Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Key Ingredients of Your Story

I know a lot of new writers have trouble weaving a story, or should I say weaving a plot? Most of us can tell a good story -- I have myself and I've read some in my critique group, but what about devising a good plot? The February 2011 issue of "Writer's Digest" had a good article about this called "Story Trumps Structure" by Steven James.

In the article, James gives us five key ingredients to a plot, very similar to the chess game analogy I wrote about in a previous posting. A look at his list tells us that a good plot is more than merely person, place, and things. It's change, what he calls "transformation." And really, how many of us are happy with a story in which the protagonist is the same person we met at the beginning of the story? How popular would Star Wars have been if Luke returned to Tattoine to farm, or Ben Hur if Judah had gone back to just being a wealthy aristocrat, or vengeful anti-Roman? I don't know about you, but I would have felt like it was a waste of my time.

Here are the five essential ingredients according to James:

1) Orientation -- What is the protagonist's life like now? Is it normal for him or is it abnormal? If the former, then we need to see the character experience upheaval and change, if the latter, then we need to see him go through upheaval, or bring the upheaval to a close and see that character settle into a normal life. I've heard that our readers should meet our protagonist in his or her natural habitat in the first chapter. In my techno-thriller, we meet Max teaching an advanced physics course, the only place he feels actualized and complete.

2) Crisis -- What is the precipitating event that thrusts our character forward? In my story, Max learns about the death of his professor and about a mystery surrounding that death.

3) Escalation -- What does the protagonist do to resolve the problem? There should be conflicts within the bigger conflict - two steps forward, one step backward. At this time, maybe your protagonist's weaknesses should come to the fore? Mine is terrified of open stairs, so I plan to work that into the story somehow -- can he overcome this fear to resolve the conflict (i.e. can he master the force or learn about the ways of Jesus) or will he return home (to Tattoine, or as a zealot) in defeat?

4) Discovery -- The climax of the story. The answer is realized, but not just the issue at hand, but the protagonist should learn something about himself or herself. Luke learned about the force and realized there was more to life than Tattoine; Ben Hur realized that peace and forgiveness was just as much an option as hate and revenge (God, I love that movie!). In my story, Max solves the murder but also learns that life is more than his science.

5) Change -- The final scene should show the transformation. Luke burning the corpse of his father and seeing Yoda, Annikan, and Obi-Wan reunited; Ben Hur telling Esther of his experience at the cross ("As he died, I could feel the sword being lifted from my hand") and is reunited with his now leprosy-free mother and sister.

So again, good advice when weaving your tale. Does your story include these essential ingredients? If not, why don't you add a pinch of escalation, or a dash of transformation?

Happy Writing!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday ROW80 Check In (11.27.11)

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Mine has been smaller than usual the past few years, but still my favorite holiday...food, family, and of course, football -- especially my Dallas Cowboys who delivered an exciting win Thursday.

Now, on to my update. I've not done too bad. Next time I do ROW80 (and I will be back) I will create more manageable and focused goals. Having said that, by participating in ROW80, I feel like I've been devoting more of my time to writing. I'm starting to build a platform for my Customer Service book and have finished the fourth chapter of my techno-thriller and ready to start the next.

I've read more - both about writing and fiction. Honestly, I'm not much of a fiction reader but since I write fiction I thought I should read more of it and I'm glad I have. If anything, it gives me a benchmark upon which to judge my own writing, and I don't think I fair too poorly.

Here then, is an update on my goals:

1) Read three writing magazines each month: I've read one so far, and will read a few more. I have read a few on-line articles and a few out of my Writer's Market.

2) Participate in Three Writer's Digest On-Line Seminars: I attended a local writer's workshop so I will count that toward this goal, but I haven't done anything else.

3) Write One Short Story or Article Each Month: Been busy working on my novel, so that hasn't left much time for writing short stories. I do have a few ideas though.

4) One Submission/Query a Day: I haven't sent out any queries this week but I have a few outstanding to publications that don't want simultaneous submissions (is that the same as simultaneous queries?)

5) Three Blog Entries/Week for This Blog and My Customer Service Blog: I think I've been keeping up on my blogs. See also Zen of Customer Service.

6) Sign Up For a Spring Semester Class: Nothing yet, but I need to get looking.

7) Customer Service / Techno-Thriller Book: As per the note above, I've been working on both of these. As for customer service, I am thinking about reaching out to a well-known customer service professional I've worked with in the past and seeing if she might even want to co-author the book. She has the platform and name that I don't.

8) Read Three Craft Books: I skimmed through "The Art of Compelling Fiction." A lot of good information. I am going to have to go back and read it in more detail, but I have other books I should read.

9) Read More Fiction: I finished "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown. Not bad, and as I've mentioned before I see a lot of similarities between his work and mine, so I was able to harvest some good technique ideas from him, mainly to limit the number of main characters, keep the action moving, and shift POV (although I think he did it a bit too much -- often in the same chapter between people involved in the same conversation!). What's next? I don't know. I'm in the mood for some classic sci-fi.

10) Read More Blogs/Emails: I've actually done pretty well and have learned a lot about networking, building a platform, and developing my story.

This week: Read more short stories, continue to work on techno-thriller, build customer service platform, and network via social media more (I've been pretty absent from Twitter save an occasional rant about politics). I will also start another craft book - either "Scene and Structure" or "Story Engineering" - or both.

