Tag Archives: storytelling

Writing for Non-Writers

Last week, I facilitated a discussion on Writing for Non-Writers as part of our base library’s summer reading program. Our librarian knew I had been published in a couple editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul and thought I might have a few lessons learned or tips for folks who would never call themselves writers, but might have interesting stories to tell. Thanks to a few eager participants, we enjoyed an energetic discussion and exercised our creative muscles.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

(Quote boxes are composed of inputs others offered as we discussed the topic.)

Intro: You may not feel like a writer, but chances are you’re a story-teller. Story is the vehicle for how we communicate our lives and share our experiences with one another. What if you put some of those stories in writing instead of merely sharing them in person?

Q: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT STORIES?

“Stories validate you and help you connect. Our stories can help others find their way or enjoy new experiences.”

Power of Story: We process random circumstance into narratives. We tell people stories about ourselves and create stories to explain life. It’s why conspiracy theories have so much strength.

“You wouldn’t believe what I saw the other day…”  Yeah? Tell me about it. “So there I was, minding my own business, nursing my cup of coffee, when this crazy guy comes in…”

“I have to tell you about my trip to the store, oh my gosh—UNBELIEVABLE!” But it’s totally believable, depending on the skill or the passion of the story-teller. We expect a hilarious and unexpected ride on the struggle bus… so we lean forward, smile, and wait for the laughs.

Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY BAD?

Not tragic / dark, but “turn off Netflix / put the book in the bin” bad?

“A story is bad when there’s too much or too little detail. If it’s too complex, with pages of description…  and on the other hand, if there’s not enough information, it’s hard to relate.”

Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD?

“When we can see it happen, when we feel the buildup and climax, when we can apply our story to the story or feel ourselves being IN the story.”

Does a good story mean having an interesting character? Often, WE are the characters; we can’t help if we’re interesting or not.

What about an interesting event? Not necessarily; a good story can be about a mundane event told in an interesting way.

How about a relatable event? At the very least, something that connects to the specific message or point, like an analogy.

Good stories often show how someone grew or changed as a result.

Interesting telling. No rambling, side jaunts, or rabbit trails. Stories usually have direction and purpose. Think of a testimony at church, or a blog post with a life lesson. These often have a three-part structure:

  1. How things were (I didn’t think of myself as creative, or worth listening to)
  2. What happened (I met some folks who showed me how to write well)
  3. How things changed (I ended up submitting to Chicken Soup and got published!)

Tell it with your voice. Write what you might speak. How would you tell a friend? Tell that same story to the paper or screen.

“You can always revise! It might be trash but it can become better.”

Q: HOW MUCH DETAIL IS TOO MUCH?

Have you ever asked a kid to tell you a scene in a movie?

“So the bad guy did this, but then the hero came in, but wait–so before that, there was this one guy, and he said to the lady–um, she is the friend of this other dude who shows up at the beginning of the movie but then the shark eats him–the shark is the one from the aquarium but it got out because the bad guy opened up the doors on the tank so that he could–wait, so there is this secret message…”

“What is relevant to the story? That’s all you need.” 

Concrete = convincing… to a point.

Which sounds better?

“A hot cup of coffee” or “a steaming cup of Sumatra dark roast”?

“A Dachshund the color of cinnamon,” or “a brown dog”?

Only the most important adjectives, not all possible descriptors. Convey the point, not the entire movie.

“Seventeen long-forgotten, cheap, thin, old, wet, dog-eared, ink-smudged, blue-and-white-speckled Composition-style notebooks…”

While it paints a clear picture, that might be too much–certainly far more than is necessary unless the story hinges on all those details.

Use all five senses. We focus on the eyes and ears like we’re describing the movie in our heads. We’re used to the cinema, but the world has smells, feelings, textures, tastes…

Someone might say, “Well, I’m not a writer.”

“I’m not going to make up stories and worlds and stuff like that.”

Great!

Q: HAS ANYONE TRIED JOURNALING?

A journal gives us a place for processing the junk in our lives… A chance to be “honest” in a way we may not in public. Pour out the words onto a page and tell it like it is. Keep it private so you can unload and release. If you want to go deeper, try exploring what comes up when you ask yourself a series of “why” questions like a three-year-old.

