Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Story As Pretty Data Points

Yesterday I began a great experiment. Well, “great” may be a bit premature, but I promise it is a genuine experiment. For the first time I’ve decided to graph one of my novels prior to serious revision and editing.

Now, I am not a visual thinker and learner. Not at all. I staunchly maintain that there are really only twelve colors in the world and that all the rest of this complication is just people mistaking the moods of these twelve real colors. People who scrawl all over their texts in colors and shapes and lines and arrange everything in very particular spaces make little sense to a conceptual thinker like myself. So this graphing a story to help with revision idea would never have come to me if not for two people: Dave Wolverton and my wife, Amy. I heard Dave mention that he graphs his stories prior to writing the first draft. When I thought about that it didn’t seem to fit me at all, but on further thought I realized that I was intrigued as to what a graph of a rough draft I’ve already written might allow me to do. That planted the seed, and exposure to Amy’s learning style made that germ flourished.

Amy is one of those color, line, and space people. The first time she ever read a complete manuscript of mine she gave me back a printout of the entire novel with characters and concepts and emotions all outlined in colors, with strange webs and interconnected lines on pages, including comments and other annotation, as she showed me a whole new way to approach what I’d written. It was all pretty much biochemistry in Greek to me, but it did get me thinking about how visual symbolism can offer a different take on a story.

Now I’m testing that theory big time. Deciding that I was going to do this, and knowing I may only do it once in my life, I decided to do it full out. Full out has turned into a three foot by, I don’t know, ten or twelve foot graph. Every chapter of the fifty chapter book (it may gain a chapter or three by the time I’m done, even as it loses length) is represented by a two by two inch square. If nothing else, when finished this thing will make a strange artifact to the idiosyncratic nature of my writing process.

Amy was good enough to make the chart, and yesterday we started graphing. At this point, I have the central conflict of the story as well as two rivalries between the protagonist and other characters graphed. What’s left to come? A father/son conflict, the internal conflict of the protagonist, the conflict of a good teacher fighting a corrupt system on behalf of her students, the conflict of an overwhelmed principal trying to rise to her responsibility, the conflict of a self-doubting friend of my protagonist, and on-page time for a character I think readers will love, the Irish/Scotish/Something-ish Alleged-Ax-Murdering Male School Nurse Peetches. (I assume he’ll be fascinating whenever he makes an appearance, so I want to know where he plays a significant role in the story because that might cover an occasional sin.) So there’s much more to do.

What’s the verdict so far? I’m surprised by how excited the graph has me. The graph is a monster, but the story in graph form is remarkably easy to handle. Simple even. I can see the three peak structure, just as it should be, and examine the rate of conflict by looking at slope. (The vertical axis measures the rate of conflict on a subjective scale of 1/3, 1/2, or 1 square per chapter.) I can see every chapter thoroughly by comparing the lines of different conflicts and elements and, with these overlaid on top of each other, get a very good view of the nature of the chapter. And even before the graph is finished, I’m finding possible ways to improve the story.

One or two areas where I have too many downward slopes at once indicate I’m risking a lull in the narrative. I can see that my second peak or act, sometimes called rising action, is the least precipitous of the three in terms of intensifying conflict. This may or may not be an issue as that section of the story is largely about ambiguity; there are a lot of reversals of fortune, and that keeps the line from rocketing skyward as quickly as other areas. But it has given me reason to look at that section of the book carefully, suspecting that picking up the conflict in an area or two might improve things. And that came from a few moments of study of the graph before heading to a family party yesterday.

It’s way too early to predict what the outcome of this experiment will be, but I’m glad I’m doing it. I’ll post about this again, and I promise to include a photo of this titan when I’m finally done with it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Audience Age Affects Story Length

(Find my previous posts on what determines story length by going to my personal blog, www.clintjohnsonwrites.com/blog/.)

