Posted by: Jodi | October 22, 2014

The Art of the Short Story with Paul Genesse

CrimsonPact1This month I attended a lecture presented by the animated and hilarious Paul Genesse, editor of the Crimson Pact Anthology series and author of the Iron Dragon series.  In this lecture we learned the ins and outs of how to create a successful short story, and he should know, he’s had over a dozen published.

Here are some of highlights from the lecture:

First and foremost – the story can’t suck. The reader must feel engaged and emotionally connected right from page one. This might seem like stupid advice until you read several dozen stories that don’t capture the imagination.  With books, readers are more willing to read several pages to see if they are going to like it. They have made an investment in either purchasing or finding the book at the library and because of this will try harder to like it. Short stories on the other hand, are short. If the first page isn’t interesting, chances are the rest of the story won’t be either.

One of the best way to engage the reader from the first page is to start the scene during a critical moment.  If your story is going to start with a truck bashing through Stanley’s bedroom wall, you could start with Stanley waking to the noise and seeing the truck coming at him.

Stanley rested peacefully when suddenly he heard a terrific crash.  There, coming through his poster of Van Halen was the front end of a truck. He struggled to free himself from the tangled bed-clothes but was too late. The truck lifted his bed and him and crushed them through the wall and into the adjoining bathroom.

Or, you could start here -

Gypsum dust and chunks of drywall rained down and the air smelled of diesel. Stanley tasted blood and when he wiped at the wetness on his head his hand came away red. A crumpled bumper hung inches from his face and someone he couldn’t see cussed and spat.

The two moments happen within moments of each other, but the second example strips away the fluff and buries the reader in the middle of the action. The second also pulls in the senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound, which also makes for better, more immersive, reading. The goal is to make the reader care right from the beginning.  It has to be immediate, drawing, and fast.

Although this is true with all writing, in short story writing it’s even more important to avoid telling and show everything. Become a “was” Nazi.

The beauty of short stories is that they are short and they can be FINISHED. That said, the first draft is going to stink, and that’s okay.  One of the perks of short stories is that you can have lots of drafts.  Think of your first draft as a summary, not a story.  It tells you where everyone needs to go and why.  In subsequent drafts you can go in and bring it all to life.

During the writing process be sure to consider the following:

Scope: Can your story be told within the confines of a short story or is it meant for something longer?  If you need to go longer than your word count allows, double-check with who you intend to submit your story to if it’s alright. Usually they will be fine with longer stories if you have a good reason and they have room in the book.

Hooks: After the story is all figured out go back and tweak and add a few hooks to increase tension and keep the reader engaged.

Conflict and Tension: This has to be on every page, no exceptions. If there are passages that don’t further the story they have to go. This can’t be wishy-washy, it should be gripping.

Ending: These are tough.  They can’t be predictable, too stupid, or silly. Plan on tweaking it over and over again until it reads right. That said, in horror writing you can get away with really horrible endings.

Number of characters: There should only be a handful, ideally 2-3.  If there are too many characters, the reader can’t keep track of who is who. Also, each character needs space within the story to be introduced and described. It’s possible to have one character, but it’s hard.  They won’t have anyone to talk to.

Point of View: A short story is a great place to experiment with a POV that you don’t usually write in.  There is a greater emotional punch in writing 1st person which is why most shorts are written in it. The other option is 3rd person limited.

Try/Fail Cycle: Yes, this still exists in short fiction, it’s just condensed. If your character succeeds right away then the problem was trivial. Ideally there should be three failures before your character solves his problem.

Get Feedback: We write in a bubble and sometimes our ideas don’t transfer to the page as well as we think they have. This is where getting outside feedback is crucial.  Readers will catch what you can’t because they can’t imagine anything than what’s written on the page.  This feedback will open new opportunities for growth in your story.  If you can’t get another reader to give feedback, the next best thing is to set the story down for a while and then read with it with fresh eyes. It is guaranteed you will find things that need tweaking.

