Rolling the Dice and Creating Chaos

predictable plot.jpgHow many books have you read where you can guess exactly what is going to happen to the characters?  I know as a reader and editor I’ve been through a few.  It’s not that the characters are bad; they just don’t follow Murphy’s Law.  I get it.  Your character is the fastest gun in the land.  He/she can outdraw and outshoot anyone.  That can get pretty boring.  Or, you have to create insanely elaborate situations for them to navigate to challenge their prowess and entertain the mob (your readers).  Here’s an idea, instead of writing what should happen, leave it to fate.

This concept is pulled from the Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) realm.  For those of you who aren’t giant nerds like me, D&D is basically a game where one person creates a story and friends come and navigate it.  Each role-player has a character they created and they use dice to determine the effectiveness of their characters actions throughout the story.

The transition into using this in your own writing is simple.  Roll a die and let that determine how effective your character is at dealing with a situation. After all, even the fastest shooter in the world is still impacted by luck.

dice.jpgTake a die.  It can be a six-sided die like you find in a board game, or go to a hobby shop and grab a 20-sided one.  If you roll a one, that’s the worst possible thing that could happen.  If you roll a six (or twenty if you are using the 20-sided beauty) that’s the best outcome that could happen.

Here’s the application.  Let’s use my own character, Drake Nelson, from my upcoming book Wastelander: The Drake Legacy.  Drake is chilling out in a settlement and needs to go to the bar to quench his thirst.  He walks in.  Sitting at a table is notorious bad guy #3.  Notorious bad guy #3 smacks women around, steals milk from babies, and once killed a man for his horse only to let it run off into the sunset for dramatic effect.  Drake looks up at me and I know—notorious bad guy #3 must die.

Now Drake has ninja speed with his pistol.  If I stuck with his character blueprint, this would be an easy confrontation for him.  Especially because bad guy #3 is just a lousy thief, not an experienced gunfighter/renegade maverick like Drake.  So instead of sticking with the boring, I let the dice decide.

Critical Hit.JPGIf I roll a high number, the normal thing would happen.  Drake doesn’t say anything, he simply shoots the man in the face and notorious bad guy #3 falls backwards out of his chair.  Everyone in the bar cheers.  Women throw panties at him.  The bartender pours him a drink.  It’s kind of funny, but it’s also kind of boring.

If I roll a middle number, it can go either way.  Drake pulls the pistol from his hip.  The iron sights flash into focus for a millisecond and he begins applying tension to the trigger.  The town drunk, Steve (it always has to be Steve doesn’t it), stumbles into the bar and bumps Drake in the back as the gun recoils.  The bullet punches a hole in the ceiling and chunks of plaster land on notorious bad guy #3’s head.

Critical Fail.JPGIf I roll a low number, (say a one) that would be a critical fail. Drake doesn’t just fail, he fails miserably.  Drake grips his pistol and pulls it from the holster.  His hand moves so fast it’s a blur of black and silver.  Unfortunately, a bird had shit on his pistol handle earlier.  The feathered feces is still glistening and fresh. The slickness causes the pistol to fly from his hand.  It sails across the bar and smacks the unaware bartender in the forehead. Worse, the bartender is the mayor’s brother.  Now Drake has revealed his intention to notorious bad guy #3, disarmed himself, and assaulted the mayors brother.

Try it out for yourself.  Mix a little luck and chaos into your writing.  While I obviously don’t recommend you use this to drive all action (or even major plot points), it is a fun way to create an unexpected turn.  It’s especially useful if you aren’t entirely sure how your character is going to deal with a situation and your writing is stalling because of it.  This tool allows you to write some potential outcomes and if you feel they are lackluster, blame the dice and bad luck.

question-markIf you give it a try, let me know how it goes.  It usually is amusing to say the least.  That’s it for today.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Writing a Monster into Existence

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[Editor’s Note]

The QE household has prepared itself for the onslaught of sugar-craving children.  I figured today (Halloween) would be a great day to repost an older blog about monsters to free me up for pumpkin carving and other fun things.  Since writing this post, I purchased Cryptozoology A to Z, by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark (thanks to a suggestion offered by Dillon, over at From Rad to Dad). It’s a very organized glimpse into the monsters of all shapes and sizes.

While I love reading most genres, few things give me more pleasure than reading about monsters chowing down on unfortunate locals.  It can be zombies, aliens, rodents of unusual size,  or anything else you can think of.  I enjoy it even more when the writer creates a new beast for me to add to my bestiary archives.

I‘m currently working with a couple writers who both have monsters in their books.  The human chomping freaks are terrifying and enjoyable to learn about.  One issue we have been sorting out together is how they can describe the monsters clearly.

