The Plague and Power of Perfectionism

First off, thank you RMFW for inviting me to be a regular contributor to this blog. RMFW has played an important role in my writing career over the years—I’m grateful that I now get to participate with the organization in a more regular way.

Before making the switch to full time writer, I worked as a psychologist. I feel it is a career that has benefited me a thousand times over when it comes to not only my writing, but my understanding of writers in general.

Because we are an interesting bunch—on that, I’m sure we can all agree.

There are many personality types drawn to the profession of writing. A weekend spent at any writers’ conference will convince you that we run the gamut from stodgy to bizarre—and even at times evidence the ability to be bizarrely-stodgy.

I both love and find myself fascinated by writers.

In all my years writing, and talking with writers, and thinking about writers, I feel that there is one particular personality trait that has the potential to either serve you or slay you and your creative endeavors.

Perfectionism.

Now I know plenty of people, non-writers too, who tout their perfectionistic ways and natures. They love their highly controlled world of “just so” and “the right way” because it lines up, is correct, and runs from A-Z with an exacting precision that smacks of I’m in control.

Because who doesn’t like to be in control?

Perfectionists strive for the flawless.

Perfectionists hold themselves and others to incredibly high, sometimes impossible standards.

Perfectionists are often thought of as extremely conscientious and “ideal” by society at large.

The problem with this character trait, frequently praised and even admired by those of us less perfectionistic by nature, is that it can also hold you prisoner. When it comes to going after your dreams, perfectionism can jail you for a very long time with no hope for parole.

Because the simple truth is that no one, not even you, is perfect.

No.

Not even if you catch all the typos.

Not even if you see the every flaw.

Not even if you clutch with white knuckled fists to all the rules.

Perfect is not realistic, sustainable, or even happy. It is a world where there is no room for mistakes even though mistakes are a vital component of the learning and growth process.

Perfectionists sometimes measure themselves and others, a person’s worth as an individual, by their accomplishments. Perfect is usually a horrible judgmental harpy—most often looking in the mirror, probably harder on themselves than anyone else.

Perfect is also, and probably most importantly, the killer of creativity. It will always talk you out of trying something outside the box. Taking that risk. Daring to try. You may even feel like a slave to your own exacting judgment. Never free to take a creative risk. Terrified of “others” who you fear will condemn you and your creative choices just as harshly as you judge others.

As harshly as you judge yourself.

Many writers who struggle with this can often point a laser at what is wrong with other people’s work, but are incapable of committing their own story to the page because they may never allow themselves to be vulnerable enough with that horrible first draft.

Now if you happen to be a perfectionist, the news isn’t all bad. In fact, you have some amazing strengths and rightly deserve all our admiration and acclaim, once you can wield that X-Acto knife instead of being kept hostage by it.

Mistakes are not bad; they are how we learn.

Allowing your flawed work a place to exist in your world is how every writer starts any book, short story, narrative poem—you name it. Struggling past flawed to better is how we grow as writers. Not a one of us is fully formed.

Perfectionism is a powerful tool, so use it to serve your purposes.

Writers in particular can benefit greatly from their exacting attention to details when counterbalanced with allowing themselves creative freedoms first. It can be a gift, but only if you’re in charge of it. You need to use it instead of allowing it to keep you from trying.

At best, the perfectionist can unleash beautiful and mighty work into the world.

And at the very least, you’re already most editor’s dream.

Less Than a Month Until Conference Registration Opens

RMFWConference_Chalkboard_getreadyforregCan you believe it? There’s less than a month before registration opens for the 2016 Colorado Gold Conference.

In this month’s conference post we want to let you know about a few new events along with a reminder about our usual programming. Some events are free and others are paid add-ons with limited space.

Make sure you register early to take full advantage of everything the Colorado Gold Conference has to offer.

New! Blue Pencil Café with Keynote Speaker Robert J. Sawyer
Meet with keynote speaker and best-selling author Robert J. Sawyer for a 15-minute Blue Pencil Cafe. Bring up to four pages from your manuscript for a cold read, if you wish. Or use your one-on-one session with Robert to ask questions and receive advice about your work or publishing in general. Space is limited.

One-on-One Critique with Keynote Speaker Ann Hood
Schedule a critique session with keynote speaker and best-selling author Ann Hood. During your one-on-one session, Ann will provide a personalized critique of your work-in-progress. Space is limited. Submit 10 pages by July 1, 2016.