Hope your own ROW80 is coming along!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wednesday ROW80 Check In (11.16.11)

Oops! Looks like I skipped a week. I have been busy writing, but a lot of paid writing. Never a bad thing, except that I edited a dissertation and my client had trouble converting the file from OpenOffice to Word2010. I've heard horror stories about Word2010, but I think most of it was on her end. She did end up fixing the problem and was able to send her dissertation off to her committee. She was happy with the work I did. I've also been busy with the chess club and scouts, leaving very little time for ROW80. HAVING SAID THAT, I have still been making progress. Among the highlights of my last two weeks:

- I wrote another chapter of my techno-thriller and it is coming along rather nicely. My goal is to have it done by the Missouri Writer's Guild Conference in April so I can pitch it to agents. It's been called a "page turner" by members of my crit group, so I'm excited about it. I did decide to write out one of the characters though - the sultry Russian spy who tempts our poor pawn into betraying his friends. I liked the first scene she was in but didn't know what to do with her after that, so I've reworked the betrayal scene using another character. I love writing. It's so dynamic.

- I'm still reading "The Lost Symbol" and am picking up some good techniques (if that can be said about a Dan Brown novel).

- I've posted to my blogs a few times and have been researching / developing a seminar for my customer service ideas. An agent told me my idea was good, but that I needed a bigger platform. I am going to email a few contacts of mine for advice and maybe even suggest a co-authoring endeavor. One of them is a woman who has influenced my own customer service ideas and someone I respect a great deal, even though she's a Braves fan.

On another note, I received a positive response to my query about an article I wrote on a Catholic Saint. I won't go into details, but the magazine has a readership of 1.5 million. They requested the full article, which I sent off right away. Crossing fingers!

So that's it for now. Trying to read more blogs...just so much out there. Oh, I did read an EL Doctorow short story about a man who hid from his family for a year - in the garage attic! Very interesting. I can see where my writing is similar to his...ordinary man living an ordinary life is exposed to an extraordinary situation.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Monet and the Art of Writing

I had the pleasure the other day of attending the St. Louis Art Museum's special exhibit on Monet's water lilies. In particular, a three-panel piece (Agapanthus) he did, the three pieces of which ended up in different museums and were united in this exhibition for the first time in over thirty years. Artistically, it was quite impressive, and almost chilling, and if you're in St. Louis over the winter, be sure to check it out. Click the picture below for more details.

While artistically impressive (I've always enjoyed the art of the Impressionists, and in particular Renoir) I couldn't help but be struck by the similarity of Monet's painting process to that of writing. You see, the exhibit not only displays the artwork, but takes one through the history of the work, step-by-step:

- Monet's garden in France.
- Monet's "studies"
- The final work
- An analysis of the work itself.

Let's start with his garden in France (Giverny). We are shown pictures of Monet's garden, then and now, and told about how much he loved horticulture (something I did not know--I just thought he painted all the lilies because he was bored). I was struck by something often heard in writing circles, that we should write what we know, and what we love. This is true of writing, and of Monet.

We were also shown samples of his "studies." I had heard this term before but never knew what it meant. Apparently, they are bits and pieces of a larger painting that an artist completes so he can bring them into his studio and use to complete the master work. To me, this relates to a writer writing different scenes, dialogs, plotting the story, or even developing character sketches. All bits and pieces of the larger whole that are brought together to complete the final product.

The final work was spectacular. I think I had seen it together back in 1980, but on many trips to the art museum over the years, I've seen the center panel, housed in St. Louis, many times. The other two are kept in Kansas City and Cleveland. It was great to see them together - like a good trilogy.

What really struck me was the final part of the exhibit, which showed how the painting was changed - by Monet - several times over the course of several years. Curators have taken very small samples from the painting and analyzed them, showing layers upon layers of paint. One can also see quite a difference between the studies and the actual painting. In fact, Monet had originally painted a particular flower in the lower left corner of the painting, only to go back later and paint it out! He did this throughout the painting.

What does this tell us about writing? Revision, revision, revision. Monet constantly revised this masterpiece, which by all intents and purposes was probably pretty darned good to begin with. The result was a masterpiece.

It also points out that our finished work may not be exactly what we pictured to begin with. I know writers who are "set" in their plot and storyline and don't allow themselves to go with the flow. They are frustrated with the process and often give up on their stories. My advice? Let your characters live their own lives.

This happened in one of my first short stories, The Artifact. In this story, our protagonist finds a device that let's him travel back in time. He goes back to try and save his wife, but fails. My original intent was for him to keep the device so he can travel back to visit her. Instead, in his anguish, he tosses it into the river and moves on with his life. Problem solved. If I had not allowed my character to live his own life, my story would have had a much different, and less significant, ending.

So next time you want to revise, go for it, and think of Monet working in his studio on the masterpiece pictured below. I don't know about you, but I think it turned out just fine.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wednesday ROW80 Check In (11.02.11)

First of all, thanks for all the comment and great feedback! It's been another busy week, but since my #1 writing client slashed their budget for freelance writers, I've been scrambling around looking for other ways to pay the bills, part of which has been taking on more chess classes (I teach chess during after-school programs for the local chess club), so I've not had as much time to devote to ROW80, but I have been writing. In fact, this morning I have an appt with a research clinic to see if I qualify for a hair loss treatment study. No kidding.

Before updating my goals I wanted to address a few comments:

Ryan King mentioned how the color coding reminded him of project status sheets. BINGO. That's where I drew my inspiration.

KH LeMoyne mentioned something about grouping related tasks together and I've found this to be true, too. Most of the blogs I read, query letters sent (and those take more time than I thought especially if you want to do them right!), and writing are done the same day and unfortunately, I don't find much time to read except at bedtime, when I'm already tired.

