Author: Eli Ring

How to Plan Your Novel–Scene Design Part 2

My last post, “How to Plan Your Novel — Scene Design”, provided a list of things you might want to think about before you start writing. It also focused on one of those things in particular– the importance of establishing goals for the characters in the scene.

Once you have decided on a goal, it is time to give some thought to how to crush any hopes and dreams the character may have of achieving or benefiting from accomplishing the goal. This is called “the disaster”. The basic formula is GOALS –> CONFLICT –> DISASTER. The drama that gets your readers to turn the page is rooted in conflict and disaster. The oft-quoted metaphor that you should get the protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at him applies here. Maybe a better way to think of it is to throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.

There are four basic answers to the question–will the character achieve his goal in this scene? They are “yes”, “yes–but”, “no”, and “no–and”. The first answer–“yes” should rarely, if ever, be used before the ending of the book. A few months ago, I read an action thriller with a pretty good premise and plot and some decent characters. It could have been a good novel, but the story’s glaring problem was that the protagonist was successful at everything he did. The answer to every goal he had in the book was yes, and that lack of drama made for a mediocre story.

There are three appropriate answers to the question in the middle of a novel. The first is in the “be careful what you ask for” department. The answer is “yes–but”. In this scenario, the character achieves the goal she is pursuing in the scene, but there are unpleasant consequences to that success. Maybe the gal gets the guy, but she also gets a dose of the clap.

…throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.

An example of this is in the book “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. The protagonist, Clarise Starling, an FBI academy trainee, fulfills her goal to get a role in the Buffalo Bill investigation. That success nearly costs her a chance to graduate from the academy and subjects her to an internal affairs complaint that threatens to ruin her career before it even gets started.

“No” is the second answer that creates a disaster. In this case, the character is seeking something and gets the metaphorical door slammed in her face. In “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo, Michael Corleone meets with mobster Moe Greene to tell him the family wants to buy out his casino share. Greene’s response is, “I’ll buy you out. You don’t buy me out.” His answer is a firm no that throws an obstacle in the way of Michael’s goal to move the family to Vegas. It also provides the impetus for a dramatic scene with lots of great conflict and sharp dialog between characters.

The scene with Moe Greene in The Godfather is notable in that not only does Moe say no, but Michael says no to the no of Moe. (Sorry for the bad poetry.) Michael’s no is an example of the third type of disaster–“no–and”. This disaster is perhaps the most effective. Not only is the goal of the character blocked by a firm no, but there are far-reaching consequences from the character’s desire and attempts to accomplish the goal. In Moe Greene’s case (spoiler alert), the no he receives from Michael costs him both his share of the casino and his life.

So as you plan your scenes, know what the characters in the scene want and use one of the three disasters to dash their hopes. Hit them with the shovel as they try to dig their way out of the hole.

Check out my book, Trail to Peril.

Available on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback.

How to Plan Your Novel–Scene Design

In “An Easy Way to Outline Your Novel,” I describe a simple process to start organizing a novel where you layout brief descriptions of the story’s scenes into the beginning, middle, and ending sections. When you finish, it’s time to start writing, right? You can, but some other things would be good to know before you start pounding the keyboard.

Structure a scene like the whole novel. Fictional works have similar structure at different scales, sort of like fractal geometry. The story will have a beginning, middle, and end. Likewise, the beginning, middle, and end of the story all have a beginning, middle, and end. Scale it down further to scenes, and we find the same pattern. You can think of a scene as a sort of micro-novel. It has all of the elements of the larger work of which it is a part.

This means you will need more columns in your spreadsheet because there are some other things to think about before you start writing. Here are some of the items in mine.

What do the characters in the scene want?
What is the disaster that occurs to the characters in the scene?
What is the point-of-view?
Where does the scene take place?
What time of the day?
What is the duration of the scene?
What characters are in the scene?
What characters are off-stage?
What is the emotional condition of the characters?

Nearly every novel features the hero or protagonist struggling to accomplish a goal.

The plan is to discuss all of these. For now, let’s look at the first one–what do the characters want?

Nearly every novel features the hero or protagonist struggling to accomplish a goal. Think of examples like, Clarice trying to find the serial killer in “Silence of the Lambs”, or Paul Atreides seeking revenge against the Emperor and the Harkonnen in “Dune”. Nearly every scene in your novel should likewise have goals for the characters that appear in it. In “Life of Pi” there is a one-sentence chapter/scene where he sings Happy Birthday to his mother. In one poignant sentence that constitutes the whole scene, the author expresses his goal–to be reunited with his family–and the grief he feels at realizing his hopes are fruitless.

