Monday, October 27, 2014

Love Your Words (but not too much)

Ziegler has a lot of great quotes in his book, The Writing Workshop Notebook, but this one made me laugh and at the same time it rings very true. I spend a lot of time on picking the right words. I spend even more time picking out names of characters and places.

Words have power. They set tone and image and put the reader into the world you are creating. My wife thinks I spend too much time worrying about such things, but the wrong word can be jarring or confusing to the reader, and may draw them out of the story, maybe for only a moment, but great writing is experienced, not just read. When done extraordinarily well, the author becomes invisible and the reader simply goes along for the ride.

Contrary-wise, when the wrong words are chosen, or when there are too many, the reader gets bogged down and can certainly tell there is a conductor at the front of the locomotive who is determined to drive the train off the tracks.

Writers can fall in love with certain passages, and sometimes it can be to the detriment of the story. Less is more may be a cliché, but it's usually true. We've all read stories that were clunky or overly wordy. It's actually one of my pet peeves. I get irritated when the author goes on and on about a particular subject or describes everything in sight in excruciating detail. The consequence is that I skip the passage. If the writer stubbornly continues I may put the book down altogether.

I actually did a blog post about Neal Stephenson's Reamde, Don't Reamde!, if you care to read it, because he is about the most verbose writer of our generation. He doesn't use an editor anymore, at least that is the rumor, and the book could be easily half the length and still tell the same story. I will never read another of his books because he loves his words too much.

Sometimes even when you love them you need to set them free!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Saving the Novel Writer, One Cat at a Time

There doesn't appear to be a consensus from my informal survey of Goodreads and blog sites on Save the Cat in most writing circles. Some would say it needs its own "save the cat" moment. Others are devoted to the teachings laid out within. I found it useful in several ways. A point in Blake Snyder's favor is that he provides exercises at the end of each chapter and gives a lot of excellent examples.

Snyder opens strong with his logline concept. The idea of being able to sum up your story in one sentence has its appeal. It will make pitching your book all that much simpler, but it is certainly easier said than done. Blake's construct is framed around having the "Big Idea" from the start. There is value in this, but his focus is on selling the script to a producer, not on helping frame the book.

He even goes so far as to try to convince the reader that the title of the project should reflect the logline. The titles may be self evident but they certainly aren't "killer" as he would put it. They lack imagination.

Having a logline before you start seems like a good idea if you want to write a story using your craft skills. I can see a lot of "pantsers" arguing that this would strip the soul from their story, but it can be a useful starting point to deviate from perhaps. Trying to go back and capture a logline after the first draft is well underway can be a daunting task.

The next chapter lacks focus but the bottom line is read in your genre and avoid clichés. Snyder confuses the reader with talk about doing the same thing but different, and then provides a list of the different types of movie plots. He refers to them as genre, but they are not the same thing that novel writer would recognize. Perhaps there is profit in this for a screenwriter, but it's more plot focused than genre focused.

Blake follows this with selecting your hero. Here again it can be a little confusing for the novel writer. Snyder says, "It has to be about someone. It has to have one or two people we can focus our attention on, identify with, and want to root for - and someone who can carry the movie's theme." This is all fine and good, but his focus is more on picking a character that will amp up the logline. What I think he actually means is that you need to pick the character that can tell your story and has the most at stake. This is critical. There are craft things we can do to make the character more or less sympathetic, so maybe there is a little of cart before the horse here. I think Snyder knows that, but simply has trouble putting it in the right context. We see snippets in this chapter about his focus of selling the script versus telling a good story, when he talks about not writing the script for a particular actor or type. That is probably good advice for a screenwriter, but not necessarily important for a novel writer.

Next, we get to the meat and potatoes of the book, where the advice is widely praised for its story structure ideas. The three act play and Snyder's fifteen beats are great fundamentals to hang a story on. He goes through each beat, providing good descriptions of what they are, with solid examples. He also explains how they fit within the three act play structure. This chapter alone is the payoff for the entire book. His advice to hit the mark on the proper page can be taken with a grain of salt, but the beats are sound.

The section that follows is also gold. Snyder talks about the value of a good mentor, to which I can attest, and he lays out the storyboard concept.

I've had a lot of mentor figures in my life, both good and bad, and there are beneficial things to be learned from both, but a great mentor is invaluable. It's like a fastpass to learning tricks-of-the-trade along with the fundamentals. They may also furnish priceless networking connections. Even the less good ones can often provide at least a few lessons, as well as showcasing how not to do it if the roles are reversed.

