Tag Archives: pilgrim

Secrets of the Writer’s Journey (repost)

A full year has passed since I launched this blog in August of 2010.  Looking back, I learned quite a bit about the nature of the writer’s journey.  By writing about it and hearing from others on similar paths, or from those who offer support along the way, I’ve come to appreciate that no undertaking is ever completed alone.  As such, I will share some of what I’ve learned.

I’ve reflected on the pilgrimage over the last twelve months and have discovered the following:

  • The publishing landscape has shifted with the advent of self-publishing eBooks via Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt, or Smashwords.  Many new breakout authors are coming from the ranks of the indie published, and many big names are putting out new work themselves via e-publishing.  This change alone has altered my intended path to publication.  I have decided to forgo traditional paper publishing in the near term and will focus my efforts on what many call indie publishing.  I am in the process of forming a small publishing company and will be publishing my own work electronically.  More details about that next month.
  • My writing goals have expanded.  When I started discussing my own journey and what I knew or thought I knew my only work in progress was Book One of an epic fantasy series. Since then, I’ve put that book on hold to write a new Book One (it takes place ten years earlier).  I’ve also written two novelettes (stories around 10,000 words in length) for near term e-publishing.  One via an anthology with my writer’s group, Quindecim, and the other as a standalone story that serves as a prologue to a contemporary/historical fantasy I’m outlining for release next year.  So rather than just one epic fantasy project, I have five distinct works in progress.  The key will be to finish them all and get them in publishable condition.  I’ll post more about those experiences as they occur.
  • Feedback is critical to improvement.  “A writer writes” is my mantra and favorite slogan, but perhaps I should expand that to be: “A professional writer writes well”.  What is “well”?  Writing well, means having a professional level of story craft.  This comes from practice, practice, practice.  And it comes from feedback from your first reader and beta readers.  We writers are not the best judge of our own work.  We all need a few trusted readers to read our stories or novel chapters and tell us what works and what doesn’t from a story perspective.  Does the opening hook the reader?  Does the ending satisfy?  Do the characters resonate?  Is the pace right?  Are there confusing descriptions?  Is the setting clear and grounded?  Many, if not all, of these questions can be answered for the writer by trusted readers.  If you don’t have some, get some. Friends, colleagues, family, may all be willing to help.  It is also preferable to have at least one writer provide feedback, to add an even more critical review of the story.  Join a writer’s group and get feedback from peers.  The feedback is invaluable.

Even though I haven’t yet completed one of my longer works, I am pleased with my progress so far and can still see the pilgrim’s road quite clearly ahead.  Looking back, we’ve had some good discussions about these Arcane Roads.  For newer visitors, I’m listing below a few of the most popular posts over the past year.  These generated the most interest and/or comments.

The writer’s journey, or the pilgrimage to publication as I’ve dubbed it, is an endless road of discovery.

For the writers out there, what has your journey been like the past year?  For you readers out there, what roads are you traveling?

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When to leap before you look

It is conventional wisdom that in most situations it is wise to look before you leap. Imagine hiking along a trail and coming to a gully filled with a swift moving creek. If you simply kept stride and jumped across, you may only make it halfway, or you may land on a river stone, twisting an ankle, or the opposite bank may be sloped and muddy causing you to back slide into the water. Now if you pause at the edge of the trail and assess the distance, the conditions, and the landing zone, you would be able to make the best decision possible on how to handle the situation, be it turning back, finding a bridge, or running and long jumping the creek and landing in a reasonably safe spot. In this example, common sense should prevail to prevent delays, wet clothes, injury, or worse.

However, when is it not only permissible, but recommended that one approach a situation in a less cautious manner.

When is it a good idea to take that leap with little or no thought or preparation?

What we are really talking about here is taking risks. And what type of risks do readers and writers take? Well, not usually the physically dangerous kind. Although our characters may charge headlong into battle against a mighty gorgon wielding only a longbow and twin dirks, we typically do not. If you have done this, please let me know how it turned out.

