All posts by swanstuff

Writer, small business wannabe, pundit, philosopher, often hopelessly confused, and blessed by a gracious God beyond all imagining (the views expressed by this blogger do not necessarily reflect the Supreme Being, but this blogger hopes he doesn't embarrass the Big Guy too much).

Today’s World IS Sci-Fi!

For years I resisted getting a cellphone. Back then they were dumb flip-phones, very rudimentary. Today, my hand-held supercomputer occupies way too much of my time, just ask my wife.

Cellphones are great for connecting to the world, but that’s a sizable problem for fiction writers. One of the jobs of storytelling is to isolate your main character and the situation. After all, if they aren’t isolated, they can solve the problem with a simple phone call to someone more capable. Stakes are lowered, tension is dropped, main character motivation is compromised.

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You gotta be IN the box to think OUT of the box!

Twenty years ago, isolating a character was easy. Cut them off on an island, maroon them out of their depth, have the car break down. Now help is a cellphone call away. Out of power? Borrow someone else’s, everyone has one.

Need to defuse a bomb? YouTube has your back and it’s right on your phone.

You can break their phone, have them forget their phone, be beyond cell service… but that only works for so long.

Historical fiction is looking very good these days.

Good writers can find a way, of course. In thrillers and suspense stories, you can be tracked with your phone, so depower and remove the battery. Or perhaps your character is a technophobe or allergic to electronic frequencies (supposedly a real thing).

No matter how you do it, you have to be believable and consistent in isolating your characters. If the reader has to ask, “Why didn’t she just…” then you’ve pulled them out of the story.

What are some ways you’ve isolated your characters?

In Light of the VIrus

You’re a writer with a writer’s mind. Probably, like me, you’re using the Coronavirus as at least a mental writing prompt.

Oh, my head has spun conspiracy stories, dystopia stories, pathogenic stories, and more.

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Beware the Writer’s Power!

World events are grist for the mill. Let me encourage you with a few thoughts:

  • Write them down! Always good to have a number of project ideas.
  • Do NOT share them! Really. Right now, some people are sanguine, some are nervous, some scared, some annoyed, and some on the very edge of panic. The problem is, you don’t know who is who. Your clever story ideas could spin them into weird mindplaces.
  • Don’t mistake them for reality! Right now, we’re all a bit isolated. Sure there’s stuff going on. Sure, there may be more than we know about. Chances are, you haven’t come up with anything beyond fiction. Just as it isn’t wise to freak out other people, don’t freak out yourself.

As writers, we’re a bit weird. That’s OK. We can be the life of the party! But use your powers wisely. With great imagination comes great responsibility.

As in any crisis, no matter how you feel about it, strive to think of what you can do for your fellow person. After all, they are your audience; take care of them!

But please, please, please, remove “Stay Safe” from your vocabulary. It’s inane, tone-deaf, and while well meaning, is hollow. “Take care of yourself,” “be well” “See you later” all good cliches.

Be well!

Who’s S.E. Hinton?

I recently said “Stay gold, Ponyboy” to a gentleman my age who had been an English major. He looked at me like I was crazy.

“Ponyboy. The Outsiders? S.E. Hinton?” I said.

“Who?”

Color me stunned. The Outsiders is the best-selling YA book of all time, and some say first, that came out when I (and he) were kids. It was required reading in High School. It was a MOVIE for goodness sake!

“Who?”

I sent him the link on Amazon and like a true nerd (I say with awe and wonder), he bought it. 😊

The Outsiders was also one of the most banned books in schools, right up there with Catcher in the Rye.

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There are dozens of book covers, but this is the first I remember.

Susan Hinton began writing it when she was 15, completed it at 17, and was published at 19. It’s about rival gangs, includes violence, budding sexuality, and other true-to-teen life stuff. It’s very sad, very, very sad. And while I didn’t like Catcher in the Rye, it’s in that ilk and I enjoyed The Outsiders.

Her publisher recommended going with her initials so her gender wouldn’t hurt sales. She kept using H. E. with Rumblefish and That Was Then, This is Now, and her later books for adults.

It was published in 1967, written in Oklahoma and you can tell. It’s a powerful story largely because it’s written truthfully from a kid’s point of view.

I suspect it was so well received because, let’s face it, teenagers like to read about people worse off than they are.

Susan Hinton became “relevant” again recently when a Twitter comment asked if two of her characters were gay. She responded that no, they weren’t, her characters are straight because she is and can’t write truthfully from a gay perspective. The Internet blew up at her for that. She probably sold a lot of books as a result of the exposure. No publicity is bad publicity, after all.

Let me be up-front, I dislike the term “My Truth” since truth is truth and everything else is perspective, BUT, from a literary perspective, what is your truth—the thing you can write about from the inside? Hinton’s books work for teenagers because it rings true in ways other books, even better-written books, don’t.

Susan Hinton looked around herself in High School and asked what it would be like to see the world from one of the “greaser’s” eyes. Eight million copies sold later, she continues to do so. Whose eyes can you honestly look through?

