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How to Write Your Best Story: a rambling review

How to Write Your Best Story: a rambling review

edited & reposted from Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I’ve been writing since I was nine or ten years old, and I’ve lost count of the writing conferences, seminars, and classes, and groups I’ve attended, but the greatest learning has come from the simple act of writing (and revising — a lot), and the best advice has come from sitting down and talking to other and better writers. Reading How to Write Your Best Story is rather like one of those conversations: down-to-earth, intelligent, understandable, and useful.

Shortly before publication, Philip Martin, a fellow writer and editor, asked me to read through the manuscript for How to Write Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale (128 pages, $14.95, Crickhollow Books).

My first conversation with Philip Martin was several years ago at a writers conference. I attended his session (I forget the topic), then asked him to autograph my well-read copy of his recent book, The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon’s Lair to Hero’s Quest, a Brothers Hildebrandt painting of Smaug on the cover, which just makes a good book that much cooler. I’m not usually the groupie / fanboy type, and I certainly don’t go around asking other folks for their autographs, but this time, it just seemed like the thing to do.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. 🙂

HowToWriteYourBestStory“Never judge a book by its cover” is old advice that isn’t always true. After all, most of us have seen plenty of cheesy science fiction covers with awkward robots or scantily-clad alien women, or trashy romance novels decorated in shirtless men with impossible hair or women in torn bodices. We look at those covers, and we pretty much know what we’re gonna get. The whimsical cover art (by the late Marvin Hill) for How to Write Your Best Story is the reader’s first clue that the contents are written by someone who knows and appreciates a good story, and probably read his share of them.

What I like best about this book of advice is that it’s less about rules and more about principles of good storytelling:

Good storytelling exists in a world outside of formal structural elements of literature. It has intangible aspects, like a beautiful melody or an appealing fragrance. It exists in imaginary worlds you know well, like the 100 Acre Woods, or Narnia, or Lake Woebegone, or in mostly real worlds, such as a humorous journey on the Appalachian Trail with Bill Bryson — or in any number of great books based as much on storytelling as anything else. (p9)

And

(F)or a good number of years, I’ve pondered the question: is there a way to teach good storytelling, in the fashion of Kipling, Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, O. Henry, Tolkien, or other beloved writers classic and modern — successful authors who we’d all agree knew a good story from a hole in the ground?

What do readers look for in a good tale? What specific techniques do I find myself most often recommending to emerging writers to boost the quality of their stories? (p10)

That’s what Martin endeavors to do in the rest of the book, and he does it with a whimsy to match the cover art, by telling a story interwoven with instructive chapters. After the Introduction, for instance, is the beginning of “The Princess & the Apple”, followed by Part One: General Things about Good Stories, followed by the further tale of “The Princess & the Apple”, which is interspersed among these chapters: The Case for Intriguing Eccentricity, The Case for Delightful Details, and The Case for Satisfying Surprises.

Included are many quotes from the works of famous authors and poets, including this quote from Joyce Carol Oates:

“Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses — one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.” (p25)

That’s a push-pull war in which I constantly engage: what to leave out, what to add, what must be spelled out, what can be implied, what’s trivial, what matters.

A few more examples of advice from the book:

throw out the thesaurus (pp26-30),
juxtapose or fuse two ideas to offer a unique intersection (pp50-51),
listen (pp55-56),
use more senses (pp68-70),
ask what your characters want most (p93),
don’t dodge the difficult ending (pp104-105),

and much more.

How to Write Your Best Story is chock-full of good, perennial advice, but it’s also fun to read. This book will remain in my permanent library, and that’s just about the best recommendation I can give.

 

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It’s All about Me (bwah-ha-ha-ha!)

It’s April Fool’s Day here in the States, but I promise — cross my heart — everything in this post is true. 🙂

Well, except for one thing. The title is true and untrue at once. Stick around. You’ll see.

