Why Word Count is Important

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The first draft of my story totaled just under 6,000 words; the second draft sliced wordage to 5,191 words, and subsequent editing chopped the story to 4,980, 4,845, and 4,621 words.

Still too long.

I am not obsessed with the number of words it takes to tell a story; what I do care about is succinctly telling a story with the least number of words possible—unnecessary verbiage is my enemy during the editing cycles.

Other people (like editors) do care how many words your story totals, and they can be a bit myopic when it comes to the decision to purchase your story for publication. Why?

When I wrote for newspapers (and also published a couple small zines), I was keenly aware of space limitations, not only for artwork and stories and articles, but for paid advertising, the life-blood of keeping a publication afloat.

When laying out a daily, weekly, or monthly publication, the editor has to find a spot for each of the articles, stories, artwork and/or photos, and advertising space. Decisions are based on logistical space issues as well as aesthetic value—breaking up the publication’s pages and making them appealing while being informative (and keeping readers interested) both fall within the editor’s duties.

Planning a publication is done with a “Mock-Up,” an empty layout where each space is designated by a symbol: large X where art and photos will be placed, the headline’s font and size at the beginning of each article or story, often an arrow drawn down columns or pages for text (or lettered gibberish as in the graphic above), all without the specifics to be inserted at a later date.

So, an editor looks and sees he needs a story or article to fit within each of those arrowed slots, and a quick glance reveals the text on pages 4-7 (wrapped around the planned graphics) cannot surpass 850 words due to space allowance, and the two pages at the back must be saved for advertisers sponsoring future events, and . . . . you get the idea.

In these cases, word count is critical.

While researching a market for your planned story, one of the first delineated requirements is word count (1,500 to 3,000 words), usually following the “types” or genre the publication accepts, as well as what they are not interested in receiving. Pay attention to each guideline, and always strive to accommodate their wishes—to do otherwise will cause your story to be rejected outright, regardless how well it is written.

Note: Book publishers are not normally so defined, but there are still basic needs and guidelines you should follow. Publishing is, after all, a business, and a 225,000-word novel by a new writer will have a hard time finding a house willing to take such a chance.

As far as my story is concerned, cutting needless words—even scenes—has improved the tale. This particular story is being readied for a Writer’s Digest short story contest. The last time I entered the contest, my story placed in the top hundred, but even more importantly, the story was later purchased by a major publisher. I can only hope the same will be true for the current story, this time a fantasy rather than a mystery.

Alas, the Writer’s Digest contest requires all stories to be “no more than 4,000 words” so I have more work to do. Can I? At this point I’m not sure, having been through the story several times, cutting all the proverbial “fat” in the form of unnecessary “thats” and -ing verbs, replacing lazy prepositional phrases with active phrasing, using colons and semi-colons to eliminate conjunctions connecting phrases (not too often or they can make the writing choppy), removing weak adjectives and adverbs, and other little tricks I have learned—all without affecting the story’s central thrust.

All that being said, do not jeopardize your story just to match a periodical length requirements; if a story must incorporate 3,000 words after several edits, and the magazines of interest only accepts up to 2,500 words, find a different publication to submit your work—telling your story the best way possible takes precedence, regardless.

At magazines, deadlines are another part of the process. As writers, we need to define our own deadlines—in an effort to accomplish our goals—even when we are not producing with a predetermined timeline. Nonetheless, the deadline for the Writer’s Digest contest is October, so I better get busy cutting some more weak words and phrases . . . .

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

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It’s hard saying goodbye to a 30-year-old friendship. Emotions run the gamut—sadness (moist eyes, a lone tear escaping onto the cheek), regret and disappointment (the I shoulda’s), anxiety (what will I do without the comfort they give?), anger (face heating up, hands trembling), and a heart-sinking melancholy.

Emotions are what drive people to act and think the way they do. You know this from your own life, and the emotional stability (or instability) should be apparent in your characters as well.

Yesterday we sold our 1971 VW pop-top camper, and lost a dear friend.

The first two paragraphs “seemed” to indicate the lost friendship dealt with a person, but instead, the emotions rattling through my wife and I related to a vehicle we owned and enjoyed while raising our children; as my wife pointed out, “We’ve owned the bus over half my life.”

Mystery and surprise within fiction keeps the reader turning the pages, all-important ingredients we must not forget—make the reader wonder, then shock them.

