Posts Tagged ‘motivation’

HappySadTheatreMaskOur characters are people – real in our mind, real on the page, and real in our hearts. Make them as real to your readers as they are to you.

This is the most important part of a novel. We might have excellent plots that twist and turn with fresh surprises at every angle, or a beautiful, imaginative world that inspires us with awe. Maybe a fresh, fascinating story rarely told, or even masterful prose with transcendent knowledge and application of language. But take any book you love, replace the characters with flat shadows of people, and you are left only with empty, black ink.

From the first line of our story, invest the reader in the characters we create. Show us what they care about. It could be as important as saving the universe, or as small as caring for a single daisy. But if our characters care, our readers will care. So, how do we do this?

Real people have passions. If our character loves gardening, don’t tell us that she gardens everyday. Show us how warm she feels as the sun beats on her back, as her hands ache with the pressure of churning soil, how much she sweats as she labors away for hours, but show us her satisfaction of witnessing seeds of nothingness grow with time into delicious tomatoes, or red roses, or juicy watermelons. And she doesn’t have to be good at it. She just needs to be passionate about it.

Emotion is universal. Everybody can identify with it, so the stronger the emotion (well…this can be overdone), the stronger the connection. I recommend overstating emotion. In theatre, emotion is overstated, as it is in cinema and books. But the reader won’t be able to tell if you do it right. Exaggerated emotion is one of the keys to storytelling. This doesn’t mean our character runs around on a rampage shooting or slicing everyone up, neither does it mean our character should drive around crying everywhere after her boyfriend dumps her. Here’s what it can mean: Our character reacts internally after witnessing a herd of buffalo stampede over her freshly budded grove of plant life. Depending on what kind of person she is, she could scream, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” (not recommended), or we can show her feeling the strong loss of creating something from nothing, then shoving down the exaggerated emotion, only to unleash it at a later time – directed at someone undeserving. Which is the more interesting story? Who do you identify with more? If your answer is the screaming psychopath, perhaps you should join Darth Vader and the Dark Side.

Point is, when readers identify with the characters, and when they have a stake in the story, we become invested. And when we become invested, we now have a stake in the story. We’ll flip the pages from cover to cover to see what happens next, unable to set the book down. We’ll feel both satisfied at the end, and disappointed there is nothing of the story left to read.

In the title, I also mentioned growth. In a great story, not only does our protagonist change, but our antagonist also changes. Many writers miss the latter point. This doesn’t necessarily mean our antagonist transforms into a saint, but it can mean they learn an important life lesson, or devolve into something even worse.

So, growth of our protagonists. (We can also show protagonists devolving.) What better way to show growth at the end, than flaws at the beginning. Real people have flaws, right? You have flaws, don’t you? I certainly have no flaws, but we all know you do, right? Right, where were we? Flaws, yeah. It’s okay for our characters to have flaws, especially if they’re universally identifiable. What makes a story interesting is how our characters deal with those flaws. Do they learn from their mistakes and get over hard-learned obstacles? Or do they fall to the Dark Side like our forever-friend Darth Vader? Show the story, don’t tell it. Make the reader a friend by showing our characters’ experiences as they endure them. Then leave that lasting impression by showing how far they’ve come. Key is to show our protagonists’ progression little at a time, then compound the growth with extreme experiences. But never leave them stagnant. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if our characters grow too much too quickly, they might lose that ever-so-important quality – reader identification.

Transformation also ties integrally with growth, the difference being, they are rarely recognizably the same person when comparing them at the beginning of the book to the final page. We need to be careful here. As advised above, if our characters grow too quickly, we will lose our audience. Want your characters to transform? Throw unique, interesting, and hard – very, very hard – decisions and obstacles in their paths. They need to make the emotional or logical choice for who they are at that time – which changes them forever. Then keep doing it again. But beware, always change the pace. If we have a non-stop, hard-hitting pace from start to finish, our readers will never be able to come up for air. And breathing is important for most of us.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into the differences between active, reactive, and proactive characters, and which are the most interesting in stories. Okay everyone, raise your hands. Active? Eh, might get a few hands in the air. Reactive? Hmm, probably only one or two. Okay, what about proactive? AHA! There they are! Raise them nice and high! Yep, you are right. Proactive characters are by far the most interesting, and here’s why.

