Where Sime and Gen Meet, Creativity Happens
Workshop: Choosing a Protagonist
WorldCrafters Guild members -- this is an OLD Writing Workshop post, and I don't even know what year it was written. It may be 1996 or 1997. Check the Septembers at http://www.simegen.com/reviews/rereadablebooks/
HOW TO FIND THE BEGINNING: SHOW DON'T TELL: OUTLINING and HOMEWORK all these topics in one discussion!
Notice the author whose work is being discussed is addressed as "You" -- in WorldCrafter's Guild we don't do that. But also notice there's nothing here to identify this writer whose work is being discussed, nor to identify the work itself.
- [ From: Jacqueline Lichtenberg * EMC.Ver #3.0 ] --Dear Rich,
I am copying both my email writing workshop circles on this letter because it's something they need to read - and I'm copying a mailing list of Sime~Gen fans because a lot of them would be interested.
Folks: this is in response to a snail mail letter in praise of my September column. Rich here sent me the first chapter of a novel. He's an ex-filmmaker who's been publishing professional nonfiction and failing to sell his fiction. He says my September column is "brilliant" and gave him some renewed ambition to market his fiction. And he sent a sample first chapter which I've analyzed below according to the same standards I apply to your work.
Rich: Thank you for the praise for my column. I looked over your sample chapter right away, then had to run quick and read my own column which I had forgotten writing. Yes, I can see why it "spoke" to you. I can't see where you could find a publisher for YOUR BRAIN IS NOT YOUR OWN -I'm not even certain after reading Chap 1 if it is fiction or nonfiction. I think as a nonfiction professional, you've made some common mistakes that nonfiction writers generally do when venturing into fiction. You're trying to reinvent the wheel from scratch and can't quite get it "round enough". But first I must say your word-usage and general style is FABULOUS and should catapult you to best seller status almost instantly once this sees the light of day. Also, the basic IDEA is incredibly rich and deep and well presented.
That said, I must point out (always keeping in mind this is one voracious and eclectic reader-writer's opinion and only an opinion) that had this ms been presented in one of my writing workshops - either the ones I do by email or the ones I do more formally around the country - that it would have triggered the lecture on How To Find the Beginning Of Your Story and SHOW DON'T TELL.
The entire first chapter is Tell. To sell as fiction, it must be converted to Show and nothing but Show. Tell is reserved for a few paragraphs in the middle of the book (to be sure everyone understands important thematic points) and a few paragraphs at the end for denouement and to nail down the abstracts in case someone figured it out wrong. All the rest has to be SHOW NOT TELL just like in screen writing. If you find the correct place to open your novel, you probably will automatically shift into Show mode and away from Tell mode. The reason you fell into Tell is that you didn't know where to START.
The Formula for finding the beginning of a novel/story is that conflict is the essence of story. The story begins where the elements that are going to conflict to generate the plot first come in contact. You started your novel at the END. The main character's EPIPHANY comes before the car chase at 10 minutes before the end of the hour leaving time for the commercial break and the tag. Pacing is everything. Make the realization that everything has consciousness the END of this character's journey.
Your protagonist is the person who will have the epiphany "plants and all creatures have consciousness" and as a result make a choice which leads to an action that resolves the conflict in the very last scene of the book. Your antagonist is the person who has a vested interest in keeping your protagonist from coming to this realization.
The conflict is between the protagonist and the antagonist and is a real conflict because the protagonist has the seeds of the antagonist's need within himself. I.e. the protagonist is fighting the same battle internally and subconsciously. The antagonist is just a "projection" into the real world o f that deep subconscious conflict.
Your THEME is all-life-is-unified or "No Man Is An Island". So - your opening is probably where the protagonist sees a fabulously gorgeous sex-object person across a crowded room and is unbearably sexually attracted. Then upon first acquaintance discovers he/she is a committed vegetarian and is revolted by such nonsense in such a gorgeous creature.
The vegetarian isn't the antagonist. The vegetarian holds this view for all the wrong and silliest possible reasons. The antagonist is someone whose entire personality is integrated around the separated islands in the universe theory of existence. Someone who feels threatened by anything that smacks of responsibility and relationships.
The antagonist is related to or in a relationship with or an employer of or an investor in the Gorgeous Creature's life. For example Gorgeous Creature maybe an artist whose work sells for hundreds of thousands and Antagonist a rich investor/patron or gallery owner or some such. If Gorgeous Creature has an epiphany the art that's making a fortune will CHANGE and $$$ will be lost.
The reason to SELECT a Gorgeous Creature and sex-object attraction for the catalyst for the journey in consciousness is that your IDEA has sexuality at the root of it and sexuality is the Show side of all that you TOLD in your opening chapter.
The middle of this novel is where it becomes catastrophically clear that the protagonist has RUINED this artist for life - he/she can't CREATE anymore for loss of vegetarian outlook on things. The end is the protagonist's epiphany that the vegetarian was right all along but for the wrong reasons. The action that proceeds from the realization is a proposal of marriage (or acceptance of same) and an acceptance of vegetarianism for different reasons - a rebuilding of the artist's view of the universe through love and intimacy and most of all verbal intimacy.
The TAG scene is a showing of the vegetarian's NEW ART in a triumphant debut or award ceremony - a new Investor/patron makes a bigger fortune than the antagonist ever dreamed possible, and all the antagonists plots and schemes(ala J.R. from Dallas) come to naught.
The above description of your novel is derived from your first chapter. You did not send an outline which left me free to imagine one - so I have. It is an example of what I refer to as an "outline" to my writing students. At Worldcon, one of my workshops discussed outlines and we developed an outline for a failed short story (that was 3 stories butt-spliced together without openings or endings).
The email writing workshops needed to see an example of what we discussed at Worldcon to be brought up to speed on the concept I've been trying to teach them called "outlining". Most nonfiction professionals (college students worst of all) think of something different when I use this word.
The homework for the workshops while I was offline for 3 weeks was to watch tv shows and read novels and abstract the underlying outlines.
I must thank you for giving me the opportunity to show not tell what an outline really is. Now, students - look over what you produced as outlines and cast them all in to the above form.
And Rich, feel free to send me your new first chapter and an outline of the rest of the book when you're ready. But this time, do your market research before spending the time to produce this lovely prose you do so well. Target a market and tailor your work to that market's underlying requirements. I learned that from the Famous Writer's School lessons - and though much of what they tried to teach was garbage, that lesson alone was worth my first sale. OPERATION HIGH TIME appeared in the Jan 1969 issue of If Magazine because the Famous Writer's School taught me to study my editor and figure out what he/she wanted.
I studied a year's worth of Fred Pohl's If and Galaxy choices and produced a novel in my own universe that incorporated all the elements he favored. He bought it almost instantly. Years later, he bought STAR TREK LIVES! my nonfiction book about why people like Star Trek which went 8 printings in1976.I look forward to hearing from you again by email. I am email@example.com --
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