Thursday, November 14, 2013

Are you a Pantser?

If your response to this question is, "What in the world is a Pantser?" you're probably not a writer. You're also probably normal. 

This month's Writers Ramble topic is Outlining vs. Freewriting. What works for you and why? 

When it comes to writing fiction there are essentially two ways to do it, plan everything out before you ever type the first word, or sit down and make it all up as you go along. The former is known as "outlining" the latter "freewriting" or "discovery writing" also known as writing by the seat of your pants. Hence the term, "Pantser". 

Are these two schools of thought all inclusive, you're either one or the other? Not at all. In fact, most authors I know are a combination of the two, with some planning before hand, maybe a few notes about what scenes will go where, then the rest freewritten as they go along. 

Think of it as more of a spectrum. At the one end, you have absolute outliners like Brandon Sanderson, (though even he'll say he discovery writes when under odd sorts of pressures). On the other end you have Stephen King who said, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters' theses.” 

What's the difference? Well, discovery writing is all about letting the story go wherever it wants. It seems silly, speaking about the story like it's a living entity, but to many writers their stories are just that. The story is a living, breathing creation that goes where it wants and does what it wants. Discovery writing is all about creating the setting, characters, or situation, then just exploring a train of thought along those lines, letting your imagination run wild with the possibilities. You have no idea where the story is going to end, but you can't wait to get there.

Outlining is a lot more structured. It's taking the idea, setting, characters, and writing down everything they are going to do so you know exactly what's going to happen in your story. This still is, in a sense, discovery writing, because you have to explore the ideas and see where they take you, but in this case the discoveries occur mostly in the author's mind, explored, rejected, accepted, until they know where they're going. Now, there can be different levels of outlining. Some authors, like Dan Wells, outline a basic plot structure, and have an ending in mind, then free write all the stuff in between keeping in mind where it all has to end up. Others will outline down to every scene of every chapter. Then the writing just becomes filling in the details. 

What do I do? A little of both, actually. I never write an outline down, but instead I mull an idea over in my head, thinking up more and more details, and even plan the ending until I have a pretty solid mental outline. Once it's basically complete in my head, I sit down and try to transfer all those thoughts into a coherent manuscript. That's where the discovery writing comes in, because I know what I want my characters to do, but most of the time I don't know how they're going to do that. 
Of course, once you start freewriting all of your plans and outlines are subject to change without notice. I recall a story I wrote once where at the end the hero, heroine, and heroine's father were facing of with the villain, who had a gun on them. I knew that by the end of the scene the villain would enact a terrible event and the hero wouldn't be able to stop him. But they couldn't just sit by and let it happen either, someone had to try to stop him. At first I started to write it that the hero would lunge at the villain, but the hero was injured. The heroine couldn't do it either because she was holding the hero in her lap. That left the father, who was most affected by the tragic event anyway, so of course he would react. But the villain had a gun, so of course he would shoot... and then the father would die. Until that moment there'd been no plan to kill the father character. But as it played out on the page it completely fit and was so emotionally charged due to the situation that even I got a little choked up as I was writing it. I was sad that this character was suddenly dead because that was not supposed to happen. And in the end I had several readers tell me that was the best part of the story. 

So there's merit to both outlining and discovery writing. Take the best of both practices, find your point along the spectrum, and make them work to your advantage. You never know where a story will take you.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

PodCastle Flash Fiction Contest

I currently have a Flash Fiction story (500 words or less) in a contest over at the Escape Artists forums. This time it the PodCastle contest which means the theme is "Fantasy". My story has already survived the first round of voting and is now in the semi finals. The field has been narrowed from 121 stories down to 30. There are some great stories in this contest, and all are well worth reading.

The rules of the contest forbid me from revealing which story is mine, but I am allowed to point people who are interested in supporting either me, or the contest, to the forums with instructions on how to participate. From there I can only hope that my stories are the ones you end up voting for.

So, for those who like fantasy stories, and want to (hopefully) support my writing, here are some basic instructions:

First, go to From there you will see a place to login or register for the forums. You'll have to register in order to access the contest, but it's a simple registration, all they want is a username, email, and password. Once you've submitted your info, you'll receive a verification email. Follow the link in the email to complete your registration.