The character’s goals in each scene set up the conflict between characters that make a story exciting and show the protagonist’s struggle to accomplish the overriding goal of the whole novel.

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril”. It’s available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

An Easy Way to Outline Your Novel

There are many approaches to writing a novel. Some writers like the “seat of the pants” approach. They take an idea and start writing to see where it will go. I tried it. I ended up with a 70,000-word first draft that may or may not get edited and published. It was exciting writing it, but the result was a mess that will require a lot of rewriting. I prefer to plan novels, and here is the simple approach that I have used a few times.

Novels should generally have structure. That structure often includes these elements:

  1. A compelling event.
  2. Plot point one at about 1/4 through the novels.
  3. The midpoint.
  4. Plot point two at about 3/4 through the story.
  5. A dark moment, one or more scenes after plot point two.
  6. Resolution

The novel has a beginning, middle, and ending divided at plot points one and two. This means that the beginning and end of a novel are about a quarter of the story each. Half of the story is in the middle, that great void between plot points.

You may meticulously plan the novel, and in the adventure of writing it, find a wonderful path you never considered in your planning. Take it.

The plot is a series of scenes. Scenes are what I consider the building blocks of a story. A scene is a portion of the story in which characters interact in action or dialog. I usually plan scenes to be around 830 words. This goes back to writing novels for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where I was writing a 50,000-word first-draft novel in 30 days. At a word count of 830, I would write two scenes a day and stay on track. You can use that word count to plan the length of your epic work. If you want 100,000 words, plan 120 scenes, 30 scenes for the beginning and end, and 60 scenes for the middle.

Since I am an accountant, and the solution for everything for accountants is a spreadsheet, I use Excel for planning. If I plan a 100,000-word novel, I pull up a blank spreadsheet and set up a column numbered 1-120. Then I add a second column called “Description”. In row number 30, I indicate that it is the first plot point in the description column. At row 60, I show the midpoint, and at row 90, I indicate the second plot point. That is the easy part.

The hard part is coming up with two or three-line descriptions of 120 scenes that will carry my characters and readers from the compelling event to the story’s resolution at the end. I usually have at least a vague idea of what the plot will be. I typically know the compelling event of the story. That will generally be the first scene because you use it to hoodwink the reader into engaging in the story. Whether I have a good idea of where the story is going or not, I will usually write vague, tentative scene descriptions for the plot points, the midpoint, and an ending. It is easier to concoct 30 scenes that get you from scene one to the first plot point than to think about how you will get clear to the end. 

This process may seem to be rather rigidly structured, but it shouldn’t be. The scenes can be shorter or longer. The number of them could be lesser or greater. You are free to change the plot points, the midpoint, or the ending. This approach is a guide, not a constraint. You are free to use whatever artistry serves the telling of the story. Sometimes you are in for a surprise. You may meticulously plan the novel, and in the adventure of writing it, find a wonderful path you never considered in your planning. Take it.

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril”, available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

The American Republic is Dead

The American Republic is probably dead. This prognosis comes from the understanding that we are often doomed to repeat the mistakes of history. If you look at the parallels of recent American events with events in Rome around the time of Julius Caesar and following the similarities are stunning. If the Democrats succeeded in ousting President Trump, 2021 could even turn out to be the American year of the four emperors similar to Rome’s in 69AD. (Note 1)

American politics are no longer about electing selfless men and women dedicated to doing the people’s work for the common welfare. It has devolved into a civil war between wealthy, powerful, political dynasties for supremacy. It’s a war between the houses of Bush, Clinton, Obama, Biden, and the upstarts, who must be crushed at any cost, the Trumps.

Consider these similarities with Rome.

In 49BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions in violation of Roman law and tradition. In 2021, President Trump supposedly incited his supporters to storm the US Capital to influence Congress’s Presidential election certification. The difference here is that Caesar acted deliberately. The accusation against Trump is pure political theater.

The American Republic is probably dead.

