Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Plot?

Do you, as a writer, know ~why~ you need a plot? Have you ever asked yourself this question?

I have. I ask that question quite a lot, actually: Why plot?

Hemingway never had a plot. Angela's Ashes didn't have a plot. Most Cormac McCarthy books lack a plot, as do many of Stephen King's works.

Short stories have no plot. They don't have the protagonist-antagonist interaction, or a character arc, or a three-scene conformity. Many of the chapters and scenes in your favorite books -- Harry Potter for instance -- have nothing to do with the plot.

It is inarguable -- so please do not try -- to state that plot is necessary for a piece to be readable, publishable, or recognizable as a great work. There are simply too many exceptions that violate this rule.

So why plot? What is its function? Why do genre publishers insist on the dang thing?

I'll tell you why: To drive Dear Reader to the end.

That's it.

The only reason you need the plot is to provide thrust and rhythm to the reader. Dear Reader rides the ups and downs of the plot, pacing fast, then slow, and finally, at the end, in a mad rush, they climax and THE END, thanks for playing, what was this author's name again, and who cares because I got mine, where's my next book.

But aren't there other ways to please the reader? Look at Life of Pi. No plot there. The little guy floats in a boat with a tiger and lands in Mexico. No protagonist. No antagonist. Just a boy and a tiger and some turtle blood, which apparently you can drink.

Rather than using a plot or a pro/antagonist conflict as thrust, the author used a story promise, a big question that I've stated before as the only question you need inspire in the reader: What's next? He also used prose, imagery, and scene-driven conflict to sail the reader through to the end.

He kept you turning the page until Pi landed in Mexico and that was a good stopping point and so he stopped writing. The end. Was it good for you, honey?

Using the plot as the only means of reader thrust is severely limiting yourself! Flip over Dear Reader and use good prose. Stand em up and use a story question. Hold em upside-down and use imagery to woo them into the next chapter.

Use plot, sure, but understand why you are using plot. Understand that it is not the only way to satisfy the reader, nor is it a steadfast rule in literature. It may be the most common means of thrust, but there are many more ways you can entice a reader to complete book.

What other ways can you inspire Dear Reader to read to THE END? What methods can you combine with plot to give Dear Reader added incentive to finish your book?

- Eric

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Supporting Roles: Write with Character

If you don't believe supporting roles are key to great stories, let me ask you something:

What is Star Wars without Vader?

What is Pirates of the Caribbean without Jack Sparrow?

Would Dorothy be so interesting if not for her companions?

How about Mr. Potter? The most interesting character isn't Potter or even his friends -- it's that big dude who befriends spiders and unicorns, Hagrid.

What about Lord of the Rings, you ask? It would hardly be LOTR if not for Gandolf and Gollum.

You get what I'm saying, don't you? Every story has one character -- and often multiple characters -- who pull the story along. These characters are the interesting ones, the memorable characters who draw us into the story and keep us reading along.

Here's the ruse, though: Often they are ~supporting roles~!

The Main Character (MC) has to worry about the plot, the conflict, the one-two-three of the chapterizing, manage the wordcount, and drive from beginning to end. This can be agonizing, boring, painful, not to mention rote. Your MC is all business and no play.

So in stomp these supporting players to tear up the stage. They tickle the plot and move it forward, but really, most of them can be removed or replaced or edited down to minor bits. It's only the MC who is irreplaceable. If that's not true, you have the wrong MC!

For instance, let's look at Gollum in LOTR. He serves the MC as a guide, a foil, and an antagonist, and serves the author to enhances the backstory. None of these things were ~necessary~ to the plot. Frodo could have found his own trail into Mordor and never met Gollum. Heck, he didn't even need his good buddy Sam to tag along, did he?

But the trip itself was awfully boring. One-two-three. Describe the mountains. Four-five-six. Kill a spider. Seven-eight-nine. Burn a ring, ten you're done, let's go home.