I feel like they took advantage of me. Why?
Because they didn’t say thank you and that bothers me. Why?
I want to know that what I do has value. Why?
I don’t want to waste my time on things that don’t matter. Why?
I feel like there are too many things I don’t have time for which matter to me, and if I’m wasting my time on people that don’t care about the effort I put in, then I don’t want to do those things…

“A journal is a perfect place for the ‘bad’ emotions – we can vent our hate or anger.”

Q: ANYONE HAVE PERSONAL / FAMILY MEMORIES THEY STRUGGLE TO RECALL?

What about keeping a family journal? How many times have we lost important memories? “Grandad had all these great stories, but I didn’t pay attention back then, and I don’t remember them now…”

We can write down important details to keep for ourselves or pass down to our kids.

Mom? How did you meet Dad?

What was it like before the Internet?

The day I got the good news about…

I remember where I was when…

Kadena AB, 2012
This was a story worth telling.

The day I got an F-15 incentive ride, I went home and wrote down all the details I could in order to capture the memory. I knew I would forget details over the years, even though it’s one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences in my life. (Full disclosure, I actually wrote things down later in the week. That detail doesn’t matter to the story so we can fudge it a bit without losing anything.)

What about hilarious conversations with kids? How about the silly things they say when they first start speaking?

We think we’ll have these moments forever in our minds, but the hard drives in our brains get corrupted and fragmented pretty easily, and time passes quick.

(I made an Avengers: Infinity War reference at the workshop, talking about our memories flaking into ash and fading away… and not one of the participants had seen the movie. What a wasted analogy!!!)

These ideas and writings may not lead to a book deal, but they may prove satisfying in a way we didn’t expect, meeting a need we didn’t realize we had.

EXERCISE

(I put on some soft instrumental music and read the following directions and questions.)

Close your eyes for a minute and think of a happy memory. Relive it for a moment. Pay attention to the details.

Where are you?

What’s happening?

What objects do you see?

Who is with you?

What does it sound like?

What does it smell like?

How do you feel in that moment?

Why is this glimpse so special?

Day Twelve: I’ve Got Options

With the word “dungeons” as a part of literally the name of the game, it’s surprising how easily these can be forgotten. I know that, for me, if my players are going to have to explore one, it needs to matter.

It’s day twelve of 30 Days of D&D, and the topic is Favorite Dungeon Type or Location.

Video games like Skyrim are awesome for the quality of the sandbox the player is placed in. I remember hearing that as soon as you finished the tutorial / intro, you faced an unstated choice:  Follow the road to the next storyline quest location, or wander in whatever direction you liked, exploring the region and its assorted scenic points.

D&D can be like that. Some DMs prepare that way, sprinkling the setting with a whole lot of everything else that’s going on in the world. I think that’s a good component of a game, especially if you’re trying to maintain a sandbox style or at least feel.

At my best, I keep a few of those parts of the world at the ready in a computer file or hard copy folder, just in case the players decide their current plan isn’t as interesting as some bit of news or rumor they hear, or some random clue they find in the wild.

On the one hand, I don’t want them to feel like they’re on rails in any way–“You can only go east because, um… reasons.” Namely, because that’s where the thing I prepared is on the map. (I did have to admit that to a group of players once. Didn’t like it.)

That said, I also don’t mind if they end up mysteriously coming across the orc cave I’ve prepared, regardless of whether they turned north toward the mountains or east into the forest. It feels natural and unexpected, because I haven’t tied myself down to “this dungeon exists at this partiuclar spot, period dot, end of story.”

Even more than location, what matters to me about dungeons is purpose. Every dungeon or mini-dungeon I build is meant to have some kind of meaningful end result.

I don’t remember what, but something powerful and BAD happened at that altar, carving a deep ditch through the stone.

Maybe it’s finding out more information about a bigger threat to the region or discovering an item necessary for the Big Bad’s ultimate evil plan.

Maybe it’s a plot twist or even a low-scale moral conundrum. Those goblins you thought were a threat? They’re actually in trouble, oppressed by the kobolds who moved in with the young dragon they serve, or deceived by their newfound friend, the hag. This sort of thing has led to some great role-playing and even a few recurring NPCs of an unusual variety.

