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What you can learn from children and Toyota

What do kids and Toyota have in common? They ask “why?” a lot. If you've ever spent time around a child, you've probably experienced the phenomenon of endless whys. Children are masters at digging deep.

In the world of manufacturing, Toyota and its world-renowned manufacturing system are the same way. (In spite of their recent problems, I still worship the ground that Toyota's founders walk on.) One of the four tools that Toyota quality specialists use to solve quality problems, is to ask “why?” five times in order to reach the root cause.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, I believe that if we force ourselves to continually ask why our characters are doing, saying, or feeling whatever it is they're doing, saying, or feeling, we'll find the holes and inconsistencies that often plague our stories. Asking why will also help us develop a deeper understanding of the characters' motivations.

Let's say you've determined that your character's goal in the scene is to acquire money to save her company from financial ruin. Now you need her motivations. You can either ask each why of the original goal, or ask subsequent whys to follow up on the previous question.

For example, here's a list where each why is directed back to the original goal (money to save her company).

1. Why?  The company is her life.

2. Why?  She doesn't want to lay off her employees.

3. Why?  She wants to prove to her father that she can succeed in business without his help.

4. Why?  If her business fails, she'll lose everything.

5. Why?  If the business fails, her employees will lose their health insurance, and one of them has a very sick child.

Here's an example where each why builds on the previous one.

1. Why?  The company is her life.

2. Why?  She has spent all her time building the company, at the expense of her social life.

3. Why?  She believes the men who ask her out just want her family's money, so she avoids dating altogether.

4. Why?  She doesn't think men can see beyond the scar on her face to fall in love with the woman inside.

5. Why?  Her previous boyfriend cheated on her.

Notice the second example could create a large branching tree of why lists, one branch for each of the questions in the first list. You can take it as deep as you want, but even a little digging may reveal surprising insight into your characters' motivations.

So foster your childish, Toyota-like need to get to the bottom of things. Go forth and ask, “why?”

POV or POS?

Be honest. Is your WIP GH-ready, or is it a POS? Not sure? Ask your CP for her POV about the GMC and SL in your MS.

If you're thinking, “WTF?” then read on.

In the military a POV is your Personally Owned Vehicle, that is, your car. There's an acronym for freakin' everything in the military. Think Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam.

But, every industry has its jargon and acronyms, and writing is no different. So for my non-writing friends, here are some of the acronyms that I've learned this year that may start popping up in my blog from now on. Hey, I'm all about the shortcut.

CP – Critique Partner: The person who tells you if your work is a POS (yeah, I believe that one's universal)

WIP – Work in Progress: Just like in the world of manufacturing, except the unfinished inventory is the manuscript

MS – Manuscript: Your book before it gets published, whether WIP or completed.

SL or s/l – Story Line: The plot. What happens to your characters between Chapter 1 and The End.

GMC – Goal, Motivation, & Conflict: This was the topic of my first blog. It's what each major character in a story must have in order to have a great SL.

POV – Point of View: This has two parts. 1) Is it in 1st or 3rd person? Yes, you really should have paid attention in English class. 2) Whose head is the writer in during the scene? Which character's experience is it?

GH – The Golden Heart: A contest for unpublished romance writers, sponsored by the Romance Writers of America. Being a finalist in the GH gets you noticed by agents and editors all over the country. Unpublished romance authors everywhere are tweaking and polishing their MS at this very moment, trying to get it perfect before the December 2nd submission deadline, yours truly included.

Did I miss any? Too bad, I have to go get caught up on SYTYCD.

UPDATE: Okay, I forgot a few…

HEA – Happily Ever After: To be a true romance novel, and not just a book with romantic elements, the reader must get a happy ending. The hero and heroine don't have to get married in the book, but a monogamous future must be implied.

RWA – Romance Writers of America: The national organization for romance writers. There are almost 10,000 members, and hundreds of local chapters all over the country.

SM – Southern Magic: My local chapter of RWA which meets in a suburb of Birmingham.

MC – Main character

H/H – Hero and heroine: As in “For a book to be a romance, the H/H must get their HEA.”

ARC – Advanced Reading Copy: early copy of the book that's given to reviewers, bookstores, and magazines several months before the book is published and formatted for mass distribution. Final copy edits may still be made before publication.

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My Aha! Moment with GMC & BIF

In August, I had the good fortune to attend a workshop by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love based on their great book, Break Into Fiction (hereafter called BIF). I read the book beforehand, and went through the workshop thinking how great all of the templates are because they force you to answer the tough questions about your characters and plot. But, still, I struggled with filling them out. They get into details I wasn't ready to produce yet.

I had an “Aha!” moment yesterday when I realized that filling out the GMC charts for my characters provided me the macro view of their lives and story that I needed to have in order to complete the micro-focused BIF templates. By completing the GMC work first, I can make sure I'm not spending my time on the BIF templates until I'm fairly sure my story will work.

So, after moving 20K words (ouch!) into my Unused Scenes folder (a topic for another day), I'm pretty much starting over.  But, this time I'm going to try it with the help of the GMC and BIF tools. The great news is that I'm pumped up about my story again. My goal is to have a completed rough draft by January 31. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

Chalk it all up to lessons learned and, like Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Just keep moving.”

BTW, if you ever have a chance to take a class from Mary or Dianna, you won't be disappointed. Both of them are incredibly giving of their time and insights, and will answer endless questions with patience.

Goal, Motivation & Conflict

I thought I'd start my blog by talking about one of the best books I've read on the craft of writing. “Goal, Motivation & Conflict” by Debra Dixon. I had seen this book mentioned so many times in articles and other books that I finally bit the bullet and bought it–a decision I will not regret.

Understanding GMC will help me with my query letters, the dreaded synopsis, and, of course, crafting a story that can stand up to 300 pages of prose. Making sure each major character (and even the minor ones, if you want) have a clear goal, a reason for wanting that goal, and something keeping them from getting it, is key. The concept seems so simple, and yet it's incredibly powerful.

I've decided to figure out the GMC for the hero and heroine of some of my favorite books by other authors in hopes of gaining insight into what successful authors do. After applying the method to my own work, some issues that I'd been struggling with became clear.

I'd like to know if GMC has helped you solve a problem or find a new direction with your own story.

Happy Writing!