In 44BC, a group of Roman Senators stabbed Julius Caesar to death at a Senate meeting. In 2021, Nancy Pelosi and the US House rushed to impeach President Trump for the second time, supposedly for starting, what they called, an insurrection. The impeachment is a symbolic assassination. It is probably fortunate that the President didn’t visit the Capital. More than a handful of Congressional Democrats and a few Republicans are willing to wield a shiv in defense of their power. Et tu, Liz Cheney.

In Rome, populism was power. Emperors and rival factions vied for the support of the masses with give-aways, usually bread and entertainment. In 2021, the give-away is coming in the form of multi-trillion dollar “Covid relief” packages, forgiven student loans, and guaranteed incomes. The American norm now is to bribe voters with their own money.

Just as civil wars and conflict raged between the Julii, the Scipii, and the Brutii in Rome’s days, there is a dynastic battle brewing for the American Republic’s control. The Trump Dynasty has been beaten back for now, but it is the strongest in potential direct family succession. It is also the biggest threat to the status quo and power of the other dynasties.

A corrupt dotard heads House Biden with a drug-addled reprobate for an heir. House Biden is an offshoot of the Clinton Dynasty. Sort of like when Don Corleone allowed Clemenza and Tessio to start their own families. Kamala Harris is the adopted heir, but this dynasty effectively ends with Joe.

House Clinton is a two-headed monster. It features a former President with a reputation for sexual harassment and assault and a bitter, power grubbing former Secretary of State who has never come to terms with losing to Donald Trump in 2016. With Hillary’s loss and Chelsea the Dull for an heir, this family is left with using surrogates to maintain its influence.

House Bush had a good run and may do so again. Their hopes were dashed when George IIs brother Jeb turned out to be a nonentity in the 2016 Republican primary races. Bush family roots run deep, and they have many relatives, allies, and surrogates, so don’t count them out. One wonders if the Bush camp did not orchestrate the unrelenting attacks on House Trump to keep control of the GOP.

Finally, you have the House Obama. It may not even be a thing. It has minimal potential for dynastic control. Obama was a weak, poor leader whose legacy was systematically dismantled by the Trump administration. He was more of a place holder for Hillary of the House Clinton, then the founder of a new dynasty.

Those are the contestants. Regular Americans should stay out of it and let the rich and powerful fight it out and hopefully destroy each other. Instead of backing these pampered, privileged clowns, Americans should start looking for leaders who are courageous enough to keep the collateral damage from these dynastic wars from spilling over and destroying the country.

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril”, available in Kindle and paperback on Amazon.

Note 1 — In 69 AD Rome had four emperors — Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. If the Democrats succeeding in removing Trump before the inauguration, 2021 would have been Trump, Pense, Biden, and potentially Harris, given Biden’s physical and mental health.

Websites for Conservative Social Media Refugees

Roughly twenty-four hours later, the attack on free speech by “big tech” continues. The major development is Amazon’s action against Parlor, which bills itself as an alternative to Twitter. Parlor is now suing Amazon for antitrust violations and breach of contract. The petty stuff also continues. Facebook announced it will ban anything mentioning “the steal”, which refers to alleged election fraud.

It is time to turn Facebook and Twitter into leftist echo chambers. The lifeblood of social media is content and users. Deny them both and consider some alternatives. I closed my Facebook account down several weeks ago because I got tired of misleading and mistaken so-called “fact checks”. I haven’t missed it. I also quit advertising my book and website on Twitter. Here are some sites you might consider instead of FB or Twitter.

Parlor.com has been considered the go-to place for Twitter refugees for months. I would provide a link, but they are currently shut down, thanks to Amazon. I opened a Parlor account several weeks ago but found it difficult to use and dominated by a few users who made the site a conservative echo chamber. It may just be me. This site is supposed to be back on-line tomorrow, but we will see.

It is time to turn Facebook and Twitter into leftist echo chambers

gab.com is the latest social media refugee camp for conservatives. Reports are that they gained half a million users yesterday. They apparently run on their own servers, so they are not subject to the approval of the tech masters. I opened an account yesterday and got a brief look. I like the layout better than Parlor. Right now, the downside of this site is that they are having trouble scaling up their server capacity, and the site is slow. Hopefully, they will get a handle on it soon.

mewe.com is another site that bills itself as pro-free speech. I have not used it, but I have some friends who highly recommend it.

Freerepublic.com has been around for a long time. I have been on it for twenty years. It is more of a libertarian site than conservative. I find that the users are not as in lockstep with popular conservative thought as other sites such as Parlor or even Twitter. I find the discussions to be more thoughtful, civil, and diverse than other more prominent sites.

