All posts by matthewledrew

My Writing Process 3: Story Arcs

Okay, this one is a little different. If you’re writing along with the posts then you’re already well into the first few pages of your novel, so this post is either going to come too early or too late, lol.

Basically, this is something I tend to cover in my typical, face-to-face writing seminars with Ellen Curtis and Kenneth Tam that tends to go over very well, so I’m going to try and duplicate it here.

There’s a way that I structure story-arcs for my series’, specifically the Black Womb series, and it’s served me very well. It’s a way of thinking about multiple story-lines and character arcs so that you can keep track of them all.

Please forgive my art, I’m not terribly talented as it is, and even worse when using the Draw! app on my iPhone. Hopefully this won’t be too confusing.

Story Arc Alright, so this one is fairly straightforward, yes? I hope so anyway. If not, blame me. This is supposed to be the storyarc for your novel. For those looking for the experience of an actual writing seminar, picture me scrambling madly while scribbling this on a dry erase board.

So, this black mark represents the story of your novel. As the line gets higher, so does the excitement of your reader. At least, that’s the hope. Then green mark represents the beginning of your story, and the purple one the end. See that red one? That’s the climax. In Back to the Future, it’s Marty rides the lightning back to 1985. In Almost Famous, it’s when the kid finally gets his interview with the rock legend. It’s the end of the story, really. Everything before it is buildup and everything after is cleanup. This is the moment your audience should remember.

Not marked here (sorry) is the inciting incident. Basically it takes place near the beginning of the story and is the question that is answered by the climax. In Black Womb it’s Jamie Dawkins’ death, and the climax is the revelation of he killer.

Story Arc But it’s not that simple, is it? Nothing really is. Some children’s novels are that simple (and that’s fine), but you’re writing an epic. You’re writing a goddamn masterpiece. In this next image, we again have that pesky black line representing your novel, but this time its got company. These are your sub plots. In this novel, we have three. They’re the green, pink, and purple lines. Going back to the Back to the Future example, it’s the romance between Marty and his Mom. Another is the romance between his Mom and George. A third is if Doc Brown will die or not. See? All these plots start at different times in the larger arc. They can also end at different times… Although if you can swing it so that they all end at once and dovetail together, it makes for epic storytelling. It doesn’t always work, but when it does both writer and reader feel great about it. It’s goosebump-inducing satisfaction to produce that kind of fiction.

Most novels are structured this way.

So, great! You’ve made an epic novel. Interesting characters, and wow that climax! All the plots converged at once!… What now? I mean, some people would just repeat the same formula and make another epic novel… And if you do that, move power to you. You’ll probably make more money than me, you little Stephen King in the making, you.

Story Arc But that’s not what I did. I prefer series’ to individual novels. So that’s what this next diagram is about. In this one the black arcs are still novels, but there are four novels in the series so far and they’re all connected by the orange arc: that’s the storyarc. I do this with Black Womb. The first three novels form a great little arc. Books four through seven form another arc I call “Peterson Syndrome”. Another good way to look at this diagram is like seasons of a television show. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each black arc is an episode, and when you put them all together they make a season, one BIG story. Like the Glory / Dawn arc in season four. Or the Dark Tower series, another great example. Remember that within each black arc there are multiple character arcs and smaller subplots. If possible, these novels should have a common theme. Theme isn’t necessary, but it’s nice. If possible the action should be upped with each additional book as well, until the last one is just an epic season finale.

Story Arc Okay, you’ve got your box set of like, four books. You can count yourself amount the Tolkiens and the Kings. Are you done? I’m not. The next stage of the game looks like this. The orange arcs represent the three to four book “seasons” that they did in the last sketch, now with a fancy purple line encompassing the whole thing. This is the series plot. Just like all other plots, it has a beginning, middle and end. It gets more and more exciting until it’s conclusion. This is he model I’m working with, remembering again that within each season are multiple novels and within each novel are multiple plots. This is a massive undertaking, and is the reason guys like Jay Paulin referred to people who start a series as “gutsy” in his review of my first book. It takes a lot of planning and even more work afterward.

