Tag Archives: the story grid

The Advantage of a Reader’s Guide for Writers

So, I’m convinced we can learn anything from any source we encounter, especially when we’re not looking for it. The trick is to recognize it as a lesson when we see it or hear it or feel it or taste it…you get the idea.

Monday night, when I finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir (and then watched the movie to see how close it is to the book—pretty close, with a few disasters omitted and a slightly different and modified ending plus epilogue), I didn’t fully close the book until I read through the supplemental materials at the end, including “A Conversation with Andy Weir,” “An Essay from Andy Weir: How Science Made Me a Writer,” and, most relevant to this post, “A Reader’s Guide” because I wanted my money’s worth. I suspect most readers would’ve closed it after reading the final lines, and that’s understandable, as I would usually do the same. And anyone but the avid consumers of knowledge would feel okay with leaving the rest of it on the table because the important part, the story itself, is now over.

But as I was reading through the reader’s guide, being kinda nerdy that way, I realized it was unintentionally giving me a lesson on how to write a novel.

Now, let me be clear that I’ve been studying how to write a novel for many years. I’m not learning anything new per se, just better understanding the lessons I’ve already picked up along the way. But for new authors, or those who are out of practice, or those who are in-practice but still clueless, there is much to learn from reading books on writing. But, incidentally, there is also much to learn in the reader’s guides for novels you might like. You know, learn by accident doing something you already like doing. Win-win. Just figure out early that you’re learning something useful.

Here’s an example:

After finishing with the movie, I started listening to The Story Grid Podcast, hosted by Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl, the episode titled “The Martian and A Christmas Carol,” or simply “The Martian Carol,” as it’s referred to on The Story Grid website, and took some mental notes as they broke down The Martian’s global genre, which is Action Adventure, and its specific plotline, Man Versus Nature. If you look at the first paragraph of the reader’s guide you’ll see the passage,

“A castaway story for the new millennium, The Martian presents a fresh take on the classic man-versus-nature battle for survival by setting it on the surface of Mars—a planet completely hostile to sustaining human life.”

Why is this caption important for the writer? Well, it tells you the genre and plotline right there in the opening line. If you visit The Story Grid website, which is all about teaching writers how to edit their books, you’ll see that knowing your genre is the most important first step in writing your book. If you know what kind of genres your favorite books fall into, you’ll have a better understanding what conventions are needed once you start writing the book of your dreams.

So, considering that, let’s look at some of the reader’s guide questions. Again, these are taken directly from the reader’s guide at the end of The Martian paperback. There are twenty in the book. I’ll highlight the first three to make my point. Very slight spoilers in the questions. Also note that I won’t actually attempt to answer these questions the way they’re intended. Rather, I will briefly discuss why they’re helpful for writers to think about:

Question #1: How did The Martian challenge your expectations of what the novel would be? What did you find most surprising about it?

This is a great question to ask yourself when you finish writing your book because if the answer is “it didn’t” or “er…nuthin’,” then maybe you didn’t try hard enough to write a compelling story. So a good follow-up question might be: What would’ve made the novel more surprising yet natural? Of course, the ideal solution would be to anticipate this question before writing so that you can consider what surprises the reader might find before you write right past them.

Question #2: What makes us root for a character to live in a survival story? In what ways do you identify with Mark? How does the author get you to care about Mark?

More specifically, why should the reader care about Mark? Or, why should the reader care about your character? If we consider Mark Watney’s plight, how he handles it, and whether or not we care, then we can begin to understand what it takes to get us to care about a particular character, including the ones that we write about. Isn’t that an important part of writing fiction: getting the characters to an empathetic state?

Question #3: Do you believe the crew did the right thing in abandoning the search for Mark? Was there an alternative choice?

If we can answer this question honestly, then we can begin to see the consequences of our characters’ choices and how those consequences feed into new consequences, if we’re honest with ourselves and make a decision early on not to take the easy way out. If Andy Weir had been asked this very question before he wrote the book (assuming the story was a disembodied entity just waiting for a book or website to latch onto) would having the captain spending so long searching the evacuation area that she discovers Mark alive and well, though unconscious, be the easy way out? What if she found him and assumed he was dead? Would that still be the easy way out? Would that make the story better, worse, or basically void of the point? Isn’t abandoning the crewmate without certainty of status far worse, and thus harder to write but with a more satisfying payoff, than the alternative, easier choices? Doesn’t that choice give us a story?

