Archive for the ‘Craft of Storytelling’ Category

This morning, I decided to start a thread at the Writer’s Cafe at Kindleboards. It turned into this (I’ll just reproduce the post here).

On Facebook, someone said:

“I give my boss (who owns a small editing company) a weekly update of all the hot topics in book publishing news, and I get so tired of reading about people recommending self-publishing as essentially another get-rich-quick scheme. I feel like it’s all about the business end of things rather than the honor and prestige of producing a quality piece of literature.”

To me, this rings true. I understand that we’re mostly interested in talking about the business end of things over here (I like to talk about these things too), but that’s really the point. Indie authors are for the most part, all about the business end of things. Does this help us when readers see this? Does this help us in reality?

Why aren’t we talking–with other writers, on our blogs, on Facebook and Twitter–about books that have inspired us, whether classics or recent indie works? Why aren’t we analyzing what goes into great writing, great scenes, great characters, great plots, great dialogue. Why aren’t we lauding great books over great sales, at least more often than we do? Do we love words or do we love numbers? Poetry or spreadsheets?

We all have different goals and we’re all in different situations. I don’t believe that anyone’s goals are better or more important than anyone else’s goals. I have enough trouble judging the worth of my own goals. Entertaining thousands of readers through a combination of good books and smart marketing is a worthy goal, period. I think most of us want to write the best books we can and market them as well as we can so that we can reach more readers and make more money.

But, I offer this question: what is your heart’s desire as a writer? Because that is what you will tend to create in your life. Is it money? Fame? Respect? Craftsmanship? The journey or the destination? What are the inevitable outcomes of these goals? There are no right or wrong answers–just wherever you really are. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying money or fame.

I ask myself this question a lot and the answer isn’t always clear. But mostly for me it comes down to the journey of crafting good (hopefully great, perhaps someday classic) books. For me, that goal is more sublime. Money and fame come and go, and fame in particular is a mixed blessing. Respect is nice, but there’s no freedom in being enslaved to other people’s opinions.

What reading and books are all about–for readers–is beholding something touched by a muse of inspiration, raising your consciousness to behold the beauty and magic in a great story crafted with love, skill, and devotion. When that’s the goal–for an author–the only number that matters is one. One reader is all that matters. Whether that one reader is you, the author, or someone else–that’s up to you.

I respect anyone who wants to make enough money to live comfortably, support a family, or support their favorite causes. I respect anyone who wants to go on the roller coaster ride that is fame; life is short and at least fame brings you into other people’s lives. I respect those who wanted to be respected. Critical appreciation is as good a measuring stick for value as anything else.

Here, there are no right answers. Only honest and dishonest ones. Life will eventually show us the value of our goals, and then we’ll change again.
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I met Bryan Thomas Schmidt last year when I was looking for a roommate at World Fantasy Convention. Turns out, he’s written a scifi/space opera that’s been summarized as “Moses in Space!” His first novel is out–he’s written a tremendously fun throwback story that reminds readers of Star Wars. Here’s Bryan’s guest post with tips for writing with better characterization. He makes a number of good points, and I was able to pick up some nice ideas from his article:

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The Worker Prince by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

One of the keys to good storytelling that hooks readers is creating relatable characters. What are the tricks apart from character naming to accomplish this challenging task?

To start with, create individuals not stereotypes. Yes, characters have a story function. Yes, some of them are even like tropes, filling necessary roles like comic relief, the buddy, the confidant, etc. But that doesn’t mean you should stop there and fail to flesh them out. People are unique, no two the same, and so should it be with your characters. Each character should respond differently to a particular situation from any other character. For example, fight scenes, can often be a place where characters blend into one and all react the same. Instead try treating such common scenes as opportunities to reveal character through uniqueness. How would one character fight differently than another? Work this in and your story will be richer, your characters stronger. There are many other common scene types where you can similarly emphasize the uniqueness. Look for them.

Second, each character should have his or her own vocabulary. People use words differently, so your characters should as well. One of the best ways to distinguish and develop characters is through dialogue. Educated people use more sophisticated words, while less educated people structure sentences  differently. Think of this as you develop each character’s voice and use it to set them apart, create conflict and develop them throughout your story. Vocabulary, in fact, is far more effective than attempting to create accents. Phonetically, accents already pose problems and can even devolve into silly or, far worse, confusing dialogue styles which detract from the story.