Instead of moving linearly, though, JRRT introduces Gollum, a sidebar character who is, above all things, interesting and memorable. The story, if not the plot, just got better.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Along with your MC -- who should be interesting in their own rite, but may not be the ~most~ interesting character in the book -- you need to include sidebar characters who not only enhance the plot, but also draw the reader into the story.

Make these sidebar guys and gals and monsters interesting. Let them steal the show. Let them trip up and push along your MC.

Let them enrich your world and your story, so your MC can trudge along the plotted path and get done with it already.

Oh, and what does the monkey flipping you the bird have to do with this post? Absolutely nothing. He's simply there to demonstrate my point: He's interesting. My friend took this picture recently.

What are your thoughts? How important are supporting roles in the reader's experience?

- Eric

Monday, June 21, 2010

Me on Writing, circa 2000

I stuck my finger in my annals this weekend and managed to dig this out, from circa 2000. This was me in the cave, speaking to myself, writing on the wall in blood and wondering if anyone a thousand years from now would read it, and not really caring either way. I'm still not sure being inside that cave isn't the best thing for my writing.

See, when you're alone, you can blasphemize and butcherize yourself and your story and not worry about a dadgum thing but the story itself.

I am absolutely certain, for instance, that at the moment of conception, when that spark of thought first hits us, and before it we are tainted with language and learning and bombarded with extrasensory movement and perception, that in our fetal state we know God and God knows us and we get it.

It's only after we pop into the light that we begin to unlearn everything we already knew. That's the power of the cave. Even bloggerville is noisy and blinding compared to the darkness of the cave.

My wife's pregnant. Can you tell?

And I still agree with this, ten years later.

Here you go, world. See if the light blanches my words.

Begin Cave Thoughts, ~2000
Seems every writer’s got something to say about writing. Well, I’m not a writer. (I’ll settle for being published, though).

But I’ve read quite a bit on the subject of writing (big eff-ing deal, right?). And muddled through the first draft of a novel, a horror-fiction, packed from first to last with mediocre verbiage (and absolutely no horror). So, in the tradition of pumping out a ton of mediocre verbiage—like so many authors today—here are some words on writing. We’ll see how long I agree with what I write.

It’s simple—just unravel the story like a ball of string and you have it. Every person has it; you don’t need to be a Dr. Crichton or a lawyer Grisham or—gasp—an insurance-man Clancy to pull a story out of your ass. And that’s just where it came from. If you need help, eat some paint; that’s what King did (I bet).

First, start with the ball. It’s a tangled mass, and can be anywhere from the car-sized Gone With the Wind to Jack London’s rat’s nest To Build a Fire; your choice. Okay, so you have the ball, either in the palm of your hand or parked pacing your garage like an un-caged lion. Somewhere in between lies ninety percent of your (wannabe) authors.

Second, look at the string. Decide what it is. Is it a horror string? Romance? Fantasy? Don’t even think about porn—your wife’ll kill ya, and if it’s a husband you’re worrying about, well, he’ll probably wonder why you know so many ways to stroke a man’s thingie. All that aside, though, figure out your string. If you get to the cork in the middle and find out it ain’t what you thought it was, you probably need to start over.

Third, find an ending. And a beginning. You need both ends. Now realize the beginning may not be exactly the beginning you eventually go with, and neither is the ending, but you must must must start with these ends. If you’ve ever tried to unwind a mass of fishing line, you know what I mean.

Fourth, I’m getting tired of counting; if I keep going, we’ll get to tenthly and seventeenthly. So, onward sans counting. Good. That’s settled.

Tug some on the string. Unwind it from beginning to end as best you can. Don’t worry about the knots along they way—those’ll come out later. Keep going. Get to the end.

When you reach a spot—and you will—where you have your knife out, ready to cut, don’t. Don’t do it. Skip the knot. Screw the knot. Let the knot stay right where it is. Keep going. Find the next smooth spot in your string and go from there. Forget the knot.

And don’t fret the bigger knots, either. Let them be. They’ll look like frazzled old ladies waiting in the salon, tapping you to do them next, they aren’t getting any younger. Resist the urge. Move on. Forward. To the blasphemous end.

