Saturday, May 31, 2014

Getting Started: One Approach

Get Ready, Get Set, Go!

Research is one of the basic elements to writing and I travel frequently to accomplish that whether to the Caribbean Islands or to the local Costco (a membership warehouse frequented by hordes of people of different ethnic origins.) During a recent jaunt to Mexico there was time to sit in a hot tub and talk with people (Unaware they were being studied as potential characters.) No matter where a writer goes when people discover what you do someone always says, “I'd like to write a book, but I just don't know what to write about.”

In The Way to Write, Rudolf Flesch and A.H. Lass (1955) say, “[Writing isn't just spelling . . . or just about grammar.] Writing is grasping ideas, seeing images, harnessing words [to] give shape and form to thoughts. What matters most in writing is not the rules and conventions for putting words on paper. What matters most in writing is the writer's mind.” If a person can't think of anything to write about, then continue to daydream. A person who has the soul of a writer has ideas buzzing around their head as if walking through a field of butterflies until seeing one in particular, grasping it, and then running off to nurture it.”

Photographs are often my inspiration butterflies stimulating ideas. Other things are people, conversations, books, magazines, TV, movies, even those celebrated prompts proffered by other writers. Mostly likely an idea will never be used because there are so many and not enough time to develop it, but so not to lose the thought, I generate a note with picture(s) if appropriate, and a summary not unlike what might be sent to an agent or publisher except it can be longer than 250 words. Usually, that summary is just long enough that the essence of the thought can be recaptured, but on occasion it has moved right into a full-blown short story. This summary is an important guide, becoming the beginning of an outline.

From Idea to the End of Life

A summary helps suggest initial players and location in the story. It also suggests what research is needed. For instance, if players are travelling on a bus or train, what do you know about the feel and experience of such travel. Cars, yes, but a bus or train? Let's say the story takes place in Durango, Colorado. What do you know about that place? The weather? The scenery? The history? The people? The things to do? You either have been there, have a person who can help answer questions, travel there (oh, yes), or Google the heck out of it.

When a story starts to percolate between the ears there is one thing that must take precedent—How is it going to end? What are you trying to say? Once that is settled, how did the players reach this point by backtracking to the beginning.

Did you say read the last chapter first?


But how many times did Miss Penworthy in high school English admonished us to not read the end of a book? That will spoil the whole story.

Not so. Knowing how it ends adds a special dimension; The reader sees the twists and turns the players negotiates to get to that point, becoming actively engaged by questioning, “Why that way and not this way?” or “Hey, not the alley, stay on the street and this will happen.” It's a different way to read a story, but for the author, knowing the end is a necessity so not to drift off course. For fun, let's plot out a story.

Bored to Death

Two brothers live in Fresno, CA. Frank is in the 11th grade. Fred is in 9th grade. Frank is a good student, but Fred is smarter and school is boring. There is no father in the home so Frank tries to fill in. Fred resents his brother's “interference.” He sets curfew times and criticizes the people he runs with. They are still very close despite Fred's rebellionish nature until Frank kneels in Fred's blood and pulls his lifeless body close, sobbing because he didn't arrive soon enough. The story is to tell how a bright, young man, bored with school and too much time on his hands, gets into a deadly situation, and pays the ultimate price. (I like twists, so Fred is not with his gang this day, but seeing them go into the store, he walks across the street to join them, in effect becoming an innocent victim.)

Backtracking. Okay, Fred got involved with a gang whether a member or not, but how did he die? He was shot by a store owner. Why? He was standing outside the store when it was being robbed. Why? He was joining his friends. Who? The guys robbing the store. Why were they robbing the store? How did Fred get involved with these guys? Did he know what was going down? Where was Frank? Did he know what was going down? Did Frank try to intervene to prevent his brother from running with these guys? What did he do? Why did Fred chose to ignore his older brother with whom he had a very close relationship and start associating with the gang?

By backtracking, we have a beginning, an explanation how it happened, and who was involved by repeatedly asking the ultimate questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How?