Third, another way to develop character is by choosing the protagonist whose point of view will tell particular scenes. I tend to consider who has the most at stake in a particular scene and make the scene happen in that POV but there are varied theories. Whatever your method, your characters can be developed well through use of POV. For example, I had a scene where a couple are fighting. At the same time, an old enemy is stalking them with intent to do them harm. I told the scene from the enemy’s POV, even though he never interacts with the couple because it allowed me to further both the romantic storyline and the antagonist’s storyline in one scene through his internal monologue as he witnesses their discussion. Three character arcs and two plotlines were thus furthered in one short scene.

Fourthly, People’s tastes vary, and so should characters’. What they wear, how they choose it, etc. can be a part of characterization. Everything from color to fabric choices to scale, formality, and even clothing cost can be used to establish character. We use such things daily as we observe others to determine things about them, and readers will use such details as clues to define characters if you include them. Sartorial Style can be a tool for characterization.

Fifthly, we all have our favorite do-dads, don’t we? Things we take with us everywhere we go. The cliches for women are purses and for men, perhaps, favorite hats, but we all have something. Sometimes it’s small enough to fit in a pocket. Other times, it’s carried around for all to see. Props are a great tool for revealing character. Spend time observing people around you. What props does each person have? Keep a spreadsheet or list of potential props for characters. Yes, when writing fantasy or science fiction you might have to be more inventive than just copying from a list you made at the mall. That’s called writing, dears. In any case, props can add great flavor and speak volumes about characters.

Sixthly, who a person spends his or her time with says a lot about them and so use it to develop your characters well. Fellow characters, animal or otherwise, can be great for revealing character. We see how they interact with each other and we learn volumes about who they are. Think about it: what would the Lone Ranger have been without Silver or Tonto? What about Batman without Robin? There’s a reason Michael Keaton quit after two movies: he was lonely (Ok, that might be just a guess).

Seventh, it seems obvious but sometimes it’s easy to forget to dig deeply into a character’s past for material to develop the character. Even things you know about them but don’t include in your narrative can be of value. All the experiences of that character’s past serve to shape who he or she is becoming, from determining responses to various stimuli to emotional hot points from happy to fearful. When your character seems to become stagnant, review what you know about his or her past, then ask yourself if maybe there might be more to uncover which would help you as you write. You can only have too little backstory, never too much. It’s core to the internal battles all people face and will enrich your ability to write your characters with depth and broadness that stretches outside the boundaries and limitations of your story itself.

Lastly, another that seems obvious, but developing your character’s likes and dislikes can take you all kinds of places, especially when you examine how they might clash with those of the characters around them and even the attributes of the world around them. All kinds of instances will soon arise where you can reveal more of the character through actions resulting from these traits. In the process, your story will have built in conflict and drama and perhaps even humor you might not have thought of before. Character traits are a great way to add spicy detail to your story, surprising and entertaining readers at the same time. And don’t just limit yourself to personal preferences either. Character traits can also include physical ticks like clenching hands when angry or a slight stutter or even a limp or other defect.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

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Here’s some of the best advice I’ve read on the subject of writing dialogue. It’s reprinted with permission from David Farland. You can find out more about David and sign up for his free Daily Kick emails at DavidFarland.com. The retweet button doesn’t seem to be working, so you can also retweet from here.

Below David’s Daily Kick, you’ll find a link to an excellent article on “Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts”by freelance editor Lane Diamond.

David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants – Don’t be “On the Nose.”

David Farland

David Farland

The topic for today’s kick comes from a question by Brandon Lindsay, and it’s going to take a moment to get to the point.

In screenwriting, one bit of advice that you’ll often hear is “Don’t be too ‘On the Nose.’” It means, don’t have characters giving speeches, telling you what’s going on inside them, playing down to the audience. Imagine that you have a character who is angry, and we get the following snatches of dialog:

Angela: “What are you so mad about?”

Derek: “You! Why did you have to wear that red dress? You look like a slut, and at my company party!”

Can you hear how hokey, how contrived, that dialog sounds?