The Audio/Print Link

Imagine these scenarios:

  • Reading your manuscript to a critique group
  • An author reading to an audience
  • Recording an Audio Book of your manuscript

All the listeners are experiencing your words differently than in print. You’re saying “duh!” but I don’t mean auditory vs visual… well, yes, I do, but I really mean the brain centers of these senses.

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Use your voice to catch what your fingers miss!

Different sites in your brain process information from your senses. Visual/reading is completely different than hearing. Listeners are hearing a completely different story than those reading it. Whether it is a richer experience or not depends on their learning style.

For the life of me, I can’t process an audio book. I listened to Sun Dog, by Stephen King, and did not find it scary or interesting. When I read the story, it gave me the creeps. I spoke to a friend who was interesting in my last book and she asked if I had an audio book of it (the answer is, “Yes, in about a month.”)  She said she doesn’t get anything from reading but can listen and absorb it all. This boggles my mind.

So, what does this mean for each of these scenarios?

Reading your manuscript to a critique group

Don’t put too much into the critique of your written story UNLESS the listener has structural input. Even then, ask your critics what their learning style is. It might be better to give advance copies for analysis. On the other hand, it might be informative to it’s fit for an audio book AND reading it out loud will help you. More on that in a moment, but Beta READERS are better for critique.

An author reading to an audience

While this might hook some readers, it might turn off others who would otherwise love the print version of your book.

A couple words of advice for author reading: It’s not an audio book. Be animated, act out your characters, growl, bark, moan, whatever’s appropriate to your story. An author reading is more akin to a radio show than an audio book. Audio books are long form; spikes and dips in volume that work at an author reading are annoying in an audio book. And do not get upset if some listeners don’t like your story. They might if they read it. And let them know that! At the end of your reading, say, “if this story grabbed you, thank you! And buy the book. If the story DIDN’T grab you, you may have a different experience reading it for yourself, so buy the book!”

Recording and Audio Book of your manuscript

Hoo-boy! This is VALUABLE. You will catch:

  • Typos
  • Poorly written sentences (if they’re hard to read out loud, they’re hard to read period)
  • You’ll gain new eyes on your book.

The reason why is you are literally encountering your book anew. You can expect to lose track of your story as you read it out loud. That portion of your brain has never housed the story before (even talking about your story is done in a different place in your brain than reading it).

Even if you don’t record your book for audio, read it out loud for the sake of editing. I’ll never not do that again. Those typos you don’t see when you’re reading silently—because you know what’s supposed to be there—stand out like a beacon in the fresh part of your brain.

Having said that, be wary while reading aloud. You read aloud from a different place in your brain than you write from (or read silently from); as you hear yourself read, it is a fresh place of grey matter. The novelty of hearing/reading your beloved story out loud is that it will feel foreign – don’t think that means it’s bad! Linkages in centers of the brain opposite your learning style don’t occur the way they do in your learning style (it’s admittedly a big assumption that reading/visual is your learning style, but for most writers, I expect it is). Don’t trust listening to it to help you figure out your structure (unless you’re returning to it years after reading it). An outline is still your best bet for structure difficulty.

To sum up:

  • Get critique from the same media you output to. Out loud for audio books; in print for written books.
  • Author readings are more about acting than reciting. Don’t trust audience reaction.
  • Record audio books as part of the final edit process (or read it out loud). Structure changes should be in earlier edits. Here, you’re finding typos and difficult sentences.

The brain is an unusual space. Use it to your advantage.

Outline to Structure Greatness

Story structure is as old as Aristophanes. It maps to expectations in the reader’s brain. The structure map must correspond to your story scenes. If it doesn’t (and don’t worry, there are millions of ways for it to do so), it will be boring, confusing, and incomplete.

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This is NOT the kind of outline we’re talking about.

The map is straight forward:

World-building – Where are we?

Status Quo – What’s normal life for the hero? Is it comfortable, tolerable, wonderful?

The Problem – Something challenges normal.

The Inciting Incident – Something makes normal no longer possible and the problem MUST be solved.

Initial Commitment – The main character commits tentatively.

Commitment Tested – That commitment is tested.

Point of No Return – ONLY the main character can solve the problem, fully committed.

Challenge of Character-Plan-Relationships-Self – Put the main character through every ringer possible

Wins and Losses – Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses; always character is challenged.

Raising the Stakes/Rising Tension – The deeper in, the more dangerous it gets, often in a giant leap. This isn’t restricted to action plots; emotional risk is equally compelling.

Gaining Power – Through all trials and travails, your main character is growing and getting equipped to take on the final challenge.

Reversal – Expectations are confounded, twisted, reversed.

Discovery – The solution presents itself, often only in the character’s mind, not in the words themselves.

Climax – This is it, the final solution played out, the opposition defeated.

New Normal – What’s life look like now? This is the completion of the character arc.

A word about outlines. You can certainly begin with an outline, but expect it to change. If you are an outliner, update your outline as you go. If you’re not, make one after the first draft. Each scene should slot into one of the above structure points. While it’s tempting to say they should always fall in this order, and more or less do in traditional stories, you can climb out of the box, or, like Tarantino, set the box on fire and stomp it out. Nonetheless, each of the elements above are in his stories, just taken out of order.