To write short fiction successfully you must read it.  Go to your library and find anthologies and educate yourself on what makes the stories successful. Think about short stories you’ve read that have stuck with you over the years.  I’m sure everyone remembers the Little Match girl.  It sticks with you because SHE DIES. One of the stories that has stuck with me ever since I read it is Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron.

You have to know what you want from your story.  How do you want the character to change? What do they need to learn?

In the end it all comes down to one thing – writing the story that you want to tell.  Write to please you, no one else matters. If you aren’t excited with your own work, it will show.  Find that passion, that jewel of an idea, and go make something awesome.

***

PaulGenesse

Paul Genesse: I’m a fantasy author and registered nurse. My first novel, The Golden Cord, Book One of the Iron Dragon Series came out in hard cover in April, 2008 and became the bestselling novel my publisher has ever had. Book Two, The Dragon Hunters came out in May of 2009. I’ve sold a dozen short stories and counting, such as The Nubian Queen in Steampunk’d from DAW Books, and Almost Brothers in Fellowship Fantastic also from DAW Books. I’m also the editor of The Crimson Pact anthologies. Visit my website for all the gory details and to see maps to where the bodies are buried.

Just for fun, Paul was kind enough to hook us up with a free short story!  Here’s the opening:

When I was a young man I sold a pair of Tasmanian tigers to a woman claiming to be the fourth wife of the Turkish emperor. Selling them was the worst moment in my life and I have often wondered if the price of my soul was indeed fifteen thousand British pounds. If I had kept the animals in Australia, perhaps I would not consider myself the man most responsible for the extinction of the entire species, though that is not the worst of my crimes.

To read the rest, go here!

Paul also has some terrific stuff on his website and blog, go check them out!

Posted by: Jodi | October 15, 2014

Debate: Linear vs. Non-Linear Writing

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Does your story look like this?

There are several debates when it comes to drafting a novel. The most well-known debate is usually between plotters and pantsers. Plotters being those who outline and plan each chapter in advance and pantsers being those who wing it and see what comes out.  Turns out most writers I know do a bit of both.

A lesser debated issue is that between linear and non-linear writing.  Linear writing is when a writer starts at the beginning and plows through to the end without going back to change or fix things. Non-linear writing is when the story is written out-of-order. The writer might have a stroke of inspiration and envision an awesome climax and write that first and then they go through and write the events that lead up to it. Non-linear writing also includes writers who start at the beginning and then loop back to fix or adjust earlier scenes as the writing continues.

There are pros and cons to each style of writing.

Linear writing tends to be the more standard approach to novel-writing.  It tends to be more organized than non-linear writing and will create a finished product in less time.  Because it forces the writer to figure out all the ins and outs of their story as they go, there tends to be less massive revision and changes.  However, since the writer needs to work where they are and not skip ahead, when inspiration strikes for a different scene they tend to wait until they get there to write it.

Non-linear writing is a slave to inspiration.  This is when the writer gets a brilliant idea for a scene and writes it and then has to to build a story around it.  Writing when fueled with inspiration lends itself to awesome prose and satisfying creative experiences.  However, a non-linear writer will shy away from scenes that they don’t feel the inspiration to write and stick to the ones they are passionate about. When it comes time to assemble these scenes into a story there tends to be a disconnect between them and it takes lots of hard work to bring the story to completion.

I’ve been both.  Back in the day when I started my story and didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I didn’t know where I was going with it and so I wrote it in a non-linear style.  It was fun and self-indulgent and I felt like I was putting some terrific words to paper.  It wasn’t until almost a year into the process that I realized that I had many major problems that had to be fixed before the scenes could be strung together.  It’s taken ages to correct the problems I caused for myself.

I learned my lesson and now work strictly from beginning to end.  This way it’s clear when a draft is completed.  When I find a problem I flag it for the next drafting pass.  I know when a story is getting close to being finished when all the problems have been addressed.

What experiences have you had with linear vs non-linear writing?

Posted by: Jodi | October 8, 2014

Grammarland – The Comma Splice

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Comma Ninja does not appreciate being misused.

