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Category Archives: Thoughts on Writing

An interesting life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What has made your life interesting?

Some people might say that they lead a boring life and nothing much happens to them. Yet, I have met very few people that after a few minutes of conversation, I would agree with them. Granted, some people’s lives are more “exciting” than others. But that doesn’t make one life less interesting. Everyone’s life is unique. Even identical twins grow up to be different people. So, what is it that is interesting?

Here’s a little exercise you might enjoy. Pick a famous person that you find interesting. Take some time and write down all of the things that you find interesting about them. Your list may include appearance, type of work, travels, political views, hobbies, events they participated in, etc.

Next, pick a family member, relative, friend, co-worker, or neighbor. Someone you know well and find interesting or admire. Make a list of interesting things about them. As before be as complete as you can.

Now the fun begins!

Write your name at the top of a piece of paper. Without judging whether you think it’s interesting or not, complete a list for yourself. Use the same criteria and categories you used for the other two lists. Include appearance, type of work, travels, political views, hobbies, events they participated in, etc. Don’t think about your answers, just write.

When you have finished, compare all three lists. Are there any similarities? What from list number three would someone else think is interesting? Are there any “mundane” things that jump out as interesting on any of the lists.

If you are really brave, ask a close friend or someone else that you trust to be truthful what they find interesting about you. Be prepared for a few surprises.

Now, for those of you who write, think about your characters. Are they a bit flat? What can you add to their back story to make them more interesting? Did they have a job repairing organs while they went to college? Did they travel to the Yucatan during spring break and got lost in the jungle? Do they carve bear figurines out of soapstone to relieve stress?

A few lines of your story mentioning one of these points can add depth to your character that makes them more real.

So, I ask again, “What makes your life interesting?”

 

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Devil in the Details

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Writing about a culture other than your own can provide more than a few complications. I a pure fantasy setting, the author has more control and, so long as he is consistent, can tweak things a bit and make it work. However, when we use a real culture to base our story on, and where a member of that culture may pick up and read your story, we had better get the details right. Unless…

My protagonist is half-Apache, a native american tribe that lives in the southwestern United States and into Mexico. His father was a tribal holy man and taught my protagonist the ways of spiritual medicine. During this instruction a ritual takes place to help my protagonist find a spiritual guide. The spirit guide helps an individual travel along life’s ever changing path. The spirit guide turns out to be “Snake”. This is where things get dicey.

I had written about three-quarters of the story before I found out how Snake is viewed in the Apache culture. The Apache see Snake as a very negative spirit. Often seen as evil, the Apache people will distance themselves from anything related to Snake. Whether it is the real creature, an image, a vision, or a story, Snake is Very bad medicine.

When I first made this discovery, I began to panic. Thinking I would need to rewrite whole sections to either change the spirit guide to something else, or change his tribe to something that looked favorably on the Snake. Instead of jumping off a cliff, I decided to go ahead and finish the first draft without making huge changes. I tried very hard to not let this knowledge guide the story in any way.

After the required cooling off period once the first draft was finished, I did a quick read through and a second read through where I jotted down the more glaring issues and holes. During the second time through, it hit me that the main character was still a little flat.Along with this I was leaning toward changing his tribal lineage.

Then while I was discussing a similar topic with my brother, it dawned on me that the answer to my flat character was right there. The fact that an Apache shaman has Snake as a spirit guide would add several layers of conflict for the character.

So not counting the major conflicts he faces throughout the plot line, he has to deal with being a half-breed, an Apache with Snake as a guide, and his job makes him walk the line between the normal world and those who use magic.

Now I have a character with more than a little color. Yes, I have to add a few sections to exacerbate and the situation, but it will definitely make for a more memorable character.

This turned out to be one of those details that worked out in the end. However, I am more careful about performing research on areas that I am not 100% sure of.

 
 

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Comeback

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It has been a very long time since I wrote a post for this blog. If I go back to this time last year, My life was turned upside down. Since September 2015, I nearly lost a couple of members of my family, I accepted a new job, sold our house, moved my family, bought a new house, and finished the first draft of my first novel. All in all, a pretty wild ride if I do say so myself…

The bottom line is that even though I haven’t written a post for this blog in four months, I have been writing…a lot!

Now I’m a believer. You see, you can find the time. You can devote the energy even when it seems like there’s none left in you. It is possible, if you want it bad enough, to actually finish something you have always wanted to do. Now I’m not patting myself on the back. I have no delusion that the revision process won’t be a chore. However, the first milestone has been reached.

