Tag Archives: fiction

Watt a Bargain!

So I joined WattPad and started a project.

I’ll be honest. At first, I was put off by grammar errors and amateur mistakes. Even more, the commenters who gush over the simplest sentences with “I so get u” and “omg this ^^^ right here” and other such text-style feedback.

Then my wife kindly reminded me that everyone’s on a journey to being a better writer, and any mistakes I see now are only because I’ve had quality writer friends supporting and educating me along the way. I’m guilty of some of the same–if not right now, then certainly in the past.

And let’s face it. Feedback is feedback. If a character, quip, or interaction resonates with a reader, I am happy, whether they tell me, “Poignant and touching; Splendid work” or “oh wow sooooo many feels.” Any connection with a reader is a good thing, and the teen fangirl who says “omg” today is the young adult who clicks “buy” on Amazon tomorrow.

The short stories I’ll be posting in “Pieces” aren’t all new. Many appear somewhere on this blog. But I figure WattPad is another avenue to gain a following, and a fun way of doing so. My “Echoes” story (mentioned in a few previous blogs) will be posted entirely to WattPad.

Plus, my wife’s comment reminded me of the point of all this. WattPad is full of unique content and interesting takes on existing material. It’s a bunch of people who are expressing their passion for good characters and stories. Is that what I find valuable? Is that what excites me? Or is it grammatically correct, properly formatted, everything-just-so writing?

No, the point is to have fun and share the experience with others.

So I went ahead and drew an amateur cover for my project, incorporating scenes of most of the various stories into sections of different puzzles. No, it’s not professional quality. No, it’s not what will garner attention.

But I loved the process of expressing myself through a different medium, and I’m having fun with my own amateur mistake.

Here’s the cover to Pieces:

The cover to my short story compilation on WattPad
The cover to my short story compilation on WattPad

I hope you’ll visit me on WattPad, especially if you have an account and post your own work.

Echoes of the Past

Have you ever stopped and considered the “what might have been” options in your life? Those doors once open that now seem so unlikely? Those dreams and lofty goals that too easily find themselves set aside by the mundane demands of the daily grind?

“I want to run a marathon.”

“I plan to travel to Ireland, or Australia, or go backpacking through Tibet.”

“I could write a memoir.”

“I want to be an astronaut.”

I saw a link to a short story contest on my Stateside writers’ group Facebook page, and the urge to participate churned in my brain at once. And the more I thought about potential stories, the more my mind homed in on the concept of our deferred dreams and primary motivations. What are the principle visions of ourselves or beliefs about ourselves that govern so much of what we accept as possible or achievable?

We all have these grand plans and aspirations, but life sometimes buries them deep down beneath the crushing weight of bills, daily chores, menial but tedious work, and mindless entertainment to distract us from the numbing effects of our busy lives. Worse yet, there are “facts” we believe about ourselves that keep us from even attempting to achieve. “I can’t write.” “I’ll never have the time to spend on that.” “No one wants to see what I can create.”

For example, in my teenage years I distinctly remember a comment from my big brother telling me I couldn’t sing well. To be fair, my voice was changing, and everyone has bad days, so maybe his judgment that day was fair. Maybe it was an offhand comment or a big brother picking on little brother moment. He probably wouldn’t remember saying it.

That defined my ability in my head for several years. Rather than sing, I held onto the thought, the belief even, that I really ought not subject others to the sound. I could play piano really well; I should stick with my strengths.

It took a friend’s compliments and encouragement to get me to even try singing a duet with him in public. It took the praise of many members of the congregation to convince me I should keep doing it, and it took some time for me to really believe I could sing capably into a microphone where others would suffer the sound of my voice.

All because of an off-hand comment.

No judgment on my brother, whom I love dearly. I merely bring this up as an example of how easily certain parts of our personality can get crushed by the voices around us.

So my short story is going to be about these Echoes, the “could have beens” and “maybe one days” that all exist within the same jumble of emotions as “this is the best my life will get” and “who am I kidding, I could never…”

What happens to these Echoes when dreams die or when doors of opportunity close? What can motivate a person to change which voices hold sway in their mind?