Reactive characters only do what? That’s right – react! Our antagonists will likely be the most interesting characters in this type of character story because they are making everything happen. They are making the decisions for our protagonists – shaping them, forcing them to enact whatever evil plans our antagonists are concocting. Just about the only interesting thing our protagonist can do in this situation is react unexpectedly. But that’s a far cry from our other two types. Active characters are good. They will react, but will also push back. They will create tension, and exert a moving role to drive the story forward. Now, proactive characters take charge. Proactive characters don’t necessarily always know what they want, but they always make decisions (good or bad). This makes for a much more interesting story. It is highly common for the inciting incident in our novel to cause a reaction in our character that impels the story forward all the way to the last page. But if our protagonists are actively doing something in the beginning, and drive the story forward all on their own, that’s when we get caught staying up into the wee hours of the night reading that novel we just can’t put down. This is real tension – driven purely by our proactive characters.

Outlines. Some of us use them, some of us don’t. But I recommend everyone sketch out at least enough about our main characters to understand who they are. The worst thing we can do is think we know our characters, then make them do something they normally wouldn’t for the sake of the plot. If you want a good reference for an outline, here’s my advice. Make your own. There are numerous character outlines you can download off the net. Some are very detailed, some are vague. But, we all need to find that character outline that fits our story, then make it. It could be as little as describing their personalities, their likes/dislikes, tastes, experiences, and what they would do if held at gunpoint. Yes, many characters will never face that latter problem, but you need to know your characters. What better way than to consider what they would do in a life or death situation?

Want more outlining? Okay, write down how you want them to change throughout your novel. Who do they meet? How do they interact? Write down a few jokes they would tell, or physical tics or eccentricities. Show us their turning points and future moments of clarity. The list goes on and on. We should never put it all in our novel, but as writers, we need to know. Key is, stay organized, stay on track. And remember, sometimes when we write that novel, the outline flies out the window. Allow our characters to change, to experience life beyond the bounds we’ve set forth in an outline.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to express yourself. I want to hear your thoughts. I’ve found the above to be some of the best methods (that by the way work universally), but I always keep an open mind, and I’m always striving to learn and grow – to be better than I was yesterday. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments. Thanks!

ChapterOneFrom the first line in a story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with the protagonist. So what makes an exciting first line? And at what point in our novel or short story do we “re-hook” the reader?

Make interesting things happen – preferably bad things. That’s the base of basics of hooking. But please, PLEASE, don’t start your piece with one of the following first lines. They are overused and generic, and unless done in some awesomely unique-never-before-seen-blow-your-socks-off way, agents and editors will cringe, and will not read on. Remember, agents look for an excuse not to read further. And don’t you want to make your piece as interesting and unique as possible? Anyway, here are my top 5 “cringers”:

  • Waking up – especially from an alarm clock: This is one of the most common first lines agents and editors read. And complain about. Whether it is or isn’t, most believe it to be lazy writing. So come on! You’re a writer! You can do better than that!
  • “It was a dark, and stormy night…”: Weather in general – whether the weather is dark and stormy, or bright and sunshiny, this is one of the most overused, so try to avoid it.
  • The bad day at school: This is more common with YA. This has both been done very well and muy terrible! But it’s still the bad day at school. As unique as your character’s bad day at school is, it is, still, indeed, the bad day at school. Most agents and editors will stop reading.
  • It was all just a dream: Starting your story with a bang is great, but if the opening turns out to be just a dream, many readers will be disappointed, and agents will in all likelihood stop reading…
  • Running through a forest (especially if it’s a nightmare): This at first glance might seem like a great idea, but many, many, many others have also come up with this idea. As many twists and turns, near-death experiences, or lost loves they have while running through this forest, agents and editors will smack their foreheads, shake their heads, and punch “delete” on their keyboards – (that is if the “delete” key has survived the abundant daily abuse).

Still reading? Okay good. You might have thrown a few expletives my way, chucked your keyboard at me, or revisited your novel a moment to check how you started your story… But there’s good news! There are PLENTY of great first lines! Here’s what makes a great hook:

  • Begin with the character. Not description. Not the weather. Not the building. Not the world. Not a prologue. The character.
  • Give the reader an immediate stake by putting the character or something the character loves in imminent danger, or start with a special flavor of comedy. Could be physical, could be emotional or psychological.
  • Start with an interesting action or thought. Make it fresh. Make it immediate and impactful.
  • Show the reader who the character is in that first line. No back story. Who are they NOW? Show what they are doing right now that will impel your story forward all the way to the last line.

Want some good examples? Here we go:

  • “Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.” ~ Mira Grant, Feed
  • “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” ~ Brandon Sanderson, Elantris
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” ~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing about the world.” ~ Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  • “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” ~ C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Nuff said? Who would stop reading any of these novels after those phenomenal first lines? Albeit, Brandon Sanderson woke up his character in the first line, but being “damned for all eternity” kind of overpowers the former. Point is – there are exceptions to everything. We can argue about genre, preference, and style, but a great first line is a great first line.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into not only the first line, but also show how to hook a reader throughout a piece, keep them intrigued. This goes along with a later post I’ll write, “Tension, Conflict, and the Driving Force,” with a couple big differences. We establish tension by hooking a reader. The catalyst is the hook. The reaction is the tension and conflict. And oftentimes, the hook is a one-liner, or small paragraph that escalates emotion or impels action.

