Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Big Picture, Part 1: The Point and Purpose

As I have mentioned previously, writing these posts helps me refine the ideas behind my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men.   They force me to express my nebulous thoughts in concrete sentences.    To take the vague and make it specific.

The protagonist of Gods Among Men is Damon Roth. Recently I had an epiphany where I saw behind Damon’s tactics, which I had instinctively settled on long ago, and grasped his strategy in a clear manner.  I glimpsed into the devious mind of a character I had created and truly understood him for perhaps the first time.  I saw how he treated the world as a chessboard, and people as pieces moving on that board.   The reasons behind his actions became clear to me, and I appreciated the elegant brutality of his solutions to problems. 

This knowledge allowed me to write a clear, concise summary of the fundamental story.  I tried to write down Damon’s strategy and tactics in a similar manner, but found myself balked by my mythology.  I discovered that to understand “why” Damon acts as he does requires understanding:
  1. The world he lives in
  2. The nature of the threat he is responding to
  3. His ideas for addressing that threat
  4. The reasons some oppose him and others support him.
  5. How he plans to eliminate those who oppose him
  6. How he plans to reward those who support him
  7. Why he sees himself as a threat to his own plans, and his solution to that problem.
That is a tall order.  A single post, or even a single day’s work, is insufficient to write something that covers all of that.  To explain Damon’s strategy and tactics I must first explain the big picture in a way I have never done before.  It requires spelling out information that hitherto resides solely in my mind.  Plot points which I intend to incorporate into my story as needed. 

The finished story is the ultimate, and definitive, explanation for all of this.  But a summary of what I intend the story to contain, written so it is clear to the average person, is a reasonable goal.  In fact, such a summary is necessary if I hope to someday be published. 

Which brings us to the point and purpose of this series of posts, which I am calling The Big Picture.  In this series I will explore the history and mythology that forms the setting for Gods Among Men. I shall explain how the world transitioned from the way it once was to how it is now; and why that is important.  I will reveal enough of the back-story of central characters, along with their motivations, so that their goals are put into context.  I will explain the threat that Damon is responding to, along with his solution to the threat. Finally I will reveal Damon’s byzantine plot and what he hopes to achieve.   I shall reveal the cost he must pay for his plans succeed.

This is not to suggest I am going to post on this subject exclusively.  Merely that I will return to it regularly for some time to come.  It is, after all, a subject dear to my heart.  Plus, I don’t want the vagaries of memory and the demon of time to steal my current clarity of thought. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

When Last We Met…

Yesterday, Sunday September 27, The Magic City Writers met to review the first chapter of Lindy’s new story, The Night Things.  We also gained a new member, Kyle Strickland, and for the first time ever Nicole missed a meeting.  (She felt under the weather and stayed home instead.)  I shall get into the details of the meeting itself right after our on going segment I like to call “Lets Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate”.  Granted, this is a long title, but it’s just so darn descriptive (and evil) I can’t resist it.

Kathryn made 'pork chalupas by putting uncooked pinto beans, a pork loin roast, chili powder, onions, stewed tomatoes, and cumin in a crock pot for 8 hours.  The pork was then pulled apart, and the pork and beans were served over a bed of bite-size Tostitos chips and topped with chopped tomatoes, sour cream, sliced avocados, cheese, and salsa.  As a snack she made pumpkin bread using a civil war recipe.  It was especially good when sprinkled with cinnamon.  I followed this up with a chaser of Neurontin, Flexeril, and a heating pad, but I digress.

Now back to the meeting. 

Literally, just seconds ago, it dawned upon me that I forgot to record the meeting.  Lindy, I am sorry.  I shall blame the Neurontin for making me a scatterbrain. 