Ancient Ghost
A picture card I made for an ancient ghostly NPC the players had to deal with in order to enter a key structure within a ruined city…

Maybe it’s just some object of great power, the knowledge and details of which have been lost to time. I don’t know why, but I always love the “ruins of the ancient, more advanced civilization” background to a dungeon, with objects that exude strange powers, interact with the players in various ways (usually bad), or reveal secrets about the world on a much larger scale.

I care far less about the location or type than about why it matters for these heroes to stomp through this particular network of tunnels and caverns.

Day Three: Lawful Stupid

Today’s 30 Days of D&D challenge is:

Favorite PC class.

Leaving aside previous editions, 5th Ed already gives a number of strong options. I can see lots of interesting uses for bards (I even had an annoying NPC bard sing a mocking song about the heroes in the party I DM for). Rogues are fun, especially when it’s not the chaotic neutral, steal-everything-in-sight type. Sorcerers bring rolls on the Wild Magic Surge table, making for some cinematic and/or hilarious moments in-game. Warlocks offer so many story-laden options depending on where they get their powers.

Despite all that, I decided upon Paladins as my favorite.

Not exactly a paladin, since this comes from LOTRO… but he looks the part

Those who have played editions prior to 4th coined the phrase “Lawful Stupid” regarding paladins because back then, pallies had to be bastions of virtue and morality… which often turned into some ridiculous moments where a paladin refused to go along with the party’s plan OR engaged in a foolish plan of their own, all because “I have to be Lawful Good or else I lose the source of my power!”

I mean, they DID have a lot of restrictions. From Wikipedia:

Typical tenets of the Paladin code are as follows (though many variants exist):

  • A Paladin must be of Lawful Good alignment.

  • A Paladin may never willfully commit an Evil act.

  • A Paladin cannot associate with any character who persistently commits acts which would cause the Paladin him/herself to Fall – notably Evil creatures.

  • A Paladin must remain truthful and forthright at all times.

  • A Paladin must give fair warning and due quarter to enemies.

  • A Paladin holds stealth, subterfuge, attack from the rear, missile weapons and especially poison as weapons of last resort.

That might lead to conflicts with the rogue, for example:

“Not only will I not slit the sleeping orc’s throat, but I will fight you if you try to do so.”

“Oh by all the gods, who invited this dolt on the quest?”

Now, I admit, there are a lot of storytelling options connected with keeping in good ties with the Divine in order to drop those holy smites on the forces of evil. Players might lose their alignments or their class powers and be forced to make atonement for their evil ways. Or they could just go evil and find… “other” sources of power.

4th Edition said, “Hey, you know what? Evil paladins are a thing.” It makes sense in a way. If the gods can give you holy power, certainly the EVIL gods (or neutral gods) can likewise grant their power to their servants. One of the first players in a campaign I DM’d was a dwarf paladin of nature, and he was awesome.

5th Edition took it further and said, “You know what? Some paladins champion an ideal or virtue. You want to play the brooding edgelord with a past who is out for vengeance? Why not make that your oath which gives you power? You want to play that atheist paladin? Why not?”

Again, the point is broadening the story options, not restricting, so I feel like it works.

On top of that, Mike Mearls (one of the big names in D&D design) put out a video saying that classes like paladin and warlock don’t have to stay on good terms with their power source (divine beings or powerful supernatural entities, respectively), so that does away with much of the “lawful stupid” problem of the past.

This step, I disagree with, as I feel like it divorces the character and their power from the story aspect which explains their existence… but to each table and player their own.

“Do you have a moment to hear about the Dark Lord and his gift for you?”
Totally a paladin, guys… it’s fine.

Since the newer editions opened up more options, I see interesting or compelling story backgrounds that fit the class. It’s a very close competition with some of the others, but if forced to choose only one class, my PC will be a paladin.

Plots and Plans

At our bi-weekly Okinawa Military Community Writers meeting, Kyle led off the discussion with an exercise in developing the main idea of a short story, novella, or book. He posted about this and covered the 5 Ws that can help a writer summarize the story they intend to write.

