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Category Archives: Thoughts on Writing

The Help

 

 

 

 

When last we spoke I told you that the new goal was to get help. That goal was identified back in January. One of the best sources of help any writer can find is a really good writers group. Now I googled “writers groups” and Google provided me about 236 million potential hits. I cut that down to a manageable amount by picking a state to focus on and decided whether I wanted an online group. I have tried a few online groups and a couple were okay, but I was really looking for some face to face interaction with people I can get to know and trust. So, I waded through the groups based in Wisconsin and cut the number to five. All were within 35 miles from home and each listing advertised that the group members were trying to get published, a key factor in my decision. With high hopes, I sent out five emails requesting contact and additional information.

Group One Response: The reply email said that she was no longer with the group and that she thought they had folded but I could try to contact a different individual. I received no response from my attempts at the second individual.

Group Two Response: The reply stated that they had over 100 members! and that they were full for people submitting work, but I could come by and offer my opinions. In other words, I could critique other’s work but could not submit anything to get feedback. Reading other work and offering opinions is valuable and can help your own writing, but I was looking for feedback on my work.

Group Three Response:  We are a group of seniors who write for fun and get together and read our work to the group. Better, but not there yet.

Group Four Response: We are a group of writers who are trying to get published. We use writing prompts and then read our work to the group for feedback. Because this group met in very close proximity to me, I decided to attend a few sessions. There are some talented writers in this group with some interesting ideas. However, it was not the critique group I was looking for.

Group Five: On their website, the group indicated that they were a very serious group dedicated to getting everyone in the group published. They were, however, full on membership (10 people). If I was interested in joining, I could apply and if my qualifications were acceptable, they might make an exception, or place me on a waiting list in case a member left the group. I had nothing to lose so I put together a short bio of my writing experience, goals and involvement in other writers groups, and sent it in. I was actually shocked when I received an email requesting some additional information including a sample of my work. Two of their group would critique the sample and provide feedback so I could see what to expect and what was expected of me when I critiqued others. A few days later, I received their “crits” and a writing sample that I was asked to critique. I provided my feedback and was then told that they would present my request, writing sample, and crit to the group for acceptance. There was no guarantee that I would be asked to join at this point. Damn, I’ve been through job interviews that were not this intensive.

As it turned out, I was asked to join and honestly, it has been worth the effort. As advertised, the group is knowledgeable and motivated with eclectic backgrounds and styles which makes for a wide variety of comments on a submission. The crits can be hard at times, but the criticism is directed solely at the writing and not the writer. The result is that I can see a huge improvement in my writing and I have a much better idea as to what my “voice” sounds like. Many of my writing “ticks” (Bad habits) have been identified so I can catch them during revision and as I write future stories. The group”s comments have created a lot of revision work for me, but that is the point of a critique group. I always have the choice to act on their suggestions or not.

I know this is the type of group that I’ve been looking for, and needed to take me to the next level, and ultimately help me prepare my manuscript for submission to an agent. My advice is, If you decide you need a writers group, do whatever you must to find a GOOD one. One that fits your needs.

Goal: Get help. CHECK!

New goal: Finish this revision.

 

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Dreams and goals

 

 

 

 

“When you give up on your dream, you die.”  – a quote from the character Nick in the movie Flashdance.

This was one of those quotes that hit me like a sledgehammer when I heard it the first time back in 1983. At the time, I had already given up on playing professional football. Although the open tryouts for the Denver Gold sure looked tempting.  Or, going back to school to become a doctor. I was already working in emergency medicine from the back of an ambulance. So, what was my dream?

Over the next several years I would write down some short-term and some long-term goals. It was fun to tick off the goals that I’d hit. And, I rarely got upset if I missed a long-term goal. Usually, I would simply reset the due date and keep going.

Then around 1994 I tried to read “The Sword of Shannara” for the third time and gave up on “The Two Towers” for the second time. I got bored with them. That’s right bored. Now before you Fantasy diehards go off on me or click to another blog, hear me out. I have since finished both works and their accompanying books and I agree they are masterful. But they would not be my first choices to reread anytime soon. The trouble was, I prefer to let my imagination create the scene. I don’t need twenty pages describing a mountain pass or pastoral field. Just give me the basics and I’ll paint the picture. I enjoyed stories that move along and don’t get bogged down with details.

I had been writing character sketches for D&D characters for years. Some of them were pretty good. I convinced myself that I could write a story that I would like to read. I fired up my IBM PS2 Model 50z, opened Word Perfect and started to write. I started with a D&D character I created but never played. I placed him in a setting and pantsed my way through. By the end of the summer of 1995, I had 32,000 words and a half-finished story. For some reason I don’t recall, I set it aside. It remains unfinished. But, I have pulled it out and reread it on many occasions.

No dream but, a splinter was implanted in my brain from this first attempt. During this same time, I had written several nature type vignettes. A friend read them and told me I should get serious about it. “Yeah, okay”. Time passes…a lot of time passes…

Okay, a decade.

Then for some reason, I decided to take a class in something. Not sure what. So, I started doing searches on various things that interested me. I stumbled on The Loft Literary Guild in Minneapolis, Minnesota which was offering an introductory class on writing fantasy fiction.

COOL!

I scraped the pennies together to cover tuition, obtained support from the domestic CEO, and registered. For the next eight weeks, twelve aspiring writers read various fantasy works and dissected them to see what worked. Some of us who were either brave, stupid, or crazy enough, submitted short pieces of our writing for the class to read and critique. I was shocked when my submission received positive comments from the class and the instructor.

Hmm, maybe I should try this writing thing.

I picked one storyline that interested me using another D&D character and started writing. The instructor told us about a writing group looking for more warm bodies. That was the spark that lit the fire to write something I could get published.

Uh oh, this sounds like a dream or at least a serious goal.  

Gasoline was poured on the fire when I was lucky enough to see my name on a byline for a non-fiction article I’d written. No, it was not the great fantasy novel I was also working on, but I was writing almost every day and I saw the possibilities. That was enough of a push to send me to the next level.

Finish the damn novel!

As you may recall from a previous post, I did, in fact, write “The End” on that novel. Okay, check that box off. Most established authors will tell you that just finishing the first draft of the first novel is the hardest part. Some polls indicate that only 5 to 10 percent of people who begin writing a novel, actually finish the first draft! Woof!

So, after a break to let the story settle, I started on revisions. The goal now becomes to turn that stack of words into something that resembles a readable story. This phase of the process, self-editing, is much harder than anyone can explain to you. It does not take long before you tell yourself,

I NEED HELP! But I’m not ready to die so,

New Interim goal – Get help!

more to follow…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. In 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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