Factors that Determine the Length of a Story #4: Audience Age

This factor is related to and overlaps with genre, but it’s significant enough to mention on its own. Whereas genre’s influence is primarily predicated upon audience expectation, counterintuitively, the effect of audience age on length is primarily a matter of publishing convention. Simply stated, publishing hates long books, and it assumes that the younger or more recreational the reader, the more they are in agreement with that antipathy. I’m a big believer that actual readers are much more flexible than the publishing industry believes them to be when it comes to story length. Books like the Harry Potter series should have made clear that short isn’t always better for younger readers. Unfortunately, publishers typical terror at long books—which is understandable if not necessarily justifiable, given the nature of their work—causes them to hold on to any support for their position with tenacity.

So, the younger your audience, the shorter your story is likely to be. This is true of short stories as well as novels, as what can be handled in a single reading by a seven year old is likely to be shorter than what a twenty-two year old could enjoy. This isn’t completely an industry convention motivated by risk avoidance, however. Stories for younger audiences tend to employ shorter chapters, paragraphs, and sentences—even fewer syllables, as they depend on more basic diction. This results in less total length. They often are simpler stories too, with few or no POV shifts or subplots, which also streamlines the final product.

All this being said, I believe that young or old, what motivates most dedicated readers—and many novice readers—is the quality of the experience. And a big—in scope, vision, and duration—story can give a different experience than a short read, whether for seventy-year-old professors of English or six-year-old students. So being a little on the long side isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a great thing if that additional length not only earns its place, but takes the rest of the story and elevates it all. 200 pages of okay won’t be read like 400 pages of greatness. Just be sure that your 400 pages are really great (they usually won’t be, as at least 50 pages of drivel will often creep in).

Even if every one of the 400 pages in your middle grade novel is truly great, you very well might not be published. The sad truth is that too much cost and too much risk outweigh the worth of the work almost always, in today’s publishing climate. So it might behoove you to learn how to write a great shortish story, whatever audience you write for.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

GDC Study and Curriculum Guides

Back when Green Dragon Codex first came out, the teen review site Flamingnet.com named it a Top Choice. Ten out of ten, in fact. Why mention this now? Because as the site has grown, they’ve reached the point where people are seeking educational resources on the books they’ve reviewed. It just so happens that I have some for GDC. In fact, I wrote them. And I’m afraid that in the two years since they haven’t been used once. I’m not even sure anyone has looked at them.

It’s too bad, too. Because the guides are excellent, if I say so myself. There are two: a study guide for students and a curriculum guide for teachers that includes information on how to use GDC and the guides to teach. They are each almost 40% as long as the novel and include all kinds of exercises, questions, and entire lessons, all ready to use. I developed it using the Granite School District 3-6th curriculum, so we’re talking educationally diverse and dense material here. It took me a week solid to create it, and that after the time spent researching other guides and what curriculum to include and such.

Too bad it’s never been used.

Now, I really hope it will be. I’ve included links to both guides on Flamingnet.com’s GDC page. So if you’re an educator or a parent looking for ready-made educational resources on a fun book, check it out or recommend it to your child’s teacher, whatever. These materials can help kids learn. I hope they don’t continue to go to waste.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Catching Up

Hello. For those of you who have forgotten me, my name’s Clint and I am occasionally spotted on this blog.

There’s a lot to go over because I’ve been away so long. But you’ll be glad to know that Amy and I are finally beginning to settle into this whole being married thing. Yesterday we worked out transportation to give me an extra work hour everyday before I head to the college, so I’m hoping that will result in more frequent blog posts. If so, you may thank Amy for it.

Last week I spent six days in St. George at a writing workshop held by Dave Wolverton. For those who don’t recognize the name, he’s a multi-time NYT best-seller with loads of experience in just about every corner of the publishing and entertainment industry: publishing short and long fiction, editing, marketing, video games, movies, you name it. I’ve thought about taking a class from him, largely because of his knowledge of the business, for several years now. But when I learned that last week’s class would likely be the last he taught for several years (he’s committed to working as a producer in Hollywood in addition to producing his own NYT best-selling Runelord franchise), I decided it was now or never. I decided now.

