Lost in its own Labyrinth

Spider webThis is a small slice from a work in progress, Missing Brandy. It’s the second book in the Fina Fitzgibbons mystery series, publishing this fall. In this scene, Fina and Lorraine look for the kidnapper.

The landlady unlocked the door and we entered a garret with one window. I looked out onto the tops of brownstones and just a sliver of Prospect Park.

The room smelled scrubbed. It was empty except for a chair, a floor lamp, a scratched wooden desk and a single bed. I opened the closet and looked inside, peered in the nightstand, underneath the bed. I examined the walls, the floorboards, the mattress. Nothing, but an inescapable sense of doom. The air held dampened desires, missed opportunities, a mind lost in its own labyrinth. For me, that barren studio was like a coiled snake under a rock. I looked at Lorraine and noticed goose bumps on her arms.

If you’d like a quick and different way to promote your work, send me (gagasue @ gmail dot com) part of a scene from your work in progress, along with a short bio, headshot, and cover, if you have it.

Balancing Plot, Relatability, and Message: A Guest Post by Ted Galdi

Ted Galdi PhotoPlease welcome author Ted Galdi. His fascinating guest post concerns the fine art of balance.

Balancing Plot, Relatability, and Message
The three major components of the quality of any novel are plot, relatability, and message. Unfortunately, there is no optimum formula for weighing and mixing them, which is why so many books fall flat. Here is what each means:

  • Plot = The events happening in the world of the story. Ex: a crook preparing to rob a bank.
  • Relatability = The ability for the reader to emotionally connect with the characters involved in the book’s events, and thus, care about the plot. Ex: we find out the crook is robbing the bank because he needs the money to pay for his son’s college education.
  • Message = The implied commentary on the “world” that the author makes at the end of the story, based on how things have settled plot-wise. Ex: the crook gets killed during the robbery, which stresses the universal message: Crime doesn’t pay, even if your intentions are good. On the other hand, if the robber were to get away clean, pay the tuition bills, and then safely retire from his criminal past, the message would be quite different: Crime may be worthwhile if the ends justify the means.

Clearly, all three of the components are intertwined. The success of the “message” depends directly on the end state of the “plot,” and the only way people care about the plot – and finish the story – is if “relatability” is built into the characters. Many books do a great job with one of the components, maybe two, however, unless all three are working in harmony, the net effect is always underwhelming.

For instance, we’ve all read a mystery where we’re dying to turn each page and can’t wait to find out what happens next. However, once we get to that final page, and we find out “whodunnit,” the book immediately leaves our minds; we can’t even remember the name of the protagonist the next morning. Stories like these do a good job with plot, but fail with relatability and message.

Moreover, we’ve all been recommended a book with funny and quirky contemporary characters we fall in love with. However, though their jokes may be great and they remind us of people we know in real life – maybe even ourselves – it doesn’t seem like they’re actually doing much but sitting around and talking, even if what they’re saying is interesting. These books are high on relatability, but low and plot and message.

Finally, we’ve all had an experience with a well-intentioned book aimed at tackling some major social issue. It makes big, sweeping claims for a moral revolution, however, by the end, we’re just not that motivated to get behind the cause. We got the feeling we weren’t experiencing characters in their own world, but rather, listening to the author talk to us directly in his or her own words. Though these books may be putting forward a great message, it doesn’t have any bite because we haven’t been convinced of it by the actions of characters we care about – hence, a lot of message, but no plot or relatability.

Yes, certain genres of novels lend themselves more toward certain components, and it may be difficult for authors to blend each. However, truly great books – from any category – are able to find a distinct harmony among the three.

When a story is able to succeed with the right balance, the results are extraordinary. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut does a terrific job achieving equilibrium between the three with his classic, Slaughterhouse-Five. Not only does the plot move fast and through various interesting, unique settings, but we care deeply for our innocent/crazy/regretful/hopeful hero, Billy Pilgrim, throughout all the action. By the time the story ends, Vonnegut’s message about war is crystal clear and powerful. And that message – and the book itself – has had a lasting effect on generations.