The proper title should be this: Sharing My Writing Process — An Experiment. This post is part of a blog hop, and my invitation came from Travis Perry. There’ll be more about Travis and the hop when I reach the end.

But first, the questions:

ruins in Eureka Springs, Arkansas (cKB)

ruins in Eureka Springs, Arkansas (cKB)

Q     What are you working on?
A     I’m revising and doing last-minute rewrites on an epic fantasy that is planned for publication in summer or early fall. It’s a book I gave up on, but for which I have regained a new appreciation. The first half of a duology and weighing in at over 200k words *, Dragon’s Rook is still very much an unfinished work. As I enter the last handful of chapters, I realize 1) endings are difficult to get right, and 2) there’s a stinkin’ lot of story left to tell.

I’m also writing a modern urban fantasy — vampires, swords, cell phones and such — called The Unmakers. It’s a strange tale, and I’m not always sure how to approach it, but I like it and can’t wait to tell it. The story owes its sensibilities to Bram Stoker, medieval knights, film noir, the Old West, Christian missionaries, and teenage ghost hunters. Yeah. See why I’m not sure how it’s supposed to be told?

I once vowed I’d never write about dragons or vampires, but what do I do? Write about dragons and vampires.

I also want to finish Thieves’ Honor, a science fiction serial I originally started as a NaNoWriMo project back in 2007. Then I resurrected it and posted pieces on my old blog. Johne Cook, an Overlord at Ray Gun Revival, read an episode or two and invited me to write for the magazine. When RGR went into hiatus, Thieves’ Honor was incomplete, which is how it remains today. However, you can read episodes of it here. (click links at top of blog page)

a view from Mount Magazine, Arkansas (cKB)

a view from Mount Magazine, Arkansas (cKB)

Q     How does your work differ from others of its genre?
A     I strive to make the fantasy epic and heroic while still letting people be real. Other writers do, too, and many stories are far grittier than mine, but I don’t want to mistake “grit” for “realism”. Sure, folks misbehave and kill each other, and it’s an ugly world out there, but people can be decent, brave, patient, and all the “soft” stuff that doesn’t seem to be mentioned as often as violence, sex, and messed-up people.

Yes, there is violence, sensuality, and messed-up people in my stories. But there’s also hope. I like hope. Makes me get up each day and keep trying.

Q     Why do you write what you do?
A     Why, indeed?

I write whatever interests me. I hated research papers in school, but now educate myself by researching whatever captures my fancy. Sometimes it leads to unexpected stories, sometimes it enhances what I’m already writing, and sometimes it lets me meet interesting folks I might never meet otherwise — modern blacksmiths, for instance, or medieval re-enactors.

Some stories begin as dreams or what-ifs, some began as challenges from other writers, and one story (unfinished) came to life when I was ill for a long time and unable to leave my bed much. I was bored, weak, kept falling asleep whenever I tried to read, so I let my mind wander.

Q     How does your writing process work?
A     Dragon’s Rook started out as a short story almost twenty years ago, and looked far different from the sprawling chihuahua-killer it is now. The rook in the title originally only had one meaning — a chess piece — and that meaning obliquely remains. There’s a chess-like game referenced in the story. However, rook gained other meanings as the story grew: blackbird, a place to nest birds, a tower, and a cheat.

the dragon who used to keep me company on my old writing desk, and the inspiration for one character in Dragon's Rook (cKB)

the dragon who used to keep me company at my old writing desk, and the inspiration for one character in Dragon’s Rook (cKB)

The dragons, though? They were an unexpected development, meant only to be brute beasts. Then one started talking. Then it laughed. And then the story changed.

So, process? It’s messy.

As a young writer, I tried following all kinds of advice: where to write, when to write, how much to write, how long a story must be, how a story must look, all sorts of formulas, but imagination shriveled up and creativity died.

Then someone asked the right questions:
1) So what? Who cares? (What’s important in the story, and why?)
2) What’s driving the story: the plot or the characters?(Just as our character determines our actions, choices, and words in real life, so do fictional characters decide what happens and what to say, strongly influencing the plot.)