I hope to build on that here with some additional tools or techniques for devising a plot line. Your mileage may vary, but hopefully one of these options will prove useful.

So you want to write a book…

Anyone setting out to write hopes to create something new and interesting, a unique contribution to their genre–and that’s a noble aspiration, of course. That might make some of these formulaic approaches seem unpalatable.

The thing to remember about a formula is it exists because it works.

Readers expect certain elements in particular genres… and this is not bad. A reader should have a decent idea what to expect based on the cover, back copy, and the first few pages. The tale may be familiar in structure, but unique in the telling, which makes it a fun read.

Deviating from the standard plan can be creative. Deviating too much is detrimental unless you telegraph it from the beginning.
In one of his excellent lectures on writing, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson brings up the example of a fellow writer who got published around the same time as Sanderson’s first book, Elantris. Sanderson’s book sold well and launched his career. The other fellow’s book sold poorly. What started as one type of novel (fantasy coming of age) suddenly became an entirely different book (dark and gritty science fiction) about three-quarters of the way in. Obviously other factors could be at work in this example, but when a book doesn’t deliver on its promise, that turns readers away.

That’s where planning and plotting can help. If we understand the commitment we’re making and the steps we should take in order to fulfill that promise, it’s easy to give readers what they will like.

“But I write free and unrestrained,” one may protest. “An outline or plot is a straitjacket in a padded room, an orange jumpsuit in a prison cell. I won’t go willingly.”

Pantsers (those who write by the seat of the pants) can still find use in these tools and structures. However, instead of using one to start an outline, the pantser can use these to guide the first major revision. If we’ve done our job as writers, the rough first draft will have elements of story and theme and proper flow between events, leading from whatever kicks off the thrill ride to the explosive climax. Figuring out the main structure of a story–even a free-writing journey of creativity–can illuminate what works and what fits, or highlight what should be cut to make the end result leaner and tighter.

Get your writing on LOCK

James Scott Bell writes about the LOCK method in Plot and Structure, among other books. The elements are:

  • Lead – a compelling or interesting character we’re going to care about enough to read through an entire novel.
  • Objective – the important goal or need driving this character into action they might otherwise avoid
  • Confrontation – the opposing forces or agents keeping the Lead from a quick solution
  • Knockout – an unexpected yet exciting ending that wraps up the conflict while blowing the reader’s mind

The stakes in the conflict have to be high–usually involving death. That doesn’t mean the lead or some support character must literally be hanging from a cliff or targeted in a sniper’s scope. Death can be professional (disbarred as a lawyer, kicked out of the military, imprisoned for a crime, or simply shamed and humiliated), or personal (divorced by the spouse they love, abandoned or rejected by their child, trapped forever in regret and frustration at what might have been).

Varying the Variables

A technique I picked up from George Guthridge during a fantasy writing workshop involves sorting out the variables and reasons that sum up the conflict, almost like a math formula.

(Variable 1) (verb phrase) (variable 2) because (reason).

For example, “A hopeless loser gets his life mixed up with his wealthy twin because neither knew the other existed.” So we get all the variations on The Prince and the Pauper, such as Freaky Friday, the Parent Trap, and a number of plots for one-off episodes in cartoons and comedy shows.

The trick here is to ensure that most of the equation involves some new or interesting. One of the variables can be boring–the hopeless loser, for example–but the rest must be exciting for the equation to work.

For example, the hopeless modern-day loser is trained to use magic by an enigmatic centuries-old sorcerer because only together can they close the portal to Hell in the middle of Times Square.

Okay, that’s been done, but the point is only one part of that equation feels like it fits in the mundane everyday world.