Lindy’s new story starts off with an extremely well-written first draft of her first chapter.  In fact the group consensus was that she should break what she showed us into two good chapters.  It was not perfect, but I have seen published works that were worse than what she wrote.  Speaking for myself, I thought she had good descriptions, well-defined characters (though some need to get their meds balanced), an intriguing plot, and a foreboding style that created a wonderfully creepy atmosphere at times.   If she wrote an entire book at this level of quality I feel confident she could find a publisher willing to help her edit the rough parts.  Congratulations Lindy, you deserve it.

Lindy also introduced us to her friend, Kyle Strickland, who decided to join our group.  Kyle is a freelance writer who has had several short stories published and also writes for the site  Kyle’s view of the writing industry was quite different than the one we got from authors Bill Drinkard and Jeremy Lewis.  I think we all learned a lot talking with him.  With luck, we will even be able to entice him into positing some of his manifestos on this site.  Welcome to the group Kyle.

Kyle also has the dubious distinction of being the tenth person on our mailing list.  This is the limit for BlogSpot, unless I can find a way around it.  This means that those of you receiving these posts must now take it upon yourself to forward them to everyone you know.  I’m sure I can count on each of you to either do your part or ignore this not-so-subtle suggestion.

After the meeting, Lindy and Kathryn retired to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I read an insightful e-mail upon...uh, I mean…on my own writing from a dear friend and former professor, Ada Long.   (Yes, there is a private joke in the middle of that sentence.  If you didn’t get it, it wasn’t aimed at you.  Which, I  suppose, is the whole meaning of the word private in the previous sentence.  Oh…dear…god.  I’ve started analyzing my post on analyzing writing while I’m writing it.  If I don’t move on, this whole post could get sucked into a metaphysical black hole formed by the weight of its own cyber-drivel. )

Ada and I recently exchanged writings in an informal way and she send me a very nice letter that contained both high praise and thoughtful criticism.  Ada admits to having no interest in fantasy, but nevertheless said she thought my first two chapters were, “terrific”.  Ada’s positive influence on my life has been considerable, and her knowledge of literature is quite deep.  Therefore, I think you can understand why I am feeling a little proud myself at the moment. 

With regards to her criticisms, some I immediately addressed, while others I must consider more carefully.   Especially since they touch upon…uh, I mean…on my long running war with grammar. I do not wish to elaborate in an already overlong post, so perhaps I shall ruminate about her advice later.

That covers it for this meeting.  It was a good day, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.  Y’all take care and have fun.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The essence of character analysis

There are certain things that make a story’s character unique. Whether it is the kinky hairstyle, the way they always chew a toothpick, or their unerring strive towards justice, there is something that makes them special. But, your person is more than just that one unique quality. They are many stones that build up the base of your character’s personality, even if only one or two of them are easily recognized. One of the best ways I have found to create (or flesh out) a character is to write up an analysis of their character, what makes them tick. Here is my personalized list of what I do when trying to flesh out a hero, heroine, bad guy, or sidekick for my stories.

    Physical Description
    - Full name, including nicknames, maiden names, and aliases
    - Height, weight, age, sex, and race
    - Hair color and style, eye color, face shape
    - Tattoos, body piercings, scars, moles, freckles
    - Clothing, makeup, and jewelry preferences
    - Physical movements or quirks
    - Talkative or silent? Morose or happy? Introvert or extrovert?

    Writing Description
    - What words would you use to describe the character?
    - What phrases would be good to associate with the character?
    - What objects are associated with the character?
    - What places are associated with the character?
    - Are there any manners or morays of the time the character is in that affect the traits of the character?

    Morality and Motivation
    - What is the character’s moral compass set to?
    - What is the character’s core motivation?
    - Will this character change throughout the story?
    - Will this change in the character also affect the moral compass?
    - How will this change affect the others?

    - Are the characters actions normally wise or unwise?
    - Does the character think before acting, or more spur-of-the-moment?
    - What is the effect of the character’s actions on others?
    - Does the character have special moves or ways of doing things?

