WriteOnCon is Almost Here!

Attention all Writer Friends!

The best news you’ll read today is that WriteOnCon is scheduled for August 26 – 27 = just over a week away!

This is a FREE online Writing Conference that helped me out tremendously last year. Anyone who is working on Anything should check it out. Heck, even if you’re not currently writing, you should still check it out because you’ll find loads of great information and tips! There will be guest speakers (you can watch the videos later if you’re busy during the day) and best of all, you can post your query letter, the first few pages of your story, and more in the forums. After you’ve done that, read what other people have posted, leave comments, and most will return the favor. I got some fantastic feedback last year that catapulted my writing into new areas that have been wickedly fun (so fun that I have completely ignored my blog lately).

Perhaps best of all, several literary agents and editors will be participating, leaving comments, etc.

So polish up whatever you’re working on (it does not have to be a completed manuscript) and get ready to post!

The website is under construction right now, but hopefully it will be up and running anytime. Here is the link: http://writeoncon.com

I hope to read some of your work soon!

-Craig

*Check out my posts about WriteOnCon from last year for a lot more info.

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Importance of Each Word

 

And … I’m back (after an inexcusably long hiatus)!

The following is an amusing +  true story that (spoiler!) demonstrates why word choice is important. Okay. That doesn’t sound like it will be funny, but read on….

I had been wandering through Costa Rica for nearly a month, practicing my Spanish, white-water rafting, touring beaches and rainforests, when I learned an important lesson regarding specificity. So considering I was there to contemplate life’s big questions, a lesson about precision was somewhat ironic. Yes, I was vacationing and having fun, but my ultimate goal was figuring out my future as a college grad entering the work force. And, I’m happy to say, it was on a beautiful mountainside hotel rooftop overlooking the unending Pacific, the glimmering dark water somehow melding into an infinity blanket of stars that reached back over my head, that I decided my role in the universe.

But that’s not the lesson I want to talk about.

About a week prior to my big epiphany, I had a boring yet fascinating conversation with a fellow American tourist. At first, it couldn’t have been more typical . . . except for his reactions to my answers regarding who I was and what I did for a living. His expression became confused, then amazed, and finally horrified.

Anyway, I had told him that after graduating from Sewanee, I moved back in with my parents for several months, working as a substitute teacher by day and as a waiter by night. But when I mentioned that simple, mundane, fact, his brow furrowed.

“Que?” he asked.

The conversation continued in Spanish, but roughly translated, I explained that I “worked with children, teaching them English, writing, or whatever was required, but after dark, I worked long hours, often not finishing until the middle of the night.”

“And then you taught children the morning after?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I was exhausted, but it was fun. And I was making a lot of money.”

“As a waiter?”

“Yeah. People liked me and I made big tips. I had several ‘regulars.’”

He shuffled a little farther away and sized me up, as though inspecting a potentially poisonous snake.

I didn’t know what his deal was, so I tried explaining again, but he cut me off. I laughed because both his reactions and the questions he asked were so ridiculous. But I played along and answered as best I could. A minute later, he excused himself and ran off, looking back at me more than once.

I relayed this conversation to a girl in a pub later that night and she stopped me, pointing out a simple error in my Spanish.

One word. That’s all it was. Just one simple word.

You see, in Spanish, the word for waiter is “camarero.” But I had messed it up, using “caballero” instead—the word for “gentleman.” Not a big deal, under normal circumstances, but then I considered my responses from the American Tourist’s point of view, and the conversation took on a whole new meaning:

“After teaching, I work as a gentleman, working long hours into the night. It’s exhausting, but a lot of fun. The money is great. I am very popular, good at my job, and people obviously like me. I get big tips and have several regulars.”

And that’s when his follow-ups got really weird:

“Do you serve women?”

“Yes.”

“And men?”

“Si claro! Of course!”

“And you like it?”

“It’s great! I have fun and make sure everybody else does too!”

