Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend


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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Writing Time and Character Death

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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Critique Meat

The critique goal is to improve your writing and editing skills; the fall-out is helping another writer do the same.

As writers, we understand noun and pronoun usage, plot movement, character arc, overstating, under-explaining, but they are at times hard to gauge in our own stories. Am I telling the reader what they need to know, or too much? Enough description or does the particular paragraph border on purple prose? How and when should I emphasize an important point to make sure readers do not miss it?

These are the more difficult things to know. Readers will pick up on different nuances depending on their skill (and yours), and some will be missed. So be it—I do not recommend writing to the lowest common denominator. Still, we writers must be cognizant of the reader with each word choice, every sentence, and the order delivered.

James’s critique of my novel surprised me in what he noticed, and alternatively, a couple items he missed . . . or did he? Will a foreshadowing seed hinted in the early part of the book bear fruit when he arrives at the fulfillment? Some items remain to be seen. Just because he did not mention a particular hint does not mean the seed did not get filed away to sprout at a future time in the novel. I wait to see if I succeeded or vagueness undermined me.

Critiquing involves a slew of issues (contextual, logistical, rational), but the most helpful is the sentence and phrasing missteps a fellow writer will see that the creator missed—the “Meat” of improving your writing.

The following items from his critique point to the common things we know as writers but still miss when editing our own writing. I will comment as necessary. James pointing out the flaws magnifies the need for me to improve my editing skills—again, one of the main reasons for finding an honest critique partner.

Readers can and do put aside some logistical issues demonstrated by readers who have “studied” the Harry Potter books—what they won’t forgive is poor writing.

What follows are examples of poor writing James found in my manuscript: some work as originally written, others need improvement, and others are just bad.

Examples

Set-up: Aban is my protagonist’s mount. At this point my MC is taking a seriously injured comrade to a healer.

Example: Aban dashed, smooth and sure through the narrow pass, across the bridge to Nychelle’s Gate where sentries yelled for him to stop, closed gates forcing him to do so.

James’ comment: This would carry a little more urgency broken up. eg., “Aban dashed through the narrow pass and across the bridge. The gates were closed. Sentries yelled for them to stop.”

Urgency is an important ingredient.

Next sentence: The gate swung outward.

James’ comment: Needs a small beat there. “There was a pause (tension), then the gate swung outward.”

Tension is good.

Example: “Tristyn’s allegiance is critical to any success of defeating the King.”

James’ comment: omit “any success of.”

Yes, cut unnecessary words.

Example: “Winter will be upon us, and we need to get a base camp to work from.”

James’ comment: Omit “to get.”

Again, cut unnecessary words. I might even shorten it further and remove to work from.

Example: Her face grew hopeful, he thought. “We should travel together.”

James’ comment: Filtering. Just “her face grew hopeful” tells us that he is thinking it.

Overwriting, check; one of my flaws where special attention is needed. This is a good reminder.

Example: The trainer turned when he rode up, and Aban slowed to a gentle stop beside her. He nodded in greeting.

James’ comment: Name who nodded (the MC). The last “he” was Aban.

My take: Actually, the last “he” referenced my MC, but there remains ambiguity as to who nodded.

Correct noun-pronoun mix-up.

The listed examples involve inferior phraseology, items that can and should—for the most part—be corrected. There are more. Some are embarrassing.

Letting others read your writing opens a chest of concerns and fears. These are normal emotions, ones you can use in your own writing to enliven characters into the minds and hearts of your reader. Study the feelings, the how’s and why’s, the circumstances causing the emotions to better understand yourself and others—and just as important, the people living in your stories.

Writing is growing, and as creators we must continue to learn and improve. Critiquing is a good tool to help on the path of becoming a better writer. I encourage you to find a critique partner, and together, both of you can evolve into the writers you are meant to be.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Critiquing Another Writer Will Improve Your Skills

Critiquing another writer is a fabulous tool to improve your own prose. In order to embrace the responsibility of assisting another (and likewise releasing your creation to someone you do not know well), you must step from the solitary cave where all writers do their best work. The experience, though at times numbing, can be a great benefit for a number of reasons.