This lack of description becomes a larger issue when you have spawned a new breed of monster.  When you say dragon, I know what you are talking about.  At the very least, I have an idea of what you are talking about.  But if you go springing an ancient force hell bent on sucking out my eyes and using my spine as a fiddle bow, then I need to some details.

writing monsters.jpgI recently snagged Philip Athans’ book, Writing Monsters, to help me find some creative solutions to provide.  By recently, I mean it came in the mail yesterday.  I sat down to read with a highlighter in hand and a notepad ready to jot down ideas.  My plan was to pull all the pertinent information from the book and compile a list the writers could use to beef up their monster description.  I hit page eight, and bang, there was a goldmine.

Athan had created a template called, “The Monster Creation Form.”  I’m not going to reproduce that simple, but genius, form here.  I think that level of borrowing would border on copyright infringement.  It did get me thinking about a similar form I used to play with a lot – a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) character sheet.  I’ve done a blog post on character sheets before, which has examples.  You can check that out here.  If your monster is quasi-human, you might be able to use one of the templates I provided there.

monster manual.jpgI also ordered the D&D Monster Manual (the version I linked).  I could remember a younger version of me flipping through one of these and marveling at both the written descriptions, variety, and artwork.  I figured the older version of me could use another point of reference.

After the euphoria of my Amazon impulse buy wore off, I began searching for D&D type templates to build monsters.  After some internet scouring I ended up right back here on WordPress.  I found a blogger, OldDungeonMaster, who has a literary ton of great D&D related materials.  One such item was a monster sheet for a Cranium Rat.  You can look at the image below.  I also linked this image to his/her page so you check out the rest their content (for you aspiring D&D players and Dungeon Masters).

cranium_ratI combined some elements from the monster sheet above, and some elements from Writing Monsters, and created my own Bestiary of Destiny.  You can use this template to sketch out your monster and assign elements.  While I’m no artist, I sometimes find even a crude drawing helps me better understand how something looks.  It helps pull the description out of the creative whirlpool in my head and give it shape.

Bestiary of Destiny

If you click the image it will send you to my Flickr page where I uploaded this image in higher resolution.  Print it in landscape and have some fun.  As with anything I create for the blog, it’s free to share and use for whatever nefarious purpose you have in mind.

 

Many times when I talk to writers about description, they know all the answers.  I’ll say something like, “It was great when Zolgorg the Mighty ate that guy.  What does Zolgorg look like when he eats someone?  Does he tear them in two and go into a blood frenzy, or does he carefully quarter them?”  Usually the writer will launch into a five minute description-fest explaining the ordeal in fine detail.

griffin.jpgWhen they wrote the scene, the information was clear in their head, it just didn’t make it onto the page.  In my own writing, having visual references (like character sheets and templates) reminds me to include those descriptions.  I make sure to stick the papers up on the wall in front of me, or somewhere I can see them.  This way when the time comes for juicy description, a glance at those papers zeroes me in on important descriptive elements.

If you are having issues being consistent with description, or generating a clear picture of what your monster should look like, I encourage you to try this tool.  Worst case scenario is you have a crudely drawn picture, but a clearer mental one.

 

Oftheunicorn.jpgThat’s it for today.  I hope you found some useful tools to create your own monsters here.  I’m sure as I continue reading through Writing Monsters some more nuggets of information will accumulate.  You can look forward to some posts about flesh chewing chinchillas and what not.

Do any of you have effective ways to create new and terrifying monsters?  Or know of good books on crafting monsters?  If you are willing to share I would love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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The Golden Hour: For Writers

golden hour.jpg

Take a basic course in photography and you will likely learn about the Golden Hour.  It’s a special time right after sunrise, or before sunset, when the angle of the sun casts brilliant reddish hues over everything.

I remember my photography instructor gushing about the amazing possibilities this little window of time would provide.  I was attending the Defense Information School at the time learning how to be a Navy journalist.  I recall thinking, “I came to learn how to write, not take pictures of random nonsense!”  My younger self didn’t realize how much photography would grow on me, and it became more than just a part of the job—it was something to fill my free time.

camera-1240219_960_720.jpgSo when people ask me when the best time to write is, I always think of the Golden Hour. While writing is different than photography, they are both art, and they both require the artist to show up.

The thing with the Golden Hour is you can charge your batteries, pack multiple lenses and filters, strap a tripod to your back, and lug it all out to the perfect location, but there is no guarantee you will get a single usable image.  Maybe clouds roll in.  Maybe you just have a bad day and don’t get an interesting angle or inspired shot.  Maybe you just sit there and get lost in the moment and don’t take a single photograph.  But every now and then, as long as you keep trying, you will get that one photo that takes your breath away when you open it up to edit.