Filling Out the Outline

Guthridge also taught a skeletal plot structure that lays out the protagonist’s character arc, around which all the rest of the story will build. Here are the pieces of that framework:

  1. The Protagonist (what’s interesting about him or her?)
  2. Has an emotional / inner problem (what’s the backstory that led to this personal issue?)
  3. But an outside problem arises (what happens that forces the protagonist to face their issue and backstory?)
  4. Protagonist tries a solution that not only fails, but makes things worse (how are the stakes raised as a result?)
  5. Repeat 4 with another failed solution that builds the conflict and deepens the crisis
  6. Repeat 4 if you have space for a third failed solution and the resulting increased tension
  7. Protagonist solves the outer problem (without help from God, luck, friends, family, deus ex machina stuff)…
  8. And in so doing also solves or overcomes their inner problem

This will establish the main thrust of your character’s journey. Plotters can use it to start an outline; pantsers can look for how what they’ve written conforms to this kind of arc and revise accordingly.

Characters Change… Maybe?

Some books and speakers insist that a story is a series of events where characters change. This isn’t always true.

While considering the path a character will take (or has taken in the first draft), it may be that he or she remained firm in their convictions, against all the odds and pressure to change. Some stories are about people whose unwavering beliefs carry them through seemingly insurmountable odds. The tension builds with the increasing temptation to give in, and readers wonder, “Will they break? Will they sell out?” We’re satisfied when they don’t. Think of Captain America in the Avengers movies, who states that sometimes when all the world pushes you to move, you have to stand your ground and say, “No, you move.”

Conversely, plenty of stories involve the transition from an old belief or worldview to a new take on reality. Most “apprentice” novels and coming-of-age stories involve an underdog who becomes a master of their craft while developing the internal confidence to stand up for themselves.

A character may stand firm or change views–then we can reveal if their decision will end well or poorly for them. Maybe it’s a mistake with dire consequences, a cautionary tale. The unwavering person might not be able to survive a changing world (alas, Ned Stark!), and the person shifting their beliefs might live to regret their decision. Either of these can be a satisfying (if not happy) resolution to a character’s arc.

Nothing New Under the Sun

None of these structures or techniques are first-seen, unheard of, unique experimental snowflake novels. They don’t have to be. Everything we do and create is derivative of something we’ve seen or experienced–that’s what makes it relatable. The familiarity of the structure puts readers in a comfortable place, but each writer’s individual twists or combinations of ideas build a fresh experience that keeps the writing from feeling like what we’ve seen before. On top of that, no one tells a story exactly the same way; the use of voice and style in writing puts the spice in the casserole of words that will satisfy a hungry reader.

I hope the tools above and the 5 Ws from Kyle’s post help spur some creative writing. Whether following a recipe is easier, or looking at a picture and winging it is preferred, let’s get cooking and serve up something delicious.

Feedback vs Feel Bad

“Well, I tried to read it, but… sorry, I couldn’t get past the first page.”

If you’ve ever put your creative work out for other to see, you likely did so wincing with trepidation, unsure what to expect.

Do they love it? Do they hate it?

Did he just laugh? At what?

Did she just raise her eyebrows?

Is that interest at a cool turn of phrase, or disgust at some mistake I didn’t catch?

Sometimes the response you get back is empty of value. Other times, it’s thoughtless and crushing.

One of the hardest steps we take as amateur writers is giving others the opportunity to read our work. It feels easier to leave all our poems or stories in files on the computer than to face the judgment we fear.

But unless it’s a private diary or journal, reading is an essential part of the writing process. The audience is the intended recipient of all our word-smithing, and their response is the tool we use to discover what we’re doing well and where we’ve missed the mark.

What if we could witness those important cues and responses in a friendly setting, a “safe space” of sorts? What if we got insight from other writers on a similar journey–people who know not just what we’re going through but how it feels–rather than from “professional readers” whose replies lack technical detail or depth?

Enter the feedback group.

I’ve written about the value of such groups before, so this time, I thought I could show an example of what good feedback looks like:

What He Would Have Wanted–Full Critique

The Word document at that link is a combination of comments and discussion points over aspects of grammar, description, dialogue, and format. I love the comment feature on Word and similar programs for this purpose.

Feedback2.png

Kyle writes epic fantasy, and he also pays great attention to detail. He uses AutoCrit among other programs and services to dig into the weeds on his own writing.

One good example of such detail is that in my original draft, I used “then” 12 times. As an example of the constructive type of feedback, Kyle not only pointed these out but also provided re-writing suggestions for how to avoid them.

Feedback1

Jessica is an avid fantasy reader and helped me see what worked really well in my descriptions.

