Further Reflections on the Mirror Moment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I enjoy getting emails and tweets from writers regarding the “mirror moment,” which is the subject of my book, Write Your Novel From the Middle. Recently I received two that I thought would make good fodder for a post (we at TKZ are always looking for good fodder).

The first email was a great question from someone who asked about the mirror moment in a long series. She used Sue Grafton’s alphabet series as an example. Should each book have a mirror moment? How can a series character go through so many changes?

I wrote back reminding her that there are two kinds of mirror moments. The first kind is about identity. It asks questions like, “Who am I? Why am I this way? What must I become?” It’s Rick in Casablanca.

The second kind is about death. It is the realization, “I’m probably going to die. The opposition is too great. How can I possibly survive?” That’s Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

So I suggested that in any Kinsey Millhone mystery (and in mystery series in general), there could always be a realization in the middle that this case, this puzzle, this villain is the most perplexing or dangerous of their career. It looks like they could “die” (professionally) this time.

But that is not to say the character in any given book in a series cannot have a personal crisis of identity, too. Exhibit A would be the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly.

C is for confession: I have not read all of the alphabet books by Sue Grafton. I think I may have stopped around F. But the question intrigued me, so I went to the library and picked one of the later books at random—Q is For Quarry. I sat down and, as is my practice when mirror hunting, turned to the physical center of the book and just started looking around. Was there anything relating to identity? Or anything indicating this was the biggest challenge of her career?

Lo and behold, I found that it was about identity. Kinsey, who lost both her parents in a car accident when she was very young, has had a hole in her identity ever since. In this scene from the middle of the book, she is looking at a photograph of her mother. You don’t even have to know the details of the plot to know that this is the language of an identity-type of mirror moment:

I placed the frame on my desk, sitting back in my swivel chair with my feet propped up. Several things occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of before. I was now twice my mother’s age the day the photograph was taken. Within four months of that date, my parents would be married, and by the time she was my age, she’d have a daughter three years old. By then my parents would have had only another two years to live. It occurred to me that if my mother had survived, she’d be seventy. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a mother in my life—the phone calls, the visits and shopping trips, holiday rituals so alien to me. I’d been resistant to the Kinseys, feeling not only adamant but hostile to the idea of continued contact. Now I wondered why the offer of simple comfort felt like such a threat. Wasn’t it possible that I could establish a connection with my mother through her two surviving sisters? Surely, Maura and Susanna shared many of her traits—gestures and phrases, values and attitudes ingrained in them since birth. While my mother was gone, couldn’t I experience some small fragment of her love through my cousins and aunts? It didn’t seem too much to ask, although I still wasn’t clear what price I might be expected to pay.

I locked the office early, leaving the photo of my mother in the center of my desk. Driving home, I couldn’t resist touching on the issue, much in the same way the tongue seeks the socket from which a tooth has just been pulled. The compulsion resulted in the same shudder-producing blend of satisfaction and repugnance.

Thus, any book in a long-running series can include subplot elements that relate to the hero’s identity and transformation.

Shortly after this I got an email from my friend, writer Rich Bullock. He told me he’d been watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and in the chapter titled “The Mirror Cave” Rey is being tempted by the dark side (what a shock) and challenged by Kylo Ren on her true identity. Rich told me it was smack dab in the middle.

So I checked out the DVD from the library, chucked in the player, and went to the scene. Rey has fallen into this mirror cave, and is hoping it will give her a clue about who she truly is. Kylo Ren is somewhere else, but able to communicate with her:

KYLO REN: Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.

REY: No! No!

REY (VOICE OVER): I should have felt trapped or panicked. But I didn’t. This didn’t go on forever, I knew it was leading somewhere. And that, at the end, it would show me what I came to see.

REY: Let me see them. My parents … please.

She touches the mirror. Two shadowy figures approach from the other side of the glass. But when the frost clears, Rey is looking at … herself!

I took a look at the DVD timeline:

Hmm, we’re 1:16 into a 2:32 movie. I’m no math whiz, but I believe you can’t get any more middle than that!