When one of the Echoes starts to fade into nothingness, she finds a last chance at reshaping her Prime, the mild-mannered cubicle dweller to whom all the Echoes belong. To do it, this Echo has to avoid the judgmental ire of the current Alpha in charge, who is determined to maintain the status quo while enlisting the aid of other weakened dreams and forgotten hopes. Perhaps if enough of them come true, the balance of power can shift. But if not, then all those dreams might be lost forever.

Sound fun? If so, help me out… and maybe you’ll appear as one of the “Echoes” in our cubicle dweller’s head.

How? It’s easy to do, but maybe a little challenging to consider:

Leave a comment with a few of those deferred dreams or “I wish I had” hopes that you think might be clinging desperately to the thought of “maybe one day” in the mind of the cubicle dweller. These could be silly ideas you think a frazzled woman trying to avoid becoming a crazy cat lady might hang on to. Or on a more personal level, these could be your own thoughts of what could have been, wishes you never got the chance to fulfill.

I’d love your input.

Also here’s Shia reminding you to not let your dreams be dreams.

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

It seems inevitable. You work on something for days, weeks, even months. You reach the point where you’re satisfied that this is a good, finished product. You click “Publish” or “Submit” or some equivalent…

…and immediately you notice mistakes. 

 

“Oh no… how did I miss that?!”
 
I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time last year and completed a manuscript of a novel inspired by current events. Then I deployed to the Mid-East for almost four months, with grand intentions of re-reading and revising the draft (as well as finishing my fantasy novel, and starting a futuristic military novel). 

You know what they say about the best laid plans, and this was no exception.

In late May or early June I got the email from the nanowrimo account warning me that I would lose my reward of two free hard copies from CreateSpace if I didn’t use them by the end of June. I refocused my attention on the manuscript and got it ready for public release. I sent the materials into CreateSpace and started working on reformatting the document for the Kindle edition. 

Then I found the issues I wish I noticed sooner: two supporting characters whose plot threads could have been expanded and better resolved. Later feedback revealed an erroneous technical detail about hospital equipment that a little more research might have resolved. And while I got good in-person reviews from a couple first readers, I also learned they had a hard time connecting to the main characters–feeling what the characters felt, sensing their reactions to the various crises in the plot. 

So while I chalk this up as a win, I also have to recognize where I could have done better. 

1. Critique is essential. Bad on me for skipping it, since I wrote a book about this. Other readers see the weaknesses and mistakes I cannot. If I wasn’t going to pay the money for a professional editor, I should have taken the time to solicit some alpha readers’ input. 

2. There are five senses. It’s basic advice but a great reminder. A lot of the description in the novel provided sufficient detail for sight and somewhat for sound. But there are missed moments where taste, touch, and smell could have shined.

3. Plot like a roller coaster. Let the drama rise and fall to create pauses and build tension between rushes of excitement. Perhaps in the interest of trying to create good hooks, my characters go through a never-ending rush of drama, from one crisis to the next. I’m not saying everything should be happy go-lucky, but I could’ve included a few beats of humor or serenity in the midst of the chaos.

4. Good writing outshines wordplay trickery. I went with two characters with the same name as a way of driving home the point that we’re all pretty similar. In retrospect, the confusion that causes for readers doesn’t seem to be worth any supposed payoff. (Critique would have caught this… to her credit, my wife told me this was a problem and I foolishly went along with my grand plan instead.)

5. There’s no rush if you’re self-publishing. I let myself be fooled by the “deadline” of the nanowrimo reward. But that reward only saved me maybe five dollars. On the one hand, it spurred me to finish the project and get it out into the open, which I might not have otherwise done. On the other hand, it created a false sense of urgency that blinded me to some of the areas where I could have written a much better novel. Better to get it right than to regret missed opportunities. Like many things in life, victory in the battle to become a writer goes sometimes not to the swift

Lessons (hopefully) learned. I will do better next time. 

Best Indentions

I should be posting a link to a published novel on CreateSpace right now…

Instead, I’m uploading a revised copy of the manuscript, after which I’ll have to wait (again) for the review process to complete.

