Monday, June 17, 2013

Anybody Want A Peanut?

Some conversations just stick with you, and often, when the conversation is over and you’ve had a few days to digest it, you think of that thing you should have said.  In this case, it was one of those things that needed to be said, but was left better unsaid; unless of course your goal is to hurt feelings.

As with most people, writers seek out those inspiring quotes from those who have been successful in our field.  These quotes are often motivating, or enlightening, some of us turn them into words to live by.

                                   “The first draft of anything is ****” – Ernest Hemingway

I love that quote, because regardless of how great you feel about that brain purge, well, Hemingway said it best.  I’m pretty sure it was a direct quote, though I have failed in finding the source of the interview and where he put it into print.  Too lazy to pursue it any further, especially since this is a well known quote of his…

There is a problem with these quotes.  Many times, like a quoted bible verse, the quote is taken out of context and the meaning is twisted and reformed into something that agrees with a belief we already hold.  This harkens back to one of my other mantra’s “Research, research, research.”

During the conversation the other day, one of the individuals involved quoted Lewis Carroll.  Taken at face value, this quote bothered me.  It seemed incomplete, and, well, wrong.

             “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop” – Lewis Carroll

This quote has the aura of being profound, so it must be good.  Right?  The person who used this quote is an aspiring writer, and they strongly believe in those words, because Lewis Carroll said them.  If an accomplished writer said those words, they have to be true.

                  “I could tell you my adventures – beginning from this morning, but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” – Lewis Carroll

Taken at face value, this quote appears to be in conflict of the first quote.  But, according to the presentation, this quote is something Lewis Carroll said.  Again, if an accomplished writer said those words, they have to be true.

Let’s take a gander of other “quotes” from established authors.  Feel free to pass judgment, since that is what we have done with the two quotes from Lewis Carroll.

                        “You probably mean well, but handing these people food is the worst thing you could do for them.” – Brandon Sanderson

                          “There are lots of guys out there who write a better prose line than I do and who have a better understanding of what people are really like and what humanity is supposed to mean – hell, I know that.” – Stephen King

                           “I am a disappointed drudge, sir.  I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me.” – Charles Dickens

                           “Many that live deserve death.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

                           “If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people.  They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.” – John Steinbeck

Interesting quotes, to say the least.  If we take them at face value, as the aspiring writer has taken the Carroll quote, we come to some bothersome conclusions.  Sanderson is selfish, King is humble, Dickens had no friends, Tolkien and Steinbeck were cynics.

Every quote on this post has one thing in common:  They were pulled from works of fiction.  They didn’t come from an interview, nor were they quoted from books about writing, all of them came from works of fiction:  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Elantris, Misery, A Tale of Two Cities, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Grapes of Wrath.

I know.  The argument is that the writer’s thoughts are often brought out in their works.  So, the first Lewis Carroll quote is how he feels about writing.  Okay, I can accept that.  As long as you can accept that Brandon Sanderson believes feeding people who can’t feed themselves is the worst thing you can do for them.  I can accept your blind devotion to that single quote as long as you hold that same devotion for EVERY phrase in that book.

I write words that would never come out of my mouth.  My characters say things that make me cringe.  Now, I could be pompous enough to believe I am the only one, but the truth of the matter is; when a character says something in a book, it does not always reflect the author’s beliefs.  I find it difficult to believe someone would be naïve enough to think otherwise.  But, if you are using a quote from a work of fiction as your mantra on how to write a story, well, that’s a tad bit on the naïve side.

On the other hand, if you just like something a character said and you want to use it as your mantra, then by all means, use it.  Just credit the character.  Don’t put words in the author’s mouth.

“And I mean it.”

“Anybody want a peanut?”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

In the Beginning

I suppose my latest theme on this blog has been opinions on writing.  Sometimes I feel a bit pretentious offering up these opinions, and someday I may find myself disagreeing with what I write today, but keep in mind these are just the mere opinions of an old man still perfecting his craft.

I was a part of an interesting discussion this week and it involved where to begin when writing a story.  In the writing world, we call this the Point of Attack.  In a world filled with expectations of instant gratification, Point of Attack is extremely important.  I guess it goes without saying (yet I'll say it anyway), it hasn't always been this way.

One of the traps that we fall into, as writers, is trying to emulate successful stories of the past, but when you do so with tunnel vision you may be setting yourself up for failure.  Would Moby Dick even make it to print in today's environment?  Would The Hobbit take so long to get off the ground?  In my opinion, no.

We are programmed to believe Moby Dick and The Hobbit are wonderful tales that must be read, so we suffer through what we would now consider shortcomings in an effort to find that wonderful tale.  If either tale was published, as they are, next week, they would fall off into obscurity.  Not because they are bad stories, but because they aren't written to match up with today's expectations.

So, as writers, we can't pick up a book written before our parents were born, copy the formula, and expect the same results.  No matter how good our tale may be.

Which brings me back to the Point of Attack.

Some people say you must engage the reader within the first five pages, others say the first five sentences, and they may both be right, so it behooves me, as a writer, to start the story off in an engaging manner.  We want to share with the readers every aspect of our characters.  We want them to see where they came from and why they are who they are today.  But, if we begin a story with the birth of our character, we may lose the reader in those first five pages and never get to share the growth of the character with them.

