Tag Archives: creative process

Meet Annette Young of If Dreams Can Die

Some of my favorite villains are those who see themselves as heroes, and Annette Young falls wholeheartedly in that flock.

I tend to create character profiles for my point-of-view characters because I need to know as many facets of their personalities as possible. Typically, this happens before I begin the first draft of a book, which means my initial impressions of a character doesn’t always match up with the final product.

portrait of Annette Young

Of course, I had gotten to know Annette quite a bit by the time the third book came along. She quickly became one of my favorite characters—not only because there’s a dearth of middle-aged-housewives-turned-deities in fiction, but also because I sympathize with her to such a high degree.

Is Annette two-faced or simply a woman divided? I’ll let the reader decide.

Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt* from the character profile I penned roughly three years ago.

*Warning: if you haven’t read both If Souls Can Sleep and If Sin Dwells Deep, you will encounter spoilers!

Annette Josephine (Ringgold) Young

Appearance

Annette was a big woman in the later years of her life. She was of average height for a Caucasian woman (5’5″) and weighed more than 300 lbs. She had dark brown eyes and long brown hair, which she typically wore up in a bun or some other conservative up-do. She would wear a ponytail at home or in casual circumstances where she knew her companions well.

When she was younger, she spent a lot of time outdoors, and living in the South, she sported an attractive tan throughout the year. After the car accident that claimed her husband’s and daughter’s lives, she became more of a shut-in, and her complexion lightened.

She has no tattoos or any other body modifications; she finds such things crass. Her ears are pierced with one hole each. Annette has dimples and a few chins.

Annette always took great pride in how she looked and was wont to wear fancier clothing and accessories than the occasion strictly called for. She prefers dresses and ostentatious jewelry, such as a bejeweled owl broach. Her favorite fragrances are of the floral variety, especially roses. She wears a lot of makeup—some might say too much eyeshadow.

In the dreamscape, however, Annette has reverted to the very thin frame she boasted prior to marrying Herbert (before love “fattened her up”). As the Lady of Peace, she wears her long hair in braids and sports a simple, shapeless white dress. She also goes about barefooted. The only jewelry she wears are golden hoop earrings. She appears to be in her mid-twenties, though everything else about her resembles a picture of her from her First Communion.

Attitude and Behavior

Annette consistently conducts herself with an air of propriety. She has excellent manners and insists that others show the same courtesy to her and others around her. While she takes pride in her looks, she doesn’t come off as haughty. When angry, she might snap and come off like a scolding schoolteacher. Even when she is upset, she tends to hide her feelings behind a mask of civility.

Others might mistake her for being naïve or simple-minded because she tends try her best to get along with everyone, but she is a very intelligent woman.

Since her mother used to scold her for fidgeting, Annette tends to fold her hands on her lap or in front of her (when standing) so that she isn’t tempted to play with the fabric of her clothes, tap her fingers against surfaces, and so forth. But despite her best efforts, she has been known to shake her wrists to make her bracelets clatter when nervous.

Annette has a thick Texan accent, and sometimes she uses expressions associated with the Deep South. But her drawl comes off more like a Southern aristocrat’s than a redneck’s. She can be sarcastic at times, but it’s subtle because she prefers to be positive when she speaks. She doesn’t swear and scolds other people when they do. Her body language also conveys how she feels: she might frown or sigh or click her tongue or fold her arms or wrinkle her nose to express displeasure. Her smiles are very warm.

History

Her childhood was very structured and, one might say, old-fashioned. She was a debutante, and proper etiquette was stressed her house. While her parents weren’t particularly wealthy, she was a little spoiled because she was an only child. She lived with both of her parents, who if they weren’t passionately in love, seemed to get along well enough. Her entire youth was spent in Berryville, Texas, and after she married Herbert Young, she moved to a larger city nearby.

She liked spending time outdoors, socializing with family friends. Some of her favorite activities included playing cards (bridge mostly), croquette, and other lawn games as well as swimming. For a short time, she even competed in swimming. She also dabbled in various crafts, including painting and sculpting, but as she got older, she turned to more utilitarian pastimes, such as quilting and needlepoint.