    Author’s Preference
    - What do you like about the character?
    - What do you dislike about the character?
I hope this outline of a simple character analysis helps anyone who is having trouble making their characters real or unique. At the very least, I hope this spurs whoever reads this into making a character list of their own.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Moment Of Epiphany

I am late with the posts this week  for two reasons.  First because of issues with my back, but more importantly I had and epiphany about my story, Gods Among Men.

It was strange for a plotter like me to admit this, but I had until recently put precious little thought into the machinations at the end of the story.   Which is not to say I did not know the ending, merely I hadn’t figured out how to get there.  The distinction is important.  Knowing the endpoint is a matter of plot, getting there is a matter of character and story.

I had all the characters, I knew I needed all of them, but I was uncertain why I needed all of them.  I knew many things I needed Damon to do, but it was all tactical maneuvers; I was missing a strategy to  tie the details together.

When insight strikes, you notice.   It is like when a puzzle makes sense, or a math proof becomes obvious.  Archimedes may well have yelled, “Eureka” at such a moment.  I, on the other hand, whispered something a trace more vulgar and gaped at mid-air.

I now know why Damon is doing certain things.  And I can explain, simply, the importance of each action to his plan. I understand the twisted plot now in a way I could not before.

And so, for perhaps the first time, I shall jot down what my story is about in a way anyone can understand.

This story is about Damon Roth. 

Its tag line is: One man’s quest to change himself starts with his attempts to change the world. 

The plot is about the fall of one empire and the founding of the greater empire that shall follow it. 

Damon Roth sees a threat so far in the future that for him to even talk of it makes people think him insane.  He takes it upon himself to save the world, even if it means destroying whole civilizations to do so.   The price of failure is his soul.

Damon will destroy the old empire and create a new one dedicated to confronting the future threat.  He will not rest, nor falter, nor turn aside in his quest to become the god of a new age.  To become known as Demiurge, God Among Men. 

But first he must  defeat the old Demiurge and steal his power.   Then he must identify the enemies and traitors who might move against him or  Tara Rihtwis, the woman he has chosen to rule the new empire.  He will empower these enemies until he is ready to destroy them, and in the process slay the old empire.

Damon is the hero of the story.  And he may well be a power-hungry madman.

Friday, September 18, 2009


So, a few of us Magic City Writers were talking the other day and we came up with this idea that we should have a t-shirt. Any ideas?

Also, here's a good site for literary terms.

The Unreliable Narrator

Most of the time, the reader can safely assume that the writer tells the truth.  That what appears on the page is an accurate version of events in a story.  This is not meant to suggest that characters do not tell lies to each other, or that the events themselves are plausible, merely that what is written on the page did in fact happen in the story. 

There are, however, exceptions to this rule.  The author can deliberately lie to the reader by relating events on the page, only to reveal that those events never actually happened in the story.  The narrator of the story becomes unreliable.

As an example, consider the movie, A Beautiful Mind, in which the principle character suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has constant delusional episodes.  His delusions are presented to the viewer as if they are really happening.  It is not until much later in the movie that we discover that much of what we have witnessed on the screen never happened.  We are required to search our memories and decipher what was real and what was false.  What actually happened during those delusional moments is left to our imaginations.  The narrator of the story, in this case the director, has lied to us and is therefore unreliable.

This technique of storytelling dates back over a thousand years and is used for many different effects.  In A Beautiful Mind it is used to both explain the nature of paranoid schizophrenia and to make the central character more sympathetic than he would be without that understanding. In other works it is used to set up a surprise ending, or to make the reader/viewer think about something in a new or different way.

I make use of the unreliable narrator technique in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, as a means to:

  • Describe a major event
  • Build a mystery around that event
  • Lay out the social order
  • Explain the military structure
  • Establish the limits on the powers of normal wizards
  • Show how the protagonist, Damon Roth, exceeds those limits. 

In an earlier post, I wrote about how my late wife, Ellen inspired me to change three places where characters describe a major event and make those tales into flashbacks told from their point of view. 