You’ll get there. To the end. Finally. And guess what?—it sucks. The whole book. Full of these twists and holes and God am I ever going to get a book published? Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.” Remember those words.

So here you are, sitting at the end of a mangled script, bent, frayed, creased, tangled. And, yep, it’s shit. Get out your working gloves, ‘cuz it’s re-write time.



- Eric

Friday, June 18, 2010

Word Verification Challenge

Just for fun, I am turning on WORD VERIFICATION (WV) for this post only. In the comments section, make a sentence or paragraph or story using your WV word. It must make sense.

For instance:

o In Latin, the plural for theater is theati.
o Furuq that noise!

Unleash the muse...

- Eric

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Know your VOICE

My editor tore apart my latest piece. I paraphrase our discussion, but it went something like this...

Editor: "Nice voice. It seems to have changed between your last story and this one. This one is more frenetic."

Eric: "I've been experimenting with a less detailed voice, getting to the point without the meandering. I tend to over-describe and I wanted to challenge that habit with this piece."

Editor: "The Beatles were famous not for writing the same song over and over, but for writing a different song on every track. No such thing as a new story. At this point in literature, it's all been said. The only difference is voice. Nurture that thought."

That, folks, is straight from the horse's mouth. She's not an actual horse, but she can kick like one.

Know your voice. Make it unique. Don't be afraid to stretch those vocal cords and challenge your method.

Just as voice and not the song makes the singer, voice and not the words makes the writer.

- Eric

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What are you ~really~ afraid of?

Last night we camped about 11 miles north of all the flooding in Arkansas, and about twelve hours behind it.

The ranger stopped us coming into Ouachita. She'd had a hard night evacuating, she said. "I'm not telling you not to go in, but I will say be careful." She looked behind me to the back seat. "I see you got little ones. Yall be real careful, okay. They lost eleven people on down river."

We crossed a few washed-out bridges and found a horse camp that looked dry. We stretched out in the Tahoe, didn't backpack, didn't set up a tent. A horse camp is a clearing near the road but away from the main park, dry enough that you can back in horse trailers, but isolated enough that you can enjoy the solitude. We were all alone, but there were fresh droppings and hay that said someone had left that morning.

Another ranger pulled into the camp, this one a younger guy. "What time did yall leave this morning?"

"Why's that?" I said.

"I guess yall didn't hear the news yet. They're pulling bodies out of the water down at Albert Pike. I won't ask yall to leave, but be real careful. You should be okay up here, but further down the mountain, they got hit real hard. I'd keep them kids out of the creek."

It was me and my two kids, nine and ten, boy and girl respectively. The creek was still screaming from the night before. Yes, we swam in it, but in a shallow wash about two feet deep. My son found about a hundred baby salamanders, and my daughter was the only one brave enough to do push-ups in that freezing mountain gush.

"I keep feeling like someone's watching us." That was my son. Near dusk, we had to shoot his pellet gun into a stump crouched in the treeline like bigfoot. I had to walk them over to prove it was just a stump and not some mountain monster.

In their defense, it did look like a crouching monster. The frosted sugar side of me half expected the stump to jump up and charge when I shot it.

That night, my daughter said, "I'm getting freaked out," when she heard what sounded like a coyote. I don't know the Arkansas sounds, but it wasn't a coyote. Sounded small, though, and I had my .410, so no worries.

I stood outside the Tahoe listening to the kids watch Hotel for Dogs. I kept stoking that wet fire wood until it caught -- wet wood will burn if you get it hot enough -- and watched it burn down. I don't normally get wigged-out on campouts, but last night I couldn't let go of that little single-shot .410. It's the gun I had growing up, a kid's gun, and if animals have souls, I'm gonna be royally fucked because of that shotgun.

It gets so dark out there you can't see your feet when you piss. I can't speak for women, but I figure squatting down in that sort of dark is borderline insane. I'm glad I didn't have to squat.

Something kept nagging at me. And I'm not the sort who gets nagged, not by bullfrogs and fireflies and a creek in the background. I grew up on a lake, on a creek, catching bullfrogs and fireflies and murdering things with that .410.