Tia Bach asked about organization. I am ADD so what I do is break up my day into mini-tasks and make sure I hit all of them equally. I actually list different areas (income, home projects, scouts, writing, etc) and tally when I've completely an actual task under that area or goal. I include rest (DVR catch up mostly) and hobbies to make sure I find time for them as well. After I complete a task or mini-goal I do a little chore around the house.

Thanks for all the other comments, especially Robin McCormack for mentioning my Zen of Customer Service blog (I have more posts ready, just have to find time to write them!) and Kerry Meacham who I am beginning to believe is a figment of my imagination. Will we see you back at the critique group after the Titans season maybe?

Here then is an update on my goals:

1) Read three writing magazines each month: I've read one so far this month and am in the middle of another. YELLOW.

2) Participate in Three Writer's Digest On-Line Seminars: I attended a local writer's workshop so I will count that toward this goal. The workshop was on incorporating our demons into our writing to make our writing come alive more. It was good and helped me get inside the mind of "the other," but I was thinking it was going to be about making our characters more human. My protagonists seem to be above reproach. I need to change that. YELLOW.

3) Write One Short Story or Article Each Month: The workshop generated some ideas and I am anxious to work on them. YELLOW.

4) One Submission/Query a Day: I only sent out one query this week, related to my proposed article for Parents magazine. YELLOW.

5) Three Blog Entries/Week for This Blog and My Customer Service Blog: I haven't kept up on this as much as I should have. I'll have to do more entries this week. I have a few sketched out. See also Zen of Customer Service. YELLOW.

6) Sign Up For a Spring Semester Class: Nothing yet. YELLOW.

7) Customer Service / Techno-Thriller Book: Wrote a few more pages of my techno-thriller and sketched out a few more chapters. Looking good so far and it is being well-received by my critique group. It's funny that the sections I wrote recently get less criticism than those I wrote a year or so ago. It's encouraging since I believe it reflects my growth as a writer. YELLOW.

8) Read Three Craft Books: Reading The Art of Compelling Fiction. Good so far, but very detailed, making it a slow read. GREEN.

9) Read More Fiction: Reading "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown since his work is similar to what I'm trying to write. I also read a short story by Raymond Carver and can see how his writing is similar to mine - or should I say mine is similar to his? GREEN.

10) Read More Blogs/Emails: Haven't done as much of this as I would have liked, but I will try to get caught up this week. YELLOW.

That's it for now! Something else I'd like to do is send out more twitter/blogger love. Feel free to follow me (tweets should be showing up in the side bar) and I'll follow you back!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wednesday ROW80 Check In (10.26.11)

While I'm not meeting all of my goals, I am moving forward with my writing, so overall this has been a very positive experience. I have found myself focusing on different aspects each week and spending a good deal of time dealing with distractions, albeit important ones (like making money). This week was "query/submissions" week. I sent out quite a few.

I've also coded them red, yellow, or green depending on my success for the week. Anal, I know, but a throw back to my days in corporate America. Also, if I don't meet a weekly or monthly goal I'm not going to worry about making it up. I plan to start each week/month as a clean slate.

Here then is an update on my goals:

1) Read three writing magazines each month: I've read one so far this month and am in the middle of another. YELLOW.

2) Participate in Three Writer's Digest On-Line Seminars: I might skip this one and just watch youtube videos instead...they are kind of costly...it's like paying for on-line video chess lessons when there are plenty of them free on the Internet. RED.

3) Write One Short Story or Article Each Month: I sketched out an article for Parent's magazine and an accompanying query, but I have not written an original short story for a while. YELLOW.

4) One Submission/Query a Day: I smoked on this one last week...sent out quite a few queries and submissions. GREEN.

5) Three Blog Entries/Week for This Blog and My Customer Service Blog: I haven't kept up on this as much as I should have. I'll have to do more entries this week. I have a few sketched out. See also Zen of Customer Service. YELLOW.

6) Sign Up For a Spring Semester Class: Nothing yet. YELLOW.

7) Customer Service / Techno-Thriller Book: Haven't done much on these this week...took a break to work on other projects. Hope to get back to the techno-thriller this week. Holding off on the Customer Service book until I get an agent, although I may start marketing my concept as a speaking engagement/workshop/seminar. YELLOW.

8) Read Three Craft Books: Reading The Art of Compelling Fiction. Good so far, but very detailed, making it a slow read. GREEN.

9) Read More Fiction: Reading "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown since his work is similar to what I'm trying to write. I also checked out a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver and EL Doctorow. GREEN.

10) Read More Blogs/Emails: Haven't done as much of this as I would have liked, but I will try to get caught up this week. YELLOW.

I will probably spend the day working on my ROW80 goals and will update this post later.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

ROW80 Wednesday Check In

After two weeks with ROW80 I'm doing well on some goals and falling behind on others. Having said that, I will say that ROW80 has helped me complete the revised proposal for my customer service book, get re-started on my techo-thriller, and query some of my other completed work. I have also been reading much more about the craft of writing and have been expanding my on-line presence (although not as much as I would like).

Here then is an update on my goals:

1) Read three writing magazines each month: I've read one so far this month and am in the middle of another.

2) Participate in Three Writer's Digest On-Line Seminars: I almost signed up for a webinar on finding an agent, but it was $90 and I wasn't sure it was worth it. I went to the library and borrowed a book on the same topic. I'm sure I'd get more out of webinar, but I don't think I have the attention span for one either. I may drop this goal.

3) Write One Short Story or Article Each Month: I've been doing a lot of rewriting/reworking.

4) One Submission/Query a Day: I queried my book, an article, and two short stories. Not one a day, but they are taking longer to write than I originally thought.