Warning signs are usually placed for good reasons...
Warning signs are usually placed for good reasons…

Being this close to putting a novel on the market is exciting and a little nerve-wracking. Like a cold pool on a hot summer day, I just want to dive in and get the initial discomfort over with.

But the very first lesson in my Elements of Critique e-book is about proper format and appearance.

And when I saw a missing paragraph indent on the very first page of the novel, despite a couple thorough reviews, I knew I needed to take another look for more issues.

I fixed three: the original offending indent, a quotation mark all by its lonesome, and an overlooked * * * * * I often use between scenes in my manuscripts.

None of those would have been the end of the world. But I know how easily I become critical of self-published but poorly edited works. I know how distracting a missing punctuation mark or misspelled word can be.

If you’re going to do something, they say, take the time to do it right. No one will care that I had the best intentions to release a proper draft. All they’ll see is the result of my effort. So I need to make sure that the final product is correct.

Plus, when I pause to consider how different this process would be a decade or two ago, I have no reason to complain. Within a day, I’ll have a corrected proof copy ready for me to approve, and the book will be available. I don’t have to wait weeks for a letter from a publishing house, then wait a few more to send back the updated draft, then wait still more for a rough copy…

Yep, I have nothing to complain about.

The book is titled “Not to the Swift,” from a verse in Ecclesiastes that reminds us the victory in a race is not always to the fastest, nor is triumph in battle always to the strongest.

The “race” to publish quality work takes time too, which is frustrating.

But I’ll be happier with the end result, and more importantly, so will the readers.

So… deep breath, sip of coffee, back into the cover selection process…

Considering Why

A blog I follow on writing posted this lovely YouTube video of my favorite author, Brandon Sanderson:

His personal story is compelling to me on several levels.

I’ve said elsewhere on this site that it feels like I do a number of things at the “karaoke” level — well enough that people are impressed, but only when it’s free. Writing is one such endeavor.

Songwriting for Christian worship services is another. I have over a hundred songs inspired by sermons and Scripture over the last seventeen years. Some have been used in church services for a season, many have been files taking up space on a hard drive. Similarly, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words, including two complete novel manuscripts and several short stories. But most of those are (for now) using up cloud storage space and nothing more.

Positive feedback from alpha readers is helpful. But let’s be honest; these are my friends and acquaintances over the years. They’re willing to pick up and read a novel because we already have a connection. I won’t be so lucky with your average reader browsing through a pile of self-published e-books on Amazon.

A friend of mine sent me this picture, which I took as much needed encouragement:  

So… why write? Am I willing to put forth the effort to craft the seven or eight novels bouncing in my head at present, knowing they may do nothing more than collect dust and entertain my kids? Am I willing to pen songs for personal worship knowing they might never be played in a public setting? Am I willing to throw a handful of words onto this webpage and click “Publish” knowing I might never have a bunch of Likes or hits?

Yes. I hope you are too.

Elements of Critique: Unclear

Imagine trying to get anywhere if directions on Google Maps had a “shuffle” setting like an iPod.

“Turn down 10th street then drive 5 miles on Highway 20? How do I get to 10th? I’m still on Washington, I have to get on Highway 20 to even reach 10th.”

Writing is like a road map for the mind. This is particularly true of non-fiction pieces with an academic style. The writer is giving the reader directions to follow the story or topic.

If the reader hits a giant Detour sign and wonders how they arrived at this point, something has become unclear. Good critique looks for lack of clarity in a submission.

Sadly, this is one area where “no news is good news.” It’s more difficult to search for good transitions and sufficient descriptions than to note their absence. I don’t think of all the times I’ve driven home with no delays, but every time road construction blocks my path, I remember it.

I’ll give some examples of what I look for, to ensure my point is clear.

For fiction, this may mean when we encounter whatever weird creative stuff is in the story, the writer needs to provide some additional description or information. The writer knows the world and can picture all the details of setting. Significant thought has gone into the backstory of each character, giving them real motivations and reasonable goals. The writer understands the rules of the society or culture and how those impact the scene.