Signal.org received an endorsement from none other than Elon Musk as an alternative to big tech message and texting services. I have quite a bit of experience with their service. I have a couple of sons in the military, and we use it as a family to keep in touch. My oldest is an Army Intelligence officer. He recommended Signal when he was being deployed to Europe because it is encrypted and secure, so we did not have to worry about inadvertent operational security issues in our family discussions. Loose lips sink ships.

Duck Duck Go is a good search alternative to Google if you are looking for a search engine that provides some privacy. I have used it for years, and it is an excellent service.

Protonmail.com is an alternative free e-mail service that I use. It is based in Switzerland and offers privacy, end-to-end encryption between Proton users, and anonymous accounts.

If you have any other suggestions, let me know.

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril”, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon (unless Amazon shuts me down).

The Purge is On

Tragic events that many have feared has been going on the last couple of days. It is the logical culmination of the “political correctness” movement we have been contending with for years. It has been brewing for months with the “fake news” scares that spawned a fetid nest of self-appointed arbiters of truth. Now we have misguided and misleading social media “fact-checkers”. There is also the widespread practice of suspending and banning people and organizations from social media sites such as Twitter when their utterances are proscribed by our wiser masters, Jack Dorsey at Twitter and Zuckerburg at Facebook.

The most recent outrage is the apparent purge of conservative voices, including a ban on the President of the United States by Twitter and reports of disappearing followers among his supporters. It is not just attacks on MAGA supporters either. There have been attempts to suppress dissenting opinions on everything from voter fraud and climate change to Covid-19. Powerful forces in the media and Big Tech are silencing people with significant and compelling points of view.

Free speech in America is circling the drain.

Sometimes it is going beyond silencing and extends to ruining careers and lives. The conclave of hypocrites and scoundrels that make up the badly misnamed “Lincoln Project” is a pathetic example. They just announced that they would be making up a blacklist of those who worked for the Trump administration, intending to keep them from finding employment in the private sector.

It is chilling. Free speech in America is circling the drain. For those of you nodding your approval and politely applauding from the sidelines because you disagree with those who are being silenced, keep in mind that we have the 1st Amendment right to free speech to avoid the necessity of shooting each other.

Time To Get Back To Work

The holidays were great. Three kids made it to our house for Christmas, including the oldest, who made it back from a deployment to Europe just in time. The fourth is in South Carolina and could not travel due to Navy Covid restrictions, but stayed connected through the magic of technology. It was a great family time, but now it’s time to get back to work, and here are my six writing goals for 2021.

  1. Write 1,000 words per working day. There are 260 working days per year, so 260,000 words total for the year. Writing that counts for this goal includes new novels, short stories, and blog posts.
  2. Read 75 books I have not read before. I usually read a couple of books a week, but some are re-reads.  
  3. Write a short story every two months–6 total for the year.

Lovingly embrace failure.

  1. Lovingly embrace failure. Collect 20 rejection letters from submissions for publication or from literary agents this year. 
  2. Finish the first draft of a new novel this year. I have two that I started and abandoned. It’s time to dust one of them off, re-think it, re-plan it, re-plot it, populate it with some fascinating characters, and then write the first draft.  
  3. Finish the rewrites of two novels I have languishing in the lonely desk drawer of stalled projects. I made pretty good progress on one of them in November and December but got distracted by the holidays and a sudden interest in Python programming. My hope is to get it in shape for publishing by the end of February. The other one is a bigger, messier project that will have to wait until later in the year.

That is my writing plan for the year. One thing I learned from NaNoWriMo is the importance of tracking my daily progress. For that, I have a little notebook. Thanks to this post, I have added 331 words to my total for the day, and I am off to write the other 669.   

The Deaths of Two American Heroes

I want to take note of the death of two American heroes this month. Both were World War 2 fighter pilots.

The first is General Chuck Yeager, who died on December 7 at age 97. He was most famous for being the test pilot that broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, flying a Bell X-1 he named Glamorous Glennis, after his wife, at Mach 1.05. He also had a fantastic career as an Air Force combat pilot in three wars and was notable for downing five enemy aircraft in one mission and being the first pilot to shoot down a jet fighter. He ended his career as a Brigadier General.