5) Three Blog Entries/Week for This Blog and My Customer Service Blog: I've nailed this and have been on a roll. I also discovered the #custserv hashtag and have those in the customer service business reading and commenting on my customer service blog (http://zenofcustomerservice.blogspot.com)

6) Sign Up For a Spring Semester Class: Nothing yet.

7) Customer Service / Techno-Thriller Book: Last week I was stuck on my prologue. I am now 1/2 through the second chapter. By next week I hope to be through chapter three. Haven' t done much on my customer service book since finishing the proposal.

8) Read Three Craft Books: Read the second chapter of The Art of Compelling Fiction.

9) Read More Fiction: Reading "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown since his work is similar to what I'm trying to write. I also checked out a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver and EL Doctorow.

10) Read More Blogs/Emails: I've been reading a lot of blogs, and have started to catch up on some of the many emails I get on a daily basis. It's been somewhat of a morning routine.

I will probably spend the day working on my ROW80 goals and will update this post later.

How Story Structure is Like a Chess Game

It's amazing how similar plot structure is to a chess game. Like a good story, a game of chess has an opening, a middle game, and an endgame.

During the opening, players develop their pieces, protect their king, and set up future attacks, much the same way a writer sets up the story in the first act. In the first act, we meet the characters (develop our pieces), introduce the conflict (set up for future attacks), and keep turns and twists close to the chest (protect the king). A good chess player never needs to move the same piece twice, just as good writers should never revisit a scene. A good story always moves forward.

Most of the action takes place during the middle game. Pieces are exchanged, plots are devised and foiled, and traps are set. Very similar to the second act of a book. This is where we see the action as the conflict plays outs. Of course, the story would be boring if the protagonist reaches his goal unfettered, so as writers, we have to throw a lot of obstacles in his way for him to overcome, exactly like a chess game. I've played a lot of chess in my life and this all happens in a game. There are times when I think I have a plan all worked out only to see my opponent make an unexpected move and foil my plans. Or maybe I make what I think is a brilliant move only to realize I blundered (yes, that's an official chess turn). A good story has all of these elements. That's what makes for a good story. Maybe your protagonist has devised a way to overcome the conflict, only to have the antagonist make an unexpected move, or maybe she takes and action that ends up being a mistake. How dramatic and what a page turner that would be!

The game comes to a close during the endgame. After the dust has cleared, a few remaining pieces fight it out for final victory. Each player uses what he has left to bring a game to a close. Moves are made and countered, pawns (minor pieces) are pushed to the other side of the board to become queens and finally, the opponent is trapped and checkmated. How does this relate to your story? Maybe a few characters have been killed or incapacitated, or maybe you have a minor character who rises to the occasion and becomes a hero? Either way, this is where the game, and the story, ends. After the game, each player signs the score card, shakes hands with his opponent, and moves on to the next adventure, er, game.

Next time you plot a story, think about chess.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Write What You Know, Part 1

A writer friend of mine and I were sharing a bottle of wine and a beautiful view of the Mississippi River high atop the Grafton Bluffs discussing, as writers always do, the craft of writing. I remember telling her how envious I was of writers like Tony Hillerman and Neil Gaiman who could weave mythology and folklore into their stories, wishing I could do that myself. I had tried a few times and just fell flat. That's when she reminded me that writers need to write what they know. I had heard that before, but in my ambition to be like the writers above, had abandoned that idea.

What do I know? I know what it's like to be a middle aged man who grew up during the Cold War and came to age during the Information Age. I know what it's like to fall in love with the wrong person and hang on too long, and to fall in love with the right person, only to drive her away with my inner demons and insecurities. But do writers have success writing about such mundane, every day events? I'm sure they do.

When I started seriously writing three years ago I fell in love with the work of Ethan Canin, who himself was inspired by John Cheever. I read their works voraciously. I also read a lot of E. L. Doctorow, whose RAGTIME remains one of my favorite novels - every day people dealing with every day events, but events people just don't discuss much. I like stories about the every day person -- they make me feel connected and not alone in my own struggles.

I think I tried to fly too close to the sun like Prometheus and thanks to some good wine and great discussion, I think I've once again found my roots, and am happy where I am.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Three Important Questions

I was reading an on-line column (Writer's Digest, Thomas Young) about plotting. According to Young, a writer must ask at least one of the following questions:

- What is wrong in my character's world that needs to be put right?
- What does my character want and what does he need to do to get it?
- What event propelled my character to go on this journey?

He goes on to talk about how some writers want to write about a particular place, or person, but without any conflict or direction.

I know writers who craft beautiful prose (that makes me jealous) but their stories are absent of conflict, which is what turns pages. I love reading books like that, but without conflict there really isn't any reason to turn the page.

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is very heavy on description and narrative and does get slow at times, but he knows how to weave conflict into this three-volume work. There is the over-arching conflict of the coming war and destroying the ring, then sub-plots like Saruman and the Rowan-Gondor conflict, and then little conflicts like Gandalf and Bilbo arguing about the fate of the ring, or the four Hobbits' trip across the old forest. It's a long trilogy, but it's a page turner.

I look at my own techno-thriller and I'm glad to see my conflict present.

On a related note, Sue Grafton had some good advice in a 2010 interview with Writer's Digest (Diana Page Jordan). She talked about how a new writer will write one book and want to market it to agents and publishers. She tells writers to "give yourself time to get better." This is exactly what Mark Twain advised in his autobiography. Too many writers want to jump on board and write a bestseller without putting in their time and due diligence. Again, I know writers who do this. They won't bother with short stories because they don't pay but while they don't pay, but they garner three important intangibles: exposure, experience, credentials. Those will pay off in the end. It's like the tortoise and the hare, and we all know how that ended.