I called my wife today when we got back into cell phone range. She was as wigged-out as her daughter, glad to hear from us. "I saw this thing about this lady," she said, "whose daughter got swept off into the current. They could hear her screaming, and they heard other kids screaming, too. They said most of the dead will probably be kids."

"It's so dark out here, baby, that if the kids got swept off, there's nothing I could've done about it. I wouldn't be able to see them, or the shore, or anything else. With all the clouds last night and the lack of moon, I couldn't see the ground at my feet."

And that's when it hit me. That's what I was afraid of all night: Me not seeing a thing, and hearing that scream fading off down river.

- Eric

Thursday, June 10, 2010

How to unstick your Gladiator

I got stuck on my last novel because I kept trying to figure out what would happens before it actually happened.

Then I read a post today on Christine's Journey that mentioned revisions.

I read through some of the links on her site, commented on a couple, but this one stuck with me: Guide to Literary Agents.

I'm not sure the link works, but let me give you the gist: The author wrote a story, found an agent, the agent shredded the story and insisted on a near-complete rewrite, whereby the author obliged and wrote a novel that resulted in a three-way bidding war between publishing houses.

How's that for success!

But it tickled my revision bone, which has been tingling and tickling these past few months as I challenge my method.

Here is my short-story method: Write it out, fast, go with the flow. Re-read, and rewrite. Often, I nuke the entire story and write from scratch. The end result is almost never what I began with. I have a ton of short stories, some of them pretty good.

My novel method: Agonize over the plot. Write the first chapter. Rewrite it. Eventually find a hook and agonize through the middle and on to the end. Revision is limited.

See the difference here?

My short-story method is the one that ~works~. The novel method is the one that ~fails~.

Remember that in the olden days, writers used pen and ink, or a typewriter, and a draft was a draft, while a revision was a rewrite.

In other words, there were no revisions. No cut-n-paste, no delete, no spellcheck and modify. You had to rewrite and retype the whole damned thing!

I am going to try this on my latest work. I am going on a backpacking trip tomorrow and won't be writing. I'll ponder my story in the Arkansas mountains (Ouachita Park), and then when I get back, I'll plug out my first draft, non-stop, as if on a typewriter or handwritten, and then rewrite the whole dang thing, all 60kw.

You are my witnesses. This is how I will unstick The Gladiator's Son

If you're stuck, how will you unstick yourself?

- Eric
PS: Post responses will be delayed as I will be playing the banjo in the AR backwoods.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Five ways to remain unpublished

Let me give you some examples of how not to publish your novel, plucked straight from my own experience. I have three completed and two partial novels, all unpublished.

Here's how I maintain that perfect record.

Poor Hook

I'm not saying your hook should be bad, but the overall hook should be fairly weak. A strong hook is liable to get you published, and that just means more work.

Poor Plot

If you develop a plot at all, make it weak and predictable. Preferably, your work should ramble and contain scenes unrelated to the overall piece -- for "artistic" purposes.

Write What Doesn't Sell

Unless you want to risk publication, write about a topic that is either dead, over-used, boring, or too obscure. If you choose a genre, learn nothing of its rules.

Or better yet, call yourself an artist and write "literature" and scoff at the published writers, all of them busting their asses in the trenches for The Man. Use confusing sentences and complain like a colicky baby drinking curdled milk.

Under-edit and Under-write

Don't edit the work, but if you happen to revise it, make it worse.

It is wise to consider stopping halfway through the novel. Develop a case of The Fuckits and give up entirely. This best occurs around the 30-40k word mark and you can at least claim a "partial" novel and complain how "life just got in the way."

Be Faithless

Remain completely dedicated to the fact that your work is inferior and unpublishable, and that your ideas are not sound. Blame your critics for "not getting you." Eventually, you should give up on writing, and lay the guilt on someone's head for giving you a bad review and discouraging you.

I have a ton more: Alcohol. Women. Work. Procrastination. Women. Facebook. Blogging. The list goes on and on...

What lessons have you learned about how to remain unpublished?