Writing is the same way.  While you don’t need to wait for sunrise or sun fall (or lug heavy gear), you still have to be present.  On any given day, you may find inspiration or you may flounder.  Those mental clouds can roll in and ruin even the most perfectly planned day of writing.  If you stay consistent and keep hitting those keys, eventually “it” will happen.  You will have a moment of perfect clarity.  A moment of pristine mental light.  In this Golden Writing Hour (or maybe multiple hours if you’re lucky), all those rough days will be worth it.  The result, well, it might just amaze you more than any photograph could.

The Editor[Editor’s Note]

This is one of the first posts I generated here on QE.  Since then, I’ve taken a book with a handful of chapters and finished it (and edited a couple others).  During that time, there were more cloudy days than golden ones.  The lesson I learned is bounce back.  For me, that’s the ability to forget about a lackluster day and treat a new one with an open mind.

With that being said, when those golden days shined, they changed my book in big ways.  On some of those golden days, I didn’t write within the manuscript at all but simply remapped and re-outlined sections to enhance the story.  I saw additions and concepts that weren’t fully formed solidify.  Honestly, I attribute this to simply being present.

This is why I encourage those I collaborate with to at least take a small amount of time each day and write.  Even if it isn’t to tackle the ever-looming word count, progress comes in different ways.  Sometimes, all it takes is for us to be present and willing.

question-markThat’s it for today!  It’s fun for me to re-read and give some of these older posts a second life, and it’s also interesting to think about where and what past-Corey was doing back then.  Do you have a Golden Hour in your writing life?  Do you have a method you use to help you bounce back from a rough day?  I’d love to talk about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Free Writing: Exploring the Unknown

all work and no play.jpgSit around and talk with enough writers, bloggers, and creative types and eventually someone is going to talk about free writing.  For me, it always conjures up images of Stephen King’s The Shining and the endless iterations of, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Of course, tread in these waters long enough and sooner or later you will be getting drug advice from someone to, “Take your creativity to the next level man.”  Well, I won’t be offering any drug advice today.  Instead, I thought I would talk about two of the most common methods of free writing and give you all some pointers on what to focus on when taking advantage of this great creative tool.

Free writing is basically non-stop writing.  You set a timer, begin handwriting or typing, and do not stop moving your hands/fingers until the timer sounds. You don’t worry about grammar, or spelling, or even if what you are writing makes sense. What this does is connect your minds-eye to your medium and overrides the analytical part of your brain that wants things to be structured and tidy.  Whatever thoughts come into your head go down on the paper or screen unfiltered.

The two most common types of free writing are structured and unstructured.  We’ll begin with the latter.

freewriting meme (template).jpgUnstructured free writing is a way to generate new and fresh ideas.  Maybe you just finished writing your last novel and are sitting down to begin the next. Maybe you are sitting down  to write for the first time ever (good on you). Regardless, the cursor is waiting there, blinking, winking—by God it’s mocking you!  No ideas manage to find their way to your fingers. Don’t freak out, go freestyle!

Set the timer for ten minutes (or whatever time your comfortable with) and just start writing, even if you are simply writing, “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over again.  Write and Revise for Publication, by Jack Smith, explains that,”…even if you keep writing, ‘I can’t think of anything to say,’ over and over, eventually you’ll tire of this and ask why can’t I?  And then let the answer take you to a subject, which will the lead to another subject, and so on” (p. 47-48).  He continues on to say, “Or you might cheat a little and look around and see an object – a tree, anything – and start writing about it.”

Structured free writing allows you to expand or build on an idea you already have.  You have a great idea for a character, plot, world, or conflict; it just doesn’t have any depth yet. Fear not, the solution could be a few minutes away.  The only difference between unstructured and structured is this time you have a jumping-off point. Exactly like in unstructured, you set a timer and begin writing.  Again, don’t worry about spelling or if it’s making sense. Just run with it.  Run with it until your stomach churns and you begin to vomit those words onto paper straight from the creative whirlpool of you mind.

spilled ink.jpgIt’s always easiest to start structured free writing by beginning with a character, conflict, or setting in mind.  The reason for this is simple, for the most part, we enjoy stories because of the characters, conflicts, and settings.  Is it any surprise these things are typically the most enjoyable to write about?

So here’s the premise.  Take the rough image of the character you are thinking about creating, toss them into a situation, set the timer, and see where you two go together. Launch them into space; write their birth; write their death; write about what they do on the toilet; write about what they do between the sheets; write about their awkward teen years; write about that one time they ate a sandwich and got food poisoning—just write.  Set the timer and don’t stop.  

Will you get anything usable from this?  Who knows.  What it is doing is cementing in your mind who your characters are and what they are about.  We all have that friend or family member we know so well we can pretty much guess what they are going to say or do in any given situation.  If we want believable characters, then we should know them just as well (if not better).

Conflicts.  Who doesn’t love a good conflict?  So maybe you have an idea for a conflict and nothing more.  No real characters or setting.  No worries.  Set the timer, start writing about the conflict and don’t stop.