The information can be plugged into the traditional A. 1. a. format, or it can be a sentence or two, or expanded with more detail into a short paragraph describing each act of the story. What you want is something to guide your writing along by highlighting events—this happened and the players respond by doing this because of these characteristics or these events, and because they do this, this happens and the players respond by . . ..

A story is like a game of dominoes when stood on end. Here is a passage from a book I wrote several years ago.

One evening, instead of putting the dominoes away after finishing a game, [Aunt Florence] began standing each one on end. I loved this game, making twists, and turns, and all manner of deviations from a straight run.

That night, seated on the edge my bed, she said, “Francis, life is like the dominoes we played with earlier. Each one represents an event in your life. One might represent the day your father and my Eben were killed. It falls into the next representing your mother starting her business. That one falls into the next which is you coming to live with me. That would never have happened if the first hadn't moved into the second.”

The older I got the more I could see the domino theory working in my life. Many years later I came to understand, one's chain did not necessarily begin moving at birth. What has happened within our family could be inexorably linked to something that began four-hundred years earlier.

That story was built by setting up life-event dominoes starting at the end where the protagonist wins fame, fortune, and discovers the truth about his family. The chain snaked around and had side adventures that rejoined the main theme, so it is not a solely linear tale.

There are many ways to write a story, but something has to be in place so not to miss important elements as discussed in previous eFiles AND to keep your writing from wandering.

How do you plan out a story?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

An Author's Reference Library (An Anatomy Extra)

Writers and authors are word crafters. That involves what words to use and their correct usage, including the all-important punctuation. Shakespeare was good at creating and using words differently which is wonderful, but this all can be tricky depending upon the era being featured. How I write a story placed in 2000 America will be different than the story written in the European-based world 400 years ago. Writing descriptions and comparisons as seen through the eyes of the actors can not legitimately use words not in existence at the time. That's when it behoves me to check the reference library. There are a number of important works on one bookshelf within easy reach, but having them a few keystrokes away when not in the office is equally important. Here are the four most important references I feel should be the foundation blocks to an author's reference library.

1.  Dictionary

There are many good dictionaries, but if you write period pieces an etymological dictionary is a must.

My favorite is the online for American usage.

According to Wikipedia ", one of the leading online dictionaries, was founded in 1998 by Brian Kariger and Daniel Fierro, as part of Lexico Publishing, which also included and The proprietary content for the site is based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, with other licensed content from the Collins English Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary and others."

If you look way down toward the bottom right in small print you will find links to medical terms and abbreviations to all sorts of things including a medical term dictionary. There is also a dictionary of abbreviations and slang. Their description says, "The American Heritage Abbreviations Dictionary provides simple descriptions of acronyms and shorthand from many areas of life, including computer science, sports, social media, conversation and industry. Entries include explanations of the context of abbreviations as well as the direct meaning."

2.  Thesaurus 

On my shelf is a 50 year-old copy of Roget's that began as a window on the world of words. It's only gotten better with age. Online I use, the companion to above.

3.  Grammar and punctuation

An excellent resource is The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. (  Being online is plus for rapid retrieval of the needed information. There is nothing wrong with Elements of Style by E.B. White, William Strunk, Jr., and there are others.

4.  The Chicago Manual of Style

This is the writers' and publishers' bible as to how a written work should look and feel, in use since 1906.

A foundation is the supporting structure. 

If faulty, everything built upon it will be weak and defective. Choose well. The other consideration is accessibility. A book on the shelf is handy and often can be better for in-depth research, but online resources can thumb through all the entries with incredible speed to locate needed information quickly. I have both because 1) I grew up with physical books and know the worth of seeing adjacent entries to a specific question. That is something electronic databases don't always do. 2) I travel to research. Although I have a lightweight computer, with the attending paraphernalia, the backpack weighs upwards of twenty pounds. It would be impracticable as heck to haul those around, too. As the old knight in Indian Jones admonished, "Choose wisely."