There are a number of ways to avoid being ‘On the Nose.’ For example, maybe Derek doesn’t quite know what he’s angry about, or maybe he doesn’t dare say it. Or maybe he’s torn, because Angela looks so hot, and Derek noticed how his boss was eying her. Or maybe he’s even worried that the problem goes deeper. Maybe he’s not sure about Angela. Is she flirting? Does she really feel committed to him?

So you re-cast the dialog, you circle around the truth, skirt the deeper issues. You let the audience wonder what is going on, let the actors perhaps interpret the performance, insert their own nuances. You might reconsider the argument:

Angela: “What are you so . . . furious about?”
Derek: Pushes her away, turns and starts to walk. She follows. “Nothing.”
Angela: “This isn’t nothing. Tell me, please?”
Derek: “Really, I’m not mad.”
Angela: “Liar.”
Derek: Sighs. “It’s not you. It’s . . . did you see my boss, undressing you with his eyes?”
Angela: “He’s a drunken slob.”
Derek: “A rich drunken slob, and other women throw themselves at him.”
Angela: “I’d rather throw myself at you.” Derek hurries his pace, leaves her behind. “Grow up. You’re so immature.”
Derek: Whirls and yells at her: “You looked like a slut! And you acted the part . . . perfectly!”

Now, do you see what I’m doing here? Instead of having a character define himself, instead of having him come to the point, I let him circle the point. I let characters argue about who they are. Derek is defining Angela. She’s trying to define him. Others will be defining each of them separately during the course of the story. In other words, one central conflict in most stories is “Who are you?” It’s not just a question, it’s the center of an argument. A lot of different voices from various characters should come into play, sometimes with wildly different accusations. Who is Derek? Maybe his priest thinks that “He’s that gay guy.” His mother might think he’s too shy to ever “make a catch.” His father worries that he’s an over-educated loser. His girlfriend thinks that he might be ‘the one.’ The local cop might think he’s good for a murder, and the truth is, even Derek isn’t sure who or what he is. The story grows as he decides which roles to take and steps into them.

So, when you’re creating characters for a screenplay or book, you avoid being on the nose. You as the author know all of the secrets, all of the answers. You just don’t spill them too easily.

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Hi, everyone. Moses again. Another article I recommend on writing dialogue comes from freelance editor Lane Diamond. Check out his advice on Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts part 1 and part 2.

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Earlier today I read a question on a message board for writers, the Writer’s Cafe at Kindleboards.com (one of my favorite online haunts). The name of the thread was “Personal Glory or Commercial Success?” and the first post asks this:

Ideally, we’d like to be able to write books that are both meaningful to us as well as popular in the consumer market.  Realistically though, it’s extremely uncommon to have both.  If you had to choose, would you rather write for personal fulfillment even if it doesn’t attract much in the way of sales or write what will more likely appeal to the masses and give you some amount of decent profit?

Definitely both.

But I’ve come to a soul-searching moment with my book. Mine is at a point now where I think it’s finally in good enough shape to publish it, after working on the book for 21 months. If my top goal was to make money, I’d probably release it now and get to work writing another one so that I could try to have a second release before the holidays.

But I’ve found I literally can’t do that. I’m still poring over the book, making every detail as good as I can possibly make it. I’m trying to root out every weak instance of ‘telling’ in the cases where telling isn’t the best choice, and trying to make every sentence concise and clear. I want every piece of dialogue to ring true, and every character to work and feel real. I want every part of the story to be logical and to function with maximum emotional impact. These are some of the goals, anyway. I’m doing the best I can with them.

By doing all this, instead of releasing my book in May like I’d hoped to, I might not be able to release the novel until June at the earliest and probably August at the latest (I’ll guess July). And I know this might cost me some money because it’s slowing down my current and future release schedule (or maybe make me more money in the long run–it’s hard to say).

But when I’ve looked really deeply at it, I’ve decided that if people are going to spend some money on my book and, more importantly, hours of their lives reading it, I can’t feel good about that unless I know that I’ve given everyone my very best effort. That’s what I want from any author I read, so that’s what I have to give.

I’ve realized that my #1 goal, literally, is to write the very best book that I can, however long that takes, still absolutely with an eye toward commercial success–but regardless of whether my release schedule helps or hurts me in terms of generating an income from writing. I’m living off some of my savings to do this, but in the end, I want to know that I gave everyone the very best I had to give, and I think that’s worth more to me than commercial success. Then again, maybe this is the best way to have longterm commercial success. But I’m okay with or without commercial success as long as I know that I didn’t cut any corners just to make more money. That’s not saying anything about anyone who has that goal–it’s just not my top goal.