The class was great. Met a lot of cool people and devoted writers (the cool people and devoted writers are the same, in this case, which always makes me happy). See a class photo here. In the mornings we had lectures about craft and the business; afternoons were for critiquing and discussion; evenings were spent on writing assignments, group analysis of movies, and trying to recuperate for the next day. I had a chance to talk with Dave a bit about current business conditions, which given the nature of those conditions wasn’t very fun but was very helpful. So if any of you get a chance to study with Dave, I suggest you take it. He has a stronger track record of students earning publishing success than any other person I know.

Other things to catch up on:

  • I am three chapters (I think) away from finishing my latest novel. I wanted to be done with the rough draft by April, which means I’m way behind, but I’m trying to cut myself some slack. I did just get married and move and all that stuff. With things settling in at home, I hope to be finished in two weeks. I will then do a happy dance. No photos.
  • As I write, I am still shopping my two latest novels to agents and editors. One is my middle grade fantasy about a little girl who becomes leader of the UN for magical creatures; the other is my Asian ghost story, which I describe as a Korean-American version of The Lovely Bones as written by the tandem of Sara Zarr and Laurie Halse Anderson. Someone once told me she couldn’t picture that until she read the first chapter or two, when she decided, yup, that’s exactly what it is. I showed snippets to a Korean student of mine yesterday and she got a huge kick out of it. And yes, she did tell me that the phonetic spellings of Korean language are well translated. So if you’re an agent or editor, buy these books. They’re good, and one of them can even teach you to speak Korean.
  • The NBA finals are apparently over with the Dallas Mavericks proving that good really goes triumph over evil (being the Miami Heat). As you might imagine from my recent activity (or lack of such) on this blog, I didn’t have time to watch a single second of the finals. But I am glad to know that the Heat lost. I don’t like the Heat. May they have a torturous summer of penance for their braggartism.
  • Amy tells me that there is a chalk art festival this weekend in SLC. I’ve never been to a chalk art festival, so I’m looking forward to the experience. I’m especially looking forward to it as we will go together and I won’t be juggling a student, my writing or some else’s for that matter, or doing anything to move or make a moved into place livable. I’ll just be looking at chalk art, and it will be awesome!

Friday, May 27, 2011

CONduit Starts Today

This is about as late a confirmation as there can be, but at least I got it up here. Below is my finalized schedule for CONduit, being held from right now until Sunday evening at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Salt Lake (215 W. South Temple).

Today (Friday) @ 7:00 p.m.: Suspence–Building to a Satisfying Conclusion. With Michaelbrent Collings (a personal favorite), Berin Stephens, Carole Nelson Douglas, and Michael R. Collings. I believe Dave Wolverton will be unable to attend, unfortunately. But I tell you that the Collings, Michael and Michaelbrent, are two of the best panelists I’ve ever heard, so you don’t want to miss this.

Saturday @ 1:00 p.m.: How To Write Great Villains. I’ll be moderating this panel for Amber Argyle, Roger White, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. Roger, Howard, and Dan are all excellent, so another very strong panel. (If you don’t count me.)


@ 6:00 p.m.: Bad Fairy! You’re NOT a Vampire! With Dan Lind, Jessica Harmon, Eric Ruston, and Tracy Hickman. This is all about the romanticized mythos of paranormal romance (basically, Twilight), and Tracy will be worth the price of admission on this subject by himself.

So, three panels, all three should be great. I promise to chip in where I can and, otherwise, stay out of the way. If you’re at CONduit, please come say hi. One of the best things about conferences is seeing old friends and meeting new ones.

I guess that’s two of the best things.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Awesome Students

A few days ago I saw a face I haven’t seen in months and wondered if I would ever see again: Bak. Bak is a sometimes student and always friend. He’s Sudanese, one of the famous Lost Boys who trekked through Sudan to Kenya to survive conscription or eradication by the Khartoum government. I also learned he was one of the last Lost Boys to come to the US and, very cool, that he just been elected to a position of leadership among the Sudanese people in the US. I wish I could remember the title of the organization, but whatever the title, Bak’s title is President now. He’ll lead this organization for the better part of the next two years.