You might see structures detailed with different words, or some of them combined, but they are all essentially the same.

What happens if a scene doesn’t fall neatly into one of the elements? First, ask yourself if you’re sure it doesn’t fit. If it truly doesn’t fit, ask yourself, “is it necessary?” Can you cut it? Have you by some miracle discovered a new structure element?

Your cutting guide is simple: If I cut it, does the story improve? If I don’t, is it harmed? “Elementless” scenes may be funny, and you can get away with them if they don’t drag down the pace. Is there conflict? Every scene should have some form of conflict. If it doesn’t and it can be cut, cut it. It’s that simple. And that hard.

Why SO Series?

There’s no denying that book series make more money for an author. If someone reads one and like it, they may buy all of them. It also works the other way. W.E.B. Griffin was one of my dad’s favorite writers, but I knew if I started reading a series, I’d have to read them all and he wrote 160 books. When I retire. Really.

Still, I’m weird that way, so financially, writing series does make sense.

But I’m weird in another way. Once I’ve written a book about a set of characters, I’m done with them. It would be easy to turn Do Angels Still Fall into a series; and Me and the Maniac has several internal series with characters I really love… but I’m ready to move on to new characters. Yet I love series. Spencer for Hire, Jesse Stone, and as a kid, Homer Price, Encyclopedia Brown, and a dozen others.

I think it’s a special kind of writer who can write a series, and I don’t mean financially motivated. They are more interested in the story of their characters than just story. They ask, “What are they doing now?” They aren’t finished with their characters. They BEGIN with characters. I begin with a story idea. I like to think they are all in a shared universe, that Bungy may run into Hud, but their stories are separate.

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Series can be lucrative…

Neither approach is wrong. If you’re inclined to write a series, make sure:

  • The story is your character’s story; you’re not shoehorning your character into someone else’s story.
  • It isn’t just a retread of the last story. Same genre, yes, but not same storyline or story arc.
  • The role of your characters is either the same or logical. For example, if in one book Character A is the lead role, and in the next book, a side character is the lead role and A is a side character, you must ask why she lost the lead?
  • Your characters are interesting enough to carry a series.
  • Your characters can change, but not so much that there’s no new arc to explore.
  • Your motive isn’t purely financial. You really have to love your characters. I love my characters, but not in a way that I want to document their continuing lives (though one never knows the future).
  • You don’t fall into the same ending time after time. In a military lawyer series I read, three times in a row the author made the bad guy the lawyer’s new girlfriend.  Great books that let you down in the end….
  • Include humor. I could be wrong, but most series I read have a healthy dose of humor, even the serious ones.

My advice, write a series if you have to, if you’re compelled to. If you must know what your characters are doing now, maybe your readers do too.

Never write a series for the sake of writing a series. Good stuff never happens that way.

What are your thoughts on series? What do you see as the pros and cons?

Why Do We Read?

This blog is all about writing, but it’s natural to therefore look at reading.

I love it. If you read this blog, you love it. But why should we do it?

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This kid has a bright future!

  1. It’s a great way to learn! I’m known as a keeper of arcane trivia, and not so arcane. I only showed up for tests in my college Astronomy 101 class. Everything I needed to know about astronomy I learned in comic books. Non-fiction is all about learning. Beware, though; be discerning; you can learn right and you can be seduced by the dark side.
  2. It sharpens critical thinking. Or it can. Most stories flow logically and offer a logical twist or two. Keeping track of a story sharpens your thinking. Sorting through red herrings and real clues makes you discriminate.
  3.  It widens your world. Trapped in a small suburb, I traveled to the stars, the past, far flung places without ever leaving my couch.
  4. You can try on different occupations. You find out what it is to be a lawyer, a crook, a conman, a detective, a superhero, and a thousand other occupations. Me, I found writing, but I was intrigued by lawyers (talked out of it by my Uncle Lawyer, darn it).
  5. It increases your imagination. This is the elephant in the room, not because it’s hiding but because it’s big! Life is made interesting with an imagination and like anything, it takes exercise to strengthen. Bench press a book! Workout your dreams!

You’ll benefit by reading, a realm of pure imagination. You make the sets, you envision the characters, you direct the action!

I recommend reading widely. By the time I was 14 I’d read thousands of books from dozens of genres. Thousands of comic books, hundreds of non-fiction books, thousands of magazines. I’d read the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, Sun Tzu, even the Peal of Wisdom. I was, unfortunately, stuck reading English, yet loved the plays of the Greeks and even the French. German plays were weird, even in the translations. I can’t help but know things.

I don’t read quite as much as I used to. Barely 24 – 30 novels a year, just a smattering of non-fiction. I admit I love comics, but no way I’ll spend that kind of money of them (thank goodness for libraries). My Kindle has hundreds of books I have yet to read.

And I still live a full life.

Read. It’s good for you. And for authors.