The reader knows none of that until it’s put onto the page in a way the reader can understand.

Any time the writing slams the brakes on my reading and makes me ask what’s happening, I note that reaction in critique. That’s not what we want for our eventual readers, so it deserves the writer’s attention.

Similarly, with non-fiction, if the topic is unfamiliar or the knowledge presented is obscure, more description or background may be necessary. That will depend on the purpose of the writing and the audience for whom it is written.

A pamphlet might cover a problem with a broad brush approach, touching on many things while not going into deep detail. This will differ from a self-help book with entire chapters devoted to each symptom of a problem. A persuasive speech will make its case and potentially overlook the reasonable counter-arguments that might weaken the writing.

The rule of tight writing is to include only what the story or piece needs. Unclear writing might happen with both too much and too little information. It’s hard to define boundaries here. When critiquing, I have to trust my inner reader a bit and go with how a piece feels to me. If nothing else, that might be small feedback that confirms what the writer has heard from others.

Beyond “too little” or “too much,” there’s a bigger issue: a lack of transition.

Whether it’s an action scene, a detective chasing down a lead, or an article giving advice on writing critique, there has to be a sense of following a trail, going down a path, getting to the point. Writing can’t bounce around like a super ball.

When writing jumps from one point to another, that’s a place to highlight for critique.

Try having a conversation with a teenager. Their minds race and their mouths jump from topic to topic without any seeming rhyme or reason.

“I went skating with my friend – no, not Amanda, it was Vickie – hey did you know that Vickie got first place in the band competition? I want to learn to play the flute. Did I tell you about the sleepover tonight? I didn’t? Oh. I need five bucks for a gift for Tiffany. Who’s Tiffany? She’s Johnny’s sister. Who’s Johnny? Ugh… I told you about him last week. Can I go skating tomorrow? I need five bucks for that too.”

There’s a thought process that takes the teen to each of those points. But we can’t see it, so we can’t follow it. The same is true of writers and readers. The reader can only follow what the writer gives them as road signs and directions.

A good transition touches on both what came before and what’s coming next. It connects where we were to where we are now. Crossing that bridge in writing tells the reader the previous point has been made, and it gives them an idea of what’s next.

The purpose of writing is to communicate thought–a multitude of individual thoughts, in fact, arranged neatly in a logical progression into either a story (fiction) or a presentation of facts or opinions (non-fiction).

In critique, when bad directions, detours, and orange cones block the flow of those thoughts, make it clear to the writer. That way, the bad news becomes good news. The error can be fixed, the path smoothed out, so that future readers can take that same road trip and simply enjoy a clear view of the scenery.

Elements of Critique: Show vs. Tell

“You never show me that you love me anymore!”

In some marriages (not mine of course, no, never) the couple sometimes discuss the status of their romance, and the above quote can (in rare cases) spill out into the open.

The man–assuming it’s the man being told this–will probably try to deflect the conversation with, “But I told you I loved you just the other month, and on our anniversary a couple years ago.”

We can safely doubt the success of that argument. Usually the complaint is coupled with examples of actions undone, such as “You don’t bring me flowers,” or “You haven’t done that thing I asked you to do every week for the last six months,” or perhaps “Will you stop typing on that stupid blog for a few minutes and stay awake long enough to have a conversation more than two grunts with me?”

(Note: No specific examples from my experience were utilized in the above paragraph.)

A similar complaint may sometimes arise: “You never tell me that you love me!”

The man being told this, in this case–although again it is wild speculation to assume it’s the man–may resort to defenses such as “But I did X, Y and Z.” In other words, “But I showed you how important you are to me by doing some action.”

Yet sometimes, a person likes to be simply told a thing they need to hear.

While I would never resort to critiquing such marital dysfunction–being far too humble and also unfamiliar with those frustrations common to less blissful pairings–I choose this eminently relatable example to demonstrate today’s topic of Showing vs. Telling.