Annette has fond memories of her youth and young adulthood. She wanted for nothing and was generally treated well by those around her. She has always been an extrovert who prefers to surround herself with friends. Most of her best memories center on special occasions and large gatherings, including religious milestones, holidays, and her wedding. One of her favorite memories was when she met Herbert at the Henderson County Fair. He won her a goldfish, which he named Annie Fishgold—a sort of play on words for Annie Ringgold, the name Annette went by when she was young.

Hobbies and Interests

A couple of Annette’s favorite past times are baking and eating. While she once played tennis and other outdoor party games, her poor physical shape prevented her from doing much of that after she put on so much weight. Playing cards while gabbing or discussing just about any topic over a nice meal are her ideas of a good time. She also dabbled in floral arrangements (her favorite flowers are marigolds). She enjoys traveling and adding to her decorative spoon collection.

Although she wasn’t much of a reader in her youth, her thirst for knowledge on certain topics made her a voracious reader as an adult. Most of her books have to do with dreaming, coping with grief, and religion—particularly New Age concepts, such as astral projection, lucid dreaming, prophecy, and anything that pertains to the afterlife. She might watch horse racing on television, but most other sports are too barbaric for her, including football. She likes dramas and romantic comedies with happy endings. She has been known to read the occasional bodice-ripper too.

Annette is a big fan of Frank Sinatra and other crooners from the Big Band era. She feels as though there’s a certain classiness to the music. She also likes older movies and musicals. As with TV shows, she prefers a certain level of romance in her stories, and happy endings are a must. Annette has a healthy sense of humor and likes to laugh. She has a somewhat sophisticated sense of humor and isn’t a fan of slapstick or jokes at others’ expense.

Beliefs

Honesty was an important virtue for Annette growing up; lying was not tolerated in her house. She tries to be honest whenever she can, but as her plans have evolved, she has leveraged deception on a more and more regular basis. So while she abhors being lied to, she has had to “bend the truth” and keep secrets from those around her—regrettably.

Most of her crimes, she feels, are imperative and that the ends justify the means. Her desperation would prompt her to kill—and woe be to anyone who gets in the way of her reuniting with Herbert and Deirdre.

Annette is not proud of her vices. She tells herself that all of her misdeeds will be overshadowed by the good she is doing. Her biggest fear is failing to reconnect with her lost loved ones—and damning her soul if it turns out God is real.

Despite the fact that she grappled with depression while grieving for her deceased husband and daughter, she remains an optimist. Everything she has done since The Accident is out of hope that she can reconnect with her family. She used to believe in fate, but now she believes an individual must make her own destiny.

Annette was raised Catholic. From a young age, she was captivated by the idea of the spiritual realm—praying to the departed souls (saints), the idea that there were angels flitting between Heaven and Earth, and the realms beyond death: Limbo, Purgatory, Hell, Heaven. She took most of the teachings of the Bible very literally, and she mostly lived her life in accordance with the tenants of Christianity.

For as long as she could remember, she had very vivid dreams. She hoped, at first, that it meant she was a modern-day prophetess, but her parents scoffed at the notion (they were Catholic, too, but more as a habit than anything else). Her priest tiptoed around her questions, but when (in private school) she was caught reading about dream interpretation, she was told that such notions were ungodly—one step away from Ouija boards and fortune telling.

When Herbert and Deirdre died, it shook her faith to its core.

Relationships

Annette loved Herbert dearly. She once felt as though she had been blessed by God and thanked Him for bringing them together. When that love was taken away from her prematurely, she devoted her life to reclaiming it.

Annette was a virgin when she married Herbert. He is the only man she has ever been with, and their sexual habits were rather ordinary. It wasn’t the most important aspect of her marriage, though she was sexually attracted to Herbert, who wasn’t a traditionally handsome man. He’s the only man she’s ever been with.

She loves children—her Deirdre most of all. Annette always wanted a big family, and she surrounds herself with mannequin children in the dreamscape, finding peace in their play.

She has few friends, but those she trusts are very dear to her. They include Levi Nathan (first and foremost) as well as other members of PEACE, some of whom are dream drifters while others attend to the real-world administration of the organization. Two of her closest friends were Milton and William, though her relationships with them have become strained in recent years, and she worries that both men now see her as an enemy.

Annette doesn’t really hate anyone. She is disappointed by William’s betrayal, and even if she sees Project Valhalla as an obstacle, she doesn’t have anything personal against its members.

 


 

More extras are still coming your way!

Help an author out. Please rate If Souls Can Sleep and If Sin Dwells Deep at Amazon and Goodreads!