Making this change was problematic  because the tale the characters were telling was not entirely true.  Their minds had been altered and parts of what they related were fictions placed in their consciousness.   They were unreliable witnesses to the event, which is not quite the same thing as being an unreliable narrator.   They believed what they said was true, and clues that their recollections were false were given to the reader even as they spoke.

Once I wrote those scenes as flashbacks, and turned their delusions into events that would appear to be true to the reader, I became the unreliable narrator.  I started lying to the reader by describing events that did not happen the way I wrote them on the page.

This opened up possibilities and gave me great advantages as a storyteller. The flashbacks became exciting, action filled scenes, each one building on the last.  In each telling I added details--private thoughts, worries, desires, and observations--that the character wouldn’t include when telling their version of events to others, but which gave important information and insights to the reader.  The downside was the reader was forced to think about what was real and what was imaginary.  To sort through the clues and decipher what really happened, and what were parts of a magically induced delusion.  These were problems I could live with.

Since then, I have thought much about the unreliable narrator technique.  Were I to use it too much, then the story would become unreadable.  If nothing can be believed then the essential suspension of disbelief  is forfeited and the reader loses interest. 

Therefore I decided upon a simple rule: I will only use the unreliable narrator in flashback scenes, and those scenes will only be told from one point of view.   In non-flashback scenes, what the reader sees on the page will be true and reliable.

For example, I have an extended flashback where Artemis Arrowsmith relates the events that led to the death of her lover Marcus.   This scene will be told solely from her point of view, albeit in third person fashion.  Her actions, thoughts, feelings, and memories will be told to the reader directly.  For other characters the reader will only be told what Artemis sees them do or hears them say or has related to her by another character.  Artemis might misremember certain details, or lie, or misinterpret events because of her own biases or preconceptions.  Thus she becomes an unreliable narrator of her own tale. 

But what she and others say and do both before her flashback starts and after it ends will be accurate and factual descriptions to the best of my abilities.  The reader can rely upon the scenes set in the present as containing only the truth.

The unreliable narrator is a powerful technique that allows authors to explore ideas, emotions, and experiences in ways that would be impossible otherwise.   In some cases, such as mine, it provides easy routes for including details that would otherwise be awkward or impossible to introduce.  It is an approach that puts unique demands upon the writer’s skill, and challenges the reader to think about what they read in new ways.  It is not the right choice for most works of fiction, but it is an option that should never be dismissed lightly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

An Interesting Article on Using Planin Language

I stumbled across an article entitled Garner On Plain Language which I thought people might be interested in. Here is the link :

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Nature of the Villain

This post is part of an ongoing series about the central characters in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the role each character fills.  Here are links to the earlier posts in this series.

Protagonist, Antagonist, Hero, Villain, Antihero, and AntiVillain
Protagonist: A Closer Look at Damon Roth
Antagonist: A Closer Look At Demiurge
The Nature of the Hero
Hero, Part 1: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis
Hero, Part 2: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis, Part 2
Hero, Part 3: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis
Hero, Part 4: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis, Part 2
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 2
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 3

Today I will discuss the nature of villainy in general terms, much the same way I wrote about heroism in The Nature of the Hero.  In later posts I will go into specific examples using characters from my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men.

The word villain can be traced back through the Anglo-French and Old French vilein.  This word traces back to the  Latin word villanus, which means "farmhand." Specifically someone who works the soil at a villa.  Thus it became associated with those of less than knightly status and, over time, came to represent someone who is not chivalrous. Unchivalrous acts, such as treachery, murder, rape, theft and so froth; became associated with being a vilein, and over time evolved into the modern sense of the word villain.

Ergo, to understand the root of villainy, you must first understand its defining opposite, chivalry.  A full exploration of chivalry is beyond the scope of this post, so I shall consign myself to the most common themes associated with the word, namely knightly virtues and honor.  Had I more space I would also delve into courtly love, another central element of chivalry.

