday morning?).

Many authors provide excerpts or shorts on their blog and/or website. But what's better for generating buzz than passing out slow samples that generate a desire for more? And since Twitter "pushes" information out to those who visit regularly, what better way to deliver the small tastes of the story, versus a blog that requires people to come visit (or at least check their blog readers). And not only will Aphra's followers receive updates, but if people comment on Aphra's exploits, those comments will appear on their own feeds, hopefully luring in a wider and wider net of Aphra fans and followers.

I know I'll be following along, both to see what Aphra gets up to in her newest adventure, and to see how many followers she develops over the next few months. And I'd love to hear what you think of Linda's idea.

If you've seen any innovative new book promotion ideas (yours or someone else's), share those here as well. As I said, I'm fascinated by the topic!