Emotions are real regardless of their source, and the same is true of your characters: an heirloom conjures happy memories of a grandparent, or a Purple Heart reminds an ex-soldier of friends who died on the battlefield.

Emotions are strong motivators, and every character needs a believable reason why they do the things they do.

The mystery of why and how a character acts—along with appropriate plot twists—fuels a reader’s interest as you dole out bits and pieces during the pages and chapters of your story. Why did they do that? What will happen next? How will they solve the problem? These questions and others should be imparted in small doses to the reader throughout the story.

Think of a TV drama; the lead character is faced with a dangerous situation, an event that jeopardizes their life or the life of a loved one—fade to commercial. This is known as a cliff-hanger, and within literature, is best used occasionally, and normally at the end of a chapter.

The reader sucks a breath, glances at the clock, realizing they need to get to bed, and turns the page to see what happens next. You have accomplished your job as a writer—kept the reader wondering, fearing, and hoping as you disrupt their sleep.

Keep your story mysterious and thrill the reader with surprises of unexpected outcomes to life threatening events.

I have been fortunate to have eight beta readers for my novel, The Returning; each has been valuable at showing what does and does not work in the story. Four of my readers were given only the first two chapters where my initial cliff-hanger took place following a monumental surprise for my protagonist.

Something crashed against the back of his head–blackness.

The response was unanimous: each of the four readers berated me (gently and with good humor) with comments like, “How dare you leave me hanging like that!”

Perfect—just what I wanted.

Keeping the reader on edge, wondering what will happen next, and then fulfilling their anticipation with an undreamed of resolution entices readers to the next page. Isn’t that the point?

Now go write your story, adding foreshadowing hints along the way, and then knock the readers from their comfort zone.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

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Fiction and Natural Disasters

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Catastrophic natural disasters happen all the time.

Hurricane Harvey has dominated the news over the last week, but it is only one of several natural disasters affecting and displacing people around the world. As terrible as Harvey has been for Texas (now accounting for 44 deaths and dozens still missing at last count), the monsoon that hit Napal, India, and Bangladesh last week killed over 1,200 and made millions homeless.

Currently, fires scorch the western U.S. and Canada, threatening thousands of homes while smoking up several states. Our small town at the foot of the Oregon Cascades sits in a valley where smoke accumulates and has made life miserable the last month—we are surrounded by several fires burning the forested canyons where biking and hiking are normally the call-of-the-day.

Disasters magnify the human condition in the suffering and peoples’ response to events beyond their control. Over the next days and weeks stories of bravery and tragedy will underscore the disasters—those instances are fiction’s ripe fruit.

Fiction is all about people in conflict, whether with themselves, other people, circumstances, or nature; disasters and a character’s reaction can include and embody all simultaneously.

Uncountable movies and books use disasters as their catalyst, and in some cases the events comprise the entire plot. Contemplating the disasters inundating us on the daily news, I realized I have never used a natural disaster in my own writing.

Perhaps character “motivation” is so deeply ingrained in my plot development—the how’s and why’s they react—is why I have never used an “act of nature” in my stories; I’m not sure.

The world impacts my characters (my MC hurtling over a waterfall, for example), but the cause of such action was another character’s betrayal and a bit of bad luck. Weather has certainly affected my characters, and the climate hints at a character’s mental state or the perception I want my reader to experience.

The magnitude of natural disasters and the lives affected are often lost on us as we have become complacent due to the sheer volume we read and hear about. But when writing, we leave our aerial view of the world and swoop down onto the shoulder and into the minds of our characters and their reactions to the world around (and within) them.

This is how it should be.

Writing about a natural disaster can be a doorway into a deeper understanding of a character’s motivations and reactions. Think of a macho-man cowering and polarized by fear during an earthquake, or a young female store clerk who risks her life to save a drowning puppy: each instance speaks to who these people really are beyond the persona they exhibit under normal situations.

I remember in the Kevin Costner movie, The Guardian, where as a Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician, he drops from a helicopter into a raging sea to save a drowning couple. During the ordeal the husband is only interested in his own survival: the Costner character has to punch the man to calm him, and after the rescue, the wife’s reaction to her husband’s cowardice is classic.

People act differently during duress than they think (or hope) they would. My dad always said, “No matter how you think you would react, you don’t know what you’ll do until a person puts a gun to your head.” He was right.

As a writer, you need to know how your character will react. Even if you don’t plan a natural disaster in a story, knowing a character’s reaction to all sorts of stimuli will give you—and, thereby, your reader—a better understanding of a character’s many facets.