The knightly virtues focus upon the cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude; and the beatitudes: Humility, Compassion, Courtesy, Devotion, Mercy, Purity, Peace and Endurance.  A chivalrous hero would strive to uphold all of these ideals and never break from them on purpose.  Ergo an unchivalrous villain would actively, willingly, violate one or more of these ideals.  

I had these ideas in mind when I created the villain of Gods Among Men, Maelgar Tregadie, also called The Y'Fel. I saw him from the beginning as the moral opposite of my heroic knight, Morel Rihtwis.  I created Morel to be the example of chivalry, the embodiment of honor and the knightly virtues.  Maelgar, as his opposite, became the worst sort of villain; the type that violates the concepts of chivalry not because they are inconvenient, but because that is what he wants to do.

There is danger in this choice for a character.  It is easy for them to slide into a mustache twirling caricature.  Normal people do not seek to do evil just to do evil.  For Maelgar to be this type of villain meant he had to be abnormal, someone damaged mentally and/or emotionally that believes his heinous acts are justified.  I will explore Maelgar's motives in more detail in a post focusing upon him specifically.  For now, I will summarize by saying that he is unconsciously seeking revenge, and that his shameful acts are ways of emotionally hurting his father, Integras Tregadie

When discussing the concept of heroism in The Nature of the Hero I wrote.
A hero in later works is often defined by the lines they will not cross, the acts they will not commit, even when everyone else says the acts are necessary or even required. A hero in later mythology is the person who risks all, including the safety of those closest to them, because their moral center demands it of them.
By this measure a villain first  needs to be the type of person capable of crossing those moral lines the hero won't.  This is not sufficient in itself to establish someone as a villain, but it is a necessary condition.  An antihero, for example, might well have villainous characteristics, but will still "save the day" at the crucial moment.  The crucial element that defines a villain is this: The hero acts for others, the villain acts for themselves.

The hero and antihero commonly face a moment of decision when they can turn aside from their quest and still save themselves or those they love.  But because they are heroes they instead choose to persevere through the hardships in the hope of a broader victory that benefits more people.  The hero runs the risk of sacrifice to help the larger community.

The villain can always turn aside, but refuses to do so because they have not gotten what they wanted, have not achieved the goal that benefits them personally.  The villain is fundamentally selfish and feels their needs trumps all other concerns.  Their goal is more important than the welfare of those around them.

The antivillain is distinct from the villain in that they have some redeeming characteristic.  The antivillain, like the hero and antihero, have moral lines they will not cross, but they differ on the reasons why.  The hero and antihero don't cross the moral lines because it is wrong, the antivillain refuses because of a personal code of behavior.  It is again an act of selfishness, only now rather than a goal it is their code that is of primary importance.  As long as this code is not violated, the antivillain is quite comfortable with committing the most heinous of acts.

In Gods Among Men  I created the character Widukind as an antivillain.  His personal honor is of paramount importance to him.  He will not lie, nor break his word, and his religious beliefs are deep and sincere.  He is courageous, and prefers to face opponents in fair combat.  Outside those restraints, he is cold-blooded and quite willing to commit terrible atrocities for many different reasons.  Heinous acts do not trouble his conscience, unless they touch upon his personal honor.  I will go into more detail upon Widukind in a later post.

Villains (and antivillains) are, in may respects, stock characters that can often border on being cliché.   In most works, they are sketchily drawn, given a few nasty characteristics, and then pitted against the hero in an ad hoc manner.  The conclusion is known before the story starts: the villain will try to destroy the hero for some reason, the hero will suffer, and in the end will defeat (i.e. kill) the villain.  

I do no intend to give away my full story, but I do wish to make it clear that I intend to break from that mold.   I do not like sketchily drawn characters, especially ones important to the plot, and so my villains have rich histories in their own right.  I do not like struggles where the outcome is predictable, and so I am trying to weave in twists that are, I believe, unique to my story.  I do not like heroes that kill with the same lack of conscience that a villain would, so I address that point in my own way.

