Tag Archives: fiction

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Why do we read…or write?

Image from Wikipedia

Fiction, stories, books, novels, that is.

Why do we read stories?  What is it about this form of communication that draws us in and absorbs our attention and focus until the words The End?  What do we seek from reading?  What do we receive from reading?

Conversely, why do some of us write stories?  What are our goals or intent?  Why do we do it?

Rather than go into all the many ideas I have about either of these I am including two polls below.  One for readers and one for writers.

All you writers out there should also be readers and should answer both polls. 🙂

Mark all that apply and then add a comment below to keep the discussion going.

Readers Poll

Writers Poll

First, thank you for answering the polls and discussing more detailed thoughts.  For me, the answers to the above poll questions are evidenced in the creation of the questions themselves.  In effect, I created polls that closely reflect my own motivations for both reading and writing.

The only exception may be my desire to be famous.  I would rather not be famous, actually, and would prefer to be successful and relatively anonymous.

So, let’s discuss.  Why do we read and write, really?

Who is willing to go first?


The Great Magic Debate

I had a conversation with a writer friend recently (by conversation you should understand that to mean I.M. chat) about magic as used in fantasy fiction.  He noted that the wonder and awe of magic in a story was what appealed to him.  He also mentioned that for him as a reader, if the magic was too well-defined, into a system of sorts, then it became more of a technology than a mysterious force.

We discussed how this point of view was reflected in Tolkien’s works, particularly in Lord of the Rings, where magic is used infrequently, is so rare that only a few possess the power to perform magic, and the source of power and how to use it is never really explained.

I agreed that that approach in a story is very powerful and keeps magic at a distance so it feels like a big unexplained and awesome force.  For many readers this is what they want and expect of magic in a story, and a story written in this manner can be successful on multiple levels.  If Tolkien’s works are an example of this, and many consider him to the grandfather of the epic fantasy genre, then this model is a good one.

However, there are caveats to storytelling with magic as a rare, mystical force.  This is where the author must balance the power of magic within the story with the influence arcane powers can have on the plot.  Best selling author, Brandon Sanderson, devised what he calls Sanderson’s First Law–you can read his article here, where he discusses the limits of how magic can influence the plot based upon how well said magic is defined for the reader.  The text of the law is below.

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.  (*”satisfactorily” added later by Sanderson).

So, Sanderson is arguing that the reader derives story satisfaction in fantasy fiction by the relationship between magic and solutions to conflict or problems for the characters.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf possesses great magic and it isn’t really explained how he got it, how he uses it, and what is the scope of his powers, but it doesn’t bother us because he uses magic so infrequently and his influence on the story is minor or indirect in most cases that it never feels like we need to know more about the magic.  Gandalf is ancient, wise, magical and it seems that he always has always been.  He is a true wizard.  We don’t need to know if the source of his power is the earth, the sky, the moon, a mutation, part-Elven blood, a talisman he wears, or formal words of power he has learned.  We accept that he is a wizard and his actions provide us with wonder and awe at what he can accomplish in certain situations.  But he can’t save the world alone with his magic, he can’t destroy the One Ring, and he can’t defeat Sauron alone.  So, although we love when he can use magic and its effects are powerful, he solves many more problems with his leadership, his blade, his wits, or his allies.

Would Lord of the Rings be more satisfying if we knew how Gandalf’s magic worked, how Sauron’s magic worked, how the Elves’ innate magic worked, or what power enlivened the Ents?  I think for that great story, it would take away the wonder of Middle Earth.  It is a magical realm and thus many places, races, and people are touched by magic.  That’s all we need to know to be satisfied by the story.

This is what I think my writer friend meant in our discussion.

On the other hand, my writing and reading preferences lean towards the other end of the spectrum noted in Sanderson’s First Law.  Like Sanderson, I like a well-developed magic system that the reader learns along with the characters.  I like that a particular setting can possess great magic and much of it can seem powerful, wonderful, and awe-inspiring when it isn’t known, but can also be seen as highly useful, practical, and influential when understood and the magical power is harnessed by those characters who acquire or discover their own innate arcane capabilities.

