Monday, December 15, 2014


One of the most difficult things writers have to contend with is the subject of plot development.  I mean, sure, we all have a story or two to tell, but it's not the process of getting from point A to point B that's important.  We're trying to get our characters from point A to point Z, and our plot points are points B through Y.  We are trying to develop our characters and plots so they will be more interesting because, honestly, we want the reader to care about them.  Love 'em, hate 'em, feel something goddamn it.  The worst possible thing that a reader can do is not care whatsoever.  Without some kind of emotional involvement, the reader has no reason to turn the page.

Let's take a look at the great theatrical spectacle that was 1980's-era pro wrestling.  Yes, I'm going to reference pro wrestling.  You got a problem with that?

Pictured:  My "You got a problem with that" face.
The two most popular characters in pro wrestling in the 80's were Hulk Hogan and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.  Hogan was a largely static character with over-the-top cartoonish proclamations to eat your vitamins, say your prayers, and exercise.  Piper was a kilt-wearing maniac with a fast mouth and a talent for causing trouble, and was one of the toughest sons-of-bitches on the planet.  His words, not mine.  For the record, here they are:

Guess which one was my hero...
Hogan was most often billed as unstoppable.  His routine went something like this:  Get to the ring, get beat down, "hulk up" (which involved shaking and quaking like he was trying to force a large piece of cheese out of his butt), then he'd point as his opponent and yell "YOU!"  Then came his own beat down.  Clothesline, big boot, leg drop, 1-2-3, and everyone celebrates.  It got old.  Really old, really fast.

Piper, on the other hand, was quite different.  You really weren't sure which "Roddy Piper" was coming to the ring.  The mouth?  The fighter?  The lunatic?  Piper kept the audience guessing.  Sure, his favorite finisher was the sleeper hold (which, for MMA fans, is a rear-naked choke), but he didn't always use it.  It was always a guess whether he'd finish his opponent off with that, stomp him into the matt, get himself purposefully disqualified, or any other of a thousand little things that my main man RRP thought of.  And before long a question arose.  Who was the biggest star?  It could be argued that people came to see Hogan win.  But I'm of the opinion that people were actually there to watch Piper lose. Piper did such a good job of making people hate him, he was actually stabbed by audience members.  Three times.  Think about that for a moment.  It's pro-freaking-wrestling for crying out loud!  And yet, RRP really got the people going.

Pictured:  Raleigh, North Carolina, pro wrestling crowd...

Then, an interesting thing happened.  Piper's character developed and Hogan's character didn't, and people started booing Hogan.  The great, the immortal Hulk Hogan, was getting boos from the crowd.  And who got cheered?  Rowdy Roddy Piper.  The difference?  Character development.  Plot development.  Let me explain.  Hogan's character never grew.  He was Superman without kryptonite: Boring.  But Piper took up causes.  His character developed from a crazy person to a person who let us see what was driving him crazy.  He became the original anti-hero (sorry, Stone Cold Steve Austin, but my man Piper beat you to it).  And in doing so, showed the importance of plot and character development.

As a kid, I watched so much pro wrestling that I wanted to be one of them.  But when I was growing up, it was the age of the "big men," and there was no place for a 5'6" guy in the world of pro wrestling.  So I kept watching.  One of my most beloved moments came when Roddy Piper came out before a crowd who screamed his name.  He took the microphone and said, obviously taken aback, "I'm not used to so many people cheering for me.  And I want to make it clear, I ain't running for president, and I'm still the same no-good sonovabitch I always been."  The crowd went insane with love.

So you see, Timmy...
At his core, Rowdy Roddy Piper was the same guy.  But his journey to get from point A to point Z had many twists and turns and made the audience care about him.  They cared enough to stab him.  They cared enough to scream when he came back.  They cared enough that they can't get enough of him.  And that's what you want for your characters.

Every character should be a different person at the end of the story.  Think about it.  You woke up this morning and had things happen.  At least, I hope you did.  And those events of the day made you react.  Even if it was a small thing, you've changed just a little today.  It's easier to see if you look at development over long periods of time.  Think about what you were like as a freshman in high school and try not to cringe.  Your characters need to have similar developments.  What affects your characters?  Pretty much everything. People they interact with, situations that call for decision making, death, birth, car trouble, rain... Everything.  The little changes are what make the character interesting.  The way he makes decisions, and what decisions he makes, bring the reader closer to him.

Pictured:  Stasis Chambers...

Stasis is boring.  There's no room for growth.  Your characters cannot stay in stasis if you expect for people to care about them.  Read any series of books and you'll watch the lead character grow through loss, love, gain, injury, personal epiphany, etc.  Your characters need to do the same.  If your lead character is exactly the same at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning, you're doing something wrong.