Introduce something new when it makes sense, but surprise the reader. Keep them on their toes. At the end of chapters, throw in a one-liner to re-hook the reader – to keep them turning the pages. In the new chapter, throw in another hook. These first and last chapter one-liners aren’t nearly as important as the first line in a novel, but most great writers understand how to cause us poor readers those many sleepless nights. This isn’t the end-all be-all of writing, but you must know where your story is heading. Keep it moving forward by keeping the reader hooked.

Re-hooking can come in many forms – dialogue, emotion, action, comedy, even literary prose. But it must make sense to your novel. I wouldn’t tell a joke at the end of a chapter if the next one begins with a torture scene. Well…unless you want to shock the reader. But that’s a different subject. Anyway, the mood of characters, the voice of your story, and the pace of your prose dictates where those strategic hooks can be placed. Sometimes, it won’t make sense to begin or end a chapter with a hook, but the key is to watch for it. Write. And read. Look for those turning points or moments in your book where one line could make a big difference. Use this in conjunction with tension and character, and you are well on your way to a best-seller.

Dreams. When you google “dreams,” you get the definition of sleep—namely how to interpret the images you see while you’re sleeping.

Just goes to show you that even searching for a dream doesn’t mean that you’ll find what you’re really looking for. And, honestly, my sleep dreams are mostly stress induced. My best dreams tend to be the ones I fantasize about while I’m awake and functional.

My dreams vary from day to day and shift from subject to subject, but I blame that on wanting a lot out of the time I have to explore those dreams. I want so much out of my life and I have allotted time to achieve those moments…but I can want as much as I’d like. The problem I run into is the capability factor. You know, the “hey I’m actually capable and I should put some effort into this dream” thing. Ultimately, if I’m going to actually feel the dream leave my fantasy and enter the reality that I have made with my life, then I need to make the actual steps towards it.

No one else can do that for me. No one else can encourage me to do it if I won’t move. No one else can flatter me enough to try harder. It’s all on me.

Now, the problem that I constantly run into is the commitment to myself. I constantly tell myself that it’s a silly notion to think that I could actually achieve what I crave because, come on now, who would really want to read what I have to say? Who would actually care? Why do I care if people actually care?

Because, if people don’t care, then my dream is just a figment. Just a fragment. Just a moment lost in my mind. Because, if I care that I become successful with my dream, then I might be disappointed to hear that I’m not the reflection of a diamond’s potential, but the darkness of the rough surrounding the gleam.

In all honesty, I do hear the ridiculous doubt in myself, in my ability to try, and the eyes immediately start rolling around.  I know I need to stop questioning my ability to achieve what I think I might really want. I know that I need to let myself praise my work, so that maybe I can see the goodness in it. So that maybe I can become the light that I so wish to be. After all, the only thing holding me back from that sparkle is me.

I’m sure every dreamer feels this way. So, how do we jump start the confidence and leave behind all the “poor me for not being good enough because I’m too afraid that I’ll fail horribly” attitude?

Maybe the start is to simply stop fearing the end, and enjoy the hope from the beginning. Or, maybe it’s as simple as letting myself believe in the dream as fully as I do while I’m sleeping—by letting the dream be real enough to feel like I can hold onto it.

Then again, I’d like to start being the person I’m meant to be. No more maybe this, maybe that. It’s simply time. It’s now time to stop liking the idea and actually step toward it.

It’s time to stop questioning myself.

CherryBlossomIn the following weeks, I’ll delve into how to take our writing to the next level. In the past months, I’ve written a lot about basic storytelling, shared best practices, shown how to hone our skills, and revealed a little about characters and world building. Here, I’ve broken out Advanced Storytelling into a number of important elements, and will detail each of these into individual posts in the weeks that follow. Hope you enjoy!