I suggest we look at risk taking not as a blind leap but more of a calculated effort. Writers by nature tend to be thinkers and often think so much that indecision creeps in like a scorpion, stinging us into a paralysis of sorts. So let’s look at the usual writing risks and discuss how to overcome them.

1. Writing – The risk here is that you will spend time writing fiction that could productively be spent elsewhere. My advice, don’t write instead of working to provide for your family. Write in addition to working to provide for your family. If you have important obligations within your family, don’t neglect them to write. Most aspiring and many published novelists keep their day jobs and still produce and sell. Reduce the risk and find a good a time to write that doesn’t interfere with the other important aspects of your life. Warning, don’t rank writing so low on the priority list that you’re not writing at all because you are trying to stay current on seventeen TV shows.

2. Writing well – The risk here is that the writing produced isn’t very good. And for most beginning writers, that will be true. As with any skill, it must be used and developed with mistakes made to get any better. I read somewhere that it takes approximately 1 million written words for a writer to achieve a level of expertise that is considered professional and publishable. Reduce the risk of poor writing by writing a lot and persisting through the challenging learning curve. Expect obstacles and frustration but work through them. If not, you risk giving up on writing and that would be unacceptable.

3. Selling/Publishing – This is where the risks for a writer create the same type of fear or exhilaration that a physically dangerous situation may create for an extreme sports junkie. For writers, the risk is facing rejection and that is one of the hardest things to bear. We may take it personally and question our writing ability and our place in the literary world. How to overcome? If you have achieved a level of proficiency to where your work is of high caliber, has been edited and beta read and is the best possible version of your story, then the bigger risk is that it will collect dust in your office, or remain a file full of bytes, never seen by anyone. Again, after tens of thousands of word and countless hours, would you be content to let your story mothball? Unacceptable. So, the lesser risk is facing rejection. We all know the story of how Sylvester Stallone faced hundreds of rejections for the Rocky script before finding a home where he would also be the lead actor. His career took off from there and it was because of persistence and believing in his work. This is the key, believe in yourself, learn to write at a professional level and the risks are minimized.

Now let me share two recent writing risks I’ve taken to prove that I take my own advice. First, this blog. I had never considered starting a writing blog until I read a post at Suite101.com explaining why novelists, even aspiring ones, should start a blog. I read it, thought about it a bit, and then one Saturday, logged onto WordPress.com and started posting. For those of you who know we well, this was definitely a leap. I didn’t research for weeks on blogs and blogging and what I would say and would it be worth anything. If I had looked first, I may still be researching the best approaches to blogging, getting lost in the sea of endless tips available on the web.

My second leap, if you will, is joining an online writer’s group. I subscribe to a newsletter from a prominent fantasy author who is sponsoring a forum for virtual writer’s groups. My instinct was to wait and see, watch and learn, think about it, blah blah blah. But, my awesome wife, who knows me too well, said to just sign up and do it. So I did. And I’ve found myself a very active member of the group and have made some new acquaintances in the writing world. Is this a real risk? It is only a risk it that I’m facing the unknown and stepping into the darkness. This is my first writing group of any kind and I have no idea what to expect. But, I think the greater risk again is missing out on the feedback and the camaraderie that comes from working with peers to support and guide writing careers. Writers may work alone, but we do not and should not dwell on an island.

It takes discretion and good judgment to know when to look first and when it is okay to leap first. It is my belief, that as writer’s we can and take more risks with our writing and our careers. We should not vacillate or hesitate too much or we risk missing opportunities to learn and grow as writers and eventually to match our stories with an eager reading audience.

–Mark


How to fake the truth…

…or how to create verisimilitude in your fantasy or any other fiction writing.

The first definition on www.dictionary.com for verisimilitude is: the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability. (You have noticed I’m slipping in a vocabulary word with each post. Well, this post is by a writer for writers and readers alike, after all.)

