My Notes From Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp 2003

I’m not the world’s best note-taker, but here are some of the key points from my notes and memory (and I’ll get around to nicer formatting eventually [Update 4/24/2011 – I finally did make it a little nicer.]):

Characterization

When we encounter someone/something, we automatically classify by:

  • species (If you approach a tree, you don’t think “What am I going to say?”)
  • then tribe (Is this person from my tribe [not a threat] or another tribe [a possible threat]?)
  • then sex (Is this person a potential mate or potential rival?)

If these questions are not answered, we are on edge. If you see an adult whom you are unable to classify as male or female, can you think of ANYTHING else while talking to the person?

Therefore, in characterization, these are questions that need answers so the reader is not on edge. In literary fiction, you can pretty much assume character is human.

Some characters are what they do. (This is called Romantic Characterization.)

Don’t define a character in isolation. We define a character by his/her relationships to others.

Process for creative thinking

Keep asking “Why?”

All stories are about causality:

  • Why? (mechanical cause) (not character choice) (dehumanizes)
  • Why? (motive) (final/Aristotelian cause, end in view)
  • What result? (A happens, and therefore B)
  • How? (You make things believable by breaking it down step by step) (Only do when needed)
  • WHAT ELSE? (Key question to ask in order to move beyond the common)

In real life, we can never know why people do the things they do. We can’t even be sure why we ourselves do what we do. Fiction is made up of assertions about why people do the things they do.

“We live by stereotype and cliche. That’s how we know what to wear in the morning.” — OSC

Need to find balance in writing. If you break none of the rules (stereotypes), it’s not worth reading. If you break all the rules, it’s unreadable.

All the stories/cliches/stereotypes you know in your life are your own personal encyclopedia. You make 1000 decisions per page without even realizing it. creativity comes as you reach deeper into the encyclopedia by asking “What else?”

Faith, Hope, and Clarity

Readers are constantly asking three questions as they read:

  • Huh? (What’s going on? If the reader can’t understand what’s going on, they cannot enjoy the story. The story needs clarity.)
  • So what? (Why should the reader care about this? The reader needs to hope something happens)
  • Oh yeah? (Can the reader believe what is happening in the story? They need to be able to have faith in what the author is saying.)

Suspense doesn’t come from “Huh?” Suspense only happens when you care, and you can’t care about what you don’t understand.

What the reader is looking for in your lies is truth. Therefore, don’t play games with the reader’s trust.

If the POV character knows something important and you don’t tell, that’s cheating.

If readers care about your characters, they will forgive bad writing. What you need is clarity, so you don’t get in the way of the reader understanding the characters.

When you are thinking about style as you write, it will be bad. Finding a voice that will call attention to the author is bad. Instead, look for ways to communicate as clearly as possible, and style will take care of itself.

Stories about aliens

Two possible structures:

1. Human meets aliens (generally used to examine the assumptions of our society)

2. Aliens only (very difficult, generally considered a tour de force, because it is hard to make it understandable without a common point of reference to human society.)

Choosing a POV character

One possibility is the anomaly, the person who is different. Also, look to the person who is most damaged by the status quo, or the person who would be most damaged by change.

Where to begin your story

The following is a tool for deciding where to begin; it is not meant as a tool for analyzing things that have been written.

MICE: What kind of story is it?

Milieu: There and back again. (Wizard of Oz, Gulliver’s Travels) Exploring the world. Focus is on the complete setting. this type of story begins when the outsider arrives and ends when the outsider leaves.

Idea: ? ! Solving the puzzle. Questions arise and are answered. Begin when the main question is asked and end when it is answered.

Character: The character starts to change his/her role in life -> a new role or a return to the old. The role is based on the web of relationships the character has. Begin when the decision to change is made, end when character changes role or decides to go back to former role.

Event: Something is wrong with the world -> the world reaches a new equilibrium. Begin when the character most important in fixing the world becomes involved, end when the attempt to fix the world succeeds or ultimately fails.