Story Arc Here’s one that doesn’t quite fit with the rest. It’s basically the same as the last, but shows different character arcs. Here there are three, but if I had to map them all there would be hundreds. Let’s look at the pink one. Let’s call that Cathy. Maybe her main arc starts at book eight and ends around book nineteen. Or whatever. And each character could have more than one. So there are layers within layers of this.

There are other schools of thought of course. I feel like I’ve been preachy during this post, and if that’s he case it wasn’t intentional. Some plots follow a graph much closer linked to a three act structure. Some are all over the place, but honestly those tend not to do well. Sometimes they become cult classics, but it’s rare.

One example of a different sort is The Dark Knight. It used a plotting scale called “constant climax” which would look more like this:

Constant Climax Basically after that first, initial slow beginning it never stops. This is hard to do and requires meticulous planning. I have never seen this in a novel but would love to. It’s something I tried very hard to emulate in Becoming, the seventh Black Womb novel. Don’t think I quite hit the mark, but had fun doing it.

So these are plot arcs, or at least how I conceive them. I don’t often actually draw them, but I find it helpful to organize my thoughts by thinking of the plots this way. One of many compartmentalization tricks I’ve learned over the years. 😉

Hope this helped anyone who needs help.

Never Look Back,
Matthew LeDrew

Character Development 1: Developing your Lead

As a part of my series of Virtual Writing Seminars, I’d like to start a series of blogs on character development today. This series of posts has no definite end in sight, and may go on for quite some time. It will focus on how I develop characters both for a series and for a single novel or short story, and will hopefully give some insight as to why some insight into why some of your characters pop and others… Don’t.

With this post I’m going to focus on the most important character you’ll create: your lead. While other characters may be more entertaining or even interesting, your lead is the hook on which every other event in your story is hung. It’s his story (pardon the male pronoun… Nothing against female protagonists).

The first thing to make sure of is the your lead is three dimensional. I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it’s not. A lot of books and movies feature one-note characters, and it absolutely drives me insane. Think of yourself. Do you act the same way towards your mother as you do your partner? Or to your friend? Or your boss? Of course not. We all wear different hats at different times, and so should your character. Sit down with a list of all your characters and figure out how your lead interacts with each of them. Does he love them? Does he hate them? Is he attracted to them? I don’t know. But you should.

This also leads into having the character fleshed out at the start of the story. It really draws a reader in when characters are fully formed, real people. Take Victor from Infinity. He’s enigmatic and we know little about him… But I do. I know everything about him. I even know where he went to high school. I’m not telling you that yet though… I simply know it ahead of time so that he can react appropriately to the situations I put him in. The result works well. There’s a reason we, as fans, love characters like Mal from Firefly and dislike characters like Bella from Twilight… It helps when the writers knows what they’re doing beforehand.

That said, a big part of your character is dialog. This is what makes your character believable, and almost all suspension of disbelief hinges on it. Nicolas Brenden once said of Buffy the vampire slayer that: “It’s realistic. Well, the things that happen aren’t realistic but the ways people respond to them are.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory, apologies if it’s off). What he’s saying is true: it doesn’t matter that a dragon just came out of the floor. If your character responds to it realistically it will be bought.

On the flip side, if you claim your character is a scientist and they get every scientific fact they say wrong, his (and your) credibility is gone.

Also, if you say they’re “grim” but all they do is joke around, you’ve undermined yourself there too. (side note: it’s better not to SAY your character is anything, just to let your reader decide for themselves… But that’s a rant for another time).

Another point is to not let them be passive. This is one that’s not so obvious. A lot of professional writers do this, myself included. I consider Xander (in the first Black Womb book only) to be passive. It’s something I’ve tried to resolve for the international release. For those of you who haven’t read Black Womb (what’s wrong with you? Lol) a good example is Jennifer Connoly’s character from The Strangers. These characters are frustratingly passive. They don’t affect the plot, the plot happens TO them. This isn’t just bad character development, it’s bad storytelling. Make the character the active part of the plot. Make their actions affect the story and the world around them. If it’s a crime story, have him hunt bad guys rather than simply react to their actions. If it’s a love story, make the character be proactive in his relationship rather than just reacting to their partner. This, above almost anything else, makes engaging stories.