Writers tend to make similar mistakes and exhibit the same flaws and weaknesses; seeing errors in other’s writing illuminates some of those same mistakes in your own.

Critiquing, like self-editing, requires a different mind-set than creation, a sterner attitude requiring development and conscious attention to detail.

Talking with dozens of writers about “judging” another writer’s work (an inaccurate description, by the way) the topic is one task many dread, and thereby avoid, often because of fear they lack the skill or don’t want to hurt feelings. Understandable, yes, but like most writers’ fears—rejection, question of being good enough, etc.—overcoming them pays huge dividends. Simply, critiquing another enables you to better edit your own writing.

Whereas creation is fueled by a driving emotion, critiquing (editing) is powered by the analytical portion of the brain. Learning to better critique another transforms self-editing from agonizing to productive as you prime your brain to look for certain aspects—verb tense, active vs. passive, viewpoint switches, logistical inconsistencies, and a host of others—to repair your own creation.

Writer’s Groups and Clubs can be counter-productive, but at times can be helpful—it’s a matter of attitude. Whether within a group or matched to an individual, there should be a spirit of cooperation with one-upmanship banished to the cold outdoors.

When in one writer’s group—in which we exchanged short stories to be critiqued—another writer pointed out a market for my story I had not considered: that story, “The Accomplice,” sold to Women’s World for $500, but more importantly, a by-line in a magazine with several million readers. I am forever grateful to the fellow writer who encouraged me to submit the story.

Here, though, I want to focus on one-on-one critiquing, and finding a suitable counterpart is imperative. I was fortunate in that regard.

James and I met while walking our dogs at the local park. Soon into our conversation we discovered we are both writers. James writes speculative fiction, so do I; his novel is completed, as is mine; we both wrote from multi-viewpoints, third person past tense; both our main protagonists are immortal. The writing god’s lightning rod struck us both—too much to be coincidence.

One of those instances when the palm of fate’s hand smacks you upside the head.

Before long we agreed to read each others novels. A bit more talk and we decided to critique with the goal to improve our tales, and thus, make them more marketable in our particular sub-genres—his novel is a sci-fi/steampunk, mine is heroic fantasy.

The process began roughly six months ago. We met several times at a local pub to discuss, among other things, our hopes and expectations the budding relationship would unveil.

We discussed the overall process, and after some thoughtful and respectful debate, decided on a line-by-line edit. We also decided to pay close attention to character, plot development, inconsistencies, and general problem areas.

Currently I am critiquing his first 5 chapters, and he holds the second quarter of my novel.

The relationship has been profitable on multiple levels, though not in a monetary way—yet.

I have stated it before: No Writer is an Island. That has once again been proven during the critiquing process.

James and I have far different styles and voices (mine is more flowing with descriptive language—per my selected genre–and James’s is short and pithy with a great deal of action), but it matters little. There are, after all, many ways to tell a story.

Next post will describe the many lessons I’ve learned during our critique efforts, and a few pointers on how to be more effective when working with other writers. I’ll also add links to online critique groups.

The process is all about improving, remember, both your writing and others, so step from your cave and reach out—your courage will make you stronger.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Making of a Hero — Part 3

Words Express Clearer Than Thoughts

“Shut up and sit down.”
“Please be quiet and find your seats.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you will kindly take your places. Quietly, please.”

Three distinctly different people spoke the words in the examples, and each addressed a unique audience. In the first, perhaps a drill sergeant or caustic CEO; the second might be a high school teacher cajoling his students; the third sounds like a preacher getting ready to start a round of church Bingo.

People speak differently given their personality, background, and situation. This is especially true of your hero.

Heroes are not wimps, nor indecisive, and usually not overly introspective: their yea is yea, their nay is nay—wishy-washy does not suit a hero. Heroes do not whine about their lot in life, or bemoan that things are unfair—their speech reflects this attitude.