Fiction is about people and how they respond to calamity.

As an exercise, put one of your favorite characters into a natural disaster and see how they react. Add that to your Character Sketch. Even if you do not use what you write, it will give you a better understanding and will help “round out” your understanding of the character.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Writer’s Garden, or 4 Lessons Learned From Tolkien

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My wife, Linda, loves to garden. Many days I’ll glance up from my computer and see her love-labor: watering (daily), pulling weeds (often), trimming branches (Spring and Fall), or starting a new planting project. Our yard is her passion, a passion slowly realized over a course of many years.

Writing is the same.

We’ve lived in our house nestled at the base of the Oregon Cascades for eleven years. The other day Linda and I discovered—separately—that one of the trees lining the front yard is a fruit-bearing plum.

Eleven years and it finally bore fruit. Eleven years. We shook our heads in amazement.

I thought of Tolkien: The Hobbit was published in 1937 to a moderate response, thankfully enough so that he was asked to write a sequel. He published Lord of the Rings in 1954-55: again, a good but not great response. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the Professor’s popularity sky-rocketed, thanks in part to the hippy generation and their attraction to the peculiar.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are now considered the standard for fantasy literature, and J.R.R. Tolkien the pinnacle of the genre. I would hazard to say most fantasy writers have read the wondrous tales of Middle Earth (as well as millions of others). The making of the movies by Peter Jackson further solidified Tolkien’s standing.

J.R.R. never thought The Hobbit and Middle Earth would gain the popularity they enjoy today, and would not have if The Hobbit did not find its way into the right hands at the right time, quite by accident. We are forever grateful it did.

He wrote The Hobbit for his children. In 1936 the incomplete book came to the attention of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the London publisher, George Allen & Unwin. She persuaded Tolkien to finish and submit the manuscript for publication, the book was published a year later, and surprisingly (to J.R.R, at least) attracted as many adult readers as his intended audience, children.

What if Susan Dagnall—now only a historical footnote—had not encouraged the Professor to submit The Hobbit?

Between the times The Hobbit was published and Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings, his garden flourished as he made additional seed-notes about a wide variety of characters, languages, Middle Earth histories, plots and sub-plots totaling thousands of pages.

Not all his work bore fruit before his death, but his son, Christopher, tended the fields of his father’s garden, giving us The Silmarillion as well as other Middle Earth stories his father created.

I learned four valuable lessons reading about J.R.R. Tolkien and his success.

Think long about your topic
Write for your audience (and you may be surprised who that encompasses)
Submit your work
Be Patient

Think Long About Your Topic (Plan Your Garden)

When planning and planting a garden, one needs to ascertain many variables—soil components, distance between plantings, growing season, time of year, etc.—and the same is true of writing.

Planning a story or novel includes extensive notes, character sketches, time-lines, plots and subplots, and a host of other intricacies. When writing fantasy, world-building and magic need to be consistent in addition to all else that entails story-writing. All these and more are your seeds when planning a story or novel.

Write For Your Audience (Tend the Garden)

Daily garden maintenance parallels daily writing needs—editing reminds me of removing encroaching weeds that do damage and strangle otherwise healthy plants.

Read voraciously within your chosen genre to understand what has been done before, then twist the idea into your own worldview. If, as with fantasy fiction where there are numerous sub-genres, read in the one you enjoy, but don’t ignore the others. Whether Epic or Heroic or Urban Fantasy, you will see similarities between genres as well as specialties within each sub-group.

Once you grasp the leanings of your choice genre, create a unique story for that audience, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Like Tolkien, you might be surprised of the true readership and the expansive market potential.

Submit Your Work (Plant the Garden)

No matter how much you think about planting a garden, the ground remains barren if you don’t get your hands dirty and actually put the seeds or starter plants in the ground.

The same is true when it comes to writing.

As I wrote in a previous post: Writers Write: Authors Submit.

Your career remains barren if you do not submit your work, your writing forever lost to readers everywhere.

If just beginning your career, seek out by-lines rather than dollars. Unpaid published work is still published. Use the by-lines to promote your skills, like heirloom plants whose seeds give birth to future generations (ie., paid-for writing).

Which brings up the fourth item I learned from Tolkien:

Patience (Wait For Harvest)

It’s exciting to watch the fruits and vegetables ripen, plucking succulent tomatoes or golden raspberries when they reach maturity, and it requires patience.

