Spring and Lists Doomed to Fail

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Photo by Emma Rose

Spring is a week old, and I am revitalized. In the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., nestled against the Cascade Mountains, blooming flowers and birds harkening to afternoon sunshine lift my spirits, and with it, my drive to write and produce. Spring beginnings is also a great time to look back at the New Year writing goals, to analyze what you are doing to improve skills, and checking off accomplishments that will catapult you to the next level.

Is your writing production where you want it, or too many days you did not even try? How did you justify not writing? Life presses on us from multiple directions, but looking back, did you invent excuses not to write? We all do that on occasion; what we don’t want is to make not writing the norm rather than the exception.

If on track, checking items off your list, progressing as you had planned, Great; keep at it even though spring sunshine tantalizes you to venture outside. Certainly go for those walks, enjoy the sounds and life blossoming all around you, but don’t let those things take time away from your writing; I write in the early AM so as not to impede enjoying life’s blessings.

Lists for Every Occasion

I am a habitual list-maker, and making lists has long been a part of my routine. Whether a list of clients to contact, products to order, or stops during a shopping trip, I always have some sort of numbered list in my note pad. By-the-way, my note pad is really a note pad, you know, paper with a cardboard cover.

My writing lists are many and varied depending on the topic. For instance, one list may be geared to my novel-in-progress (study Phoenician culture, visit a museum with early antiquities), while a general list may include write 1,000 words a day, finish a short story a month, or research markets for the mystery short story recently completed.

My lists include items I know I will not accomplish. Why? When writing lists, shoot for the moon and you will likely hit the top of the mountain; aim for the mountain and the goals will be entrenched beside you as if your legs are stuck in waist deep mud. Aim high and accomplishments will fall in line.

There is a difference between goals that are beyond your control (publish a bestseller) and things you can control (finish the novel by September). Write both down, surely, because writing down ideas and goals makes those items real and tangible—as a writer, words not written down are only hopes and dreams, and in essence, delusion. Don’t be self-deluded. Write.

Perusing my goals from the first of the year, I noticed several things:

  1. Every day since the beginning of the year, I have accomplished something to do with my passion, whether writing, studying writing, researching, or reading.
  2. Well on my way to reaching my Submission Circle goal of completing 6-8 stories and sending them to potential markets. During the first quarter, I have completed (revised or written) 5 stories that require a final re-read before sending each to the first magazine on their individual list. (This included researching the possible markets for each).
  3. Completed a couple online courses and/or challenges.
  4. Reviewing my novel, The Returning, after some worthwhile feedback; however, I have not done much writing on the second novel of The Veil Trilogy.
  5. Fought off the Black Funk more times than I like to admit.
  6. Blogged every week and watched the responses (and followers) grow. For this, I thank all of you.
  7. Developed ideas for two non-fiction books I would like to complete this year and share with my blogging family. More on this as I progress.
  8. Read two novels and currently reading a How-To book on developing well-rounded characters.
  9. Following several blogs on the art of writing and marketing one’s work.
  10. Made a few decisions concerning the future and moving to enact them.
  11. Have not become a bestselling novelist . . . Sigh.

All-in-all, content with 2016’s progress: checking off items and replacing them with new ideas and goals. Take a moment to review your list from three months ago, and don’t be too hard on yourself if static goals greet you. Today is a new day, so go find time to write down those thoughts whirling through your head because only you can accomplish your dreams.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Author Wanted: Courage Required

One must be courageous to write, to remove oneself from family and friends to tap thoughts on a keyboard. To be a writer one must fight the onslaught of time constraints, the torrent of second-guessing, and storms of doubt that ravage an otherwise positive outlook.

Fiction writers face the daunting task of shaping imaginings into a sensible and logical story, all the while hoping to entertain a stranger thousands of miles from where creation sprang. Writers live (some may say are haunted) with their thoughts, their characters, their dreams, wondering if they have the necessary skills and talent, and in essence, a vision to impart and be understood. But that comes later.