The mirror moment works every time.

(For more on this, see my post “Revisiting the Mirror Moment”.)

That’s it for today, kids. I’m on the road most of the day, but will try to check in later. Talk amongst yourselves, esp. those of you writing series characters. How do you handle any inner transformation?

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Ten Penalties All Writers Must Avoid

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.56.26 AM

Forgive my second sports-related post in a row, but come on! It’s Super Bowl Sunday! Across America––and indeed the world––fans will gather around big screens in homes and bars to watch the most exciting spectacle of the viewing year: funny commercials!

Oh yes, and a football game.

This one has drama. On the one side we have the Denver Broncos and their quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is without question one of the greatest QBs of all time, a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer. But injuries and Father Time have taken their toll. Thus, this will likely be Manning’s final game and his last chance to win one more Super Bowl ring.

On the other side is the new kid, the immensely talented Cam Newton. This guy is huge––6’5”, 260, with a cannon of an arm and legs that can go. He led his Carolina Panthers to an amazing 17-1 season. And now he makes his Super Bowl debut.

I will be with friends noshing sausages, pulled pork, chili, and items from the other essential food groups–the salted nut group, the nacho group, and of course the chocolate-covered anything group.

I hope the game is a good one. I’d love to see it go down to the final minutes. I’ll also be very happy if a kicker does not miss a last-second field goal and thus suffer from nightmares the rest of his life.

And let us hope the game is not marred by a lot of penalties! Hate to see those yellow flags all over the field.

It occurred to me there are some penalty flags that are thrown on writers. So in the interest of helping you write your best, here are some violations you must avoid lest you lose yardage (which, for writers, is measured in pages) and, much more important, readers.

  1. False start

Are you warming up your engines at the beginning of your novel? Do you spend too much time with exposition and backstory? Do you go several pages without a disturbance? Are you giving us “Happy People in Happy Land”? That’s a false start. Penalty: five pages.

  1. Illegal use of the adverbs

Are you using too many adverbs to prop up weak verbs? Worse, are you using adverbs to prop up dialogue? Are you writing things like:

“Get out of here, you louse!” Sheila yelled angrily.

Or

“I’m gonna cut your heart out and feed it to the family dog,” he said threateningly.

If you do, you’ll be penalized, and it’s a big one: fifteen pages.

  1. Passage interference

Also known as the illegal flashback. This is where you stop a narrative in its tracks to give us a long look backward at some scene from the past. Unless there is a dang good reason for this, you will get a yellow flag and docked ten pages.

  1. Encroachment

Also known as author intrusion, this is when you try to sneak in some exposition that does not sound natural to the voice of the character (this penalty is explained more fully in the book VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing).

The skilled referee usually finds this in dialogue. The author wants to slip information to the reader through the characters’ words, but they are words the character would never use. Such as:

“Listen, Martha, you’re my lovely wife of twenty-eight years, and I wouldn’t be the head of surgery at Johns Hopkins without you. Especially after suffering that head injury in college when I foolishly went out for the rugby team. But dammit, you can’t dwell on your past as a stripper in a Nevada roadhouse when you were known as Cling Peaches. Please try to relax, like your sister Mary, who is two years younger than you, so we can go enjoy dinner in our hometown of Denver, Colorado.”

Encroachment is an automatic five pages, and loss of down.

  1. Delay of plot

Have you pushed your protagonist through the Doorway of No Return by the 20% mark of your novel? No? Then here’s a hard truth: it’s starting to drag. It doesn’t matter how quirky your characters. They have overstayed their welcome if they are not, by this time, into the struggle of Act II. Penalty: ten pages.

  1. Ineligible character downfield

Do you introduce a major character after the midpoint? Near the end, do you have a minor character show up out of nowhere to solve a plot problem? If you do, you need to go back to the first half and plant these characters. Five pages.