Just my $.02...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Advice for the One's

It's that time again.  Time for the newbs to descend on Seton Hill University and leap into the Masters in Writing Popular Fiction program.  As I've been teaching in the program for many years (almost since the beginning), I feel like I have the responsibility (and possibly the right) to throw a little advice around.  I speak only for myself as a mentor, not for everyone else in the program, but here are a few tidbits that I feel everyone needs to know.

  • Be Nice to Everyone - You don't know who you're talking to.  Let me say that again.  You don't know who you're talking to.  The person in your crit circle might have a day-job working as an acquisitions editor, or a critic, or might already be an author with more than 30 books under his or her belt.  Hell, one of them might be married to a major Hollywood producer (she knows who I'm talking about).  The writing community is notoriously small, and we have wickedly long memories.  
  • Check the Ego at the Door - When you show up, you may have a lot of notions about being a stand-out, or how good your work is, or a thousand other things.  Criticism is coming, and it won't always be gentle.  Here's the deal:  You're not as good as you think you are.  The good news is, you're also not as bad as you think you are.  You're here to learn.  Your mistakes as well as the mistakes of others will teach you loads, but you need to be open to criticism and realize the fundamental truth:  Nothing said in crit is meant to be taken personally.  Everything said in crit, and everything said by your mentor, is said for the sole purpose of making you better.  If you have trouble listening to what works, what doesn't, where your strengths and weaknesses are, and how to improve, you won't grow as a writer.  Which begs the question:  if you're in this program, but can't take criticism, what are you doing in the program?
  • Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation - As you are coming into a Masters program in English, it seems kind of like a no-brainer that you should have a grasp of mechanics.  Having said that, I realize that not everyone has the extensive background in English, and a large (and growing) group actually don't come from an English background.  That's fine and dandy, but it's now up to you to play catch-up.  This is an incredibly competitive path, and you want to be able to put your best foot forward. To wit, our jobs in the program are to help you have the best possible chance of getting your thesis published.  Agents, editors, publishers, etc. all get hundreds, if not more, manuscripts in their mailboxes every day.  To get through the monumental amount of mail, they have to look for any reason whatsoever to toss your manuscript in the trash.  Comma splice?  Gone.  Run-ons and fragments used improperly?  See ya.  And what we, as mentors, need to focus on  are issues like characterization, plot structure, world-building, and other things that you need to know if you're going to be a writer.  Making your mentor line-edit your manuscripts is just rude. Take the initiative and work on your mechanics so that you and your mentor and critique partners can focus on shaping your story. 
  • The Mentors Aren't Gods  - I know how a lot of us come across.  I, for one, can come across as a grade-A jackass over e-mail.  Many of us come across as egomaniacal monsters that get our jollies off of destroying the hopes and dreams of students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact is, if you take the time to get to know us, you'll realize that we're not.  We're passionate about writing.  We're passionate about our genres, and we're passionate about helping you become better writers.  Most of the time, critiques tend to focus on what's wrong with a manuscript, or on what doesn't work, and that can lead to the feeling that the mentor hates the student or can create animosity.  For the most part, the truth is that we focus on what needs improvement, and thats because we want you to succeed.  Read that last part again:  We want you to succeed.  So look at what we're trying to tell you, and realize that nothing said is a personal attack.  It's all done to point out weaknesses for you to repair. 
  • Avoid the Dining Hall - Seriously.  It's awful.  Taco Bell is right by the hotels. 
  • Socialize with EVERYONE - Don't segregate yourself by your class.  One's, go grab yourself a couple of fives (not literally... They're skittish), some fours, a three and a two, and talk to them.  Have a drink with them.  If you happen to see a mentor or two at the social, chat 'em up!   It really does make your life easier. 
  • Be Prepared - Read the assignments, crit pieces, etc. before the crit session.  You want your classmates to be respectful of your work, so be respectful of theirs too.  
  • Your Time - This is likely the only time many of you will have in which you get this kind of feedback.  This is likely the only time many of you will have for such honesty, such hard work, and so many people who only want you to succeed.  You will be able to talk to agents, editors, authors and publishers.  Do you realize how rare that is?  Take advantage of your time here.  Make the best out of it.  
  • Greensburg - Is a maze.  You will get lost.  Deal with it.  Half the fun of being at residency is trying new things and trying to figure out where the hell you are.  
  • Wendy Lynn - Do not piss this woman off.  She is royalty in the program, and usually is the one who knows what's really going on.