One-on-One Critique with Freelance Editors
Freelance editors Jessica Morrell and Jeff Seymour are available for a limited number of one-on-one critique sessions. This is a excellent opportunity to find out what it’s like to work with a professional editor. Or, if you’re having issues with your work in progress, they can help you get over the hump. Submit 10 pages by July 1, 2016.

One-on-One Pitch Sessions
Every attendee may register for one free 10-minute pitch appointment with an attending agent or editor. At the time you register, you may choose three acquiring agents/editors. We then do our best to schedule your pitch session with your first choice of agent/editor. You will receive your pitch appointment in your registration materials when you arrive at conference. If you are missing your appointment or unhappy with your assigned agent/editor, see the pitch scheduling volunteers to resolve any conflicts. Additional pitch appointments are also available on a first-come, first-served basis. Make sure you check in 5 to 10 minutes before your pitch.

One-on-One Pitch Coaching Sessions
Many authors have written great work, but they don’t know how to convey their concepts in a short, intriguing pitch. Or maybe the idea of attending a pitch session scares you to death. If this sounds familiar, add pitch coaching to your registration. Susan Spann and Heather Webb are back by popular demand and are joined this year by Angie Hodapp. Schedule a Friday afternoon session with one of these ladies to practice your pitch. A fifteen-minute session will help tighten and pump up your pitch before your appointment with an agent/editor. These sessions are only $40 and well worth the increased chances you’ll be asked to submit pages.

Agent/Editor Critique Round Tables
These round table critique sessions are monitored by an attending agent or editor. Sessions are offered Friday morning and afternoon, and tables are open to 8 critique participants and 2 auditors. If you register as a critique participant, you will submit the first ten pages of your manuscript, plus a one-page synopsis of your story, to be critiqued by the agent/editor of your choice as well as by the other participants at your table. If you register as an auditor you will only observe; you will neither submit pages nor offer critiques to participants. Participants will receive further instructions once their registration is confirmed. These sessions are a $40 add on. Deadline to register and submit pages is July 15, 2016.

Master Classes
Master classes are back this year and expanded for more offerings. These classes are four hours in length and provide more specialized instruction on writing and the business of being an author. This year’s classes are scheduled for Friday morning and, based on attendee feedback surveys, we're adding a Saturday morning and afternoon class as well. The fee to attend a master class is $60. Space is limited.

NEW! Hook Your Book Sessions
We all spend countless hours perfecting our book summary for the cover copy, online bookstores, and query letter because first impressions count. Without a hook, a reader will pass your book by. That’s why we’ve added a new event to this year’s conference. Hook Your Book is a free thirty-minute opportunity to run your book summary by two experts in your genre. In fact, it’s a little like speed-dating for your book. During conference registration, you’ll request a Hook Your Book session and will be asked for a genre preference. When you check in at conference, your envelope will contain a Hook Your Book appointment. Check with the scheduling volunteers if you have a scheduling conflict and need to reschedule. Additional Hook Your Book appointments may also available on a first-come, first-served basis. Make sure you check in 5 to 10 minutes prior to your appointment.

NEW! Mentor Room
This year we've added a room for one-on-one mentor sessions with an industry expert. Book 20 minutes of coaching on things like your cover copy, query letter, a specific scene in your work in progress, publicity, and marketing. The Mentor Room is also open to ask legal questions or make other publishing inquiries. We will have more information about this event in next month’s conference blog post along with a list of scheduled experts. As this is a new program, we're making appointments available for $25 each. Book early, appointments will be limited.

Birds of a Feather Genre Chat
Back by popular demand! Birds of a Feather sessions are an opportunity for authors to gather and discuss trends, challenges, and other opportunities specific to the genre in which they write. This year we have a room devoted to Birds of a Feather sessions all day Saturday and Sunday morning. At the time of this blog, this year’s confirmed Birds of a Feather genre chats include mystery/suspense, romance, western, horror, science fiction/fantasy, young adult, and historical fiction. Sessions are open to all attendees, so get there early to make sure you get a seat to take part in the discussion.

NEW! Post-Panel Book Signing
There will be signing table outside the bookstore this year. Authors who are also presenters will be available to answer questions and sign their books for a short time after the completion of their session. Authors will also be at the table in the morning, during the lunch break, and before evening meals.