Maybe they are in space/underwater and running out of air?  Maybe they are mortally wounded?  Maybe they are navigating a particularly annoying dinner party and one of the guests is a shape shifting, man stealing, Jezebel?  Who cares?  Pick a route and run with it.  Don’t like it?  Switch.  There are no rules except that you don’t stop.  When the timer is done check out what you have written. Chances are some characters might have wormed their way into existence and some imagery related to setting can be gleaned.

self doubt.jpg

Many times the biggest issue stopping writers is self-doubt and being overly critical.  We all have story to tell that is trapped away in our heads.  Unfortunately, we stress about structure, grammar, and all those details that don’t really matter so much in the creative process (that’s why revision and editors exist).  Free writing is the heart bypass that allows nutrient rich blood to flow through your creative veins.  When you free write, you do so knowing it’s going to be choppy, sloppy, and insane—there’s no fear of judgement.

As this is a repost, I had some excellent input from past comments.  Amanda, at Mind the Dog Writing Blog, was kind enough to recommend the website Life in 10 Minutes.  Taking her suggestion, I visited the page and was greatly impressed with it.  The page has links to workshops and examples of excerpts.  If you wanted to browse some examples of what can be accomplished, this is a solid place to check out.

question markHave any of you had success with free writing?  Have you heard of or developed different methods?  I’d love to hear about it.  It’s always interesting to see what materializes when I use this technique.  If anything, it’s a nice departure from my normal analytical methods.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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The War of Art: Book, Blurb & Collage

War-of-Art-Part-2

This book spot is a bit sentimental for me as it’s the first one I ever posted here on QE.  I’m recycling it because when I initially posted it four months ago I didn’t have much of a following.  On a side note, the image up above (which I talk about in a second) is what inspired me to take select quotes and compile them into collages for this webpage.

Now to the original post…with a couple additions at the end.

I found this beautiful collage while searching for the cover of the book, The War of Art.   Steven Pressfield wrote the book and I’ve found it to be a solid call-to-action type read.  The collage above comes from Sunni Brown, and I linked it to their website.

Sunni Brown, the owner of this image and creator/owner of the linked website, offers some amazing eCourses.  If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to be a creative taker of notes, these courses will be right up your lane.  For me, I find doodling notes really helps cement the concept material in my mind.  It was also the source of much scolding during my younger years.

war of art.jpgBack to the book!  If you were considering snagging The War of Art, I would encourage you to do so.  It’s a look at the struggle writers face as they pit themselves against the many obstacles they encounter.  It also works to highlight what differentiates a wannabe writer from a professional one.

“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t.  When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us.  The Muse takes note of our dedication.  She approves.  We have earned favor in her sight.  When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings.  Ideas come.  Insights accrete” (p. 108).

I don’t know if I believe in the “us versus them” mentality of a writer versus a wannabe writer.  In my opinion, if you are writing, you are a writer.  I don’t care if you never publish a word.  If your words somehow find a way to influence the way a person thinks or feels, that’s worth more than monetary reward.  Heck, if the writing is just for you, you’re still a writer.  After all, this blog isn’t making me rich (unless you count the $2.30 I’ve made from Amazon referrals…cha-ching!), but I sure enjoy sharing insights and collaborating.

[Update] Despite this being a book I read a while ago, it still holds up for me as a book that offered me inspiration.  I remember struggling with aspects of Wastelander: The Drake Legacy, and thinking of passages from this book to help motivate me to finish.

QE from four months ago forgot to mention the premise of the book.  It’s written like a series of letters to a friend.  Each letter addresses a way to fight Resistance (I know Thomas, there’s a purpose for the capitalization though).

To Pressfield, Resistance is basically anything that gets in the way of you completing your work.  Resistance is capitalized because Pressfield works to enforce the idea that distractions and self-doubt are universal forces conspiring against you.  They are the enemy that must be defeated to reach your potential.

The War of Art now lives in my bathroom.  It’s written like a daily devotional, so it really is the perfect bathroom companion.  Plus, with a book, I don’t have to worry about dropping my cell phone in the toilet…not saying that’s ever happened to me.

question-markThat’s it for today.  If you are curious about some of the other writing books I have read, you can check out a listing of them I made by clicking right here.  I’m constantly eating my greens, and I encourage you to do the same.  If you have a book recommendation, I would love to hear about it!  I’m always looking for more books to devour.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Public or Private: Writing & Environment

Many of us have a vision of what a writer should look like.  At least, what they look like while they are working.  Maybe you see a woman in the coffee shop who pounds away on an oldschool, manual typewriter.  Perhaps you envision a man smoking cigarettes, drinking brandy, and clicking away on a computer in a crowded corner of his house surrounded by books and papers.  For some, it could be a cottage overlooking a lake with a sweating glass of sweet tea as a companion (I want that…someday).

man-writing-at-desk

Image courtesy of NY Public Library Digital Collections.  (My favorite place to final public use images.) 