Likewise, the writing craft embodies patience, which begins by waiting for a seed-idea to germinate before bursting forth to blossom into a fully realized story.

Once a story is completed and submitted to the first potential publisher on your list, it is time to get to work on the next project (similar to rotating crops).

Great writers get rejected, masterpieces hidden from the world until a courageous, far-sighted editor takes a chance on an unknown—You.

Plant the garden, tend the seedlings, wait, and you, too, shall reap the harvest.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

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Writing Time and Character Death

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Our lives are rubber bands pulled taut, each day threatening to snap with the next unplanned event.

Some days spiral out of control.

Even without catastrophic events pounding our lives, the daily requirements are daunting: work to pay the bills (for me, 9 hours a day, including lunch), sleep (I’m old; I need at least 8 hours), then there’s spending time with family and friends, caring for one’s animals, preparing meals and eating, showering, staring blankly at the walls, and dozens of other “events” that require our attention.

Every day is a package waiting to be unwrapped. I wake at 5:30 AM and begin  peeling back the paper that is plot and characters before I delve into the package of my life. Much of the package’s interior consists of routine and monotony, the kind that sucks creativity like a vacuum—exactly why the first hours are so precious, alone-time when everything is fresh and full of hope.

I am also acutely aware that we only have so many packages to unwrap.

The day before the last post, I learned a friend of Linda and mine died weeks earlier. A car accident took his life, a sudden, spontaneous tragedy caused by an unlicensed driver smoking crack—the pipe was found still between his legs when emergency crews arrived. The young man spent a week or two in the hospital with a punctured lung, and upon release from the care of nurses and doctors, his cushy surroundings were replaced by a wafer-thin cot and bars. He will likely spend a portion of his life in prison. As for our friend, he is no more . . . . his rubber band snapped, and unbeknownst to him, he opened his final package when he climbed in his car that fateful day.

Richard was a year and few days older than me when he died. At the scene, he asked the emergency crews to make sure the other driver was okay—that was Richard, kind and gentle, and speaks to his character.

Death causes reflection, followed by questions, and adds an urgency to how best spend what days we have left. Whether religious, philosophical, or just from a human standpoint, death’s awareness is unique to our species. Keep that in mind when writing.

The same is true of your characters. Death shapes your character’s psyche—their fears and how they cope with the inevitability. Nothing ramps up a story’s tension like a character’s view of their impending death.

Death haunts each character. Some writers shy away from killing off beloved characters, others derive satisfaction in the emotion evoked when a highly-thought-of character succumbs.

J.K. Rowling killed off several popular characters, as did George R.R. Martin, only more so. Tolkien, on the other hand, kept his main characters intact for the most part. Each instance is different, but it is a decision we writers need to contemplate.

Whether they are to die or not, the probability the character will should take center stage, a veiled unknown huddling on the horizon, just like for each one of us.

How do you feel about death? Dig deep. I’m not saying perceive the end of life as a gloomy cloud, but as a reality. Ask others how they feel about death, and you will see a cacophony of perspectives, some riddled with fear, others brightened by hope.

One’s feelings on death impacts their life. Realize that each day Death’s Door opens a bit wider: how do your characters feel about that?

Often a character’s feelings manifest when one close to them, including a beloved pet, dies. Shock, sadness, helplessness, a dull mind haze: all are symptoms of grief. Reactions change, ebb through stages, heartbreak to anger, regret and joy (at having known them), laughter blended with tears of pain. Yes, we know these feelings, these sensations, and your characters need to as well. Make your characters hurt, and thereby show the reader their humanity and their passion. To cause readers to cry is a great gift, perhaps more so than making them laugh.

In all things, use life’s joys and pains as the lifeblood of your stories, and readers will be grateful.

Take those feelings about death, appreciate the day you have before you, and write a story to draw the reader’s emotions—their fear of what might happen to their favorite character—into your story.

Live the life you wish, and write what you feel. Don’t shy away from the topic of death as all readers face the same questions; it’s an excellent way to garner their attention and hold it throughout your tale.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Monday is October 18th of my Cosmic Calendar Life

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Writing is one of the few professions where staring off into space is part of the job description.

My mind invariably wanders to strange places, asks patently odd-ball questions, and searches for even odder answers. The “What if” game is one of my favorites, and is often the springboard to quirky offerings.