  1. Roughing the villain

League rules are protecting the antagonist more than ever. What do I mean by that? Simply this: if you have an antagonist who is evil, you must give him his due. You can’t just make him pure evil or insane. Boring! Every villain feels justified, and you the author must “make his case” in the book. Far from excusing his evil, this deepens the emotional currents in the reader and, ironically, makes the evil all the more scary. Fifteen page penalty for this one, plus the league may order you go to some rehab, like right here.

  1. Intentional sounding

Have you fallen in love with your sentences? There’s a reason the axiom “kill your darlings” exists. I should explain that this doesn’t mean cut every sentence you like. You’re allowed to delight in your own good writing. But you have to make sure it works for your story, and is true to character and context. Ten pages if, in the judgment of the officials, your pretty prose is more showing off than storytelling.

  1. Illegal motion

Does your story feel unfocused during that long struggle through Act II? Are there scenes that meander? Have you lost narrative vitality? While this penalty is only five pages, enough of these violations will keep you backed up on your own goal line. One place to look for help is the “mirror moment.” This tells you what your novel is really all about so you can write scenes with organic unity and powerful forward drive.

  1. Unauthorlike conduct

Do you head out to social media without a plan and a brand? Do you fly off the handle when you tweet? Do you slip into unethical sockpuppetry in order to slam your perceived competition? This penalty is severe: you might get thrown out of the game. Worse, the league office may suspend you indefinitely.

A good football team knows how to move the ball. A great football team knows how to correct weaknesses. A championship football team does all that, and avoids the penalties that kill scoring drives.

May you write like a champion.

And enjoy the game! I know I will, even though I am completely impartial.

***(COUGH)GoPeyton(COUGH)***

Has your writing been penalty free lately?

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How to Bring Characters in From the Cold

 

Cold CharacterVirtually all books on character creation contain a list of questions, a “dossier” to fill out which starts with how a character looks, where he was born, and so on through his family circumstances, education, likes and dislikes, etc.

I have not found such forms helpful. It may just be a personal quirk, but I’m never excited about filling out answers to questions.

First of all, too many answers too soon might hinder the development of a character. A book is a living, breathing entity. If I have a long list of facts for a character before I begin writing, it hamstrings me. I may want the character to do one thing or another, but the dossier is set and works against me.

Characters I create using the dossier method seem cold and distant. I want characters who are hot and close.

Consequently, I’ve come up with my own way of bringing story people to the page. It starts with my protagonist and finding a visual (a head shot) that resonates with me, that says to me, This is her! I copy that image and paste it on a character card in Scrivener (this way, I can look at a corkboard of all my characters at once).

Next, I want a unique voice, and that comes from a Voice Journal, a free-form document of the character talking to me. I let the character go on and on until I hear a distinct and surprising voice. It always happens, bubbling up from my basement without me being overtly conscious of it.

From here I usually go to my “mirror moment.” I brainstorm it by making a list of possibilities, until one clicks. Then I let the character talk to me in the Voice Journal. When I nail that moment, I know my pre-story psychology (and can brainstorm that, again with the journal) and the transformation at the end (I try to visualize a scene to prove the transformation. All this is explained in my book, Write Your Novel From the Middle).

I’ll spend almost as much time with my antagonist, but relatively little with the other characters I’ve cast in the story. Why? Because I want to be able to manipulate them as needed. God complex, don’t you know?

As I write to my “signpost scenes” I’ll be creating characters along the way. Instead of stopping for each and filling out a form, I just ask the character to tell me what I need to know!

For example, let’s say I’m writing a scene about a lawyer interviewing a witness. The lawyer is the main character, a female public defender. The witness is an old man who used to be a … I’m thinking about it … I want him to be blue collar … how about a machinist?

I know my Lead pretty well. Now I’ve come to this old man. He’s going to be an important player, so I start by giving him some basics—age, looks, vocation. I’ll find a head shot to match.

Now to the scene. My lawyer is questioning him in his home, and he doesn’t want to talk to her at all. Why not? So I can have conflict, of course. But the question now is why? Why would he refuse?

I asked him.