With a defined magic system, the author can then use magic more often and in more various plot circumstances to solve problems or have characters overcome conflict because the reader will possess enough understanding to know how the magic should work, what its effects are, and most importantly what the limits of magic are.

Magic then becomes a sophisticated tool, weapon, cure, power, or method that operates within known boundaries that operate like real world laws of physics do for us.  In this perspective, magic is indeed science that we don’t yet understand.  Those that can learn it, can use it in a defined manner.  The usefulness of the magic isn’t in the innate power of the magic itself, but in the judicious, clever, or appropriate application of its power by the characters.  So, magic can’t solve problems, but the characters can use magic in a way that can solve problems.

Sanderson’s own Mistborn world has such a defined magic system.  Allomancy as one of his magic systems is called, is the ability of a character to ingest metal flakes or powder suspended in liquid, and then harness that “source” to achieve a desired effect.  Ingesting steel powder, for example, allows the allomancer to “push” with force against sources of steel in the world around him.  If the object has less mass than the allomancer, the object moves away from him in a telekinetic manner, like a thrown ball or knife.  If the steel object is fixed or weighs more than the allomancer, his body is propelled or pushed away in the opposite direction.  A competent allomancer can use this to push down on a steel beam and propel himself into the air in huge leaps that can be timed to resemble flying if there is a constant source of steel on the ground below him to push upward on.

As an element of magic, this steel pushing power has defined attributes, logic, and limits.  It behaves within the known laws of gravity and forces of wind, rain and other elements.  It is a power we do not have in the real world, but if we did, theoretically we could learn how to use it ourselves.

That last phrase, ‘theoretically we could learn how to use it ourselves’ is what appeals to me as reader and writer.  I like the wonder and awe of magic, but even more, I love the idea that if I had the innate power, I could actually learn to use these magics because as a reader, I’ve learned to understand how the magic works, and I can connect with the characters even more so because I want to be those characters for the duration of the story.  I want to use the magic they have.  I want to be the hero who has wits, weapons, and magic to face down evil and save the good people of the world from destruction or enslavement.  I become the viewpoint characters and use magic with them, because I know how to use the magic the way they do and am thus more fully vested in the outcome of the story.

That is what resonates for me as a reader and because of that, I write in the same manner.  I have developed a complex magic system that has rules, economics, defined attributes, a specific source, varying levels of power, and both known and unknown qualities that can be learned, studied, and pursued.  This magic systems interests me and hopefully, when applied to my epic fantasy series, will interest my readers.

Magic in fiction seems to be applied in a spectrum or scale of wonder on one end and system on the other.  Most writers of fantasy fiction fall somewhere on that spectrum.

Where do you fall?

Do you agree or disagree with Sanderson’s First Law?

What style of magic to you prefer to read?  To Write?  A defined system or an arcane power?  Both?

Please share your thoughts as either a reader or writer and let’s continue the Great Magic Debate.

–Mark


Lost in the story middle?

Once upon a time I was a pantser*, I had no problem coming up with great story ideas, interesting (I thought) characters, especially the antagonist, and was able to dive right into the first draft.

Alas, that inertia was like a ball rolled up an incline.  The ball rolled as far as my initial throw, but then part way up the slope, the ball would apex and start rolling backwards.  This happened to me on three consecutive novel projects.  My initial momentum slowed and then stopped, and then my first draft progress started backsliding as I began rethinking or reworking the first act of the story.  I was unable to move forward, feeling compelled to fix what I’d written before I could continue.

The problem of course was that I hadn’t thought through the entire story.  I wanted to discover the story as I went along.  I wanted to be both the writer and the first reader of the story.  I wanted to be surprised by what the characters did and what happened.  I didn’t want to write the story, I wanted the characters to write the story for me.  This is the way Stephen King does it, so why shouldn’t I emulate one of the masters?

Upon reflection and analysis–although I didn’t figure this out until much later–I discovered one main problem with this approach.  In essence, I didn’t really know the main characters well enough to know what they would do in the setting I created with the story premise/idea I had.  Where/when would they really become involved in the story problem?  What was their life like before the inciting incident?  How would they react to sudden changes?  What inner demons do they struggle with?  What goals would they put aside to solve the story problem?  And perhaps the biggest question, how would the inner and outer goals of all the main characters oppose each other and what conflict would result?