There’s a simple truth in the above analogy: “Actions speak louder than words.” Most of what we need as readers (and what to look for when critiquing a piece) are the actions characters do which reveal their thoughts, motives, feelings, and goals. The default rule among writers is “Show, Don’t Tell.”

Here’s an example of hyper-telling to drive the point home:

The chill made Jo uncomfortable because it was so cold. Thankfully, she was so mad that she hardly noticed. She was so mad in fact that she was infuriated. There was lots of snow.

This should pain our inner editor to read.

Jo could shiver. Her teeth could chatter. The writer could describe her breath coming out in clouds around her face. Is snow still falling? Could it be?

Jo could clench her fists, or stomp around in the snow. She could mutter an imaginary argument with the object of her anger. Or maybe her thought might show us that she’s ignoring the cold because she’s seething and burning inside.

Any showing is better than the example provided.

Showing lets the reader play amateur psychologist and decipher characters’ personalities from their outward actions. Showing tells the reader what they need to know, without merely telling them a fact like a textbook.

Even my dripping sarcasm in the analogy at the beginning of this post tells the reader something without simply coming out and stating a fact. Humor and sarcasm can be a way of showing. (Warning: I do not recommend this method during arguments like those in the opening analogy.)

The default rule is correct. I look for writing that shows exceptionally well, and highlight that for praise. I also look for writing that merely tells when showing would better support the story and invest me in the characters. That I highlight for rewriting with a suggestion or example.

However, “Show, Don’t Tell” is only the default rule. There are always exceptions. First, some things aren’t important enough to the story or to establishing the scene to merit showing. Second, when dealing with anything supernatural or out of the ordinary expected experience of a reader, some telling is merited.

In fantasy and sci-fi, for example, a character may use technology or special powers unique to the story world and thus unfamiliar to the reader. A good way of doing this is to adjust the rule and play Show and Tell. The reader gets a description of what this mysterious thing looks like or what happens when it is used, and then they get a snippet of information about it.

Something similar applies to unfamiliar concepts in other writing. A religious piece might need to explain some of the theology or background information supporting the provided description. A non-fiction piece might relate the unknown new to something the average reader would understand.

Whle this is “telling” and thus arguably forbidden, it helps ground the reader in the reality of the setting. When I critique and find myself reading a showy description that leaves me clueless about what just happened, that’s something to note for the writer’s attention and revision. Likewise, when I find a useful tidbit of telling coupled with showing, I try to highlight that and praise the writer’s effort.

Because, as always, critiquing is about building up more skillful and confident writers. A thorough critique doesn’t just tell them “Good job.” It shows them what works, what doesn’t, and where to go from there.

Where are we going from here on the A to Z blog challenge? Well, I feel like a Time Lord writing this, but tomorrow in the future, we get to visit the present and the past. Grab your sonic screwdriver and charge up the flux capacitor. Get in your T.A.R.D.I.S. or deLorean, because things are going to get tense.

Elements of Critique: Repetition

While going through this A to Z challenge, I’ve had to check my list often to make sure I haven’t written about something too similar to each new day’s post. When I originally organized the list, I ran into a couple topics that were almost repeats of another day. No reader is going to want to read the same thing a week later. We pick up on overused words and subjects. We notice when the writer is saying something they’ve already said.

That’s why I look for repetition when critiquing a piece of writing.

Repetition and overuse draw attention to the writing instead of keeping it on the story. Our writing is like a camera lens by which the reader can see the world we set before them. Repetition (like many other mistakes) is a smudge on the lens itself. We fix our eyes on the dirt as we read, and the image of the story behind it is obscured.

Consider these fairly egregious examples, and note that rarely is this issue so obvious:

He faced her and she noted his long face with a nose that jutted out of his face.

Flaming arrows rained down like flaming shooting stars, blanketing the area with flames.

Any time the same word is used twice in the same sentence, I want to rewrite it. With certain nouns (names, terms related to the topic at hand), this might be unavoidable. But when a descriptor is given twice in a paragraph, it feels like too much to me.

Sometimes the repetition is a character’s action or response to a situation:

“She cocked her head” (after having done so twice in as many pages).
“He furrowed his brow” (again, for the fifth time this chapter).
“She bit her lip” (as she always does in literally every tense situation in the book).

