Tag Archives: books

How I became an author #amwriting

I have always been a writer, and a lover of music and art. Music was important in our house, as my parents had a large collection of vinyl records and the stereo was always cranking. Whether it was classical, jazz, or rock and roll, music was played loud enough to hear outside.

In an afternoon, you might hear the Beatles, followed by Vivaldi, Dean Martin, Herman’s Hermits, Loretta Lynn, the Monkees, and capping the evening—Mozart. Simon and Garfunkle, The Who, The Rolling Stones, 101 Strings, Electric Light Orchestra, Eddy Arnold, Count Basie, Stevie Wonder—you name it, the music was always played at a high volume in our home.

The books in our home were just as eclectic. My parents were prolific readers and were members of both Doubleday Book Club and Science Fiction Book Club. They also purchased two to four paperbacks a week at the drugstore and subscribed to Analog and several other magazines.

There was always something new and wonderful to read around our house, and most of it was literary fiction or speculative fiction, although we had the entire 54 volume leather-bound set of the Great Books of the Western World, and our father insisted we attempt to read and discuss what we could.

Some of those books were mostly understandable, such as William Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys.

Plato, not so much, and yet his work did influence me.

At the age of fourteen, I didn’t understand Pepys, but I read him, and while we were bass fishing on a Saturday morning, Dad would talk about the differences and commonalities between life and morality in Pepys’ London and our life in suburban America in 1968. His thought was that I should learn about the 17th century and the Great Fire in London from an eyewitness, just as I had learned about the war in the Pacific from John F. Kennedy‘s autobiographical novel, PT 109.

But Pepys’ London of 1666 was so different from the ‘Mod’ subculture of the London of 1968 (and the Beatles) that I was familiar with thanks to Life magazine. To me, it was almost like speculative fiction. In many ways, it was more difficult for me to believe in historical London than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

Everything I knew about sex, I learned from the books I stole from my mother’s nightstand.

When I married and left home, I still read every sci-fi or fantasy novel that came out in paperback, budgeting for books the way others of my acquaintance budgeted for beer. I read the classics for my irregular college classes and learned to love Chaucer and James Joyce. For a variety of reasons I never earned a college degree, but I’ve never stopped reading and researching great literature.

But reading for entertainment was still my “drug.” I jonesed for new books by the great ones, Anne McCaffreyJack Chalker, and Roger Zelazny, reading and rereading them until they were shreds held together with duct tape.

As a married student attending college in Bellingham Washington, purchasing books for pleasure became a luxury. I found a secondhand bookstore where I could get a brown paper shopping bag full of novels in too poor a condition to sell on their shelves for $2.00 a bag if you had a bag of better books to trade in.

As a college drop-out I went through a full shopping bag of books every week, and within a year, I had read every book they had.

Thus, out of desperation, I discovered a whole new (to me) genre: regency romances written by Georgette Heyer, and other romance writers of that generation. Those books, along with beat up copies of bestsellers by Jack KerouacJames Michener, and Jacqueline Susann began to show up in the pile beside my bed.

So at least some of my literary influences can be traced back to dragons, booze, morality, and England’s romantic Regency—lived vicariously through these authors’ eyes.

Always when the budget permitted, I returned to Tolkien, Zelazny, McCaffrey, AsimovBradbury, and as time passed, Piers AnthonyDavid EddingsTad WilliamsL.E. Modesitt Jr., and Robert Jordan to name only a few.

And there were so many, many others whose works I enjoyed. By the 1990s, the genres of fantasy and sci-fi were growing authors like a field grows weeds, and I loved it.

All of the books I read as a child and young adult have influenced my writing. They still inspire me.

Nowadays I rarely am able to read more than a chapter or two before falling asleep. My Kindle is full of books, and I haven’t got the time to read them because I have to write my own stories. Having the luxury to spend a day wallowing in a book is a treat to be treasured.

But it is because of the uncountable authors whose works I have been privileged to read that I was inspired to think that my own scribbles might be worth pursuing.

Writing has always been necessary for me, as natural as breathing. In the beginning, my writing was unformed, a reflection of whatever I was reading at the moment. As I matured and gained confidence, I found my own ideas and stories, and they took over my life.

Once that happened, I became a keyboard-wielding writing junkie.

Some days I write well, and others not so much, but every day I write something.

And every day I find myself looking for the new book that will rock my universe, a new “drug” to satisfy my craving, even if I know I won’t have time to read it.

I’m addicted to dreams and the people who write about them. Reading is my form of mind expanding inspiration. Without the authors whose books formed my world, I would never have dared to write.


Credits and Attributions

Potions of this article have appeared previously here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy in the post, The Genesis of an Author, © Connie J. Jasperson 2016, posted Jan 27, 2016

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Character description: too much or not enough? #amwriting

I love eBooks for the simple reason I have over 800 books, and I don’t have to dust them. I do buy paper books, but only those on writing craft or research for my work.

