Tag Archives: creative writing

Elements of Critique: Originality

I recall a few conversations with friends that took place after I first started plotting out the idea for my novel. “I have this idea for a character whose nemesis is actually herself, like a split personality.”

“Oh, like in Fight Club?”

I hadn’t seen Fight Club yet.

“Because that’s what they do in Fight Club. You should probably watch or read that.”

I did. I was both entertained and frustrated. I’m a copycat before I’ve even started!

Later, I turned some of my ideas into a story for a role-playing game. When one of the big secrets came to light, one of my players burst out, “Oh! I get it! We’re playing the Serenity campaign now, aren’t we?” Then he laid out the similarities between my story and Whedon’s space-cowboy movie.

“No…” I said defensively.

“Nah, man, it’s cool. I love it. I just realized where I think you got the idea.”

So today, I’m thinking about originality and how it factors into the critique process.

After millennia of human history, there are no truly “new” stories. Look at Campbell’s work with the Monomyth as an example of how often the same elements pop up in the tales we tell. We’re all copycats, to some (significant) degree. So what’s a writer to do?

Develop new takes on old stories.

We borrow from past experiences and insights all the time. These “Elements of Critique” posts, for example, are nothing new. They’re only recounting stuff I’ve read or been told along the way. This stuff is all out there on the Internet or in any of the great books on the craft of writing. There’s nothing original about these topics I’m writing on.

Most sermons on Sunday aren’t anything new either. (The Christian in me says if you’re hearing something truly “new” from the pulpit then maybe that’s a big warning sign that you’re not hearing something true.)

But what preachers do is similar to what I look for when critiquing. They take a point that has been made hundreds of times in the past, and they find a unique way of restating it to catch the audience’s attention.

This is especially true for non-fiction writing pieces. The writer has to find a way to make telling already-known information interesting and original.

In fiction writing, on the other hand, the originality is found in the details, the setting, the ways that common concepts are juxtaposed.

When critiquing fiction, I ask “Is this a new take? Is it stated well enough that it’s unique?” Or more important, if this is the “same-old” coming of age story, is the setting original? What sets this fiction apart from the next book of the same genre?

If I see similarities to something else, it might be helpful to point out, either for comparison or for writer adjustment. If I write a fantasy with dwarves, elves, and Hobbits, someone better let me know that Tolkien already did that, he did it very well thank you, and maybe I should change my project in some significant ways.

The Fight Club reference did that for me.

There’s another aspect of originality to consider. Thanks go out to my wife for pointing this out when we were chatting about what stories catch her attention.

Originality also means it’s not predictable. The actions of the lead character should be creative. The conflicts might be similar to any number of stories, but something about them should stand out as fresh and new to the reader. The resolution or solution to the mystery has to surprise. If the reader sees it coming a mile away, that might put them off.

This is especially true and important to look for in fiction pieces.

In a non-fiction writing, if we’re dealing with common knowledge, it’s going to be difficult to make some dramatically new or surprising point. At best, the analogies and examples might be where a writer can bring out originality in their work.

One of my church’s pastors made the point in a recent sermon that so often what he needs is not new information but reminders of information he already knows.
No one really needs a fitness blog to tell them “eat less, work out more, and you’ll generally see good results.” People in church shouldn’t need a sermon to tell them “Jesus says love one another” as if that’s a new concept. College professors aren’t giving lectures about exciting new concepts; they’re presenting established facts and widely accepted thought about their particular field.

The good ones do it in a way that sticks with us, not because the point is something new, but the presentation is original. That’s what to look for and encourage in someone’s writing.

If we’re all going to be copycats on some level, let’s at least be original about it.

Elements of Critique: Hooks

“It’s only 3 AM. Just one more chapter…”

I can’t count how many times I’ve looked at my watch or the clock in the middle of the night and justified reading the next chapter of a good book. What is it that sucks me in, holding me captive to the storyline?

Or how about the books I pick up at the store? I flip through the first few pages to check them out. What moves me from “Hmm, interesting” to a purchase?

The powerful concept that manages both these experiences is the Hook. And since most of us hope to do more with our writing than file it away in a desk drawer or folder on the computer’s drive, the hook is something I look for when I critique other writing.