You wanna know why I don’t want to talk to a lousy lawyer? Well I’ll tell you. The minute you start flapping your gums is the minute you’re going down, because the whole system is rigged against you. I was going good there when the aerospace boom was on in L.A., out there in the San Fernando Valley, and I was good at what I did, I could operate anything, and I had a friend, Buck Franklin, that was the scum sucker’s name, he took me to a couple of meetings where a guy wanted to know if I could use some more scratch, and of course I could’ve, we all could’ve, and before I know it I’ve got a couple of Gs in cash but this guy wants me to give him some information about what’s going on inside Rocketdyne, and I say sure, but instead what I do is go to the FBI, right to ‘em, and tell ‘em what’s going on. But before I can say Jack Robinson, they turn around and arrest me because of some evidence that got planted, because the agent on the case was dirty, but I was never able to prove it, not even to the L.A. Times who wouldn’t touch my story. And I end up out of a job and out of a pension, and can’t get hired, and Buck Franklin ends up farting through silk. So yeah, I’m not talking, I’m clamming, I don’t care if I see the Queen of England walk up to a drug dealer and blow his brains out and take his money. You’ll get nothing from me.

This all just came out as I wrote. I kind of like it. I can tweak it as I will. But the big thing is this: I now feel this character. When I render him on the page he will alive for me––and thus, I hope, for the reader.

So there’s my tip for today: Don’t fill out forms. Let the characters tell you about themselves. And if what they say is Dullsville, dig deeper. Make them reveal a secret to you. Ask them what the one thing is they don’t want anyone to ever know about them.

That’s how you bring your characters in from the cold.

So what about you? What is your process for character creation? Do you like the dossier method? Or are you more of a “character pantser” who creates on the fly?

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When Your Brainstorming Hits a Drought

gobi-692640_1280A writing friend recently shared with a bunch of fellow scribes that she was seriously stuck on the brainstorming aspect of a new project. She gave me permission to blog about it. This author needs to solidify her idea and start writing because she has a thing called a deadline. But, she says, “the story and the characters are seriously playing hard to get.”

She asked, “Would love any brainstorming tips and tricks if you have them! How do you start building your story and characters? And how do you feel productive and intentional when brainstorming is such a creative (often stubborn…at least for me) process?”

It’s a great question. Here is what I wrote to her:

I wonder if part of the deal is what so many of us have expressed over the years with each new book, that it seems to get “harder.” And the reason for that, I believe, is that with each book you’re better and your standards go up. You know what goes into writing a whole book, all the constituent parts, and think, “Man, I’ve got to do all that again! And better!” So every idea in the brainstorming phase gets tested, when it should be a time for getting as many ideas as you can without judgment.

FWIW, I do the following at the beginning of any project.

– A free-form journal, interacting with myself, asking myself questions, going deeper into why I think I want to write this, and also putting down plot and character ideas as they come. I take several days (at least) for this, writing without stopping, but re-reading the journal each day, doing some editing on what I wrote the day before, highlighting the best ideas, and so on.

– At some point I take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to Starbucks and just write down scene ideas. Random. Whatever vivid scene comes to mind. I might prompt myself by playing the dictionary game (opening a dictionary to a random page, picking a noun, and riffing off that). When I have 30-40 scenes I shuffle the deck and pick two cards at random and see what the connection suggests.

– Finally, I want my concept in a three-sentence elevator pitch that I know is absolutely solid and marketable. Sentence 1 is character + vocation + current situation. Sentence 2 starts with “When” and is what I call the Doorway of No Return––the thing that pushes the Lead into the main plot. Sentence 3 begins with “Now” and the death (physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual) stakes. Here’s an example based on The Insider by Reece Hirsch:

Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high level merger negotiations between computer companies. 

When Will celebrates by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.  

Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology for mass destruction.  

Here’s another example:

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch.

When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her.

Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

A good pitch guarantees a solid foundation. Now what?

Well, the next phase depends on how you like to approach things: plotter or pantser or something in between?

My own practice is to go immediately to the mirror moment, for it influences everything else. This is a concept I explain in detail in my book Write Your Novel From the Middle.

