Category Archives: Writing Advice

“More Like Guidelines”

“Phony Rules of Writing” is a brief,  useful article about commands we should disregard. I have told many a writer to jettison these very rules and to do what the story / sentence/ paragraph requires rather than mimicking what their junior high English teacher taught from the textbook.

One shudders to recall those stilted, bloated, “perfect” essays with the introductory sentence, three-to-five main points, and the closing restatement of the paragraphs above it. And that restatement better not be boring! Nosirree. It had to be creative, original, dazzling, all while repeating what the reader already read.

Ay-yi-yi.

When novelists try to apply that same structure to fiction, oy vey.

As the article states,

Whether we’re experienced writers or just beginners, we all follow certain rules. Not all rules of writing, however, are equally valid or useful.

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.


For the origin of this post’s title, click here to watch a clip from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

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Other Worlds: What One Reader Wants in Fantasy Novels

NOTE: In the post below, dated originally in September 2015, a Penworthy member writers about what he/she looks for when reading a fantasy tale. Although this was written last year, it has languished in the “drafts” folder so long that we don’t recall which of us wrote it. 🙂 Therefore, Elizabeth has edited it lightly and added paragraphing, and we hope you enjoy what you read.

A group I’m in has issued a prompt for readers to tell what they’re looking for in fantasy stories. The following three criteria are the main ones by which I judge all the stories I read, regardless of genre. (Readers be advised, this is a long post.)

3) Setting: there are two aspects to this. I care about not only how the setting is built, but also how it feels.

The time and place — the universe, if you will — in which the story is set is not required to obey the real-world laws of science, but it must remain consistent with itself. The rules by which the universe operates must be clearly laid out and then obeyed. Rule-bending and seeming contradictions must be rationally explained.

The world as a place should also give me a feeling that it’s many times bigger than whatever portions we see in the story, just as the real world is so much bigger than the portion any one person can see, visit, or otherwise experience in a single journey or lifetime. Even if the story is set in a place that’s completely “unrealistic”, I want it to feel real enough that I could plan a vacation there (or a detailed escape plan, as the case may be).

2) Storytelling: However the story is told — first, third, or even second-person, past or present tense, fantasy or sci-fi or mystery or any other genre — it must flow smoothly. As with above, there are two sides to this aspect: the mechanical construction and the semi-nebulous “story-feel”.

In regard to mechanics, choppiness and unusual constructions only work if properly and consciously manipulated. Prose is as much an art as poetry, and should be crafted as carefully. Stories should be written in a way that strikes the ear pleasantly when spoken aloud, since a reader hears the story recited in his own voice even if he does not read it aloud. The sound and cadence of a story don’t spring to the forefront of my attention on a casual read-through, but after I’ve finished reading, when I’m trying to analyze why I like or dislike a story, the flow of the words and the flow of the action almost always factor in. The sound of the words affects the image that forms in my mind. The right sound, the right flow, the right imagery: these things can cause the words on the page to fade away, so that what I see is not the words on the page, but the story itself playing out like a movie in my mind.

Concerning feel, the main thing is balance. Action and calm, lightness and seriousness: these should be woven together smoothly and in proper proportion to the type of story. Characters the readers are supposed to take an interest in should all be given enough page time to properly develop, and should all have equal (but distinct) roles in and influences on the outcomes of events. However neatly-constructed the setting, and however beautiful the prose (and however engaging the characters, see Reason 1 below), a story will not be worth a re-read unless it’s actually a good story.

I have no problem with tropes such as the coming-of-age journey, the dashing knight rescuing the fair maiden, or the Chosen One versus the Evil King; however, I’m also drawn to fresh and unusual concepts. But whatever the basic idea, the story must be told in an interesting way. Every scene has to matter, and every situation should be approached in a creative fashion. Even when using tropes, originality is a must, and subverting the expected is especially desirable.

1) Soul: The most important point on my informal mental checklist, the thing that draws me in to a story and keeps me reading, is the people. I want to see characters to whom I can relate. This is one of the most-repeated pieces of writing advice, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Strong characters are the heart and soul of a good story. I can’t love a protagonist unless I can get inside his head, understand what he wants and why, and sympathize with his struggles. Likewise, the villains I love to hate are those whom I understand. Show me what drives a person, and I’ll care about what happens to him.