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A day of drama

One of the most exciting things a writer can do is push a character outside of his comfort zone.

It turns out the same is true for writers themselves.

I suppose I stepped away from the proverbial safety net the day I stopped being a dabbler and became a so-called authorpreneur. By and large, however, I write sci-fi and fantasy series. Throw in a handful of speculative short stories over the years, and my fiction fits snugly into a relatively contained space.

But as of last month, I can add “playwright” to my bio.

That’s right. I wrote a stage play.

In less than seven hours.

The premise

A little while ago, my services were solicited for something called 24-Hour Theater. It’s billed as a “race against the clock,” and the challenge is this: community members create an original play from scratch over the span of 24 hours.

That includes writing, rehearsing and performing.

Writers have nine hours after receiving a shared (but broad) theme to produce a 10-minute play. After writers email their hot-off-the-laptop scripts to the production team, directors and actors must interpret and memorize it before the curtain rises exactly one day after the kickoff.

Adhering to my “Year of Yes” mentality, I decided to give it a shot.

The process

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. My sole goal was to avoid embarrassing myself. I’ve written scripts for marketing videos and television commercials but never for a live performance. How difficult could it be?

I was about to find out—and fast!

7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19

  • The writers, directors, actors and production team gather to reveal the theme: “fall.”
  • Groups are assigned lottery-style, and once writers learn who their actors are, they choose costume options from a few pre-selected possibilities.
  • Both of my actors provided pajama options; deciding that it’s serendipity, I go with that.
  • During a couple team-building exercises, I meet my two actors: Julie Wild and Nate Scheuers, who will also serve as director. I also take the opportunity to ask questions about their favorite roles, style, and so forth.
  • Before I leave the kickoff meeting, I grab my complimentary survival kit, which contains snacks, caffeine, and even some Tylenol.

8:10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19

  • I arrive home and immediately get to work, starting with the theme. Dismissing the season as too obvious, I list other definitions and expressions. “Falling temperatures,” “falling asleep,” “falling in love,” “falling star, “falling out,” etc.
  • Next, I brainstorm scenarios where two people might find themselves wearing pajamas. A couple enjoying a rare lazy morning? The only two coworkers who dressed up for Pajama Day? Patients in a psych ward? Two strangers falling down a bottomless pit in some kind of Kafkaesque catastrophe?
  • I latch onto an idea about two neighbors trapped in a building without heat and/or electricity. I begin outlining to see where the story takes me. I get to the end and don’t bother to map out any of the other options. This is “the one.”

9:25 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19

  • My goal is to start the first draft before 9:30, which I do, albeit barely.
  • The outline is broken out page by page, so I’m able to get the structure down relatively quickly.
  • The only thing that slows me down is adhering to the proper playwriting format, which is foreign to me. I know I’m providing too many stage directions, but I want to remove as much guesswork as possible to make it easier for my actors.
  • I think I’m moving at a pretty quick clip, but it’s already tomorrow.

2:35 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20

  • I finish the script. But I can’t submit a rough draft, so I go over it again, fixing typos, cleaning up formatting, and reworking dialogue.

3:05 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20

  • I know I could continue to tweak until the 5 a.m. deadline. Instead, I email in the script for my one-act play, “Fallout.”

3:?? a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20

  • In the grip of a major writing high, I toss and turn in bed. I’m excited to see what the actors make of the script. I’m stuck in creative mode, but eventually my brain shuts off, and I fall asleep.

The performance

Although a couple of texts came in from my actors, by and large it was radio silence on Saturday. I spoke with a fellow writer before the performance, and she too felt a little in the dark. And maybe a little apprehensive.

Of course, we didn’t have to wait long to watch the fruits of our labor. The five plays—“TKO,” “Fallout,” “Foodie Fallout,” “Cookie Con,” and “Falling for Kitty”—all took a different approach to the theme. Comedy decidedly won the day.

I have to say I was incredibly impressed with all of the actors and directors. It just goes to show what can be accomplished when creative people are passionate and dedicated to a project.

As for my play, “Fallout,” I can’t express how delighted I was with how it turned out. Mostly, I amazed at how close the performance matched what was in my mind. And when a change was made, it was for the better.