Once you're logged in, scroll down until you find the category "The Arcade". Beneath this category is a subcategory entitled, "Contests" with a child forum called, "Flash Contest III - PodCastle". Click on this link.

Before you can actually view the entries, you have to quickly prove that you are not a spambot, so click on the forum called, "New Members: Please post if you want to vote in the contest" and on the right hand side, click "Reply" and add a simple comment such as, "Hello"; anything just to enter a post. Once that's done you'll automatically be granted access to the contest groups, which will appear above the Contest Rules group.

From there, read the entries and vote for your top three in each group. You're welcome to read all of the entries through the first ten groups, but the voting is already concluded on those. At the bottom of the list you'll find the "Semi-Final" rounds. My story is currently in one of those

Voting for the Semi-Final Rounds will probably close around October 21st, so if your going to participate, get going.

Thank you to everyone who chooses to participate in the contest and for your willingness to support me and my writing. I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I have. Have fun!

This is a Call

Of course I have to name this post after one of my favorite Foo Fighters songs. Our Ramble topic for this month is the Hero’s Journey; specifically, the first stage of the Hero’s Journey, "Departure", which is comprised of five steps;

1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
5. The Belly of the Whale

For my part I will be discussing The Call to Adventure. To read more about the other four steps of this stage, see the other entries over at The Writers Ramble.

So, how exactly is one “called” to adventure? Is it a physical summoning that lures us out, such as a siren’s song, or perhaps the call of nature? Or is it more metaphysical, like a spiritual prompting or emotional drive?

Honestly, it can be any or all of these. The call to adventure is whatever draws us from our comfort zone and drives us to make a difference either in our own life or in the lives of those around us. In real life, it can be the desire to join the military and embark on worldwide experiences, or it can be a prompting from God to undertake a mission to spread His word. Perhaps it’s merely the desire to find love and hold on to it with both hands.

In fiction, it can be all of these and so much more. Like Wendy, following Peter Pan to Neverland in search of a “grand adventure”. Or Indiana Jones deciphering the clues that lead him to the Ark of the Covenant. Even Ray Kinsella’s urge to build a ballpark in the middle of a cornfield. These characters felt the call, and answered it willingly, even eagerly.

But sometimes our hero may be a little—or a lot—more resistant to the call. Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins, Mrs. Frisby. These are the characters who find themselves drawn into the adventure whether they want to go or not. And oftentimes these are the heroes we relate to the most. Why? Because, like them, we are reluctant to seek adventure.

Think about it, if we truly sought to answer our own Call to Adventure, we would. We would join the military, backpack across Europe, rob a liquor store, or climb Mt. Everest. Yes, there are a lot of people who do these things, but there are even more of us who don’t. We’re content to sit at home and experience adventure vicariously through the lives of the characters we read about or watch on the screen. Yet we still dream about these things, these adventures. And we imagine that, if someone or something forced us into action, then we could be the hero.

So when Jack Ryan is sent out to help hunt the Red October, even though he’s just an analyst; or when Jen embarks to find the shard of the Dark Crystal even though he knows the Skeksis will try to kill him; or when Dotty joins the Rockford Peaches so that her kid sister will be allowed to play; we cheer them on. We understand their reluctance, we don’t want to leave the comfort of our homes either, but we also know, as they do, that they must go. And we love them for it. Why? Because they don’t answer the call for greed, or power, or excitement. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s that quiet nobility, and humility, that endears them so strongly to our hearts.

So the next time you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, take a long look at your characters. Find that nobility within them, and then send them out to save the world. Not because they want to; but because they have to.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night...

The cheesiest and worst opening ever, I know. Yet it does serve its purpose, which is to create the setting. What is setting? The question seems easy doesn't it? It's the location of your story. Duh. But is it really that simple? In a word: No.

Setting, or milieu, is one of the four basic factors that make up every story. When creating a scene, the setting is everything that surrounds the characters; and I mean everything. Here's a list of various aspects of the setting that need to be taken into account in order to create a believable setting:
  • Location: This can be anything from the room your characters are in to the planet they're on. It includes the physical objects nearby as well as the scenic skyline afar off. It is everything the characters will interact with during the scene. If your character is going to get in a bar brawl, the bottle he grabs is a piece of the setting right up until he shatters it on the edge of the bar and points it at his opponent.