And at that he shook his head, looking at me incredulously, so I said, “So I guess you’ve never worked as a gentleman.”

He snorted as if such a notion was impossible.

But I said, “I think everyone should work in the service industry for at least a little while. It teaches you a lot about what people truly want.”

And then he ran away.

And that’s how I learned that, in communication of any sort, every single word is vital. As Mark Twain once said, “use the right word, not its second cousin.” Because I did not follow that advice, I can only imagine what the guy I had been talking to assumed about my relationship with my 2nd cousin . . . who is a dude.

The point is: you want to be specific with your word choice. Always. When you’re writing or speaking publically, obviously, but even in day-to-day interactions, because a small mistake can send a wacked out and bizarre message.

In this case, the damage was minimal. In fact, I’d say the added bonus of my learning a valuable lesson is that there’s a guy out there telling an amazing “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” story about the time he met a substitute school-teacher/bi-sexual male prostitute.

And that’s pretty cool.

 

Stagnation is Always the Enemy

As writers, stagnation is always our enemy.

This is true in several ways. Consider:

  1. We always seek to improve our craft—we are never fully satisfied.
  2. Our stories and characters must constantly grow, adapt, and change.

Although it may not seem like it, we grow every time we write. We think of new phrases, try new sentence structures, attempt new rhetorical styles, etc. The more you write, the better your writing will become. Of course, you can push yourself by setting yourself goals, attempting new styles, etc. Even if such exercises never see the light of day, they are valuable methods of improving your craft. We know this. You will keep the stagnation enemy at bay so long as you are writing and trying your best. If you are writing, you are evolving.

But it is equally true that our stories and characters can’t stagnate. They must evolve as well. In the past, I’ve written that a protagonist MUST change in the story (my two posts about “Transformation” in the Hero’s Journey). Change is inherently interesting. So if your character is stagnate and doesn’t change, you’ve written a boring story that violates perhaps the most fundamental principle of storytelling—that your characters will learn or be changed by what they experience.

In fact, every scene must involve change. If things are the same at the end of a scene or chapter as they were at the beginning, then that chapter should be cut or at least fixed. If nothing changes, there is no need for the scene.

When editing, go through each scene and identify what changes. If you can’t find something, ask “do I really need this in the story?” If you don’t absolutely need it, then you might just delete the whole thing (which might help your pacing). If the scene is necessary, at least re-work it so that something changes (arguing characters agree by the end, agreeing characters disagree by the end, have learned something that changes how they think or feel, something unexpected happens, etc.).

Keep it up! Keep working! Keep the enemy at bay!

Best of luck!

So About that YA Voice….

In YA (Young Adult), VOICE is ½ of the story.

The impression I’ve gotten from several books, interviews with agents, editors, authors, etc. is that for the YA audience, the story’s VOICE is just as important as everything else combined (plot, characters, themes, etc.).

What does that mean?

Well, a cynical way of looking at it is that even if your novel is structured perfectly, has fascinatingly complex yet relatable characters, and has something interesting to show us about the world or human condition, you’re still only half way to publication.

On a brighter note, if you have a Voice that teenagers will love, you’re half way to publication before you even have a conflict or character! So that’s awesome!

I find it easier to gauge the quality of my story/character development than my voice. I hope that “How I say it” (my narration/voice) is fun and enjoyable, but how can I know if a teenager will be captivated? How can I know if my YA VOICE resonates in perfect pitch with a teenager’s metaphorical ears?

Looking into advice on Voice helps, but it can be frustrating because answers are often vague or subjective. After all, “great voice & style” is, by nature, quite subjective even though we can agree on some general writing guidelines.

