Fact is Stranger Than Fiction, But That Does Not Make a Good Story


Michelangelo's_DavidA story in last week’s headlines about a woman who fired a gun through a McDonald’s drive-through window because her order was wrong (“What, no bacon? Well, take that!”) started me thinking how Fact is, indeed, Stranger Then Fiction—though that alone does not make a story. (You can find the details here). Perhaps I could have titled this entry, Writers Can Learn From Stupid People.

In every writing class and in every writer’s group there is always someone who defends their piece of writing by stating, quite emphatically, that the events written were exactly as they happened. Okay, but does that make a story?

Here’s an example of a conversation just as it happened:

“Hey, Ben, how you doing?”
“Good, how about you?”
“Liking the weather.”
“Yeah, I decided to ride my bike instead of driving.”
“Save some gas money, huh?”
“Every little bit helps.”
“Did you hear about the new order from the top?”
“No, what’s up?”

In the above example, two people are talking but saying little. So, what’s the problem other than the conversation is BORING? There is little in the first part of the conversation that hints to some type of conflict. Every scene, in one way or another, should have conflict, either between the characters (even if they are friends) or in the thoughts of the Point of View character. This conversation also included no mystery until the very end, and still the response is inadequate.

As a side note—regardless of what genre, mystery plays an important part in holding the reader’s interest: what is going to happen, will that decision come back to haunt the lead character, can they survive against such odds? Whatever the mystery, it must be important to the character, and thereby, concern the reader.

Additional side note—equally important is what the writer chooses to leave out of the story; not everything you know about your characters is important to the story you are telling. Often, we as writers think the reader needs to know everything; this is not true.

Case in point: the dialogue above, which lacks color, depth, and little to entice the reader to continue. Most should be removed, replaced by action that shows the person rode his bike, for instance, by having the viewpoint character notice the bicycle helmet in their hand or sitting on a desk nearby. However the writer decides will be superior to the drab dialogue, which should be removed, or at least improved to show conflict.

Returning to the woman who fired a gun through the McDonald’s drive-thru; as it stands, the story offers little more than the very act itself, which brings us to the conclusion that some people are really stupid. But what if there existed something more, like motivation? What if the woman was shooting at a woman who she thinks is flirting with her boyfriend, or at a woman who is having an affair with her husband while she stays home with the three children? Now there is conflict other than no bacon on a hamburger.

Let your mind go wild when trying to reenact a scene that did take place in real life. Add a twist, ask the invaluable but often forgotten, What If? question. There are stories surrounding us, people and events that deserve to be told—they just have to be massaged and tweaked to nurture them into a valid story encompassing the necessary ingredients that make stories unforgettable: character-conflict-conclusion.

Now, go write about something that really happened and improve on it . . .

This Week’s Quote:

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

This Week’s Links:

Piggy-backing on last week’s link: Unusual Girl’s Names
Ever Wonder How to Pronounce a Word?
Publication Opportunities, April and May 2015
Famous Writers Insult Each Other



What’s in a (character’s) Name?

Your characters are the foundation of your story; without them, you have nothing. People read to connect with characters, characters they can relate to, “people” who overcome insurmountable odds to accomplish their goals. Choosing the correct name for those populating your stories is important and should not be decided without due process.

Take my name, Rick. There are many variations—Richard, Eric, Ricky, Dick, Dickie. Depending on the name you choose, the person you write about will be different. For example, Jude Law’s character in The Talented Mr. Ripley is Dickie. To me that signifies the frivolity and care-free attitude of his life and his entire demeanor; how he is unable to settle down, rejects responsibility and lives off the allowance from his father. He would not be the same character if named Richard, a royal and regal name begetting leadership and strength. Jude Law’s character does not possess those qualities.

Think of character names of both famous and popular writing: Katniss in The Hunger Years trilogy (different character if named Katherine or Katie); Huckleberry Finn (would you be as interested if Twain had named his novel, The Adventures of Franklin Finn?); Pip from Dicken’s classic or Pipi Longstocking, for that matter.

Would you be excited by a movie staring Issur Danielovitch and Marion Mitchell Morrison? Probably not. Nor would you imagine they would star in a western, though Kirk Douglas and John Wayne would surely lead you to tales of the old west. Actors learned a long time ago that choosing the right name can make or break a career. William Robert Thornton alludes to a different persona than Billy Bob Thornton.

Character names are important, and when choosing them, consider the attributes and personality traits they infer. Jennie Darling is different than Jennifer Darling; Arthur Best or Artie Mortie.

Names of different nationalities are also important to consider. Penelope Perez rather than Penelope (who is called Penny) Hoogeland, Francine Wu or Franny O’Malley, Mohammed Smith or William Betencourt, the choices go on and on. Be cautious, though, that you do not unconsciously use a name of someone you know or someone known in the media. There have been lawsuits in cases of using a real person’s name and you do not want to be subpoenaed due to lack of judgment.

I’m often asked where I get my character’s names. Being that I write fantasy may differ from what you write, but there are several sources that can help all writers. Phone books are a good start, books on baby names, the news (careful not to pull a complete name from the headlines). Another good and often overlooked source of names, many of them unique, are the end credits of movies—I have found some fascinating names by not leaving a movie at The End.

I work in customer service, which is a fully planted field of interesting names. With notebook nearby, I jot down names of interest, always careful to write “real” next to a complete name so I do not inadvertently use it during the heat of writing.

Length of a name is important also, one or two syllables encouraging strength and forthrightness—the reason I chose Syjer as my protagonist in The Returning. Names can have a certain flowing nuance also, the reason I like the name of my female lead, Uleyha, which has a sing-song sound.