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Point of View - The Voice

Note: This eFile was posted 4/1/2014, but never made it out ??? So, we try again)

In an earlier post the discussion focused on Point of View, or the place from which the reader “listens in” and/or “watches.” This decision dictates how the story will be written. The next decision is what voice to use to convey the story.

Typically, the first or third-person POV narrator is a player who may or may not be involved in the action. In addition, they may or may not take a biased approach in telling the story, nor is the player necessarily the focal character. An example is Dr. Watson telling the story of Sherlock Holmes.

First-person is limited in that the story can only be told through the eyes of the teller (“I”) who can not truly know what others are thinking, or know about events taking place beyond their presence unless told by someone at that place (via phone, radio, telepathy, or what have you.)

Third-person telling uses “he", "she", "it", and "they", but not "I". Here the narrator is able to convey the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of one or more characters and relate events occurring in other times and places. Third-person is the most versatile in that the thoughts, feelings, and actions of all the characters can be detailed with the ability to jump from one location to another.

A widely-used format, this form can be subdivided into three classes. The first is third-person subjective where the storyteller is limited to one player (sometimes referred to as third-person limited). Although seeming to be a first-person mode, this form still uses third-person pronouns. Hemingway applied this in The Old Man and the Sea.

A second subdivision is third-person objective where the storyteller does not describe any character's thoughts, opinions, or feelings, thus sounding like a newspaper article or biography. Any feelings must be acted out by the player, and thoughts have to be vocalized, however information of which players are not privy can be revealed. The objective is for the storyteller to take a neutral or unbiased position and just relate the facts.

A third subdivision is third-person omniscient, the most commonly used in the late Nineteenth through Twentieth Centuries. The story is presented by a narrator who sees and knows everything within the the story world, and what each of the characters is thinking and feeling. Having this omniscient view, the storyteller can offer judgements and opinions about the behaviour of each player.

As example, I have written a series which utilizes both first-person, and third-person omniscient POV's. The first book takes place in our time period and is narrated in the first person by a character who is the focus of the story, David. By the end of the book he is joined by the ghost of his deceased ancestor who collaborates in telling his story which takes place in the early 1600's. That book (Volume 2) is told in the third person by David as his ancestor now knows everything that happened. The series then alternate.

While people will use different terms or refine subdivisions (splitting hairs) these are two of the three basic tools as relate to the Point of View a writer can use. The last is time which will be explored next.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Something About Doors

Newspapers use AP Style and fiction/non-fiction use the Chicago Manual of Style, but they have one very important thing in common—the opening.

Starting out as journalist, this was hammered into my thick head from the get-go. Competing against many, many stories, I had 25 to 30 words to capture the reader's attention, giving the basics of who, did what, when, and where? The rest of the story explained the how and why. In fiction and non-fiction the lead or hook is a bit different, but must capture the reader's interest.

There are no dogmatic rules for openings, only good, basic principles, and one of those principles is to capture the most important, most dramatic, and most interesting scene. However, it isn't important to start writing that way. After finishing the first draft, crafting the story comes into play with numerous edits, one of the first being the lead. Checking the delete files or trash can will reveal that I will write at least 20 to 25 variations. Here's an example. (No, not the 25. Just the first draft and most recent consideration.)

Leaving El Hierro and returning home in Nebraska after the first summer on that island was like stepping into a room and turning off the lights. The glitz, glamor, and celebrity status hadn’t made it that far. However, as word of our exploits came to the surface my popularity index increased markedly, something not especially welcomed. Still somewhat socially retarded, anonymity continued to be a preference, but all of a sudden, strangers wanted to be best buds, which made me nervous. Despite the risk of being labeled a snob, I was selective about making friends, and didn’t especially like crowds trying to schmooze their way into my sphere of comfort. Then they showed up – the paparazzi. At least I guessed that’s what they were, guys lurking about at the darndest times and unsuspecting places to take my picture.