I will try to do better about regular posts on this blog, as life seems to be leveling out somewhat. As I work through the revisions, expect to hear about it and I may be reaching out for some guidance from some of you overachievers. You know who you are. 🙂

It is now bow hunting season here in Wisconsin so there may be a post or two relating to my experiences.

For those of you who have stayed with me, Thank you! I am looking forward to sharing on a regular basis with you my friends.

 
 

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First draft. How bad can it be?

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Every professional writer, every editor and every How-to book will tell you that the first draft of your story is garbage. That’s not the words they use but I’m trying to be G-rated here. Being the analytical sort, I’ve asked the question, “If it’s so bad, why do books ever get finished? If the first draft is always toilet water, why on Earth would the writer, editor, or publisher ever get beyond it and find a good story somewhere inside the garbage?” There are an awful lot of books and magazines out there with stories in them. Granted, not all of them are prize-winning quality. However, there are a ton that are much better than they are given credit for. So, somehow, the first draft makes it out of the cellar and onto the bookshelf.

My current project has been in the works for a long time. It’s been on again, off again with two short stories and numerous articles interspersed within the timeline. For the most part the internal editor has been kept at bay. I have gone back and re-read several sections to get back into the story line or to verify a detail or two. I have tried not to be judgmental of my writing or the story at this point. Then one evening last week, I sat down to write. I was feeling a little out of sorts and lacked focus bur I was determined to work through it and get a thousand words out before I turned on the idiot box (television). As I wrote, I kept saying to myself, “This is crap. This is crap. Oh, this is really crap!”

Finally, I hit my goal of a thousand words. I think I may have even finished the sentence before I closed the laptop. Maybe.

“Thank God! It’s all crap, but I got through it.” I set the laptop aside and proceeded to watch some mindless TV.

Two days later a friend asked me how the book was coming and the nightmare returned. “Oh, I’ve written some, but it’s all crap.”

She replied with the kicker, “Yeah, and…?”

“And, what?” I said.

She smiled and calmly replied, “You have always told me that the first draft is garbage, right?”

“Uh…yeah, I suppose so…but you don’t understand, this was really crap!”

She continued to smile but said nothing so I changed the subject.

That night I went back and looked at the “mess”. After reading over twice, it dawned on me that except for a minor change to the laws of physics and relocating my main character’s “dying” body, the scene actually works, for now. Not quite as bad as I had imagined. Hmm…

I thought of my friend and just shook my head.

So, there must be various levels to crap and as long as there is a desire to edit the work until it is no longer crap, there is hope. And eventually a story.

Note to self – Finish the book dummy and quit worrying about the quality. It’s going to be crap until you start editing it. Just write!

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2016 in Thoughts on Writing

 

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Plot Twists in Short Fiction

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A panel topic at this year’s 4th Street Fantasy convention dealt with using Fake outs, False Fumbles,and Misdirection to spice up standard plot tropes. It was a lively discussion as you might expect. The part of the discussion that interested me the most was the Set-up. Those sentences, paragraphs, and even whole scenes that are used to purposefully send the reader down a dead-end or straight into the surprise plot fake out. The Set-up is the clue(s) the author provides the reader that the plot trope they know and love may get thrown for a loop later in the story. Usually, the clues go unnoticed at first as just lightly related information used as world-building or characterization. The number of Set-ups can vary from story to story but as a rule there should be at least three: one towards the beginning, another somewhere in the middle, and then a last one just before the big surprise ending.

During the panel discussion, a comment was made that this is a little harder to handle in short fiction. The clues would be included in at most a “throw away” sentence or two. Frankly, what shocked me more was that the accomplished short fiction writers in the audience did not jump up and scream at the top of their lungs at this comment. Since when is there “throw away” sentences in a 3,000 word short story?

As I stated previously, the initial clue(s) may go unnoticed. But, can they really in a short work? Can you afford to insert a “throw away” line. just to set up a plot twist later? It seems to me that those “throw away” lines are nearly as important and require at least as much consideration as your opening line. These sentences need to fulfill at least two and maybe three or four purposes. One of which is to give the clue that the reader needs to remember, on some level, so that the surprise ending doesn’t seem contrived. Also, keep in mind that the clue should not be too obvious that it jolts the reader out of the story.

So, I would like to hear from you short fiction writers. How do you handle Set-ups in your short works? Or, do you stick with the tried and true plot tropes?

 

 
4 Comments

Posted by on August 6, 2015 in Thoughts on Writing

 

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More Ideas than time!