Ted Galdi is the author of the novel Elixir, to be released in Summer 2014. Learn more at http://www.elixirthebook.com.

Lessons Learned: A Guest Post by Kevin R. Doyle

groupcovermidI am thrilled to welcome author Kevin R. Doyle. His intriguing guest post is about lessons learned during his 2 ½-week stint guiding sixty students through a fiction writing exercise, not without its zombie moments.

I ended up this school year with, irony intended, a true learning experience. It’s kind of interesting that, having written in an amateur or semi-professional role for nearly thirty years and having taught English (among other subjects) for seventeen of those years, I never took students through a fiction writing exercise. Most of my classes are either strictly literature based or deal with expository writing or speech. However, this year I had sophomores for the first time in several years, and we had about three weeks to go once we’d completed end of the year testing. So we spent the last few weeks writing short stories. I began with a quick lecture as to how stories are classified by length, reviewed the elements of fiction for a few days, and then we proceeded to write.

So what did I learn during the two and a half weeks that my students were hammering away on their stories? Let’s start with the cons:

  1. It’s really, really hard to get young people away from copy editing during first drafts. So many times one would call me over for help and, a page or two in, they’re worrying over comma placement. Crucial, sure, but not the first time through.
  2. Young people today are too infatuated with zombies. Again, not a huge surprise, but after a while I did get tired of reading about them. And yes, I did read all of them all the way through.
  3. As any editor will tell you, someone’s first few attempts at fiction tend to be excruciatingly autobiographical. So much so that I had a couple of students, on their own, coming up with the same plots concerning high school athletes and the big game.

As for the positives? Here’s a few of the main ones:

  1. Amazingly, in all three sections (about sixty students total) nearly every student got into the project. We had a cart full of laptops in the room, and each day, after going over a few things, they hopped right in. Naturally, I had a few stragglers and goof offs, but for the most part they did okay.
  2. Most of the stories ended up fairly long and complex. The average was around three thousand words. (Made grading them all in about a week rather tough, but worth it.)
  3. And several, in a few cases kind of surprising to me, came up with intense, well-structured and subtle stories. One in particular had a young teenage girl going to her friend’s funeral, and rather than lay everything out at the beginning, bit by bit over two thousand words the reader follows the protagonist through the course of the day and gradually learns the story of how her young friend died. You never got the full story, there was a fair amount of ambiguity involved, which actually heightened the punch in the final paragraph.

So what did I take away from the experience? For one thing, a fair degree of humility. In some ways, some of the stuff they came up with was actually better than my own fledgling efforts, and I started writing fiction in my twenties. Also, as many of the students commented, the thing they seemed to like best about the work is that subject matter (as long as somewhat school appropriate) was up to them. That sense of liberation seemed to go a long way in propelling them. I’m not sure that would have been ideal earlier in the year, but it fit right in with that end-of-the-year, almost-out-of-here spirit.

But I think the most satisfying thing I took away from the experience was that a fair number of our modern, video-game obsessed, short-attention-span youth, had absolutely no problem with spending days on end furiously, with great concentration, putting thoughts, ideas and words down on paper.

I think that bodes well for the future.

I just don’t want to read about zombies again any time soon.

promo1Bio: A high school teacher and fiction writer living in central Missouri, Kevin R. Doyle has seen his short stories, mainly in the horror and suspense fields, published in over twenty small press magazines, both print and online. In 2012 his first e-book, a mainstream novelette titled One Helluva Gig, was released by Vagabondage Press. In January of 2014 Barbarian Books released his first full-length mystery novel, The Group.

Doyle teaches English and public speaking at a high school in rural Missouri and has taught English, journalism and Spanish at a number of community colleges in both Kansas and Missouri.

More information can be found at www.kevindoylefiction.com or at www.facebook.com/kevindoylefiction.