Why Writers Have a Special Reason to be Thankful

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the U.S., a time of reflection and spending time with family and friends—to give thanks for the ones we care about and the many blessings life has bestowed upon us.

Writers have a special reason to be thankful every single day.

Creative people, and writers especially, need to be thankful for the gifts and the internal drive prompting us to experience our inner passions, and then relating them through our art. Not everybody can do that.

Many people’s days are spent swimming against the current, just trying to make it to the beach. Monotony without passion. We writers have more.

When writers are asked why they write, many times the answer is simply, “I must.”

Something deep within us—call it the soul if so inclined—lives a yearning to share what breathes inside and is bursting to get out. We share our views by scribbling words on a page in the form of characters and storyline, saying and implying what we feel at the crux of what it is to be human. It is what we must do.

To show new viewpoints and vistas others may not see unless pointed out, the ability to share experiences, and at times even revelations, to have a reader stop and say to themselves “I didn’t think of that,” is one of the greatest of a writer’s gifts. To open new panoramas to people enclosed within their daily cubicles is a wonderful undertaking, and well worth the writer’s time to explore and extrapolate.

Be thankful you write: to live, learn, and share is a writer’s great bounty.

Writing helps explore ourselves and others, to find great truths beneath the surface of the every day. We must search for those truths, but they won’t always come easily.

Pain and hurt = growth. The hardest times in life bring the greatest lessons, and looking back, you know that to be true as well.

Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, be thankful you are a writer; the world needs to see what you see, feel what you feel, and the best way is through your unique art.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Why Being A Bad Reader is Good For Writers

Fiction MusingI read well, but I’m a bad reader. I’m a bad reader because I seldom gain the illusion of disbelief that all fiction writers strive to accomplish, myself included, and probably you, too.

Make the reader forget they are reading a “story” by immersing them in your tale is our goal as fiction writers. Unfortunately, the wondrous happens too seldom—perhaps I’m a bit jaded.

I have loved to read since I first read about Dick and Jane, then comic books, and at six or seven I dove into full-fledged novels: The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tarzan, and others quickly followed.

In Junior High School and High School, well-intentioned teachers gave us reading lists from which we were required to write 4 book reports (one each quarter of the school year)—always the classics, of course.

Many of my peers chose the shorter novels and novellas (The Red Pony, Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, A Christmas Carol) or used Cliff Notes, but not me. Although I did read those shorter works for extra credit, my choices were Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Ivanhoe, The Mysterious Island, Last of the Mohicans, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Tom Jones (no, not the Welsh crooner; the 1749 novel by Henry Fielding), and many more during my academic career.

After high school I wanted to continue my appetite for reading, but attending college and working for a living hampered my style. I took a reading course, famous at the time, by the name of Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Dynamics.

The course was designed to help one read much faster (two to five or ten times, as a matter-of-fact) without losing retention; they promoted gained retention, actually. What they did not tell you was that during the frantic reading pace you would lose the flow of sentences, the tempo of the story, and the beauty of a writer’s style.

But it made me a better writer despite the course failings.

I now choose the speed I read, determined like a car’s surging transmission, whether a leisurely drive through the country or a mad dash to an appointment.

My hope when I retrieve a novel from my shelf is a slow read, to be a good reader; I want to experience the characters and adventures, wonder at the nuances the writer indulges me. Unfortunately, wondrous reads only happen about 20% of the time—the others I speed read, usually in third gear. Sometimes I read much faster, really just hoping to get through the book, and if not intrigued in some concrete way, toss the book aside between pages 50 and 75, or after a half hour.

Being a bad reader—those times when I’m breezing through pages like a favorite meal after not eating for 16 hours—show me, as a writer, what I don’t want to do. Eighty percent of the time I am not immersed in the characters, plot, often the style, and I ask myself why; the answers define what I want to accomplish when I write and hoping to emulate the 20%.

I learn and retain when reading at a higher clip: I clearly see the plot and general flow, cursory views of character and description, so in some ways speed-reading is helpful, but the writer’s language is an unimpressive painting encircled by a majestic frame.

I want to be impressed and read with a slow and determined pace, searching for how the writer garnered attention not dispelled by a barking dog or a slamming door, how they engaged and enthralled me and caused me to lose sleep.

One of the best ways to learn how to write is to read, both the good and the bad, from a wide range of writers over a wide field of topics and genres. Mostly, though, read fiction within the genre you write, because therein lies your competition. During the course of your reading, focus on what interests you and what does not. You will probably also begin to emulate your favorite writers and slowly secure your own “voice.”

Read, study, write, and write some more . . . . and you will learn more about the craft regardless of being a good or bad reader.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Plotting Along: How to Move the Story Forward

If you are participating in NANOWRIMO or otherwise getting your story from head to document, this article could be titled, Why The Plot is Irrelevant During First Draft.