 

Some of these visions are based on real people we have seen become successful. Others are built from what we observe in television and movies, or read about in books.  Ultimately, many of us model our writing environment around these examples.  Just go to the local coffee house to see this in action.

As I have become more serious about my own writing, I’ve been thinking more and more about the space I work in.  What environment best compliments someones ability to be creative and push out words?

Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, offered his opinion:

“The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut.  The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk” (p. 155).

elephant house.jpgOn the flipside, in Marc Shapiro’s book, J.K. Rowling: The Wizard Behind Harry Potter, Rowling is attributed as saying, “Writing and cafés are strongly linked in my brain” (p.77).  This makes sense seeing how her first two Harry Potter books were supposedly written in The Elephant House, a coffee and tea shop in Edinburgh.

From what I’ve found, some people write better while experiencing the world and others write better shut off from it and creating their own.  I feel the takeaway here is the ability to shut, or open, the door.  Whether the door is a heavy physical thing, or a mental one, it’s important to be able to be focus in a way that allows you to create.

In this way, I really do think environment matters  Just take a look at your current projects.  How many words are coming and are you meeting your writing goals?

the-kiss-of-the-museIf your answer is, yes, then you may have just read this whole post for no reason.  But if your answer is, no, have you ever tried changing your environment for a week or two and seeing if those numbers change?  Maybe isolation isn’t your game.  Maybe the muse isn’t interested in co-sharing a room with you.  Sorry.  I doubt it’s personal.  For you public space writers, maybe the muse is too distracted by the hustle and bustle of your surroundings to deal with you.

Whatever your deal is, the end goal should be taking the story marinating in your head and converting it into words on paper.  If something is stopping you from accomplishing this, change it.  If you can’t figure out what “it” is, maybe try a change of scenery and see if this knocks the gears loose.

photo-for-human-legion

That’s me!

For me, I have a study, noise cancelling headphones, and a daily writing schedule.  I could drag my butt in front of the computer and type in my pajamas if I wanted to—especially as a stay-at-home dad and freelancer—but I don’t.  I don’t write or work effectively like this.  If I’m approaching the job of writing half-assed, then I write half-assed.  If I eat, change into “outside people” clothes, and hit the keyboard, the words make their way out easier.  My mind knows it’s time to at least act like I’m a pro.

question-markFake it until you make it I guess.  What’s your daily grind looking like these days?  What environment encourages the best results from you?  Do you know any stories or accounts of authors who thrive in bizarre writing environments?  I’d love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Feature Friday #3 (Bloggers & Books)

feature-friday

Welcome to another Feature Friday!  We’ve survived another week.  Today we’ll cast a blazing inferno on some bloggers who are consistently generating insightful posts about the written word.  I try to dedicate time to broadening my understanding of the craft, and these folks seem to deliver on a regular basis.  I’ll also be compiling the books I used to generate my blog posts this week into a one-stop-shop.

spotlight-facing-rightThe first blogger I want to talk about is QuestingAuthor.  Not only is this a blogger who offers great comments on my page (thanks!), but this blogger also writes a variety of really enjoyable content.  If you scroll down to the bottom of their page, you will see all kinds of info-rich categories that include things like writing advice, processes, analysis, and inspiration (to just name a few).

The post that prompted me to reach out and share the love is called, Three Tips to Spice Up that Fight Scene.  I know many writers struggle with writing believable fights scenes, and this post offers some enjoyable advice.  Not to mention Final Fantasy was used as an example (which is a win in my nerd book).

spotlight-facing-rightThe second blogger I wanted to give a shout out to is Andrew, over at The Idiot In Tin Foil.  Some of you have mentioned how impressive it is that I generate a post each day, well, Andrew writes enjoyable short stories every day.  The last time I stopped in, he was on Day 161 of his 642 day challenge.  You heard me right.  For me, Andrew serves as a source of inspiration.  Plus, his short stories are a lot of fun to read.

While I don’t have a specific short story to point you all toward, Andrew has taken the time to categorize his content.  You will find short stories that creatively explore the following: violence & murder, sky pirates, the supernatural, superpowers, the bleak wasteland, and many, many more.  When I feel my creative well getting dry, I look at Andrews page and say, “If he can write an entire short story every day for 160+ days, I can at least pump out a few pages.”

spotlight-facing-rightThird, I wanted to point folks over to Jenn Moss, over at Rough & Ready Fiction. Her page is neatly organized, and her content is always full of insight.  She recently updated her page and has done a fantastic job of breaking down her posting schedule.  Jenn is also a regular comment contributor here at QE, and often offers very informative tips to help me expand my content and improve collaboration.

