Distilled Insight: Writing Powerful Stories – Pride and Prejudice

What makes our stories pull on the reader’s mind and heart?

“Which do you mean?” and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”

In Pride and Prejudice, this is our first  introduction to Mr. Darcy as the prideful man of higher social class.  His words sear a lasting impression into the mind of the reader, and Elizabeth, our protagonist.  These words plant a seed of contention between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.  It is such a surprise to a new reader, then, when it is learned that the two are destined to love each other.

The story excels because it creates the ground for an arc from bad, that goes to worse, and then finally, when tension is at its highest, it goes to wonderful.  The reader realizes that this man is actually perfectly suited to Elizabeth and the two are meant for each other. What was once loathing for a character has transitioned into love. Jane Austen takes you from one end of the spectrum to the other.  Lesson: the further the contrast, the better the payoff.

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Starting a Podcast

ImagePodcasting is a new and exciting creative exercise for me.  I’m now doing a podcast called Firsts in Fiction with Aaron Gansky, a long-time friend and fellow writer.  In the podcast, I’m the “aspiring” writer, and he’s a published author.  We discuss topics that include character development, starting your book, and rules for writing good fiction.

After ten episodes we’re just now starting to hit our stride and feeling more comfortable with the content we’re producing.  Sitting down and talking to listeners unseen is a challenge.  You need to orient yourself to be comfortable speaking to somebody that isn’t there.  Having a co-host helps that awkward feel, but it still took some getting used to.

We record our episodes in batch, because we’re both busy guys and don’t have the time to meet once a week and record.  With kids, full time jobs, and a long list of standard commitments, we found that batching was a really effective way to do this.

Episode 10 just aired on Monday, which brings to a close the poor quality audio recordings we did a few weeks ago.  We just got together again, this last weekend, and recorded episodes 11 through 14 with new microphones and sat in my car to get superior sound dampening (pro-tip).

We had a guest, Nathan Bodell of Wednesday Comics, sit in with us to learn the ropes of podcasting.  I was glad to have him along for this latest batch because I’d say it was a good representation of how to do a good podcast.  Our old methods wouldn’t have taught good habits.  It was a lot of fun.

However, late in Episode 11, while we were busily discussing how to understand editors, an echo developed and proceeded to get progressively worse until the end.  Our microphones were picking up all our voices and creating the echo.  To make matters even worse, I didn’t catch the problem until we finished recording all four episodes.  (We were in a hurry to get through recording each episode because an hour was wasted at the beginning resolving technical difficulties.) This was because of our close proximity, and without any barriers between us to block out the additional sounds from each other’s voices, all the mics were picking up all our voices at the same time.

Episode 11 is passable and will air, but the rest are not.  We’re going to try to get the additional recording done during an already busy coming weekend.  These kinds of issues can be very discouraging, but we all maintained a positive attitude–I think we were able to stay upbeat because we have such a passion for it.

On the bright side, I feel like a real podcaster now, having encountered the dreaded lost episode problem.  Losing three out of four episodes is a pretty big blow, but having had so much fun doing them in the first place, we’re happy to revisit the same content and do it again.  I’d wager it’ll even be better content now that we’ve fleshed out some of our thoughts once already.

If you’re thinking of starting your own podcast, I have a few pointers:

If you’re on a budget, buy Audio Technica ATR2100s and your audio will sound fantastic.

Want incredible, vocal-booth quality audio? Record in your car.  Your car is built to dampen sound.  I like to say that I have a $17,000 vocal booth. Be careful with multiple people though, as we learned.

We use Audacity to record and edit our audio.  It’s free, open source, multi-platform, and works well.

If you need to record more than one person in a room and don’t have the money to buy a mixer (which we didn’t), invest a more reasonable $35 and buy VAC (Virtual Audio Cable). The program is not well-known, because it’s not well publicized, but it does the trick.  You can download the trial to see if it works for you, but you’ll quickly want to upgrade because it announces that it’s a trial into your audio stream every ten seconds.  YouTube will guide you through setup and use. We used it and it worked great.

I can’t recommend Dave Jackson’s show School of Podcasting enough.  He’s provided a ton of great insights into how to do a good podcast. There are plenty of other great shows out there too, and to find them, I recommend checking out Podcaster’s Roundtable.  All the greats are on this show and you can go listen to all their individual shows.

If you’re a fiction writer and would like to learn more about writing great fiction, I recommend listening to our podcast.  Please excuse the poor audio in our first batch of episodes, but I hope you enjoy the content.

Click Firsts in Fiction Podcast to go to all the episodes.

Click HERE to subscribe on iTunes.

Follow us on Twitter HERE.

Thanks for reading and thanks for listening!

What Makes for a Good Magic System

photoDo you believe in magic…systems?  I do.  In fact, I believe magic systems, with rules that govern them, make for some of the best story elements in our books.  How do you write a solid, entertaining magic system?  Like I said: rules.