Professional Headshots
Schedule a 10-minute photo shoot with photographer Mark Stevens, RMFW volunteer and owner of a Denver-based communications firm. Mark takes thousands of pictures every year for a variety of clients. We are lucky to have him conduct photo shoots for us again this year. Schedule a casual session during the conference or pre-banquet (in your fancy duds). The price for a photo shoot is $40 and includes photo editing and large-size files for all your publicity needs. Expect delivery within two weeks following conference. Appointments will be limited, so sign up early.

Workshops & Panels
As usual, we have an amazing lineup of workshops and panels. Improve your writing skills, learn about publishing options, better your marketing plan, and more. You’re sure to leave this year’s Colorado Gold Conference with a brightened outlook on your career.

Lastly, we want to mention that the Conference Brochure and At-A-Glance will be available soon on the Conference Page. The Conference Page is the hub for all information about pricing, keynote speakers, agents, editors, special guests, and other important information about conference. It is updated regularly.

If you have any questions about conference, email us at conference@rmfw.org.

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.

Should We Write About What We Know?: Experience versus Research … by Mariko Tatsumoto Layton

How often have you heard that you should write about what you know? At the same time, you might hear that we can write about anything we want, we just need to research the subject matter. This debate of personal experience versus research is like nature versus nurture.

I write middle-grade multicultural novels with Japanese protagonists. I was born in Japan and immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight years old. Even after our move, our home was very Japanese. I know a lot about being Japanese, what it feels like, how others treat us, the misconceptions, etc. So, I’m qualified to write about a Japanese protagonist. Even then, my character might be training to become a sumo wrestler, or is a violin prodigy, or is a samurai boy, something or someone I’ve never been or experienced. In those cases, I read books on sumo training or history books on samurais. I imagine what a boy might feel or think and write about it. But am I portraying those characters correctly? Am I doing them justice?

Have you read books with a subject you know well and seen errors? Does that aggravate you? An acquaintance of mine read Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral. Early in the book, the funeral group travels to Santa Fe. My acquaintance used to live in Santa Fe and noted that the description of the area was not accurate. This infuriated her. Despite my argument that it was fiction, she disliked the novel intensely because of that error.

2016_Mariko Layton_Ayumi's Violin cover KindleEven though I am Japanese and I research every point in my books as thoroughly as possible, my Japanese sister-in-law, who moved to the U.S. at the age of thirty, nitpicks everything in my books. She might say that at a certain kind of a party, this kind of food would be served, not the food mentioned in my book. She might point out that the card game a child is playing is too old for her. She might be right, even though I recall playing that game at that age.

So, I often wonder if having had certain experiences is enough to precisely portray a character, a subject, or a place. Sometimes I want to shout, “It’s Fiction!” I know that even in fiction, we should be truthful and correct as to certain things. I sometimes envy authors who write science fiction or fantasy. They can create any kind of a world or character.

When you’re writing your first or second novel, the maxim of writing what you know might be good to follow because there’s so much to know about novel writing. The subject matter is one less thing about which to learn. What if the protagonist is a quadriplegic? What if you’re male and want to make your protagonist female? What if you’re Caucasian and you want to write about someone who lives in Fiji? How much research is enough? We can’t change the color of our skin. We can’t recreate our childhood. Is researching and doing your best enough?

I believe accuracy is a matter of degrees. I can’t know everything about which I write. I make a diligent effort to learn as much as possible about what I write. If I can’t learn enough to be fair to the subject matter, I won’t write about it. I don’t want to insult anyone who knows more than me. But humans all have emotion. We may not all feel the same emotion about something, but I can imagine how someone might feel.

Emotion is one thing I’m confident about. I might be criticized for the way a certain character feels, but there is no right or wrong with emotion. Therefore, I let my characters feel the highest of joys and the lowest of sadness.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When Mariko Tatsumoto Layton arrived from Japan at the age of eight, she could only count to ten and say thank you in English. But as soon as she learned to read English, she fell in love with books and wanted to become a writer. She first became the first Asian woman attorney in Colorado before finding her way to become a children’s book author.

Learn more about Mariko at her website. She can also be found on Facebook.

“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!)