Satisfying endings come because you raise an expectation at the beginning. The reader is frustrated if you raise the wrong expectation.

You can break any rules if you are willing to pay the price.

Flashbacks

In general, the “root” for a flashback should be at least twice as long as the flashback.

Transitions

The best way to show a significant change in place, time , or POV is:

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

*

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

When the story is published, it will usually just be white space, but you as author need to include the * in order to make it clear to the editor.

The first sentence after the transition needs to inform the reader about the most important shift that has occurred. If the shift is in the POV character, the best thing is the name of the new POV character; don’t play games with this.

Writing scenes

If you are eager to write a scene, write it.

If you don’t want to write a scene, that usually means you need to write it. You are probably trying to avoid it because it will be hard, which means it is probably important.

Openings

You have one free paragraph (maybe a little more) at the beginning where you can do whatever you want. You don’t have to be in the POV yet. You can tell the reader key information to set up the context for the rest of the story.

Dialogue openings rarely work, because dialogue is usually meaningful only in context, and you have no context at the start.

“Hooks haven’t worked since O. Henry died.” — OSC

Tell readers about characters they will care about.

Starting in the middle of the action (in medias res) is old advice, but it’s not true now and it really wasn’t true then.

Create the story, not the [movie] trailer for the story.

In science fiction and fantasy, the reader needs to know the rules of the universe.

Common problems

Withheld information: this is a STORYKILLER. Reader should know all the important info known to the POV character.

First person narrative: While standard for certain types of fiction, it actually adds distance. To work, a first person narrative needs attitude/voice. If you don’t have attitude, don’t use first person.

Present tense: While standard for certain types of fiction, in English the past tense is the tense of truth, the tense of “what happened.” using the present tense can lead to problems with tense, and can become hard for the reader to stand over the length of a novel.

Frame story/prologue. Usually not needed; most readers will skim or skip prologue. Just start the story itself.

In order for changes in someone’s life to be meaningful, you need to show (briefly) the “life interrupted.”

You often hear the advice to “Show, not tell,” but 99% of the story should be told or omitted entirely. In other words, if the story takes place over any length of more than a few hours, the characters will go to the bathroom. You don’t need to show that, or even tell it, unless it is important.

First Person

First person can be a good choice, but you should be wary of it.

Beginning writers think its easier, and it is, but there’s a huge price to pay:

1. It assumes the narrator is telling the story at some point in the future, which means the narrator knows what will happen but is hiding that from the reader. It gives the narrator a certain smugness.

2. It also lessens suspense because the narrator (usually) must have lived to tell the tale.

More About Point of View

First Person (I): Can give a feeling of immediacy.

Second Person (You): DO NOT USE except for experimental stuff.

Third Person (He, she, etc.):

  • Limited: Only know what POV character knows, but we must know everything relevant
  • Omniscient: Able to know everything about anyone and anything in the story. Causes distance between reader and character.

POV and Tense

Most current fiction in English is written in third-person limited, past tense. There are good reasons for that; most readers are accustomed to it and it feels immediate and true to them. You can use other POV and tense, but you must be willing to pay the price.

Levels of Penetration

The more you switch POV, the more need there is to “tag” thoughts. (I can’t believe I’m doing this, thought Tom.)

It’s been thirty years since you had to italicize thoughts. It’s been seventy years since you had to put thoughts in quotes.

Deep penetration: little need to tag thoughts. You are constantly seeing what the character thinks.

Light penetration: more need to tag thoughts.

Cinematic view: You only see what happens, like you are watching a movie. You do not see character’s thoughts.

There is no point in writing cinematic fiction. That’s what movies do best. What fiction does that no other medium can is show us what’s inside the character’s heads. Therefore, you need to show thoughts.

Don’t use a POV character who is not important, because the reader automatically assigns importance to the POV character.

What Makes a Story a Story?

All stories have a problem or problems. If there is no problem, there is no story.