    Location is the most common aspect of a story and the one that most people get right... for the most part. It's easy to describe a room your character is in, as well as the objects he or she will need throughout the scene. But what about the scenery? Make sure to include descriptions of items that will set the mood of the scene. This could be the dying embers of the campfire, the meaty scent of the roast in the oven, or the vast collection of family portraits hanging on the walls. These "background" objects go a long way to showing your reader how the setting feels to your characters.
  • Culture: This includes the laws of the land, village customs, city attitudes, the social roles of your character and so on. You can describe a city all the way down to the shape of the cobblestones in the streets, but without some culture your city will be just a flat collection of buildings. If your character is walking down the street, describe the way the citizens around him act. Maybe a couple is arguing loudly outside their home, or a patrol of foot soldiers is making the rounds, eying everyone they pass. The point is, give your locations some personality, some quirks, and some vices. This will bring them more to life than simply describing the buildings reaching for the sky.
  • Environment: Weather can have a strong affect on the scene you set. Is it raining? Sunny? Does the wind nearly blow your characters off their feet, or does the heavy fog obscure everything outside arms length? Weather is a great way to set the mood of your scene. Sunny days will typically portray hope or joy while rain can be depressing or even romantic. Fog is a common way to create an eerie feeling.

    This applies even if you are writing an indoor scene. What's the weather like outside. Does the soft pitter-patter of rain on the tin roof of the shed drive your hiding protagonist insane? Or does the bright rays of sunlight streaming through an open window fill her with hope for the first time in ages?

    But weather is not the only environmental effect to take into consideration. How about day or night? Which season is it? It doesn't even have to be of this planet. The vacuum of space can be a terrifying prospect for your character. Space is cold, lonely, and deadly. If you're a sci-fi author creating a new planet, design some crazy weather or other environmental effects that will fill your readers with wonder and your characters with dread. Have fun with it.
In the end, setting is just as important as your plot, your characters, and your ideas. Take the time to flesh out your world and make it really come to life on the page. Your readers will thank you for it.

Challenge Accepted
I haven't given a writing prompt at the end of a post in a long time, but this seems like an appropriate post to pick up with again. So, here's the challenge: Take a scene and rewrite it three times, with all the same characters and plot points, but in each scene, change the weather, whether it's indoors or out, and see how rain, wind, and sunshine change the way characters think, act, and feel. As always, I did the same and you can read my Challenge here.

Until then, have fun, and write something.

Monday, July 1, 2013

WIP it Good!

"When a problem comes along... you must WIP it." -Devo

Ok, so that's not quite what we mean by WIP in the writing world. This month's Writer's Ramble is about the current Work In Progress of each of our members. Many of you know that my current goal is to win the Writers of the Future contest. If you don't know about that, I have a separate page all about my journey here. But, to be more specific, I can't really talk about my actual current WIPs without risking disqualification from the contest. So instead I'll break down one of my recent stories that didn't win.

Herald of Salvation (Disappointing Title)
This is the story I submitted last quarter for the contest. It's about the crew of a messenger ship in the distant future where mankind has ventured out among the stars and settled many planets. However, though they can travel faster than light, communication is not so fast, hence the use of messenger ships that travel the expanse of human space delivering needed information. Mankind then encountered an alien race of superior strength and technological advancement. This alien race, know as the Hostis, seem to be interested in only one thing: the annihilation of the Human Race. Every attempt to communicate with these warrior beings has fallen on deaf ears, and any attempt to decipher their language has failed.

The story focuses on the crew of the Herald, a small messenger ship assigned to wait silently on the edge of a solar system where a cloaked human spy ship, the Scarcity, has inserted ground operatives on a Hostis settled planet. When the spies come up with useful intel, the information is sent from the Scarcity to the Herald, which then jumps out of the system to deliver the information to human military leaders. The Herald has just received a packet of information from the Scarcity that could very well turn the tide of the war, but before they can leave the system, there is a malfunction with the engine core and the Herald is left sitting dead in space. At the same time, the planetside spies are discovered and a Hostis warship has tracked the information transmission and is bearing down on the Herald at top speed.

Can the crew get the engines repaired in time? Can they decode the data packet and use this new information against the Hostis? Time is running out.