If the characters have the proper dimension and depth for the type and genre of story you intend to tell, the answers to most if not all of the questions above would be answered.  Knowing the characters is really the main way to maintain story inertia.  When you know the characters well enough, it’s easier to decide what they’ll do in each scene, how they’ll react to situations and the actions/reactions of other characters.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

So what are ways to better understand your characters, and thus the entire story?

First, I suggest getting over the hangup I had about trying to keep the unfolding events of the story a surprise to you the writer.  You are the writer, not the first reader.  Most of us simply cannot tell a proper story without knowing the entire story from beginning to end.  How else will you properly foreshadow, plant story seeds that bloom later, flashback or reveal mysteries, expand on motivations, introduce subplots and red herrings, and have a proper character arc for your protagonist if you don’t know the details of your plot?  If you can do this without any planning, stellar.  I cannot.

Second, know your characters better than you know anyone else.  The writer must know the characters’ deepest secrets, worst fears, fragile hopes, emotional scars, fervent desires, social needs, hidden and obvious talents, attitudes, biases, opinions, childhood traumas, moments of joy, and anything else that creates characters readers want to spend time with.  How you do this as a writer is up to you.  Interview the character, write a biography page or two, use a character profile sheet or tool, write a series of journal entries in first person from the character’s POV, or simply write down everything you know about yourself that would be needed in a story and change it all to match each main character.  By main characters, I mean the viewpoint characters, protagonist, antagonist, and any prominent character whose actions in the story drive change.  Secondary characters do not need as much depth, but you should know them at least as well as you know members of your family or your friends, so you can predict their behavior and attitudes in each scene.

Third, write an outline.  I’ve posted about this previously here and a follow-up here.  An outline is a roadmap for your story.  Use whatever level of detail you wish.  Some writers, write a single page to describe the main events of the story.  Others write a hundred page detailed scene by scene breakdown.  I’m still experimenting with my outline style, but suffice it to say, I use both synopsis style narrative outlines, spreadsheet style scene lists, and plot timeline charts.  An outline will help you know the full story, help you see the pace and rhythm of events, and will help you see where the characters are acting on the story problem and where they are reacting to the story problem or other characters.

Fourth, and this is a lesson I’ve learned this past month, don’t be a slave to either character profiles or your initial outline.  Treat these planning materials as first drafts.

These past two months, I’ve been stalled on my current novel project, The Order of X, Book One of my epic fantasy series.  I had used The Snowflake Method to design the story and characters.  Additionally, I completed five-page character profiles for each main character and abbreviated profiles for secondary characters.  I had more planning and preparation references that I’d ever used before, and STILL I got stuck at the end of the first act of the story, about 30,000 words in.

My initial characters ideas were flawed.  One viewpoint character was so unique and against type, she was unlikable.  The protagonist had no emotional depth and reaction to serious events in the story.  The initial obstacles were tough, but got too easy and predictable after they got through them.  I didn’t have enough suspense or conflict with the antagonist.

My story inertia had stalled and I could feel that ball hitting an apex and starting to roll backwards.  Rather than give up and switch projects, like I’ve done so often in the past, I went back to my character profiles, outline, and scene list and revisited it all, spending most of the past month making changes.  Predictably, I found several story gaps that require entire new scenes and chapters.

After all, I know the characters better now that before I started the draft.  I also know what story path follows the least resistance and therefore is the least interesting.

For me, the way to get unstuck was to be willing to change my initial planning documents to get to a better, fuller, more complete story, and I’m much happier with the story now.

I wrote the first new scene in over a month last night.

I’m now unstuck and the ball is again rolling uphill.  This time, however, I’ll stay with the ball and keep nudging it so it maintains momentum until the story is concluded and I can write “The End.”

What strategies have you used to navigate the vast maze of the middle of a story?

* a writer who writes by the seat of their pants, just winging the story by pure inspiration and/or force of will with little or no planning or preparation.


