Enthusiasm Refill

The festive holiday season fills us with excitement, hope, cheer, enthusiasm, optimism. For several months we have something to look forward to. For many of us it is the excitement to see family and friends we haven't seen is a long time, for others it's seeing what Père Noël left for us under the Christmas tree, and for still others, like me, it's the anticipation of watching loved ones open presents we chose and wrapped just for them.

Inevitably after the holiday season there is a period of blahs, the unavoidable doldrums as we look ahead to what can't help to be mundane pursuits after the bright tinsel and blinking lights of such a heart-warming and lighthearted time. The lingering hangover from New Years Eve doesn't help.

Santa WritesHere's a perfect way to reignite your enthusiasm: write. Whenever I write, even when I have to force myself to sit down and put fingertips to keys, whenever I allow myself to be transported into the world I'm creating in my own stories, my spirits are always lifted, my heart lightened, my mind liberated.

It's safe to say the time-constraints of the season have necessitated that many (most?) of us have had to neglect our writing, even if only for a couple of weeks or so. This is the perfect time to get back to it. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it's productive.

And it will keep at bay the post-holiday blahs.

“The Silver Moment”

It's a term I made up to describe a twist in fiction that can make the "black moment" more shocking to a reader. The black moment is a part of the basic structure of fiction that has been knocking around for centuries.

  • The inciting incident.
  • The mounting tension.
  • Complications.
  • Climax.
  • The black moment.
  • Denouement.

There are as many variations on this structure as there are writers who write about writing, but roughly this is the basic formula for your plot in fiction. Everything else is a refinement on this.

The black moment is the part of the story just before everything is resolved when things seem to be as bad as they can get for our protagonist, when all seems lost and the antagonist is about to win.

The silver moment, as I call it, is infrequent in fiction but you should recognize it when you see it. It comes just before the black moment. It is the part of our story when, in contrast to the black moment, everything seems to have worked out for our protagonist, when all seems to have been resolved as it should have been and the good guys have won. The silver lining of the cloud that has been hanging over our protagonist throughout the book has, in effect, been found.

In this case, the black moment comes when the antagonist, thought defeated, reappears out of the blue with one last card to play, one last-ditch effort at accomplishing his goal, or at the very least, at destroying those who prevented him from achieving those goals in the silver moment.

Rogue Agenda by Kevin Paul TracyFor example, in Rogue Agenda the terrorists have all been rounded up by the Feds, the Al-Serhemni family have successfully escaped to Canada, and while Lainie still has an arson/manslaughter rap hanging over her head the reader knows she is innocent and, if there is justice, will be exonerated. But wait...what about the hit man who started this whole mess by trying to kill the CIA agent and has been stalking Lainie ever since? For god's sake, check the closet before you go to sleep!

Presence of Malice by Kevin Paul TracyIn th conclusion of my book Presence of Malice the villain, Dr. Gerald Gannery, is wanted by several Federal agencies and our heroes - Jet, Gregory, Patricia, and Paul - are enjoying their victory and have let their guards down. Unaware - but about to find out - that Gannery has found the brownstone where Jet has hidden his paraplegic brother and is aware of the money that his henchman tried to bribe the fixer with...and is now driven by a murderous thirst for vengeance.

The silver moment can definitely be overused. If the reader comes to expect it, it loses its impact to make the black moment come as a greater surprise and seem even blacker. But if used judiciously, it can be an effective tool in bringing a shocking and satisfying story to your readers.

RUMINATIONS ON THE WRITER-READER RELATIONSHIP

As I write this I am still days away from the most traumatic experience of my life - surgery. But by the time you read this, not only will it all be over, I will be well on my way to recovery, if not fully recovered. I will know whether or not the mass they found in a CT scan one fateful day while looking for something else entirely, was cancer or not. The worst, whatever it turns out to be, will have passed.

This bifurcation of time is extremely odd to me. It is backwards from what a writer usually experiences. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, whether writing in present tense or past, the events the writer retells have already passed for him/her by the time the reader reads their words.

It almost feels as if you, the reader, have the advantage on me. For the first time the reader has the benefit of foreknowledge of events the writer has yet to experience. Does that make any sense to you? Would that you could tell me how it all turned (turns?) out.

Honestly I'm not entirely sure what bearing this has on writing or why RMFW members should read this blog entry. There is some insight here about our responsibility to our readers, as the ones conveying to them events they have yet to experience. Something about teasing their eagerness to know what happened, and why, while at the same time respecting momentary lack of knowledge until you eventually enlighten them through prose. Something like that.