But don’t despair! Understanding WHY the Voice is so important in YA provides some answers. What most teenage readers want is INTIMACY and CONNECTION. I don’t mean “sex or kissy stuff,” (Oh wait. Yes, actually that is what most teenagers want) but rather, teenagers must immediately know and understand the protagonist. They must relate to her, feel for her, and get to know her so that her concerns become the reader’s concerns. This requires psychological and emotional intimacy. This means honesty: we have to see some vulnerability along with some strength in the protagonist because we all understand vulnerability. And readers must feel this intimacy/connection ASAP.

Teens read to find a friend. They want to care and form a bond. That connection is made through the use of details, the protagonist’s perspective and experiences, etc. The more specific yet universal, the better. Okay, now THAT was vague. What I mean is: the descriptive details need must be specific (for showing setting, her life, her emotions, her concerns, etc. — these should be particular) and yet the feelings evoked by those specific details need to be universal and therefore relatable to the audience at large.

This is probably why so many YA books are told in First Person—because the character is “talking” to the reader, letting him in on her thoughts, feelings, history, and everything else. The connection is made more quickly that way. It’s like the new friend is revealing intimate secrets and taking us into her confidence.

However, I’m sick of First Person YA and want to write in Third Person because it seems a natural fit for me. So how can this work in Third?

That’s what I’m trying to figure out . . . but I think narrating from over the main character’s shoulder is a good approach. By doing so, I can occasionally peaking inside her head to get at memory, history, and emotion. More subtly, all the imagery/sensory details, similes, metaphors, etc., will be filtered through her experience and voice – these are the things she would notice or the way she would describe them. So although I’m not having her narrate the story, the narrator is soaking in my protagonist’s experience, attitude, and perspective.

Before I go back and fine-tune that YA Voice, I’m reading what others have to say about Voice and studying some examples of popular YA told in the 3rd person. And after all that, I’ll have a huge job on my hands. Thankfully, it’s a job I love. I can’t wait!

Here’s a list of some helpful books.

Books about Writing for YA + Voice:

Writing Irresistible Kid Lit: The Ultimate Guide for Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers – by Mary Kole.

Second Sight: An Editor’s talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults – by Cheryl B. Klein

Great YA told in the 3rd Person Point of View:

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green.

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.

Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

Sunshine Award

Fellow writer and book lover Emilyann Girdner (http://www.anythingimagined.blogspot.com) nominated my blog for a Sunshine Award! Thanks, Emilyann!

Sunshine Award

Scroll to the bottom of this post for a list of great “writing blogs” I am nominating and go check them out!

You can learn a bit more about me if you bother reading my answers to these questions. I’m just a little bit of all right, so you might be interested in getting to know me better. However, I won’t be offended (heck, I might respect you even more) if you simply head straight to my recommended blog sites at the far bottom. You can thank me later.

As part of the fun, I am to answer 10 questions and nominate other bloggers for the award. Here are the rules:

  1. Include the award’s logo in my blog post.
  2. Link to the person who nominated you.
  3. Answer the 10 questions about yourself.
  4. Nominate 10 bloggers.
  5. Link your nominees to the post and commend on their blogs, letting them know they have been nominated.

So here we go. . . .

  1. Favorite color: Varying shades of blue, like the Blue Morpho Butterfly or a clear sea on a sunny day.
  2. Favorite Animal: Dogs, preferably the small & friendly variety that won’t kill me.
  3. Favorite Number: Four because that includes my wife, our two children, and me (so “No,” not because of Divergent).
  4. Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink: This topic is inherently flawed: it assumes that something without alcohol is still a “drink” instead of a beverage. But in order to play along, I’ll say Cherry Coke Zero.
  5. Favorite Alcoholic Drink: Blue Moon beer.
  6. Facebook or Twitter: I confess that I don’t follow either regularly, but I certainly learn more about writing via Twitter than Facebook because it is through other tweets that I learn about author signings, contests, agents, advice, conferences, etc.
  7. Passions: Checking items off of my “bucket list,” enjoying time with family and friends, vacations, and experiencing great stories through writing, reading, and shows or movies.
  8. Prefer giving or getting presents? Giving. No question.
  9. Favorite City: I have three:
    1. Edinburgh, Scotland.
    2. Wellington, New Zealand.
    3. Sweet home, Chicago.
    4. Favorite TV Shows: That are on right now:Arrow, Sherlock (BBC), Dr. Who (BBC), Modern Family, Grimm, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead

Favorite TV Shows Of All TimeLost, Firefly, Fringe, and Babylon 5 (ignore the sad production value—the writing is great).