I ditched the advice and the bogus rules, and started writing what I wanted, how the stories demanded to be told. Ideas returned, and for a time there were nights I never slept, trying to record the ideas flooding my mind. (Not a recommended way of living, especially if one must go to a job on a regular basis, as I did.) After a long dry spell, not only did I write novels, but short stories, poems, essays, freelance articles.

But I don’t write every day, and I don’t write in the same place or at the same time of day. Formulas and schedules don’t work for me. **

Sometimes I have nothing to say, sometimes I can’t write fast enough. I’m still learning to be okay with the silences, when ideas hide and words refuse to obey.

* —– * —– * —– * —– * —– *

Now, about those other writers who make this post’s title untrue:

Travis Perry, blogger at Travis’s Big Idea, and author of several speculative stories, invited me and a few other writers to participate in this “blog hop” on how we write. (I was supposed to post yesterday, but there were other words to be written.) If you like magic mixed in with your science fiction, check out his fun short story, “A Little Problem With the Dilithium Stone“, a fan’s homage to Star Trek and fantasy tales.

L.S. King, a friend and fellow writer, is also participating in the hop. Her newest novel, Sword’s Edge, is now available and gaining excellent reviews.

K.M. Alexander, not part of this loop but participating in another branch of the blog hop, has answered the same four questions on his site.

If she’s up for it, I’m challenging Suzan Troutt to add her own contribution.

Now, go forth and write!

* And that’s after pulling out about 20k words to streamline the book. Yup. It’s a monster.
** For writers who do work better with schedules or particular parameters, check out the advice on the Nail Your Novel blog.

 

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The Purpose of Fantasy (a borrowed review)

The following post is from editor and novelist Elizabeth Easter’s blog, Penworthy, and is used here with permission. I could write my own review of a book I believe other writers and readers of fantasy will find not only interesting but the source of conversation and thought, but she said what I’d say. Read on!

ThePurposeofFantasyThis is a good book.

I could end my review right there and still have told the complete truth, but that wouldn’t tell you why or what, or how you can acquire your own copy of this useful, soon-to-be essential, little volume.

The WHAT and the WHO: The Purpose of Fantasy: A Reader’s Guide to Twelve Selected Books with Good Values & Spiritual Depth by Philip Martin. I met Phil many years ago at a writing conference in Oklahoma City, back when he still worked as the acquisitions editor for The Writer Books. He’d recently published the first edition of A Guide to Fantasy Literature (now revised and with a new cover, although I much prefer the dragon on my copy!). Since then, he has formed his own publishing house, as well as offering consulting and mentoring services for fellow writers.

The WHY:

As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I have defended my chosen genres to writers who deem them lower forms of literature, as pop-lit or pulp fiction. (Well, I ask, doesn’t the “pop” in pop-lit mean the form is popular? There must be a reason for that.) Fantasy has been and will always be a viable and powerful literary form, and Philip Martin is its apologist:

Fantasy is different from other types of fiction. It is a wonderful approach to storytelling, and “wonderful” here means literally full of wonder. Unfortunately, it is often used in a very small-minded sense to segregate off a small type of adventure fantasy into a sub-genre, a ghetto of bookstores and libraries, where you mostly find books with sword-wielding barbarians, bushy-eyebrowed wizards wearing star-studded gowns, Arthurian knights galloping across medieval countrysides, perhaps a castle in the background, perhaps a scaly dragon sailing overhead, perhaps a warty, axe-wielding ogre lurking in the shrubbery. But fantasy is far more than this. Fantasy combines wonder and whimsy with a richly non-rational, spiritual, philosophical look at matters such as good and evil…Someone said that the difficult thing about fiction is that it has to make sense. Fantasy makes sense, but it doesn’t show us reality. It shows us an inner truth, without any need to be any more real than an occasionally invisible hobbit with hairy toes. (Kindle locations 134-150) (emphasis mine)

Martin goes on to say, “At their core, fantasy stories are about what we believe about some matter of spiritual beliefs; they tackle core issues of good and evil, and how we should deal with it all” (Kindle locations 155-156).