After some soul searching, erm I mean blog searching, I discovered that it’s been way too long since I’ve tackled a grammar subject here at My Literary Quest.  Today we learn about the dreaded comma splice. Earlier this year I discovered that I am a repeat offender when it comes to creating comma splices. A dear friend, who also happens to be a grammar guru, critiqued one of my chapters and found dozens of the little monsters.

Turns out what I thought was a legitimate way to write a dramatic descriptive sentence was completely wrong.

A comma splice is when two independent clauses are smooshed together using only a comma. An independent clause is usually a simple sentence. He went to school. She ate a banana. The aardvark hates socks.  It can stand on it’s own without any other clauses. One or both clauses can also be a compound or complex clause as well, but it doesn’t happen as often.

 

The following sentences are comma splices (and may or may not have been taken from one of my chapters).

1. Perhaps we can figure it out together, tell me what you were doing.

2.  Something is different about you, you are sad.

3.  She had never made the journey to his mount before , she had never needed to.

4. Something has changed within me, I’ve discovered something new.

 

The simple fix is to break the sentences back into two sentences.

1. Perhaps we can figure it out together.  Tell me what you were doing.

2.  Something is different about you.  You are sad.

3.  She had never made the journey to his mount before. She had never needed to.

4. Something has changed within me.  I’ve discovered something new.

 

Simple short sentences can read a bit choppy. Another way to fix the sentence is to use a comma and coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) or subordinating conjunction (see this handy list)

1. Perhaps we can figure it out together, if you tell me what you were doing.

2.  Something is different about you, for you are sad.

3.  She had never made the journey to his mount before, because she had never needed to.

4. Something has changed within me, now that I’ve discovered something new.

 

Some grammarians will say to use a semicolon, and this is correct if the two clauses are related to each other.  However, most publishers shy away from the semicolon between clauses because modern readers don’t like them.

While these are still not stellar sentences, they are technically correct. This is why editing is so gosh darn important. In the revision process they will most likely be changed entirely to read more smoothly.

 

More helpful links:

Purdue OWL: Comma Splices

Wikipedia: Comma Splice

 

Favorite Grammarland posts:

Insubordinate little devils, um I mean Clauses

That dratted “That”

“Dialogue punctuation?” he asked, “But why?”

Get your Dangling Participle out of my face!

Posted by: Jodi | October 1, 2014

The Tragic Backstory – When is it too much?

doctor-who-doctors-1-11-50th

The other night hubby and I were debating over Doctor Who’s tragic backstory.  Hubby believes that having the Doctor be the last of a murdered species is over the top and unnecessary.  Having there be a possibility that there might be other Time Lords out there is a much more interesting prospect and would give the Doctor more dimension.

I believe, however, that his backstory is fine as it is.  Having the Doctor be the last of his species is poignant and makes everything he does more noble.  There is nothing compelling him to continue governing time and that he still continues to do so adds a lot of unseen strength to his character. If there were the possibility of there being other Time Lords it would reason that many of the episodes would revolve around him trying to find them instead of embarking on new adventures.

Daleks_2005_and_2010Our debate raised another question that hopefully one of you can answer.  It’s clear that the Doctor can reincarnate when he dies, seeing as he already has done so on numerous occasions.  Why didn’t the other Time Lords reincarnate?  It stands to reason that because of this unique ability there very well may be other Time Lords out there simply because they just keep coming back.  My best guess as to why this isn’t so is that the Daleks kill in such a way that it prevents the reincarnation process, but I could be totally wrong.  I’m still only in series one and there might be a better explanation when Doctor 9 becomes Doctor 10 at the end of the season.

Back to Tragic backstory.   Many of our favorite characters have tragic backstories.  Harry Potter’s parents were murdered in front of him when he was a baby and he was raised by the horrible Dursleys.  Luke Skywalker’s mother died in childbirth and his uncle and aunt were slaughtered by the Imperial forces.  In Wreck It Ralph they hang a red flag on Sergeant Calhoun’s tragic wedding where her fiancee is eaten in front of her because she didn’t perform a perimeter check.  In almost all Disney movies the main character’s mother is dead, think about it, the only one I can find where the family hasn’t already been ripped apart is The Incredibles.