Hehe, that turned into a movie trailer, which was not the plan. I had a lot of fun writing this story. The original idea was based upon the thought of a ship waiting on the edge of space for a spy transmission. Of course, the ship has to break down just after they're discovered, it needs some tension. But the real intrigue of this story to me is what information is contained in the data packet that could turn the war around for the humans. I won't give any spoilers here, but let's just say those who've read it are polarized between loving the idea and hating it. I've taken kind of a risk including this aspect of the story because it's a heated argument in the science fiction community.

Unfortunately, I don't think I got this controversial reveal quite right because the story didn't even make honorable mention in the contest. Which is ok. I rushed my edits of the story to get in into the contest on before the deadline and I think that's what hurt it most of all. There's a great story here told poorly and I think I just need to break it down, see what's working and what isn't, and figure out how to make my reveal work within the context of the story.

I could use some fresh opinions on this story. If any of you would be interested in read the Herald of Salvation and giving me some feedback and suggestions (especially for a better title), I'd be willing to send it to you. Just comment on this post with your email address and I'll send it right over.

In regards to the contest, I just yesterday sent off another story for 3rd Quarter, a light-hearted ghost story that I wrote based on a writing prompt from the website Prompt and Circumstance. It was fun to write and includes some humor, which I don't do a lot of. I'm also currently working on a story set within a community on the moon which discovers that nuclear war has just destroyed the entire planet Earth and they may very well be the last human beings alive. Dun-dun-dun!

For those who are interested, feel free to follow my progress toward winning Writers of the Future on my Journey page.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Wait, you did what? With who? WHERE??

This month's Ramble topic is about Getting to Know Your Hero/Heroine, (not heroin, that's a whole different subject...)

If you're writing a story, there's a pretty good chance you have characters in it. Even if your tale is composed entirely of inanimate objects, there's going to be some personality, some history, some purpose to those objects. So how do you make them believable people? How do you portray them in a way that will make your readers not only understand them, but care about them?

There are several ways I go about this in my own writing. One way I find effective is to picture my story as a movie that I'm watching in my head, and then try to decide which actor/actress would play the role of that character. Then I develop my own character as played by... Robert Duvall, or Al Pacino, or whoever fits what I'm writing. Now, typically I don't base my characters after the Hollywood stars themselves, (unless I'm writing a contemporary story about drug addicts and alcoholics.) Instead, I pick a role they have played in a movie I've seen and loosely base my character on the character from that film. I say loosely because I don't want to straight up steal someone else's character... more like I just suck the soul of them and create my own monster.

Thanks for Taking the Time:
Another great way to create and get to know your characters is to interview them. As the creator of their world, you're already imagining your characters in all sorts of situations, scenes, and relationships. It shouldn't be too much harder to imagine them sitting in a chair across from you answering a list of interview questions such as:

  • What's your name? Do you have a middle name? A nickname? Where did your nickname come from?
  • Where are you from? What was it like growing up there? Do you have any favorite stories from your childhood?
  • Do you have any secrets? Any that you're willing to share?
  • How did you end up where you are today? Do you like your life, are you satisfied? What would you change, given the chance?
  • What are you looking for in life, in relationships, in employment? What are your inner dreams and deepest fears?

You get the idea. Now, chances are, 90% of the answers you get from your characters will not end up in the story. At least, not directly. But now you have more than just the cardboard cutout of a person. You have a fully fleshed-out, living, breathing human being with fears, hopes, a past, a future, etc. (Side Note; I recently learned that "etc" really stands for: End of Thinking Capacity, hehe) So even if you don't use most of the answers from you interview, you've created the information so that, as you're chugging along in your tale, if a detail suddenly pops up about your character, say someone wants to know his/her middle name, you've already learned that fact in your interview and can more readily plug it into the story and move on.

That Was Supposed to be Me?
Another way you can create believable characters is to base them--again, loosely--on people you know. This is the easiest, and I think most common, way for new writers. After all, they say, "Write what you know" and who do you know better than your friends and family?

However, this is dangerous ground to trod. You may think you're portraying someone you love in the best light possible, but the fact is, you can never truly know someone else's inner thoughts, feelings, motivations. You may think you got the details right, only to find that your loved one doesn't see themselves that way and is offended at their portrayal.

So, two suggestions if you're going to model characters after people you know: Don't tell them, and don't ask permission. If you tell them, they may be offended at what you wrote. If you ask them first, they may then try to take over your writing and say things like, "I wouldn't react that way" or "Man, it would be so much cooler if I..." The bottom line is, this is your story, and these are your characters. Don't let someone else try to control what your characters are doing. Your plot will suffer for it every time.