When writers gather and speak about plot, the definition usually boils down to something like, “The plot is the events that happen during a story.”

Literarydevices.net describes plot this way: “A literary term used to describe the events that make up a story or the main part of a story. These events relate to each other in a pattern or a sequence. The structure of a novel depends on the organization of events in the plot of the story.”

Both definitions are accurate, yet simplistic and of little value to the writer plodding through a story.

Boy meets girl, is rejected; boy tries to win girl, rejected some more; finally he makes his last ditch effort to gain the girl’s affection, and convinces her or not. The End.

Boring, right?

Even adding to the above plot does little to determine success: A lonely boy from a broken home meets a girl who seems to have everything, and tries to win her over in an effort to find some semblance of normalcy his life lacks.

Although the boy’s valiant attempts to win the girl can be defined as the plot, it short-changes or misses the point entirely: the plot includes how and why the boy desires the girl, perhaps why she resists, and what he does to attract her.

Story events must be connected somehow, and that is accomplished by the character’s desires and motivations that prompt actions toward a goal. Without the character elements, the plot will be disjointed; more importantly, the reader will not care.

Things happening are not enough—there must be the why?

 Don’t think of the plot as only the path your character travels, but also what prompts them down the path that soon turns into a disaster.

As you write, you will devise problems your characters need to solve; the plot is what they do. Every story will have a plot, also known as a storyline, and that plot can be cohesive or like messy dishes piled in a sink.

When writing your story, the plot will develop naturally as related to the character’s actions. Don’t get too hung up on how good the plot is at the outset—just keep your characters moving forward, hurtling obstacles, all leading to their goal.

During the first draft of a novel, I concentrate on the scenes, and often transitions from one scene to another will not come into play—I place a (TR) where a transition is needed for later reference. I’m concerned with each individual scene as they relate to the character, either adding insight into their personality, their reasons for moving from one place to another, and how they go about accomplishing their goals.

You can always rearrange the scenes later to fill in plot “holes,” adding or subtracting to smooth the flow all good stories possess.

When the first draft is complete is the time to ask whether the plot works to keep the reader interested: that, after all, determines a story’s—and a plot’s—success or failure.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Are You Ready To Nano and Wri Mo?

Wednesday begins the yearly writer challenge.

November is the acknowledged National Novel Writing Month, spearheaded by the non-profit, NANOWRIMO, which began in 1999 with 21 members. In 2016, more than 400,000 people participated from every corner of the world. You can learn more about it here.

The plan is to write 50,000 words during November, that’s it. But the it is enormous, you say. 1,667 words a day!

That’s the goal, but the main focus is better expressed by writing every day of the month.

I have participated twice, and I have not reached 50,000 words; more in the range of 30-35k, which to me, is an improvement over my normal output. That’s what it really should be about, writing every day of the month, using November as a springboard into the habit of writing every day of the year.

The whole idea is to Write More. Get it? NaNoWriMo.

First draft, no editing allowed or you will waste precious time and hamper output—output is the key. And we know it’s going to be crap, so don’t worry about how good your story is: you will fix it during revision, which follows getting the draft written in the first place. And 50,000 words (or 30,000, or 40,000) won’t be a full novel anyway, but it will spur you well on your way.

November is geared to create the tale languishing in your subconscious, to transfer the story from your head to document: computer, paper, makes no difference. Write Every Day.

Imagine what you can accomplish? The rewards are dazzling, gems to tuck in your private space while you leap beyond your normal daily word count, and in so doing, form the daily habit.

Use the next few days to plan your novel.

Whether you outline or not, lay out the main players in your story, the setting, type or genre, a few scene ideas, and maybe even the eventual ending; it’s up to you.

I have decided to try something different this year: a mystery.

I normally write fantasy, but there’s this story that’s been swirling around my gray matter for a while, and I’ve decided to use November to finally get it on paper. It’s titled The Case of More Than Six, and I have my protagonist, a couple other characters, a bit of the plot, but little more. That’s okay. Remember, the main goal is to pull the story from your thoughts and get it into a form (first draft), a rough stone to be polished into a shiny diamond at a later date.

The first thing is to create your protagonist.

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post, The Ultimate Character Sketch, a place to start developing your main character (add to it as suits your needs). The “sketch” is a place to brainstorm who your protagonist is, but can be used for each character, the depth depending on the importance of your secondary actors.

While developing my MC’s sketch for NaNoWriMo, bits and pieces of scenery, additional characters, and plot started to form, much to my delight.

So, get started, and check back and let us know how everything is progressing . . . we’d love to hear from you. We understand you will be too busy writing the novel in November, so let us know in December when everything has settled down. Until then,

See you on the next page,

Rick

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How to Hook the Reader Every Time

no trespassing

The first few words or couple paragraphs of a story are called the Hook. I sometimes refer to the beginning of a story as the “calling” or “invite” where your job as creator is to tantalize the reader and yank them, screaming if necessary, into your tale.