The first and foremost task the writer must master is the writing itself, and this is a special kind of bravery. Daily writing is ideal, and some claim (as I do) that nothing is as valuable as the habit of daily writing. Whether 200 words or 2,000, keeping the mind limber and active each day ensures improvement the following day, and so on. At times it is difficult, seemingly impossible, to forge those pictures from your head to words on a page, but it must be done—no different than those days you abhor going to the day job, but report nonetheless.

Writing takes time, effort, but most of all passion—writing is hard, and without passion, one cannot garner and sustain the courage to face the continual battles creation entails. You have that kind of courage, that will to succeed and improve, or you would not be reading and/or following the Knights of Writ.

The next step is harder still: others must read your work. Only then does one gravitate from writer to author.

First, friends will read your story, maybe a family member or two, perhaps an acquaintance who demonstrates the same love for writing. A critique group might follow, and it will hurt: not everybody will share your vision. Learn from them, acknowledge their right to not like phrases or word choices, or maybe they didn’t understand at all. It’s okay to be hurt by criticism, but the hurt must be turned into a determination to improve. Write more, improve—gaining skill is automatic.

Writing is a continual learning process, and even criticism can benefit your growth as a writer.

The following step is sending your “child” into the publishing wilderness where you are convinced pariahs lurk around every tree, intent on devouring what strength and confidence you built, bit by painful bit, during creation and revision.

Take Heart. Arch those fingers toward the keyboard and turn those imaginings and dreams into a reality. Let the critics scoff, if they must. It is not your job to worry about the reaction . . . your job is to write, to produce, to improve.

Remember this: opinions are like body orifices—everybody has several. Do Not allow the critics to take you down because you are striving for a better good, that is, to satisfy the yearning to write, the very need to write that which grows from your heart to your head and finally to your fingertips.

Be courageous and write that story because nobody else can do it like you.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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A Writer’s Responsibility

A couple weeks ago a writer friend and I met at a local pub; the discussion inevitably gravitated to the craft. Several topics were discussed—favorite books and authors, syntax and word choice, story openings—and the discussion turned to the reader’s investment, reminding me of my responsibility as a writer.

When a reader picks up a short story, but especially a novel, they bring with them an expectation; readers want to be entertained and/or informed, the latter more inclined toward non-fiction. As writers, giving the reader what they desire requires gaining their interest and holding that interest until the end of the work. Readers demand this, often subconsciously, making it imperative we supply what they seek.

I allow a novel about fifty pages to entice me to read further. If not compelled—whether by plot, language skill, but foremost by character—I return the book to the shelf and choose another. I understand the effort and heart-flaying required to write a novel, yet the flaw of reader-disconnect cannot be over-stated.

So, What Draws Me Forward?

  1. The character, one I can relate to with motivations I understand.
  2. Plot, though to a lesser degree.
  3. The writer’s skill and use of language.
  4. A quick opening is crucial, and must yank me into the created world in the first paragraph, better yet the first sentence.
  5. Mystery and questions propelling me to find the answers.

What Stops Me From Continuing?

  1. An ineffective two-dimensional character.
  2. A slow, slug-along plot.
  3. Flagrant grammatical errors.
  4. A rambling opening cluttered with backfill and the writer’s inability to get on with the story. The “past-loaded” beginning is a common mistake I see in many self-published novels on Kindle and Amazon.
  5. Lack of mystery: no mystery = no interest. A simple item to fix. How is the protagonist going to solve their problem often suffices, but the resolution must be logical and within the boundaries of the created world.

How To Solve?