Once that’s all done, be consistent in how you’ve portrayed them. Nothin comes out of left field more than a character acting in a way that doesn’t jive with the rest of what you’ve told us. That said, they can’t remain the same. The characters have to move over an arc. They have to grow and be different at the end of the tale than they were at the beginning.

Hopefully I haven’t been too overwhelming with all this, and that you’ve got a great character in mind. Don’t be afraid to base them off yourselves or even other characters in fiction either, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Hope your stories are coming along great.
Matthew LeDrew

History of Black Womb 1

20110911-113654.jpg Alright, so this isn’t so much a “writing tips” series of posts as it is a “how I did exactly what I did” post. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and I’m finally getting around to doing it. A lot of this has been touched on before, in the ‘from the author’ sections of the books and such, but I really want to get into it here as much as I feel comfortable.

I’ve been creating for as long as I can remember. Some of my first and fondest memories are of playing superhero with myself or my friends, but most notably, with my father. A lot of my memories from that age (I’m talking 3-5 here) involve my father. At some point he brought home an old dos-based computer which could function as a word processor and little else and taught me how to write files and save them. I think I was ten.

I vividly recall two stories I wrote early on. One was a crossover between all the Disney Afternoon characters (something I still contest would have been a good idea) and the other was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story in which the Turtles finally defeated Shredder and the Technodrome, but Donatello lost his arm (because my action figure of Donatello had lost his arm, and I’d longed for an in-story explanation).

Black Womb, 2012 edition, Matthew LeDrew, Engen Books
I may have written more like that, but I know that not long after that I started writing stories about a Superman-esque character named Alexis Temple. This was it, the movement from imitation to actual, individual thought. I wrote ten books (to my recollection), and they took Alexis from his early teenage years into early adulthood. It felt like time to stop then. And I thought I was done.

Then one day when I was supposed to be studying I pulled out an excersize book and started to plan more stories. If anyone read Wizard Magazine while it was in print, there were price guides in the back that would list each issue and the basic contents of them. And there was a code, like ‘Amazing Spider-Man #1’ would be: ‘ASM 001: fa (first appearance) Chameleon, J Jonah Jameson, Daily Bugle.’ So I plotted the whole Alexis Temple series as though it were comics. Then I kept going, continuing his adventures even though I’d never written them… I was plotting.

I plotted several more storylines after what had previously been the final one. Around this same time, I was asked by my Drama coach to draw each person in our acting group for a mock-playbill we were making. Then like now, I’m not much of an artist, but I drew everyone as best I could, then drew everyone as superheroes. I recall this big group shot of everyone looking mean into the camera, all 20 of our little drama squad. People had robot arms and capes and laser eyes. I even drew myself in, but that was the only one I didn’t like… So I shaded him in all in black, except for the eyes.

The next time I sat down to plot, I added in the following line: “CHS #75: Alexis meets Sara, Cathy, Mike, Grendel and Black Womb.”

There’s more to it then that of course. There always is. But for all intents and purposes, that was the beginning. It didn’t look anything like what it does now, but it served as the foundation for what would become the longest project of my life.

I had started writing Black Womb.

To be continued 😉

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

My Writing Process 2: Starting

Okay, so you’ve got your plot done. The details are ironed out, and you have at least some idea what the beginning, middle and end will be. It doesn’t have to be concrete, but it’s good to have a skeleton. What do you do now?

Start writing, clearly. But before that, you should make sure you’re not going to get stuck first. A lot of people writing novels tend to make it to around 20,000 words and then get hung up. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen to you. Your story it great, and it deserves to be told. Just like parents, we want to give our story the best chance we can before sending it out into the world.

The best way to do that is to start out strong, and have a lot of characters and tricks to fall back on.

First of all, choose your method of storytelling. This seems simple, but it’s really not. There are dozens of possible points of view that your story can be told from. Common ones that everyone knows about are first and third, but there are lots of others. Second person prose, though rare, can be engaging.

I find most people starting their first novel have the urge to write in the first person (that is, using I). Personally I found this very difficult in the beginning of my writing career. That could just be me, but I notice a startling amount of manuscripts coming into the submissions folder written in first person. Sad as it is, a high percentage of them are either never completed or… Well, bad. That sounds mean, I know. Hate saying it.