  • HOOK YOUR READER: From the first line in your story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with your protagonist. Next week, I’ll discuss what first lines we should avoid, which are overused, and what ingredients grill up an exciting hook. However, this goes far beyond that introductory sentence. When is it appropriate to relax the tension? When should we begin to delve into back-story? At what points in our story should we re-hook the reader with another twist? How do we end it in a way that is both satisfactory to the reader, and leaves them craving for more? Stay tuned, and we’ll delve into the details.
  • AUTHENTIC CHARACTER EMOTION – FLAWS, GROWTH, ARCS, AND TRANSFORMATION OF PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS: I’ve shown in previous posts how important character emotion is. Emotion links us to our characters, gives us a stake in the story, and makes us truly care about what happens – connects us to fresh and new experiences. Might even have an impact on our world outside of reading. In this topic, I’ll discuss at what points in our story we should show character growth, (or the lack of), and dig into how to make this experience truly impactful to the reader. We’ll review best practices and the art of taking our characters’ arcs to the next level – both protagonists’ and antagonists’. I’ll explain the differences between proactive, active, and reactive characters. We’ll also dig into this scientifically – showing outlines and how this relates to our plot elements and increases tension.
  • TENSION, CONFLICT, AND THE DRIVING FORCE: To keep the story moving and our readers impulsively flipping the pages into the wee hours of morning, it is imperative to show the steady progression of plot and characters, the enticing details of hazards and wrenches, and the difficulties and growth that ensues. Some good advice: the more we torment our characters, the more interesting the story. When should we ramp up the tension and conflict? When should we relax? Sub-plots are at times necessary, but many times they are not. It is important to consistently progress the storyline, and at the same time, show the little steps and interesting details that keep the readers holding their breath.
  • YOUR WORLD – DETAILS, CULTURE, AND SENSES: It is easy to bog the reader down with unnecessary details, or do the opposite and not show enough. Where is the balance? This depends a lot on the story, style, genre, characters, length, and voice. But it is always important to make the world we portray real to our audience. Here, we’ll delve into the finer details and examples of great stories with interaction – and the differences of styles and how they relate to the overall theme and story structure.
  • THE THREE ACTIONS – ACTION, REACTION, INTERACTION: Characters and the world, the reader and writer, the plot and details. In this topic, I will discuss how we put it all together with the “Three Actions.” I’ll show how they interrelate and the parallels between them. I’ll reveal why these elements are so important and how they impact the storytelling experience.
  • STORY STRUCTURE AND THEMES – OUTLINING VS “PANTSING”: Hundreds if not thousands of books crowd the market, all showing the best ways to structure a story. Here, we will dig into why there are so many different methods, which to use, which to avoid, and why. Is there a “best” way, or does it depend on the style of the author? Should we conform to what the world is telling us, or enhance our natural strengths? There is much controversy here, and I will take a neutral stance in order to show the broadest picture, explain why so many authors are adamant that their own opposing and conflicting views are correct, and give my advice on how to proceed in this vast sea of style.
  • PROSE WITH STYLE AND VOICE – CLARITY, BREVITY, AND WORD CHOICE: Writing is an art, but with any art, the more knowledge and experience one has, the more likely one will succeed. The broader our experiences and perspectives, and the more we open ourselves to possibilities and ideas, the more likely we will achieve our goals. Our work ethic matters. Our passions matter. We must know ourselves, stay in tune to our strengths and weaknesses, then actively make ourselves improve and grow. Grammar might seem basic, but the more knowledgeable one is, the more command one has of language – not to mention an understanding of which rules are breakable and when. In this topic, I will discuss the differences between character and author voice, and expand on the importance of the words we use, and how we use them. There are many styles of storytelling, and I will show examples of some of the most common, and analyze their differences.

Like many, I have a passion for storytelling, but I’m also acutely aware of my strengths and weaknesses. The elements of self-awareness, knowledge, patience, understanding, wisdom, and work ethic are all fruits that set me on my path to success. To grow as a writer is to grow as a person. I look forward to your future comments and interactions.

Yesterday, I asked my three year-old daughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

She said, “Umm, I think a doctor or a fire chief, or even you, Dadda.”

Such a sweet moment. My heart warmed at the sentiment. Nothing is more important than family. But it also got me thinking. At what point in my life did I decide I wanted to be a writer?

Growing up, I had unrealistic dreams like any other normal kid. I wanted to be Superman. I wanted to play basketball for the NBA. When I got older, I wanted to be a professional singer. But when I got into high school, I started viewing the world differently – in a more realistic way. But still positively.

So NBA and Superman were out. I considered pursuing music and singing, but thought again. I didn’t want to be poor. So what other potential career paths did I feel I would love? I rolled it around in my mind and thought up a few possibilities: mechanical engineer, computer engineer, computer programmer, sniper for the military, nuclear physicist, math professor, music teacher.

But never once did I consider writing as a profession.

Yes, I always wanted to write a novel, but I took that as seriously as anyone else who wanted to someday write a book. I considered it would be more of a check-mark on my bucket list – like climbing Mount Everest or taking a pilgrimage through Africa.

So after college, I found myself in the military. Halfway through my four-year term, some friends introduced me to this game called Dungeons and Dragons. I was hesitant at first to try it out – as it was associated with only super-geeks, but I played anyway.