So what if someone recognizes himself in your story? Simply say, "Wow, I'm glad you found that character so believable that you could relate to them."

In his book, "Character and Viewpoint", Orson Scott Card warns against using loved ones as character models and talks about how to create characters who've done things that you don't know anything about, such as murdering someone. He says:
"There is one person you can always interview, however, who will tell you much more of the truth than others ever will--yourself. You can imagine what it would take to get you to behave in a certain way. 
So what if you've never murdered somebody? Haven't you ever been blindingly angry? Haven't you ever longed for cold revenge? You've felt all the emotions, all the motives. All you have to do is imagine those feelings and needs being even stronger, or imagine you inhibition against violence being even weaker."
As the author, you need to know your characters. Be they people, animals, spirits, rocks, or whatever your story needs, there should not be a single person in existence who knows more about them than you . After all, they're going to change the very world you've created for them. Take the time to get to know them.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Finding Your Muse

The Ramble Topic for this month is Finding Your Muse. That's easy, I got mine right here:

Ok, I don't think that's the Muse we're supposed to be talking about. (Though, for the record, I am going to this concert)

I've heard many professional writers say the most annoying question they get asked is "Where do you get your ideas?". Now, I'm no professional, not yet, but even I've been asked this question more than once. So, where do I get my ideas? The simple answer is: Anywhere and everywhere.

Now, I know that doesn't really narrow it down, so I'll explain. The ideas for my stories most often start with the question, "What if...?" It can strike any time of day, during any activity, in any place. No matter what I'm doing, something will catch my attention, and my mind will ask, "Well, what if...". And suddenly I have a seed for a new story. I'd say upwards of 90% of these What If's go unanswered. There are just too many for me to fully flesh out into solid story ideas. Besides, not all of them are worth exploring. But every now and then, a spark of an idea will ignite in my tiny, chaotic mind and will begin to spread like a wildfire. At some point, the fire will become large enough that my conscious brain will take note and start exploring the possibilities; creating characters, developing plot, assigning setting, etc. That's when the real fun begins.

For example, I was playing Halo 3 ODST a few years back (great game, my favorite campaign story of the entire series, for anyone who's interested). I was trying to complete the level very quickly, and at one point, I climbed into a 4-wheel drive vehicle (known as a warthog) and drove as fast as I could through a narrow canyon past all of the enemies without bothering to fight them. As I swung wide around an approaching enemy tank, with several infantry units shooting at my passing vehicle, I thought to myself, this is kind of cool, traveling as fast as I can and hoping that I don't get blown up before I make it out. Then the question popped into my mind, What if there was a high speed train on an alien planet that ran between two settlements through a canyon infested with deadly creatures, and the train had to keep up its top speed or the creatures could land on it and tear it apart?

Thus my short story, "Riding the Titanium Bullet" was born.

Another time I proofread a story for a friend. It was a good idea fairly well written, but the ending fell flat. In trying to help my friend I suggested an alternate ending that I thought would be much cooler and would fit the story better. Unfortunately, though he liked the idea, my friend said that was not the type of story he was trying to tell and dismissed the suggestion. No big deal. However, I couldn't get that ending out of my head. The idea pestered me to the point that I actually asked my friend if he would mind if I wrote a story similar to his but with my ending. He had no problem with that, however, before I started writing, my subconscious mind struck again(!) and asked the question, What if, rather than the ending, my idea was actually the beginning of the story? The  more I thought that through, the more I liked it. So in the end, I wrote a story that takes place a thousand years after the original ending I came up with, but was directly influenced by the events of that ending.

And my story, "Adam" was created.

Sadly, neither of these have been published, but they do serve a point here. Ideas can come from anywhere. The next time you're struggling to find the kernel of a story, or you're just struck by something interesting, an idea or an image, stop and ask yourself "What if...?".

Just be sure to have a notebook handy.

Friday, April 19, 2013

PseudoPod Flash Horror Finals

I'm updating this post to reflect the current status of the contest. As the previous post said, I entered two stories into PsuedoPod's Flash contest. Horror stories, 500 words or less. I don't typically write horror, and telling a story in 500 words, a complete story, is very difficult. So I decided to accept the challenge.