These attempts on my part may well fail.  In the end it is the quality of the writing that will determine if the characters are memorable or forgettable, whether they seem real or more like melodramatic caricatures.   The best I can do is try to write the villains well, and assure people I did put a lot of thought into their creation.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Beam That Is In Your Own Eye: The Art Of Self-Editing

Here is a quote from the bible that I have thought about recently: “And why behold you the mote that is in your brother's eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?”

The answer to this question is obvious: Because we can see the fault in others easier than we can see the faults in ourselves.

With regards to writing, this is the problem every writer faces.  Namely how to tell if what we have written is any good?  More importantly, how do we spot what is not good and correct it? It is easy to read another’s work and tell what is good and what is not, to spot flaws and find faults.  It is extraordinarily hard to do the same for yourself.  To use a metaphor, we can spot the motes in others eyes, but not the beams in our own.

Writing is the art of putting words on the page, editing is the art of judging the quality of those words and finding better alternatives for how to express the work’s content.   The first draft of a story, usually the worst draft, is pure writing.  From that point it is the task of editing that dominates the writer’s efforts.  The final draft is often a result of pure editing.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare was a great writer, but he must also either have been a great self-editor or worked closely with a great editor whom he trusted.  

It is only recently that I have come to fully appreciate the skill of editing.  A few months ago I began an arrangement with Nicole where she would write a little every day, send it to me, and I would then edit her work and send my suggestions back to her.

Originally, I saw this as a way to break a cycle I perceived in Nicole’s efforts to write.  In her first chapter, for example, she would see big problems, but was unable to trace those problems back to their source.  Her efforts to fix the big problems would fail because she could not spot the small problems that led to the big ones.  Eventually she would become frustrated and toss aside all she had done and try to rebuild the chapter from scratch.  Again small problems would be introduced, leading to big ones, and the cycle would begin again.

To expand upon my previous metaphor, she could see the beam in her eye, but not the motes. I, being divorced from her efforts, could spot the motes.

This process of continuous editing as the work was being created allowed Nicole to contain her small problems, and the result is that the big problems never formed in the first place.  It allowed her to complete her best draft to date.

But what did I get out of this process?

I must admit, to my own great surprise, I really enjoyed editing her work. It was, and still is, a fun and surprisingly relaxing exercise.

But beyond that, the effort of trying to sort out her mistakes and errors improved my ability to edit in general, which in turn has influenced my self-editing efforts.   Each writer has their own peculiar quirks, but there are also common mistakes that most writers make.  I came to see certain mistakes Nicole made as ones I was guilty of myself.  To continue the metaphor, seeing the motes in her eyes made it possible for me to spot those in mine.

For example, in one section she used the name of one of her characters, Jake, to start five consecutive paragraphs.  Each sentence, each paragraph, in and of itself was fine.  But starting each paragraph with the same word over and over created a repetitive pattern that became distracting and disrupted the mood she was trying to create.  I pointed this out to her and she corrected the problem.

Then I read my own work and noticed how often I did the exact same thing, starting off paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, with the same word.  Now I carefully look for that mistake as I read through my own chapters, and when I spot it I edit the sentence or paragraph to eliminate the problem.

Another example was when Nicole had an extended sequence where someone experienced increasing pain.  She used the word pain so many times she became sick of it.  So I helped her find ways of expressing the sensation without using the word pain.  (On a side note, try expressing the fact, multiple times, that someone is in pain without using the word pain.  It is surprisingly hard to do.)

In my own work, I now see more clearly when I use the same word over and over to express or describe something.  I am able to spot the problem before someone else points it out to me and correct it quickly.

There are many problems I still can’t spot by myself, which is one of the reasons Nicole has recently been returning the favor and editing my work on a regular basis.  I hope she finds it as beneficial to her self-editing skills as I have.