Playing with Rhetoric

In this year of politics we are likely to hear the common complaint, “Oh, that’s just the candidate’s rhetoric. Wait until they’re in office and we’ll see what really happens.”

picture of jfk inauguration
Kennedy used antimetabole to inspire a generation.

Rhetoric definitely has a bad reputation. The first definition in the dictionary implies that rhetoric allows people to use language for influence and persuasion, but without honesty.

I had a class once in rhetoric. Took it because someone said it was practically an automatic A, and heck, who wouldn’t go for that? Unfortunately, a new teacher took over, and I never worked harder. We had to read Aristotle and discuss the importance and forms of arguments and logic.  Guess what? Aristotle didn't use rhetoric to lie. I barely survived the course.

Today, as a writer, I wish I’d paid more attention. Rhetoric was a good class, and the influence of an articulate speaker (or author) has maintained an important part of my writing aspirations since. If I could come up with phrases like, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” I think I would be a happy writer indeed. President Kennedy apparently borrowed the structure of that comment from a school headmaster, but you have to admit, he used it well. That phrase inspired a generation to launch the Peace Corps, go to the moon, and march for peace and equal rights. Rhetoric. Good words.

So, how can we use rhetoric, or more precisely, rhetorical devices to enhance our writing experience? There are whole lists of devices on the Internet that can add emotion, lyrical rhythms, and resonance to our writing. Here are a few:

Alliteration

Alliteration is the recurrence of initial consonant sounds. These sounds can be easy or harsh on the ear, and will draw attention to themselves by their repetition. What if you were writing a story was set in a florist shop? You could name the store, “Moe’s Flowers,” and be done with the job, or you could play with the beginning F sound and create something like “Flo’s Fantastic Flowers,” giving your readers a sense of Flo and her pride in her business without expending a lot of page real estate on that thought.

Epizeuxis

Wow. What an interesting word that simply means to repeat for emphasis. Can you imagine a child who wants the sucker in your hand? What does she say? “May I have that please?” or “Gimme, gimme, gimme!” Can you use that epizeuxis rhetorical tool to enrich some of your characters’ dialog?

Amplification

Similar to epizeuxis, is amplification. This is repeating a word within a phrase to emphasize its importance. In Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, he used “of the people, by the people, for the people,” to emphasize the importance of those who died on the battlefield, who mourned the lost souls, and who had to rebuild our nation after the great Civil War. When used in a conscious effort, amplification can truly hammer home a point. Maybe you could use it to underscore the theme of your story, as in, “Love is gentle, love is kind,” she said, and kissed the soldier good-bye.

Rhetorical devices are worth studying as you work on your next story. As you engage in rewriting a chapter, maybe play consciously to make a thought stand out using a rhetorical device. Or hide a thought by making it as mundane as possible, sandwiched between phrases that sparkle with their rhetoric.

Do you have a favorite rhetorical device? Please share. Beyond our annual Simile Contest at Colorado Gold, do you indulge in a regular rhetorical device?

Wishing you a creative word day.

To the Best Actress, a Vampire Breast Lift!

Oscar
What the Oscars reveal about good writing

As Oscar Night nears, I’ve been movie viewing. Two years ago I decided I had approached this awards night unprepared too many times. Movie after movie was highlighted and praised, and too often my viewed flicks were limited to Disney and Pixar.

Then our daughters left home and I found myself no longer watching any theater movies at all.

My new MO is to list the Best Picture nominees and see as many as I can before the show. My current tally: 6 viewed, 2 still on the list.

I started with The Revenant (Leonardo DiCaprio). A “revenant,” BTW, is someone who comes back from the dead. Based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass, it’s the story of a man who, after being mauled by a bear, is stripped of his weapons and left to die in the wilderness by his friends.  Message for Novelists (MFN): Man Against Nature plots still work. Also, with an appropriate Author Note, the plotline of stories based on a true story can be massaged and altered to give a more complete character arc. (No spoilers, but after viewing the movie, look up the true story of Glass and see how they tweaked the ending.)

Next up was Bridge of Spies (Tom Hanks,  Stephen Spielberg).  With this talent, I knew it had to be good. Based on the true story of attorney James Donovan, which makes it even more incredible and appreciated. No tweaking with the story for arc’s sake—Donovan really was amazing. MFN: Look to this and similar true stories for inspiration, because they successfully define “hero.”