Reading out loud helps me catch some of these in my own work. “She cocked her head… wait, I just read that a few lines ago…”

The thesaurus can help here, so long as the selected replacements fit.

There’s one more area to watch out for, especially for fiction: the start of paragraphs. When a section involves a lot of action on the part of a character, the proper name or appropriate pronoun may find its way to the beginning of several sentences and paragraphs without the writer’s notice.

Lyllithe turned and faced her accuser… followed by a few sentences showing impending conflict.
Lyllithe ducked under his attack and sprang for the door… then some fight scene excitement for a couple lines.
Lyllithe slammed the crossbar down and felt the thump of his body when it hit… and this would make three in a row.

“She she she” can happen just as easily, and also occurs within individual paragraphs. For first person, the danger is compounded since there’s no real need for the POV character’s name. Thus we might see, “I this, I that, I some other thing.”

In writing clear, active sentences, we’ll see a lot of them start with a character’s name or a pronoun. That’s unavoidable.

The only cure for this I am aware of is rewriting to mix in description, dialogue, or POV character thoughts. Try anything to break up the monotony.

The one feeling we’re not trying to create in the reader is a sense of déjà vu.

Elements of Critique: Background

As part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge of 2014, I am posting every day in April on topics arranged alphabetically. My theme for this year is Elements of Critique.

That’s all the background information I need to convey.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, one of the aspects of writing that can trip us up is the background. If we give too much time to it, we end up boring the reader or distracting them from the present story we’re telling. If we give too little, the reader may have no context or understanding why the story we’re telling matters.

For example, in a historical fiction piece or nonfiction article about a battle in World War II, a writer might feel the reader needs to know a chain of events that led up to this moment. So the writer starts the story or account with long paragraphs documenting the war effort up to that point, explaining the strategic importance of different battles, and detailing various troop movements around the war zone.

Yawn. Who ordered the history textbook?

It’s even worse in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, where the writer feels like the reader has to know all about this exciting world the writer created. So the first few pages get filled with pretend history about a bunch of events the reader has no connection to or concern for.

In a fantasy or sci-fi setting, there’s a temptation to detail exactly how some special magic system or technology works. Action is taking place, and then the main character declares, “Activate the photon emitter.” And then the reader is treated to three paragraphs of pseudo-science jargon about how the device works.

Background is important to include sparingly, like a favorite seasoning on a steak. Sprinkle; don’t pour. I should be able to bite into the meat of a story or nonfiction account and taste the flavor of the setting as I chew on the action taking place.

Conversely, be sure to sprinkle in the background details here and there. As a reader, I need to know something about the situation, some details about how a fictional society operates, perhaps a snippet of explanation showing how these events in nonfiction came about.

Back to the steak analogy, I don’t want a bland hunk of meat.

The trick is to reveal small background elements intermittently, keeping the reader grounded in the setting. And it helps, where we can, to show the reader what that element looks like in some way.

Here’s a few examples:

If a battle left a mark on a character, show a scar or better yet, an emotional episode. In nonfiction, if the battle made a significant impact on the war effort or on the current action, briefly point to what might have been different without that previous event.

In modern fiction or a personal nonfiction account, a character might have memories or make references to events that shaped their relationship to another. Used appropriately, these become a breadcrumb trail of sorts, luring your reader deeper and deeper into the world as they try to discover what happened.

In fantasy/sci-fi, it’s far better to show me what magic looks like in action than to lay out the elaborate system of rules. Maybe you have an elaborate system worked out. That’s great. You as the writer need to know that to stay consistent. But I as the reader only need to see what’s going on, and get tidbits of information (in dialogue or action preferably) about that system.

Done properly, background information is there to make sure I as a reader know why I care about what’s going on now, without being so overwhelmed that I no longer care about what’s going on at all.

Any time it’s used, simply ask, “Does the reader need to know this? If so, is there a way I can show it?”

Tomorrow, I’ll write about what makes a good critique good: staying constructive.

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