All I know is this momentary reversal of roles, me the ignorant writer, you the all-knowing reader, is delightfully disorienting, and that fascinates me.

Take the First Step

14311444_1050223608424117_3014868071978910328_oTwo weekends ago, I was honored to be a presenter and panelist at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference. If you are new to writing, or unfamiliar with the conference arm of this organization, I would highly encourage you learn more, consider attending, or even offer up your time as a volunteer. It is a fantastic opportunity to meet other writers, learn craft, and pitch your books to a variety of agents and editors.

I first learned of RMFW in 2005. I had just relocated back to Colorado with my husband, our two babies, Beth and Matthew, and a few dozen pages of a novel I had started writing while pregnant with Beth. Back then, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but I remember the Internet search in Excite (the old Google for those that either don’t know or remember):

Colorado Writing Clubs.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers was one of the first results to pop up.

I didn’t know what this organization was, but I scoured every word on that old site and discovered they hosted writer critique groups and that there was one in my area, the North side of Denver. They met at the now closed Borders Bookstore on 104th avenue.

I was terrified, but I reached out anyway. Certain that I would be told no, I wasn’t welcome, good enough, or experienced enough to join their ranks. But that didn’t happen. For a small yearly fee, I joined RMFW and was accepted into my first ever critique group. I had been an avid reader my whole life, absorbing and learning story without ever knowing it. But it was that day, the day I took that first step toward RMFW that my formal education in writing and publishing began.

csdp0hcuiaaianbWriting can be a solitary and lonely business. Most writers I know, myself included, prefer those hours alone in our heads with story. But because we are not entirely nonhuman, we also need to connect with others of our kind. Since that day in 2005, I have slowly built up a truly fantastic network of fellow writers who I am proud to also call friends. Most of those connections started and continue to flourish because of RMFW.

I was a presenter and panelist at this years conference, but I clearly remember eleven years ago being an outsider looking in. Take that step, connect with other writers. I can practically guarantee you won’t be sorry you did.

Retrospect

I was re-reading some of my past posts here on the RMFW blog. Can you believe I've been a contributor for two years? Who knew I had so much to say? I would've expected to be ridden out of here on a rail just weeks in!

As I revisited some of my old topics, there were many I feel made some good points, if I say so myself, and that might be worth a fresh look. So in lieu of fresh content this month I thought I'd share links to some of my favorite past articles over two years of contributing to the RMFW blog. If you missed any, maybe take a look at one or two, see if there is anything in them worth taking away and applying to your own writing.

I HATE MY BOOK (12/2014)
How I went from loving my book to hating the very mention of it to loving it again!

MORE POLITICS IN FICTION (2/2015)
How to enrich your world-building by bringing complex political pressures to bear on a plot.

WAR IN FICTION (4/2015)
Tackling what can be a daunting task: relating large-scale conflict while still keeping your story character driven.

THOSE WHO CAN'T TEACH DO (5/2015)
Academics will only take you so far. Without passion, you're just writing, not storytelling.

KEEP IT TO YOURSELF, SOMETIMES (10/2015)
The occasional caustic off-hand comment often says more about us than we know, and can have devastating effects on our fellow writers.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS (5/2016)
Worried that you aren't writing the traditional formula that sells books? Don't be - it's what makes us different that makes our stories stand out.

Thanks for reading for two years! Here's to many more!

TO SERIALIZE OR NOT TO SERIALIZE

The Cereal AisleSERIALIZE (sîr′ē-ə-līz′) verb 1. to transform cookies, donuts, waffles, french toast, crunch berries, etc. into miniature candy-like form to be dredged in milk and consumed for breakfast. 2. to broadcast or publish (something, such as a story) in separate parts over a period of time.

No sooner was my latest thriller Presence of Malice released than readers began asking if there was to be a sequel or series following it. To be honest, when writing Malice I never envisioned it as a series. It was always to be a stand-alone thriller, one of many other non-related thrillers I plan to release. I already have two ongoing series, taking on a third is, frankly, daunting.

On one hand, Malice is by far the best received book I've ever released, and not to capitalize on it's popularity by releasing a sequel or series feels like leaving money on the table. On the other hand, my writing muse has never been very motivated by monetary concerns, but mostly on whether or not I have a worthy story to tell.