A writer’s mind journeys to places others do not often travel. How many people do you know contemplate what motivates a person to act the way they do, the myriad of possible reactions to a single action, act through a scene to clear up a character’s performance, or study the why’s of how things are and their origins?

These wanderings are a writer’s playground.

The other day my “staring into space” followed an unexpected path:

I thought of the Cosmic Calendar I heard about years ago. Like many tendrils slithering through my mind, I didn’t remember exactly what it was, only the name.

Research followed (as it invariably does), and I found that famed writer and scientist Carl Sagan popularized the Cosmic Calendar in his book, The Dragons of Eden, published in 1977, and on his TV series of the time, Cosmos.

It seems that some scientists also contemplate weird thoughts.

So, what is the Cosmic Calendar?

Sagan superimposed the chronology of the universe (beginning at 13.8 billion years ago) on a one year calendar; the graphic above shows a few main events. Interesting epochs were revealed—here’s a sampling of when events occurred according to Sagan’s calendar:

Jan. 1 –Big Bang (or creation, if you choose)
Mar. 16–Milky Way Galaxy formed
Sept. 2–Formation of solar system
Sept. 6–Oldest rocks known on earth
Dec. 25–Dinosaurs
Dec. 30–Dinosaur extinction; mammals take over.
Dec 31 (at 22:34 / 10:34 PM) — Primitive humans and stone tools (barely made it, eh?)
1.2 seconds ago–Columbus arrives in America.

Here comes my What if:

I determined a person’s life at 80 years (as a starting point). Dividing a 365 day year (I eliminated the ¼ day for simplicity) by 80 years (average lifespan), I found each “year” of one’s life equaled 4.5625 days on a person’s Cosmic Calendar.

Weird, huh?

Using this mathematical formula, I realized that my birthday (which I share with JK Rowling and Harry Potter) this year will be the October 18th of my Cosmic Life Calendar. Damn . . . or as some people would have said back in the 1970’s, “That’s cosmic, man.”

We are all born, we all die, and in between we live our Cosmic Calendar. Of course there is no guarantee any of us will see 80 years (both my parents passed at 72), but it’s a place to start, like a first draft ready to be edited or an outline forming the foundation of a novel idea.

Recently I perused a few of my writing folders (snippets, short story ideas, etc.) and saw decent entries I jotted down with the plan to return to and expand them into a complete idea. I sat back, stunned—some which I thought were penned a few months ago range back 3 years—12+ days on my Cosmic Calendar!

Understanding that I’m currently in the middle of October (nights are getting colder, old joints creaking a bit more), I again remind myself the importance of prioritizing not only my writing, but my life . . . which brings me to the conclusion of this post.

My daughter, Janiene, and son-in-law, Abraham, are visiting from out of town. Linda and I will be spending time with them today, utilizing a portion of our Cosmic Calendar with the all-important family. As a side note, today is June 22nd of Janiene’s Cosmic Calendar—Abraham is a few days further into the summer.

What is the date on your Calendar, and how will you spend it?

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Daring Do’s and Dangerous Dont’s

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As writers, we must stretch beyond our comfort zones, learn new aspects of the craft, implement the new knowledge, and rework sentences until they serenade our inner ear.

We must be Daring

Write something completely different from your norm: try dialogue using dialect without changin’ and wranglin’ the language; if you write macho-man sword-and-sandal pulp fiction, craft a tender romance where vulnerabilities keep a destined couple apart; romance writers can learn a great deal developing relationships in deep space.

Take sentences, the building blocks of prose, and twist them this way or that: beginning a sentence with a gerund can brighten necessary focus; articulating something in a sentence by setting it off with commas, like this, changes the entire tempo in the reader’s mind; experiment with colons and semi-colons, ellipsis . . . dashes even—each changes the pace and sentence focal point.

Have fun—it will prove profitable and time well spent.

Writing fantasy, many of my sentences flow long, use descriptive modifiers and parenthetical phrases, so I decided to write a story lacking those attributes—instead, short and pithy. The flash fiction story, “Boys ‘N Berries,” is now making the rounds. I learned a great many things during the process, some of which I will weave into future writings.

Beware the Dangerous Don’ts

All writers have reached a certain skill level. It’s impossible to know on what rung of the publishing ladder you now reside, or the untold number of rungs that lay before you.

Gee, Rick, thanks; that really helps (sigh).

There is a mystery to the writing craft no one can solve, a question all writers ask themselves, their agents (if lucky enough to have one), and their writing partners: How talented am I? Put another way, “Do I have what it takes?” The problem is the question itself.