All of the above is achieved only when an author gives his character a “soul”.  A character must be put together like a real person, with real needs and desires, and flaws that are believably balanced with his good traits. The best character development is accomplished when a person is revealed to the reader slowly: At first, we see just enough to make us interested in the person, but details and histories are revealed slowly, tentatively, much as a real person gradually opens up to a new friend.

When characters are realistic, I cannot help but care about their futures.

When I care, I want to know what happens in the whole story.

Then, even if I never read the book again, even if I forget the title and the author and the characters’ names, a good story will stick with me in the form of people — friends, of a sort — whom I remember for years after.

In summary, here’s a short version of my list, in order.
1) Characters matter the most.
2) Style matters a lot too.
3) World-building also matters.

On a side note, this is the first time I’ve ever put these ideas into words. Funny, how long it can take to put one’s thoughts into shareable form. 🙂

The Rise of Fallen Stars

RiseofFallenStarsThe first book in The Third Heaven series, The Rise of Fallen Stars by Donovan M. Neal is an original piece of fantasy fiction, incorporating the limited Biblical account with a rich creativity to imagine what might have happened when Lucifer defied God and took a third of the angels with him.

In the beginning (wink and a smile), Lucifer saves Michael’s life, and all of the angels are shown as being in harmony and brotherhood, but someone steps outside his assigned task, setting in motion a chain of tragic events. Pride and grief, anger and bitterness, fester and work wedges between brothers until a powerful angel goes on a rampage and kills another, and Lucifer dares plot rebellion against his Maker, unleashing war in Heaven.

Lucifer is present in such vivid fashion one can “see” and “hear” his beauty as the most beautiful angel. Heaven and Hell are described in rich detail, and the clever use of Biblical language and verses lends a depth and an authenticity to the tale.

There are a few instances where Neal makes interesting parallels between his novel and the Bible, such as when El (God) tells Lucifer, “What you have to do, do quickly,” echoing what Jesus tells Judas on the night the disciple betrays the Messiah to His death.

The Rise of Fallen Stars is action-packed, and is densely populated with angels of many ranks and myriad names. They are sometimes difficult to keep straight, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the story.

What did take me out of the story were occasional awkward phrases (“gastric acids of the abomination of punishment”), and descriptions that incorporated or described flora or fauna not yet created (such as when one heavenly being grabs another as one would grab a cat by the scruff of the neck). And, in an Indiana Jones-like scene, Michael and Raphael traverse a chamber of perils to enter the Hall of Annals, and Michael is afraid. Such fear in that situation seemed out of character for an angel.

One thing I found interesting was Neal’s incorporation of Greek myth names into the setting (Adonis trees, Elysian Fields), and the use of Greek god and German folklore names for some characters (Charon, Mephisto, and more).

The cover evokes the story, and is well done.

The Rise of Fallen Stars is by no means a perfect book, but it is original and interesting. Recommended reading.

Author v. Editor

In response to a request for suggested topics to be included in a book, a conversation thread started in a group on Facebook as writers and editors weighed in with advice about the author/editor working relationship.

KB“Patience, grasshopper!” Many writers I’ve worked with are first-time authors, and they’re unfamiliar with the process, the back-and-forth of revising, of how long that process can be and how many times a book may need to be proofed, edited for content, re-read from the beginning, etc. They don’t set the book aside for a time and gain a new perspective before working on it again. Rather, no matter my advice or encouragement to wait and do the hard work, they become frustrated and anxious, and often send off their book to publishers or they self-publish long before their work is ready.

EAPWhen working with a publisher’s editor, first thing the author should determine (and this is mostly based on feeling) whether the editor/publisher is receptive to ANY form of author’s input and/or objections. If not — well, there’s only two choices for the author: withdraw you book (often not possible) or go with everything the editor wants. If the author feels strongly he/she will not be able to work with the editor, he/she can ask the publisher for book-contract cancellation…

If, however, you are assigned an editor who is ‘willing’ to discuss your (author’s) objections, then you need to choose – and choose wisely here I say – which things you’re going to quibble over… Pick your battles…Then make a case for why you want to keep what the editor wants you to change or delete. 