A newcomer to the group, Natalie mentioned how a portion of dialogue struck her as possibly too modern for the setting.

Judy is a professor at one of the on-base colleges. She saw a lot of meaning in the imagery and word choice that I didn’t anticipate or intend. I can use that feedback to do a better job intentionally incorporating those aspects in future writing.

One point that isn’t captured in the document (because I forgot to add it as a comment): I described Fleuris as having hair the color of carnations… but there are many varieties of carnations. Judy and Kyle assumed red, and Jessica pictured a light pink–which is what I was aiming for. Lesson learned: it’s not a clear description as written.

At the end of the session, Natalie–a newcomer to the group–remarked that the experience was better than she expected or feared. In her career dealing with military writing, she’d seen arguments over whether to use “or” or “and” in order to highlight some meaning in an article. “People spend hours bickering over these minor details,” she said. “I guess I thought it might be like that.”

That fear is common when joining a new community or putting our work out for others to see. But like many things in life, the fear is often far worse than reality.

In a good group, everyone has the same vision of constructive criticism in order to make each other’s work better. In that light, while it may sting a little to realize I’ve made a mistake, I develop from the insight of others and hone my skills for next time.

For anyone wishing to grow as a writer, I can think of no greater resource or method than a solid, constructive feedback group.

Military Community Writers currently meets every two weeks from 10:30 to 12:30 on Saturday at the Kadena Base Library. Our next meeting is July 29th. Got something to share? Come out and take the plunge with the rest of us.

Graphic Subjective Matter

There’s a lot of froth and excitement on the Interwebs about the recent episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which involved a graphic rape scene.

For a number of fans, this crossed a line and forced them to give up the show–a show which up to now has been extensively violent and sexual, with depictions of incest, dismemberment, beheadings, sadism, murder of children, murder of a pregnant woman and her unborn child, and the exploding of a human head with one’s bare hands… to name a few choice subjects.

The series is full of questionable matter, but we all draw our lines in the sand differently.

On the one hand, some question what makes rape any different from the above. The show’s writers are clearly depicting a horrible world in which people with power often abuse those without power, including through sexual assault. The perpetrator is an already-established cruel villain delighted by inflicting pain and stripping his victims of any shred of humanity left to them. Defenders of the show might say this accurately depicts evil, both in the individual perpetrator and in the world at large. This is the grim reality of the world Martin created in the novels and all too often reflective of the world around us. At this point, there’s sort of a sense that “you knew what you were in for when you clicked on this show, and you could turn it off if you really wanted to.”

On the other hand, is a rape scene necessary at all? Or is it a trope and a symptom of lazy writing? Abuse of women is all too common even in our modern “progressive” society, let alone medieval times–something I hope we’d all prefer to see changed. Doesn’t portraying such violence glorify or encourage the act? Is it just a cheap grab at the “feels” of the reader, an easy way to engender compassion or empathy for a character? Does the scene require graphic and detailed explanation? Will this moment serve a purpose? Or is it only there to prove the grittiness of the storyline? Are we pushing an edge to say something meaningful, or simply because there’s an edge to push?

I have to ask, what’s wrong with a simple fade-to-black? When the lovers passionately kiss and start pawing at each other, they can close the bedroom door without showing anything specific, and the meaning of that moment isn’t lost. When the sadistic villain makes obvious threats about what he intends to do with his captive, again, we don’t need to see it take place to guess at what actually takes place between scenes. When the killer is bearing down on his intended victim, we don’t have to see a knife plunge repeatedly into someone’s body to understand the peril of the moment.

I know, that’s a nicety for the prudes and the oddities who don’t want or need to see nudity and blood splashed on every other scene. There’s a reason this particular show plays on HBO and not NBC primetime.

And this leads me to think about writing and storytelling. Whether we’re talking graphic sex, graphic violence, or a combination of the two, I have to ask: What’s the point of it? Is it shock value or storytelling?

I’ve seen the question posed long before this episode of Game of Thrones. And I’ve given it some thought, but only in the distant sense of conjecture. Then I considered my fantasy novel, currently in first-draft form being read by a selection of alpha readers.