Most tragic backstories start with the main characters family enduring a crises where some of them die.  Usually it is a parent but the death of a sibling can also be very scarring. Then, depending on the needs of the story, there are a series of other events that add to the depth of the character which include but aren’t limited to: slavery, abusive relationships, physical disability, mental illness, crime, confusing magic powers,  imprisonment, and more death.

When is it too much? Each story has a tone, some are serious and somber; some are lighthearted and funny.  Serious stories lend themselves to a more tragic backstories where a lighthearted story would be weighed down by more than a few unfortunate events.

And the truth is none of it matters.  I’ve seen characters with minor tragic events turn them into these massive stumbling blocks all because the reader is exposed to the characters huge internal turmoil.  Everything that the character must overcome is measured against this one painful event.

Then there are characters who walk on the page with so much baggage that it seems impossible for them to bear it. Their families have been murdered, their home burned, everything has gone wrong for them, but regardless of everything that has happened to them they are still grimly working towards their goals.  They’ve buried their pasts so they can survive the present.

Now, writer be warned.  There is such thing as making a character so tragic that they actually become funny.  If this is your goal go for it.  Otherwise, keep the tragic events to exactly what’s needed to make your character realistic and interesting.

It all comes down to the personality of the character.  There is no requirement for any character to have a tragic backstory, but history shows that readers empathize with characters who have struggled and still struggle with their past.  If anything, it makes them more relatable to real people.  No one likes a character who has had it too easy in their life.

So, there it is.  Doctor Who has a tragic past because it makes him more interesting, more personable, and more noble.  Whether his past is considered too tragic is up to the viewer.

dr_oz_320_wktv

Poor Dr. Oz got himself into trouble a while back because he shifted his focus from real medicine and health issues to promoting unproven weight loss supplements.  His reason? He was trying to engage his audience.  There’s no doubt that having a highly reknowned medical authority come out on national television and tell about a new “magic” cure to the obesity crisis would lead to higher ratings and therefore more cash for the network.  But, when those products aren’t proven or regulated, it’s not the best idea to back them with your mouth or your money.

Even then, I was nearly convinced to try a few of the so called miracle pills to shrink off my stubborn belly roll. Everytime I see the chocolate covered acai berries I want to buy them, and have bought them, because perhaps it will help. Note to self: chocolate covered anything will not lead to weight loss, duh.

One of the most sensitive topics for people these days is their weight.  It’s sad, but true.  The American lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to a trim midsection by any stretch of the imagination. Anything that talks about weight loss is a guaranteed success, whether it be a TV show, book, or even this blog.

What got Dr. Oz in trouble is that he was standing in the role of a medical doctor and using that to legitimize the products he was promoting and he did it because he knew that people were hungry to hear about it.

You can engage your audience without stepping into this trap.  For those of you who use social media, what was the last thing you clicked through to read while on Facebook or Twitter? For those of you who don’t, what was the last thing that caught your attention, that made you want to read more?

Some things are universally engaging, human interest stories, cute puppies, and celebrities doing naughty things tend to catch our attention. For sports fans it might be news about the last big game, or perhaps an in-depth feature of a favorite player. For writers it can be links about how to better our prose or find a publisher. The point is you can find interesting things that are engaging to write about whether it be in a piece of fiction or a blog post.  The trick is to identify those things that you are interested in and would want to read about and then put your own spin on it.

What will you do to engage your audience?

***

This post was inspired by the always funny John Oliver on the Last Week Tonight Show, when he tackled the Dr. Oz issue. Here’s the video if you want to see it:

Posted by: Jodi | September 17, 2014

Writerly Quote of the Day – Asimov

Asimov quote“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers” – Isaac Asimov

In Hamlet, Shakespeare said “brevity is the soul of wit.” Today, and quite possibly for the next unforeseen future, I will be brief. It turns out that blogging, especially when you are working hard to create new and unique material on a regular basis, takes hoards of time.  That’s time that I don’t have, and to be honest, haven’t had from the beginning.  I will continue to post here on Wednesdays but the posts are going to be shorter for the most part. (I am a novelist at heart, writing short can be a challenge).