The contest started out with 153 entries, broken up into fourteen groups of eleven stories each. Over the last two months, the groups were released on the Escape Artists forums one at a time, and the participants were given a few weeks to vote for their three favorite stories in each group. The top stories were moved on to the semi-finals round, where there were six groups of seven. The entries were then whittled down to the final eighteen stories, all in one final round of voting. The top three will be published in audio format on PsuedoPod in the near future.

Both of my stories made it to the semi-finals. Sadly, one of them, "Umbra" came in last in its semi-final group and is now out of the contest. However, I am thrilled to be able to say that my second story has made it into the finals!

The rules of the contest forbid me from revealing which story is mine, but I am allowed to point people who are interested in supporting either me, or the contest, to the forums with instructions on how to participate. From there I can only hope that my stories are the ones you end up voting for.

So, for those who like horror stories, and want to (hopefully) support my writing, here are some basic instructions:

First, go to From there you will see a place to login or register for the forums. You'll have to register in order to access the contest, but it's a simple registration, all they want is a username, email, and password. Once you've submitted your info, you'll receive a verification email. Follow the link in the email to complete your registration.

Once you're logged in, scroll down until you find the category "The Arcade". Beneath this category is a subcategory entitled, "Contests" with a child forum called, "Flash Contest III - PseudoPod". Click on this link.

Before you can actually view the entries, you have to quickly prove that you are not a spambot, so click on the forum called, "Questions, Comments, Concerns?" and on the right hand side, click "Reply" and add a simple comment such as, "Hello"; anything just to enter a post. Once that's done you'll automatically be granted access to the contest groups, which will appear above the Contest Rules group.

From there, read the entries and vote for your top three in each group. You're welcome to read all of the entries through the first fourteen groups, but the voting is already concluded on those as are the semi-finals. At the bottom of the list you'll find the "Final Round" post. My story is in there, along with the other seventeen finalists. Keep in mind, this is a horror contest, so some of the stories might make some people a bit squeamish, but honestly, most of the stories are not too graphic or terribly disturbing.

Voting for the Final Round closes the morning of May 9, 2013.

Thank you to everyone who chooses to participate in the contest and for your willingness to support me and my writing. I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I have. Have fun!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

What I Learned at LTUE 31

If your first question is, "What the heck is LTUE?", then maybe you need to start out at our group blog: That saves me from the redundancy of explaining it twice.

LTUE this year was fantastic. Even after four years of attending this conference, I'm still learning new things about writing, publishing, storytelling, sci-fi and fantasy in general, and networking. I got to chat with and learn from several of my writing mentors such as Tracy Hickman, David Wolverton/Farland, Eric James Stone, and Brad R. Torgersen. I met several new authors like, Dan Willis and Eric Swedin. And I got to hang out with my writing group friends and make new friends as well.

I attended some very interesting panels on things such as What You Need to Know About Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Space Travel without Warp Drive, and How to Write Humor without Slapstick. I intend to post articles in the coming weeks and months about each of the subjects I learned from at LTUE, but decided to start off by sharing what I learned from a panel called: Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned From The Matrix, by J. Scott Savage.

I love the Matrix. It's arguably one of the best science fiction stories of all time. Just the original, mind you. The sequels are arguably some of the worst sequels of all time. But the original story is brilliant. On this panel, Scott Savage broke down what makes this story so great, not by breaking down each scene or beat, but by looking at the structure of the tale and how it captures our hearts and minds.

The first thing that Scott talked about was starting your story with a conflict. Most new writers today don't follow this concept. They want to show their protagonist in everyday life to give us a sense of what's normal before the conflict arises, or they want to build up the world before they introduce their characters, or they want to give us a history lesson to "properly" frame the tale. This is inevitably boring for the reader. The author may find it fascinating because they spent so much time creating this world, but we, the readers, just don't care.
You start with conflict to draw the reader in. If your story isn't built to begin with your protagonist in conflict, then put someone else in conflict first. The Matrix starts with Trinity getting cornered by the police. There is a quick fight scene, a chase between Trinity and the Agents, and it ends with Agent Smith smashing the phone booth Trinity was just in with a dump truck, though she mysteriously escapes. This creates intrigue. This hooks the reader. And this all takes place before we ever meet Neo.