I have managed to get nearly every book I ever loved as an eBook. Every week I add at least two more books to my library. I have become a fan of hundreds of new authors, most of them indies.

Every now and then I read a book that is traditionally published, sometimes taking a dip into general fiction. I did that this week, reading a book I saw advertised on twitter. I picked it up, knowing I might hate it because the critics loved it.

I can live without a happy ending, and even with no ending at all. Not every story ends happily. But please, make the pages that come before that lack of ending something more than self-indulgent hero worship of your protagonist. I get that you’re in love with your characters. I’m in love with mine too.

Just don’t wax poetic about their magnetic beauty on every third page, please.

Unfortunate phrasings that yank me out of a book:

“She lay there staring with her creamy blue eyes, water pooling in the corners.”

“Her eyes were the same color as the deep purple velvet drapes.”

Meh. Enough about their eyes already. Some authors go to incredible (and at times, awkward) lengths to force their personal creative vision of what a character looks like on the reader.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be told what to think when I am reading a book. What I consider beautiful is not necessarily attractive to someone else.

But this brings us to a dilemma that many authors seem to face. How do you describe a character in such a way that the reader will find them as attractive as you want them to be?

You must give the reader enough of a general description that they can fill in the blanks with their imagination.

Generally, you want to show a character’s coloring, hair style/color, eye color, general physical description. Especially, you must somehow mention anything that is unique about their appearance. If they are not too fastidious, mention it, and the same goes for if they are obsessively fastidious.

Actions can reveal physical characteristics and mannerisms. Consider how they fix their hair, what style of clothes they gravitate to, even how they move and interact with both the environment and other characters. What are their habitual facial expressions?

Offer this information up in bits over a period of time rather than dumping it in a police-blotter style of delivery. Just don’t go on and on giving minute, unimportant details.

In my Tower of Bones series, the men in Edwin’s family have this sort of cachet that makes them irresistible to all women. It is the Goddess Aeos’s way of ensuring that the girl she has selected for them falls in love with them, and their bloodline is continued.

But what do Edwin and his father (and grandfather) look like? Edwin and his family are a lot like my uncles were as young men, tall, blondish, blue-eyed, and physically strong from working on their farm. They’re rather average, nothing spectacular. They’re good-looking, but aren’t overly handsome. However, there is something about them that causes trouble in a certain strata of female society that has a rather free approach to life.

So what is this charisma these men have? (And that my uncles did not have.)

Here is where I romanticize them. To most men, they seem no more intriguing than any other person, but to women, they are an irresistible banquet of masculine pheromones. Since they do a lot of traveling, this creates opportunities for mayhem. While writing the Tower of Bones series, I’ve had a lot of fun with that plot-line, especially when it came to Wynn Farmer in Mountains of the Moon.

For my other characters in various books, again we write what we know. In my mind, all my characters are exceedingly good-looking in their own different ways. I am of British Isles stock as is most of my family, but I live in a town filled with people of all races and origins. Throughout my life, my neighbors have been from such diverse places as Japan, Mexico, Alabama, Norway, Cambodia, Nigeria, India, and Minneapolis.

Thus, in my head, my characters are of all races, and all are attractive to me.

Huw the Bard is darkly handsome, blue-eyed with black curling hair, and has a roguish charm that women find irresistible. An incurable romantic and on the run, he loves many, but gives his heart only to a few.

Billy Ninefingers is exceptionally tall and strong, sandy-haired, with a boyish face. He’s competent and a strong leader with a firm sense of justice. He is in love with only one woman, but there are complications.

Reina Jacobs is a middle-aged woman, a retired pilot who has been conscripted back into active duty. She has short iron-grey hair and is a cyborg. She is attracted to Ladeaux, a pilot of her age, but while they are working together, she won’t fall into a romance.

Personally, I don’t find Prosperine as painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to my taste, although as a painting it is flawlessly executed. But millions of people find her beautiful, and he certainly did. His model, Jane Morris, was considered a great beauty in her day.

Yet the images of her, both painted and photographed, portray her as sulky-looking, which is not attractive to me at all.

I choose not to beat the reader over the head with my personal vision, other than the general description for the reader to hang their imagination on. I want the reader to see beauty and magnetism in the way that is most appealing to them. I hope that mannerisms, conversations, and other characters’ opinions convey the image the reader wants to see in a protagonist.

And this is the way it is for every author. We are painters who use words to show an image. We want to the reader to see what they believe is beauty.

Your vision of beauty is not what your readers see, and to force too many details on them ruins the flow of the tale.

A good general description, with hints or comments about their beauty or lack thereof, is all that is needed. If you provide the framework, the reader’s mind will supply the rest.