While I enjoy all of her writing, I’m a sucker for Meta Mondays as well as Tarot Tuesday.  Meta Mondays cover a range of topics, but really they are a way for people to collaborate and discuss varying concepts.  For instance, within Meta Mondays she recently posted Anachronisms—Nay or Yea?  It’s a great topic for discussion, and her comment section almost reads like a web forum because there are so many thoughtful posters.  As for Tarot Tuesday, I find this series to be one of the most insightful explorations into character archetypes, as well as symbols and metaphor.

thanksAs always, I wanted to take a moment to thank all three of these folks for (1) contributing regularly on my page, (2) being a source of inspiration, and (3) consistently encouraging enjoyable discussion about both fiction and non-fiction.  You all rock!

resources

These are the resources I used this week (Friday to Friday) to create my posts.  I’m a voracious eater of greens and believe in the power of self-study to improve writing skill and understanding.

Writing Monsters, by Philip Athans [Amazon] [goodreads]

Theory and Technique of Playwriting, by Howard Lawson [Amazon] [goodreads]

How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell [Amazon] [goodreads]

Writing Novels That Sell, by Jack Bickham’s [Amazon] [goodreads]

The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker [Amazon] [goodreads]

For a more comprehensive list of books I have utilized to build content here on QE, you can refer to this post.

hourglassThat’s it for today!  If you would like to be featured next Friday, contact me.  It always helps if you let me know what specific post you would like to be featured.  My goal with Feature Friday is to connect like-minded individuals with one another.  The blogoverse is a giant place, and it’s nice to be able to provide some navigation. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge.jpgI recently had a friend contact me because an editor had given them feedback that mentioned, ‘the curse of knowledge’.  My friend mentioned it for two reasons: they weren’t entirely tracking on what it meant, and they knew I blog about writing and thought I could mention it in a post.

There’s a touch of irony in having an editor tell you to avoid the curse of knowledge.  It becomes even more ironic when they don’t explain exactly what it means.  I’ve seen a few explanations of the term, but to put it plainly, it’s when a writer makes assumptions about what their readers know and end up writing above their heads.

Here’s a non-fiction example.  When I was a journalist in the Navy, we were instructed to break down our writing to the grade school level.  This tailored our writing to a wider audience and made it more accessible to the average reader.

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The Naval Postgraduate School wasn’t a terrible place to be stationed. 

Then, later in my Navy career, I got stationed at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The students at the school were senior officers from all branches of the military and from allied countries.  The focus was mostly on advanced science and technology projects.  I was told to step up the complexity of my writing because now the average audience was perceived to be more intelligent.

I remember being assigned a story about a professor and some students who were developing free electron laser technology to be used on ships.  The idea was to use directed energy to blast incoming rockets and projectiles out of the sky before they would reach a ship. The professor’s name was Bill Coulson, and I was super excited to talk about something that hearkened images of the planet Alderaan being destroyed.

When I sat down with Bill, I asked him to describe the scope of the project.  The explanation was interesting, but very confusing.  There were lots of technical terms and science jargon.  After he finished, I asked in the nicest way possible if he could explain some aspects of it again, but dumb it down for me. He obliged.

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At this point in time I didn’t know a lick about ‘the curse of knowledge,’ but in retrospect, this example really illustrates it well.  Bill, due to his technical experience and level of knowledge, glossed over some facts that would be essential to my story.  By glossing over, I do mean, used scientific jargon very few people truly understand.  I needed a way to write those bits of information in a way for the average reader to comprehend.  For me to do that, I needed to understand it myself.

complex description.jpgThis is an important concept to think of when you are writing.  I find that many times people who use lots of technical terms and jargon do so for two reasons: sometimes they don’t really understand what they are talking about themselves, and sometimes they are afraid to be seen as simpletons by peers.

Now, about that first conclusion.  When I ask someone to break something complex down and they can’t, I often wonder if they actually know what it is they are talking about.  In the example I offered, Bill had no trouble simplifying some very advanced engineering and physics concepts to their bare bones.  He truly understood the content; I just needed to filter and understand it myself.

In regards to being afraid to look like a simpleton, that’s something we just need to be able to get over unless we want to only appeal to the most pretentious readers (and those blow-hards are probably going to criticize your work no matter what).  When I interviewed Bill, I could have just nodded my head and dumped all of the content he gave me into the story in its raw state.  But that would have been a disservice to him because a story of this nature helps spread the word.  If no one understands the science, then it’s harder for him to get grants to pay for all of his cool toys.