From left, Nathan Scheuers, Julie Wild, and yours truly | graphic by Julie Wild

If you’re interested in reading my script, you can download it here.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping the 24-Hour Theater will have an encore in 2019!

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The secret beauty of bad ideas

Writers never kill their darlings.

We just lock them away…in a dungeon…indefinitely…

Even when we expunge plots points from the pages, old drafts linger long after their expiration date, haunting hard drives and battered binders for years. The same goes for ideas that never even had a chance to thrive as well as stories that don’t survive a full draft.

I keep my little failures in a folder called “Ideas and false starts,” a literary gulag whose inmates date back to the turn of the century.

What makes an idea bad?

Bad is in the eye of the beholder. Most ideas start out as precious—too precious—so if the author passes harsh judgement on his/her own work, it’s probably really bad. Some common culprits are ideas that are too unrealistic, convoluted, or clichéd. If an idea doesn’t serve—or can’t support—the story, it has to go.

Then there are the ideas that might have made it to those two little words if only they had kept the author’s interest. Boredom aside, ideas also can lead writers down dead ends. Writer’s block has murdered many a storyline.

And here’s a tragedy: a perfectly adequate idea can perish before it reaches its full potential when a shiny new one shows up, usurping an author’s brainpower and priorities.

Can two wrongs make a write?

Abandoned ideas don’t really rest in peace. I, for one, occasionally visit their proverbial prison, poking and prodding to see if there’s any life left in them. Better to have many ideas waiting in the ward than too few to fill one’s time.

I admit very few people to this freak show. Family members, writers groups, beta readers—they alone get glimpses at the grotesqueries. However, after watching a certain movie and playing a somewhat related video game recently, I can’t help but wonder if there could be beauty in the bad.

The LEGO Batman Movie and LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 both feature D-list characters from comics past and present. If Condiment King and Chipmunk Hunk can star in successful stories, what about some of my own castoffs?

The Bad Idea Club

Supposing there’s validity to the theory that mixing up a bunch of bad ideas can result in something good, here are a few mostly forgotten characters of mine that could conceivably band together:

Digger (circa 1984)

Likely the first instance of my unfulfilled fiction, Digger’s Days would have recounted the adventures of Digger, a robot equipped with a drill and a number of other tools to do…stuff. I’m pretty sure this prototype didn’t make it past the drawing board, literally, since I was all of five years old when I sketched him. Still, what story couldn’t use a mechanical sidekick?

The Ultimate Crusaders (circa 1991–1993)

Drawing robots eventually led to illustrating massive battles. I flirted with the miserable (and trademark-infringing) G.I. Joe: The Next Generation before inventing cringe-worthy acronyms for my elite soldiers. Once my interest switched to comic books and their super-powered characters, I invented the Ultimate Crusaders. Many of these heroes and villains they thwarted were Marvel rip-offs (e.g. The Mutant Flame and Electra); others were just plain terrible (the Quarter Note and Herron, whose helmets were as groan-inducing as you might imagine). However, Mr. Mysterious did get reincarnated for a short story I wrote in college.

Yalte Dark Elf (fall 1994)

After months of building my own fantasy world, I decided to attempt a novel. While Altaerra would live on and eventually serve as the setting for The Renegade Chronicles, the original cast of “The Maltaken Experiment” did not. There was an elven bard, a gruff dwarf (of course), a warrior woman, a pixie, and a barbarian guy. Leading the pack, however, was dagger-flinging Yalte Dark Elf, whose only saving grace was that he wasn’t inspired by Forgotten Realm’s Drizzt Do’Urden (like most dark elves), but rather DragonLance’s Dalamar the Dark.

Tarreth (spring 2001)

An attempt at co-writing a fantasy series with a fellow college student quickly fizzled, but not before I wrote a scene introducing Tarreth, a half-immortal child adopted by a creepy old wizard. I think she was going to eventually destroy him and meet up with a delusional “Chosen One.” Alas, her quest was over before it began.

Benedict Strong (fall 2006)

When I stepped away from Altaerra to take a stab at a fantasy novel set in the real world, I conjured up Benedict Strong, who was one of only a handful of true wizards remaining on Earth. He learned from Merlin, I believe, and so did his rival/counterpart, Pandora, who used her arcane talents to perform true magic on stage—unbeknown to her Vegas audiences. Rasputin would have made a cameo. I know: hard to believe this one flopped.