ROW80 Wednesday Check In

After one week with ROW80 I'm doing well on some goals and falling behind on others. Having said that, I will say that ROW80 has helped me complete one important task/goal: finish the revised proposal for my customer service book. It is done and off to the agent!

Here then is an update on my goals:

Okay...I've decided to plunge into ROW80 and here are my preliminary goals:

1) Read three writing magazines each month: I've read one so far this month and plan to stop by the library this afternoon to pick up more.

2) Participate in Three Writer's Digest On-Line Seminars: Nothing yet.

3) Write One Short Story or Article Each Month: Nothing yet.

4) One Submission/Query a Day: I sent out five queries this week so far: two on a non-fiction article I wrote about St. Albert and three on my customer service book.

5) Three Blog Entries/Week for This Blog and My Customer Service Blog: I've nailed this and have been on a roll. I also discovered the #custserv hashtag and have those in the customer service business reading and commenting on my customer service blog (http://zenofcustomerservice.blogspot.com)

6) Sign Up For a Spring Semester Class: Nothing yet.

7) Customer Service / Techno-Thriller Book: I'm stuck on my prologue. Much pressure to make sure the first few pages are spotless. Hoping to get past this soon.

8) Read Three Craft Books: Read the first chapter of The Art of Compelling Fiction.


9) Read More Fiction: Nothing yet. Stuck on a book about Saratoga.

10) Read More Blogs/Emails: I've been reading a lot of blogs, but not the emails or every day fiction as much as a I should.

I will probably spend the day working on my ROW80 goals and will update this post later.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Writers' Groups

I belong to two writers' groups, each loosely connected to the other. There are certain things I like about each group and certain things I don't like. With that in mind, here are my own "writers' groups dos and don'ts."

DO find a group you mesh with personally and aspirationally. Sure, there will be some in the group you don't mesh with, but on the whole you want to work with people you get along with and who have similar goals. Our group might have its moments, but any dispute or ill-feelings is quickly rectified. We also share the goal of being published and those of us already published yearn for more.

DO attend on a trial basis and DO check out more than one group. When my son joined Boy Scouts we just automatically went to the troop attached to the pack. Big mistake. We should have shopped around.

DON'T join a group steeped in formality. When I joined my current group (a small group of about 6 writers, which I think is ideal) it was just coming out of the throws of uber-formality. It had a registered name, officers, and a budget. What happened? Power struggles and ill feelings. Unless you have a super-large group this type of formality isn't really necessary as certain individuals will step into informal leadership roles. In my group, I'm usually the one to send out the "who is going to be there this week" email.

DO be open to feedback - that's why you're there. If you are there to reap praise on your work, have your mom read your stuff. But if you want serious feedback on how to become a writer, be open to suggestions. You don't know everything.

At the same time, DO be respectful with your own feedback. Early on, a member of my group (who is no longer with the group) told me she'd chuck my writing in the trash. Ouch. Instead of making a blanket statement like that, offer suggestions for improvement. It's a give-and-take. You offer some suggestions, you take some.

DON'T argue your point unless you are explain your reasons for a particular passage or wording and are ready to receive feedback on its effectiveness. "That's just the way I want it to read" is not a good defense. Just take the feedback and if you don't want to make the change, don't. However, there have been times when someone has asked my inclusion of specific information at which point I offer my reasons, such as trying to set up a future plot point, or giving insight into the character's personality.

DO remember that you are there to learn and become a better writer, but ultimately it's your own work. At first, I wanted to incorporate all of the suggestions made, but many of them were contradictory and sometimes I'd lose my own "voice." That's not good. It takes time to find the right balance but I am the first to say that I'm a much better writer now than I was three years ago when I first joined the group and anything I write that gets published is as much a credit to them as it is to me.

What about you? Do you have anything you'd like to add to the list?

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Story Structure

Kristen Lamb is a well known blogger in the writer's world, and in a recent blog post (here) she discusses the basics of story structure. In her posting, she discusses "Scene and Sequel" (from Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure) as follows:

scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy).
  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel that readers will enjoy.

Now, I am not one who generally buys into formulas. In my experience, they are too often projected from a novice in one of my writing groups onto my work without the person having a clear understanding of the formula or the ideas behind it. For example, a woman in my group had just read Bickham's book and tried to apply the "sequel" part of his idea to the beginning of my chapter. It was very confusing.

However, Kristen does an excellent job explaining Bickham's ideas and goes on to say that the formulas (and I hate using that word) don't have to be used the same way every time and compares them to ordering pizza -- we know what a pizza is, but it can come in many different varieties.

I am going to take these ideas, rework the first chapter of my story, and hope I'm the lucky winner of a five page critique by Kristen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What Do Readers Want?

As part of my ROW80 goals (I know, I started early) I decided to read The Art of Compelling Fiction by Christopher Leland (Story Press, 1998). In his first chapter, he addresses the critical issue of what the reader wants. First, I think this is a brilliant place to start. After all, we won't sell books and stories without readers and second, I think this is an aspect often overlooked by writers.

Leland lists four different purposes a reader has for reading:

To Learn About Themselves -- I think this is the basis for my short story, "Seeing Sarah," and some of my other works. That story puts an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation (being called to the deathbed of his ex-wife) and challenges readers to ask themselves what they would do in a similar situation.