Editing is a skill, and an art.  It takes time and effort to master, and self-editing takes even more time and effort.  Mastering the art of self-editing is a requirement for taking a work from a rough first draft to a publishable final draft.  One of the great benefits of the writers group is that is helps us all become better editors.  And the continuous editing I am doing for Nicole has helped me even more.  It is an exercise I strongly recommend as a way to become a better writer.

Monday, September 7, 2009

When Last We Met...

Yesterday, September 6, 2009, the Magic City Writers met and reviewed the latest version of the first chapter of Nicole’s story, Broken Shadows. But before we delve into that, lets talk about food.

One of the great advantages of holding the meetings at Nicole’s apartment is that she does the cooking.  In addition to being an excellent writer and an exceptional editor, Nicole completes her trifecta of skills by being an outstanding cook.  As an appetizer she served an Irish white cheddar cheese called Kilaree, toasted pita bread, and a tasty humus dip.  The main course featured chicken and shrimp Pad Thai.  For desert we had pumpkin apple tea bread, which had a texture and taste that was closer to pumpkin cake.  In a word, YUM!

Now back to Broken Shadows. As a disclaimer, I must admit to being biased with regards to Nicole’s chapter because I worked so closely with her on it.

Back in July Nicole wrote about how she was trying a new approach with her writing.  The idea was that she would send me something everyday, which I would then quickly edit and send back to her.  She would address the concerns I raised, add some more to the chapter, and then send the updated document back to me for more edits.  Thus creating a cycle where, ideally, she would be aware of problems early enough that she could correct them, as opposed to becoming overwhelmed and starting over from scratch.

Let me be clear: the actual writing was Nicole’s.  For the most part I merely made sure she was aware of possible issues and offered suggestions for ways to address them.   Sometimes I would suggest a word or a way to rewrite a sentence or restructure a paragraph.  In a handful of cases I pointed out content she might want to include or exclude.  All the final decisions were made by Nicole, all the hard work was done by her.

We continued with this process throughout the month of July and into the middle of August.  Right up to when she submitted the chapter to the group for review.  As Nicole indicated in a later post, right from the beginning this new approach seemed to help her.  I plan to write a post sometime soon about how the exercise in turn helped me.

After reading Nicole’s chapter many times and significantly influencing her final version, I could not be objective during the group review. I have written often about how hard it is to edit your own writing, to see the problems you introduce yourself.  Doing a group edit for Nicole’s chapter was not as difficult for me as editing my own work, but nor was it as easy as editing something I had not seen before or helped create. The result was that I had relatively few comments to make, most of which revolved around rewording some sentences to avoid repeating character names too often.

Of note was that the others in the group also found only a few problem areas.  Everyone agreed that this chapter was good enough that she could, once she finishes writing the rest of the book, confidently submit it to a publisher or agent as is. This is a milestone for the group. I believe it is the first time one of us has reached that level of completeness with a chapter.

Again, I admit to being biased, but I think Nicole’s latest version of her opening chapter is not just the best version of the chapter that she has written so far. I think it is the best chapter to be submitted to the group to date. Her writing is crisp, fresh, and clear. She moves the plot and characters along at steady pace right from the opening paragraph. The flow of events draws you in and makes you want to turn the page to find out what happens next.

This is not meant to indicate there were no problems. Merely that the problems Nicole has left to address are minor compared to the problems in works she and others (including myself) have submitted before.  What she presented to the group is remarkably good, and I must admit to feeling a certain pride for my small role in helping her create it.

Lindy submitted a new work for review next time.  We plan on meeting at my house in three weeks.  I will, of course, keep everyone posted about what happens then as well. Till next time, have fun.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Show, Don't Tell

Yesterday, September 3, 2009, was my anniversary, or would have been. I am never sure of the proper wording for such moments. Had Ellen lived we would have celebrated our ninth anniversary together, but I digress. The point I am striving to make is that I was thinking about Ellen, recalling one of the few good events I associate with this time of year, and remembered the first time I encountered the concept of Show, Don't Tell.