Without the hook, the reader will not care about the line or the sinker.

Here are two terrific novel beginnings from well respected authors, Dean Koontz and Octavia Butler.

Dean Koontz, and the beginning of Midnight:

Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.

This sentence is also the novel’s first paragraph, which makes it all that more ominous. Who runs at night? Isn’t that dangerous? You know because of the importance attributed (It’s the first sentence!) that something bad is going to happen. The tension mounts from the very beginning.

Right off, Koontz hooked me, implanting those questions–the lurking mystery—so I HAD to read the next sentence.

Octavia Butler’s beginning of The Wild Seed:

Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages.

How many villages does Doro have, who is Doro, and what is a seed village?

Both writers grab the reader at the outset, forcing them to continue and answer the questions their well chosen words prompted.

A couple interesting things: each writer named the character immediately Why? A reader identifies with a character, a person, someone like them . . . or maybe not. But the reader does need someone to relate to—this is important stuff; don’t miss it.

In the examples above (and the ones following), the first word(s) is the character’s name, but it does not have to be so—I do encourage writers to name the character in the first sentence, though, or the second at the latest. Readers want to know the “Who” of the story as soon as possible.

Secondly, Koontz and Butler give the reader action and excitement at the start. This is not the place for back-fill, which is often called “Info Dump.” The history of your world and characters, ideally, should be sprinkled in throughout the action, shedding bits of light as the story grows and clarifies.

Reader’s lives are busy, hammered by a myriad of distractions—you must shake their mundane everyday world and pull them into the story you have to tell, and it better be quick.

Here are the beginning two paragraphs of my short story, Nychelle’s Gate.

(In no way do I compare myself to the two masters quoted, but by using my own writing, I KNOW what I tried to do: it’s up to you to decide if I succeeded).

Nychelle staggered through the tent flap, and fell to her knees on the dusty floor. She spun to face her mother and father.

“I won’t do it,” she spat, tasting blood from the Elder’s backhand. The Elder’s slap was not the worst of being “taken,” nor the most painful, and far from the most humiliating. She shuddered and ignored the stickiness down there.           

The opening two paragraphs attempt to accomplish the following:

  1. Introduces the main character, Nychelle, right off.
  2. Gives the setting, at least at this point in the story, being the tent and probably that of her parents. Using “tent” implies the people are nomadic, or at least have not reached the point as a culture of developing towns and cities. Or they are outsiders. Either way, there is some mystery as to the situation of the people populating the story.
  3. Confrontation demonstrated by her dialogue: “I won’t do it” shows a problem and her parents are at the center of it. This confrontation is geared to raise the tension of the scene: it’s called conflict.
  4. There are other hints within these 63 words such as the hierarchy of the culture (Elder), which indicates a clan rather than a kingdom, that she had been struck (tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand), and that she endured something cringe-worthy (shuddered at the stickiness down there).
  5. Speaks to Nychelle’s character: strong and defiant, even against great odds of opposing her parents and the clan elder.

Another from my published short story, The Accomplice.

Deke turned the headlights off and sat for a moment, letting the plan roll through his mind one last time.

What plan? The fact Deke “turned the headlights off” indicates night, and darkness is when trouble happens.

Introduce your character at the outset, give them a problem, and provide a mystery the reader is drawn to solve. Pretty straight forward, and guarantees the reader will read the next part of your story . . . hook, line, and sinker.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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5 Reasons Why Every Writer Needs A Blog — Not What You Think

You know who you are. You’re a writer, and you have heard over and over again that you need to have a blog. The “experts” claim you need to build a “platform” to gain an audience, a requirement (they say) to sell future work.

A viable reason, but not why I claim you must have a blog—my reasons are more selfish.

You keep rejecting the idea of starting a blog for the oft-used reasons: I don’t have time, I’m too busy writing things I want to write, there’s too many blogs already, who wants to hear what I have to say, and the host of other negatives darting into your head and puncturing the tender confidence you have built.

Perhaps you have a neglected blog not posted to for months, and maybe only a handful of articles are there for eyes to see. Get busy, and here’s why:

* Writing a weekly blog clarifies thinking and hones your skills.
* Gives a sense of accomplishment (even if your story or novel is languishing).
* Develops a writing habit.
* Teaches you to meet goals and deadlines, even if only ones you give yourself.
* Adds proof and credibility that you are, in fact, a writer after all.

You can blog on any topic you are passionate about: gardening, cooking, the state of current affairs, team sports, religion, jogging, bicycling, anything—there’s room for those and uncountable others. And you can combine topics if you wish—you call the shots.