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#amwriting: Interview with Scott Driscoll

As part of my lead up to #NaNoWriMo2016 and November’s month of literary madness, I am continuing my series of guest interviews. Today, we are speaking with the always intriguing Scott Driscoll.

Scott is an award-winning writing instructor at UW Continuing and Professional Education, is a well-known journalist and editor, and is the author of Better You Go Home, a literary novel which takes the reader to Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution. (My review can be read here.)

I have attended several seminars offered by Scott through PNWA, and have always come away feeling inspired.

CJJ: What books influenced you most as young reader?

SD: Like most children, I liked any story that fueled my imagination, such as Aesop’s Fables, Grimm Fairy Tales, and the like. Somewhere in middle school I discovered a preference for realism and actually read, and was fascinated by, Moby Dick. I distinctly remember going to class and sniffing the palms of my hands, convinced I’d somehow got ambergris, which never really washes off, on my hands. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men also impressed me greatly at that age. I found American social realism (aka naturalism), such as anything by Drieser, dreary beyond belief.

CJJ: How did these books influence your early writing?

SD: The dreary books I was forced to read in adolescence and as a young teen led me to conclude that you had to be pedantic and stuffy to be a writer and that turned me off to writing fiction altogether. The exceptions would be Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and E. A. Poe stories. Those were exciting. What I didn’t realize until later is that I was looking for a voice that spoke to me. I really didn’t hear that voice until I encountered French existential novelists like Camus and Jean Genet (especially in The Thief’s Journal, a fictionalized memoir). Compared with potted stories like de Maupassant’s, these took me into what felt like a word wilderness, where you could easily get off trail and run into danger and I loved that feeling. I also discovered and loved Dostoevsky and Kafka. There was a darkness and urgency and psychological depth in that writing that I could not find in American authors, until, in college, I discovered the novels of Norman Mailer and Edward Abbey and now I had a voice that was raw and stories that were more about the psychological life of the characters and less about managing a plot. Not that I had anything against plot. It was the raw power of the words I needed to fall in love with first.

CJJ: You have said elsewhere that “Writing for me is about applying form to the mysteries we suffer.” Can you expand a little on this idea?

SD: I borrowed that phrase from Wright Morris. On my blog site I wrote about the first time, as an adult, I tried to write fiction. I was 21 years old, taking a break from college, living in Darwin, Australia and working warehouse and restaurant jobs to save money so I could travel on. With time on my hands, and a depressing lack of anything better to do, I essentially locked myself in my boarding house room, sat under the paddle fan, and spent several hours writing nothing. What I lacked, I realized, was not the ability to write, but knowledge of form. Without an understanding of story structure, I would churn out a stream of words that was nothing more than a verbal outpouring of my inner angst, the kind of sophomoric, I realized that day, drivel that excites only high school English teachers, who are grateful for any grammatical verbal pyrotechnics. Without an understanding of form, I could not begin to solve the mysteries I knew were locked up inside me.

CJJ: You have also said “Any story that involves a quest – and that is most stories – starts with a disturbing event known to writers and film-makers as the “inciting incident.” What is the most important thing for an author to consider when creating this event?

SD: It took me a long time to accept that any story with any kind of plot must start with a disturbance. But once you accept that, what does it really mean? A disturbance, as in, someone gets mugged, a bank gets robbed, aliens land, a shark throws a vacation resort town into chaos? If it’s just event for event’s sake, anything is possible and nothing is particularly meaningful. Rather, an inciting incident must disturb a balance that pertains in the hero’s world, and must do so by working against a deeply held value, so that the hero, we can be sure, will not shrug it off as simply bad news but rather will be forced to react in a way that will further endanger the balance in that familiar world.

Better You Go Home Scott DriscollCJJ: When did you first have the idea to write “Better You Go Home,” and how long did it take to complete it?

SD: In 1994, three and a half years after the Velvet Revolution, I went to the Czech Republic to track down family that my Czech relatives in Iowa had stopped communicating with. I found the village, the farmhouse, met some people, but had been too cheap to hire a translator and didn’t get beyond discovering that there was some unspeakable mystery, some “inciting incident,” that had created a rift in the family. In 1999, armed with better information sent to me by a cousin who’d followed my lead to that village, and armed this time with a translator, my father and I went back to this village and heard stories, and reviewed records, and I learned enough that I felt I could write a novel with this family mystery at its heart. At the time I had quit writing fiction (needing to make money) and started instead writing for magazines, and between that and teaching and being divorced and raising a child, I really didn’t have time to write a novel (but stayed up late virtually every night reading everything I could get my hands on related to the topic). A couple years later, needing to get back to fiction, I started in pretending I was writing chapters, but really just produced fluff based on my research. From the time I began writing chapters that could stick, and publication, ten years went by.  I had told my wife—we married just before the time I got serious with this novel—I’d have it done in two years. Our son likes to remind me that he was ten when it was published. I remind him that I was busy. But, really, honestly, it took so long because my early understanding of the story lacked the form that would allow me to finally tell the story. Much of my groping in the early years could have been circumvented had I discovered that form early in the process.