Famous First Lines

Image from Wikipedia

In the competitive marketplace of books, how does a writer hook a browsing reader deeply enough to entice him into the story world? How do you make a browser into a purchaser and ultimately a reader?

There are some basic features of a book that I’ll be covering over the next several posts to draw potential readers far enough into the story for them to decide if they like it enough to buy.

In the order that a browser discovers a new book, the tools I’m going to focus on over the next few posts are:

  1. Cover
  2. Title/Author’s Name
  3. Back of book blurb/positive review blurbs
  4. First Line

For some reason, I have decided to start with the last first.

First Lines.

What is so important about the first line? If the browser already likes the title, cover art, and story summary on the back, why then is the first sentence/paragraph of the story equally important?

It’s simple. The cover, title, and blurbs are not the story. They are the packaging, the wrapping, the dressing, or the window display. Those elements found outside the book, on the front and back covers, are marketing elements meant to attract the reader to the book from among all the other books for sale nearby, whether on a book shelf in a store, or in a list of thumbnails on a virtual shelf at an online retailer.

Consider the packaging elements your bait and the first line your hook.

The first line, however, is the absolute beginning of the story and the first written words by you–the author–that will plant the story question in the browser’s mind. A poor or forgettable first line may not allow the hook to set. The browser may simply move on to another book, the way a nibbling trout may decide the bait isn’t enticing enough to swallow.

A solid or even great first line, though, can set the hook deeply and instantly raise a compelling question in the browser’s mind that allows him to be reeled in. The browser become a reader and wants to find out what happens next.

That first line will be provocative, unique, and appropriate for the story theme and genre. For some examples from famous and/or classic novels, The American Book Review posted their list of top 100 first lines. You can read the list here.

Many of those story openings are still excellent, even by today’s popular reading tastes and standards.

So, how does a writer create that great first line that completes the four elements needed to hook a browser and turn them into a purchasing reader?

Let’s analyze my published story, “Time Soldier”, and see if I succeeded in opening with a compelling story question that entices a reader to continue. If you want to read this story, I’ve posted it here in an earlier blog. I must warn you, I wrote this a long time ago, so I’m hoping I’ve progressed a bit since then.

Here’s the opening sentence:

The man in the olive drab army jacket awoke in a daze.

If a browser saw this one single sentence, what story question is raised?

The first character introduced is usually an important one, often the protagonist. So the browser could assume they’ve now met a key character. What else is known? The man’s attire. An army jacket has a certain connotation that means either a current or former soldier, or someone who shops at an army surplus store. Since the title of this story is “Time Soldier”, the browser can safely assume they’ve now met the time soldier.

awoke in a daze.

This is where the first line gets a little more interesting. Why is the man dazed and where did he awake? What happened to him? Is he in the middle of a battle? Is it after a battle? Is he waking from a nightmare years after a war?

If the reader was already interested enough based on the title to begin reading the story, then this opening line may compound that interest so the browser will want to know what is happening to this man in the army jacket who just awoke in a daze.

Will the browser read on?

Here are the next two sentences:

He sat up and looked around suspiciously. He was in a small park near a line of rusted railroad tracks.

Okay, now we have the setting introduced to help orient the reader. If the reader was wondering where the man awakened, that question is quickly answered. But a new question is raised by the man’s reaction to the setting. He is “suspicious”. So, he either doesn’t know where he is or expected to be somewhere else. Being in a park isn’t unusual, but waking up in a park seems unusual for this man.

So why is he in the park? How did he get there? Why is he dazed? What has happened to him? Drugs? Hangover? Wound? A simple nap?

Again, the reader is already aware that the title character is a time soldier, so perhaps the man just traveled through time and that is why he’s dazed. That is possible, but the answer isn’t yet apparent. The browser will need to read on.

Here’s the rest of the opening paragraph:

A slight breeze barely moved his dusty, unkempt hair. He looked down at this chest and thoughtfully watched the flow of blood slow to a trickle. In an instant, his life’s liquid dried and the hole in his chest sealed itself up like punctured bread dough. What was left was an odd numb sensation.