While most of the editors profess to be working from the Chicago Manual of Style nothing could be further from truth. I’ve yet to meet two editors who agree on placement of commas. So, whatever small punctuation changes the editor wants, go with it… After all is said and done, do the professional thing and thank the editor for all his/her hard work and then do some soul-searching. Do you want to remain with this publisher or find another one or go solo? It’s actually a good place to be.

KBWhen I was an editor with a publisher, I was the tough guy who had to tell authors to make significant changes — not because I was trying to make over their work in my image, not because their work was terrible, but because they were writing historical fiction and therefore needed to be true to the eras. One concerned the settling of the American West, and was crammed full of cliched characters and events that were more Hollywood than history. The other book was set in Israel during the occupation by the Roman Empire, and the author tried to turn Herod into a more personable guy than he really was.

So good editors will tell their authors the hard truths, even if those authors cry to me on the phone and later complain to the publisher, as the above two authors did. The first author backed out of her contract, because — in her words — her book was perfect as it was. The second author was going through other stresses in her life that added to her resistance to change, and she cried often, but she eventually made the changes because (I hope) she saw that I had only her best in mind.

I wanted more from these authors than they were willing to give. That, I think, is often a source of contention. The author’s vision (what he thinks he’s written) can be radically different from what the editor actually sees on the page. Therefore, in the author’s mind, the editor is just obtuse and irrational, and in the editor’s mind, the author needs to knuckle down and get it right. Somewhere between them, they can hammer out a pretty darn good novel.

PEHThe manuscript is like the author’s child, and the editor is like a teacher. The same way a teacher improves upon a student by giving him or her knowledge is how an editor works with the manuscript. The teacher is just making that student better.

Questions, suggestions, advice? Continue the conversation in the comments below!

Editing Services Are Now On Hiatus

We apologize for any inconvenience, but we are no longer accepting new clients for our editing services.

There are many reasons for this, including new directions in the main editor’s life and schedule. The decision also comes as a result of a recent phishing scam perpetrated on one of our colleagues, as well as online-stalking behavior from a potential client in which an editor’s privacy was breached.

Meantime, the Penworthy Press collective continues to write, produce art and jewelry, and take photographs.

Thank you for your patience and for your continued reading. We look forward to sharing good news with you soon!

Musings: A Story Needs Trouble

Friday, I took a walk, a reward to myself for completing a freelance project, and a chance to be away from the computer and revel in the sunlight. (Aaaaaah! My eyes! My eyes!) When I returned home, however, I didn’t want to return to work. If there is an autumn equivalent of spring fever, I have it.

There’s not much story there, other than the old one: brain takes a walk while the body struggles to complete tasks by itself. Not very literary, eh?

How ’bout this: Little kids know a good story when they meet one.

A few days ago, four-year-old Sunny ran through the house, narrating as she went: “…and then there’s a tree…Oh, no! Watch out!…but Sky swoops in…”

She complicated her play by introducing obstacles and problems, but also enabled her pretend self and other characters to overcome those blocks by imbuing herself and her imaginary friends with creative skills or tools to deal with whatever occurred.

Last night, while re-watching a Korean television series that a friend had not yet seen, I saw specific points where — if the characters had been wiser, had been less ruled by fear or grief or anger or greed, had been quicker or stronger or less driven, the story would have ended much sooner than it does.

I was frustrated by the ugly motives that led to unnecessary tragedy, but acknowledged that — without them — the rest of the story would not only lose its power but its purpose. An intriguing, funny, poignant, suspenseful series would not exist.

To borrow from another post on this blog, stories are interesting because bad things happen.

Or, to borrow from the Chinese, “May you live in interesting times.” It’s a curse, not a blessing, the most interesting times being those with wars and natural disasters. Kinda the ancient Asian version of “Go to hell.”

I’m close to wrapping up edits on a client’s fictionalized autobiography…although I like this book, the ending is thin…

I headed downstairs this afternoon to fill my cup with fresh, hot tea, and that’s when I saw the problem: There’s a positive change in the lead character’s life, but there’s no transcendence.