This mouthful of a “v-word” is the key to writing believable fiction of any kind. Why does fiction need to be believable? Isn’t a story about magic and dragons or spaceships and aliens all pretty unbelievable?

Could things in fantastic fiction actually happen or have they happened? Is that really the point of a story, to illustrate exactly what happens in reality?

No.

If you want facts and reality, read or watch the news (some would argue all that is fiction as well, but that is not the subject of this blog), read biographies or history books (more fiction?).

Stories are meant to transport the reader or audience (in the case of oral storytelling) to another time and place that really only happens in the mind. A good story entertains our sense of action and adventure, it illuminates our sense of understanding of people and the world, and it moves us to feel empathy and sympathy for people in situations that are extraordinary. We walk away from a great story changed as much or more than the characters. But how is all this accomplished?

A story has many parts and I will focus in this post on the facet of believability or often referred to as the “suspension of disbelief“. This concept is used throughout the world of screenwriting and movies and although less visibly discussed in fiction circles, it is equally apropos.

Suspending disbelief means the writer must create a world or a setting that rings true, even if it is a distant planet or a magic land of eldritch beings. The key here is that “ringing true” is not “actually true”. The writer seeks for the appearance of truth, or verisimilitude. So, how does a writer fake the truth?

We have all heard the advice “write what you know”. This is the first step. Your unique point of view on the world and how it works and how people interact is what you know. You know how gravity works, how water feels, what a banana tastes like and how it feels to be upset, happy, bored, or afraid. This is what you know. Use this to fuel your setting and characters. Characters that behave or have traits like people you know or have met will “ring true.” If you invent a fantastic fruit for your world that is called an “ananab” (banana spelled backwards), and it tastes like a banana, describe it as such. It will appear to be true and the audience and reader will accept that this fruit is similar to a real world banana. They will not question your flora or fauna and will continue reading for the story, to see what happens next. This step means that as a writer, you can’t sit around your house all day reading and writing. What you know doesn’t necessarily mean how another writer you’ve read describes bananas. When you write, it should be how you would describe a banana. A writer must live and experience life sufficient to have enough real world experience and information to draw upon to give the appearance of truth. So, go out there and try a pomegranate, go fish in the ocean, eavesdrop in a cafe, cook a souffle, play with a child, or paint a picture. Do stuff and then write what you know.

The next step to fake the truth is research. Let’s face it, the sum total of what we know, regardless of our age, experience, or travels isn’t much. If you’ve never ridden a horse, how do you describe it? Watch movies about horses, read books, talk to equestrians? If it is not feasible to do it yourself, then yes, do all the preceding and learn about it. Research fills in the gaps of your knowledge so that you can write with authority about horses, or castles, or hyper drives, or laser torches. A little research goes a long way. Most readers won’t be interested in the architecture and construction materials of a castle, nor do they necessarily want the floor plan described to them. They want just enough information to picture the castle and the relevant details to make it seem real in their mind. Remember, if the reader can picture something in their mind, that goes a long ways towards accepting its story truth.

And ultimately, a story truth is an agreement between the writer and the reader. The writer promises a story that however fantastic seems real, that has verisimilitude. The reader promises to suspend disbelief of those fantastic elements in order to enjoy the story.

Of the two, the writer has the bigger responsibility to deliver on the promise. If the writer cannot or will not, the reader is no longer obligated and is free to read something else, or worse, turn on the television.

So writing what you know and researching what you don’t are two ways I’ve found to create stories that seem true, despite the presence of magic or monsters.  If the story world seems real and the setting seems plausible and the characters act like real people act, then you will have achieved verisimilitude in your writing and your story.

For me, in my fantasy novel, I did not know how to buy a horse and tell its age.  So I looked it up online and found that you can tell the age of a young horse by how developed and/or worn down its eye teeth are.  I also didn’t know how far a horse or a coach pulled by horses could ride in a day.  Rather than make it up and have horse experts sneer at my poor fact checking, I looked it up so that when my characters ride horses, they ride a realistic distance each day.  Sure, they may face other less real things in their journey, but at least the setting and transportation are both plausible and grounded in real world experience and physics.