On the other hand (I know, that's three hands) you always want to please your readers, and to have them clamoring for more of something you've written is not only awfully flattering, it also makes you want to do it, if for no other reason than to please them. JK Rowling can't seem to leave the Harry Potter franchise alone - even though she promised after the release of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows that there would be no new Harry Potter books, she has repeatedly tweeted or blogged new information about the wizarding world she created in those books, then released The Tales of Beedle the Bard, then the movie Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them followed by a book of the same name, then the stage play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child...

The point is, it's hard to walk away from something you so enjoyed writing and that readers so enjoy reading. So while it never started that way, Presence of Malice will most likely become a third ongoing series, if perhaps more episodic than serialized. In the end, while you may have other stories teaming around in your head demanding to be written, it's also irresistible to go back a revisit old friends and favorite villains.

Ah, had I but world enough and time!

The Fruit of Your Labor

fruitGo buy a piece of fruit you haven't had in a while: a peach, a plum, a pear, a mango, even a carambola (starfruit, though they're not as good here on the mainland as they are in the islands.) Find a place to sit alone and close your eyes. Try to imagine you're a primitive human. Game is scarce, you've been living on insects and grubs, or bland roots. You're always on the verge of starvation, though never quite starved - a terrible state if you've ever lived through it.

You see this thing hanging from a tree. You've never considered eating it before because, well, it's on a tree. What part of a tree ever tasted good? Wood, bark, leaves... Still, finally hungry enough, you climb up, pull this thing down, you bite into it (bite into the fruit you bought now.) Try to experience what that starving primitive experienced as glorious sweetness and a flavor you've never imagined could ever exist floods your mouth and your soul soars.

Write that.

Many times I read work from writers who, in their jaded experience, seem to have forgotten that not all of their readers have read the same old tropes and traditions a thousand times. They sometimes neglect details that could enrich their story. How many times has a gun been fired in a thriller or mystery? So many times it is just accepted that readers know what it means to fire a gun, or have one fired at you. So why describe the way your nerves jolt at the sudden blast, the sound waves stinging your skin like electricity, the smell of expended gunpowder, the intense silence following the explosion, the heat you feel from the bullet as it leaves the barrel...or as it tears into your flesh?

Never forget some of your readers may be reading your genre for the first time, and you are their sponsor. Even if not, being reminded of details that often get glossed over or skipped because they are rote or common, can electrify some long-steeped and jaded readers, too. As you write such things, take a moment and close your eyes, try to experience the thing as your character would experience it (whatever it is, whether firing a gun, stealing a candy bar from a store, having sex). Is it their first time or they are old pros? How would that affect the experience.

Never let such things become rote or old hat in your stories. Always remember while you may have written/read similar scenes a million times, your character has not, and your reader is identifying with them. Always keep it fresh, as if this is the first time anyone ever wrote a scene like this. Never let the jade show under your skin.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS

Here is how I found out that there is something wrong with me.

Boy wearing dunce cap.I was 7 or 8 when, during a parent-teacher conference, I was asked to leave the room. I went into the coat room and found I could still hear everything that was said. My teacher told my parents about an assignment in which students were asked how to divide 2 apples evenly among 3 people. The correct answer, it seems, was to cut each apple into thirds and give each person 2 pieces. Most of the class got it right, but three people gave wrong answers. One kid said to tell one of the three people to leave, then give the two remaining people each an apple. Another kid said to just go buy a third apple.

And then there was me, a quiet kid who kept mostly to myself. My teacher was worried - I had said to give each person a sharp knife and let them take as much as they wanted. When asked how my answer gave each person a fair share of the apple I said, in effect, that the three people would either be generous and take only a little, leaving more for the others, or they would all fight it out amongst them, killing at least one of them, and then split the apples.

My teacher then proceeded to ask my parents if I'd ever been caught mistreating pets or weaker children. I laugh now, but at the time I was hurt and outraged. It was a different teacher who recognized my unharnessed imagination and set me on the path of channeling it into storytelling, but I still spent many years after that thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn't see the world the same way as everyone else.

As writers, we don't see the world like everyone else. If we did, there would be nothing interesting about the stories we tell, and therefore little reason to tell them. It is our own, individual skew on reality that makes our stories unique and fun and ultimately readable. If anyone tries to tell you what's wrong with you, own it proudly. Because what's wrong with you and me as people is very right with us as writers.

The Changing Face of Entertainment

Netflix just premiered a new sitcom (sort of, more of a situation dramedy) from the makers of Two and A Half Men called The Ranch, and the reviews of it set me thinking. I watched the show before I read the reviews and I found it funny, fresh, thought-provoking, and original. The reviewers I read (about seven) didn't like it. I'm not going to get into why (I'll start to rant about political correctness and the new Thought Gestapo and all that, and that's not what this post is about.) The important thing is that the critics, to a one, missed the entire point of the show and why it's good.