So you can obviously do what you want, but I’d suggest a specific type of third person storytelling called “Selective Omniscience.” Maybe in the future I’ll do a series on writing in the first person if enough people are interested.

So let’s assume we’re using “Selective Omniscience.” In that, the narrator knows everything there is to know but is choosing what information he relays to the reader… Basically, the narrator is you. Even then, the voice you use is up to you. Will you be comical? Gritty? Neutral? Totally up to you. The benefit of this perspective is that it gives you the ability to move the focus from one character to another, much like different scenes in a movie. In fact, thinking of it as a movie helped me a lot in early works.

Okay, so next make sure you have solid characters. Get to know each of them. Some people do writing exercises as each character to accomplish this. I prefer to talk to myself as though I’m in a scene with them. The important thing is, have a strong feel for them before you start so that they’ll act in believable, reasonable ways.

Make sure there are enough ideas for events scattered throughout your plot. If you only have 1-2 ideas for minor events, we’re likely talking about a short story. Plenty of things should be happening.

Finally, write the first scene. This is all important. Shakespeare (according to an old Prof of mine) used to start every play with something exciting to capture the viewers attention up front. The same is true here. Look at my series’: Black Womb starts with the woman fleeing from her captors. Infinity starts with a girl being stalked by a strange creature. Then, in both cases, the action quickly shifts to a normal setting where we introduce our main characters. That’s not a coincidence. It’s carefully formulated to bring the reader into the story, just like those scenes that happen before the credits roll on many television dramas.

Hopefully this helps. I can’t give you much except for a good start… After this it’s all very, very fun. 😉

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

My Writing Process – The Best Laid Plans

Okay, this will be the first of my Virtual Writing Seminars. I may not do them in order, but I’ll tag and number them all and number them for easy access. For those who didn’t read the description in my last related post, this is My Writing Process. I get asked at conventions a lot to delve into how I do things, I assume because people are having trouble getting started or getting hung up in the middle and want to know how someone who has completed 9+ novels keeps himself on track.

There is, I think, a fundamental flaw in this line of thought. To paraphrase Stephen King (I reserve the right to do that a lot):

If you want to write, write.

When he said this he was speaking of those people at parties and other social events that you meet and they always say “I’d love to be a writer”. Then do it. It’s the only career in the world where there is no interview, no requirements, no education criteria, and no hours. It’s beautiful like that. Being a paid and published writer is another thing entirely. Being a successful writer is another thing again, but if your goal is simply to write then sit down with your pen and paper and just do it. And if you find that you sit there for days and can’t even get one sentence out… Well, maybe writing is for you what skiing is for me: an enviable thing I just cannot do.

But I doubt that’s the case. Most people are writers simply because most people are storytellers, so I guess the goal here is to get you to write steadily and write well.

No matter what I’m working on, I always start with a plan. When Ken Tam and I work together on our writing seminars, we usually liken this plan to a jackhammer: something big that should only be used at the beginning, and should be discarded if it later threatens the body of your work with it’s force.

Even then, there are different levels of planning. For the Black Womb series there is, on one level, an intricate level of planning. Because events in one book are deeply affected by another there had to be. For that series I bought a supply of steno books and planned each CHAPTER of the series. These plans can be as loose as a simple description or as tight as having actual dialog and shot-for-shot events in them. Six-to-ten chapters would typically make a novel, but Black Womb books are typically short, so twenty would likely be a better guideline. Still, nothing wrong with a short novel.

With Infinity the planning went different. As I was writing it with a co-author (Ellen Curtis), it wouldn’t have been fair to plot and plan everything. It also wouldn’t have been logistically possible, not knowing what was going on with her characters and pages. Instead I planned the characters themselves. This wasn’t a writing excersize so much as acting one. I got into the head of each of my characters and figured out their voice and back-story, then when it came time to put them in scenes together they acted naturally and it was like I was just transcribing the movie in my head.

With other projects, such as my upcoming shorts, I try not to plan too much at all. Instead they revolve around one idea, like: “Xander as Plato in the Symposium meets Rambo: First Blood”… Actually, that sounds fun. 😉

There’s another single novel I’m still in the plotting stages on where I’ve combined the first two elements and made it so that I know everything that will happen to each individual character, but where their stories cross is up to me when writing. That story may never be written, but we’ll see.