CJJ: Once a new work is in progress, what are the main hurdles you have to overcome in laying down the first draft?

SD: That depends. If it’s a short story, I will usually allow myself to have a crude idea based on a situation that sets forth from a known inciting incident with a disturbed character but without a known outcome, just set forth and go, knowing the real story will emerge in the re-writes anyway. With a novel, it’s worth doing more planning.  Once you have your premise, the first hurdle you have to overcome is finding a basic story structure that will naturally lead to a surprising but inevitable outcome. Then you work on your characters, that is, you start with characters in mind, but now you have to imagine how the events required by the story structure you have imagined will be causally connected to the characters’ needs and wants and fears and expressed and hidden desires. Without causal connections you just have meaningless events. Once causal connections are asserted, you encounter another hurdle. The characters begin to morph according the logical requirements of the causal connections you have asserted. Without a strong sense of the story structure, things can quickly morph into an ugly, hydra-headed monster, ie, chapters screaming to be thrown away.

CJJ: What are you working on now?

SD:  Two things. First, a collection of connected stories that show a young couple starting off careers and family and that show how that trajectory unfolds over the years. For my raw material, I am using stories published years ago, but that I felt never broke through to their bigger potential. Will I achieve that now? Let’s just say, I know a whole lot more about writing now than I did then. I only hope that I can recapture the immediacy that can easily get lost behind a command of technique. My second project, still in the planning stages, is a sci-fi time travel novel. This will be my first attempt at a popular fiction genre. I was put up to it by an editor friend. My wife was intrigued by the idea of me writing a novel that had the potential to make some money. Having handed over an 18,000 word treatise, that covers my idea for the story nearly chapter by chapter, I am now excited to get to work.

CJJ: What books can you recommend for new writers who are just beginning to learn the craft?

SD: The best book on craft, generally, is Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, now in its ninth edition. That said, Story by Robert McKee, though written for screenplay writers, contains the best craft talks, with illustrations from films, on plot and character and scene that I have ever come across. I would definitely start with those two, then add Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham, as an enhancement to what McKee has to say. Then, they should all get their hands on What If, the third edition, edited by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. (Do not let Amazon trick you into buying the inadequate first edition.) This book is full of mini-lessons and exercises for writers who know about craft but need practice.

CJJ: Where can people find your classes and seminars this fall?

SD: In fall 2016, starting the first week of October, I am teaching one section of Literary Fiction I, the introductory course, and one section of Advanced Fiction Writing, a course intended for writers of both literary and popular fiction who’ve had experience with taking writing classes or who have extensive writing experience. Both classes are offered through the University of Washington in the Professional and Continuing Education department. If interested, folks should go to www.keeplearning.uw.edu and look for these courses, or, if they have questions, seek more details at www.pce.uw.edu. They can also email me at sdriscol@uw.edu. I also teach a summer workshop class and that is posted on my blog site. http://www.scottdriscollblogs.wordpress.com.

  • In the meantime, I am a guest editor reviewing manuscripts at the fall 2016 Write On The Sound conference and will be at the Edmonds, WA site on Saturday Oct 1 and Sunday Oct 2. On Nov. 10, I will be a guest workshop leader at the November meeting of the Skagit Valley Writer’s League, held in Mt. Vernon, WA. Those interested can peruse their web site for more information. In May, 2017, I will be a workshop leader, lecturer etc. at the Write On The River conference held in Wenatchee, WA

 

Scott, thank you so much, for being a part of this little series on the craft of writing. As always, you are a joy to talk to!


scott-driscoll1 Scott Driscoll can be found 

 

 

 

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#amwriting: Sturm und Drang

hp-touchsmart-320-1030-full-setMy main, desktop computer died on Saturday. It’s been limping along for a while. We had into the shop about six months ago, and should have known then it was terminal. The thing is, while I love Sturm und Drang in my literature, I prefer my electronic life to be stress-free.

Limping along on my ancient, half-functional laptop, I can get by well enough to write the odd blogpost or work on my own work. But the screen is too small for me to use to edit for a client. Also, I can’t do any work requiring Photoshop, as that program is on my dead dinosaur.

I have my headphones on and the laptop strategically positioned, so it blocks the 50-inch technological disaster that is our TV and which seems to take up an entire wall. It also needs replacing as a series of vertical lines obscures the view on part of the screen but I doubt that will happen this year–TV is not that important. Music is mostly my form of entertainment.