Then I saw Brooklyn (Saoirse Ronan) and fell in love with love. This is the romantic’s romance, a beautiful love story oozing with the charm, uncertainties and sacrifices of a bygone era. MFN: Love is timeless, and the movie reminds us that plotlines need not be complicated, convoluted or sensational to make a reader care, to make a reader cry.

The Big Short (Brad Pitt) surprised me. It tells the story of the banking industry’s collapse in 2008. From first glance, it seemed to be a distasteful topic. Who would want to revisit a flaming failure that left the middle class people bleeding, unemployed and homeless? MFN: The screenwriters triumphed with this by demonstrating that with care and creativity, a complicated story can be told in layman’s terms so everyone can understand it. I’ll still need to view it a few more times, just to absorb it all, but it’s a movie everyone with assets should see.

Spotlight (Michael Keaton) tells the story of the in-depth news team from The Boston Globe that broke the 2001 story of an unfrocked priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys. I admire films that tell the story after the fact. Everyone enters the theatre knowing the ending, so the strength of the story has to lie in the story’s middle. This film is classified as a drama/thriller, and the creativity and strategy with which the team overcame obstacles to find the truth may inspire writers of mystery and intrigue.

Room (Brie Larson) is another inspirational survival story, but with a twist. Jacob Tremblay is magnificent, an outstanding new child star. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue. MFN: a static setting is not at all boring when presented with a compelling character study and the bond of mother and child.  A memorable example of really getting into the skin of your characters. It’s definitely a book I’d like to read.

My journey continues as Oscar Night nears. Oh, and about the Vampire Breast Lift? It’s one of the gifts in the goodie bags that will be distributed to all the nominees. I’m sure the topic will be raised during the awards program.

What’s your pick for Best Film?

A SURPRISING SOURCE OF INSPIRATION YOU MAY NOT HAVE THOUGHT OF

When I define myself, I don't call myself a writer. I call myself a storyteller (in point of fact I like the term raconteur.) The distinction, to me, is an important one. As a writer, my entire world is the written word, fiction or non-fiction, novel-length or short subject. As a storyteller, I embrace all forms of fiction, not just written. I read, yes, but I also watch TV unabashed, enthusiastically rush to the movie theater, and even admire some television commercials. And it doesn't stop there: I love live theater (yes even musical theater, I know and can sing many show tunes from memory,) I get a major kick out of old-timey radio shows, I can even sit for hours watching the extemporaneous play of children. Many of my dreams are cinematic in nature, quite dramatic, with beginning, middle, and end. Some music, notably country music, is an entire master class on tight and concise plotting in a single two-to-three minute song (Tie a Yellow Ribbon, The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald, The Coward of The Country, Ode to Billy Joe, etc. ad infinitum.)

As a raconteur I have learned so much from embracing all of these forms of storytelling. But recently I have been exposed to a unique form of storytelling that has absolutely astounded me with it's surprising depth, complexity, and ability to draw one in and thoroughly entertain. Please bear with me, here, I think you might find these insights worthwhile.

XBOX CONTROLLER

When is the last time you played a video game? I'm not talking about Pacman or Super Mario Brothers. Recently I bought myself a top of the line gaming console and a few of the most popular games: Disney Infinity, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto V. To be honest I was a little intimidated by modern gaming consoles, assuming as I suspect many adults assume, that they require hours and hours of valuable time to master, and besides are really rather silly and juvenile. I had so many better things to do.

Well, I was not prepared for the experience. First, let me get the misunderstandings about modern gaming out of the way. These games are not difficult to master, for the most part. The controllers are designed in such a way as to make interaction with the games easier, not harder. While you will have to exercise concentration and develop some hand-eye coordination that may have gone rusty, the games give you unlimited tries to get it right, and you will find yourself adapting and mastering the controls much quicker than you think. Second, most games are episodic in nature, broken up into vignettes (in some games referred to as missions), between which you can save your progress and walk away. So you are not obliged to play for hours on end. You might feel compelled to, but with a little self-discipline you can limit yourself to only an hour a day, or a couple of hours a weekend. It need not become the giant time-suck you fear.