I want some people who read my book to feel like it’s one of the best reading experiences they’ve ever had. I want my book to be one that stays with some people for years, one that they want to re-read some day. Even if it’s just a small percentage of people that feel that way, that’s what I value most, the qualitative experience that those readers might have, not the numbers in my bank account.

Writing this book (and then hopefully more, similar books) is literally my top personal (selfish) desire, for my life. After this, my top goals are to be the best dad and husband I can be and eventually to focus more on charitable projects. This is why the writing of the book is more important to me than the money. This is just how I feel. I’m not comparing or contrasting myself to anyone else, and I know I’m very lucky to be in a position that allows me to approach writing this way. Then again, I’ve worked hard at other things so that I could do this some day.

Thanks for asking a great question. Sorry if I gave you more than you bargained for  ;)

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Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay, author of Under HeavenAt the World Fantasy Convention 2010, I interviewed Guy Gavriel Kay for the Adventures In SciFi Publishing podcast, a site featuring over 100 interviews with some of the biggest names in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, plus news and book reviews (I am also the News Manager there).

The interview lasted about 45 minutes, covering a wide range of topics from Tolkien to handling criticism to his latest novel Under Heaven to writing with themes in mind (and many more …).

Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay should especially enjoy it, as well as anyone interested in learning from one of the literary giants in the field of Fantasy literature.

To hear the interview on the podcast, click here: Guy Gavriel Kay Interview.

Thanks very much for the interview, Guy!
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David Farland

David Farland

No matter how long you’ve been writing, the study never ends. Whether it’s the nuts and bolts of craft, how to construct a gripping story, or how to sell a manuscript, there’s always more to learn, even more so because the world publishing is rapidly changing.

It’s not easy to find an old pro who will share their best secrets and tips with you, but that’s what David Farland (the pen name of Dave Wolverton) does for free with his email service called the “Daily Kick in the Pants.” I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve learned from this free service. I knew David Farland was a respected and successful writer with decades of wisdom behind him, but I didn’t realize how invaluable some of his tips would be until I started reading his “Daily Kick.”

You can sign up for it at DavidFarland.net.

There’s also new item on David Farland’s home page (10/19/10), a free recording of a recent conference call:

David Farland’s First Authors Advisory Conference Call

Listen in on David’s first ever Authors Advisory Conference Call where Dave covers everything from world creation to adience analysis!

David Farland will also be speaking at the next Superstars Writing Seminar in Salt Lake City, UT, January 13-15, 2011. I attended the first event and loved it Here’s a blog post from Kevin J Anderson about the event. Early bird pricing is still in effect until the end of October. Tell ‘em Large Mo sent ya!
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“Your relationship with the reader is sadomasochistic, and you are supposed to be the sadist.”
-David Brin

I thought I was getting into the right profession, but this seals it.

From the video:

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Seriously, get this.

Product Description

Survival tips for 21st century writers, from best-selling authors Kevin J. Anderson, M.J. Rose, Heather Graham, J.A. Konrath, Gayle Lynds, Alexandra Sokoloff, Jonathan Maberry, and more. How to develop your craft, improve your writing, get an agent, promote your work, embrace the digital age, and prepare yourself for the coming changes in the publishing industry. Edited by Scott Nicholson.

Other contributors include Elizabeth Massie, Harley Jane Kozak, Douglas Clegg, Brandon Massey, Mur Lafferty, Dean Wesley Smith, David J. Montgomery, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Robert Kroese, and Adrienne Jones. Covering art, craft, and business, the ever-evolving manual supports the writing blog writegoodordie.blogspot.com.

All proceeds benefit the non-profit organization Literacy Inc., which promotes reading among teens.
My Amazon review reads:

Over Thirty Carefully Selected Essays on the Craft and Business of Writing

I was attracted to this collection because of the many contributing authors I admire in it, and also because I knew Scott Nicholson (whose novels I’ve recently become a fan of) would do a great job with selecting helpful and interesting advice. ‘Write Good or Die’ met all of my high expectations.