The storyboard idea can be used in pre and post draft work. For someone who enjoys outlining and plotting ahead of time the storyboard is a great way to see if you are staying on track and hitting all your marks. For someone who would rather seat-of-the-pants write, the storyboard can clarify the plot structure and framework of the draft, showing where things might need to be cut or moved around to better fit the flow of the story. I like his concept of using note-cards and limiting them to 40. This keeps the work focused and forces the writer to examine every scene to see if it moves the story forward. I especially like Blake's idea of writing down on each card the emotional change and conflict for each scene. These comments make the story arc easier to visualize, and the ability to color code and add further clarity by tying concepts or arcs together.

The next two chapters go into pitfalls to watch out for, and then he closes with a potpourri of things about selling scripts and stuff that really doesn't do much for the novel writer.

Overall, I found a lot of value in this book. Blake's focus on selling to a producer versus good story telling leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many writers, but there are nuggets of gold in these pages if you can grasp the underlying meaning. The concrete examples he uses provide a clear picture of the concepts and his structure ideas are well worth the read.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Art and Craft of Telling Stories on Paper

This is from a paper I did for my MFA program.
Stephen King's On Writing is more than just a book on how to write. It is a memoir and a journal about how he wrote several of his best sellers. It also showcases his keen eye for what makes a good story.

King is in the camp that believes writers are born, at various skill levels. A writer cannot be made of someone who is not born a "writer". Mr. King does believe that the skill can be sharpened, thank goodness.

I found the memoir section engaging. I'm not sure why this surprised me. Each of these little vignettes was a little story of its own. Even though they were non-fiction, they were quite entertaining. He remembered things that had some aspect that was either jarring or gross. Elements that, no doubt, helped shape the direction his writing life would take. I definitely empathize with getting poison ivy in all the wrong places as a kid. I did notice, however, that even Stephen King uses passive voice when describing something, colorful and evocative though it may have been.

Another facet that helped forge the writer King was to become -- his voracious appetite for reading. He experimented with copying form, and the encouragement of his mother was enough to set him on his course. It amazes me that he still remembers the first thing he wrote.

I gleaned a few writing tips from the first part of the book, including turning off the television and learning to recognize ideas when they show up, usually two unrelated ideas that come together. Also, writing a lot, and develop a thick skin. Stephen wrote a ton, and kept submitting stories despite rejection after rejection. He watched a lot of movies and paid attention, soaking up the stories. But any writing endeavor was usually accompanied with a dose of disapproval. Shame from writing "junk," and not living up to his talent, started early in Junior High School. "If you write . . . someone will try to make you feel lousy about it."

John Gould, editor for the "Lisbon Weekly Enterprise," taught Steve a valuable lesson when he had a brief stint as a sports writer. "When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story." Gould's other quote that resonated with King was, "Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open." He mentions this idea several times throughout the book.

After college, King got a job teaching English. He said that teaching zapped his brain, and writing got hard for the first time in his life. Despite that he kept at it. By then he was married, and living hand-to-mouth in real poverty, but his wife kept encouraging him to write. In discussing the development of his first big money piece, Carrie, he learned that stopping a piece just because it's hard is a bad idea.

King talked about his drug and alcohol addiction. His discussion on mind-altering substances, spoken from someone who knows, is a message that needed to be addressed, lest our young artists fall into the same trap trying to emulate Earnest Hemingway. After getting sober, he came to appreciate his life even more. "Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."

In the next part of the book he gets down to the nitty gritty about writing. It's chock full of good nuggets of writing wisdom. I've heard the analogy several times but King has a colorful way of describing the idea that writing is like telepathy, across space and time, from the writer's mind to the reader's. He had some concrete ideas on how to go about starting writing. Construct your far-seeing place, your writing cave. Someplace that you can go, away from distraction. Take the craft seriously, and read a lot.

Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals. Grammar is touched on, but not at length as he felt this is an entry level requirement. Vocabulary should not be dressed up, but honest, direct, and clear. Words are only a representation of meaning, and may fall short, so you need to strive for clarity. Avoid passive verbs and adverbs are not your friend. "The road to hell is paved with adverbs . . . " His favored dialogue attribution is "said." He is a fan of Strunk and White Elements of Style.