To Learn About Others -- Not just other people, but other places as well. This is why I read. Right now I'm reading Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg, a book that allows me to get to know the men that led that battle, from both sides. Another favorite book of mine is Ursala K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, in which she creates her own world and culture. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is another example of this. A short story of mine, "The Best Part of the Chicken," targets this group.

Escapism -- I am working on a techno-thriller that addresses this need and I think this makes up the overwhelming majority of books and stories on the market.

Same Old Story -- Some stories are classics that are worth retelling. I've always wanted to set "Richard III" in the future.

Now, this doesn't mean a particular reader will read just one type of book. While that might be the case, there is a lot of back-and-forth in what one reader reads and even an overlap of some of these categories: an escapist novel can tell us about ourselves or others and a "same old story" can be a good escapist work.

What about you, do you write for yourself, or for your reader? In which category do you works fall?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

ROW80 Goals: First Draft

Okay...I've decided to plunge into ROW80 and here are my preliminary goals:

1) Read three writing magazines each month: Writer's Digest, Poets and Writers, and Writer. I have plenty of back issues and can get them from the library, or just resubscribe. Haven't decided yet.

2) Participate in Three Writer's Digest On-Line Seminars: I've always wanted to sign up for one of these but have never made the time. I want to change that.

3) Write One Short Story or Article Each Month: I have a lot in the queue, now it's time to get going on them. I am not going to count freelance or targeted articles, just ones I do for me.

4) One Submission/Query a Day: I have a lot on the shelf and other ideas, including a non-fiction book proposal, so while this seems like a lot, I do think I'll be able to get this done.

5) Three Blog Entries/Week for This Blog and My Customer Service Blog: This shouldn't be hard. I have plenty of topics. I do not plan to include my ROW80 check ins.

6) Sign Up For a Spring Semester Class

7) Customer Service / Techno-Thriller Book: Finish one chapter/week each.

8) Read Three Craft Books: Titles TBD but I have a few in mind. UPDATE: I am going to read Thanks, But This Isn't For Us, The Art of Compelling Fiction, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, and Writer's Digest University.


9) Read More Fiction: Three Fiction Books (Killer Angels, Angela's Ashes, and one other...), one to three short stories a week.

10) Read More Blogs/Emails: One blog, Writer's Digest email, and Every Day Fiction each day.

Okay writer friends, what do you think? Too much? Too little? Just write?

What Is Your Writing Average?

I read an interesting article in a back issue of Writer's Digest the other day. I'm sorry I can't cite the specific source...I tore the page out, set it aside, and promptly lost it. If you know it, please post it and I'll do the same if I find it. (UPDATE: The article was from the Feb '10 issue of Writer's Digest and was called "There's No Such Thing as a Failed Story" by John Smolens. It was an "MFAInsider" feature.)

The article talked about writers being .200 hitters. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with baseball, a .200 hitter is one who gets a hit once for every five times at bat. It's a bit more complicated than that since a few types of at bats (walks, etc) are not counted, but you get the gist. Compare that with good hitters who usually hit around .300. Basically, if a player is a .200 hitter they better hope they are a great defensive player, have great speed, or know how to pitch.

But what the author was trying to tell us is that .200 is good for writers - in fact, it's really good if a few other factors are considered.

He contends that for every five stories we start, only one is worthy of finishing. I can see this. I've started a few stories that have stalled for one reason or another. Some of which I had high hopes for. There were other stories that I finished, but maybe should have abandoned. But, I would say one in five is true for this. I know it's hard for writers to give up on a story, or even article, but sometimes they are better in gestation than they are on paper.

Now that yo have a finished story, it will sell right? Not necessarily. According to this article, only one in five finished stories will be worthy enough to be published in a journal or magazine - worthy. What this tells me is that for every five stories I sent out, only one will really have a chance of finding a home and even then, it will be a long haul.

As a budding writer one thing I've realized is that writing the story is only half the work - selling it is the other half and often requires as much, if not more, than the writing itself.

So don't give up if you haven't achieved success yet. Stick with it, learn the craft, and success will follow. We've all heard stories of writers (and others) who were turned down numerous times before being accepted - Dr. Seuss, JK Rowling, and Colonel Sanders!

Happy Writings!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Following in the Footsteps of Giants

I live in St. Louis, only 90 minutes south of Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, MO. I've been going there for years and can't count the number of visits I've made - with parents, girlfriends, wives, children, and even by myself. All have been memorable and every time I go, there is something new to see or do. It's a great experience and a wonderful homage to one America's finest writers.

During the April Missouri Writer's Guild Conference I had the pleasure of meeting the director of the Mark Twain Boyhood home and one of the most enthusiastic Mark Twain fans I've ever met -- quite possibly the most enthusiastic in existence. She invited me for a tour and I took her up on her offer over Labor Day Weekend.

Even though I've visited countless times before, this was my first visit as a serious writer, so I was able to take in the sites with a new perspective. Cindy (my tour guide) took me through Twain's boyhood home, the town, and "Injun Joe's Cave." She related what we were looking at to his stories, most notably Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. That's when it dawned on me that I was walking in the footsteps of a giant. Here Mark Twain strolled the streets--he ate, worked, studied, played and maybe even loved in this small Missouri town. What's more, he took these experiences and turned them into wonderful stories.

As writers, we often take our own experiences and weave them into tales of fiction. By walking in Twain's footsteps I learned how he took a few events from his life, added some embellishments, and created two American classics. We don't have to write exactly what happened. Instead, we can start with just a few basics and let our imagination do the rest. It was truly inspirational.