He came into the Writing Center the other day and asked me to give a speech he was giving a final once over. I did and then we had some time to catch up. Turns out he had to stop school because of lack of funds, but managed to save up enough to return (on top of providing for himself and sending money back home, which nearly all Sudanese students do). I’ll never forget the Sudanese conference I was invited to—what, a year ago?—and how Bak sat by me and paraphrased the revolutionary music performed at the event (very reggae-esque). He said he’s taking summer classes, and so I really hope I’ll get to see him this summer.

It’s pretty remarkable. Five years ago when I first starting working at SLCC’s Writing Center, I met Abraham, one of the more senior Sudanese Lost Boys. He has since gone on to serve in a presidential position (probably the same one Bak holds now), and after that, to serve as something of an ex-patriot Sudanese congressman, as I understand it. He’s now a big deal in the Sudanese community here in the west. Then, between these two, I met Dut. He also served a president of the Sudanese organization (which involves travel across the US, so this isn’t a small gig by any means). Currently, Dut is still one of my students, and he just started a charitable organization here at SLCC that helps give poor Sudanese (and likely others) educational opportunities they otherwise could never afford—something Dut did out of his own pocket for a younger man back in Sudan, who is about to graduate on Dut’s contribution. Yeah, pretty awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

One last student to mention: his name is Tristan, and he is one of the many fantastic kids I met at Washington Elementary in Salt Lake today. I had the pleasure to take part in a charitable assembly there this morning for the Book for Every Kid program, a local program designed to get every student in the school a free book. Four other fine authors and friends contributed as well: Jennifer Nielsen , Kristen Landon, Dene Low, and Christine Graham. We all did a little presentation, about ten or fifteen minutes each, for k-6 (I believe, maybe the oldest grades were 5th).

Anyway, after the presentation I talked to a few of the students—those who were particularly interested in dragons, which, by the way, is a sign of brilliance—and Tristan let me have this cool drawing he did. I promise to share it with the world. From what I can tell, the huge dragon is fighting a volcano, which has to be a good fight. If anything can beat a dragon, it has to be a volcano. Or a cow. Certainly not a sword. Those at the assembly will know what I’m talking about.

Thanks for the drawing, Tristan. I hope you enjoy seeing it published on the Internet.

There are a lot of interesting and inspiring people out there. A few of them have been students of mine, and that is incredible to me. It shows how fortunate I am and have been, and does nothing to even imply any of it is deserved.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Battle of the Bands

When I saw that a Battle of the Bands was happening in nearby Ogden, Utah, I jumped at the chance to take a car full of young, impressionable boys.

What I found was so much cooler than what I expected. For one, the uber talented Craig Bielik was emceeing. Also, there was food: pizza, breadsticks, popcorn, and Chick-fil-A--always a plus. Tables were set up where local businesses had give-aways and drawings. One of the boys I brought won a $10 gift card to use at Newgae Mall, and we also won free bumper card rides, eyebrow waxes, hair cuts, etc. We all (except my youngest) had brightly colored hair extensions put in by Cherry Bomb Salon. Not only did we get to eat and look like rock stars, we got to listen to bands representing 13 Ogden-area high schools.

Most of the bands were what I'd call hard(er) rock, as well as old school metal, blues, pop, and punk. I have to admit I had to leave early, so I missed the last few bands, including the winner, Roy High's Mermaid Baby (surf-rock), but if what I heard is indicative of our future music, then we have a lot to look forward to! (This photo shows Tribe, the band representing Weber High School of Pleasant View, Utah.)

Have you ever been to or competed in a Battle of the Bands? If not, you should definitely consider it. It's a lot of fun and it's a great way to show support for local talent.