GMC: Goal Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon: A Review

Once you've been around the writing scene for a while, you know that there's hundreds of middle of the road books about writing that don't offer anything new, but sometimes new information isn't what you need. You need something that helps you grapple with the principles you already know. A new way to see story elements that's going to click with the way your mind works. This is one of those extraordinary books that does that.

In a recent story I wrote, my hero and heroine started life with full-blown goals, motivations, and conflicts. I knew exactly what each of them wanted from page one, why they wanted it, and what stood in their way. It was a gift from the gods. All I had to do was stand back and watch them fight for what they wanted. *sigh* If only all characters came so fully equipped.

Most of the time you have to equip your characters yourself. How to do that is the main thrust of GMC. Even if you already know that your characters must want something (goal) and you know why they want it (motivation) and why they can't have it (conflict), this book is still worth having in your library.

One of the reasons is because, if you're anything like me, you sometimes confuse the elements. And it's easy to do. If you'd asked me before I read this what my heroine's goal was in the story I channeled, I'd have said, "to have a family of her own" but that's actually her motivation.
GMC provides a formula to encompass the three elements. That formula comes down to 3 words: want, because, but.

The little girl wants ice cream because all the other children at her birthday party are having ice cream but she's lactose intolerant.

And there you have it. Goal, motivation, and conflict. Interestingly enough, this formula comes in handy when you need to pitch your story.

But it's not always that easy for me. One of the examples Dixon uses extensively in GMC is Casablanca. In the beginning of the movie, Rick's goal is to keep the bar open, but what's the motivation? Initially, I drew a blank because, for me, the fact that he needs money is so basic and so universal that I skate right over it. It's a "duh" motivation. But apparently, "duh" motivations are valid. My guess is, however, that if you have a "duh" motivation, your either going to need interesting goals and conflicts or have additional goals for the character to keep the reader engaged.

While identifying the GMC is the books main thrust, Dixon touches on other things: black moments, showing vs. telling, viewpoint, dominant impressions, urgency, and query writing because these things tie to GMC. She handles each subject with the clarity that has made so many aspiring writers find a permanent place on their bookshelf for this book.

What revelations have you found in writing books, magazines, or websites? Which resources do you recommend to others?

If you'd like to see reviews of other writing sources, go here.  

Best Books of the Year

As the year draws to a close, it's only natural to reflect on what the year brought into your life. Books are always a big part of that for me. I find new books (or at least new to me) by browsing bookstores (online and mortar) or by word of mouth. Sometimes I take a risk based on an online review. That's getting more common for me. Since I thought it might be for you as well, I decided to share the ups and downs of my year and invite you to do the same. 

What was the best book you read this year? The best new author you discovered? The most astounding non-fiction? The biggest disappointment? Don't limit yourself to one per category. I know that sometimes it's impossible to choose just one and I won't make you.
Here's my choices. Maybe you'll find something you just have to read.



The Best Book:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Wild Fling or Wedding Ring by Mira Lyn Kelly

Honorable Mention:
All Larry Brooks' back list. He's like a darker, more twisted version of Harlan Coben.

Blood and Circumstance by Frank Turner Hollon. He always amazes me because he writes such tight stories in like 200 pages and this is no different, except he completely blew my mind with this. Ambiguous endings don't usually make me happy, but this one just made me reread the story, trying to build a case for the ending my heart wanted.

Sugar Creek by Toni Blake. What can I say? She's one of my favorite authors.



Non-Fiction
Highway to Hell - John Geddes. Written by an ex-SAS officer who is boots-on-the-ground in Iraq. Timely and informative.

The Quest for Cosmic Justice by Thomas Sowell. I "discovered" Thomas Sowell because, well, frankly, I'm an economics junky. But he's written on so many subjects that one has to classify him a true renaissance man. Clear thinking and wise.


Reaper's Line:Life and Death on the Mexican Border by Lee Morgan. Another timely book. Written by an ex-border patrol officer, this illuminates a lot of what's really going on at our southern border.