Talent is weighed and diced into a million different pieces, and it depends on the audience, whether one or a thousand.

Talent and skill perception are arbitrary, and in the end, only an opinion.

The first Dangerous Don’t is asking the question in the first place. One could call it mental masturbation: editors and readers will determine your skill and the value of your stories. Your job is to write.

Write and your skill level improves, and thereby, you climb the talent ladder. How could it be any other way? The more you do something, the better you become—this is a natural progression.

The second (and nearly as important) Dangerous Don’t is attempting more than your capabilities.

I know, this post began by encouraging you to stretch and attempt writing in ways and types unfamiliar, and I stand by that.

Let me explain the concept of avoiding projects you are not yet capable of undertaking:

Most fiction writers begin writing short stories. The reason short stories are the first choice is because one can dash off a short story first draft in a few hours or a day compared to months (even years) it takes to create a 70,000 to 100,000 word novel.

A short story follows a single character (normally) and a pretty straight-line plot path. Even the simplest novel involves numerous characters, perhaps multiple POV’s, and a central plot underscored by any number of sub-plots depending on the complexity determined by the writer’s wishes.

This is daunting. My advice: don’t plunge into a fully developed novel until you have written a dozen or more short stories.

Writing short stories teaches brevity as every word must have a bearing on the character, plot, or theme—there is no space to meander from the chosen path like a novel can allow. (Some would say you should not “meander” in a novel either, but there is more room to take a side trail and make it pertinent to one of the novel’s plot paths).

Third Dangerous Don’t: don’t plunge into an idea without determining the costs

I have a novel idea deemed viable (see my post on determining writing projects) that is currently beyond both my skill and time requirements.

The story is a YA fantasy novel set in the ancient Mayan culture that thrived (and mysteriously disappeared) in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

Having started the preliminary research, and despite a semi-complete outline, I realize at this time, the project is beyond my means.

Working full-time, I do not have the resources required to immerse myself into the research and writing necessary to complete such a project. An excuse? No, a reality.

That does not mean I ignore the idea; the idea simmers in my subconscious, and on occasion I scratch the research surface and jot notes toward a future when I will delve into such a complex and research-heavy project. Understanding that now is not the time is as important as knowing when a story has percolated long enough so the idea can be successful.

The Fourth Dangerous Don’t

Banish the critic that resides in all of us. The critic is a tempter, brow-beater, and thug. My friend, Richard Weir, wrote a terrific post dealing with the problems writers face when allowing the critic a foothold that quickly metamorphoses into a stranglehold. You can find the post here.

Why are the four Don’ts dangerous?

Time is every writer’s adversary: each of the four Don’ts involve wasting precious time.

Calculate your strengths, your weaknesses, use your abilities in the best way possible, and write. Experimentation conjures its own reward, but don’t undertake a project that is beyond your current capabilities or time allowance; only heartache will follow.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Fear and Loathing of the Writer Self

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The writer “me” wrestles with fear and loathing. The analytical “me” tells the writer “me” he’s an idiot and shut up. Both have valid points; I ignore them and write. One word after another, “enter” button to the next paragraph, there we go . . . .

The accumulative “we” are plagued with doubts, thrashed by rejection, and harried by the many duties required to be writers in the modern world: write, edit, post, respond, research, follow, send, wait, research some more, wait some more, all the while writing every day and dripping sweat onto our keyboards.

Writing is a wonderful thing.

One person appreciates what you agonized over, so who cares that no-good editor sent you a form rejection? Place that rejection in your collection-of-rejection file, send the story to the next market on your list—that reader might be the one to give your life’s work credence. Hope: Keep it, Embrace it.

Write

Only you can tell the stories you have to tell. Oh, sure, learn the craft, study published authors, every day add new knowledge to your masterpiece. That’s how it should be.

Write

It’s as simple as that. Not quite, eh? What’s the problem? Time and responsibilities got you down? Does “What do I Write About” haunt you? Vow to never grow stagnant. Create something outside your field of interest, your genre, and experiment.

You see, it does not matter what you write, only that you do. Writing is what matters, and the prose can be anything other than a grocery list.  Butt in the seat, fingers on the keyboard, thoughts transcribed in front of you. The crux of writing is writing. Can I be any clearer?

I understand it’s infinitely easier to sit on the porch sipping lemon aide, dreaming of being a writer and going to book signings, being lauded as the next great novelist.