And fell in love with it.

That moment fired my passion for storytelling. Shortly thereafter, I decided to write a book for real. I got about two chapters in, and realized it was a D&D campaign, not a book. So I scratched that story, read a few series of Fantasy novels, and came up with a new idea.

That idea turned into a book. I finished it after my four-year term in the military, still unsure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I disliked what I did in the military, wasn’t passionate about what I learned in college, and wanted to try something fresh. However, writing novels still was not an option for me. Storytelling still excited me, but it didn’t appear I’d ever make any money at it.

Fortunately, I found a balance. Needing money to provide for my family, I quickly found a new job right out of the military, then eventually moved back to California. I discovered something I thoroughly enjoyed, which allowed me to make a decent wage – while allowing myself enough time to spend with the family and simultaneously, continue my writing.

I’ve previously posted about my journey of writing, how much I’ve learned and why, and the realization of being represented by an agent.

But it all started with a dream.

A dream that began late for me. I never thought I would be doing what I am today. Life throws unexpected curve balls and people change as they grow, finding new dreams, new hopes, new skills, and learning lessons that change value structures and entire belief systems.

I know I have changed, and I continue to grow. But that passion for storytelling still blazes in my soul. If you are a writer, and feel that passion, keep kindling that flame. Though I found mine later than some, that fire can never be extinguished.

Regardless of what happens during the process, if writing is something you love, don’t let others put it out. Don’t let self-doubt or opinions squelch that flame, because you will lose a piece of yourself. Grow, keep your mind open to change, open yourself to challenges that will continue to add kindling. Writing is an art, so find your voice, discover what you love about it, and grow.

Looking back to that question I asked my daughter yesterday, I can’t wait to see that passion in her eyes for what she loves, to support her as she grows, to help kindle that flame as she finds herself.

But she’s only three years old, and a part of me doesn’t ever want her to grow up.

Whatever passions I have, they’re all secondary to my family – something else I never saw as a younger man.

May you find what matters most to you, and protect what you love. Grow and adapt, keep your mind open to what the future might bring. Inspire those around you with your passions, and overcome your troubled feelings and obstacles without taking them out on others. I’ve discovered only one constant in this universe. Change. May we all make the best of it, because all matter eventually turns to dust.

To many, I say Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Today, everybody is Irish! Drink a green beer, wear a green pin, or take your family and loved ones on a special outing.

But today means much more to me, personally. It signifies the fourth year my wife and I have been married. Happy Anniversary to us! Each year continues to be better than the last. We have been together for nine years, and I must say, I have grown immeasurably. I am a far happier person today than I was nine years ago. And those few people who knew me back then can vouch for my extreme turnaround. I owe it all to my wife for her patience, for showing me it’s okay to be happy.

Reflecting back to those beginning years, I shake my head. It’s a wonder how far I’ve come. In every way – even my writing. I’ve only been at it for 10 years, and after comparing my first draft to where I am today, it’s the difference between a kindergartener’s toy car and a humming Dodge Viper. There’s still room for growth, but wow, what a difference.

When I finished the first draft of my novel, I thought to myself, “Okay, what’s next?” So I began writing book 2 in the series. It didn’t take me long to realize there was something wrong with my writing, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

So, I hired an editor. She scoured through it – fixed some grammar issues, sentence structure problems – she did her best for what it was. It needed more. Much more.

I put it down for about a year, feeling stuck, not knowing where to go. Then, I had an idea. Without going back to college and earning a degree in English, perhaps there was a better way to learn that thing I was missing. A writers group.

I found Stonehenge. And on that first night I attended, I learned something. I had a long way to go before I could ever consider myself to be a writer.

Through listening, practicing, hard work, and dedication, I can now proudly call myself a writer. My work is publishable, and in fact, I even have a Literary Agent! The awesome Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, book blogger and Twitter extraordinaire with Foreword Literary.

Today, I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, the memory of how far I’ve come, but most of all, I celebrate my anniversary with my beautiful wife. She is the greatest gift to my world, and forever inspires me to be better than I was the day before.

Since this is a writers blog, and many of us have already discussed the value of a writers group, I’d like to express what this means to me. What Stonehenge has done for my writing, how, and why. And how you can start your own. Maybe even join ours.

I’ve often expressed that I wrote a book before I knew how to write, but how did I learn? Well, with a solid group and a little dedication, it could mean the equivalent of a free MBA, and practical world experience. Many of us have degrees in various arenas, some of us are subject matter experts. All of this helps, but is it all necessary?

What’s important is you find a solid group of writers with similar goals. Certainly, the quality of the writers is valuable, but what matters more is the feedback. The ways critiques are expressed, the format of the meetings, their frequency, and measurability of improvement.