And for me, there's always a special category labeled "Writing Books."


Most Disappointing:
The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. I don't think I need to elaborate  about this choice.

The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King. I'm not very forgiving when an author takes the easy way out and gives the character an "I'm TSTL" moment to make the plot work out. What else can you call it when a "retiring" pirate strips her ship of all it's weapons while still sailing the waters where she plied her trade? Something bad then proceeded to happen. Uh, gee. Ya think? (Gotta wonder—didn't her editor notice either?)

So here's my favorite part. Share your favorites with me (or your disappointments.) What did I miss that I absolutely should read?

Writing Nuggets for December

As promised, I'm posting links that I think will take you to interesting and useful places. These all seem to revolve around character this time. I've already blogged here about how important character is, so my focus this month shouldn't be too surprising.


An interesting way to measure character motivation and growth

If you're like me, you don't find those character charts very useful. You know the ones I'm talking about. The ones that think you should know what each character's favorite color is. On the other hand, these nine questions will lead to interesting insights into your characters.

This is a little harder to get to because you have to be a member of Savvy Authors. Basic membership is free however, and this article describing a technique for deepening character point of view is worth every penny. ;) I turned a critique buddy onto it (hi Joey) and her writing jumped several levels almost instantly.

If you visit any of the sites and find them useful, I'd love it if you came back and wrote a testimonial to help guide others.

Modern Mythology 101: What Are You Teaching Your Audience?

Mythologist, teacher, and author Joseph Campbell said that the purpose of mythology was to teach people how to live their lives. That would explain why so many myths endured for so long.

As different as our modern world is from ancient times, it's nearly impossible to see how these stories apply to the lives we live today. So where does our current mythology comes from? I think it comes from books and movies. Maybe even video games. That kind of makes what we write today really important, I think.

But isn't romance just light, fluff reading? Housewife porn, some call it. Surely nothing to take seriously. Only suitable for air-headed girls.

But doesn't the romance genre speak to us about how we should treat each other? About how to value ourselves? About what a relationship between men and women should be? These are important lessons. And the audience is bigger than we think it is.

Some time ago, I read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ayaan was raised as a Muslim in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. She later became a member of Parliament in the Netherlands and this is her story. It's quite an amazing story, too, and I recommend it highly. My point in mentioning it here is that one of the fascinating tidbits she relates is how she and other young Muslim girls used to read Harlequin category romances on the sly. These books were her introduction to the idea that a woman might be treated as a man's equal. The one-man, one-woman relationships made these stories almost fairy tales, they were so far out of her frame of reference. The stories didn't cause any sudden liberation tendencies in these girls, but they did put a seed in her mind. One that helped her adjust later, when she so bravely left the Muslim world behind.

One of the lessons I learned from her story is that you never know who might read your story or what the impact on them might be. Even if what you're writing is "only" romance.

I'd love to know what modern "mythologies" took seed in your mind and how they shaped your thinking.

Panning for Gold

I'm not always the most up-to-date person on the web. Okay, I'll admit it. I'm rarely the most up-to-date person anywhere. Are you happy now?

Often it's because I have way more stuff to do than I have time to do it in. I want the time I spend online to have value. That means I can't follow every blog or tweet or even facebook post I might like to (especially Twitter. Do people really think I have a burning need to know what brand of cereal they had for breakfast?)

I'm sure a lot of you face this same time crunch I do. It's so easy to miss good content because you don't have time to hunt it down. When I find something I think is really valuable, I have this nearly overwhelming urge to share it. That's what's led me to the decision that once a month, (in the future, the first Friday of the month, I think.) I'm going to post links to what I've found recently that's struck me as worth the attention of other writers who want to perfect their craft. The posts I'm linking to may not (okay, make that "will not") be hot off the presses. They may be years old, but they're new to me and the wisdom in them has a forever shelf life. Sort of like Hostess Twinkies.