Ellen and I hadn't been married long—or perhaps it was before we married, I cannot recall for certain—when she read some of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. This was not the first time I had shared my writing with others, but it was the first time I received feedback that prompted a major restructuring of the story itself. The first time someone offered a criticism that forced me to adopt new techniques for writing my tale.

It is incredibly difficult to read your own work and spot your deepest problems. The knowledge of what was intended causes you to miss mistakes. I, like most writers, turn to others for insight into where I am going wrong.

Nowadays I have a writers group that regularly and routinely shreds my work. I am forever grateful for their blunt, sometimes even harsh, comments.

Before I had the writers group to turn to, however, there were many times when I begged, cajoled, guilted, and even bribed people to read over my work; then eagerly, anxiously, and with great trepidation waited for their opinion. Usually their probing analysis consisted of a shrug followed by, “It’s nice.”

Let me say, on behalf of all writers everywhere, It’s nice does not constitute useful feedback.

After such a tepid response, I always asked follow up questions. Those I so pestered often misinterpreted my queries as a request for my ego to be stroked, and so they continued to give polite praise that boiled down to a longer version of, “It’s nice.”

With sufficient prompting, a few admitted to not liking or understanding some element, portion of a scene, or character. My first reaction to a negative comment was to explain what I was trying to do, hoping my critic would offer a suggestion on how I might better achieve my intended goal. Inevitably this caused people to believe, perhaps with some justification, that I was defending what they disliked. Rather than run the risk of offending me and perhaps starting an argument, most people at this point looked for ways to change the subject. Realizing the futility of trying to continue, I would acquiesce.

Ellen, however, read what I had written and offered feedback that went beyond the norm. She realized I wasn’t looking for my ego to be stroked or attempting to defend turgid prose. She was not a great editor, but she was a voracious reader and had won at least one national award for something she wrote as a teenager. After reading my then second chapter, she struggled to find a way to explain what she didn’t like. After several different attempts, she said, “You’re telling me a story rather than showing me what is happening.”

I would like to claim that a light-bulb went on over my head at those words; if so it was a single, short-circuiting LED. My initial confused reaction was, “Isn’t telling a story what fiction writing is all about?” After further discussion, I realized she objected to three places where characters described something that had happened to them earlier. Insight kicked in and I asked, “You think it would be better if I rewrote those parts as flashbacks from their point of view?”

Ellen thought this was a great idea, and after considerable angst on my part I agreed. My reservations stemmed from the fact that these changes required throwing out a hundred pages of existing material and starting over from scratch. I am not a fast writer, which made the scope of the task all the more daunting. Plus, the proposed alterations would only work if I also took a hatchet to the intricate outline for my first book, an outline that took years of painstaking effort to create. Still, what is the point of good feedback if you don’t act on it?

And so, with gritted teeth, I snapped my existing structure apart and rewrote a major portion of Gods Among Men. Chapter two became chapters two, three, and four, each of which included an extended flashback sequence focusing upon a major event that sets in motion all that follows. The difficult changes were not as hard as I first feared, nor even the most challenging ones I have had to make. (The award for Editing Challenges that Most Resemble the Bataan Death March still goes to the plethora of changes I made to chapter three in the last year.)

The resulting chapters where significantly better than what had existed before, and by introducing flashbacks into my story I added a tool to my repertoire that resolved problems in other parts of the story.

Since that time, from countess authors, I have heard the line, “Show, don’t tell.” It is almost always the right choice for how to write a scene, but I still find it a struggle to follow this advice. It is easy to let telling slip into a sentence, paragraph, or scene. Sometimes it is hard to discover the phrase, sentence, or description that shows what is intended. Writing something like, he said angrily is easy. Describing the look on a character’s face, the sound of their voice, and their gestures so that the description conveys anger without explicitly using the word anger or any of its synonyms is quite challenging.

Ellen’s feedback showed me a way to become a better writer, and that was much more valuable than others telling me, “It’s nice.” I wish she was still around so I could show her how much I appreciate all she did for me.