And I’m nominating the following great blogs!

Note: I’m supposed to nominate 10 blogs, but I’m trying to only nominate ones I have not mentioned in the past. I met these folks via writeoncon.com this past summer and they all gave me some great advice on my manuscript! Check them out TODAY!

http://juliathewritergirl.wordpress.com

http://www.kimvanderhorst.com

http://kirabudge.weebly.com

http://jennifermeaton.com

http://rachelpudelek.blogspot.com

http://tangynt.wix.com/work

http://jessmontgomery.wordpress.com

The Temptress Archetype

I wrote about “The Lover” archetype in June/July, but there is another type of lover who often pops up along the hero’s journey . . . one who is not nearly as wholesome or helpful.

The Temptress character does exactly what you’d expect: she tempts the hero to do something he should not (sorry for my sexist pronouns—you can reverse them if you wish). She is an obstacle he must avoid—he must “just say NO” and continue on his quest.

This does not have to be about lust or a temptation simply to abandon the quest for something (or someone) else. The Temptress could be a person presenting a differing opinion and offering advice. If this advice is bad, then the character is a distraction/obstacle; if the hero shouldn’t listen, then the person giving the bad advice serves as a kind of Temptress. This character may actually be on the hero’s side—also hoping for the best and honestly believing that what he/she proposes is the right answer.

Perhaps the most interesting temptations are more philosophical. That is to say “the Temptress” is not a person at all, but rather, a “dark call.” Consider those heroes who walk a fine line between good and bad: they want to remain true and good and yet it would be so easy to cross the line and seek revenge. The dark side is tempting because it is easy and it feeds on selfishness. The reason this type of temptress is so common, of course, is that we can all relate to selfish desires and we know that they can be destructive in the long run.

Lets look at some Temptresses in my usual stories:

  • In Major League, Dorn’s wife becomes a temptress when she sleeps with Vaughn (who didn’t know she was Dorn’s wife). Vaughn got played, but he also gave in to his temptation and it cost him. Dorn’s wife uses Vaughn’s weakness (women) against him and thereby gets revenge on her cheating husband, but in doing so, she serves as a distraction for two of the team’s best players right before a critical game.
  • Harry Potter has a few girlfriends in the series before realizing who is “one true love is” and I’m not sure any of the other girlfriends could be considered temptresses as they are all “good” and fight on his side. Now, Ron Weasley, on the other hand, is often distracted by other girls and therefore doesn’t recognize Hermione until late in the series (after Emma Watson grows up and then . . . Wow). So we could argue that Ron is tempted by all kinds of things. Of course, the real temptation in the series is for Harry to either give up or give in to his darker side and seek vengeance. In order to stay true to himself, Harry must resist these temptations.
  • Although the boys in Stand By Me second guess themselves and consider turning back, no one intrudes on their quest until the bullies toward the end—so any Temptress they faced would be some sort of internal one. Could “doubt” counts as a Temptress?
  • I suppose you could look at Michael’s Italian wife (Apollonia) in The Godfather as his Temptress since she “distracts him” from his true love (Kay), though I don’t. First of all, I’d like to think that Michael was truly in love with Apollonia. Even if he wasn’t, the problems he has with Kay upon his return to the states have nothing to do with Apollonia (who dies before Michael’s return). The problems come from Michael’s negative transformation. Michael’s brother Sonny has an affair, and while it hurts his wife, this is not a major point in the story (much more on this in the novel, by the way!).
  • In the film version of Lord of the Rings, Eowyn is (sort of) a temptress for Aragorn, but obviously, in this story the real Temptress is the ring itself! Frodo must resist the ring’s call or else all is doomed!
  • While Batman/Bruce Wayne has had many lovers and temptresses over the years, the one that stands out in both the comics and in The Dark Knight Trilogy is Talia al Ghul, the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul (one of Batman’s greatest foes and the master villain in Batman Begins). Talia shows up in the 3rd film, tricks Bruce into trusting her and even loving her, only to literally stab him in the back.
  • There aren’t enough women in Star Wars. Abrams? Help us out. Okay, so it is interesting to look at Anakin and Padme’s relationship as “Anakin’s evil temptation that leads to his downfall and so much misery” …but the heroes Luke and Leia are born from that temptation and it isn’t Padme’s fault Anakin is terrible. Anakin is the bad guy. Not her. The real temptress in Star Wars (and Harry Potter + Lord of the Rings) isn’t a person, but rather a thing or idea . . . the dark side of the self. In all three of these series, the main characters must resist “the dark side” which will lead to their ultimate doom.
  • James Bond movies are filled with Temptresses. Bond is, let’s face it, a ladies man who is easily distracted by beautiful women. Some of these women are “lovers” in that they help and aid him in his quest, but just as often, they stab him in the back and try to get in his way.