I haven't decided yet if I will announce these posts. Mostly because I don't want to be that naggy blogger who elbows her way to the front of the line every time I fart. So after you check out a few of the links, if you think you'll have a burning need not to miss any of these bright, shiny coins of wisdom, you might want to sign up for either the blog's RSS feed or email alerts.

Now that all that disclaimer stuff is out of the way, let's get this show on the road.

I like this post because it doesn't just tell you to fix the problem, it gives some guidance on how to identify the problem and then some suggestions on how to fix them.

Be sure to click through to Larry Brooks analysis. It's educational. Keep in mind, Larry writes suspense and he writes it extremely well, but suspense has certain conventions and expectations that don't necessarily hold true for other genres (like romance.) Just the same, 99.9% of what he says applies no matter what you're writing.

I'm still wrapping my head around proper story structure. If you are too, this is another good post from Larry Brooks.

That's it. Only 3 today. Check them out. And let me know if any of them speak to you.

Because I Said So - The "Rules" of Writing

Any writer who's been around me any length of time at all knows that I don't want to hear "they say" in a critique of my writing. I've been doing this long enough that it makes we want to scream when someone pulls out some rule that often doesn't even apply because they don't know what the rule is meant to accomplish.

The "rules" will teach you to write well but to really get good, you need to understand the reason behind each rule. If you don't, then you'll never know when to break the rule. FREX, you'll be told not to used -ing verbs (progressive tense verbs). That's because too many beginning writers don't understand that this verb form implies continuing action. Used in a complex sentence, it can also imply simultaneous action. This creates problems when you see a sentence such as:

"Opening the door, she crossed the room."

Uhm. I think not. Not unless she has extremely loooong arms. (This rule, along with a number of others, is enumerated and explained in the Turkey City Lexicon which can be found at: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/turkey-city-lexicon-a-primer-for-sf-workshops/)

There's also a "rule" about gerunds. (Gerund is a progressive tense verb used as a noun. e.g. Running is good exercise.) The "rule" says don't use gerunds (though I suspect this often comes from new writers who can't tell a noun from a verb and so are applying the previous rule wholesale.)

The real "rule" is that gerunds slow the pacing. Well, gee. Maybe I want to slow the pacing. Maybe this is a good place for a gerund. See what I mean? How would you know unless you understand why that particular rule exists?

I suspect that the codification of the rules happens because new writers tend to make the same mistakes over and over until more experienced writers are tired of explaining over and over why they need to change what they're doing. They become the writer's version of "because I said so." That makes them dangerous because new writers pick them up and share them among themselves, spreading their non-wisdom like the bubonic plague.

So my advice to all new writers is: whenever someone tells you "don't do that" but they don't explain why, ask. If the answer comes back as some version of "they say", stop and think about it. Does the advice make sense? Do published authors whose style you admire do this? If they do, is it only rarely?

Few writing rules are truly unbreakable, but you need to understand what they mean to accomplish before you'll know when to break them.

When it comes right down to it, the rules have a lot in common with the Pirate's Code; they're more like guidelines. You were never meant to follow them off a cliff.

You spend the second half of your life getting over the first half -- and why that's important in fiction


I got a 2011 calendar in the mail the other day.

Free.

Gratis.

When I opened the envelope and found the calendar, I felt a small wave of relief. I won’t have to buy one this year.

You see, my mother had a thing about not buying calendars, so whenever I've had to buy one, I felt slightly guilty.

Why is this important? It’s not really. Or at least, not to anyone but me.

But it proves the adage above about how hard it is to shake the things in your childhood and youth. Not that I needed more proof. I see it all around me, in everyone I get to know well enough that they start telling stories about how they grew up.

The first twenty years in particular leave their indelible marks. No one escapes scarring. I have a friend who has a perfectly nice mother. My friend acknowledges that her mother was always very supportive, but she also clearly remembers her mother saying, “You’re going to have to rely on your personality in life, because you’re no beauty.”