The version I purchased contained 22 articles focused on specific areas of craft, and 11 articles focused on practical business matters for writers. Every single piece was worth reading, and the collection broadened my horizons and got me thinking about the craft and business of writing from new points of view–all of them from either successful or otherwise qualified contributors.

The current price is criminally low, and the proceeds from its sales support a writing-oriented charity. I give it as emphatic a recommendation as I can give.

Get it at:

Smashwords (Free, multiple e-formats)
Amazon
($0.99 for Kindle)
Write Good or Die Blog (pdf)

I also recommend Scott Nicholson’s other books, too, like “Drummer Boy” or “Red Church.” Scott’s a very cool guy and in my opinion an outstanding writer. Thanks for putting this together, Scott.

I finally got around to watching Cinderella Man (directed by Ron Howard). For me, the movie highlights one major writing issue: the dilemma of the “perfect” character.

In this real-life story, Russell Crowe plays James J Braddock, a professional boxer who wore the heavyweight championship belt from June, 1935 to June, 1937 (he lost the title to Joe Louis). All in all, I thought it was a very effective film, but what’s most interesting to me is how the writers and director chose to portray James Braddock.

Russell Crowe had to play Braddock like an unequivocally good guy. He works hard, and he fights hard. He loves his kids. He passes every moral test. He never raises his voice to his wife, even when she’s provoking him. He even gives some extra money back to the US government once he can afford to pay back some of the assistance money he needed to pay his electricity bill in the middle of winter.

Sounds like a pretty boring character, huh? Sounds like someone almost annoying, because none of us will ever be that good. I will admit, I wished he had been a little less perfect, and if he was, the movie would’ve been 4 stars for me instead of 3 1/2.

However, there are some reasons why this “perfect” character either works, or almost works.

1) The movie is based on a real-life story.

This is double-edged, though. On the one hand, knowing that the movie is based on reality ought to be all the more reason to give a character some flaws, right? But on the flip side, it also means that Braddock isn’t all made up. There is a little credence we can give to the movie, knowing it’s based on a man who actually lived, and knowing that he was considered by many to be a good man. Great, inspiring people do exist. Nonetheless, perfect people don’t exist, so we need something else. The main thing is …

2) Though the character is too good to be true, his struggles aren’t.

The Great Depression hit Braddock and his family hard. Without revealing too many spoilers, his family struggled during those years and this was thoroughly believable. Also, Braddock dealt with realistic injuries and problems in his career as a boxer.

Ah, now we see why his character is starting to work. One benefit to having the “perfect” character is that he’s easy to like. But that’s not the problem here. We like James Braddock, no problem. He’s a good guy. The problem is with not believing him because he’s too good. So where’s the sleight of hand? Simply, he suffers. Maybe the best way to drum up emotional interest in a character is to have him or her suffer.

(a character we like) + (that character suffering) = (reader/viewer interest in that character)

That’s a formula that works.

3) Russell Crowe.

Crowe must have been challenged by this role. Still, he found a way to make Mr. Perfect gritty. Bravo.

I could also add things like the wonderful depression-era costumes, cinematography, sound, etc. It was a classy production.

4) Ron Howard’s artistic play.

Howard had to have known what he was up against. He was trying to sell all of us on a character who is, let’s face it, better than us. Boring! Or, annoying! But here’s what I respect about Howard’s artistic vision:

He wanted us inspire us.

Forget 100% gritty realism. Forget the conventional wisdom about not making characters too perfect. Howard must’ve said to himself, I want to tell a story that makes people want to be better and more moral people by giving them someone to look up to, but I want to do it well.

And one can argue that that’s exactly what he did. He found A. a true story, B. a story full of gritty hardship, C. a great actor to portray him, and then D. gave us a man to look up to in the middle of it all.

Though I still would’ve liked the story better if Braddock had at least one major flaw, I can also respect Howard’s vision (also, credit the writer of the story, Cliff Hollingsworth, and the co-writers of the screenplay, Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman). His vision is optimistic, and it speaks to our better angels.

In the end, Howard decided he wanted to transform and uplift his audience, even though he knew his story was a little less believable because of how he approached his goal. Still, it either worked anyway, or it pretty much worked. The positive response, then, is to be inspired by James J Braddock. To play by the rules, be kind to those around us, and work a little harder for what we love. That, I can believe in.