A piece should start with a hook. “Why should I read this thing? Why should I care? Get my attention.” I say that, because that’s what an editor is going to be wondering. So if a fiction scene starts off with a long peaceful account of John and Mary’s mundane dinner conversation, or a description of the magnificent table and the sweetness of Grandma Myrtle’s special meatloaf recipe, no one cares.

Ok, the writer obviously cares, and maybe the critique group cares, because we’re friends helping each other out. So I might read that thing.

When daughter Sarah bursts into the dinner screaming “Help! Timmy’s bleeding all over the place. The neighbor’s dog did it!” – well, now it has my attention.

A hook creates questions that demand answers.

How bad is Timmy bleeding?
Was it his fault?
What’s the deal with the neighbor’s dog?
Do these families get along?

Better yet, consider the difference between “It was the neighbor’s dog” and “It was the neighbor’s dog again.” One added word tells some interesting backstory right at the start, creating more questions.

Conflict arises. Curiosity follows.

So the hook belongs as close to the beginning as possible. Depending on the length of a piece, it might go right at the start. A personal story would begin with Sarah’s outburst, then describe the disruption to a peaceful dinner as John and Mary scramble to Timmy’s aid.

The principle is still true even if the subject is nonfiction. A nonfiction article might pose a question or make a statement about the importance of the subject–better yet, suggest what life would be like if things were different. “Were it not for the heroic actions of the 82nd Airborne leading up to Normandy, D-Day might have been the greatest Allied loss of World War II.”

What did the 82nd do?
How did they impact the success of the Normandy invasion?
What might have happened if the Allies failed at Normandy?

Hooks are all about creating and keeping reader interest from the start. The work has to stand out in a heap of other submissions, blog posts, and manuscripts in someone’s inbox. So I look for something that grabs my attention near the beginning. Because if I’m not that interested when I’m reading something for a friend, no one will pay attention when it’s merely a matter of impersonal business.

In my post on “endings” I mentioned chapters in a novel needing some resolution to the scene they present. Sometimes a break from the urgency of events in the story might be nice, so there are certainly places where a calm ending is appropriate.

However, chapters should rarely end with a sense of satisfaction that lets a reader put in a bookmark for later. When dealing with longer works, a hook usually belongs at the end, in addition to the resolution of that scene.

The hook serves the same function here: it creates questions that have to be answered. But in this case, the answer is in the next chapter, and the reader dutifully turns the page, ignoring the clock.

When the hero develops an unspecified plan to defeat the villain, or when a third mysterious party arrives in the middle of a pitched battle, that’s a hook. When a character makes a decision to interfere in an upcoming event, or someone receives tragic news that makes them scream or clutch at the letter, that creates questions. The hero leaps into the fray even though he knows he cannot possibly win the battle. The heroine torn between two mutually exclusive choices realizes which one means the most to her, and moves into action to save that part of her life, at the cost of the other.

These questions have to remain largely unanswered at the end of a chapter, to create a demand for “What’s going to happen next?”

If I’m critiquing a chapter of someone’s project, if I don’t feel that drive, then I’ve identified a potential problem they’ll want to address before their work gets to the hands of an editor.

Otherwise what happens next is potentially a rejection slip.

What happens next on this A to Z? I’ll describe looking for writing that creates and maintains intensity. The first page and the last page matter, but so do the pages in the middle.

Grinding Gears

This morning I forced myself out of bed to honor a commitment.

My swollen Frankenstein foot is healing. I’m attending physical therapy sessions to strengthen it. But my whole body needs exercise. My speed has to improve, and my waistline must shrink so I can pass a fitness test.

Time to move.

The first hundred feet powerwalking feel like running a motor with no oil. Like trying to get my tires out of mud or gravel, and they’re spinning with no traction.

It’s like my old 10-speed after a long winter. I’d pull it out of the garage once the snow melted, and spray WD-40 over the chain and gears. But it still took a few minutes of pedaling to shake everything loose. Grinding metal. Sudden jolts as the chain stuck and snapped loose. Frequent rattling. Then finally, it became reliable.

Even then, when I shifted speeds, the chain would sometimes slip off. I’d have to stop, put it back together, get the chain back on track, and start up again.

Effort is the oil in the engine of greatness.