Sure, the guy overcomes a crappy childhood, a weak and aimless youth, and a bout with addiction and alcoholism, and he’s definitely in a better place now, but–

What now?

And why did he finally decide that addiction was not the life for him?

Even in true-to-life stories, characters need a reason, a motive, and then action to back it up.

Otherwise, it’s not just the editor who’s falling asleep, but the audience is, too.

[borrowed from my post on Adventures in Fiction]

A horror story is playing out in the Middle East — not only there, but around the world — as adherents to a violent ideology behead, crucify, rape, torture, hang, beat, and exile anyone weaker or who doesn’t believe the same way or to the same extent as they. Similar atrocities have occurred throughout history, perpetrated by different groups in different places. Mankind conjures insane evil against itself and calls it good and justified.

And yet from this darkness arises life-changing, life-affirming stories.

One such is the recent travails of Miriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman accused of apostasy and adultery, and imprisoned in chains, because she married a Christian man, an American citizen. She even gave birth while in chains. She and her family were rescued and brought to the US in summer 2014.

Another such story can be read in The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, which recently became a banned book in some libraries. It details how the ten Boom family hid Jews from the Nazis, how Corrie endured and survived a concentration camp, and how faith sustained her.

Powerful stories will be born of the current horror, as well. Tales will be told of pointless tragedy and humbling self-sacrifice, crushing dominance and inexplicable mercy, breath-stealing loss and unexpected gifts. Violence so vile it can scarce be imagined, let alone described, and yet compassion so kind one cannot help but weep.

Stories need something to overcome, and they need a reason to overcome it.

A candle is lost in the sunlight, but shines like a star in the dark.

3 Stages of the Writer’s Inner Journey

A novelist friend of mine once worried about his book. But not in the “I-hope-it-sells” kind of way. His concern was far more personal. He’d written a character that several readers found “creepy.” He mused aloud, “What does that say about me?”

I’ll tell you what it says.

He’s good at creating believable villains. But this is not a reflection of a dark personal character.

We create fictional characters that spring from our subconscious, and as such, they are mirrors of us. You’re actually sharing more with the world than Facebook or Instagram ever could, when you write for the public.

The reward in this risk is that you get to discover yourself through the writing journey.

The Three Stages of a writer’s inner journey:

1.) Creating villains.

Many things affect our personal life, and there are generally two kinds of people we remember from our past: the really good people and the really bad ones. My theory about villains is that they are not reflections of “us” but rather reflections of our fears. Echoes of school bullies or adulthood enemies. These villains are the opposite of us most of the time… but there are some weaknesses they have that we share. I believe that Dickens’ Scrooge was really his fear of childhood poverty returning: an old man who would hoard so much money that he wouldn’t even light and heat his own home in order to save more.

Know your villain, know your fear.

2.) Creating heroes and anti-heroes.

Then there are the heroes. Or in the case with films like Star Wars, there’s the antihero Han Solo running around and doing un-heroic smuggling ventures while saving the day! Antiheroes are more popular than heroes in quite a lot of fiction: who wants to be perfect anymore? But heroes are perhaps closer reflections of us than the villains. They are our best intentions given voice. Often they will do the things we can’t bring ourselves to do in the real world: speak up for the helpless, defy social conventions, or simply state the truth in front of a crowd. Go, heroes!

Know your hero, know your aspirations.

*some people may say, “What about the villain who is the antihero?” Then you got some ‘splainin’ to do. Or perhaps this is your way of working out your biggest problems.

3.) Creating worlds.

Worlds directly reflect on their creators. Consider C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. A planet where Adam and Eve have not yet fallen, a strange and unique place where redemption is possible and everlasting life assured. Or how about the worlds of The Hobbit? A writer has complete control over the worlds he or she makes, choosing the fictional government, social classes, and even what sort of universal laws (magic or not) are in place. And thus writers take on great responsibility to their audience—to create realistic, well-structured worlds.

Know your worlds, know your creativity.

Copyright S. Troutt/J. Smith 2014

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