Here’s the way we do it. Of course, this doesn’t mean this is the way it must be done. Certainly, there are other formats that work better for different people, but I would highly recommend starting with something similar.

  • Frequency: We meet every week. Some believe this is too often, but I’ve found that a small core group of people show up every week, and everybody else will show up when they can – some every other week, a few only once per month. Personally, I attend every week. It keeps me motivated to write, gives me a reason to get out of the house and socialize, allows me time to meet with friends and professionals of the same mind, and always forces me to improve upon myself.
  • Reading Aloud: This is one of the most valuable tools any writers group should use on a regular basis. I stated above that different formats work for different people, but all writers groups should read each others’ submissions. Aloud. Why? The flow of the language, the clarity of ideas, realistic dialogue, pacing, word choices, the sound of grammar and sentence structure, transitions, and simply to catch anything that otherwise would be difficult to uncover. This alone has been worth its weight in platinum.
  • Submissions: This can vary from group to group, but here’s what works for us. Depending on the tenure of our writers, volunteers bring in a 2-6 page submission to be read aloud by peers. We have nights where longer submissions are preferred, and they are detailed below. But why, do you ask, are they so short? Well, it is amazing what can be intuited about the rest of a piece by a short slice of it.

Advantages of Short Submissions: The writing style of the author can be quickly determined. Have they developed their voice? How is their pacing, sentence structure, formatting, grammar? How do they show emotion? Action, reaction, interaction? Does the short piece capture the attention of the reader? What is the driving force of the scene? Does it move the plot? Short submissions can be read aloud, which aforementioned, is one of the most beneficial experiences a writing group can have. More often than not, focusing on short submissions, (especially if brought in consistently), will also indirectly affect the next section.

Disadvantages of Short Submissions: Here are a few things that short submissions cannot directly capture. How does the overall story flow? What are the main plot points? Are they consistent? Does the story follow an overall structure – such as the three-act structure? What are the overall themes? Are the questions posed at the beginning getting answered in the end? What are the character arcs? How does the protagonist change? What about the antagonist and supporting characters? And the big question, how are all of the aforementioned points addressed in a group that works primarily with short submissions? Keep reading, we’ll get there.

  • Format of Meetings: There are usually 10-15 writers at each of our meetings, and 5-7 submissions total. The submitter brings a copy for each of us, (sometimes we need to share), and the submitter chooses somebody else in the group to read it aloud. While the piece it read, we mark up our copies. Some of us are strong with grammar. Others – pacing and flow. Others still – word choice. Tense agreements, dialogue flow, clarity, brevity, transitions… When the reader is finished, each of us take a turn expressing our overall impressions of the piece. And because time is a factor, our finer points are left on the page, to be read by the submitter at a later time. During this time, the submitter must allow the rest of us to express ourselves, but it is very important that we do this correctly. Writing is personal. For many of us, it’s difficult to accept criticism. We are a self-conscious bunch, and when one of us musters up the courage to bring something in, it is the responsibility of the rest of us to be aware of that when offering criticism.
  • Difference Between Opinions, Qualitative, and Quantitative Analyses: Writing is an art, first and foremost. But as with any art, there are rules – well, more like guidelines. Grammar and spelling are mostly quantitative – meaning they are hard, measurable rules that do not vary much, except over the span of decades and centuries. (But that’s for a different post.) It is important to know the rules before we can break them, but since writing is an art, there are many opinions on the matter. These are more qualitative analyses, and as close as we can come to becoming scientific, it ultimately comes down to opinion. So this point is important when discussing others’ work. They might not have the same opinion as you, and that’s okay. When offering criticism, speak in a positive, encouraging manner, but always be truthful. Some of us prefer a more blunt method, others need a lighter touch. And it is the responsibility of those who submit to listen. Listen. Do not speak unless clarity is necessary, of if there is a misunderstanding. Our group is a little more open about this than others, as I believe healthy, respectful debate can oftentimes root out the real issues, and get to the bottom of a problem, but this needs to be managed by a facilitator. Someone needs to be in charge who will keep the night rolling, keep the meeting from getting bogged down. This is a must. But still, every member of the group needs to understand that most of what we say is based on opinions and experiences. And we have a variety of members who come from many walks of life, which is fruitful because of the differing number of perspectives. And now, after the critique, it is up to the writers to decide which suggestions they approve, and which ones to discard.
  • Change It Up: As mentioned above, short submissions are highly beneficial, but are not the keys to everything. We have featured author nights – where one author submits a long piece ahead of time, and is critiqued before the meeting. There’s the option of choosing Beta readers for finished manuscripts that are discussed outside of meetings. Make a night of discussing outlining, or industry evolution, or story structure. I find that once per month, changing up the format of the meeting keeps the members challenged, increases learning, and sparks highly interesting discussions.