There’s a scene early on where the main character is assaulted. When writing, it struck me that rough men willing to murder an innocent and isolated woman would probably also have no qualms about taking advantage of her situation. I don’t provide a heap of details, and the moment “fades to black” before anything graphic takes place. In this case, the desperation she feels in the moment triggers activation of a hidden power as yet undiscovered, which leads to the rest of the events of the book.

One of my friends pointed out that the scene lacks the sense of utter powerlessness and helplessness that would take hold during an actual assault. There’s a sudden crippling realization, I’m told, that nothing you can do is going to stop this from happening.

Maybe that’s part of the fantasy, I guess… that in this one case, someone trapped in such a terrible situation suddenly finds empowerment and escape, and stops the assault before it goes too far.

A mantra I’ve often heard among writers is that “every word has to do double work” meaning every word counts and serves a purpose. There’s no room for bloat and fat. So if we include anything graphic in our creative works, it ought to have a greater point than mere spectacle or sensationalism. We can show how evil respects no boundary formed by civil society; that doesn’t mean we simply violate social bounds to show off.

I’m not sure that’s the guideline the show is following, but it works for me.

I’m curious: what are your thoughts as a reader or viewer regarding graphic violence and sexuality in a written story, movie, or television show?

Finding Voice

You must strive to find your own voice, because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.

– Prof. Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society

In critique groups, writing conference presentations, and books dedicated to the craft, I’ve often seen reference made to “finding your voice.”

Sadly, the description of what that is and instructions on how to do so are all fairly vague–by necessity. Voice is a big part of what sets one author apart from another in writing. But it’s an elusive quality, hard to pin down sometimes, let alone to document in a how-to book. The consensus is, the best way to find it is to write, write, write. And then write some more.

I don’t think I could give a lot of clear, descriptive adjectives about the sound of my wife’s voice. But you can bet I’ll recognize it as soon as I hear it.

One good practice is to look at examples where an author has a particular style that sets them apart. Read how they write, and consider how the word choice and sentence structure create the desired effects.

I somehow missed that Prince Lestat came out at the end of 2013. I picked it up as a travel companion. Very quickly I realized I don’t much care for Anne Rice’s style of writing. In my late teens, I read some of her work and loved it. Now, I deemed it haphazard, a little wordy, with too much rambling for my tastes.

Then again, she’s making money with ease, so who am I to judge? We all like what we like, and she’s clearly got a fan base.

What I did like about the book is that it felt like dropping in on old friends. The chapters written as Lestat sound like that character in my mind… how he would say a thing, how he would interpret events taking place. While I may not like the writing style, the voice shines through.

Another great example is this gem I picked up solely based on a recommendation by Brandon Sanderson in one of his blog posts: The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp.

It’s a madcap adventure through an England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, with an intrusion of magic into the real world. The “voice” Tripp uses for his characters and their descriptions of his world seem effortlessly perfect. Line after line stands crafted to drop the reader squarely into Kit Bristol’s head, with no cracks or flaws in the writing to jar the reader. It is chaotic and quite silly–no serious thinking required here. Therefore, it probably falls in a “love it or hate it” category. But for a light-hearted jaunt, or a mental break from the demands of the real world, the book serves well.

I now can see that’s more likely the result of dedication and hard work than a gift of luck or genius as a writer. And this gives me hope. Because otherwise I’d read something like his work, declare my inability to match such skill, and go play video games for the rest of my days.

Back Where I Started

On a deployment six and a half years ago, to a “secret” undisclosed location in Southwest Asia (that everyone knew all about), I picked up some D&D rulebooks to keep boredom at bay.

I read through the rules of the game, and noted some of the authors’ suggestions for ideas players could use for their characters–or Dungeon Masters could use to write stories those characters could star in, like a Choose Your Own Adventure.

And it struck me that no matter how well I planned a story, real live people would make decisions I didn’t anticipate, causing the Adventure to go in any of several exciting ways–but not the way I first envisioned.

So why not write the story the way I wanted to?

I sat under the Memorial Plaza’s massive double-tent (affectionately referred to by most as “the bra” for how it appears from a distance) or at the Coffee Beanery shop across the street, and I began to write.