- Eric

Monday, June 7, 2010

Know When to Stop Editing

I never finish any of my stories. At some point, I just quit. I've heard other writers say the same thing, and artists from every field will agree. Your work is never finished.

But eventually you want to send it out into the world. You want to blog it. Post it. Submit it. Sell it.

And to do that, you must stop writing!

My fellow writers, recall this piece of advice: Write a book, give it a revision, send it off, begin the next.

See how succinct that advice is? Send it off! It isn't perfect, nor will it be perfect with another revision. Begin the next! Keep writing. Don't get bogged down on one piece.

This is common advice, especially to unpublished authors. In fact, this is the advice I prefer myself. It will never be perfect, stop trying. On to the next. Make it better.

On the other hand, we have what seems to be conflicting advice: Your work -- and especially your submittal excerpt -- must be well-polished to make it beyond the agent/editor's slush pile.

This means more than a quick revision and send it off! It may mean lengthy beta reads and critiques and back-to-front rewrites.

So which one is the correct answer? One revision? Two? Six? Revise until you believe it is polished?

Both have their merits, but let me bring up an interesting addendum: Prior to publication, no matter the amount of revision you put into the work, your piece will go through editing and revision. Again. And possibly will face major rewrites. Or, worse still, regardless of the time spent editing, your piece will still never make it beyond the slush pile.

As writers we should find a happy medium between under- and over-editing prior to submittal.

Certainly the piece needs to be polished -- a shoddy piece will absolutely NOT make it beyond the slush pile -- but can you really expect a single writer, or even a group of freelance critics, to edit a piece to the same level as a large publishing house?

And don't forget the energy consumed editing a piece. It is time you could have spent working on a new piece, and we all have a limited amount of writing capital with which to spend on our work. Is it really wise to polish that old book, only to send it out to be rejected? Again.

Or is one more revision what it takes to make that old book hit the bookshelf in stores near you?

What are your thoughts? Do you over-revise? Under-polish? At what point do you stop and begin the next piece?

Me, I get going, write it, give it a revision (which can be significant), and send it out.

We'll see where that gets me. Which reminds me... I need to send some stuff out. My last submittals were back in October of 2009. Knowing when to stop submitting and give up writing is a whole nuther topic.

- Eric

Friday, June 4, 2010

Blogfest: Dream Sequence

For Amalia's Dream Sequence Blogfest

This is from one of those books I felt I had to write. I don't know if it is at all publishable. It's more of a fictography than a fiction.

Note the passive tone and the abundance of was constructs and the bland tone. The whole book is dreary like that.

The name Evander means Good Man. This entire passage is a dream and is snipped for brevity.

Evander's Forge
Evander James Genesee assumed his position on the smooth-worn log. All the bark had been peeled from the log, all the knots dulled. Evander preferred the left-side of the log, where he'd managed to wear in a depressed seating area, and because for some reason, he preferred to be to God's right, rather than to God's left.

"Hello, Evander," said Sage. She was naked, but somehow not naked in a sexual manner. The angel was beautiful in the way a naked baby was beautiful, naked in the way an animal was naked, with long, flowing, wild blonde hair, and firm, well-used muscles toning her body.

"Hello, Sage," Evander said. "I still can't see his eyes."

"Nor will you," Sage replied. "Not yet."

In front of Evander hovered a massive blue face, mask-like and endless, merging its chin with the ground, and its forehead with the clouds. Evander's log sat on grass-covered earth twenty-one steps away from the face. Behind the face lay an open field of waist-high grass, and above the grass hung a blue sky with scattered high clouds. The face's mouth hovered several stories above the ground and spanned a hundred feet in width. The mouth seemed to be in a slight smirk, much like the Mona Lisa, and sometimes Evander wondered if da Vinci had seen the same blue God. He wondered if da Vinci had met Sage.

"So, um, did you see that guy tonight?" Evander looked over at Sage. She stood to Evander's right, facing the blue God.

"Yes," said Sage. "I sent him to you."

"God didn't send the guy?"

"I do God's will, Evander. As do you."