Greg’s laptop is older than this one, although he is keeping it alive. All our technology is older than dirt. So, after I finish writing this blogpost, we are going shopping and two new machines will come to our house.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s talk about Sturm und Drang. The English translation is literally, Storm and stress.

Google defines it as: a literary and artistic movement in Germany in the late 18th century, influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and characterized by the expression of emotional unrest and a rejection of neoclassical literary norms.

What does this mean in simpler terms?

Sturm und Drang as a literary form evolved during the time of the American Revolutionary War, which a period of global unrest and great hardship, especially in Europe. The main feature is the expression of high emotions, strong reactions to events, and often, rebellion against rationalism. It is characterized by violent individualism and complex emotions. Literature and music written in this style were aimed at shocking the audience and infusing them with extremes of emotion.

Classical literature in this style began in 1772 with “Prometheus,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which the character of the mythic Prometheus addresses God (as Zeus) in misotheistic accusation and defiance. Misotheism is the hatred of God, or the Gods, in literature described as stemming from a moment in a person’s life where one feels the gods have abused and abandoned him. Misotheism requires a firm belief in a God or Gods.

Again, Wikipedia tells us this: Prometheus is the creative and rebellious spirit which, rejected by God, angrily defies him and asserts itself; Ganymede is the boyish self which is adored and seduced by God. One is the lone defiant, the other the yielding acolyte. As the humanist poet, Goethe presents both identities as aspects or forms of the human condition.

Modern genre and indie literature using this style can be found as an underlying trope in Cyberpunk.

Wikipedia defines Cyberpunk as: a subgenre of science fiction in a future setting that tends to focus on the society of the proverbial “high tech low life[1][2] featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.[3]

DoAndroidsDreamIt is exemplified by post-industrial dystopias that tend to feature wide divisions in the social order and extreme chaos in society. Protagonists acquire and make use of technology in ways never anticipated by its original inventors (“the street finds its own uses for things”).  Much of the genre’s atmosphere is heavily film noir, and  employs techniques and style reminiscent of detective fiction.

The difference between classical Sturm und Drang and modern Cyberpunk is Technology and Industry are the Gods whose knowledge the mortals desire, and whom they seek to replace. All aspects of Sturm und Drang can be found in Cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk began as a niche rebellion by authors like Phillip K. Dick, and is now mainstreamed and growing in popularity.

Authors writing in the early days of speculative fiction were Indies who were finding success getting short stories published in popular sci-fi magazines, and who were fortunate enough to have some farsighted editors take chances with publishing their longer work. They formed publishing companies and became giants. That opportunity will always be out there.

Indie authors have a great deal of latitude in their choice of what to write, as we can write and publish edgy work that would be deemed too chancy by traditional publishers. Authors always engage in artistic rebellion, and society always appreciates it—years afterward.

And tonight, I will continue my artistic rebellion while getting my new computing thing, whatever it shall be, up and running.

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#flashfictionfriday: Dreams and Shadow Truths

Neil Gaiman Sandman quote memeTales, dreams, shadow-truths…the fabric of the multiverse. One universe touches upon another, and the dreamer dreams. The faerie queen leads her court though the forest and one more mortal falls in love.

Books are evidence that once upon a time a mortal slept, and dreamt. Within the pages of dusty, leather-bound books lies proof that the philosophers’ stone exists in the realm of imagination spinning words of straw into gold, and bequeathing immortality to those who possess it.

The multiverse is yours for the taking if you believe, and are unafraid to dream.

Open a book, and  step into a realm unknown.


 

“Dreams and Shadow Truths”  by Connie J. Jasperson © 2015 was first published on Aug. 10, 2015 on  Edgewise Words Inn

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An unexpected guide

Sue Vincent is an amazing writer and photographer. Images from her blog, Daily Echo, has kick-started my creative muse many, many times.

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

The hill was barely visible through the sudden mist that had descended to shroud the morning, a hill we needed to climb. There was, though, no sign of a path by which to reach it…and no-one in this wild landscape who could tell us which way to go…

10 Blakey Topping (7)

‘There is a Llama in the next field!’
I smile nonchalantly, determined not to fall for that one.
‘There cannot be a Llama in the next field Wen, because we are in the North Yorkshire Moorlands and not the Mountains of Peru.’
Still some distance ahead, Wen turns back to look into the field and then back to me. ‘Not only is there very definitely a Llama in the next field. It is now looking directly at us.’
‘There cannot be a Llama…’ I start to remonstrate again but then I catch up to Wen and look into the next field… at…

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#amwriting: Rothfuss and Gaiman, crafting good prose

Stardust, Neil GaimanSome fantasy qualifies as literary fiction because of the way in which the story is delivered.