Now my friend is not a bowser. She doesn’t have bucked teeth or a wandering eye. She wasn’t born with a harelip. As easily attractive as any of my other friends, she makes the most of her good features and minimizes her imperfections.

And she would die before she left the house without her makeup on.

Did her mother’s comment (which her mother doesn’t even remember) cause this behavior? Probably not. Or at least not all by itself. The human psyche is, after all, a complex critter, but were I writing a character who was fastidious about her appearance, I know that growing that trait out of something in her background (and preferably her childhood) adds depth to the character. The right background detail can take what looks at first glance like egotism and turn it into insecurity, morphing what might be an unlikable character into one the reader feels sympathy for. It works even if their role in the story is that of villain.

It's a tool you need and the best part is that it's a tool that's easy to use once you grasp its importance.

Writing: A Risky Business

Writers always face the possibility of looking idiotic.

How many of you voiced a spontaneous amen reading that? I know I did when I read it this week.
From the day we first pick up a pen or create a fresh Word document, intending to write something for someone else’s eyes, whether we ever work up the courage to share what we’ve written or not, to the day our latest work is published, we risk looking idiotic.

With every line, every word choice, every simile and metaphor, we risk looking foolish. The fresher, more creative our imagery, the greater the risk.

So once we’re past the novice stage, why do we take the risk? Why do we stretch that metaphor just a hair beyond where we know it will work? Why do we insert a simile that speaks to us but that we know might not connect with our audience?

Truck: A Love Story (P.S.)We do it because the potential reward for that perfect, fresh image is a high that can leave you just as light-headed and delirious as the last push to crest Everest. Though it might not be as dangerous as tackling the tallest mountain in the world, we push the envelope, because to do otherwise condemns us to lackluster prose and tired clich├ęs.Examples of vivid, fresh imagery exist everywhere. One of my all-time favorites is from Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry.

It (a singer's voice) sounds as if it was aged in a whiskey cask, cured in an Ozarks smokehouse, dropped down a stone well, pulled out damp, and kept moist in the palm of a wicked woman's hand.

*sigh*

Most neo-writers, unless they’re natural wordsmiths, can’t construct a sentence with this kind of incandescent imagery. Hell, I’ll probably never write anything half as poetic. But fortunately, the brain functions much like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the better it gets at this sort of thing, so someday, maybe, I’ll find myself typing something that makes me sigh wistfully the way Michael Perry's writing does.

One of the ways I encourage my brain is to take note of phrases and images that particularly strike me. I have an entire file of them on my computer, not because I’m going to steal them, but to remind myself of what I’m shooting for. They also stimulate whatever part of my brain comes up with fresh images. There was a time when I had a need and the only image I could think of that said what I needed was “toast popping up out of a toaster.” Because I was writing high fantasy, that image didn’t work. But the image of prairie dogs popping up out of their dens did. I was a neo-writer back then, so I’m embarrassed now at how long it took me to find that second image. I’ve had a lot more practice now. Those better images come easier.

The ultimate reward may be seeing a phrase you invented become a part of pop culture, a lexicon borrowed by others because you vision resonates with the masses. Most of us will never achieve that pinnacle, but we can easily imagine the thrill of hearing our words spoken by strangers.

Still, the potential for embarrassment is always there, and if I didn’t have a safety net in the form of critique buddies who will haul me back from the precipice when I get too reckless, too creative, to avante guard, I’d be more cautious about taking the risks I do take.  When my foray into creative thinking is rewarded with their approval, I become more confident and  adventuresome. But when they don’t, I sadly kiss my darlings goodbye. Okay, so more often they have to drag them from my arms with me thrashing about and cussing them for the unimaginative cretins they must be to not “get” my vision. Your true friends will insist anyway.