Persephone (fall 2010)

Some ideas are enticing solely because they are something other than what you are currently working on. While up to my elbows in dream drifters, editing If Souls Can Sleep, I began mentally exploring a story where a teenage Wisconsinite named Persephone gets possessed by her unborn granddaughter, a time-traveler comprised of consciousness-preserving nanobots. Of all my bad ideas, Sunny’s story is most likely to orchestrate a jailbreak.

Ysa (spring 2013)

It turns out that writing a story about an alien anthropologist isn’t all that new. Ysa, a genderless extraterrestrial from a mostly lifeless universe, would have been one of three interplanetary delegates to travel to Earth, where the anthropologist would use his/her woefully incomplete knowledge of humankind to forge a lasting friendship between worlds. Naturally, Ysa would have discovered a conspiracy on one side or the other and then foiled it.

The Later Gator (fall 2013)

A few years ago, my wife and I penned a children’s chapter book. The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers had a very limited run for complicated reasons, but the story foreshadowed a sequel in which the titular heroine would square off against an anthropomorphic alligator whose tide of chaos causes tardiness wherever he goes. The Later Gator still hasn’t shown up.

A song for the unsung heroes

My abysmal mashup may never come to be, and there’s an excellent chance not a single one of these characters will ever escape my digital dungeon. But even if bad ideas can’t be reformed, they serve an important purpose.

Bad ideas take the brunt of punishment from an author’s inner critic. For example, if Benedict Strong hadn’t been such a bore, I might never have given Vincent Cruz a chance, which means The Soul Sleep Cycle would never have happened.

Once a bad idea is banished, we turn with fresh eyes to a new idea, our sadism sated…for now…

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How long does it take to write a book?

Answer: I have no idea — even after writing nine of them.

Maybe some authors have a formula that produces consistent results, but for me, the question is too nuanced to allow for a simple solution. Here’s why:

  • No two novels are the same.
  • I tend to work on other projects in between drafts, which artificially extends the timeline.
  • I don’t consider a book “done” until it’s published.

In other words, the writing itself is but one portion of a much longer process that starts with choosing a worthy idea to pursue and ends the moment the product is available for purchase.

Sometimes it can feel like centuries pass between penning the prologue and typing “THE END.” | Image by Alan Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Often that journey has as many ups and downs—and plot twists—as the fiction itself.

Take Project 5, for example…

After writing the three books of The Renegade Chronicles and a standalone (and currently unpublished) Altaerran novel called Magic’s Daughter, I attempted to compose a book that would merge characters from both works. I abandoned it after 22 chapters because it felt like I was simply filling in the blanks, and truth be told, I was starting to burn out on sword-and-sorcery fantasy—as a writer and a reader.

I decided my next book would take a step in a drastically different direction. I chose the working title “Project 5” because, well, I hoped it would yield my fifth complete novel. (Not very creative, Ghost of David Past!)

In June 2006, I began plotting an urban fantasy novel set in present-day Earth. The cast included Benedict Strong, a nearly immortal magic-caster who defied his heritage by trying to live a normal life; Lady Pandora, a stage magician who used real sorcery in her shows; and a few others.

I wrote a couple chapters before losing interest.

Next, I embraced a completely new plot — a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid that would eventually become If Souls Can Sleep. Once that story got its hooks in me, there was no turning back. Here’s a snapshot of the steps leading from inception to publication:

Dec. 10, 2006 — Began brainstorming a new Project 5, starting with rough character descriptions.

Dec. 31, 2006 — Wrote the prologue and began researching sleep disorders while hashing out ideas for the plot.

March 5, 2007 — Wrote the first chapter and then drafted a chapter a month for the next two years.

Oct. 30, 2008 — Realized that I was trying to write three books in one; removed select scenes from the first draft and saved them for Books 2 and 3.

April 7, 2009 — Developed an outline for the remainder of the novel after finishing Chapter 24 to prevent “writing in circles.”

July 1, 2009 — Finished the first complete draft of If Souls Can Sleep.

July – September 2009 — Read through the first draft and made notes for editing.

Oct. 18, 2009 — Started working on the heavy edits.

May 2, 2010 — Finished the second draft.

May 3, 2010 – Sept. 4, 2017 — Did lots of other stuff.*

Sept. 5, 2017 — After finishing the second draft of Book 3 in The Soul Sleep Cycle, jumped into proofing and prepping If Souls Can Sleep for publication through One Million Words.