One example of what I think of as literary fantasy is Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. In the very first sentence of chapter one, Gaiman commits the most heinous crime an author can commit, according to those critique groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge:

Quote: There once was a young man who wished to gain his hearts desire. 

And then, to make matters worse, he throws out a bit of background:

  1. Our story starts in the village of Wall, a tiny town about a night’s drive from London. A giant wall stands next to the town, giving it its name.
  2. There’s only one spot to pass through this huge grey rock wall, and it’s always guarded by two villagers at a time, and they are vigilant at their task.
  3. This is peculiar, because all one can see through the break in the wall is meadows and trees. It looks as if nothing frightening or strange could be happening there, but no one is allowed to go through the break in the wall.
  4. The guards only take a break from the wall once every nine years, on May Day, when a fair comes to the meadow

omg! Did he really do that? What was he thinking, starting a fantasy novel with a TELLING, PASSIVE sentence followed by an info dump?  To answer your question, he thought he was offering up a good story, and guess what? HE WAS!

And he did it with beautiful, immersive prose.

name of the wind -patrick rothfussWho else writes great prose? Patrick Rothfuss, for one. Take the first lines of The Name of the Wind. 

Quote:  It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

Rothfuss then goes on to commit what some purists (aka trolls) consider a heinous crime–he DESCRIBES THE SILENCE. He does this on the first page and guess what–the reader is sucked into the story and has no desire to leave.  To compound that crime, the story is a story within a story, told to a chronicler, and what most would use as the prologue actually comes after the first chapter, in chapter eight:

(quote) If this story is to be something resembling my book of deeds, we must begin at the beginning. At the heart of who I truly am. To do this, you must remember that before I was anything else, I was one of the Edema Ruh.

When we write, we are writing because we have a story to tell. (Yes, I said tell). To that end, every word must count, every idea must be conveyed with meaningful words, and sometimes you can just have a little fun with it.

In the opening lines of Gaiman’s Stardust, nothing unimportant is mentioned although the prose meanders in a literary way. Yes, he takes the long way, but the attitudes, mores, and personalities of Tristam’s village are conveyed with humor and the journey is the best part of this fairytale. He never devolves into purple prose.

The Elements of Style calls “Purple Prose” “hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”  To be fair, purple prose is subjective and each reader has a different level of tolerance for it, but it is something we definitely don’t want. What do you want to convey? Choose your words based on what you want the reader to see and feel:

  • Plain: He set the mug down. (conveys action–what’s going to happen next?)
  • Somewhere in the middle: He eased the tankard onto the table. (conveys a medieval atmosphere–what’s going to happen next?)
  • Bleah: Without haste, the tall, blond barbarian set the immense, pewter, ale-filled cup with a wooden handle onto the stained surface of the rough, wooden table. (conveys nausea–don’t care what happens next.)

Of course you are not going to devolve into sticky-sweet goo in your attempts to show the mood and atmosphere. But please, if I may use a cliché here, don’t “throw  the baby out with the bathwater.” Lean prose with well chosen imagery will express your ideas in such a way that the reader can hang their imagination on your words.

In direct contrast to Gaiman’s lighthearted opening prose in Stardust, the opening lines of Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, are dark and heavy with portent.  Rothfuss sets the mood, and conveys the subtle power kept restrained by Kote/Kvote, and he uses this atmosphere to drive the tale.

Both Rothfuss and Gaiman use words chosen for their imagery. Gaiman’s story is told with sardonic humor, which makes it all the darker, and Rothfuss’ prose evokes the dark of nightmares. They write with widely different styles, but both books are dark, both books are fantasy, and both books moved me.

Both authors write so well that the internet is rife with haters and trolls who can’t wait to trash their next book. THAT, sadly, is the mark of success, or genius, in today’s world of fanatics in dark rooms, armed with a rigid idea of what fantasy should be, and waging war via the internet on authors who dare to write outside those boundaries .

GRRM Meme 3Write from your heart, and dare to write what moves you. Think about the rush of “yeah, this is it!” that you get when you read a piece that takes you out of this world and changes your life for a few brief moments. That author knows something about the craft, or you would not have been so moved by it.

Study the prose of those whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you. See how they craft the sentences, and form the moods and emotions that drive the plot. Learn from them how to show the true character of a protagonist, or the smell of an alley by the wharves. Read, and then apply what you’ve learned from the masters to your own work.

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Elements of the story: when the novel is not a novel after all

Book- onstruction-sign copy

In the rough draft, the goal is to get the work out of your head, and the concepts onto the page. To that end, I advise you to just write, and try not to self-edit as you go, because you may lose your train of thought.