Story models:

  • Conflict
  • Character -> | Obstacle | -> Goal
  • Protagonist -><- Antagonist

Writing Comedy

“If the situations are absurd, the people must be real.” — OSC

Style

Strunk & White Elements of Style = EVIL

“A book that has destroyed more promising writers than any other.” — OSC

The book may be acceptable for business or academic writing, but is worse than useless for fiction.

Helping Readers Care About a Character

Give the character:

  • Pain
  • Hunger
  • Jeopardy
  • Altruism
  • Vulnerability
  • Reaction to his/her own foibles
  • Attitude
  • Eccentricity
  • Time
  • POV

Workshops

  • Everything you can gain from a workshop you have gained in the first year. You become used to their voices and they become used to yours. Quit after a year.
  • The primary value of a workshop is what you learn from their crummy stories.
  • Never bring the same story to a workshop twice.
  • Give symptoms, occasional diagnosis, no prescriptions

Random Stuff

Make sure your story isn’t over as it begins.

Need to find a “wise reader” who reads your manuscript before anyone else. All they do is find problems with Huh? So what? Oh yeah? The don’t diagnose what causes the problem or prescribe solutions.

Watch the wise reader as they read. If they laugh, ask them where, to see whether it was meant to be funny or not.

“So what?” problems are rarely solved at the point of the problem. They are solved by going back earlier in the story and adding stuff to make the reader care more.

The solution to “It’s too long” is usually to make it longer, by adding stuff to make the reader care more.

When writing you have to try to reach a particular audience.

You have to write a lot.

Everyone has 10,000 pages of drivel in them. Some people write good stuff interspersed with drivel. Others can’t write anything good until they’ve written all 10,000 pages of drivel first.

“There’s no such thing as a second draft.” — OSC. Write the final draft the first time; don’t think “Well, this is just a first draft, I’ll go back and fix that later.” If you don’t force yourself to write excellently all the time, you let yourself write sloppily.

A lot of people have the problem of sentencitis. Look long enough at a sentence, and it will seem dumb.

Only look at what happens and why. Make yourself just move through the story, rather than agonizing over wording.

Writer’s Block

“Writer’s block is a gift from God.” — OSC

Writer’s block is not when you look at the words and they seem stupid.

It’s not a disease, it’s a blessing. Either you just wrote or are about to write something you just don’t believe in. Go back and start asking yourself what else could happen. Find something you believe in.

You don’t write your way out; you invent your way out. You end up with more story.

Manuscripts

Never use italics, use underline. Italics are harder to notice in a manuscript.

Cover letters on short stories are not needed unless you have sold something and are not yet published, or have published but have not been an active writer for a long time. (I asked OSC for clarification on this, and he confirmed what he said, but it doesn’t quite seem right to me. I mean, if your name is Orson Scott Card, the editors will know you have published, but if your name is Eric James Stone and you’ve published a couple of short stories, I don’t think the editors will recognize the name.)

Novel queries can be sent to everyone at once. Submissions only to one publisher at a time.

Agents

Never pay a reading fee.

Agency contract rule: NO TERM. You must have power to terminate at any time.

Publishers

Contract needs to have a reversion clause, so if they stop printing it, rights return to you.

Having previously published short stories gets your novel off the slush pile.

Random notes made during critiques of stories

Language things are not necessarily the problem. If the story is there, the language thing won’t be noticed.

In writing comedy, the temptation is to let the voice carry the story. It’s better to use attitude of the characters.

When you have a written artifact (news article, letter) be careful to change the voice.

As soon as we’re telling the truth, we move to past tense.

Women’s romance genre uses alternative words for “said.” Don’t do that in other genres.

Naming characters: no rhyme, no same first letter, etc. Make the names distinct from each other.

Rather than show an emotion, take the reader through a scene that evokes that emotion in the reader.

When you find yourself skipping an important scene, that usually means you need to write it.

Chaptering is just arbitrary.

Don’t show emotion, show attitude.

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