The other hero, also a World War 2 P-51 pilot, was my Uncle Linwood “Lindy” Genung. He died late last week. His experiences flying close air support for Patton’s Third Army are pretty impressive. This site has a video (click here) of Lindy telling the story of his war-time exploits.

After the war, he did what many veterans did. He returned home, got married to my Aunt Lela. They adopted two kids, Scott and Patty. Lindy went to work for AT&T and spent his whole career with them. He was working for them in Tehran, Iran, in 1978, when the Islamic Revolution, which eventually ousted the Shah, began.

Who will take their place in the fight to preserve freedom?

His great love seemed to be traveling. He owned numerous travel trailers and motorhomes in his life, and he and his family spent a great deal of time wandering the continent. As a young boy, I had the good fortune to travel with them on a couple of trips. The first covered the Northeast US and parts of Canada and included a visit to the New York World’s Fair. The second, a couple of years later, covered most of the Western United States. Thanks to Lindy and Lela, I visited about 41 different states and Canada before I was twelve. Also, thanks to Lindy, I survived the trips. I was a bit accident-prone in those days, and whenever I would see him in recent years, he would remind me that he saved my life on at least a couple of occasions.

Yeager and Genung were two guys who epitomized that American generation that many consider the greatest. They were real men who stepped up when their country needed them and faced the danger of war with courage and purpose. They were real anti-fascists who fought real fascists, not the spoiled, drug-addled soy boy version of “anti-fascist” engaging in temper tantrums we see in the streets today.

We are in crazy times when some are traumatized by red MAGA hats and statues of old white guys, and government officials are permitted to lock down entire populations and to destroy economies based on bad science. There is a real assault on American freedoms. One wonders how we will replace men like Yeager and Genung. Who will take their place in the fight to preserve freedom? If a younger generation will not take up the challenge, American greatness is at an end.

Covid-19 and Risk. Why Covid Restriction are Bad.

Field-Marshal Sir William Slim wrote that “…risk is danger multiplied by time”. The implication here is that risk increases the longer danger persists. If you want to reduce risk, either mitigate the danger or reduce the time of exposure to the danger. How does this bit of wisdom apply to the current Covid-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has spawned all sorts of unprecedented government actions, mostly by Democratic officials, such as Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. These measures have included the closures of businesses they deem “non-essential”, limits on the sizes of gatherings, mandatory mask requirements, and enforcement actions with agencies such as OSHA and Public Health Departments. 

It may be that the dire expert predictions of a public health disaster at the beginning of the pandemic justified the draconian measures implemented by officials. We are now past that point. Most of the predictions have proven wrong. Infection rates and death rates have proven to be far below what the experts predicted. 

“…risk is danger multiplied by time”

What are the “dangers” which public officials are trying to prevent? Here two of them:

  1. The danger of the virus making us sick.
  2. The danger of the virus killing us.

These dangers are serious concerns, but you have to ask, are they really a more significant threat than most of us usually face? For most people, the answer is no. Most of the deaths attributed to Covid have been those in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Most of the deaths involved other underlying medical conditions. There is considerable doubt whether Covid is even the cause of many of the deaths attributed to it. The point here is that many people have little risk from the pandemic because the danger to them is small. Others, we know now, are at considerable risk because of their age and health. Why are we allowing officials to treat everyone the same?

The intelligent approach would help individuals assess the risks they face, provide information on how to mitigate the risks, and then leave them alone to act appropriately. Beyond that and standard public health measures, there is now no reason for the ridiculous and often arbitrary restrictions imposed in places like Oregon. If we apply Slim’s risk formula, we can see that most people’s risk is small because the danger is small. To use the coercive force of government to impose unnecessary restrictions on them is an act of tyranny, not mercy. 

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril”.

It’s available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

Snivelling Excuse for Not Posting

I usually try to post a blog article twice a week. Last week we took a non-essential flight to San Jose for a completely unauthorized early Thanksgiving dinner with my daughter and son-in-law. The week prior I was engrossed in finishing a short story. This week I plan to get back in the blogging groove. I have been doing some thinking about the Covid-19 fiasco and hope to do a couple of pieces on it.

…it is a great time to fly…

PS One thing I learned on the trip is that it is a great time to fly, if you don’t mind wearing a mask. There was lots of parking, no lines at the TSA checkpoint, and the airports and the plane was nearly empty. You could even get a cup of coffee in San Jose without waiting in a long line.