This is how I fake the truth.  Make everything as real as possible and your monsters and magic or starships and time travel will seem real enough for the reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story.

And isn’t that the point of telling a story, so that it is heard?

-Mark


What is a novelist’s pilgrimage?

…and how does one begin?

The third definition of PILGRIMAGE at www.dictionary.com is: “any long journey, esp. one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose…”  If you are like me I had to look up the word “votive” and it has to do with “vows or desires”.  We all know a novelist is that rare and pretentious being whose core belief is that he can tell a story others will pay to read.

Therefore, the combined definition of a “novelist’s pilgrimage” reads something like this:  “the endless, yet determined quest of an aspiring storyteller to find and entertain a paying audience.”

That’s my initial definition and I invite all to add, subtract, or offer their own comments.

While you are pondering such deep thoughts, let me introduce you to my own novelist’s pilgrimage or “What I intend to write about in this blog for the foreseeable future.”

I’ve always been a bookworm.  At least that is what my neighborhood friends dubbed me after I repeatedly forsook their persistent invitations to play basketball or street football in favor of reading fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, or horror.  Instead of socializing with peers, on most days I spent the few minutes before school started and my 45 minutes at lunch in either the middle school or high school library browsing and reading and browsing some more in my quest to find the next great read.  My epic fantasy education came later in my teens and early twenties when I discovered the heavyweights, some of which surprisingly I didn’t like very much.

So, what does all this reading have to do with anything?

I am going to go out on a fairly thick and safe limb here by saying that it is rare for an aspiring writer to NOT be a voracious reader.  Stephen King said in his book, On Writing, and I paraphrase, that if you don’t read you can’t write.  Period.

I was a reader first.  Then at the age of 15, in my sophomore English class, we had a creative writing section.  It was then and there that I discovered I had a knack for entertaining my peers and often discomfiting my teacher.  As I recall, I was the only student in that class to always volunteer to read my story out loud to the class.  During every story I read aloud, I became a lightning rod for all the reactions and comments from my peers.  I absorbed their feedback as if it were pure energy for my burgeoning writer’s soul.  I was otherwise the wallflower type and they never heard from me during or outside of class.  The proverbial icing though, was the  look of consternation on my poor teacher’s face as she realized she had unleashed a fiction writing Kraken on an unsuspecting world.  She was a great teacher, and despite the expression on her face of having just bitten into an orange peel, she always gave positive, if not vanilla, feedback.  If there was a point in my pre-adult life that was the genesis of my identity as a fiction writer, that year in sophomore English class in San Jose, California was it.

Fast forward two decades and change to the present time.  This blog is part of my own pilgrimage to write and sell a novel length work of epic fantasy.  My writer’s journey in some ways mirrors those of the protagonists in my first novel as they too are on a pilgrimage of sorts that will obviously be quite more exciting and dangerous than my own adventurers sitting before my Dell laptop.  I have started chronicling my efforts one year into the life of this novel.  I began world-building in August 2009 and began the first draft the week after Christmas of 2009.  I am somewhere in the vast middle of the story, having written  ~75,000 words.  From this point forward, I will share a weekly glimpse into my processes and discoveries, my frustrations and problem-solving, and I expect I will learn quite a lot from others on the same journey.

I invite you to come with me on this odyssey.  Perhaps we can give aid to each other along the way when the storms rage, and the seas froth, and the great wolves converge on the humble travelers on that lonely dirt road seeking only to tell stories of other worlds that are heard by a willing and receptive audience.

For the inaugural post of my ongoing novelist’s pilgrimage, I leave you with a final thought.  If you want to write, write.  If you want others to read what you write, write and share.  If you want others to read AND like what you write, write and write and write ( this means learn as much as you can about the craft of writing) and then share what you write any way you see fit.  I’ll talk about my approach to all this as the pilgrimage proceeds.

Until next week…


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.