Okay, pardon the clumsy descriptions, but the rest of this opening paragraph answers a couple of the initial questions, but then raises more.

He’s dusty and dirty. Perhaps he came from a battle, or has traveled a great distance. Perhaps he’s homeless. We don’t yet know.

He’s bleeding, but the bleeding is stopping and he watches this happen “thoughtfully” as if it is either not a surprise or is a common occurrence. This is provocative. Why is he bleeding? How severe is the wound?

The bleeding stops, dries up and then the hole in his chest seals up? Whoa! What is this? He was apparently shot in the chest and was bleeding, but he is suffering no effects AND the wound closes itself! What is going on? This is a bigger story question.

Okay, so we now know that this time soldier was shot and woke in an unfamiliar place. He probably traveled through time from the place where he was shot. Somehow, though, his body can heal itself. If he can’t be hurt, then maybe he can’t die. What does this mean? Why can’t he be hurt? Is this a curse, a blessing, magic, advanced science, or a function of time travel?

All these questions would occur to me and I know the rest of the story.

If the story questions are intriguing enough to propel the browser forward, the hook sets, and you’ve just landed a reader.

Now that the reader is hooked, the rest of your story needs to deliver on the opening story promise and answer all the initial story questions in a believable and satisfying manner. How the writer accomplishes that is a huge topic worthy of many future posts. For now, I refer you to your favorite writing book or web site on how to finish the story you started.

So, let’s recap the importance of first lines.

First, you capture the browser’s attention with an attractive cover, unique or intriguing title, polished story summary blurb, and reviewer blurbs from reviewers the reader may know (a best-selling writer would be good).

Then you quickly hook the browser with a first line that immediately raises a story question that the browser wants answered and is willing to keep reading to discover.

Write a great first line and you have one more effective way to turn a browser into a reader.

And that is exactly what a writer wants, to have readers.

In my next post, I’ll talk about one of the other elements of turning browsers into readers.

Until then, what are some of your favorite first lines from novels you’ve read? Why do you like them?

If you’re a writer, how do you approach first lines?


A Writer Reads

…but what does reading have to do with writing?

For most of us, we learned to write around the same time we learned to read.  It is likely our ability to read developed more quickly than our ability to write and if we liked reading, we did a lot of it.

I was such a child.  I read everything I could find that interested me, from story books, fairy tales, and fables, to Time-Life books about the planets, dinosaurs, Time, or the Earth.  I even read every word of those Publishers Clearing House envelopes stuffed with prizes and magazines to order.

What I most loved to read, though, were stories.  The Bookmobile stopped across the street from our house every Friday after school for years.  I found the selection limited, though, and began haunting my elementary school library and later the middle and high school libraries.  Once I could drive, I spent many Saturday afternoons browsing the racks at the city library.

Somewhere along the way, after reading the dozens of novels and hundreds of stories, all that reading flipped a switch inside me that illuminated my writer self.  I distinctly remember wanting to write a story for the first time in my early teens.  The story was about an evil janitor with occult powers to punish any kids who played hide and seek in the medical and dental offices near where I lived.  The story concept had some merit, but the writing itself was terrible.

Ever since I finished that short story, though, I’ve thought of myself as a writer.

But what does reading have to do with writing?

The act of writing is putting a story to words so that another reader can experience that story as you intended to tell it.

The more stories and novels an aspiring writer has read, the more proper story structure, format, characterization, description, plot, and theme permeate the subconscious almost like osmosis.

There is a rhythm to storytelling that is not always innate, but can be learned through reading and studying how other writers tell stories.  How do they evoke emotion?  How do they paint images in the reader’s mind?  How often do they address all five senses?  Are characters revealed through thought, dialog, action, or all three?  What word choices to they use?  How is action paced and balanced with reflection?  Are scenes long or short?  How are the best stories begun?  How are the best stories ended?

Much can be learned by simply reading, taking no thought to how the writer did it, but just enjoying the story.  Even more can be gained by actually studying how the writer wrote a passage that resonates with you or impresses you in some way.

By reading a variety of authors, genres, and both new and old stories, you can learn from the example of others.