The important thing is to try. Yes, you risk looking like an idiot, but it's like the lottery: you can't win if you don't play. So take that risk. After all, you've already proven your willingness to look like an idiot the moment you typed the first word of that first story.

Trust Your Reader

This is one of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn about writing but it's also perhaps the single most important lesson.

So what does it mean to trust your reader?

For me, it meant not repeating the stuff that was important for the reader to know. I'd try to be subtle but clear. Then a page later, I'd say it another way. Then again, a few pages further along. My critique group was ready to beat me over the head with my own manuscript, and I can't count the times I heard, "Yeah, we got it the first time."

So trusting your reader means you don't beat them repeatedly over the head with stuff.

But it also means you don't give them every little nuance you're writing about. Your readers have life experience, and I'll just bet most of them have been in love and been disappointed by love which, if you're writing a romance, means that at one time or another they've felt everything your characters are feeling. They have that experience to tap into, so writers don't have to give them every tiny detail of what the characters are feeling. In fact, if you do all the work for them and don't let them bring anything of their own to the table, the reader will have exactly zero emotional investment in your story

The flip side of trusting your reader is learning to trust yourself and your ability to convey what you intend to. Yeah, I know. For some of us, this is just as tough as learning to trust the reader. But this is another place where critique groups are helpful. If you pare down your explanations and no one says "Huh?", pare it down some more. When your critique buddies finally start saying, "I don't get it" you've gone too far. You'll be surprised at how little you need to explain and your writing will get tight, lean, and effective.

writer's tools - My opinion of two

Do you blog? Do you follow blogs? Have you realized yet that you can spend your life reading blogs?

I've been down that road myself. I've even had "must-read" blogs. But after a while, even the best start to feel like they have nothing new to say, so even though they have good, worthwhile content, I won't read it forever.

My current "must read" blog is at Storyfix.com. This is Larry Brooks' blog. Who is Larry Brooks you ask? I didn't know either when I stumbled onto his blog, but what he had to say interested me a great deal, because he talks about something most novelists don't talk about much--story structure. The exception is all the books about Hero's Quest which never helped me much because they were rather wishy-washy about all the steps being included.

(BTW, Larry Brooks writes intricately structured suspense with lots of switchbacks and reversals and I'm currently working my way through his back list. If you like Harlan Coben, there's a good chance you'd like Larry Brooks--though Brooks' stories tend to be a bit darker.)

Now I've read a lot of books on writing novels, but I'd never read anything that really dug into how to structure my stories. My story writing has always been very seat-of-my-pants with a constant awareness that I had to keep the tension up. My end results weren't bad, doing it this way, but I've come to the realization that I was working harder than necessary and when I'd get stuck I didn't know why I was stuck or how to get unstuck. In large part, I have Storyfix to thank for helping me to see the light.

One of the things you'll find there are detailed deconstructions of several movies, including most recently, An Education, Avatar, and Shutter Island.

Examples! I love examples! They're a huge help illustrating the point and helping me understand.

About the same time I was in up to my elbows at Storyfix, I picked up Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! which is about screenwriting. Let me tell you something: screenwriters are into story structure. That's where all the books on the topic are hiding. Save the Cat! delves even deeper than Storyfix does, touching on more "beats", explaining what they are and where they should come in the story. Blake Snyder's beat sheet alone is worth the price of the book and has the added benefit of being a perfect outline for the synopsis because it highlights what's important emotionally to the story's progression.

So why is it important to understand story structure?

How many times have you started a new story, all bright and shiny and exciting, only to have it fizzle out on page 75? My beta reader could tell you that I've done that a lot. Now I know why. I'd hit that first major plot point and get stuck, not sure which way I should jump. (Certainly, this is a form of writer's block.) Of course, I didn't know enough about plot structure to understand what had caused me stall up. Now I do. Now I can see how to get past that hump in the road.

If that's not cool, I don't know what is.