Navy_laser_shoots_drone..jpgI‘m not saying my story helped change the world, but these lasers are on ships now…

[Side Note:  If you are still reading and are thinking, QE tell me how to build my own laser weaponhere is a cool pdf Bill put together that talks about the evolution of the tech. Good luck…

The curse of knowledge also manifests in a lack of detail.  Some writers make the assumption, because they are so close to the story, that everyone may know what it is they are describing.  Because of this, they strip the setting of detail and only offer a skeleton.  Steven Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, states that, “Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images…” (p. 72).

We want people to remember our story.  It’s often why it’s recommended to anchor the reader in setting early in chapters.  When people recall a story, they often recall it in chunks (our brain chunks information to help us remember it).  For them to remember a specific chunk/chapter, it’s vital for the storyteller to anchor them in each chapter and paint a brief picture.perception-quote

Whether you are bamboozling people with complex language, or stripping things down, the best way to cure the curse is to step outside of your own perception.  Put another way, it’s a fools errand to solely apply your own judgement as to what other people understand.  If you want to know what people think, you need to ask them.  This is why it’s of vital importance to pay special attention to your beta and alpha readers (your editor might be able to offer some insight too).

question markThat’s the breakdown of the concept.  I may do one future post on this that discusses some of the misconceptions and beliefs behind the curse.  Let me know if this is something any of you are interested in.  Have any of you fallen victim to the curse?  Have you read the work of someone afflicted with it?  I’d love to hear about.  I’m also very open to more solutions.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Dialogue: Exercises

Read Your DialogueThe best explanation of dialogue I’ve heard, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that dialogue is an extension of action (Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting).  What Lawson is driving at is that speech in fiction, for it to be effective, intensifies character action, motivation, and emotion.

With that being said, most people will agree with the idea that stories are driven by characters and conflict.  If this is true, and dialogue is in fact an extension of action, then we can begin to see how vital it is to our stories.  In essence, dialogue bolsters vital aspects of the story because it enhances character and conflict at the same time.  It’s a two-fer!

Writing good dialogue doesn’t usually just happen.  For many writers, it takes time and practice.  More seasoned writers will begin to look at every exchange of dialogue as a glorious opportunity.  It’s not just page filler, it’s a chance for verbal sparring matches.

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From Wiki-Commons

To spar effectively, it takes some exercise.  So let’s cue the obligatory 80s montage music and talk about some training methods (hopefully that last sentence conjured visions of Rocky and not Richard Simmons in bright spandex…).

[Side Note] Most of these exercises I pulled from the pages of, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell.  I wrote about this book before when we talked about how dialogue can be used to drive and reveal agenda.

Abandon organization and freewrite the dialogue for a chapter or scene.  Dialogue action beats, attribution, punctuation…to heck with it!  Cut it all out and focus on the spoken words being exchanged back and forth.  A tendency for some writers is to lean on attribution/action tags to drive the meaning of what is being said.  Strong dialogue should be able to exist without props to support it.  What you’ll end up with is a very long string of exchanges.cat hungry.jpg

Go get me some treats!
Get them yourself.
I don’t have opposable thumbs so I can’t open the drawer.
Sounds like a cat problem to me.
I do have these claws.
Okay, I’ll get you some treats.

While this example is ridiculous, it illustrates the basic premise.  Simply let the dialogue bounce back and forth.  If done right, you’ll end up with a large chunks of dialogue to play with.  Then you can select the more solid pieces, polish them up, add the proper punctuation, and wrangle it all together.

Assign roles to speakers from scene to scene.  You’re going through during rewrites and notice a section of dialogue that is lacking substance, or simply meanders about.  One reason could be that the dialogue is mimicking normal speech.  While on the surface this seems okay, when writing fiction, dialogue is a stylized version of normal speech.  In essence, it’s speech with purpose.  Here’s an exercise to employ.

This exercise comes from Bell, and he snagged the idea from Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell.  It’s called the parent, adult, and child exercise.

  • Parent: Authority driven. Lays down the law.
  • Adult: Even-minded and even-tempered.  Looks for objectivity.
  • Child: Emotional, irrational, impulsive, trusting, etc…

The premise is simple.  Assign one of these roles to each character speaking and let them duke it out.  What this ensures is that dialogue is driving conflict and agenda.  It’s also a great tool because it allows for dynamic characters.  A single character can take on any one of these roles depending on the circumstance.  As a rule, try to ensure character motivations run opposite of each other.  Characters can be united in purpose, but often go about achieving goals in different ways.

Dialogue in History

Think about the last time you participated in a group project (school, work, video game co-op, D&D).  While you all had the same end-goal (supposedly), there were likely conflicting opinions as how to best achieve it.  This is assuming you weren’t surrounded by sheeple — and let’s face it — sheeple are boring to write about.

Don’t just listen to the voices in your head, embody them.  This is perhaps my favorite exercise to improve creativity when it comes to writing dialogue.  During your day (hopefully while you are mostly alone), narrate your life.  But do it from different perspectives.  This is especially enjoyable for me with baby Thor, because I get to talk in silly accents and just be generally goofy.