Starting a blog is not the end-all panacea to being a writer. You may even abandon the blog after a couple dozen posts, but that doesn’t matter because you will find another topic, having built the blogging habit.

There are no viable reasons not to start a blog—it’s FREE. There are no costs (except time, otherwise known as learning curve) to start a blog. I use WordPress, but there are many free options.

Yes, you will have to learn the program, whether WordPress or another (also known as an interface), but they’re pretty intuitive with sufficient documentation to help you along. They are also built to grow as your blogging experience steps into new arenas.

I have been blogging on Knights of Writ for three years next month, and it’s been a wonderful experience. I have met like-minded writers, learned from comments others were gracious enough to share, gained confidence, and most importantly, improved my skills.

Even with nobody out there—except friends and family if you are bold enough to tell them you are blogging (but you don’t have to)—there is a thrill when you hit the “publish” button. You become accountable, which does not exist if you hide your writing on the computer or in a drawer.

At times you will be embarrassed (like last week when I misspelled J.K. Rowling’s name), but it’s all part of the process: we’re not perfect, but we are trying to better ourselves. Looking back over the last three years (and 112 posts), the desire to continually improve is the great mast I cling to that guides my journey.

Writers Write: Authors Submit.

Starting a blog helps to realize you do have something to share with others, and knowledge you take for granted may conjure an “aha” moment for another. That’s a wonderful thing.

Wade into the sea of writers, and in time, you will find readers. It’s a given. There are others like you, people who have the same fears, anxiety, and passion you possess. A blog will help you find them, and in turn, they find you.

The reason for starting a blog is a bit selfish, granted, but you owe it to yourself to move past all those excuses holding you back.

Take the plunge.

All bloggers have been at the threshold where you are now, and if still treading the murky waters, they’ll tell you there’s no place they’d rather be, which is, writing.

See you on the next page,

Rick “C” Langford

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When Life Gives You a Rash . . .

. . . Write about it.

Your job has you down: write about the boss who won’t listen, the co-worker who belittles you, or the company’s greed. There are a dozen stories huddling in the cubicles nearby.

Angered at the political process? Write about the Twit, an out-of-touch congressman, or a cowardly mayor hiding behind position and privilege.

Spiraling into a repressive depression fog? Transcribe how you feel—writing is therapeutic.

Writing is the salve that makes sense of the nonsensical, gives value to society’s downtrodden and valueless, highlights a problem and shines a light on the dark shadowy corners where we hide the things we don’t want people to see.

Take ownership. Most writing is semi-autobiographical in some regard—use it to the story’s benefit. Write with truth, whatever that might be, as long as it’s yours, and do it within a fiction framework.

Fiction can attain perceptions non-fiction cannot by describing societal wrongs portrayed through the stories of characters rather than a preachy, know-everything writer whose agenda becomes obvious in the second paragraph. Weave the moral failings within a story, and tighten the threads through plot and characterization.

Two of my favorite classic fiction writers, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, wrote about social injustices: Dickens exemplified the seedy corners of England’s harsh realities with striking, biting prose, while Twain pointed out failings with humor and don’t-you-feel-dumb satire.

Both styles can be effective.

Names are important to set the tone of your characters. (See more about naming characters here).

If, like Twain, you wish to focus on the world’s ills using humor, perhaps name your lead S. Mal Hands, Mickey Pawn, or the irascible boss, Peck Wood. I’m sure you can come up with better names!

J.K Rowling devised some great character names: Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape are tremendous villain names, but I always wondered about the name Dumbledore . . . .

I worked at the same company with one Harold Butts (you got it, Harry for short)—his parent’s sense of humor was no doubt lost on him. I always wondered why he did not legally change his name; even the bored, dim-witted government employee taking his application would understand why he wanted the change, amidst the giggles.

When I worked at Harvey’s Casino in Lake Tahoe, a Philippine immigrant who worked in the hotel changed his last name to Makingdoublebeds; now there’s somebody proud of their profession.

Don’t underestimate the importance of appropriate names. Then take those rash-causing emotions, imbue them into your specifically named characters, and speak the truth as only you can tell it.

If you want to inject humor in your stories, read Twain, Kurt Vonnegut (who is quoted as saying his goal was to write a joke a day), or Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and John DeChance’s “castle” novels. Non-fiction humorists like Erma Bombeck and Mike Royko can give a different twist on using effective humor.

The thing about humor: not everybody will get the jokes and others will likely be offended. The truth is we live in a society of the thin-skinned, and whatever you write will likely offend someone. Write it anyway, and let the dominoes crash where they may.

A writer needs to be bold when righting the wrongs of the world.

When life gives you a rash, use writing as the balm to heal the soul-scars caused by an unjust world. If you can do it with humor, all the better.

See you on the next page,

Rick “C” Langford

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