Rule 1: The magic system should fit well within the story you’re placing it into.  Magic isn’t always welcome in a story.  Consider whether it really fits in the story or if you’re attempting to fit the story around it.  Sometimes, a simple foretelling is perfect, but high magic can often color a good story with detrimental deus ex machina saves.  Make sure that the magic system isn’t there to fix the problems, but is complementary instead.  It’s better if it introduces its own problems into the mix. It’s better if it isn’t the fix-all.

Rule 2: Finite access to the magic makes for better story.  You can create tension in a scene when, at the moment it’s most needed, the character has run out of the ability to use his magic.  Setting limitations like this provide opportunity.  Take advantage of it and try to remain consistent with those limitations.  It’s bothersome when a character is faced with a difficult problem in chapter three that can’t be overcome by his magic, but in chapter five, he suddenly and inexplicably has a new power that enables him to overcome something very similar.  We’re left wondering, why didn’t he just do that in chapter three?  It’s R2D2’s rockets

Rule 3: Avoid power-creep.  Power-creep occurs when the character with the magic system somehow seems to get stronger and stronger, exceeding the boundaries of a true magic system and entering god-like areas.  Sometimes, not knowing the top-end of the magic makes for a sense of wonderment and can be good.  This is true of Harry Potter, where the magic never ceased to surprise the reader.  However, even J.K. Rowling implemented limitations.  Knowledge of the craft limited a practitioner’s variety and ability to conjure magic.  Setting appropriate boundaries is critical.  Some ideas for boundaries: knowledge, finite energy source, proximity requirements, time requirement, physical cost, psychological toll, a trinket, proper setup of self and environment, positioning.

Rule 4: Consequences should be considered as a viable balancing solution.  If Hero possesses the power to summon lighting from on high, then perhaps he suffers from severe pain as he does so.  Maybe our antagonist can see the future, but with each vision, he begins to lose his grasp on the present.  Use consequences as a way to challenge yourself and your characters.  Magic is most interesting when there is a price to pay.

Rule 5: Your magic system should be unique.  Readers have come to expect certain standards for magic in the books they read.  This is okay, but it can get boring.  So, I created Rule 5 as a form of encouragement to seek out a new form of magic for your story.  You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but do give some consideration to how your story could be better complimented by tweaking the magic system.

These rules aren’t hard and fast.  They’re a set of guidelines that can provide you the insights you need to stand out among the thousands of other magic-based books out there.  Do yourself the favor of investigating your personal take on magic.  It could prove to revolutionize fiction and could possibly support the formation of a new sub-genre.  At the very least, abiding by some rules and setting good boundaries will yield unexpected outcomes and great story.

Have you done magic in your writing?  Share in the comments!

Creating a Superhuman Brain…with Drugs

Diet, exercise, and sleep aside, there is another tool to gain that mental clarity needed to write well: drugs.

There is a growing trend for professionals to take drugs like Provigil (a drug prescribed to patients with narcolepsy), Ritalin, or Adderall (drugs prescribed most often to kids with attention deficit disorders).  According to Tim Ferriss (the author of the 4-Hour Work Week), Provigil has been prescribed to a significant number of Olympic sprinters–I doubt that there are so many Olympic sprinters with narcolepsy.

I’ll mention that a common theme in many talks on utilizing drugs to enhance brain function is that for every gain that you make with enhancements like these there is a trade-off.  Side effects include things like severe drain on energy and concentration levels after taking something like Provigil, i.e. for one day of increased brain function, you will need a day to recover.

Some of us drink coffee or espresso.  Some of us consume herbal supplements like yerba mate or ginseng.  A few of us might drink energy drinks.  I wonder, though, if any of us out there consume drugs to stimulate the creative juices.  Let me know your experiences or what you’ve heard from others on this topic by sharing a comment below.

Check out some of this interesting reading:

http://www.wired.com/medtech/drugs/news/2008/04/smart_drugs?currentPage=all

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/23/magazine/23patients-t.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&ref=magazine&

http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/lifestyle-guide-11/energy-boosters-can-supplements-and-vitamins-help

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs002130050284

http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080409/full/452674a.html

A Note on Sleep

Sleep gives us time to process the learned information from the day.  It allows our brains time to recuperate, gives us dreams from which inspiration can be drawn, and it allows us to function well the next time we wake. Sleep is a critical component that can solve much of our issue with lack of clear thinking.  Before trying stimulants, take a look at this site for some healthy advice on reclaiming your natural brain function.

http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep

Environmental Inspiration

Photo of Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, CA. Lifted from Flickr (click to see the picture in full size).

While on a business trip a few months ago in Monterey, California, (see the picture of how nice it is there) I felt inspired to write.  I was away from everyday life, in an environment that was calm and beautiful.  Monterey Bay is quiet, has some great places to walk or even sit and read or write.  It provided me with the conditions to feel motivated and inspired.