So changing a diaper goes from being a silent lamentation to:

  • Movie Narratorwrite dazzling dialogue:  “In a world gone mad, one baby dares to fill his diaper to the point of explosion.  Will daddy survive this changed diaper, or will he be destroyed by it?”
  • Mad Scientist:  “Yes…the addition of five percent dry cereal to decrease the fluidity of puree has revealed a drastic increase in poop production.  Eureka!”
  • Sherlock Holmes: “It’s simple really.  I first observed you tugging on your diaper.  It was a subtle gesture, but I also noticed the caked food around your mouth.  Pair this with the blue line on your diaper and the conclusion became clear.”

Other concepts to play with (these come from Bell): action hero, alien invader, bad boy/girl, boy/girl next door, cat lady, hardboiled detective, martial arts master (a favorite of mine), gentle giant (which I feel like when I’m around Thor), thief, geek, jock, outlaw, Southern Belle, pirate, bully, drunk, wise old man, rat pack, and the list goes on.

You can focus on specific aspects of your story, or you can simply add this element to daily life.  If you are anything like me, every now and then you are going to say something golden and run off to your writing cave to write it down for potential use down the road.

question markThat’s it for today.  I’ve only written a couple posts on dialogue, so this is an area we can look forward to more discussion on in the future.  Do you use any of these exercises?  Do you have some you would add to the list?  I’d love to hear about and bolster my own knowledge and understanding.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Monsters: Book, Blurb & Collage

Writing Monsters

A collection of phrases and quotes from the book, Writing Monsters, written by Philip Athans.  If you click the image you will be teleported to my Flickr where the image lives in high-res.  As always, it’s free to share and use however you would like.


W
riting Monsters
, by Philip Athans, has been on my list of books to showcase here on QE for a while now.  Why?  Because it is one of the most entertaining and well written books I have found on the subject matter.  Before I go into my blow-by-blow, you can check out the book on [Amazon] or [goodreads].

A Refined List

There’s a big list of things that really made this book appeal to me.  To make my bias apparent, I’m going to make a slight deviation from my normal blueprint and offer a short list.  Some of these things may seem silly to you all, and some of these things may make you foam at the mouth and impulse buy the book (or snag it from the library).

  1. Philip Athans is awesome.  There, I said it.  I’m a fanboy of his, and he actually maintains a WordPress blog called Fantasy Author’s Handbook, which he updates every Tuesday.  There is a massive amount of information to be mined from his page.
  2. In our continuing study of character archetypes, I wrote a post called Writing Characters & Role Playing Games a few weeks ago.  In it, I talked about how the computer game Baldur’s Gate blew my mind and really made me examine character archetypes when I was younger.  Well, Philip Athans wrote the book on it.  By that, I mean he literally wrote the official Forgotten Realms book, Baldur’s Gate.
  3. Why am I sharing all of this?  For transparency.  I’m obviously biased toward this author, and I like to be honest with you all.  With that being said, let’s talk about this book.

writing monsters.jpgThis book, for me, is solid because it covers a wide range of topics regarding how to write monsters.  More so, because it uses a number of examples and cited works to bolster and emphasize points.  Athans uses examples from literature (spanning from historic works all the way to modern time), movies, and even video games.  For my gamer friends (console, computer, and D&D), you are going to feel very comfortable flipping through these pages as Athans uses these mediums as tools to provide information to the reader.

Writing Monsters also does a phenomenal job of defining the physical, psychological, and emotional characteristics of monsters from almost all genres.  While this book is shorter and more current, at times I felt like I was reading the “monster version” of Joseph Campbells’ book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  The only difference being Campbell provides a sweeping mythological look at the hero throughout time, while Athan pinpoints certain monsters to drive the purpose of his book.

The book is broken into three main parts: What They Are, Why They’re Here, and How to Write Them.  While all parts are very insightful, I found the chapters within, Why They’re Here, to be especially enjoyable.  In this section of the book, Athans talks about monsters as metaphors, obstacles, agents, sources of pity, sources of magic or technology, and how they bring out the good and bad in people.

In short, if you are struggling with coming up with concepts for monsters, or simply curious about them, this book provides some very interesting and fun information.  Also, this book serves as a great tool to find other relevant sources of inspiration.  I did a quick scan of the cited sources and Athans uses more than thirty books and short stories to drive his narrative.  That by itself is a gold mine if you are entrenched in these genres.

question-markThat’s it for today.  If you are curious about some of the other writing books I have read you can check out a listing of them I made by clicking right here.  I’m constantly eating my greens, and I encourage you to do the same.  If you have a book recommendation, I would love to hear about it!  I’m always looking for more books to devour.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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