If we let ourselves drop into the zone, in the first draft we are in story-teller-mode, which is where our best work happens. Yes, our prose is uneven and may contain things we wish had been written by someone else, but all we were doing was getting the idea down:

Thus it was that On departing Billy’s Revenge on this particular job, Lackland and Mags had kept the conversation cordial and polite, but little of substance passed between them. Oh, They joked and laughed, and said all the things that as they would say to with any Rowdy that they were on a job working with, but it felt all wrong. Still, Even so, Lackland did not press for anything more from Lady Mags, although he was full of questions and desperate for answers. 

It’s okay write crap when you are just getting it on to paper. You have to get the basic ideas down before you can craft them into a proper novel or short-story. (That drivel was from the rough draft of my 2010 nanowrimo manuscript. I can get rid of at least 24 words in that paragraph, and although I did replace several words, losing the fluff made it stronger.)

Remember, the rough draft–the first draft–is the proto-story, the just-born infant that is the child of your creativity. You do the shaping when you come back to it in the second draft. Some will stay, and some will go.

This weekend I discovered that one of my works in progress is not really a novel after all.

It was at 85,000 words, but it has occurred to me that it is a novella, because in the first half of the book, 4 chapters don’t advance the protagonist’s story. When I am done weeding it out, the ms may only top out at about 50,000 words.  In some circles that is a novel, but in fantasy, it is half a book.

Still, I’m not going to try to force it to be any longer than it is, because I have nothing of value to add to the tale. I would much rather be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel. So, now at the end of the rough draft, this book must become a novella.

Those four cut chapters total about 16,000 words. Add to that the words that will be weeded out in the second draft and I would say its going to lose a lot more weight–perhaps another 8,000 to 10,000 words. But why do I think this? Because I am just finishing the rough draft and I have realized several things:

  1. __Hell's Handbasket__400 1Besides the four chapters that must go since they don’t belong there anymore, 3 more chapters are mostly background that doesn’t need to be in the finished product. When I went in and removed large chunks of exposition I was able to condense those 3 chapters into 1 that actually moved the story forward.
  2. Add to that the fact that in the rough draft we will always have a lot of words we can cut (or find alternatives for), words and phrases that weaken our narrative:
  • There was
  • To be

I will also make some contractions, ‘was not’ becomes ‘wasn’t,’ ‘has not becomes hasn’t,’ etc.

It’s amazing how many times we can simply cut some words out, and find the prose is stronger without them. Many times they need no replacement.

Sometimes we use what I think of as “crutch” words. You can really lower your word-count when you look at each instance and see if you can get rid of these words. These are overused words that fall out of our heads along with the good stuff as we are sailing along:

  • so,
  • very,
  • that,
  • just,
  • so,
  • literally
  • very

But back to one of my current works-in-progress: why am I cutting an 85,000 word MS down to 50,000 or so words?

800px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svgA lot of what I have written is good work, but as I said, several long passages don’t advance my protagonist’s tale. They pertain to a different character’s story set in that world–so they were a rabbit-trail to nowhere in the context of this tale. However, those passages will come in handy later if I choose to write that character’s story, so I am saving them in file labeled “Out Takes.”

The fact is, you must be willing to be ruthless. Yes, you may well have spent three days or even weeks writing that chapter. But now that you are seeing it in the context of the overall story arc, you realize it is bogging things down, and NO–Sometimes there is no fixing it. Just because we wrote it does not mean we have to keep it.

In genre fiction, no matter how much you like the prose you have just written for a given chapter, if the chapter does not advance the story, it must go. The story arc must not be derailed, and sometimes amputation is the only cure.

The Story Arc copy

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Three audiobooks and why I liked them

First of all I love books. I’m the kid who was so desperate for books I would read the Encyclopædia Britannica  when the rainy Northwest summers got boring and I had read everything else. But now, beside writing, I freelance as a structural editor.

When I am editing for clients I don’t read, as it is hard to set aside my critical eye and just read for pleasure. I can’t go with out books, though, so when I am in editing mode, I rely on Audible Books to entertain me.

Three audio books that I heard over the last year really stand out. Two of them I would classify as literary fantasy and one is genre fantasy–but all are fantasy in the fullest sense.

Tenth of December, George Saunders1. Tenth of December, written by George Saunders and also read by George Saunders.

Saunders has the ability to get inside each of his characters’ heads, showing them sharply as unique individuals. They aren’t always nice, and certainly not always moral as I see morality, but Saunders portrays them with such vivid strokes that you feel as if you understand their reasoning.

For me, the most powerful tale in this collection of stunning tales was “Escape from Spiderhead.” This sci-fi tale has an almost Vonnegut-like flavor. It is a stark journey into the depths to which we humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Where does punishment end and inhumanity begin? This story lays bare concepts regarding our view of crime and punishment that are difficult, but which are important to consider. The scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world, but it exposes the callous view society has in regard to criminals and what punishment they might deserve.
.