When confronted, your protagonist does not respond apologetically with, “But, gee, Captain, I only led the men over the west ridge because I thought it was a better choice.” Instead, a hero says, “Captain, I led the men the best way.”

Notice the confrontation in the example—dialogue is best served with a side of tension, or at the least, a dollop of disagreement.

Conflict is a required ingredient in fiction, and where better to demonstrate than people’s conversations?

The way people speak and the words they use define them, and it’s important to be aware of the subtle differences when giving your characters a voice.

“I seen Billy at the car wash,” would not be uttered by an educated person (unless in mocking), nor would a person who did not finish sixth grade say, “It’s unfathomable to consider global warming untrue when you view the collected data,” (unless they are self-taught and you’ve previously shown this trait, as in the Matt Damon film, Good Will Hunting).

In the same way a King will be authoritative, a Priest may be demur, a commoner tentative when addressing one above their status. The words each say (and the way they say them) demonstrate their state of mind and their societal position.

Different people may say the exact same words, but their emphasis will alter, and thereby, better describe them and their peculiar views.

Italics can illustrate the differences. Read the following examples aloud with emphasis on the italicized word (and bold to make it easier to see).

What have you done?
What have you done?
What have you done?

Why are you going there?
Why are you going there?
Why are you going there?

Each asks the same question with a subtle difference, the italicized word highlighting the importance of the character’s concern, thus a peek deeper into their personality.

Contractions

Nowadays most people speak using contractions: I’m going to the store, we’re going to the movies, I’ll stay home with the kids. This was not always so. Historical novels seldom use contractions in speech.

I have a character (an educated scribe) that never uses a contraction, which gives him a more formal characterization. Other characters use contractions sometimes, some at every opportunity, each depending on the character illustrated and the scene circumstances. By the scribe not using a contraction—even when appropriate or even preferable—spotlights a portion of his personality.

Dialogue + Action = Deeper Characterization

Dialogue interspersed with an action beat speaks volumes about a character and their mood.

Jack crushed the beer can with one hand and tossed it aside. “I told you not to come back here.”

“But, why?” Julie took one step back, clutching her handbag, and remembered she had left the gun in the nightstand.

“I think you better tell me what happened,” Mike said, his hand reaching across the table like a snake coiling to strike.

“I thought you’d think that,” he said, laughing, “and so did ma.”

Clear and believable dialogue is essential to giving your characters life and showing the nuances that make David different than Frank.

If you find your characters sounding the same, go back to your Character Sketch and tweak something about their upbringing, world view, or education: each character needs to be unique, and most importantly, true to themselves.

Next Post: The Making of a Hero — Part Four: Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description

See you on the next page,

Rick

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No Writer is an Island — Two Years Later

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Two years ago I wrote of a special friend, Jeany, a retired English teacher, who helped edit my fantasy novel, The Returning. She spent long hours with no payment, with nothing other than a willingness to help me improve my writing skills. We met every couple weeks, spending an hour or two dissecting and improving my story. I have heard from friends I was not an isolated case, which made her invaluable and kind help even more special.

At a recent birthday party for a mutual friend (see, I do socialize, you doubters), Linda and I hoped to see Jeany, knowing her health had declined over recent months. Instead, we found that she had died three days earlier.

The last time I saw Jeany was on Mother’s Day when her daughter took her to the park and enjoyed an outdoor lunch under clear skies. As always, her warm smile and encouragement brought gratitude, and for the hundredth time, I thanked her for the invaluable help she so graciously showed me.

No writer is an island, I’ve said before, and Jeany proved that to me once again.

We writers are a solitary sort, often a requirement given our passion for the lonely creative process. However, what we write encompasses life and the people populating this crazy world, and one cannot adequately and truthfully portray a character’s dilemmas and foibles if we do not have a briefcase of information to draw upon—people provide the necessary information.

Jeany reminded me of that.