I came to realize that Tom Sawyer is so popular because it is the story of a boy -- as told from that boy's perspective. Mark Twain nailed it because Tom Sawyer was looking at the world not through the eyes of an adult, but through the eyes of a boy. He transported us back through the past to our own childhood and did it so well because he used his own experiences as a boy, making the depiction a very genuine one and to which we all, since we were all children at one time, can easily relate. And that is the magic of good writer - to transport the reader from their own world into that of the writer.

This not only applies to settings and perspective, but to support characters as well. Injun Joe, Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher, even Jim were all based on real-life people. The magic is that the characters didn't necessarily have to depict their real-life inspirations accurately, but just enough so that the characters are seen as genuine, allowing the reader to better relate to them. They can be amalgamations of different people, or maybe just extrapolations of one or more of that person's more notable characteristics. Becky Thatcher just wasn't the girl who lived across the street, she became the "girl next door." Injun Joe wasn't the scary looking guy who lived in town, but a killer. Huck Finn didn't just come from a poor family, his dad was the town drunk. Too many times "flat" characters are just that - flat. To add de[th,

John Steinbeck (his hometown of Salinas and Monterrey California are also notable places to visit) has done this (characters in Cannery Row are based on some of his friends) and I've done this myself. In my short story, "Billy," the main female character was based on someone I know. I asked myself what would happen is you take one of her personality traits (seeing the world through a very narrow perspective) and extrapolate that to encompass the loss of a child. In "Seeing Sarah" I take another ex and put her on her deathbed. What would she do? How would the main character (me) react? A new short story of mine, "The Best Part of the Chicken," is based on an experience I had in SE MO following a major ice storm. In that story, I blended characters, neighborhoods, and experiences into one interaction. Of course, you have to be careful not to depict a person too accurately, lest they be recognized, a problem John Cheever used to have.

I learned a lot that weekend in Hannibal -- or at least received confirmation of what I already knew -- that good writing comes from us, the writer, and our past -- story, events, characters, even setting. If you ever want to overcome writer's block, think about something that happened in your past, or someone you knew (or both), and let your imagination do the rest.


- Take a person from your life and insert him or her into a unique situation.
- Take a person or event and ask a "what if?" question, or project that person/event into the future - or even past.
- Take a person in your life, isolate one or two characteristics, and build a new character based on those characteristics.
- Take a few people and settings and mix them all up into one event.
- Take a person you know and put them into an historical setting.
- Imagine your city in the future and set a past event in that future setting.
- Take a situation from your past and write about it, with you reacting differently.
- Take an event from your life and write about it from the other person's perspective.

Happy Writing!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Kindle Adventure

One of the first serious stories I wrote is a short story called, "Seeing Sarah." It is about a man who has had a series of failed relationships with women, including his mother. The story doesn't explore why he has these bad relationships (although we get the idea that it is because of his mother) but what it does do is show how a pivotal moment can put the past in perspective and allow a person, in this case our protagonist, to move forward in his life.

I've had trouble selling the story. Editors have told me it was good, but just not right for their publication. One even told me it was "too sappy" for them. I think another issue was its length. It's a 6,000 word story and most fiction publications don't accept stories of that length and it doesn't lend itself to serialization.

I believed in the story and the feedback I received from others was very positive. Many felt it was very emotional and more than one said it made them cry. I consider that a plus since I feel that anytime a writer can emotionally touch a reader is a good thing.

Most of the positive feedback I received was from women and I researched a few woman's magazines, but to no avail. Most just do not accept fiction.

So, I came across some information on Kindle publishing and thought I'd give it a go and sell the story for $0.99, which seemed to be the going rate for short stories. I know self-publishing gets a "bad rap" in the writing community, but I think it is being seen more and more as a viable alternative - as long as it's done right. I've read some self-published works full to typos and bad formatting and just poorly written. This story has been through countless revisions and test readings, along with a few critique group meetings.

As for the process, it was somewhat frustrating. I won't go into too many details about what didn't work, but will say a few things:

1) Don't bother with the mobipocket creator. That didn't help at all and in fact made things worse.

2) Upload the file and click the "see in html" link. Also be sure to preview your work before approving.

3) Kindle automatically indents the first line of every paragraph. If there is a line you don't want indented (such as on the copyright page) then you have to enter the code yourself. There is a help page at Amazon that gives you the coding. I can't remember how I did it (sorry I tried so many things). Line breaks and empty spaces have to be coded as well.

DO watch the tutorial videos. They help. And don't discount the html factor. You want to make sure your book looks good or it'll turn away readers.

As for the cover art, make sure you use high resolution and make sure the artwork is of proper dimensions before adding the lettering. My first attempt looked more like a square and when I downloaded it to Kindle it didn't look good. My second attempt was a horizontal "squeeze" which made the lettering look sloppy. My third attempt I just started from scratch and did it right.

What do I hope to accomplish? I don't know. Sales of course and I submitted it to be considered as a "Kindle Single" but from what I see, that's a pretty elite group. I just wanted the story out there. Who knows from there? Maybe an agent will see it and want a novelization or maybe it'll inspire a screenwriter who wants to buy the rights for adaptation. That might be overly optimistic, but isn't that what keeps us writers going?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Building Better Characters

During the recent Missouri Writer's Guild (MWG) Conference, I attended the Sunday morning "master class" on "Building Believing Characters" presented by Elaine Viets. I liked her when she was in St. Louis and enjoyed what she had to say during the keynote address I also came to find out that she grew up not too far away from where I grew up, so her hometown stories really resonated with me. I found her very personable and she definitely brightened up the conference.

The reason I signed up for this class is (1) I wanted to hear what she had to say and to me, she was definitely the biggest name at the conference, and (2) I enjoy character-driven fiction and wanted to hear what she had to say about developing characters. In particular, I wanted to learn how to go beyond the flat characters that populate many of today's stories and develop characters that are, as the name of the session implies, believable and, more importantly to me, have depth.