I once dreamed of playing guitar. I never owned one, didn’t practice, took no courses to learn music.

At one point I wanted to be an artist, but I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. I never practiced other than scratching out one-dimensional stick men.

Dreams, mists, nothing more.

Is that what writing is to you? I will be blunt: if that is your attitude, if washing your hair takes priority over ironing out a plot problem or further developing a character, you are not a fiction writer.

It’s okay to not be a writer, just as it’s okay to not be a chef.

For me, writing satisfies a yearning and passion—it nurtures my soul. It may not be for you, and that’s okay.

But if the passion boils in you, simmers in a constant stew of writing thoughts, discard the negative as you would an old toothbrush—no regrets. Then please, please reach out to the keyboard or pad of paper and write. Create your dreams, and then share them with the rest of us.

The fear and loathing may huddle in the shadows, but at least your dreams will be a tangible reality—nobody can take that away from you, and perhaps the next editor on your list will hoist your by-line for the world to see.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Writer’s Block is a Myth

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(To celebrate Knights of Writ’s 100th blog post, I offer this lie-buster)

Every week of every year writers compose articles and blogs about how to defeat the dreaded Writers Block. Each is a lie—Writer’s Block does not exist.

“Wait,” you cry out, “I’ve stared at the blank page for hours, paced the room, succumbed to a shot of Jack Daniels to loosen the thoughts. Nothing works.”

Before you scoff and click away—jettisoned to the next article entitled “Defeating Writer’s Block the Last Time,”—realize this: claiming Writer’s Block is only an excuse to not write.

You have bought the lie, and the price is a heavy burden indeed . . . inactivity.

Writer’s Block has grown to legendary status among writers (and by those composing articles to perpetrate the lie) and is a fodder field of articles entitled, “8 Ways to Guarantee You Don’t Get Writer’s Block,” or “10 Ways to Avoid Writer’s Block.” A recent Writer’s Digest Magazine published three articles under the umbrella heading, “Beating Writer’s Block.”

Although many articles about Writer’s Block contain nifty exercises or prompts to help creativity, their assumption is misplaced.

Why? Because writers have bought into the existence of the dragon.

The reason you feel gripped by Writer’s Block is simple—you have limited your options.

A well-known anecdote about Isaac Asimov explains how he had several typewriters in his office—this is in the 1940’s and 50’s before computers—each with a different writing project. When one did not shake his world, he went to another and worked. He explained the mind needs excitement and becomes weary when working day after day on the same subject.

Professional writers create whether or not they are “in the mood.” Does a doctor only operate when he’s in-the-mood, a lawyer defend when the mood suits them? Have you ever heard of a plumber’s block, or a longshoreman’s block, or a bartender’s block (heaven forbid!)? None exist; neither does Writer’s Block.

Writer’s Block is an imaginary entity we give credence. Perhaps it is our way of dealing with terror or maybe a self-worth issue. Although that may be the case, I usually find writers bemoan the “Block” when their work encompasses too few options.

So entranced and focused on a minimum of choices, a writer rolls over and over the same information, trying to fix the same problem, come up with the right idea, when all that’s needed is to let the subconscious sort it all out.

Writer’s Block is caused by an over-simplified expectation: you are ready to work on this particular project right now. Sorry, it doesn’t always work that way.

Often it does, and that’s when you stream through the story, fingers a blur, white spaced fill with squiggly black letters. Other times you have to take a deep breath, open a new folder, and work on a different project.

I have 5 books (3 fiction and 2 non-fiction) in varied degrees of completion, 5 times that many short stories, a dozen article ideas, 18 blog topics I wish to pursue—when I’m not tuned with a particular one, I find another.

I have a couple projects I work on most every day, but if I run into a wall for some reason, I have others to fall back to until I’m ready to re-tackle the primary item.

The point is this: writing every day is a given, and we must be ready to improvise and juggle when something goes awry, ie., when a specific piece of writing needs more simmer time.

This is a natural process, not a Block, writer or otherwise.

We must not give the Myth wings and let it carry away our sensibilities. It’s time to refuse to go along for the ride; instead, open another folder and work on a different project. In the end you will find you complete more, and in the process, improve your skills.

As a last word on the subject, I turn to Stephen King: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just sit down and get to work.”

See you on the next page,

Rick

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How To Determine If An Idea Warrants The Investment

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An idea wakes you up. Stumbling to where a notebook and pen wait—no time for the computer to boot before the idea evaporates—you scrawl in a half-asleep daze.