Why the change? It keeps being pointed out to me that I spend more time on the blog than on my fiction. If I put the same effort into my novel it might actually get finished.  Also, cue the happy dance, I received my first official acceptance letter telling me that one of my short fiction pieces won a place in the 2015 Fantasy Anthology by Xchyler Publishing. Receiving this validation has kickstarted me out of the rut that I’ve been stuck in and now it’s time to get out there and get the work done.

Posted by: Jodi | September 10, 2014

The Science of Creepy

Musee_de_la_bible_et_Terre_Sainte_001I saw this terrific Youtube video about creepiness and thought it was perfect to share, especially now that Halloween decorations have hit the shelves and submissions for scary stories are coming due.  If you have a WIP you are trying to make scarier then this is required watching!  Should you be so inclined, you can also check out the random horror story I wrote a while ago for the Deadly Love, Be Mine anthology (You’ll have to scroll down to find it, dang pdf).

Related post:

The Uncanny Valley

 

Posted by: Jodi | September 3, 2014

What is your Culture?

Culture can be fascinating!  Image from http://all-free-downloads.com

Culture can be fascinating!
Image from http://all-free-downloads.com

(This is the post that was eaten by the goblins lurking within the system at WordPress last week.  Hopefully it reads as well as my first try because it was super awesome.)

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about culture is something that you grow in a petri dish, and I’m pretty sure that those microbes aren’t avid readers.  When it comes to your writing culture, we are talking about your audience. Understanding your audience and their interests and likes is a huge help when it comes time to attract attention among the screaming crowd.

A culture is defined as a group of people with similar beliefs and practices.  In broad terms a culture can include an entire country, such as U.S. culture.  Although the citizens of the United States are all very unique, they all share many things in common because they live in the same country.  In more narrow terms, a culture can be as specific as a fan group.  These are sometimes called subcultures.

People who adore Doctor Who are a subculture, they share many similarities.  They tend to be intellectual, the nature of the program requires reasoning skills beyond your basic sitcom. They also have a penchant for collecting memorabilia such as sonic screwdrivers and clever reincarnations of the TARDIS.  Chances are they also like other speculative fiction as well.

The people who you think would like your book are your culture.  If you are writing fantasy you want to first attract people who like to read fantasy.  This is a no brainer.  But, what does it mean?  It means that if you use a blog, or twitter, or Facebook, or any other social media to promote your work, you should post things that fantasy readers would be attracted to.

And this is where I’ve fallen short.  My poor blog meant to attract readers for my future books has not been tailored to attract readers of epic fantasy.  At most it has attracted readers from this blog and then a random smattering of people interested in various things such as Spongebob. This is not helpful to my goals.

I’ve failed to cater to my culture and this needs to change.  I made my first attempt at catering to my culture last Friday when I stated my intention of becoming a Doctor Who fan. It sounds like fun and there are tons of awesome people out there who love Doctor Who.  That post received more attention its first day than any other post I’ve written, except for when I accidentally attracted the Alfie Boe fan club with a post that compared him to my main character.  Although cool, that didn’t help me win fans either.

Over the next several weeks and months I hope to do more to attract my culture, that is readers of epic fantasy, over at my other blog.  This will include reviews of other epic fantasy books, fantasy movies, and yes, Doctor Who.  I can’t promise anything, but there might also be some fun cosplay in there as well.

What are you doing to attract your culture? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

***

The August Giveaway is over and a winner has been selected.  Everyone who liked or commented on posts during the month of August were entered in a drawing to receive a free critique of the first 20 pages of a current work in progress, or of their query letter.

The winner is:  OntyrePassages!  Congrats to you!  I sent you a PM on your FaceBook writer page with the details.