So if you aren’t convinced of the benefits of a writers group by this point, try to join one and see for yourself. It might take some time to find one that works for you, or one that has the right mix of fun and work, or even one that offers critiques in the right manner, but if you haven’t tried, or if you haven’t yet found the right one, keep searching. I recommend searching meetup.com to find one in your area, or start one yourself. And if you haven’t already, check us out at meetup.com/Stonehenge.

Writing is a journey. It’s work, but it is also a passion. Be consistent, know your value as a writer, be realistic about where you’re at in your journey, but keep those passions and goals alive. Never lose yourself, never lose that spark of life you infuse in your work. And most of all, have fun doing it.

Step Up That Game

Posted: February 24, 2013 by stonehengewriters in Matt's Words
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It has happened!

What, you ask? We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, allow me to show how I got here.

As a writer, my immediate payoff for writing is in fact…the joy of writing. Slaving away those hours upon hours in front of a computer, brainstorming ideas throughout the day, locking ourselves in a closet as we outline…(well maybe not ALL of us can relate to that), all of these things don’t always feel like work. Because face it, most of us write because we have a passion for storytelling, a love of the craft, or a character that keeps pounding on the inside of our skulls, begging to be released onto paper.

But it isn’t all fun and games, is it? No matter how we cut it, writing is hard. Very hard. The first draft of my novel read worse than a kindergarten drawing. My parents thought it was great, but then, they are a little biased, aren’t they? Only after I joined a writers group – Stonehenge – did I understand just how terrible it was.

And then, the real work began.

First, I studied the craft. I learned the basics of grammar – by reading books, practicing what I learned, listening to podcasts, then doing it all over again. And yes, my friends, this was work. A lot of work. I then unearthed the value of great storytelling, discovered the advantage of 3rd person limited versus omniscient. (For those unfamiliar, stay tuned for a post about this.) Learning and practicing. Learning and practicing. It was hard work, but once I felt comfortable with my writing, and felt that it was publishable, do you think I stopped there?

Good guess. No. While continuing to read about and practice the craft, I researched the publishing industry and conferences. I learned about agents, query letters, synopses, pitches, developmental editors, the various forms of publishing…and my head was spinning. How, oh how, was it possible for my baby to get published? Why did I ever pick up the pen? Of all the talent, all the writers in the world, why would I ever believe anything from little old me would be put into print?

Well, I also believe self-doubt, self-loathing is a part of most every writer’s process. Yes, process. And when we find a way to get over this, the cycle repeats. But, that’s for another post…

Above, I mentioned conferences. Browsing on the internet one day, I discovered this thing called San Francisco Writers Conference, and it was super expensive. But the more I read about it, the more I knew I had to attend. I read it was a great way to not only learn more about the craft and industry, but to also meet published authors, agents, editors, and publishers.

So I signed up with an excited, but heavy heart. I wasn’t sure it would pay off. Couldn’t that money be better spent elsewhere? I have a family, mouths to feed. How could I justify paying so much for this little hobby? Well, writing is more than a hobby to me. It is a passion. I strive to learn more, to build upon myself, to make my writing better than I’d ever thought possible.

My lovely wife has always supported me, (though she rarely cracks open a book). But, there are many ways to support those you love. She knows my passion, and she felt justified to encourage me to pursue my dream.

In 2012, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference. I left renewed, invigorated, and felt more connected to the industry. I met lots of great people, and discovered us writers are one giant, family. I took what I learned back to my writers group, worked on a few more revisions, then decided to go again this year.

This year, in 2013, this year, I did not expect this to happen. With a much improved manuscript, I reconnected with some great people I met at the conference the previous year, and thought to continue to improve upon it even more. I write Fantasy, which is only 6%-8% of the market. But those hopes, those dreams which haunt in the dead of night, those passions that keep my fingers punching the keys, would not allow me to see reason.

The final day of the conference, the awesome Pam van Hylckama Vlieg – book blogger, agent, and social media extraordinaire – offered me representation.

Often times, I daydreamed about that moment – what I would say, how I would feel, how I would act if that moment ever arrived – but none of those dreams compared to the emotion that moment elicited. My jaw was on the floor. I was confused. Could this really be happening? Me? Joe Shmoe? I looked from Pam to my manuscript sitting before her, then back to Pam. And I was still confused.

But yes. She nodded, confirming that impossible notion. And like any unintelligible cave man, all I could say was, “Really?”

Obviously, I’m a writer, not a speaker.

And now the journey begins. I look forward to working with her on the last revision of this manuscript, look forward to the moment she finds a publisher, and I look forward to our many future projects together.