Perhaps an idea pops into your head during a walk (or any of a thousand instances—why is it always when I’m in the shower?) and you scratch it out on anything handy. It’s not perfect, you know, just a seed of the “greatest damn idea you’ve ever had.”

Take a deep breath.

Ideas streak through your mind many times every day, but not all are worthy of a story or novel. It doesn’t matter; write them down anyway. Testing ideas to ensure they are worthy of the time needed to mold them into a completed project is the next crucial step. Not all ideas, no matter how great they at first appear, are worthy.

Writing projects take time. Validating an idea worthy of a novel, especially, can save months of gut-wrenching agony when you realize, at page 201, the story has no destination.

Due Diligence

My wife and I have owned and operated several businesses. We approached starting or purchasing a business with a set of tough questions geared to making the best decision based on information available at the time: This is referred to as Due Diligence.

Determining whether a writing project is worthy incorporates a similar Due Diligence process, which includes answering questions about the Costs, the Value, and the Expectations.

The Costs

The cost of writing is the approximate time required to complete a project. Unlike a business (whether online or brick-and-mortar) where tangibles exist—wages, taxes, equipment, travel time, rent, luring potential customers—writing has its own set of rules.

For me, a blog post takes between 2-4 hours; a short story may take a month or two; I calculate writing a novel at 1 year. Each of these approximates include several drafts and many edits.

The cost of writing invariably falls to time. How much time you set aside each day dictates output. 500 words a day equals 15,000 words a month—2 to 4 short stories (more if Flash Fiction), 8-12 blog posts, or 20% of a 75,000 word novel. Considering most writers have numerous projects in the works simultaneously, monthly completion is combined across varied projects.

Prioritizing the ideas comes when you have determined the worthiness of each project.

Value

Valuating a story or novel idea gets dicey. A great deal of thought is required to estimate if the seed idea is worth pursing to completion, not to mention the emotional upheaval caused when things don’t go right.

The idea must have great value to you, first and foremost. Taking an idea and transforming it into a full-fledged story will become an integral part of your life; you live with the characters, become them, anguish with them, and share in their joys. Many craft issues will also present themselves over the course of creation.

As best you can (and this is difficult), at this point remove emotion from the equation.

Secondly, the story must have value for your reader. Is the story unique? Are the characters’ lives intriguing and their goals reasonable to pursue?  Must the story be told?

Answering these questions enhances your decision of whether to proceed.

Expectation

Expectation starts with completing the story. Why else begin if you don’t plan to finish?

A caveat: No matter how much the Due Diligence convinces you to write a story, some languish in spite of your best efforts. At some point—hopefully not on page 201 of the novel—you realize the story has not gestated enough. That’s fine, and it’s okay to put it aside a while longer to allow your subconscious to figure out the rough spots. Regardless, the plan is to finish the story at some point. I have dozens of ideas awaiting my attention when my subconscious informs me the story is ready to continue.

If you plan to sell the story, whether to a magazine editor, agent, or publisher, is the idea fresh enough and the writing strong enough to withstand the scrutiny? This is a hazy gray area.

Less than perfect stories sell all the time, even dreadful stories make it past an editor’s icy glare. There is no accounting for taste, and that is true within the publishing world as anywhere else.

If your desire is to publish, especially in the traditional sense where somebody pays for your writing, several things can be done to improve your odds: beta readers, critique groups, a professional editing, etc.

Whether seeking the traditional path or self publishing, write the best you are able, compose a story only you can tell, and finish it. First Draft, editing, Second Draft, editing—repeat until the story satisfies the best you can do.

Some ideas demand to be written—they consume you. When this happens, forget the Due Diligence and write: evaluation can come later. When in the throes of the electric creative energy, get it down on paper. The story will not be complete at this point, but writing as much as possible makes the evaluation process easier, and in the long run is the best course of action.

No amount of planning guarantees success; too many variables can occur to derail even the greatest of ideas. But determining that an idea is worthy of the investment is the only way to tilt the pendulum in your favor.

In the end, you must believe in the idea with every fiber. Yes, there will be roadblocks, setbacks, and push-backs, and only your complete confidence in the idea will enable you to leap past the many hurdles toward your goal.

If there are no hurdles in your life, you are not running the race.

When the story or novel is the best you can do at this point in your career, send it to an editor or agent. A Writer writes, an author submits.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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