  1. The protagonist has a clear-cut problem, thus a goal, and because of a character flaw, roadblocks are thrust in his/her path, forcing them to fight their way to a resolution.
  2. In novels, the plot consists of the complicated and often convoluted journey the protagonist travels, overcoming obstacles in increasing difficulty until they reach their goal, or not. In order to keep the reader’s interest through the investment of an entire novel, sub-plots involving lesser characters are weaved throughout the story’s fabric, those that always impact the protagonist. Subplots add levels of complexity, as in real life.
  3. As a writer, it is our responsibility to learn the craft. Educated grammar usage is mandatory, regardless of there [sic] tale.
  4. Get to the story. If backfill is required, use it as one would a spice, sprinkled at the appropriate time to enhance the flavor of the story or character. Long paragraphs of backfill are called “info dumps” for a reason–don’t do it, or the reader may throw your effort in the trash.
  5. All stories need some degree of mystery. Introduce characters and events that cause questions only answered later. Ideally, several mysteries will be woven through a novel, some more important than others. Don’t forget to answer the questions, making sure the important ones harbor no hazy “you figure it out for yourselves” ideology. I hate that, in movies and novels alike. Say what you have to say, or don’t say it at all. Open-ended stories show a lack of skill by the writer to determine a conclusion, or are the writer’s appeal to please everyone. In either case, ambiguous endings fail.

Writing and creating is a thinking person’s game; keep the reader at the forefront of your thoughts when you create, and you will be rewarded.

See you on the next page,

Rick

And Do Not Start a Sentence With a Conjunction

The final two items on the “Do Not Do” list from January 10th:

No Fragments
And do not begin a sentence with a conjunction

Taking the second item first: conjunctions bridge words, sentences, phrases, or clauses. The word and is by far the most common; others include but, or, yet, as, so—there are many others.

Despite the “rule,” beginning a sentence with a conjunction is at times the most powerful way to create the desired effect.

Below is a section from my fantasy short story, “Nychelle’s Gate” to demonstrate what I mean.

“I am here for my sister.”

“She is of our people,” the Elder said. “You are not.”

The words confirming Nychelle’s banishment stung in a place that used to exist but began to erode first with the rape, then with her escape, and vanished altogether during her time in the valley. Or so she thought.

I had several choices:

Had I chosen to add Or so she thought at the end of the sentence—either by a comma, dashes, or semi-colon—would have 1) made the sentence overly long and awkward, and 2) lost the impact of Nychelle’s realization that banishment held a deep hurt she thought no longer existed. In this case, the decision to break the rule was an easy one.

As with all instances when you choose to break one of the rules, make sure the decision is based on improving the impact on the reader, or for clarification.

Dialogue is a place where beginning a sentence with a conjunction is universally acceptable.

“But you can’t do that,” would be a common speech pattern.

Again, refrain from using the technique too often or it removes the impact and deems the style mediocre, or worse, intrusive.

Fragments

Sentence fragments (those missing a noun-verb connection or with a dependent clause) are usually better rewritten, but again, there are times when a fragment is a viable and preferable option.

Simply put, a fragment is a group of words without a complete thought.

Went to the store. Who went to the store? No subject
Shot out the door. What or Who shot out the door? No subject
The dog. The dog did What? No verb.
Over the hill. What or who went over the hill? No subject.

At times, a reference to a common cliché is all you need to motivate the reader to finish the thought in their own mind despite being a fragment.

When in Rome . . .

As with conjunctions, dialogue is a place where a fragment is acceptable even by the stodgiest editor. (This sentence is a fragment, but you might not think so by looking at it).

“Stop!”

There exists another type of fragment that permeates our culture where tweets, facebook posts, and other social media instances attempt to impact the reader. At least that is the goal, I suppose. You have seen it.

Do. Not. Do.

This should seldom, if ever, be used within prose. See. What. I. Mean?

This concludes the “Do Not Do” list

During the last two months, I have written about the “Do Not Do” list, items repeated often by agents and publishers. The rules (guidelines) are meant to dissuade writers—especially new writers—not from breaking the rules necessarily, but by doing so unwittingly. Overall, the suggestions are correct. You really do not want to have exclamations peppering your manuscript, nor do you want to confuse the reader with improper punctuation or radical viewpoint switches. Likewise, telling rather than showing is often less effective.

Nevertheless, there are times when the rules must be broken, or bent, or ignored completely. My hope in writing about these topics is to show that as long as you, the creator, understand the rules, you will know when they can and should be broken to improve your story. Moderation is key.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

See You on the next page,

Rick