You can find us here: Pam’s Clients

Here are my final words. I wrote a book before I knew how to write. If I can do it, so can you.

Dream a little dream.

Posted: February 16, 2013 by jennyleelee in Jenny's Words
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You can learn a lot from the world. You can learn more from kids.

They are enthusiastic with every fiber in their beings about the things and people they love. They ask questions. They laugh. They accept help when needed. They cry when they have exhausted all they have into what they love and nothing is left but the tears. They imagine possibilities and crave movement of life. They play. They want. They move.

They aren’t afraid of failing.

Kids engage in their worlds differently than adults do: kids trust that the world will bring them what they need, whereas adults may not share the same enthusiasm.

This is a tragedy.

Many adults give up on themselves too quickly–I’m guilty of this! We give up on dreams deeming them childish notions of fantasy and not realistic. Well, shame on us.

We should remember that part of being an adult is holding onto those dreams–to stay engaged with them while balancing a life that makes sense. Part of being a good example for a child is never giving up on what makes your heart glow, even if it takes your entire life to achieve it.

My grandpa (who is 81 years young) once told me that the secret to staying healthy was to stay active in all facets of life–the same sentiment applies to our dreams: if you leave the dream alone, it slows down and eventually dies without ever reaching its true potential. But, if you stay active with your dreams and work them out daily, then you have a larger chance of holding your dream in hand, of keeping the lightness that your childhood held for you.

The unwritten part of earning dreams is it’s hard work. It is hard to fulfill a dream, and rightfully so. Dreams push us forward, to try out new things, to encourage us to hold onto that piece of ourselves that takes years to properly develop. If dreams were easy to achieve, then they would be called everyday routines.

I wrote the following some years ago about listening to your dreams–it is still the only piece of work that I’ve done that I actually have memorized (I have a frightful memory for remembering my own words–this may have been why I started writing them all down).

I.

I am above you.

You.

You are planted in the firm grasp of reality.

I am above reality. I do not exist.

Or do I?

You can see me in a glance, if you close your eyes and take a chance.

Close your eyes, become one with me. But if you leave your reality, all you know will vanish.

Are you willing to take a chance? Are you willing to become a dream? Are you willing to leave reality and soar above with me?

 Your world might be of a certain reality that you’ve grown accustomed to, that you’ve built a routine in. It’s comfortable and safe. But why not expand yourself to believing in yourself just enough to rediscover the world that enchanted you as a child?

Why not let yourself just try and hold onto the dream that made you truly wonder if you could really do it?

Why not?

As an artist, I have always struggled with the will of motivation. Keeping myself inspired to create, and it has never been an easy task. I have moved from drawing, painting, photography, and now writing. The desire is never a problem, nor the imagination, nor the ideas, but the drive is missing. I’m in the car, the motor is on, and I’m not pressing the gas– green lights all the way– no follow through. And this is the curse of Prometheus’s Fire.

As usual to the human condition, I have forgotten one of the highest lessons: All things begin with choice. There is nothing holding me back except myself. We’ve all heard this, ad nauseam, but it is said for a reason. So, the time has come to silence the world around me, set every tiny distraction aside, and look at the choices in my life. And what do I see? Creation. I am a creator. It is my purpose, my design, my everything. This above all, I must keep in the forefront of my mind.

And to keep the writing and editing process fresh, I have experimented with a new device. Something to hold writer’s block at bay, which is really an excuse for procrastination. I write parodies of my own work, sort of literary gag reels. So, I present an excerpt from the novel I am working on, The Etherium:

Harkin approached the sorcerer– cowled in black, silver pages cycled through the air with an incandescent glow, the dark figure paid no attention.

“You there!” Harkin’s blood-shot eyes focused on two blurry images of the man. “You’re coming with me.” Attempting to place the edge of his axe on the table to emphasize threat, he missed the edge, swayed, and with drunken balance, the heavy blade crashed to the floor. Harkin fell face forward into the table. The cracking of wood echoed about the tavern–

“Oh, for the love of God!” The man in black stood from his table, throwing back his hood.

“Cut, cut!” The director rubbed at his furrowed brow.

Hands entagled with the silver pages suspended from thin wires, thrashing about, the man in black ripped them from the ceiling. “I have had enough of this! This man cannot get his lines or rhythm right. I’ll be in my trailer.”

“No, no, no…” The director raced after his star. “Karl, please babe. Come back. We’ll get someone else.”

“I’m done!” Karl slammed the studio door open and headed towards his private sanctuary. “Should have stayed in Wellington…”

Hope you enjoyed! Remember, life is absurd, and we should never take anything too seriously. Even ourselves.