I’ve written things before, of course. But during my two trips here several years ago, I decided to take writing seriously. Within a couple years of studying novel writing and elements of style, over the course of six plus months deployed (and time writing at home), I’d typed out over 100,000 words of a massive fantasy tale.

But the material borrowed too heavily from genre tropes. It sounded too much like World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons in novel form. It had no unique element to separate it from the rest of the books on any fantasy shelf, along with too many elements I discovered had been done before and better than anything I’d write.

I decided to shelve the thing until I could devise some fixes to all the problems I saw. And I worked on other projects until I found the solutions to those glaring issues.

I regret that decision. It took me six and a half years to develop the discipline to finish a full novel manuscript–not of this fantasy project, just a novel–because I’d learned to give up part way whenever I felt a project had too many flaws.

So here I sit, where I began years ago, halfway through the almost-completely-rewritten manuscript of my long-planned fantasy novel. A lot has changed. Almost everything about the world, the magic systems, and the long-term plan for the story is different than when I first envisioned it. Also, I’m allowed to sit here in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt instead of wearing Air Force PT gear.

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Most important, I’ve proven to myself through NaNoWriMo that I can finish what I start, flawed or not.

So this time, I will have a completed draft before I depart for home. I may find my way out here again in the next few years, but I don’t want this novel to come with me for a fourth trip.

D&D 5th Ed: A Resurgence of Imagination

I quite possibly squealed with glee when I saw the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook show up at our local base exchange book store. That meant they should carry the other books when those are published.

It's here!
It’s here!

I know there’s Amazon, but I still like picking up a physical thing and looking at it before deciding to plunk down my card or cash.

Some of my best-viewed blog posts are about 5th edition. It’s perhaps a trick of the title I chose; certain kinds of players go looking for ideas on how to build the “best” character to “win” at the game, so they’ll search online to see what combinations and tricks others have found within the rules to make (arguably) overpowered characters.

I suppose it’s the D&D version of human growth hormone, and it’s not banned… just frowned upon by some.

Leaving for a deployment plus NaNoWriMo kept me from focusing on setting up the long-awaited game for my family, let alone an actual group of people. But what D&D 5th Edition is doing well is just that: bringing groups of people back together.

Sure, your tabletop group today might bring along their tablets or iPhones for dice apps and fast tracking of information related to the game. The tabletop might even be virtual.

But people are connecting once again, telling stories together, and exploring that wonderful space between our ears. Some fear that in our digital, always-connected, everything-visualized world, there’s little room for imagination and wonder.

Thankfully I find these fears unfounded. My kids play with Legos and bring me their latest creations constantly. They also play Minecraft on the iPad or Xbox. But again, they often show off their wild palaces, deep caverns, and unique structures. They’re exercising and expressing their imagination with ease.

While I don’t fear for them in this area, I do want to encourage them–and their friends–and create spaces for their minds to play in. Because we have that ability to conceive of things beyond ourselves… beyond even the bounds of what we’ve seen or experienced before… beyond what actually exists and into what could.

Maybe that’s not for everyone. Whether the subject is video games, RPGs, or even TV shows and written fiction, I know I’ve heard the judgmental “I don’t waste my time thinking about things that aren’t real.”

How boring.

This article sums it up really well, even if the URL appears to be about something completely different (and super gross):

The awesome glory that is Dungeons and Dragons

Winner Winner

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

I’m happy to declare that I’ve validated the rough draft of my NaNoWriMo novel, “Not to the Swift,” and have won the event.

More importantly, I’ve actually completed a start-to-finish draft of a novel.

Up to this point, I’ve had outlines and chapters and scenes from multiple works-in-perpetual-progress, but never a finished draft. So the milestone is particularly exciting to me.

I could have uploaded the 50,000+ words my Friday evening, but the goal for me has been to actually get to a point where I could write two important words: The End.

It’s imperfect, no doubt dreadful in some places. There are scenes missing and plot problems I already realize I need to fix.

But for now I will enjoy the sense of victory.

Because if I can finish this one–about an unfamiliar topic in an unfamiliar genre–then I have no excuses for not knocking out the projects I’m really excited about.

No more excuses.