Having lived in Colorado, where the show is set, I know a lot of rural people like this. The critics clearly don't. Like most who live on either coast they have no clue who people in the middle states are. There is a segment of the country to be served by a show like this, who have minimal interest in shows by Hollywood scions who assume everyone lives, speaks, and thinks like them.

The Evolution of ManI submit that a show like this is perfect for a new, wet-behind-the-ears, upstart entertainment source like Netflix (new in the sense that they have only been offering original programming for the last few years.) Netflix is more interested, at the moment, in building a viewer base than they are in bowing to convention. So shows that the networks and cable cabals who think they rule the industry would never green-light are getting made and broadcast anyway.

Likewise the recent boom in electronic publishing has allowed for the publication of books that the big New York/Los Angeles publishing houses would never consider. They are getting distributed, read, and enjoyed by thousands. Add POD (print-on-demand) services like Amazon's CreateSpace.com, and suddenly the market is being flooded with books that would otherwise never see the light of day. And I'm surprised to say that as far as I can tell, for the most part the quality remains relatively high, considering how abysmal many predicted it would be.

It's the great democratization of the entertainment industry. No longer are a few gatekeepers with a whitewashed point of view about their industry the final say in what the public gets to choose from for their entertainment dollar. And many of these electronically published books have gone on to great commercial success as well (most notably 50 Shades of Grey and The Last Ship.)

So while the sudden opening of the floodgates has many feeling overwhelmed and afraid that their book will never be seen or read amid the cacophony of other books suddenly flooding the world, I submit this is a good thing. The industry is changing (perforce) and change is scary. But another equilibrium will be found eventually, and in the meantime we are witnessing evolution first hand.

“The Idiot Plot”

I recently read a review of the new TV series based on Terry Brooks' classic epic fantasy Elfstones of Shannara when I read the following precis that made me laugh: "The elves' magical protective tree, the Ellcrys, is dying. Lethal demons are slipping back into the world. To banish them again, someone must take the Ellcrys' magical seed to Safehold and bathe it in Bloodfire. Problem is, no one knows where Safehold is, or what Bloodfire might be. These requirements have the weight of prophecy and doom, but they're also faintly amusing, as though the elves lost their car keys centuries ago, and don't have the faintest idea where to look for them." (article)

This made me think of the pacing and plotting of a story. Too many times I've read books (or seen TV shows) where the plot seems to move forward on the slimmest possible impetus, leaving me to wonder why the characters are even following through with it, rather than just catching a movie or running errands. This reviewer also invokes James Blish (iconic author of speculative fiction books, including many Star Trek episodes) who first coined the phrase "Idiot Plot", a story that only moves forward because none of the characters will stop to ask obvious questions or exchange crucial points of information. For example, keeping pieces of information secret for no apparent reason except that it prevents the conflict from being resolved too soon.

Rube Goldberg MachineA Rube Goldberg machine uses a complex, sometimes improbable, chain reaction to accomplish a simple task, for example cracking an egg into a bowl, which is much easier done by hand. Your plot points can be like parts in a Rube Goldberg machine, or they can be girders in a bridge. It's a subtle thing, to be certain your plot is moving forward intelligently, and not stupidly.

At any advancement of your story (plot point) be sure your characters are asking all the right questions, looking under all of the obvious rocks - and even some of the not-so-obvious ones. If someone is keeping something secret, make sure they have a reason to do so, and make it a damn good one. (Some old and tired cliches to avoid: "I kept this secret to protect you!" "I kept this secret until you were ready to hear it." "I kept this secret because you didn't ask.") Make sure that the reasons your characters got into this adventure to begin with remain the reasons they stay in it, or give readers new solid, plausible reasons to make this conflict even more crucial to the characters, personally, than before.

It is certainly important that every cause have an effect in your story, but even more critical is ensuring that every effect has a cause. Not just any cause, but one that proceeds from a prior plot point. It should proceed not only logically, but precipitously, causing the stakes to rise and the urgency to mount. And it must propel the characters headlong into the next plot point, almost against their will. At no point should the readers be left to ask, "Why?" If you have done your job correctly, they should have the answer before they even think to ask.

Avoid the Idiot Plot. Leave it for soap operas and sitcoms (and the TV show "The Arrow"...oops! I didn't say that! Except, they expend so much energy on the noble goal to "save my city" no one stops to explain just exactly what's wrong with the city! But 'nuff said!)