Knowing people and how they respond to disappointment, grief, joy and hope is what makes our stories real, our characters stout and full-bodied. Within people pumps motivations and dreams, but each manages them differently and for different reasons—it’s what makes us unique, and so should our characters be as well.

For this reason, we must live, we must mingle with humanity as they are the paints applied to the canvas of our stories.

During this time, when gathering with family and friends amidst toasts to the dreams of an upcoming new year, be on the lookout for character traits, instances, dialogue, the hopes and fears of the people around you—you may find interesting tidbits for a future story.

I can imagine Jeany leaning over to me while passing a platter of food: “Did you hear what they just said? That’s story gold.”

Knowing Jeany made me a better writer, and I hope a better person as well. Her enthusiasm for helping others “gain the power” of the writing craft and improving skills was her mantra, and her love of teaching was one of the catalysts for the creation of Knights of Writ.

Jeany emphasized we should not be alone, cannot be alone in our creation, and I will always remember her for that.

See you on the next page,

Rick

You Will Offend Someone

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We live in the world of the thin-skinned. Regardless of what you write, you are bound to offend someone, perhaps many someones. Although most people consider themselves open-minded and/or progressive, it is seldom the truth—simply another mask worn at the appropriate time.

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was first published by Scholastic Books, droves of people were appalled a well-respected publisher of children’s books could promote such offensive material for youthful readers—sorcery and witchcraft, by God!

“Our children should not be subjected to this kind of material disguised as entertainment,” someone said.

That was 1997 and much has changed: the envelope has been pushed, and in many cases, set on fire.

Often, visual entertainment leads the way, the “keeper” of the envelope. What had been kept off major TV networks is now commonplace (sex, violence, and drugs, oh my), and in many cases are present solely for shock value with little purpose to plot or characterization. Books have followed a similar path.

For me, as a writer, everything needs to have a purpose within the greater context of story, whether to expand characterization, plot, foreshadowing, or theme; otherwise, it’s just fluff.

Some rejoice censorship is all but lost, others have cut their cable ties rather than sit through what they consider indecent or trivial programming.

I am not a prude or a puritan, but have little use for what passes as entertainment in today’s society: the foul-mouthed and profane just for its own sake, the half-dressed actors (or less as in the case of shows like Spartacus, Game of Thrones, and Orange is the New Black) whose writers exemplify the ultimate envelope pushers. As I said, these things make me neither queasy nor angry, but prompts a head shaking because most of it has no bearing on the plot and characters; instead, appealing to the mass voyeurism so prevalent in today’s world.

I recently finished Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and was surprised by how many swear words he used. He wrote the book in 2001—a few short years after Harry Potter appeared—and I wonder if he used his influence to push the envelope a little further into what had been considered off limits. I’m sure I will never get the chance to ask him . . . just curious.

How does this all relate to your writing?

I encourage you to be honest when writing, and by that I mean if the plot or characterization warrants the use of profanity, use it; be aware that overuse will water down the impact, which is the purpose in the first place, right?

As to scenes where people have a sexual encounter, I like to lead up with enticing sensual and sexy language, but close the door before the actual act. Why? Because no matter how well you describe the anatomy and the characters panting, the readers—most who have had sex, after all—can imagine (or remember) better than your portrayal.

Do not worry—or even consider—how you may offend others, whether intentionally or accidently, because as the detective would comment, “that shows motive.” You do not want to telegraph your motives; like theme, what you say should be an underlying sense and not a head-thumping lecture. But it must pertain to the characterization and/or plot— otherwise swearing, overt violence, or implicit sex acts are added only for shock value and will make the writing trite and predictable.

There are instances when we should be offended and even prompted to action: the abuse of a child or animal (anyone for that matter), flagrant inconsiderate behavior toward a loved one, and any number of others. After all, our conscience exists for a reason, a moral compass of right and wrong.

As an artist, there are times when you must write what’s in your mind and your heart—as long as it translates to characterization or plot—and just say, Fuck it, and the offended be damned.

See you on the next page,

 

Rick

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