*    *    *    *
I learned a painful lesson while on El Hierro in the Canary Islands. When the back of my neck began to itch there was danger nearby. The stronger the itch, the closer the danger. Sitting on a towel looking out over the west side of Branch Oak Lake not far from my home in Lincoln, Nebraska, I began rubbing my neck and looking in both directions of the grassy shore. The girls were some distance away, returning from the outhouse. There were no others on our side and the area was fairly open so no one could sneak up on us.

For each lead-in it is important to ask, “Is this going to cause the reader to be interested enough to continue?”

I look at a lot of books, especially those written by best selling authors. I am not always impressed. Truthfully? Too many have boring leads and the only draw is knowing a pretty good story is hidden somewhere further on. Serious and new authors struggling for an audience need to work harder, and this is one place to start.

That brings me to the place a number of authors start their story—a prologue. These generally amount to background information—sometimes valuable, sometimes not. I've seen it done well when written with a grabbing lead just as done in Chapter 1.

A well-known adventure writer wrote a novel a few years ago about the recovery of an important and valuable religious artifact found beneath the water near an island. How this artifact came to rest there was an exciting and intriguing short story used as his prologue. Another author more or less laid out the future world he was about to place his story. (z-z-z-z).

Remember, you, the author, are competing with over 200,000 other authors a year for the attention of a fickle audience. Whether you start with a prologue or Chapter 1, that is the first thing your potential audience is going to see. While promotion is important, promotion can not do much for an uninteresting beginning. Your lead or hook is the door that presents the handle. Will the visitor be interested enough to turn the knob and enter, or move to the next door?

Friday, May 2, 2014

It Was A Dark and Stormy Knight

Theme, plot, voice, character, and setting are the fundamental components of fiction. In the recent past these eFiles focused on the three aspects of voice, and back further  on characters and plot. This time, let's take a look at theme.

A story idea may drop on you full blown or slowly evolve like a small light far off ever expanding into a bright and glorious prism of light. This story may begin with one or more characters, with additions along the way, but as your mental gymnastics gel into a story it is important to begin writing those thoughts down. What happens to whom? How do they react? What is the consequence of their action? How do they adjust to the change? What is the final result? The scientific law is that for every action, there is a reaction. (In fiction it may not be opposite and/or equal, but there will be a reaction.) Continually ask: 


These answers become the skeleton of one of the most important pieces of writing you can accomplish for your burgeoning story—the synopsis—something that will grow and guide your story to the very end, and then carry it to agents, publishers, and readers. It becomes your rough outline.

Early on with a story I have under construction, this was noted: 

“Mariah sees the Angel of Death come to take her husband. She fights to keep him with her, but loses, and then sees their oldest son join hands with his father and leave. She is awakened by an explosion—thunder from a rain storm—and realizes this was only a nightmare, but far too real to put out of her mind. Later that day her husband's pirate-mentor from years past appears seeking his help to rescue the pirate's wife and child from an unscrupulous English Lord. He leaves to join the venture and then their oldest son runs off to join his father, leaving her to managing their large plantation. Father and son are at odds during the voyage because . . .”

This was the beginning synopsis, expanded to more than a full page. Length is not an issue. Plugging in action, cause, and effect are. It is also about this time the writer would begin to consider the three aspects of voice which will have a direct bearing on how the story is shaped.

As your synopsis is fleshed out, look for a theme, a central topic, something or somethings that show relationships and how people and events are affected by those relationships. Do it in one or two words.

  1. chaos
  2. love
  3. emotion
  4. monsters
  5. supernatural
  6. social conflict
  7. xrime
  8. conflict
  9. war
  10. global warming
  11. coming of age (okay, three words)
  12. (or according to the King of Siam, "Etc., etc., etc.)

In this story the theme or central point to the story is “coming of age”; a father sees his son grow into a man as they work together to rescue an old friend's family. There are sub-themes appended to the main theme. In this case “love” between father and son, and “conflict” between the two. All these will be brought to light by the actions, utterances, and thoughts of the main and secondary characters as the story moves toward resolution.

In chapter one of the Book of Genesis, it was written, "From chaos to order . . ." This is the genesis of any story.