As mentioned above, you may have an encyclopedia of backstory and world history that you've developed for your story. Don't tell it all right up front. I know you may be anxious to get it out, but the more you can hold back from the reader, the more intrigue you will create. The best way to withhold this information is to keep your characters busy, keep them constantly moving forward so there is no time for them to sit back and study the situation. They have to learn on the fly and thus so will your readers.

Success and Failure cycles are very important to a story. The best way to make your protagonist's successes emotionally powerful, and therefore the story emotionally powerful, is to first make them fail. A lot. Over and over. The more they fail, the more we root for them. And it creates believability. Most people don't succeed the first time. If you're a writer, you already know what I'm talking about. And some people never succeed. Make the reader accept the possibility that the hero might fail. It keeps the reader on guard and makes your story unpredictable. 

Take every opportunity to increase the tension in your story. The more tense it can be, the better. Scott gave a list of six ways to ratchet up your tension:
  1. Isolation: Isolate your character physically, emotionally, or psychologically, so they feel alone in some way. At the end of The Matrix Neo gets cut off from everyone else when Agent Smith shoots the phone line just after Trinity escapes.
  2. Disorientation: Put your character in a situation they are not familiar with. Your character needs to discover the world around them. No one in the story is less familiar with the Matrix than Neo, even the little kids at the Oracle's place.
  3. Misdirection: Get the character to focus on something other than what is really going to happen. Ask yourself, What do I want the reader to see, and what do I want them to miss? The Oracle tells Neo he's not The One, so he (and we) don't think he is until Morpheus tells him the Oracle was telling him, "...exactly what [he] needed to hear."
  4. Bigger Obstacles: Give the character an impossible obstacle, then make it stronger, or increased in numbers. Neo is told that fighting one Agent is akin to suicide. Then at the end, he faces three.
  5. Time Limits: An artificial time limit can increase the tension greatly. This doesn't necessarily mean a ticking bomb. Neo has to get back to the Nebuchadnezzar before the Sentries tear it apart.
Finally, Scott pointed out something that in all my years of attending writing conferences, workshops, lectures, and writing groups, I’d never heard. And that is the idea of Tracking Your Characters’ Decisions. The best way to show what type of people your characters are is through the decisions they make. You can spend an entire story telling your readers that someone is good, or bad. But until they see that character decide to do something good, or something bad, it’s just words. 

Cora was a good person, in every way possible. She stood for justice and fought corruption wherever she found it. Thinking about this, she smiled as she cut the rope from which dangled the whimpering Senator Daye. As the senator plunged to his death, she knew she was doing the tax payers, even the world, a great favor.

See? I can tell you all I want that Cora is a good character. But her actions speak for her as she murders the good senator. Now this is a pretty simple example, but it also speaks to another point. Both your hero and your villain need to be anxiously engaged in a noble goal. Yes, even the villain, though what may seem like a noble goal to her, such as killing a corrupt politician, may still be viewed as evil by the hero and/or the reader.

If you haven’t seen The Matrix, and even if you have, go watch it. Watch for these elements throughout. Then watch some of your other favorite Hero’s Journey style stories such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars and see if you can pick out these same elements. I guarantee you they’re there.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Writing Groups; The Good, The Bad, and the Wary

One year ago this month I was at the writers’ conference, Life, The Universe, and Everything down in Orem, Utah, sitting in the main conference room awaiting the start of the next panel discussion, when author Dan Wells stood up and loudly asked everyone in the room who was interested in joining a writing group to raise their hand. Many of us responded, to which Dan replied, “After this panel, all of you go into the next room, meet each other, and form your writing groups.” I met most of the members of my writing group that day. A few have dropped off, and a few more have joined, but overall, the core of our group came from that meeting.

Since the idea for our group blog, The Writers Ramble, came from our writers group, we decided it would be appropriate for our first discussion to be about writing groups; what they are, how they work, what purpose they serve, and what you should be wary of.

So, why join a writing group? I heard it said once that the first draft of a story is for you, the second draft is for your readers. If you’re someone who writes simply for the enjoyment that you get out of writing, and you have no intention of ever publishing your work, then a writing group may not be necessary for you. However, if you have aspirations of publication, it’s imperative to learn how to write for others.