So when choosing a character’s name—including secondary characters—think of the impact the name will have on the character you create. A caution, though; refrain from naming a character Greg Creepy unless you have a very good reason, perhaps humor. Greg Creepy would not work for someone who haunts graveyards and lurks in the shadows.

So a challenge: do not turn off the movie at the end; instead, watch the names roll down the screen during the credits—you may find just the right name for the character burgeoning from your muse.

Now go create a few unforgettable names,

Rick (not Rich)

This Week’s Quote:
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
William Faulkner

This Week’s Links:

Free Online Course: How Writer’s Write Poetry

Online Fantasy/SF Conference and Workshops (cost involved)

Writer’s Digest Online Science Fiction/Fantasy Workshop

Fantasy/SF Critiques and Help (cost involved)

SFF Online Writing Workshop

Fantasy Writers






What is a Story? and Fundamental Story Problems

I read a great deal, both published and yet-to-be published works. I continue to see the same issues that cause me to stop reading.

When it comes to reading, I have a short attention span; I think that is a good thing. Because of my need for a writer to pull me into a story, I have stopped reading many more novels than I have completed. Why?

I give any novel approximately 50 pages to get my interest; if after that many pages (about 20,000 words on average) I am not intrigued either by the character, the writing or the story-world (I read a great deal of fantasy), I’m gone. Adios. Bye-bye. So Long.

Perhaps I have tossed aside some very good books, but I stand by my decision. It is the writer’s job to interest me, and if they have not in an allotted amount of time and words, I figure they do not deserve my time or my interest. Some readers I know allow half that much when judging a novel, others twice as much, and some read a novel to the end even if they only have moderate interest—I do not have that kind of free time.

To illustrate my point and the importance of grabbing a reader . . .

What is a story? I cannot count how many times I have been asked that question or some variation. Reflecting on the question of what makes up a story, I think what the reader is asking is, Why do some stories remain with me and others drift away shortly after finishing?

I believe there are three main points, topics, or instances required within each story, and without any one of them the story fails to entice the imagination of the reader:


Should any three be removed, a story cannot be satisfying. Of course, there is more to a story than that, but those three items must be at the heart of every story if the story is to succeed. To expound on What Makes a Story . . .

Enough for now . . . Go Write,



This Week’s Writing Quote: In Memory

“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.” Terry Pratchett


This Week’s Links:

Secrets to Querying Agents
Grammar Helps
One Author on How To Plot a Novel
Another Author’s Ideas on Plotting a Novel

5 Surprises at a Writer’s Workshop

Cold and a book









I learned many things during the Portland Writer’s Workshop, and thought I would share them. Some surprised me, others succeeded in adding a new layer of understanding, and a couple left me shaking my head and asking myself, “Where have I been?”

  1. Beginning of a Query Letter

Here are the first two paragraphs of my query pitched at the Portland Writer’s Workshop (entire query is here):

A disheartened immortal craves the final death; instead, he is cast into the body of Prince SYJER when the body he occupies is killed.

THE RETURNING, my 125,000-word fantasy novel, chronicles Syjer’s struggle against the wish for anonymity and the people’s need for a leader against the deranged King.

My reasoning was to hook the agent (hints of genre, etc. within the first sentence), then explain my book as to length and scope. WRONG, I was told—the first paragraph should be the explanation of the type of book, length, asking for representation, etc., followed by the hook.

  1. Italics

I have been writing for a long time with some minor successes. Instruction always included that words to be italicized should be underlined to make it easier for the typesetter. WRONG, two agents at the conference agreed. Forget the underline and use italics where necessary.

I write fantasy, a genre where there tends to be more italics than other genres—invented words, for instance; other writing types generally only italicize internal thoughts to differentiate from regular text: Oh, no, Julie thought, not that.

  1. Synopsis

In my study, many agents/editors ask for a Synopsis to be included in the “package” with the query and sample of one’s writing. I geared the Synopsis to be double-spaced, yet Chuck Sambuchino remained adamant that Synopses are single-spaced. A sigh of relief since that format gives me 500 words to explain my 125,000-word novel rather than doing so in a meager 250 words. Still, and this is crucial when researching agents/editors, follow each one’s specific guidelines. Since returning from the Workshop, I have seen many agents that do require a 1-page double-spaced Synopsis.

E-Publishing and New Truths

Since the advent and popularity of ebooks (Amazon, Kindle, etc.), the market has and is changing in some dramatic ways. Despite the changes, some things remain entrenched—good writing trumps all else, ie., many ebooks are unpolished (improperly revised) works that are not worthy of traditional publishing.

Given the changes in e-publishing is perhaps the reason italics within the manuscript have become conventional. Rising from the new publishing “form” has evolved a couple constants.

  1. Traditional publishers (normally) do not publish a sequel or remainder of a trilogy once the first novel has been e-published. Their reasoning is simple and a matter of economics (publishing is a business, after all)—why would they want to publish a follow-up novel to one that only sold a handful of copies?

Of course, if the first novel sold in the neighborhood of 10-20,000 copies, they may reconsider, but most ebooks fall far short of that goal.

  1. Ebooks do not get reviewed by newspapers, major magazines, industry publications, nor will the writer be able to secure interviews on TV and radio shows. Also, major brick-and-mortar booksellers will not put your novel on the shelves next to writers conventionally published. Again, this can be different if you have a “Best Seller” ebook, but the odds are against you.

Where does that leave the writer? As always, research the parties you are interested in pursuing and follow their guidelines exactly. Oh, and write well.

Now, go write that masterpiece, and Best Wishes.



This Week’s Writing Quote:

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”–Toni Morrison

This Week’s Links:

Project Gutenberg: FREE books to download–a treasure trove of classic prose and more
George R.R. Martin’s Original Game of Thrones outline:
Library Online–Writing Helps
Developing a Writing Plan