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Lately, it seems that new ideas for stories crash into my head on a daily basis. Each one new and different. Some with characters I know and some completely new. I scribble down the idea and sometimes fragments of scenes or dialog. Then, just when I start to feel comfortable with a new idea. a different one pops into my head. The process begins again. Never do I have time to complete the story. They just keep coming like waves in the ocean. It frightens me that I do not have time to write them all. Even if I was a fast typist, I doubt I could get them all finished. I keep the notes safe for some future date because, what frightens me more is when the ideas stop coming.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2015 in Thoughts on Writing

 

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Write what you know?

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“Write what you know!”

Almost every ‘How To’ book on writing preaches this advice. For most non-fiction writers, this is sound advice usually is taken straight forward. Whether it is memoir, historical, How-to or any number of other topics, you should write about things that you know something about, are interested in or even want to know more about. It gives the reader a feeling of comfort knowing that the author isn’t just pulling information out of a hat.The author’s ‘expertise’ adds weight to the written words.

However, this advice can be very interesting advice when given to a fantasy fiction writer. Few of us routinely wield a sword or cast a magic spell. Fewer still have actually passed through a portal to find themselves in another realm where dragons, elves, wizards, and goblins walk the land. Most of the individuals that I have met who have taken the aforementioned journey are either sitting quietly in a catatonic state because they have left their material bodies behind. Or, they are unable to write about their journey because the medication they are given makes writing anything except their name difficult. So, how does a modern author use this advice and write about what they know?

Fantasy is created in one’s imagination. So, having a vivid imagination is a standard prerequisite. Those of us whose teachers wrote on our report cards that we spent too much time staring out the windows daydreaming were pretty good candidates. However, to draw a reader into your fantasy story, there has to be some measure of reality. Something familiar. Maybe it’s making a campfire, baking a loaf of bread, riding a horse, dressing a wound, or bartering with a merchant at the local farmer’s market. These types of skills obtained in modern society, can be easily converted to a fantasy story and in doing so, bring a sense of realism to the reader, drawing them into your world. If you are lucky enough to have hobbies like, archery, martial arts, herbalist, camping, astronomy, Chemistry, or being some form of entertainer, you have real expertise in areas that can easily be incorporated into a fantasy setting.  Your knowledge will, if used moderately and with skill, add authenticity to your world,

Another excellent source of knowledge for the fantasy writer is to have been immersed in a culture foreign to their own. Dealing with language, customs, food, clothing, and belief differences gives the writer unique insights and tolls to use when describing their world to the reader. Not only the differences themselves, but the feelings of having to deal with a foreign culture is a form of expertise that can be invaluable to the author.

If you still are not sure that you ‘know’ anything, here is an exercise to help you. Get a pad of paper and a pen, Give yourself 30 minutes to and hour of uninterrupted time. Write down things that you know about. Leave nothing out whether you think they can be related to your story or not. Start with your education. What did your like or do well at in school? What sports or social activities did you participate in? What did you do after school for fun? How did you fill your time during summer vacation? What did you do on the weekends? What do you do to relax, What do you do for fun? List places you have traveled to. What did you do there? What experiences did you have? What was the food like? Music? Dress? How did you feel being the outsider? What do you do for employment? Be specific and list tasks you perform. What are your hobbies? What are your chores around the house? By now you should be getting a very long list of things where you have some level of knowledge. Maybe even expertise. Keep this list handy and refer to it often to remind yourself that you do know something!

A very short list of my interests and knowledge base, that I use regularly when writing, includes: Cats, Native American Spirituality, Archery, knife-making, emergency medicine, herbal remedies, gardening, contingency planning, woodsmanship and fishing. My actual list filled two pages of a legal pad.

Now that you have determined that you do know something, look at the list and think about how you knowledge can be used to help strengthen your story. Maybe you need to add skills to one or more of your characters. Maybe you should add detail to your descriptions of scene.

NOTE: A word of caution! Adding too much detail about mundane tasks is a sure way to lose your reader. Remember that not everyone cares how many coals are required to bake peach cobbler in a cast iron dutch oven. (I seem to recall it was eleven on the bottom and seven on top. it has been a long time.)

Add just enough detail to add realism. If the details are important to your story then you have a little more leeway. Your beta readers or writing group can help you with how much is the right amount.

So, don’t be shy. Write about what you know. You know a great deal!

Let me know what you know. I’d love to hear it.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on April 6, 2015 in Thoughts on Writing

 

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