Sept. 20, 2017 — Finished the production and marketing schedule.

Sept. 21, 2017 – Jan. 29, 2018 — Tackled/tackling all of the tasks required to publish and promote the book.

Jan. 30, 2018 — Publishing If Souls Can Sleep.

* Nota bene: I set aside If Souls Can Sleep for seven and a half years while I worked on a variety of other projects, including writing and editing the next two books in The Soul Sleep Cycle; co-writing and publishing a children’s chapter book (The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers) with my wife; writing a few short stories (“The Lake Road,” “The Monster and the Mirage,” and “Ghost Mode”); reworking and submitting “Ghost Mode” and an older story, “Going Viral,” to various publications; and publishing the three novels and a digital collection comprising The Renegade Chronicles as well as a free e-book compendium (Capricon and Beyond). I also spent time marketing The Renegade Chronicles, creating an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign for a pun-a-day calendar, and making this website during that time.

You could say that If Souls Can Sleep will be 11 years in the making when it publishes early next year—though, technically, the inception for the series goes back even further.

According to the first entry in my Project 5 notes, dated Dec. 10, 2006:

Years and years ago, I thought that it might be fun to write a story about a man who meets a woman that he swears he knows. And she seems to recognize him, though neither can say from where. At some point, he would recall her as a recurring character in his dreams.

There was, of course, more to the story, but a lingering question has (in a sense) haunted me from that point forward: Who are the strangers that appear in our dreams? Are they real people whose names we have forgotten—or perhaps never knew—or are they amalgamations that our minds concoct when it needs nonspecific characters for a scene?

My next book will contend that dream strangers are real people, even if they do not exist in what most would call the real world.

“Years and years ago”?

That initial inkling has evolved—maybe “mutated” is a better word—over the course of decades, which only underscores my belief that the life of a story spans far longer than the time it takes to write it down.

Regardless of when this labor of love actually began, one thing remains true: I’m looking forward to finally sharing If Souls Can Sleep with the world in 2018!

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What to do when writing tips contradict

The only constant when it comes to writing advice is inconsistency.

There are times when I wish someone would come up with a template for writing a creative, impactful and commercially successful novel in “Just 10 Easy Steps!” While there are no shortage of textbooks and self-help guides for writers, I fear there’s no one surefire way to become the best writer you can be.

At the end of the day, fiction writing is more art than science.

Since no two minds work precisely the same way, no two writers are going to approach planning, plot structure, character development, research, writing, and editing exactly the same way. A method that works for one author might result in utter failure for another. A customized methodology, then, is key.

Portrait of author Stephen King

Who am I to question the wisdom of Stephen King? Just another writer trying to figure stuff out. | Photo credit: Shane Leonard

In my first post on this blog, I vowed to abstain from stating “absolute rules that govern writing as a craft or business.” Mostly, I didn’t want to come off as arrogant, but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my promise:

There aren’t any absolutes when it comes to writing.

That’s not to say there aren’t valuable tips to share. (I like to think that this blog contains a helpful nugget or two for people careening headlong down the same crazy path I’ve chosen.) And there are plenty of overarching platitudes that seem applicable to most people.

Yet I have to believe that despite how many successful writers have declared, “You must read voraciously in order to become a better writer,” there’s a genius out there somewhere who penned his or her masterpiece in a vacuum.

Anomalies aside, some so-called writing rules outright contradict others. Never was this more apparent to me than during recent email correspondences with a novice writer and prospective member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin, who sought my perspective on several conflicting pieces of information—including the sage words of one Stephen King.

The article he referenced included excerpts from King’s memoir, On Writing, which I had read and enjoyed many years ago. In the article, King says writers should “write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.” The article further paraphrases the point: “You should maintain total privacy between you and your work,” while composing the first draft.

This wasn’t the first time the aforementioned aspiring author had encountered advice dissuading him from sharing his partial manuscript with others. And while I can agree that there are some disadvantages to prematurely exposing one’s story to the critics, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In “Why writers groups still matter,” I outlined how soliciting feedback from fellow writers can help an author and his or her book. Of course, one could wait until he or she is finished with the first draft before joining a writing workshop, sending it to beta readers, and so forth.