Here are some of the tips she gave:

- Don't reveal too much about your character all at once...do it slowly. This simulates how we learn about others. We don't find out everything about them up front, it takes time, and readers like to know there is more to learn.

- Don't have characters reveal the information themselves, do it through the action of the character or actions of others around the character.

- Character sketches are important. Take the time to develop a background for your characters. As an aside, a college prof of mine has us "interview" our main characters, which I found to be a really effective tool to learn more about my character.

- Don't just describe the character, but discuss how the character feels about how they look. Pretty girls feel differently - some are happy, some don't think they are pretty enough. How a character reacts or feels about their physical characteristics reveals a lot about that character and adds depth and believability.

- Avoid generic terms like "middle aged" or "pretty" since those terms mean different things to different people. However, using them to describe how someone perceives the character, include the character them self, might be beneficial. For example, maybe a lot of people might think a girl is pretty, but she doesn't - or vice-versa.

- Introduce people in their natural habitat.

- How a character treats pets can tell a lot about that character.

- Characters should talk differently. As an aside, one of the writers in our group is very technical and his protagonist talks with precision using words not found in the ordinary person's vocabulary. Well, when he wrote his wife's dialogue, she spoke the exact same way! We, of course, corrected him.

- Shoes, hairstyle, clothes, are all important clues to a character's personality.

- Character may be more important than plot.

- Cultural setting of the character is important. Where did they grow up? What were the character's parents like? I have a book on character types that has been invaluable to me.

- Little things are important - what does the character eat? What does she like? Not like? How does she vote? Does she go to church? If so, what kind and for how long? A character that attends the same church her parents did is different than one who attends a different kind of church.

I asked about stereotypes. I have a character who is a professor that wears a tweed jacket and another writer-friend was blasted by a reviewer because she used a "white haired grizzled veteran" as a Major in one of her stories. Elaine said that stereotypes were okay since they allowed the reader to identify with the character. However, the character cannot be one-dimensional and must have characteristics that make him or her unique.

Some examples of how I am going to apply this knowledge to my own work:

- My protagonist is gay. I was going to reveal it early, but why hurry? Also, I'm not going to have him reveal it himself, but through dialogue, by having a colleague ask about a past relationship.

- I am going to keep the tweed-jacket wearing stereotype, but add some quirks - maybe a few pet-peeves, food likes and dislikes, and a unique religious view.

Overall, I thought it was a great presentation and well worth the time and money.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

MWG Conference: Impromtu Writing Contest

This is the first of many posts I hope to write covering the recent Missouri Writer's Guild 2011 Conference. This is only my second such conference and I must say it was well worth the time and money. I can't believe the value I received. In return for my $200 (that included a master class and banquet) I was able to pick the brain of writers, publishers, editors, and agents. How much is that worth? I think I got the better end of the bargain.

What's more, I got some free publicity by not only winning the impromptu writing contest, but making a memorable entrance.

First, the contest.

We were given and index card and five words and were charged with the task of writing a paragraph using all five words. Those words were lackluster, tropical, gargantuan, effective, and blanch. Those are five tough words to use in one paragraph. I gave it some thought and figured that if I were to win, I'd have to stand out. I also thought about blanch and could only think about it in terms of a blanched vegetable. Then the idea of a gargantuan salad with blanched green beans and tropical fruit entered my mind about the same time as a passage from "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" - the one in which the whale turned into a petunia and thought "oh no, not again." And thus the basics of my paragraph were born.

So, I scribbled through a few rough drafts, struck something I liked, wrote it up on the postcard, and turned it in.

Second, the award presentation.

I didn't realize they were giving the award out during lunch. I had a great lunch and spent the time speaking with the director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum (I was in heaven!). As we wrapped up, the front table looked like they were about ready to get up and make announcements and I thought it would be a good time to duck out and use the little boys' room before the lunch speaker started talking. I figured they'd make a few announcements, but what would I miss?

Well, I take care of my business, come back, and as I walk into the banquet room (seating about 200 attendees and guests) they start applauding me! My first thought is that it was a set up - that they agreed to clap the first person who walked through the door. So I hammed it up a bit and found my seat. But my table mates were pointing me to the front podium and told me they wanted me up there. Well, everyone was still clapping and I STILL had no idea why! I went along with it and it wasn't until I got to the podium that I was told that I won the contest. Wow! How great was that! My first writing award. Granted it was for one paragraph, but it counts nonetheless. Then I read the paragraph, had the crowd laughing, and then left the limelight (I sure hope that wasn't my 15 minutes). A great warm-up act for the guest of honor. I also received a very nice paperweight.

I received a lot of congratulatory comments throughout the rest of the conference - and beyond. It's been a great rush and now I have a great "in" with some of the speakers I want to follow-up with. Even Elaine Viets commented about my entry!

Well, with that said, here is the award winning paragraph:

"Oh no, not again." Ralph's attempts to reincarnate into a higher lifeform obviously had not been effective. He remained an artichoke heart for the eighth time. He winked, trying to flush from his pores the citric acid dripping from the assorted tropical fruit accompanying him in the gargantuan picnic salad. He sensed the blanched green bean next to him writhe in agony. "Oh well," Ralph said in a lackluster tone, "maybe next time I'll be lucky enough to come back a mandarin orange."

I'd like to thank the Missouri Writer's Guild (MWG) for recognizing my work. What a shot in the arm!

So that's it for now. More, lots more, to follow!