Amen, brother! Preach it!

But this is not a religious book, nor is it a book of faith, but a discussion of how the spiritual is illustrated by and becomes accessible because of fantasy literature.

The HOW:

His three criteria for choosing the twelve books included in The Purpose of Fantasy:

  1. They had to be really entertaining.
  2. They had to be worth rereading.
  3. They had to be worth discussing.

As a result, and without prior design, most of the books that made the cut are generally marketed to children.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” (This may apply to adults as well.) What is clear is that the foundations of a person’s moral character are strongly shaped by influences and lessons absorbed in childhood. And the two things that fantasy is most about – imagination and issues of right/ wrong – are naturally in rich abundance in children’s books and stories. (Kindle locations 234-240)

However, the questions raised and the themes throughout are decidedly the realm of adults.

Some writers of fantasy have been quite annoyed to see their stories labeled as “for children.” These authors included the great fabulist Hans Christian Andersen, who insisted “my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature.” (Kindle locations 274-276)

Again, the WHAT (the books Martin discusses in The Purpose of Fantasy):

Momo by Michael Ende
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The Rope Trick by Lloyd Alexander
Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Reading this book was a joy. It reacquainted me with beloved books I haven’t read since childhood, and nudged me to become friends with books that have long been on my “to read” list. (I first learned of Momo from a popular South Korean television series, My Lovely Sam Soon, aka My Name is Kim Sam-Soon, and have been wanting to read it ever since.)

For me, there is a danger in reading interesting books that are also well-written. When I find something I like, something that speaks to me or draws me in, I will blitz through it. I skip across the water rather than immersing in it. This time, however, I read slowly, as Martin recommends we do when perusing the stories he suggests. Savor them, ponder them, ask their questions of ourselves. Feel the wonder.

Fantasy’s gift is to allow us to see our own world in a state of surprise and grace. (Kindle locations 475-476)

Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince,

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

But fantasy is more than the fantastic or the spiritual. In the chapter titled “Is Fantasy Subversive?”, Martin opens with this statement:

 Some authors have seen fantasy as a good way to introduce a type of creative questioning, one that can shake up, or sneak by, a conventional perception. (Kindle locations 492-493)

And bolsters it with this:

Ursula Le Guin wrote that some adults are uneasy with fantasy’s inconvenient tendency to reveal truths – to tell stories in which emperors have no clothes. (Kindle locations 504-505)

I grew up in a strict church that, despite its words, seemed more concerned with appearances than with truth, and eschewed obvious sins while indulging in the more subtle, more insidious sin of pride. I was that kid who stirred up controversy by pointing out what was, to me, as plain as sunshine: There’s something wrong. There’s a disconnect between what they said they believed and how they behaved.

One of the teachings declared that most fiction was useless and even sinful, because it was lies. However, as a voracious reader, I consumed fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, fairy tales, folklore, and the like, as well as the many stories in the Bible, and gained much from them all. In a Native American folktale, I might learn about wise choices, which backed up a concept I might have learned in Sunday School or heard preached from the pulpit. In an African fable, the evil of lying might be reinforced.

Martin asks,

Do stories question authority? How often, for instance, do stories and books for young readers contain dunder-headed or threatening adults? Does that mean that those stories are anti-adult? More accurately, they encourage young readers to think twice, and compare what they see in real life to those fictional tales. (Kindle locations 576-578)

It’s not important which church I grew up in, or what I observed. It’s important that I read widely and asked the questions. Eventually, I came to see value in much of what I was taught, because it was true and solid and a good guide for life. However, there is also much I abandoned as untrue and harmful.

For a time when I was in elementary school and junior high, there was a fear among the adults who knew me that I would mix up reality and fantasy, that the fiction that so enthused me would overtake my reason or my faith. When I wearied of defending myself and the books, I hid them behind more acceptable volumes, read them under the covers, sat in secluded corners.