King thinks the paragraph is the basic unit of writing, "where coherence begins." The pace should be varied with beat and rhythm. "The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and tell a story. To make them forget they are reading."

Mr. King shared advice about how to go about telling a story. Write about anything as long as you tell the truth. Don't commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Meaning "write what you like, then imbue it with life, friendships, relationships, sex and work." Write a lot and read a lot. He reads seventy to eighty books a year. Set a daily word goal. He recommended a thousand words a day. He shoots for two thousand. Don't wait for the muse to show up--write six days out of seven. He also listens to music, which he related as another way to "shut the door."

King is a self-confessed pantser and thinks that outlining robs something from creativity. He believes that plotting and spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. "Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest." (This has Timons Esaias written all over it!)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pathetic Fallacy

I learned a new literary term this week. At first I thought my mentor was snarking at my poor use of description, but I looked it up and it's actually a real thing. I've seen it hundreds of times, but like so many other things I had no idea there was an actual title for it.

Pathetic Fallacy - A literary term for the attributing of human emotion and conduct to all aspects within nature. It is a kind of personification that is found in poetic writing when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, when dogs laugh, or when rocks seem indifferent.


I'm adding it to the lexicon. I am still hoping that I get more of these to add. If you know of any that aren't in my Writer's Lexicon please share.


I also get Jane Friedman's blog notes in my email and a few days ago she talked about a visit to Italy for a convention. Nice, huh? Maybe someday I'll be able to justify that, but I digress. Anyway she talked about hearing Bella Andre talk and one of the points really hit home and I think it's especially valid for new writers. There is no wasted work. Anything you do that relates to your writing goes in the experience bag to be used later. Words that never see the light of day are still valid, because they move the bar toward those magical million words that free your writing spirit animal or something. For real though, they do count.

I hear a lot from other writers that are still unpublished that they feel like they are wasting their time. No such thing. Every word is one step closer to figuring it all out, improving your voice and getting that much closer to getting a contract. So keep at it.

On another note, I am closing in on finishing Quintessence. Like ready to send out to agents. I'm excited to finally have something I feel confident enough about to get to this next phase in my career. I'll post if I have any news on that front.

Clear Ether!

Monday, August 4, 2014

How I'm Progressing as a Writer

     I recently finished my 4th residency for my master's program and I've had some time to reflect on my progress as a writer. I've enjoyed every residency but each has its own flavor. After the first one, I wasn't really sure that the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction program was going to work out. I'd spent several years prior to starting the program trying to improve my skill and my knowledge-base about writing as a profession and I felt like I wasn't learning anything new. My opinion on that changed after the second residency, but looking back now, I can see the cumulative effects of the program.

     After each semester I'd taken stock of how much my writing skill had increased, if at all. After the semester that ended last winter I felt I'd reached a new plateau, but after spending a full semester with Timons Esaias as my mentor, my skill seems to have gone up an order of magnitude, instead of incrementally. I more easily recognize patterns in writing that I couldn't see before. Common mistakes that a lot of writers make, especially on the first draft, stand out like a strobing beacon. This semester the thing that really emerged was understanding what it means to give a character agency, to really get under their skin and speak through their point of view, but that's only part of it. The craft of writing is making sense. I look back thinking I'd learned a few things, only to find a few months later that I've grown even more. I honestly thought that I was getting it before, but the more I learn the more I see that this is a journey with many plateaus.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I Will Not Be Boycotting the Olympics

There has been a lot of grousing on the interwebs about the Sochi Olympics and how homophobic the Russians are; the fact that the village isn’t completed, or there may be tens of billions of dollars in graft and corruption. Several of my friends and people whose blogs I read are talking about boycotting Sochi.

I don’t get this.

How is any of that relevant to how hard the athletes have trained? They have devoted their lives to getting ready for the next Olympics. We can debate how important sports are. Or if there is any value in watching sports, but how does boycotting Sochi have anything to do with the events that are televised? The TV rights are bought and paid for. The tickets are already sold for the events. I have never spent a dime on anything related to the Olympics, and I don’t plan to now. About the only thing I can think of is that some Neilson rating number will get an infinitesimally small blip from me watching a televised event.

The Events themselves are often amazing. The athletes are a joy to watch. Their skill, honed through thousands of hours of practice and sacrifice, is a thing of beauty. And most of them are not getting paid for this and had to scrimp and save just to be able to barely get there. They want us to watch them. Many of them have prepared for this moment for their entire lives.