You may suspect that modern games have better graphics than the last time you tangled with Donkey Kong and you'd be right. But baby, you have no idea! The detail and realism of the worlds these games open up to you is something beyond anything you could ever imagine. One of the most impressive is Grand Theft Auto V (GTA for short.) This game takes place on a vast island fashioned after Los Angeles, and I cannot express to you the detail of the world they've built, and the realism. It really is every bit as if Los Santos is a real place that you've stepped into. Call of Duty the same. There are still cartoonish games such as Disney Infinity but even these are well rendered and engaging.>/p>

But on to the most compelling part. The storytelling. For many of these games, you follow a plot through the game. These stories are every bit as well written, well-acted as a Hollywood production. Call of Duty centers around a veteran soldier sidelined by the amputation of his arm, who finds new employment with the private security firm owned by the father of his best friend, who was killed in battle. He is given a bionic arm and a chance to fight to defend the defenseless again, but soon he and his new friends begin to suspect a more nefarious motive behind the missions they are being assigned. While these games necessarily involve action, combat, explosions and the like, they are character-driven stories, compelling and engaging, with wonderful build-ups, conflict, and climactic conclusions.

In Grand Theft Auto V you alternate between the POV of three characters: a retired gangster in witness protection contending with boredom and a family who no longer has any respect for him, a street hustler looking to take a step up in the underworld and take part in bigger and more lucrative heists, and a psychopathic killer with anger-management issues. Together these three find themselves athwart some very powerful criminal and law enforcement types and must navigate a dangerous world, to somehow come out alive on the other side. This one is heavy on shooting and crime but the stories are still very well developed, character driven, and enthralling.

Now of course, as an action/thriller writer, I chose games heavy on action, and those are primarily the games one hears about the most. But there are other sorts of games for those who like more mystery and intrigue than shoot-em-up. For example, <em>Never Alone</em> features a little Inuit  (Eskimo) girl and her little arctic fox friend who must embark on a perilous quest across many dangerous obstacles to save her tribe from extinction. Along the way she encounters spirits, some of which she can enlist to help her, and others who wish to oppose her. The dialog is entirely in authentic Inuit - a soft, almost hypnotic language - with subtitles. This is a visually beautiful game, some of it looking more like an ethereal painting than a video game.

Look, I'm no gamer. But as a storyteller, these and other games I have played have caught my imagination every bit as much as reading Harry Potter or attending a performance of The Mikado, with the added dynamic of being interactive. No, I would not put them in the same category as Dickens or Hemingway, but in their own way they deal with very similar human dramas in an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining way. I would encourage those of you who embrace storytelling in all its forms to make these games a part of your research and inspiration. I think you will be blown away by just how satisfying they can be.

Devil Baby – Louisa May Alcott’s and George Lucas’s Love Child

I’m sorry! I’m sorry I can’t stop talking about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I’m sorry that so many people either love it or hate it or both and shake their fists at the firmament and there is the wailing and the gnashing of the teeth.

I loved episode VII. I was transported to that long time ago and that galaxy far, far away. And yes, it’s not a perfect movie (wow, those star systems are really close together to be able to see the super-duper doomsday weapon in the sky with the naked eye). However, none of the Star Wars movies are perfect. Perfect is not the game here, people. If it was, perfect would so stupidly easy to do.

Remember that scene in Dead Poet’s Society, where the textbook claims you can map the perfect poem on a graph? Well, let me tell you, when it comes to art, throw your graph away and yeah, tear that textbook apart.

From Luke’s whining in episode IV, to C3PO’s constant (and annoying) chatter in episode V, there are a myriad of issues. However, Star Wars works at a gut level. Except for maybe episode II, but I won’t go there. The prequels are…different. They’re not like other boys.

How does this tie into Louisa May Alcott? Or is this just click-bait? Hmm, click-bait. Yum.

What is the devil baby (take it to mean unexpected and diabolically good) in the title of this blog post?

Duende.

Duende (sounds like a gynecological term) is actually a Spanish word for that special power some art is blessed with. If nothing else, the new Star Wars has duende as did episode IV. You can argue about all the others, but why else would people go see it numerous times? My wife, who is not a Star Wars fan, wants to see the new movie over and over. Because it has a passion, a sparkle, something undefinable (and ungraphable).

Can you plan duende? Can you map out the perfect story arc and the perfect character arc? You can try, but I don’t think you can. I think duende happens, sometimes by mistake by a newbie, and sometimes on purpose by a weary rofessional who got lucky.