The key to opening the mind is to be able to imagine something else, to ask “what if.” But “what if” does not answer questions. It simply creates a portal, an opening to build the structure of a story on top of those questions…Minds of young readers are not so malleable or gullible that they swallow everything they read or are told…Fantasy stories raise the question of Truth. But they don’t create it, and readers know that, because the worlds of fantasy are so clearly invented. Even more so than all the other branches of fiction, they are impossible worlds. (Kindle Locations 587-603) (emphasis mine)

It seems I cannot write a book review without applying it to my own life. That’s a good thing, perhaps, because it shows how well the book relates to me. Is it true? Interesting? Vital? Engaging? Well-written? The Purpose of Fantasy is all those and more. I recommend this book to writers and readers everywhere, especially those who see the wonder beyond the skin of the world.

Martin concludes the “Is Fantasy Subvervise?” chapter thus:

The solution, in a fantasy book, often comes from the smallest one who asks the biggest questions. (Kindle locations 608-609)

What’s your question?

*  ~  *  ~  *  ~  *

In addition to being an excellent and engaging writer, Martin is also an editor, mentor, and publisher. He’s the founder of Great Lakes Literary and its two imprints, Crickhollow Books and Crispin Books. Martin is blogging about the books he explores in The Purpose of Fantasy ( Mary Poppins, for instance), and readers are invited to join the conversation. Readers can also visit the Crickhollow Books page on Facebook.

One last note: Check out that awesome cover art! It’s called “Looking for a Good Book” and is by Greg Newbold. You can check out more of his work on his site.

(review c2014, Elizabeth Easter)
 

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NaNo Novel Mashup

crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbWent to a pre-NaNo meeting tonight at the library in a nearby town, and was one of the most outgoing individuals there.

Now, I know writers can be a quiet bunch, but me? The one waving latecomers into the room? The one inviting wallflowers to sit at my table? The one teenage newbies followed from activity to activity? My social skills need work (this is no secret), but tonight I felt like a– What’s the word?

Host? Master of Ceremonies? Social butterfly? I don’t know. I do know just that little bit of interaction drained me.

Yeah, I’m a social lightweight.

However, the writing calisthenics were fun, creative, and challenging. One of them, an interactive plot-generation activity, required me to write a crime/noir story based on Thumbelina. I balked at first, but then an image and a question came to mind: What might Thumbelina find in the pockets of the private investigator for whom she works?

MV5BMzUzMjE4MDE2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTU2NjU0MQ@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_A fairytale crime story certainly isn’t groundbreaking. There’s already soapy adventure drama on TV’s Once Upon a Time, and probably more of the same in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, as well as plenty of drama and humor, horror and crime, in Grimm. Beauty and the Beast has already been given a noir-ish feel and reimagined for the modern world. Twice. (I liked the first one better, but that’s probably nostalgia talking.)

I already had a novel idea picked out for November.

Yet Thumbelina and the P.I. have comic possibilities.

What to do? What to write?

If I do decide to do the goofy fairytale/crime novel mashup, I might post the daily progress here on the blog, just for kicks.

Anybody else gearing up for the 50k-words-in-30-days challenge?

 

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Tales of Woe and Wonder

Just a short post after a long silence.

Here’s a review of a book I recently finished reading:

Tales of Woe and WonderTales of Woe and Wonder by Jeff Chapman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Tales of Woe and Wonder” is an excellent title for this collection of short stories. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I dove in, but I’m glad I did. There’s darkness here — as there was in the old fairy tales — but also much wonder.

Sometimes I stopped to re-read a sentence or a phrase, enjoying the way the words sounded, how they fit one another. Enjoying the actual writing in a novel is a rare thing for me these days, so when I encounter it, I share it with the world.

I highly recommend this book.

View all my reviews

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2013 in Books, Reading, Stories, Uncategorized

 

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