The Chinese understand this. Their word for “to add oil; lubricate” ( 加油 / jia you, pronouced “jah yo”) has the figurative meaning of increasing effort, pushing harder, stepping on the gas.

With this foot, I’m never going to be a marathon runner. I’ll probably never sprint very fast. I won’t be an awesome basketball player.

But I will regain and surpass the speed I once could achieve on this foot. And I will be able to shoot hoops with my daughter again. And who knows, maybe even I’ll go back to running a fitness test instead of merely walking.

Because I will wake up on cold mornings, spray some “oil” on that ankle, suck it up, and start walking. I will get on the bike, strap my feet in, and turn up the resistance. And when it gets easy, I’ll add another level or two.

What matters isn’t where you’re at now. Where you were before doesn’t matter either. What matters is where you’re headed, and what you’re willing to do to get there.

Writing–really, any creative effort–is similar. I used to say writing was a hobby. But I’ve put in effort and study to improve my craft. I keep doing so. I call myself a writer, because writing is what I do, what I will continue to do.

In fact, I call myself author, because I’ve written numerous short stories and devotionals. I’ve put over a hundred thousand words into a manuscript and I have composed over 150 songs. Maybe soon I will self-publish. With some hope, maybe I will one day have work printed in a publication or published by a professional company.

All I know is that today I will sit down at the keyboard and turn words into sentences, phrases into paragraphs, passages into chapters. Then I’ll edit and revise until it’s the strongest work I can produce today.

And I won’t be content with that, so I’ll make myself do better tomorrow.

I’m not saying I’m great. I’m saying I’m not satisfied.

What commitment to yourself are you going to honor today?

Artful Inspiration: Trying Out Storybird

My writers’ group recently posted a link to Storybird and asked if anyone had tried the service.

I hadn’t, but I volunteered to be the creative guinea pig.

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Storybird is a site full of artwork meant to inspire creative writing, both poems and prose. The idea is that you find a piece or series of art that spurs your imagination, and then you write or “unlock” the story contained within the pictures.

It’s meant to reverse the usual process, where a writer has a story to tell and then scrounges around for the right picture to match it.

I tried to do all this on my iPad since my laptop hard drive perished. That decision led to some frustration.

First I explored the site a bit. They have some highlighted submissions from their users, akin to WordPress with the Freshly Pressed. Everything is broken up into genres and categories, and almost everything is tagged for searching.

When you pick a story, you get a flipbook on iPad with pages that turn with a swipe of the finger. On my wife’s PC, she got arrows to turn pages.

When you pick a piece of art, you can learn about the artist and see the rest of their portfolio on the site. This becomes useful when looking for a consistent style of art for a project.

I admit, the grammar nazi in me rose up at the spelling errors and bad grammar in some of the “new and noted” highlighted pieces. But I realize the point is creativity and free expression, not necessarily perfection.

I also found it interesting that everything is moderated. When you publish a story or poem, it gets reviewed before being submitted into the public library. This helps ensure a certain level of propriety and minimizes mean content. Or at least that’s the stated reason behind it.

Signing up is easy and free. There are various accounts based on how you’d like to use the site. Teachers and students can use it for assignments. There are options for professional writers and artists. There’s a “parent” option as well, though I didn’t search to find out exactly what that does.

I chose “regular” as a safe starting point.

I was quickly hit with prompts to upgrade to a premium membership. If you want options for themes and layouts, if you want faster moderation, if you want varied options for responding to people’s projects, then you’ll need an upgrade. It’s $3.99 a month, or $2.99 a month if you pay for a full year.

I held firm to my free membership, and started searching through art. Once I found a picture I wanted, I hit the “Use This Art” button, selected story instead of poem, and found myself at the creative desktop.

I got the picture I wanted, and a set of other pictures by the same artist in the same theme. Then it got difficult.

I had an idea for where I wanted to go, but I was limited by the pictures I started with. Once you choose a set of art, you can’t go back and search for more. The stated reason is this will help you focus on writing the story you unlocked in the picture, instead of looking for just-right pictures to match your already-written story.

Well that didn’t work for me!

I backed up and searched for art in some themes, but it took a while to find a set that had all the pieces I wanted. I ended up with a set of 302 pictures to wade through in order to find perhaps 20 that matched my intent.