So why not acquiesce to King’s (and many others’) point of view? Here’s what I told my friend via email:

I don’t know if I’d say receiving critiques on your work prior to having finished a first draft is detrimental. I can see pros and cons.

Some pros include getting an early understanding about what the readers are latching onto. If their attention is focused on the right stuff, you know you’re on the right track. If they are getting distracted by minor details (or characters), that gives you some ideas not only for how to revise those first few chapters, but also how to treat such things moving forward.

I will say, however, that I think it’s a mistake to perpetually revise chapters. I’ve seen it happen time and time again where writers can’t get past the first handful of chapters because they’re constantly revising until it’s “perfect.” And getting feedback from alpha readers adds more feedback, so, yeah, there’s a higher chance that a writer will want to revise/redo/rewrite instead of move forward.

At Allied Authors meetings, I take notes on the critiques for every chapter I read. But I never work on those chapters immediately after a meeting. In fact, I don’t review them until I’m ready for Draft 2. (Though I will keep comments in mind in case they are relevant for upcoming/unwritten chapters.) I’m a firm believer that it’s better to get a complete draft done before trying to improve on anything. It’s probably because I’ve seen too many people frustrate themselves by trying to make Chapter 1 flawless before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that work.

Is a completely MS review preferred? Absolutely. …it’s difficult to critique portions of a novel (due to a lack of context, etc.), but imperfect though they may be, I continue to find value in chapter-by-chapter reviews.

So who is right—Stephen King or I?

Or both?

In actuality, I’m not disagreeing with King on a philosophical level, but the devil is in the details. And even if King and I likely agree that rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is a mistake, there are probably those out there who make it work. Probably, there are folks who never get a second opinion on their manuscript before sending it off to an editor or self-publish it and let the public decide whether it’s worth purchasing.

Writing is a complex activity. What’s ideal for one person might not be remotely achievable by another. (Sorry, Mr. King, but as much as I’d love to knock out a first draft of a novel in three months, real life tends to get in the way.)

Every writer must determine his or her own path from conception to composition. There’s a heck of a lot of alphabet between Point A and Point Z. I suppose the only thing that matters is making it to “The End” without getting lost among all of the warnings along the way.

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The two sides to every story

Ask a hundred different people for their definition of “good writing,” and you’ll get a thousand different answers.

On a very basic level, the creation of a story can be divided into two parts: concept and composition.  Without a command of both sides, a writer—more specifically, his or her story—is bound to fall short of greatness.

Coins of the Philippines

Like a coin, there are two sides to every story. Just don’t leave its success to chance. Photo by Kadayawan (own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Concept

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book about…”?  Or “I have this great idea for a story…”?

When it comes to fiction, most of us dive into the ideas behind a story before we ever ply the pen or keyboard and transpose thoughts from mind to page.  The aptitude for artfully stringing sentences together typically comes later.

Now inspiration comes in many forms, and creativity often strikes without warning.  But a handful of traits do not make a character.  A theme cannot serve as substitute for plot.  And a thin storyline can be stretched only so far.

In short, not every inkling is worthy of a novel.

Understanding how to combine concepts—knowing what to keep, what to lose, what to tweak—forms the roots of good writing.  Of course, all of the wonderful ideas in the world won’t amount to much on their own.  They must grow into something that can be experienced by the outside world.

Composition

At some point in our education, we all learn to write.  Common curricula tackle the basics (e.g., parts of speech, sentence construction, and proper punctuation) as well as the assembly of these verbal apparatuses into a purpose-driven piece.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, and they typically contain a climax and a resolution.  Essays and research papers pose a hypothesis from the outset and are filled with arguments built upon evidence.  Etc., etc.

Writing is an art, yes, but those who neglect the science of it tend to turn readers off by breaking both documented and unspoken rules.  If you litter your prose with homophones, run-on sentences, repetitious words or phrases, and incomplete thoughts, your readers won’t take you seriously.

If you have any readers at all.

Then there are those who go beyond merely competent writing—those who work such wonders with words that there’s no doubt they were put on the planet to pursue this art form.  These writers conjure up mind-blowing metaphors and paint the most evocative imagery in the reader’s imagination.

The Craft

Both the sides of the craft—concept and composition—require creativity.  Neither half is inherently more important than the other.  They depend on each other.

