Life, It Is a Changin’ . . . and an Invitation

*** A Pause in Regular Programming for the Following Announcement ***


After months of deliberation and soul-searching, my wife and I have decided it is time for me to retire . . .

For the last 7 years, I have worked remotely from home for a Fortune 500 company—the above is the email I sent to my manager on September 22, 2017, the first day of Autumn, which I thought appropriate.

The cold touch of technology as the sky darkens and the clouds weep.

In my heart, the sun bursts forth and banishes the gloom—Full-Time Writer!

My mind is a flurry of ideas, to-do lists, and exhilaration of increased time to do what I love—Write On!

I’m giddy with expectation, the thrill of writing challenges laid before me, the only requirements on my time those given to myself (probably with a few “honey do’s” thrown in along the way).

I do not write this as a boasting, but sheer glee after having inhabited the working world for 50 years, about half owning my own businesses. I understand self-motivation and keeping the fires of internal drive hot and glowing.

Knights of Writ will benefit from the additional time now allotted me.

Over the next few months KOW will be upgraded, new features added, links to agents, magazines, and publishers looking for your writing a regular occurrence; writing quotes will return from a too-long hiatus (for we all need a little inspiration once in a while), and other items to help writers grow their craft.

I started Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings for one main reason: to help writers who struggle to create cohesive stories people want to read.

I continued to see the same problems with unpublished stories (or those self-published), whether a short variety or longer novels. I began to make a list of the reasons for the probable failings: cardboard characters, too much backfill, not starting off with an explosion, poor crafting, etc. Sadly, too many published stories also plummet into the same abyss I call The Boredom Chasm.

I scoured the internet daily for writing helps, insightful blogs and sites to assist writers to become better. I found little helpful information dealing with the nuts and bolts of our chosen field. I needed to return to published books about writing in a constant pursuit to improve my skills.

I had too many questions that were not being answered online, and I knew by discussions and correspondence that other writers had the same questions. So I studied, re-read the slew of writing books stacked on my bookshelf, preparing myself in an effort to become a better writer and help others.

Unlike many bloggers, I purposely chose not to name the blog after myself because Knights of Writ is not about me—its about the craft.

I get great joy when a writer responds to the posts, not as a shot of ego boost, but because my humble words impacted another … this is the reason we write. I have been deeply impacted by other writer’s ideas as well.

I have been writing since I was a young child, have sold both fiction and non-fiction, and gleaned a few things along the way. I share the knowledge, in part, to help others reach their goals a bit sooner than I did—that is my hope. I wish there had been more available earlier in my career.

Knights of Writ is an opportunity, a place for writers to meet and share their insights, and all are welcome.

Sign up for Knights of Writ and watch the upcoming changes arrive in your email, and by all means, respond whenever something touches you, for good or ill. We are all learning, will continue to do so if we approach writing with an open mind and fingers poised to create.

An Invitation To All Writers

I want to hear from you; I want to know what troubles you the most, and together, perhaps we can tame the muse into a cooperative tool. So, a couple questions . . .

  1. What part of story creation frustrates you the most?

2. If you could understand and learn one thing to make your stories stronger, what would it be?

Email your answers—I will compile a list and do my best to answer the problems you indicate are the most bothersome. Simply type “Answers” in the subject line and email to knightsofwrit@yahoo.com. I will respond, and by so doing, add you to my list to keep you apprised of forthcoming posts relating to your interests, and if applicable, provide links to other helpful places.

Growing as a writer is each of our goals, and then the dreams can come true.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Outlining on the Fly

The debate goes on: to outline or not to outline.

Like many things in life, I take the third option when faced with two. Being a realist, I don’t think in terms of a glass half full or half empty—I’m waiting for the water to arrive before I make a decision.

I am a “sorta” outliner. Before beginning a story or novel, I may list a few high points, a number of plot directions I want the story to take, sometimes (but not always) the climax and end, along with basic character sketches for my main players.

If I outline at all—many times I write without any plan whatsoever—it’s bare-bones because I enjoy the journey, surprise, and mystery of where the story travels. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and that is as true with the art of writing.

Outliners say I’m not in their camp, and non-outliners say I am. So be it.

I always, without exception, outline as I go. What, you ask, does that mean? Well, it’s the third option when faced with two.

Regardless what preliminary planning I’ve done (or maybe nothing), I list the scene actions, plot switches, and viewpoints after I have written the section. There is a critical reason I do this: to ease the pain of editing.

Writing a succinct description of a just written scene helps crystallize the story and its progression. There are even times when the short explanation gives me an idea about a future story event, in which case I make a note at the bottom of the developing outline.

When I’m finished with the story or novel, I have a listing of the story’s progression, the parts each character plays during different scenes—all the daring do’s and dangerous don’ts the characters live through within the telling of the story.

This after-creation outline is a road map where my characters have gone and when they went there, what caused their decision to follow that path, the conflicts beset them, and the outcome.

After writing a scene or chapter, I begin my outline:

Scene 1 (or Chapter 1 if a planned novel)

I. Sam enters his apartment to find his roommate drooped over the couch, dead. (pg. 1)
A. Shot in back, cell phone clenched in hand.
B. Room is thrashed; whoever killed the roommate was looking for something.

II. Sirens getting closer, then footsteps on the stairway. (pg. 3)
A. Sam climbs out the fire escape.
1. As an ex-felon with violent history, figures he’ll be accused and arrested.
2. Realizes whoever killed roommate and thrashed apartment may come back.

III. Sam goes to his friend (Alex) to see if there’s any “word on the street” why his roommate—a known grifter—might have been targeted. (pgs. 4-5).
A. Alex is fidgety.
B. Sam hears rustling in back room, leaves quickly.

Whether you initially outline or not, form an outline (separate from any you made prior, to compare once finished) while writing the story. This after-the-fact outline will clarify where and how the story goes, and will make the all-important editing process exceedingly easier—a glance at the story and character progression will reveal missing pieces, inconsistencies, and will illuminate the flaws you didn’t realize during the actual writing.

Editing is hard, mainly because when faced with pages and pages of text, the pure volume can be overwhelming and tend to blur when re-reading to fix errors. Having an outline based on what you wrote gives you a smaller working canvas—breaking a large project into smaller pieces allows the freedom to take specific problems one at a time.

It does not matter if you outline before writing or not, but outlining during the writing process is essential—unless you enjoy difficult editing sessions.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Fiction and Natural Disasters

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

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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Fear and Loathing of the Writer Self

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

(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

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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