Now, I know there are some dedicated pantsers out there for whom any kind of pre-planning brings out a case of hives. They just want to start writing, and that’s okay … so long as you realize that you’re basically brainstorming the long way round. Some contend that this is the best way to find original story material. I would say it is only one way. There is still going to be a lot of editing and a ton of rewriting. The process I’ve described here is a faster and, to my mind, a more efficient way of getting to an original story line that you will be excited to write.

And so ended my advice, which I hope bursts the clouds for a fellow writer.

When things go dry in your writer’s mind, what are some of the things you do?

 

 

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Revisiting the Mirror Moment

@jamesscottbell

Please allow me a bit of shameless self-promo, because it involves Kevin Costner. No, he’s not contacted me about filming one of my books (though he should). It’s about one of his older movies. Stay with me.

Earlier this year I put out a book called Write Your Novel From the Middle. In it I describe what I call the “mirror moment,” a powerful beat I saw happening in the middle of solidly structured movies and novels. It has since become the basis of all my plotting, and seems to have helped many other writers, too. For example, here’s a recent email I received (used by permission):
Hi James,
I own so many of your books, so I want to email you about a small epiphany I had. I recently bought “Write Your Novel From The Middle” and, jaded as I am about writing books, read it with some interest but not much conviction.
Two weeks later, I’m elbows-deep in the guts of a novel I wrote 7 years ago, and cutting. I mean, I’m slicing and dicing like Freddy Krueger, blood and guts everywhere. I took 20k out of a 127k novel.
And there was that weird passage where my main character has a health crisis (he essentially screws up his immune system from overwork, but he thinks it’s something worse) and basically lies flat on his back in his bedroom, waiting to die.
And he realizes that due to the path he’s chosen, he’s completely alone on the planet, in London, and nobody cares if he lives or dies. It’s a moment of great weakness, self-pity and the existential crisis that propels him – once he gets better – to really work that human interaction, make friends, network. (He’s in finance, so being good with people is important). Long story short, I really gutted the book, cut that scene down by at least half, and some editors said I should cut it entirely, but for me it was weirdly important. It felt powerful, and it wasn’t the typical “kill your darlings” kind of vanity on my part. I knew it was important, so I only condensed it and kept it in place.
The book then went to layout. It was exactly 400 pages in PDF.
Guess where that scene fell? Pages 202 and 203. If you take out the front matter/cover, it’s SMACK BANG in the middle.
I admit I guffawed.
Thank you for putting your writing advice out there. You definitely blew my mind this time.
All the best,
Aleks
The reason I share this is that this writer’s reaction is one I continue to experience in my own writing as I utilize the mirror moment and writing from the middle.
Now, on to Kevin Costner.
A few months ago my wife wanted to watch the thriller No Way Out with Costner and Gene Hackman. We hadn’t seen it in ages, so I got the DVD from Netflix and popped it in the player.
Halfway in there’s a critical scene involving Hackman and Costner. I paused the DVD. I looked at the counter. We were in the exact middle of the movie.
I turned to my wife and said, “Kevin is about to have his mirror moment.” I did not know what it was going to be or how it would be shown. I just felt it was coming. 
My wife looked at me the way Jack Palance looks at Alan Ladd in Shane when he says, “Prove it.”
I started the film up again. And this is what happened next:
I stopped the movie and smiled at my wife.
She said, “Don’t let it go to your head.”
If you were writing this scene in a novel, you would give us the inner thoughts of the Costner character. He’s thinking along the lines of, “This is too much. I’m dead. There’s no way out of this…” That’s one of the mirror moment tropes. The other is a reflection on questions like, Who am I? What have I become? What must I become?

It’s my contention that knowing your book’s mirror moment illuminates the entire novel better than any other single technique. And the great thing is you can do this at the beginning, middle or end of your draft. You can use it whether you’re plotting or pantsing your way through.

Anyway, I had to tell you about the Costner thing. Thanks for indulging me. Write well and prosper, my friends! And may the mirror be with you.
So here’s today’s question: What’s your favorite Kevin Costner movie?
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