Posted by: Jodi | August 27, 2014

Dang it WordPress!

I just finished a really great post about creating culture and finding an audience using the WordPress new post writing page.  I had the picture, I had everything tagged, the only thing left to do was a quick double-check using the proofreader (aka spellcheck).

The new posting page doesn’t have a proofreader.

I clicked the handy link that tells me if I miss the classic post writing page I can switch back to the one that has the spellchecker.

Poof – the post is gone.

Before, the posts were automatically saved whenever any of the post’s sidebar settings were changed so I didn’t think to save before clicking.

My mistake. I tried everything to retrieve it – and trust me I’m pretty good at finding lost things.  It’s gone.

I’m seriously crying right now, it was an awesome post.

***

On a different note, today’s the last day to enter in the August giveaway for a free critique of the first 20 pages of a work in progress or of a query letter.  To enter all you have to do is “like” this post.  For a second entry, leave a comment.  All likes and comments for any post during the month of August will be counted.

Posted by: Jodi | August 20, 2014

Problems with being a Pantser

cartoon-pants-8There are two camps when it comes to first drafts, the planner camp and the pantser camp.  Planners have all the details of their story figured out before they start and pantsers start with one or two great ideas and then figure the rest out as they go along.  After many trial and error cycles I learned that I’m a pantser at heart and probably always will be.  The problem with this is that longer books need some sort of plan to help guide the story from the beginning to the end.

One of the reasons that this book is taking so long to write is that from the beginning I didn’t understand the story.  The other three reasons are wrestling in the other room over who gets to play with what toy. When I started this whole process of taking an idea from concept to completed story I thought that the only way to do it was to create an outline and then follow it.  At this point I didn’t know about story structure or pacing or scene and sequel and I was hugely frustrated because even as I created the story it didn’t feel like it worked. Frankly, it sucked.

I pushed along anyway following my faulty and utterly incomplete outline.  Those were the days when I was convinced that I would be finished and presenting my work to agents in less than a year.  I even blogged about how I was planning on doing this and now looking back I realize just how naïve I was.

The more I wrote the more I realized just how much the outline was missing and how little I understood my world or my characters.  I didn’t have my magic system worked out, or the setting, or the climax, or anything that I needed to make a great story.

Each time I came up against a problem I would have to stop and figure things out and backtrack to plug-in the changes.  I think I revised the opening ten chapters well over twenty times, all the while thinking that with this change everything would then flow smoothly to the end of the book.  It never did because within a few pages I would realize that I needed to make another change.  I spent almost an entire year trying to fix things this way and assumed that this was just how the process was supposed to work.

When I realized that half of my fixes were counteracting other fixes I was forced to make a hard decision – give up or stop backtracking and just push through to the end.  At this point the story had strayed so far from the outline that I no longer had an ending, not that the original ending made any sense in the first place. While I was working through all these different problems the story had taken several unexpected turns. These turns were so much better than what was planned that they had to stay.

When I finally finished that draft I felt like I had finished a marathon. I was completely spent. It had huge problems, the front half needed an extensive overhaul so that the story flowed into the back half.  Those issues were so daunting that I put off editing and revising the manuscript for over a year.  That, and with the birth of my third child my whole life was thrown into chaos.

Last fall I buckled down and started the long process of rewriting the front half of the story.  With the writing skills that I had acquired over the last few years it seemed easier to find what needed to be added and taken away.  That’s not to say that reinventing scene after scene was easy, there were still some tricky plot problems that needed to be solved.  In solving those problems I uncovered some really cool ideas that make this story even better.

There’s still a lot of work to do to finish this edit.  With the kids in school I’m hoping that I’ll find the time and patience to keep plugging through until it’s done.  For the first time in this process I finally feel like I’m getting close!

***

Just a reminder – For the month of August I am offering a free critique of a query letter or the first 20 pages of a manuscript.  To enter all you have to do is click the “like” button.  For a second entry, leave a comment!  The winner will be notified at the end of the month.

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