BTW, there's a second book in the Save the Cat! series: Save the Cat goes to the Movies. As Storyfix does with deconstruction, this second book helps you grasp what Snyder talks about extensively in the first book by using movies as examples, showing how their structures are similar even though the stories they tell are light years apart.

So what are you're must-read blogs? What are the resources that have enlightened you?

A Theme in a Million

Today's issue is theme. I suck at figuring out theme, but I just read A Story is a Promise by Bill Johnson, and Bill spends some time on theme (though the author refers to it as "premise," it's the same thing.)

The author gives examples of premises to well-known stories.

FREX:
Romeo and Juliet - Great Love defies even death

It seems so obvious in retrospect. Others examples of theme statements the author uses are:

Going through the pain of young love leads to growth.
Hate destroys those who wield it as a weapon.

Which, guess what? Could also be applied to Romeo and Juliet. As well as half a million other stories. Which makes me crazy. How is knowing what feels like a generic statement about your story helpful? I just don't see it.

But what was useful—what gave me a completely different perspective—were the open ended statements the author posed to help get me to the premise.

They are:
My story is about...
The movement of my story toward the resolution of its promise can be described as...
The fulfillment of my story is....

Okay, so I'm also crappy at figuring out how to use these without an example to follow. The author, thank heavens, provides one. Using Rocky again, he proposes:

Rocky is a story about someone discovering within himself the courage to overcome insurmountable obstacles.

He neglects to give a tidy statement for the second statement but specifies that it must involve the actions of the main character moving toward the story's ultimate goal.

The fulfillment of Rocky is that Rocky's courage to overcome the odds proves he is somebody to himself and the world.

Which leads to a premise/theme of:
The courage to persevere in the face of overwhelming obstacles leads to self-respect

...and we're back to a statement that could be applied to just about every story in the world. And that I find too general to be useful.

But the questions used to get there? Ah, those I found useful. Those helped me grasp something about a story that's been giving me fits for months. I've started the story, stopped, backed up, changed direction, stopped, started again and on and on in a viscous cycle. But these questions have helped me to realize that what I was trying to write about is that paralyzing emotion when you love someone so much that they become your hostages to fortune. Once I got that, suddenly, everything about the story crystallized. I understood not only the heroine's issue, but I knew what the issues were for the subplots and secondary characters, and how to make them resonate with the heroine's issue.

Hallelujah! I've just taken a giant step to solving my story issues.

The author threw one last open ended statement out there, almost like a bonus:

The message I want the reader to walk away with is....

Which is theme, yes, but maybe that little tweak in perspective is what I needed to make it resonate for me. Maybe it will help it resonate for you, too.

Typecasting Readers

I read a comment in a blog the other day that advised writers to read outside their genre and made the comment that romance readers were more like to read Harlan Corben than visa versa (or was it the other way around?) Either way, I was a little offended. I read both (love Harlan & I've read every one of his books) and I realized that to categorize a reader is just ludicrous. I'm not a "romance reader" or a "Harlan Corben reader." That would be like saying, "I'm a corn-flakes-box reader." I'm a reader.

It seems silly to me to put readers in a box. You've got "romance readers" over here and Harlan Corben readers over there, segregating them as though they can only be one thing. Today I may be a romance reader, tomorrow it may be science fiction, the day Harlan's new book comes out, I will be a Harlan Corben reader (I'm rabid about his books.) The day after it may be Frank Turner Hollon. Or Dean Koontz. Or Barbara Hambly. Or Milton Friedman. (all of these authors have books on my keeper shelf.) And I think that when someone says it's a stretch for a Harlan Corben reader to pick up a Jennifer Crusie, they've bought into the propaganda that romance isn't as "smart" as other genres. Too many people already look down on romance, just as they looked down on SF&F in the 30s and 40s because so much pulp was published. It took SF&F a long time to live down that reputation, and I think when those within the romance genre perpetuate the image that readers of more complex, "smarter" books won't stoop low enough to read a romance it does a disservice to the genre.