I don’t have to agree with anything the Russians are doing or have done to prepare for this in order to support the athletes. If you want to take the International Olympic Committee to task, or the Russian government, then more power to you. But the athletes aren’t responsible for any of it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Some Holiday themed pics

The Turkey turned out perfect!

Our Suess inspired tree



The Red Tree

The Thanksgiving Table. 

This is such a festive and fun setting, don't you think?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Pimping a book: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First SentenceWired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every writer should read this book. It has great insight into how the brain and the written word interface and the avenue is via story. Fantastic learning tool for writers of all ability levels.

I was turned on to Wired for Story through an interview Chuck Wendig did with Lisa Cron in July 2012 for his blog Terribleminds. She gave us her views on developing story. Lisa has a very fresh take on the importance of STORY and how it relates to the human brain. She is a producer for Showtime and Court TV, a writer, and also teaches a writing course at UCLA, but spent the last ten years researching the connection between neuroscience and how the brain relates to stories. It’s quite fascinating and illuminating, allowing us to learn techniques that will make our story click with the reader. They can’t help themselves, the brain is hard wired for receiving stories and if we can strike the right chord it will resonate within the readers mind.

On Lisa's blog she touched on why books that get panned by critiques can still sell at amazing rates. It answers the question as to why books like 50 Shades of Gray can sell millions of books. I remember picking up The Hunger Games, because my wife and daughter love it, and reading the first couple of pages and saying to myself, the prose just aren’t all that, but next thing I knew I was 100 pages in and couldn’t put it down. Stephanie Myers' Twilight books have been criticized for not having elaborate prose also, but the one thing all of these books have in common is they tell a great story and in a way that touches those chords in the mind.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Reflections on my first Writer's Convention

I just got back from my first convention for writers. It was Context 26 in Worthington, OH, just north of Columbus. The Con is supposed to be focused on science fiction writing, but there was just as much fantasy content, which was fine. It's a relatively small Con, but they have a reputation for getting some fairly renowned authors and artists to attend. This year it was Jack McDevitt, Mike Resnick, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch. All novelists that I'd at least heard of, if not read. I'm actually a huge fan of Scott Lynch, and he was funny and warm.

It's a tricky thing being an unpublished novelist attending one of these things. As a writer you want to meet other writers as a peer, but you really feel like a pretender. A fan pretending to be a writer, just so you can get close to them and talk about what you loved about their writing, instead of just being a normal person. Of course writers love to talk about writing, especially what they're working on. The whole enterprise now is so focused on marketing yourself that it has really taken over the lives of some writers. This can make for some awkward conversations. How do you get past all of that, and have an actual conversation with your "peer?" Can we ever bridge the gap from fan to peer once we've met them as a fan? Alcohol helps a lot apparently.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Running and Writing

Chuck Wendig posted yesterday about his effort to start running, and it got me thinking about my own love/hate relationship with running. When I was a young man I loved to run and had speed, but I suffered from the same ailment as Chuck, Osgood Schlatter's disease.  I had to quit playing soccer and football, which was a real bummer for me, as my life was centered on sports back then. My focus switched to academics, and it proved to be auspicious. If that hadn't happened I likely wouldn't have gone to the Air Force Academy or became a pilot. Sports wouldn't have done that for me.

I did, however, start running again a few years after the onset of the disease, for therapy, once the pain stopped crippling me every time I ran. I had some bad days, where I could barely walk the following day, but eventually, I was able to run several miles without pain or any after effects. By the time I was a senior in high school I was running on the cross country team. I wasn't fast, like I was before the Osgood Schlatter's disease, but I was able to compete.

Fast forward through college and running fell out of my routine, becoming a time waster and an annoyance. I was too busy playing video games. If I gained a few pounds, enough to notice, I would run a few days in a row and loose the weight. I weighed all of 142 pounds back then. I abused my body with lack of sleep, smoking at least a pack a day, and drinking moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol through my 20s. At 27, I quit smoking (first kid,) and gained 20 pounds almost overnight. I was not running, or doing hardly any regular exercise, but I was still in the active Air Force and had to maintain a minimum level of fitness. So I would ramp it up a few weeks prior to testing. Since then, I think I put on a little more than a pound a year until I hit 195 (I'm 5' 8"), and inevitably failed a fitness test.