Granted, there are some writers who could crank out a vignette about an everyman or everywoman simply plodding through life.  No extraordinary back story, no mind-blowing plot twist; just a series of otherwise unremarkable events.  If that author’s exquisite use of language pulls readers in and keeps them engaged, the style alone might transcend the mundane ideas behind the writing.

Likewise, a writer could come up with a brilliant concept—an unexplored aspect of the human condition or an intriguing new situation—and be found wanting when it comes to execution.  Maybe said writer could be forgiven for his or her shortcomings in the composition department if the ideas are compelling enough.  Maybe.

Most of the time, a writer must strive for mastery of both sides of the story before he or she is successful.

Depending too much on concept or composition will only reveal the weakness of the other.  Many readers won’t waste their time with a well-written but boring (or otherwise conceptually flawed) book.  And a writer who has an amazing concept but lacks the chops when it comes to composition can’t hope to do his or her idea justice.

The solution, unsurprisingly, is practice.  Challenge yourself to take your ideas to the next level.  Keep at those finger exercises, read and learn from better wordsmiths than yourself, and then watch your prose improve.

You’ll never get a straight answer when it comes to what makes “good writing” good.  But if you fail to deliver in either the concept or composition department (or both!), you’re bound to get an earful about what makes writing bad.

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Stories, songs make beautiful music together

While working on my third novel, I listened almost exclusively to The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack.

Given the idiosyncratic nature of the album’s songs — not to mention the idiosyncratic nature of the movie itself — it’s perhaps no surprise that a friend of mine once responded, “Man, what kind of weird stuff are you writing?”

It hadn’t occurred to me that the music I listen to while writing could impact the words on the page.  Oh, maybe I was stirred by a turn of phrase here, a shift in dynamics there.  But do I gravitate toward a quicker tempo during action scenes and softer sounds for more poignant plot points?  Hmm…

One thing I can safely say is that my Defenders of Valor, a battle-scarred sword-and-sorcery novel, bears absolutely no resemblance to Wes Anderson’s familial fracas.

[Editor’s note: the book was ultimately released with a different title: Martyrs and Monsters.]

This song perfectly captures the adversarial relationship between Vincent, the protagonist of my novel If Souls Can Sleep, and his brother Daniel.

Whereas some writers find music (or any background noise) a distraction, I am fueled by the creative energy imbued in most melodies.  Occasionally, I write in silence—if, for instance, I forgot to grab my iPod or I’m so wrapped up in a scene that I neglected to notice an album ended.

Otherwise, bring on the aural stimulation!

Maybe it’s because I’m so often inspired by lyrics when away from my keyboard.  A random line from a song can send my imagination soaring.  I might construct a narrative from the verses or create an entirely unrelated story from a minor theme.

Some of my favorite songwriters are those whose tunes “read” like a short story.  The Decemberists, They Might Be Giants, Regina Spektor, Jonathan Coulton — my mind can’t help but get swept away with their short sagas.

It’s like listening to literature.

More recently, the relationship between my love of writing and love of music took an interesting turn.  During the time it took me to draft, rewrite, and edit If Souls Can Sleep, I started collecting songs that reminded me of aspects of my story: a character, a setting, a confrontation.

Then, without quite realizing it, I created a playlist for my book:

  1. “Quicksand” by Travis
  2. “Who Needs Sleep?” by Barenaked Ladies
  3. “Save Yourself” by Tarkio
  4. “Days of Elaine” by The Decemberists
  5. “I’m Only Sleeping” by The Beatles
  6. “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” by Of Montreal
  7. “Am I Awake?” by They Might Be Giants
  8. “Lucid Dreams (Reprise)” by Franz Ferdinand
  9. “Great Hosannah” by Kula Shaker
  10. “Tattva” by Kula Shaker
  11. “Brother” by Murder by Death
  12. “Rain” by Bishop Allen
  13. “If You Can’t Sleep” by She & Him

Now it’s not amazing that two different art forms would capture themes of alcoholism, sleep deprivation, and a strained relationships.  But when I listen to the unofficial soundtrack for If Souls Can Sleep, I can envision which scene each song would accompany.  Some of the songs fit almost too perfectly.

It makes me wonder what songs have inspired other authors and what kind of an effect it might have had on the stories themselves.

It also makes me wish that some of my favorite novelists would include a suggested soundtrack in the back of their books.  After all, storytelling can take many forms.  If moving pictures can have soundtracks, why not the written word?

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