"Well, I'm ready to come home, Sage. I'm tired. I can't do this thing anymore. I want to come home."


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Article on Self-Publishing an E-Book


Folks, good article on e-publishing. Read it or don't, but realize e-publishing is already changing the way we publish our books.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again: This will give rise to the mini-series, the novella, short stories, and quick reads. Printed books won't disappear -- in fact, I think they'll become even more elite -- but the e-writers will be an independent niche group propped up by a community of self-reviewing e-writers who polish their work against each other's grindstones.

Much like bloggers.

- Eric

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Critique Rollup: What you might learn from my critique

Here are some dos and don'ts plucked straight from a recent critique of my latest piece.

First off, THANK YOU to those friends who helped critique Gladiator.

Andrew Rosenberg
Donna Hole
Ashley Ladd
Raquel Byrnes
Christine H
Carol Anne Carr

And of course my WONDERFUL READER Lanai D!

(I hope I didn't miss someone)

Now, on to what I learned from it, and what you might be able to learn from me.

It is okay to be critiqued

This was my first critique. Yes, you read that right. I have NEVER been critiqued. I let people read my finished pieces, and I've had beta readers who helped me set the working piece afloat in the right direction, but I have never had a group of writers look at my work and shred it.

And it wasn't as bad as I thought. I assumed -- wrongly -- that I might receive silly and meaningless suggestions, or would open myself up to personal attacks. I was afraid of the critique.

It wasn't that bad. Brutal, yes. Enlightening, sure. Can I make everyone happy? Hell no. But I can take away some good information from each critic, and can use that information to improve not only this piece, but my future pieces as well.

Lesson Learned: Don't be afraid to ask for a critique.

Introduce the MAIN CHARACTER!

I introduced a secondary character in my first chapter. I have to change that. You MUST introduce the primary character, the Main Character, the big MC, first.

Then you can introduce the supporting roles.

Lesson Learned: MC comes first.

Story Hooks
Nobody got my hooks. One reader did. Sort of. But overall, I was far too vague.

"What is your point? Where are you going with this?" was a common question. I need to be specific and precise and determinant.

Lesson Learned: Give the reader a direction.


My piece was ripped in turn by each critic for a single lacking element: Conflict.

The first scene was interesting, but it did not introduce the plot or the main character or the main character's story question or the story's primary plot element.

Lesson learned: Unless this is lit-fic, which is allowed to ramble, and which usually sits unread in hardback on your built-in bookshelf, you'd better introduce some conflict.

Addendum: Nobody mentioned it, but the conflict must be BIG, preferably life-or-death.


One of my personal quotes is this: Yell ACTION! not BACKSTORY!

And yet, despite my advice-to-self, I am guilty of beginning my story with lackluster action.

Folks, description is backstory and slow reading. Don't forget that. Work it into the action, or at least set the action in motion before you slow it down to look around.

Lesson Learned: Start with a smidge of action. Then introduce the setting. Propel the story forward first, and mold setting around the action.

Run-ons and fragments

I use run-ons not only on my blog, but as a habit inside my fiction. I like the feel of a run-on sentence, but most critics highlighted that I may have been over-using it.

I also got a few red marks for my sentence fragments. I think I am using them too often and need to back off and use proper construct.

Lesson Learned: Minimize stylistic elements, and if you use them, use them properly.

Voice and Tone

Now on this I got good marks. This is huge, because the other stuff I can fix and modify to hit a wider percentage of readers (you'll never get 100% consensus), but voice and tone are something intuitive that cannot be learned.

Mostly, nobody mentioned V&T, so I had to read what they were not saying, and assume it was not an issue. When I queried, the response confirmed that V&T were not an issue.

Lesson Learned: Pay attention to what your critics do not say. These may be your strong points.

Setting and Character

Overwhelmingly the response was that I did a good job putting the reader into the setting and bringing the characters to life.

That's a good thing, too, because combined with V&T, getting your setting and characters to pop into life is one of the deeper elements of writing.

Lesson Learned: Everyone notices setting and character.


You can never make everyone happy.

Lesson Learned: So don't even try.

- Eric