Now, that doesn't mean that you have to sacrifice your style or taste to please the general masses. That’s selling out. Write what you want to write. However, if you want your tale to reach a vast array of people, then you need to learn how to craft a story that will move someone’s heart, stimulate their mind, or some combination thereof. For that, it’s best to have a group of people who can read your work and give you feedback on what touched them, what bored them, what made them laugh, and what offended them.

How does it work? Our group, affectionately nicknamed the Word Vomit Writers’ Group, meets once a week to discuss stories or chapters submitted the week before by our members. These meetings can be done in many different ways. Some groups like to meet physically, others submit works to each other via email or other means. They then critique the work and send it back. Our group meets online in a Google Hangout. This works for us because we get that face-to-face time, but in the convenience of our own homes.

So what are the pros and cons of a writing group? I've put together a list of five reasons to join a writing group and three warnings.

The Good.
1.      Feedback
      The best way to improve your writing is to share it with others and gather their opinions. Based on the feedback you get, you can add or remove aspects of the story to make it a stronger piece. This doesn't mean you must change everything that someone suggests. It's your story. But if several people comment on the same issue, it would be wise for you to consider revising it.

2.      Knowledge
You can learn a lot about writing from books, blogs, school, or just practicing your writing in general. However, there is not enough time in the day for you to read every book, blog, and lecture out there on writing. By meeting regularly with a group of people also focused on learning the craft of writing, you can tap into their knowledge and learn from the books and lectures they've learned from, thus increasing your own knowledge.

3.      Networking
A good friend of mine, and a member of my writing group, Jayrod Garrett, once pointed out that, though we can attend different writing conferences and workshop to meet successful authors and network with them, it is the other aspiring authors around us who will be our peers in the future as we all grow and become published. Spending our time together, helping each other to improve our craft, will help lift us all up together.

4.      Friendship
This last year, as a member of our group, I have formed some wonderful friendships that I believe will last for years to come. I've met new people through these friends, thus making more friends. And if there's one thing we can all use a little more of, no matter who we are, it's friendship.

5.      Fun
We have a blast at our meetings each week. Typically we spend the first hour—when we are supposed to be having some sort of writing activity—chatting and goofing off, sharing things we've read or seen, and just having a good time. I look forward to our meetings every week, and only some of that excitement has to do with the writing.

The Bad.
1.      Un-productivity
As I said, one reason to join a group is to learn from the other members. And if you are still a fledgling writer, with a lot to learn, it’s to your advantage to join a group of people whose skill is greater than your own. However, as you grow and learn and improve in your writing, you have to avoid groups where the other members have nothing to teach you. If you are the most skilled writer in your group by a long shot, then all you’re doing is teaching writing, not learning about it. And that’s very noble of you, but you may not be growing from it.

Currently, our group is all about the same skill level. We are learning a great deal and sharing that information, so our meetings are very productive. If this ever ceases to be the case, it will be time to consider leaving the group.

2.      Mismatched Members
When I first began searching for a writing group I was invited by someone I met at the meeting of a local chapter of a writing club to join her group. I was honored and pleased to be allowed in. The first week I was a member, I received the submissions of a few other members for review. I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I hated every piece. It’s not that the writing was bad (though few were gems), but the subject matter was so far outside of my own interests that I couldn't begin to allow myself any emotional involvement in the tales. I realized that I would not be a productive member of that group because I couldn't advise them in ways to improve a story that I held no interest in.

You need to seek out people who share common interests and probably write or read in the same genre as you. However, you should also have some variety in your group. If you all write the same stuff, you will limit yourselves on what you can learn. Our group has writers of sci-fi, high fantasy, urban fantasy, contemporary fiction, horror, and even some historical fiction. 

3.      Stagnation
As I keep saying, the great thing about writing groups is being able to learn from its members. Eventually, however, you will all have learned what each other likes, thinks, expects, etc. You will run out of ways to productively help each other. This stagnation will only hurt your writing. Either you will cease to improve in your writing, or you will begin to write specifically for the members of your group, for which your writing will suffer.

The bottom line is that a writing group can be a wonderful thing if you find the right group of people. Look for people with interests and skill levels similar to, if not greater than your own. Try to offer constructive advice on the other members’ works and be gracious in accepting criticism of your own writing. Be a productive and contributing member. And if/when you feel you are no longer gaining anything from your group, politely thank them for the time you've had together and begin the process of searching for a new group that will suit your new needs.