I’m forty-five years old and I’m reading Little Women for the first time. I’m reading it to my daughters before bed, and we are loving it. However, I see all the flaws. It’s unabashedly preachy and the dialogue/dialogue tags are awkward and repetitive.

For example, here is what LMA loves to do:

“Long bit of dialogue goes here and it goes on and on and it really doesn’t do much except make you fall in love with the characters,” she said, followed by a long description of activity which doesn’t do much except make you fall in love with the story, not that there’s much of a story.

Louisa May Alcott wouldn’t do well in my critique group. We’d demolish her pages because her prose is so easy to pick apart. Like Star Wars is easy to pick apart. When I started Little Women, the book read like one of the stories my daughter wrote in the first grade. It’s four sisters talking and not much is happening and it’s sweet, yes, but um, not the most thrilling first chapter I’ve ever read.

However, Little Women has duende. I am astonished it was originally published in 1868 because it’s so accessible and I can relate so much to the family and the characters. I feel like I’m a part of the world of the March family, maybe like some crazy uncle.

How can that be? How can this old book have so much power? How can it break rule after rule and still work? I don’t know. All I can say is that I feel blessed to be reading Little Women, and I’m glad it survived the whims of time and the cruelty of the publishing industry.

So, as an author, what am I to do? I can try and craft my novels and aim for perfection, but at the heart of the matter, I don’t believe I can imbue my work with duende. I think it either all comes together or it doesn’t.

The only thing I can do is sit down and do the work. Maybe the book will shine, and maybe it won’t.

In the end, I think it’s a matter of courage and vision. Do I have the courage to pursue my unique vision of a story?

I think that’s where duende comes from—when the passion and love of the author shines at the heart of a story. George Lucas wrote a story he clearly loved. I think Louisa May Alcott did as well.

So, write the stories you love! And if you are lucky or blessed (or damned, arguably) that passion will shine and bedazzle billions!

Be a good critique partner – Part 1 of 2

I credit the marvelous process of critique with helping me get published, and continue to be published. And just as my fabulous CPs help me, I help them. There’s a compelling reason to give our best efforts with every critique: the better critiquers we are, the better writers we become.

Book Too WonderfulToBeTrue Jan 2016
Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Many of us have suffered from or heard about nightmare critiques with back-handed comments and thinly veiled insults, and we want to make sure our critiques are both encouraging and helpful. One way to ensure this is to avoid excessive compliments and vague comments.

Here are some critique comments I’ve read over the years in critique groups, along with comments about how to make them more useful to your CPs.

Loved it!!  This will trigger a sense of relief from the submitting writer, but not much more.  Was it the opening that was strong, or the dialogue?  Or just the hunky hero? Include detail so the writer knows what, specifically, worked.

Couldn’t stop turning the pages!  One hopes that means the tension remained high throughout, with enough drama that the reader was anxious to know what happened next – instead of the possibility that you were just in a hurry to finish the critique and get on with your own writing.

This is perfect as is. I wouldn’t change a thing.  We all want to receive a critique like this! When backed up by specifics, this is a gem of a critique I’d copy, put in 60 point Times Roman, bold, and print out for the front of my computer.  Without accompanying comments, though, I’d still wonder if some parts might need work and the critiquer was just being generous.  But then, we writers have been known to be neurotic.

I don’t like your protagonist. This is crushing for a writer to receive. Though it may be true, it’s brutal.  Being writers, we can find gentler ways to say this.  One bit of wisdom I’ve learned over years of critique is: “Don’t send a critique if you’re short for time.”  Whenever I have, I realize I’m more likely to be abrupt, and when abrupt, a sense of uncaring and overly critical-sounding comments erupt that I later regret when I re-read it at a time I’m *not* so rushed.  As a critiquer, you’re walking in a field of priceless human emotions.  Even multi-published authors hardened by years of rejections and reviews can be hurt by abrupt comments.  Always take your time.  Better to be a little late with the critique than to cause unintended harm.

Characters aren’t convincing. Don’t shirk from giving or receiving this comment. This is a gem of an observation, so useful -- if accompanied by specifics. Is the character the ruthless head of an international corporation yet continually shown in scenes as indecisive or unaware of his industry’s jargon?  Or perhaps the character is a prostitute but acts naive in this particular excerpt.

I hope you love your critique partners as much as I love mine, and I wish you many positive comments in your future critiques. My next blog will offer more insights on your CPs’ comments.