The Turn, Shift, or Twist

A turn, shift, or twist is a welcome element in any form of writing.

In poetry, the TURN or SHIFT is when there is a change in the speaker’s attitude or the tone, possibly leading to a Jerry Springeresque “final thought.” Here is an example: Frank O’Hara’s “Autobiographia Literaria.”

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out “I am
an orphan.”

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
Imagine!

So obviously the SHIFT is in the last stanza when the speaker casts away his feelings of isolation and desolation, instead pointing out that he has found joy in writing beautiful poetry (of course, you can interpret that differently—feel free!).

A non-fiction piece can easily incorporate a SHIFT if the author uses contrast, perhaps pointing out all the positives of a situation only to rip the rug out from under our metaphorical feet by then denouncing the subject and citing all of the negatives.

In fiction, we do the same thing, but we tend to call the SHIFT a TWIST (as in PLOT TWIST). If a character takes on a new attitude or something unexpected occurs, thereby changing the story’s established direction, we have our SHIFT/TWIST.

The SHIFT/TWIST is important, of course, because it revitalizes the reader’s interest. After 150 pages of a novel, we’re ready for something new—something that will catapult the story in another direction—forcing the characters to respond or to reveal themselves in new ways, pushing them out of their comfort zones. The twist may raise the stakes, be a kind of reveal (character has tricked or betrayed the hero), whatever. What the twist is doesn’t matter (okay, I’m lying—some twists are definitely better than others . . . but just go with it for now) since it can take so many forms. What matters is that there is one.

Some stories include several twists, and these can be riveting (Dan Brown’s novels come to mind). BUT, just having a twist doesn’t guarantee your story will resonate. I’d suggest checking the following:

  1. Does the twist, even though it is a surprise, still make sense? Having some hint earlier on, even if vague, will help. If a character changes attitude or reveals something, this needs to make sense for that character.
  2. Does it move the story forward? While the twist may include discovering something that happened long ago, this new information should still serve as a kick in the pants to the characters. They need to react, in the present, and move.
  3. Does the twist help establish your theme? Since the twist moves the plot and is important to the characters, perhaps it should be connected to whatever it is your story is indicating about human nature, life, the laws of the universe, etc. So if the twist is a reveal, then perhaps you are working with themes including:
    1. Appearances can be deceiving
    2. Trust (perhaps that trust is hard since people are liars?)
    3. Nothing is as it seems
    4. Ignorance (we don’t know all the important information)
    5. Secrets

Whatever the theme, see if you can make it “pop up” elsewhere in your story.

Good luck!