Isn’t that what we’re all after as writers?  I find that getting inspired to actually do the writing is the hardest part of writing.  Sitting my butt down in a chair, behind a boring computer screen, and putting words down is a challenge for me.  It’s not writer’s block, it’s just motivation, but writer’s block can result from lack of motivation.  The less I write, the more stunted I feel.

I live in a place where green is mostly artificial–the primary color, everywhere, is brown; it’s the desert.  I’m not writing about Tatooine, so the environment I live in on a daily basis doesn’t really relax or inspire me.  Disconnecting, on a business trip to a place like Monterey, extracts me from the ugly and the routine and frees my mind.  It is one of those places that unlocks my creative powers.

Last night, after the kids were in bed, and since my wife was on a phone call, I decided to conduct a little experiment.  It was later in the evening, right at sunset when the day was cooling off.  I opened a window and dragged a recliner over near it.  I sat down, and enjoyed some wine while feeling the cool breeze coming in through it.  Note: I don’t have a porch or a patio where I can sit outside at my house.  The red zinfandel tasted like relaxation, and I felt my mind start to release its tension.  Creative thought followed and I enjoyed about forty-five minutes of great brain storming.

I didn’t do any actual writing, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve discovered that organizing and reorganizing notes becomes tedious and crippling to my creative process, so keeping the thoughts and ideas in my mind gives me greater freedom to construct, tear down, and modify the world, characters and story line.  Occasionally I have those things that I must write down so I won’t forget, but most times, I’m just working out details and resolving plot holes.

I was surprised to find that kind of satisfaction in my normal environment.  In Monterey or by a window in my house, I managed to find the ingredients to get creative.  In this case, I substituted basil (Monterey) for oregano (open window and comfy recliner) in the recipe, but it still worked.  In a few days, I’m going on vacation to get away from work and enjoy time spent with my family.  I’m hoping that I can find that release when we’re out there and I’m really hoping that I find more time to write.

So, I’m curious about you.  Do you have a place that gets the creativity going?  Is it a particular place or are there elements like the open window that you can reconstruct that would work anywhere?  Comment and let me know!

Losing Your Work

Two years ago, my laptop computer died.  On it was all my notes, outline, character profiles, histories, magic system blueprints, and the main body of my book.  I wasn’t worried, though.  I had backed everything up to an external hard drive religiously.  I just went and pulled that 500 gig drive off the shelf and hooked it up.

As fate would have it, I found out that day that my hard drive was bad too.  Nothing I did could revive it and I left without the work I’d spent years building.

It was a serious blow to my morale.  I didn’t recover for over a year.  Finally, I realized that it could be interpreted as an opportunity rather than the death to my writing career.  How’s that?

I’d spent years building something that was never quite right.  Any time there was a need to change it, it would have this butterfly effect, causing the need for revision throughout my entire infrastructure.  With all that gone, I could focus instead on writing the book, relying on my memory for the details.  This was useful because when a change was needed, I could just modify my thinking and it would populate throughout my mind–self-populating information.

I started to get back into writing and began loving it again.

Tonight, I went to open my book and pick up where I’d left off, but the document that opened was missing all of yesterday’s edits and additions.  The discouragement came back and I threw up my hands.

I use box.com as my cloud-based backup system now.  It provides me with the ability to edit in the cloud, saving my work to the internet for me so I don’t have to go through the pain of backing it up every time I close my computer.  It’s worked flawlessly for months, but today I learned that there must be some flaw.

Instead of giving in to my discouragement, I decided to write a post here–a blog I’d forgotten about until today.  I found this again when I went to comment on Aaron Gansky’s blog.  It recognized my email address as a registered account and here it was.

I’ll continue working on this book, but man, technology is sure a big let down.  Have you had any experiences like this?

Web Present

Welcome to the blog of Steve McLain (me).  I’m creating this space primarily to function as a location to comment on the craft, to discuss ideas, and to provide myself another spot to get words out.

Writing has always been a passion, but now, I’m finally pushing to make it a profession.  I do many things, but writing has been the most consistent aspect of my identity.  Since I was a kid, I enjoyed writing and creating.  I won first place in the Young Author’s competition at my elementary school and that was all the inspiration I needed.  Since that time, I’ve done a huge amount of writing, world building, and idea manufacturing.  Every project has yielded a better handle on the craft, but I never completed anything.  I am now committing myself to finishing my current work.

At present, I am writing a series called Atomorpher (this is a working title that will probably change).  The mechanical basis for the story is revolves around a few unique magic systems, each powerful, but vastly different.  Unified, these magics bear heroic, or nefarious, human beings.

Atomorpher is set in a world not unlike our own was some 250 years ago.  Technology for the period reflects that of the eighteenth century, but is supplemented by the magics available.

Goals for the book:  interesting bad guys; imperfect heroes; complex and believable motivations; a timeless story.

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