If you did nothing else but read avidly and write, you would have a head start over those who attempt to write, but don’t read and thus haven’t saturated their minds and souls with the rhythms of story.

As an example, I’m currently reading Brotherhood of the Wolf the second in the Runelords series by David Farland.  I subscribe to his Daily Kick newsletters on writing and publishing topics and find his advice is generally outstanding.  I like the Runelords world and like to see how he writes epic fantasy, especially his earlier books in the late 90s.

I’m also re-reading Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  I’m trying to deepen my understanding of characterization to improve my current novel in progress, The Lost Tower.

Remember that a writer reads.  Stephen King said in his book On Writing that you really can’t be a writer unless you read a lot.  Good advice from one of the masters.

And with that, what are you currently reading and why?


Real Name vs. Pen Name

Many aspiring authors get to a point in their writer’s journey where submissions and potential publication are on the agenda. One question that needs answering is “Under what name will you publish?”

What name? Really? Isn’t that a given? My name, of course. I was born Mark Taylor, and everyone who knows me knows me by that name. (Okay, not everyone knows my middle name, but I’ll talk about that in a bit.)

Shouldn’t I use the written version of my identity, my honorific, my calling card, and the name printed on my birth certificate?

Possibly.

Are there reasons not to use a real name when assigning author credit to a work of fiction? What are the benefits and obstacles of using a pseudonym? Do readers even care about the name on the book?

Let’s discuss.

For many writers and authors, it is not even a question. They use their given name on their books and stories. This serves to expand their identity to include an author identity from which they can relate professionally to peers in the industry, publishers, agents, lawyers, and of course readers. The author brand created and maintained is an extension of the identity their maintain in their personal lives.

There is also a certain thrill, a professional satisfaction, of seeing your own name in print beneath the title of a story or book. My lone experience with this is my published story, “Time Soldier”. It was my first and only publication to date and seeing my name both in the table of contents and under the story title in that little literary magazine from Colorado was amazing and a bit surreal. I aspire to recreate that experience with my new works of fantasy.

A big part of me wants to see my name, the name I use all the time, for my written works. I want to see my name on my books on Amazon.com and at the local Barnes and Noble store.

After all, I’m writing the stories. Shouldn’t I give myself credit? Shouldn’t I be proud of my work and stand behind it by putting my own name on each story?

Why wouldn’t I do this? Why would any writer use another fictitious name?

Wikipedia defines a pen name as:

“A pen name, nom de plume, or literary double, is a pseudonym adopted by an author. A pen name may be used to make the author’s name more distinctive, to disguise his or her gender, to distance an author from some or all of his or her works, to protect the author from retribution for his or her writings, or for any of a number of reasons related to the marketing or aesthetic presentation of the work. The author’s name may be known only to the publisher, or may come to be common knowledge.”

The excerpt above relates nicely several of the reasons for an author to use a pseudonym.

If an author’s real name is either too common or too similar to that of a published author, he might use a pen name.

If an author is prominent in another field or industry and wants to keep professional identities separate, she might use a pen name.

If an author’s real name is not marketable enough because it is too unique, difficult to spell, or difficult to remember, he might use a pen name.

Who is to judge if any of these criteria apply?

Some authors use initials or a middle name to distinguish from other published authors or even prominent celebrities.

Popular suspense writer Dean Koontz went by Dean R. Koontz for many years. World famous Harry Potter author Joanne Rowling goes by J. K. Rowling. Fantasy and sci-fi author Orson Scott Card obviously uses his full given name.

What does this mean? Is there a right or wrong way to name yourself?

Ultimately, it boils down to author preference. No one, not even a publisher, will tell you what name to use. (Although if you are an established genre writer and wish to change genres, your agent and/or editor may suggest a pseudonym. )

After all, even Stephen King used the pseudonym Richard Bachman for his non-horror works

As for me, I am undecided. My given name was indeed given to me, and with a pseudonym I could choose any name I want.  But do I want an alternate identity as an author?

That is the question every author must answer.

Are you using a pseudonym?  Do you plan to use a pen name?  Why or why not?


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.