You can share all there is to share and still engage the reader.  Begin your story with some conflict, and sprinkle in the past along the way.  Probably not in flashbacks, as they are often overused, but a couple of sentences can say a lot.

"Ole Joe knows hospitals better than anyone in this room.  What with that cancer he had as a child."

You don't even know Joe, but your imagination just painted a picture of his childhood.

When I say to begin a story with conflict, don't take that to mean you must begin with an epic fantasy battle or the like.  A simple conflict will do.  Think about an opening chapter where Joe is panicking because he forgot to pay the water bill and it's cutoff day.  Zipping through traffic to get to the utilities office before noon.  Worried about his wife's reaction.  Hoping the check doesn't bounce.  This is real world situation that could very well connect with your reader.  They find themselves wanting to know if he gets the bill paid on time.  How much more mundane can you get?  But, this is conflict in the writing world.  And, as an added bonus, it is something the reader can connect with.

So when someone tells you to start the story at the beginning, keep in mind the beginning of the story may not be the beginning of your character's story.  If we did that, The Hobbit would have began "There once was a hobbit born in the Shire."

Monday, June 10, 2013


It has been a typical Oklahoma spring around here.  Thunderstorms, tornadoes, and the chaos that surrounds them has been ongoing for a few weeks.  As with most Oklahomans, I have spent my days dealing with the aftermath of Mother Nature's fury, and my evenings staring at the television screen and hoping the next twister finds empty fields.

Somewhere along the way, Summer sneaked in through the back door.

I know, officially it is not Summer, but Mother Nature isn't much for schedules.  I stepped outside yesterday morning to take care of some yard work and broke into a sweat before the mower hummed to life.  So, now we shift gears into a typical Oklahoma summer; hot, humid, and windy till the sun goes down, and then the wind will sometimes calm where you're left with just plain old hot and humid.

While I'm sitting in front of the television with the AC blowing full bore and a tall glass of lemonade in my hand, an Oklahoma Tourism commercial comes across the screen.  The scenes are inviting and made me yearn to load up the camper and find some of those beautiful corners of the state.  Then it hit me; those images on the screen felt inviting, by design, but they lacked an element of truth.  They were all missing the people gathered beneath a shade tree with drinks that used to have ice in them, holding them to their foreheads while fanning themselves with the other hand.  They also missed the constant drone of cicada's in the background.

This brought to mind imagery in my writing.  Most author's know that part of bringing the reader into the story is utilizing the senses.  Most of the time we rely on sight, but there is more to story-telling than painting a picture, though we can use that image to project other impacts on our senses.

The ceiling fan creaked with every rotation and once again Jonus wrote down oil on his mental list of things to do.  It would have to wait.  He leaned back in the chair and wiped the moisture from his brow with an already damp kitchen towel.  The smell of coconut oil told him Thea was escaping to the pool before he saw her prance across the room in her new two-piece she had paid far too much for.  He unbuttoned his shirt and felt the breeze on his soaked skin.

Feeling warm?  Passages like that help bring the reader into the story, and take note that the word heat was never used.  There is something about sound of a creaking ceiling fan, or the smell of coconut oil that brings summer to mind.

To me, Steinbeck was a master of imagery.  Pick up any of his stories and you'll have an urge to sit in front of a fan, or snuggle up to the fireplace.  One day, I hope to be that good.

So unless you are selling vacations in a hot and humid state, don't forget imagery.  Utilizing senses other than sight alone will help bring readers into your world.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Pretentious Writing

I recently read a post on one of the writing forums where the individual was looking for a word to call his magic.  You see he didn't want to use the word "magic".  He felt what he used in his world was something different, grander, more far-reaching than such a simple term.  And, after reading the description, I could see his argument.  He presented a three sentence description of his magic and several of us offered up different words to use that might better represent what it was.

But, when it comes down to, his readers will call it magic.

I don't believe he was attempting to be pretentious by using another term, but the topic did bring to mind other works where the author's were being pretentious, whether they wanted to be or not.


Pop quiz.  What are the modern comparisons to those units of measurement?

Maybe you know the answer, maybe you don't.  I don't.  And quite honestly, if I am reading a fantasy novel that uses those terms, I will most likely not look them up.  Those terms are of no use to me in my daily life, so I will remain blissfully unaware for your entire novel.

Yes, those terms have a certain fantastical ring to them, but what good are they if they don't communicate the measurement you want.  Next time you see someone reading Lord of the Rings, ask them what the modern equivalent to a league is. You may just find I'm not the only one too lazy to look it up.

To me, it is like flipping open a Thesaurus and using a word for the sole sake of being different.  Instead of sounding different, you sound pretentious.  As in carpentry and mechanics, you use the best tool for the job.  In a lot of cases a simple hammer will do the trick.  No need in getting fancy.

I started to read a fantasy series that used made up terms for weight and distance.  At the back of book one was the all-to-common fantasy dictionary where it explained what those terms meant.  Why?  What is the purpose in using strange terms for measurements?  For immersion in your world?  Balderdash! (n. stupid or illogical talk)  If the reader has to flip to the back of the book, or look up the term online, you have just accomplished the opposite.  As a matter of fact, I never moved on to book two, because that was not the only area of pretentiousness in the prose.

We are story teller's.  We love to take the stories in our heads and share them with anybody who will listen.  It is as simple as that.  Don't try to make yourself seem more important than you are through pretentious writing.  Don't talk down to the reader.