They warn users that if you do it the way I did, you will probably be frustrated. They were right.

Now I had the set I wanted… all 300+ pictures loaded into the workspace. I shifted some around, sorted through all of them, and set aside the ones I planned to use.

Then I had to hit refresh, and I lost all that sorting effort.

I had to refresh because my browser became another source of frustration. I used Safari on the iPad at first… but the menu in the workspace kept disappearing. I would have to update a bit, then refresh after waiting around long enough for the project to autosave.

Unsatisfied with that, I tried Chrome. Same result at first, but then I saw the option under Chrome’s menu to “request desktop site.” That made the workspace function properly, and I was able to complete my project.

With all the lost effort due to browser issues and the process of figuring out how to get a selection of artwork that I wanted, not to mention the actual writing, it took me about three or four hours to produce my first effort.

It’s called Not In a Nice Way and it’s a love story of sorts.

Was it worth the effort? Sure. Storybird seems like an interesting way to get creative, something nice to take a break from my usual projects. For someone who writes children’s books, it might be very useful. And it seems like a fun community of people, although I think they’re a little too flattering with their comments on silly or sub-standard work.

At the free price, it’s worth a try.

But a monthly subscription? That remains to be seen.

Give it a shot. If you create a project, post it in a comment. I’d love to see how others use the site. And let me know what you think of “Not In A Nice Way” too.

Story Excerpts

Dear readers,

I greatly appreciate the attention you’ve given the various rants and ramblings on my page.

We all have dreams that drive us to do something more. I think there’s a wide range of intensity to those drives, from

Gee, it would be nice to…  to I really want to… to the “Bucket List” style I will do this before I die.

For example, I started playing piano when I was five years old. I took eight years of lessons, and then stopped because I wouldn’t practice anything unless I wanted to learn the song. “Bach? No. Guns ‘n’ Roses November Rain? Sure!”

In 1998, a friend urged me to start writing songs for church. “Not me,” I protested. “I can’t do that.”  I barely believed I could even sing in public.

“Be it unto you according to your faith,” he challenged, referring to Scripture. “Little faith, you reap little. Big faith, you reap big.”

That afternoon, I went to church early, before the worship team practice, and sat down at the piano. Okay, God, I prayed. If this is really something for me, then fine. I want to do it. Whatever You have for me to do with this ability, I want to do it.

Essentially, it was a Gee, it would be nice.

I wrote four songs that afternoon.

Nothing tremendous or breath-taking or #1 hit on the Billboard charts or anything. But it was something new for me, and a confirmation that there was something more worth pursuing.

Since then, I’ve written over 100 songs. Many of them have been for use in whichever local church my wife and I were attending at the time, related to the messages the pastors preached. Again, no chart-toppers or big concerts or anything. But there’s a gift there, and I know the purpose for it.

Now I come to writing. I love writing, but never would have presumed I had something that would interest a wide audience. And yet I have ideas bouncing around in my head, story lines that beg to be told. They started out as campaign ideas for a tabletop role-playing game group, and have grown and evolved over the last five years.

I’d like to start sharing them with you all.

If you like what you see, tell me so. If parts seem unclear or poorly structured, let me know. I can only get better with feedback.

I hope to make this a weekly post for a little while, to see how it goes. I’ll be presenting three story lines for now.

Worldmender – In a land broken and scarred by ages of war and misused magic, a slave and a runaway aristocrat try to repair the damage, one twisted site at a time. Their unique gifts grant them ever-increasing favor and fame, until they meet the legendary King whose bold plan might set everything right again… or destroy all they have worked to achieve.

Walking Death – During the last days of the greatest empire in history, a remorseless assassin is filled with unexpected doubts. Forced to question all she knows about herself, her powers, and her masters, she searches for answers and does not like what she finds. On the run from former targets, employers, the organized rebellion, the whispers of Deceit, and the full resources of the Emperor, even the shadows she calls home are no refuge.

Prophecy of Cora – Five reluctant but competent adventurers accept the call of the Lord Mayor of Aulivar to form a swift-strike special tactics unit. When their first real mission proves far more challenging than expected, they must determine which is the greater danger: their external foes, or their internal struggles. The truth has a way of rising to the surface, even the secret sins of the distant past.

I look forward to sharing these worlds with you.