So as you can see, there’s no one way. Ellen uses post it’s with notes scattered across her writing room. Some people use thought mapping (something I personally despise, but you go crazy). Some people (again, Stephen King) claim they don’t plan at all… And with some novels I believe him. Whatever way you choose, make sure it’s fun for you and that it doesn’t discourage you from the writing process.

Let me know how you do, post YOUR planning methods if you have any, and happy writing.

Matthew LeDrew
Engen Books

The Art of the Short Story

Okay, so I just finished the third of three short stories for an upcoming, unnamed Engen anthology, and it really got me thinking about the nature of the short story.

Sometimes when I’m writing a short it’s less about story and more about atmosphere, which isn’t the way I normally approach things. I’m usually of the mind that character, above all else, comes first; then plot, and then wherever the chips may fall. But as I write more and more short fiction I’m learning that these rules are often very different between the two.

Anyway, this was a short I’ve been itching to write for some time called Revving Engen. It’s kind of a prologue to the entire Engen Universe of stories, and takes place during what I’ve started to call ‘Black September’… In that both Infinity and Black Womb seem to have started around the same time in September.

Anyway, hopefully it’ll be good. Can’t wait to get some feedback on it. I believe it’s due out in April. We’re getting a host of great authors for this collection. Currently on the list include myself, Ellen Curtis, Jay Paulin and Sarah Thompson. There will be more, we’re just waiting on first drafts to announce.

Later days!

Full Moon Fever: Interview with Steve Lake

Steve Lake
Steve Lake

This April brings a host of familiar faces back into the limelight as new titles are published, including the new Black Womb novel Becoming and the second edition of the Sci-Fi from the Rock anthology. Featured prominently in the collection with be the sequel to Steve Lake’s highly touted Legacy of the Full Moon, Vengeance of the Full Moon.

Published in April 2010, Legacy of the Full Moon was started when inspiration struck Lake in the form of the character of Ryan. Upon kicking around the idea at an Engen staff meeting, it became a sort of an “Interview with a Vampire” motif with two interesting twists: the interviewer was a werewolf, and the werewolf had a secret all his own.

The concept was immediately popular with fans and reviewers.

“[Steve Lake’s] visit to the age-old conflict between vampires and werewolves is a good one, but too brief,” said Mark Vaughan-Jackson in the May 8th 2010 edition of The Telegram. “I hope [he] will take this tale and develop it, hone it and publish a larger work with this story as an integral part.”

This was a common sentiment, and so plans were put into place quickly to continue the development of the story and characters. Soon a plan for a series of short stories was in place, culminating with the eventual release of a full-length (as yet untitled) novel based on the property.

“[The novel] gives the back story on how Ryan became a vampire and the adjustments he and Frank have to make in their business and in their friendship,” said Lake, on the concept of the upcoming novel.

Lake will also be getting his feet wet with a short story that takes place within the Engen Universe canon shared by Black Womb, Infinity and Compendium.

“Timeline wise I’ll be setting my story just as the first Black Womb book ends, but my story will be set in Europe instead of Coral Beach,” revealed Lake. “It deals with characters who work for Engen, who are examining what went wrong in Coral Beach and what they are developing as the next step in Engen’s research projects.”

In addition to his writing ventures, Lake has been a key figure of the Engen writing staff since the release of Roulette in October 2010, and claims that his favorite Engen story in Falling into Fire, a short from Ellen Curtis’s breakout anthology Compendium.

“It hooks you from the start, the action is very well paced, the characters are nicely developed in such a short amount of time and the story leaves you wanting more. I want to know what happens, I want to know the events that lead up to the start of the story. Ellen’s very good at leaving the reader wanting to find out where the rest of the story is going.”

Now a thriving part of Engen Books, Steve Lake retains his support of fellow independent authors and businesses.

“It’s hard to get ‘traditional’ publishers to wake up and take notice of the excellent work that’s out there. Independent authors and small non-traditional publishers are growing slowly and they need the public’s help and support to get their names out there.

“When you see an author at a convention or a local book signing, take a chance, look at what they’re offering and talk to the author. You may just be pleasantly surprised.”

Vengeance of the Full Moon will be published in More Sci-Fi from the Rock, on sale April 17th 2011.