George Saunders reads this book himself and he is an amazing narrator. This was an excellent, entertaining book to listen to, and I liked the audio book so much I bought the hard copy to take with me later this summer when I go on vacation.

Just so you know–I rarely buy hard copies of anything.

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Sin audiobook coverI also listened to Sin, British author Shaun Allan’s masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness and fantasy, narrated by R.D. Watson. Allan breaks every rule of writing, and his work is powerful.

Sin is a dark, urban fantasy, written with a large dose of sardonic humor. We hear the tale from the man who was given the name ‘Sin Mathews’ at birth, but who goes by the name of Sin only, as the last name doesn’t matter; only the name which is the sum of his parts matters. R.D. Watson’s reading of Allan’s shining, witty, prose is moving and brilliant in every aspect. He gets into Sin’s head, and you are completely spellbound.

The atmosphere throughout is surrealistic, but it is well-balanced. I adore Allan’s lyrical, intimate style of prose, as in this series of images describing Sin’s disorientation, “History doesn’t relate whether Jonah, Gepetto, and Pinocchio sat around a table eating pizza, sharing stories of prophecy and puppetry while in the belly of the whale, but I thought that I could relate to being swallowed whole.”

Throughout the novel, Sin’s ruminations are self-mocking, and world-weary, yet naive and innocent.  He bears the guilt of the world, and suffers the unbearable pain of being the cause of so many deaths, but still he finds ironic humor in every situation. His sister, Joy, is grounded and guides him to the truth, but is not allowed to tell him anything.

Nothing is what it seems in this tale, and right up to the end, you are not sure which reality is real.

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The Emperor's Soul - Brandon Sanderson. audibleThe Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson and narrated by Angela Lin.

Shai is thief, but not just any kind of a thief. Shai has been trained to forge a replica of the original item to leave in its place. Her replicas are masterful. in many ways her replicas are better than the originals. The power of her work as she remakes her surroundings amazes Gatona, a man who holds her life in his hands, and every day he is more confused by her. This is not a love story–Gaotona struggles to understand why an artist of her caliber, who loves the craft as much as she does prostitutes her gift by making forgeries.
Two factions now control her fate. They have something she needs, and she has something they need, but for how long? The Emperor Ashravan’s condition has opened up new possibilities for some on the council, and they are ruthless. Shai is safe for the moment, but she knows her life hangs by a thread and only a miracle will save her.

In Shai, Sanderson has created a character who is compelling and completely believable. Shai is more than merely a forger, she is an artist.  She takes pride in her work, and rightfully so. The way she is portrayed is a departure for Sanderson, in that she is most definitely a woman, and she is the central figure. There is a strong sense of history to this tale, and the structure of their society is clearly drawn in only a few well-crafted words.

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Audio books are great in the car, I think we all know that–but for me they are a way to access wonderful books when I am in too critical a state of mind to read for enjoyment. For my downtime I love to sit on my back porch and just listen to someone reading me a story.

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Elements of the story: the structure of the scene

Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of :

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

The Arc of the Story

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says, “In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story: The end of a narrative arc is the denouement. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.”

However, as we’ve discussed before, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, “scenes” created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

Last July, at the 2014 PNWA Conference, in his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explained how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches.

Once he explained it in that fashion, I understood it. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

Milano_Duomo_1856

Milano Duomo 1856 via Wikipedia

In my mind, this means that novels are like Gothic Cathedrals–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries. Each small arc of the scene builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel.

These small arcs of action and reaction ensure the plot doesn’t stall and create tension that drives the story to the four cardinal points of the story arc.

Conversations are scenes that form a fundamental part of the overall arc: they begin, rise to a peak, and ebb. They inform us of something we must know to understand the forthcoming action. Conversations propel the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said “Dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.”

That is true of every aspect of a scene: action, conversation, reaction. A scene that is is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed conversation can give the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

A certain amount of context can arrive through internal monologue, but it must be done in such a way that the reader is not faced with a wall of italics. There are two problems with long mental conversations:

  1. italics are daunting in large chunks.
  2. it can become a thinly veiled cover for an info dump.

Remember, in novels, not everyone in the scene knows everything, so their thoughts won’t be that critical, and are therefore not needed. Plot points are driven by the the characters who do have the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension.

Consider the concept of  asymmetric information–a situation in which one party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another. In business, one individual’s pursuit of pure self-interest can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market–he has critical knowledge they don’t have, and effectively eliminates his competition. He has a monopoly.

That monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, a conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need. Idle conversation will bore your reader to tears.

We deploy info, but we don’t dump it in one large chunk though–the reader must find it out at the same time as the other characters, over the first 3/4 of the novel.

We do this in small arcs that combine to form the overall story arc. Events occur, linked by conversations, forming small arcs (scenes) that support the structure of the novel.

The Story Arc

 

By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

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