Clearly, reader’s guides are handy for writers to read along with the novel itself because they can train authors how to anticipate the questions that avid readers might have when reading their books. Many novels don’t have reader’s guides attached, but for those that do, like The Martian, which is really a fantastic book through and through, as is the Blu-ray version, if you’re an author, I would take a little bit of time going through the questions and answering them honestly for your education. The more reader’s guides you examine, the more likely you’ll ask similar questions for your own books and preempt answers to your readers’ questions.

Just a thought I had Monday night.

And, for the record, I highly recommend reading the book if you like stories about humans overcoming ridiculous odds to survive nonsurvivable situations while exploring places we’ll likely never visit ourselves. But I also recommend you read it before visiting the reader’s guide. It helps to know the story before trying to answer questions about it. Oh, and the movie is great, but the book is better.

End-of-the Month Roundup: August 2016

My Friday Updates started off with a bang, and then they tapered off, and most of August has been without. “Why?” you may ask. Well, the simple reason is that I haven’t had much to talk about in August.

But, I suppose that’s not entirely true. I have actually done a lot of work, but not on my writing. I’ve been spending much of August studying, marketing in particular, but also editing. It’s the editing I’ve been learning that’s stalled my free-flow of writing. In short, I want to get my stories right, and to do so, I have to better understand the genres they fit in.

I’ve always had a problem with genre classification. I get the general genres like action and drama. But I’ve never been taught the conventions of these global genres, nor the conventions or obligatory scenes of their more defined parts (like action adventure, for example). Thanks to The Story Grid, I’ve been learning more about the genre types, and to some extent the conventions that make them work. More importantly, I’ve been giving more thought to what defines certain stories within their chosen genres, including my own stories. Especially my own stories.

I’ve been wanting to write an update to The Computer Nerd for a while, but I’ve been holding off because I want to attempt to run it through the grid (as outlined at The Story Grid website), and I want to be sure I fully understand how the grid works, and in turn figure out what I still need to do to make The Computer Nerd work. I also want to pick up Shawn Coyne’s book so that I have some kind of textbook to refer to when I give storygridding (a term Shawn Coyne coined) a try. I think it’ll be easier to graph once I know exactly what I’m supposed to do.

To be clear, I do think the story works based on the genre I’ve established. But now I’m wondering if I’ve picked the right genre. And I also think I can make it better. Even still, I have pictures in my head for improving it.

But, of course, that’s not the only thing I’ve been studying, nor the only thing keeping me up late at night.

When I do put it through a new rewrite, and eventually rerelease it, I also need to consider the cover image. I like what I have, but I don’t know that it’s appropriate for the genre. So much to consider, and I feel like no matter how much I learn about my craft, my awaiting knowledge seems to stack and stack.

There’s also the secondary concern about marketing. Whenever I do reedit and repost the story, I’ll want to do so with a change to the metadata. In short, I want this thing primed for marketing, and that means stripping out much of what’s already in there and replacing it with a more direct (and beneficial) link.

But how do I follow that?

The primary marketing tactic I see and hear all over the Internet is that the mailing list remains king. And guess what. I don’t have one. Nope, no mailing list. My blog subscription option is the best source I have for sending out new information, and most of the people who come here come to read my one comedic post about hoverboards, so they’re not going to subscribe. Clearly, that needs to change. So, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the mailing list and when to start it. But, I don’t want to really push the thing until I have what Nick Stephenson calls a “reader magnet” ready, and I’m starting to think that moving the post-credits scene to a mailing list exclusively is a bad idea. That scene is really part of the book, and should remain with the book. So, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a novella about the bounty hunter who’s searching for our mental institution escapees (spoiler alert if you haven’t read The Computer Nerd) and using that as my subscription incentive.

Would you be interested in reading the story of Mr. Sanders’s pursuit of our escapees?

Of course, getting people to subscribe means giving them something else to buy down the road, and The Computer Nerd is not something I plan to make a sequel or an entire series out of. It’s supposed to be standalone. Assuming they want something in the same genre, what do I give them?

I’ve been giving more thought to other stories I’ve posted or have planned to post by now–Gutter Child and Teenage American Dream specifically–and considered that maybe their stories could fit more into a mystery or thriller convention, and less in the convention they already have. So, among all of my other stray thoughts, I’m wondering if I should expand Gutter Child and turn the current plot into a subplot, and give Teenage American Dream a darker problem. I have some ideas on how I can expand them, but that will undoubtedly hold up my current plans of the other stories I’ve mentioned on this blog. I feel like I’ve been ignoring them long enough.

So, that’s how my month has been. No progress, just a lot of studying.

I also host a biannual game-making contest, which had a deadline this month, so I’ve been giving that a lot of my attention. But you came here to find out about my writing, didn’t you?